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Vol II No. 5
History & Theology

Reading the Old Testament with the BCP

by Steven Wedgeworth

One of the most important recoveries of classical Anglican liturgy has been the republication of the proper Sunday First Lessons from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Originally added to the BCP by Archbishop Parker in 1561, these lessons were removed in the 1928 revision. But happily, with publication of the International Edition of the 1662 BCP, they have been restored and Anglican churches can easily access them for their Sunday Morning and Evening Prayer services. Why is this so important? The Sunday First Lessons provide a Christological hermeneutics for reading the Old Testament which also connects them to the life of the church in its seasonal cycle. In doing so, they help the reader to both interpret and apply the Old Testament to the life of the Christian today.

The Sunday First Lessons are similar to the Daily office readings in that they provide a sort of consecutive survey of the Scriptures. They are bookended by the thematic choices of beginning the year with Isaiah and ending year with Proverbs, but otherwise the readings, while selective, appear in canonical order working their way from the beginning with Genesis to the minor prophets. Beginning with Isaiah matches the themes of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, and ending with Proverbs indicates the maturity and kingship which is the goal of both reading the Scriptures and finishing the Christian race. But the lessons in between also interact with the calendar cycle of the Eucharistic propers in interesting ways.

The Sunday first lessons transition from their Isaiah readings into their consecutive canonical readings during Gesimatide. Genesis 1 and 2 are read on Septuagesima, Genesis 3 and 6 are read on Sexagesima, and Genesis 9 and 12 are read on Quinquagesima. This gives a “creation, fall, and redemption” structure to the Gesima season, and it prepares you for the larger redemptive historical narrative of the Old Testament. As Lent begins, the readings move away from the light of Epiphany to darkness of human sin and depravity. Strikingly, the penitential season begins with the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Old Testament readings chosen during the season of Lent include narratives of sexual depravity, violence, and betrayal. Where you might be expecting only the “greatest hits,” the First Lessons frequently call for the “lowest lows.”  But there are also opposing selections which point to the distant but promised solution. In Evening Prayer of Lent 1, we are told of the binding of Isaac, the paradigmatic substitutionary atonement where God Himself provides the sacrifice.

Fascinatingly, the Old Testament readings in Lent begin to narrow in on the Exodus. The Genesis readings conclude with Joseph bringing his brothers to Egypt, and we begin reading about the plagues upon Egypt as Holy Week commences. This tells us ,the congregation, that redemption is near. For Easter Day, we are to read the Passover and the Red Sea deliverance. These are obviously two salvation stories, but their placement at Easter teaches us that they are also Easter stories. The Passover naturally pairs with Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, and the Red Sea crossing is a picture of His rising up from death, His breaking forth from the tomb and His destruction of the forces of Hell. While this might not be so clear if read in isolation, the Easter occasion makes the spiritual meaning leap from the page.

As we read them throughout the course of the year, we see something rather impressive. The Sunday First Lessons offer both a consecutive survey of the Old Testament and a cross-canonical interpretation of how the life of Israel is fulfilled in the works of Christ. Their use in Sunday worship is then a regular sort of hermeneutics class, teaching the congregation how to interpret Scripture with Scripture and to see how all of Moses and the Prophets points to the coming work of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The liturgy itself is catechetical. It teaches us how to read God’s Word and to see its full meaning.

What’s more, when we consider that these are not new selections but instead come from the Reformation and the Elizabethan settlement, we learn how Anglicans have traditionally read the Scriptures. The attentiveness to the covenantal structure of the Scriptures and the Christological prolepsis of the Old Testament were not lost after the days of the church fathers, nor were they recovered thanks to the modern “biblical theology” movement. Rather, this way of understanding the Bible was with us all along. We just needed to dig it out of the archives.