Pentecost or Babel: A Plea for a Common Language in the Church

On a recent vacation, my family and I visited some of our pastor friends and their families in Michigan and Iowa. It was a wonderful time of refreshment. Even as we lamented the divisions in the Church around us, we were able rejoice in the good gifts God had given to us in a common confession. One of my favorite things to do when I’m staying with my brothers in the office is to say our family devotions with them. This gives me the opportunity to receive the Lord’s Word in a more passive sense, because as a guest, I’m glad to place myself under the authority of the father of that home. This also gives my children an opportunity to see that we aren’t the only family that prays and sings together before bed. It is a wonderful opportunity to show them that we are not alone, for we are surrounded by a so great a cloud of witnesses.

One night, however, we experienced something a bit odd. As we began to recite the commandments, our family used a different translation than what our host family used. We sort of mumbled through, but we made it. After confessing the creed, praying the Lord’s Prayer, and praying Luther’s evening prayer without any trouble, we began asking the children which hymns they would like to sing. There were a few hymns that my children picked that weren’t familiar to our hosts, and there were a few hymns our hosts picked that we didn’t know by heart. No big deal. Next time, we’ll just bring our hymnals! Then there were the hymns that both families knew by heart. Again, however, we ran into translation issues.

While this caused nothing more than a bit of awkwardness that evening, it did bring to mind something Dr. Martin Luther wrote in his preface to the Small Catechism:

First, the pastor should most carefully avoid teaching the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the sacraments, etc., according to various texts and differing forms. Let him adopt one version, stay with it, and from one year to the next keep using it unchanged. Young and inexperienced persons must be taught a single fixed form or they will easily become confused, and the result will be that all previous effort and labor will be lost. There should be no change, even though one may wish to improve the text.

Dr. Luther here brings up an extremely important point. In context, he is, of course, speaking of teaching the texts of the catechism; however, this may be more broadly applied to the other core texts of the Church, which includes her liturgy and hymnody. If we think of these things as the official language of the Church, the issue becomes even more pressing. Just as a family moving from China to the United States would do well to learn the lingua franca in order to become part of the culture here, so also do new Christians do well to learn the language of the Church in order to become full partakers in all of her treasures. After all, don’t children learn to speak by hearing their parents? Christians are the same way. We learn to speak the language of our mother, the Church, by learning to sing and pray from those who have come before us.

The real danger in all of this is evident. When we change the form of language being used, we create unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ. In the case of updating the texts of hymns and the creeds, this leads to difficulties in teaching the faith from one generation to the next. A dear saint, whose children and grandchildren are members of my congregation, lamented to me that she struggled in helping her grandchildren learn their catechism because we used a different catechism translation than the one she used growing up. Let’s look at some more objective evidence.

Here’s an example from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) translation of the Nicene Creed in their current hymnal, Christian Worship (CW):

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and became fully human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who in unity with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

It would be difficult for a group of Missourians to confess this ancient creed with a group of Wisconsinites, based on translation differences alone. But notice, in particular, some of the more egregious translation choices. CW says that Jesus came “for us and for our salvation” and “became fully human.” Lutheran Service Book (LSB) says Jesus came “for us men and for our salvation,” which seems to broaden the rather narrow “for us” in CW. It also seems a bit unwise, especially in our current cultural crisis over human sexuality, to say that Jesus is simply “fully human.” I sincerely doubt the CW hymnal committee could foresee Obergefell and Bruce Jenner, but now, this rendering is problematic. Was Jesus a man or a woman? Some liberal theologians even claim that Jesus was transgendered! Unfortunately, this rendering of the creed only muddies the water between two confessionally Lutheran synods.

Another example may be found a bit closer to home in the rendering of the much beloved Lenten hymn, “Christ the Life of All the Living.” The text of the first stanza appears like this in TLH:

Christ, the Life of all the living,
Christ the Death of death, our foe,
Who, Thyself for me once giving
To the darkest depths of woe,—
Thro’ Thy suff’rings, death, and merit
I eternal life inherit:
Thousand, thousand thanks shall be,
Dearest Jesus, unto Thee.

This hymn is a seven stanza tour de force of our theology concerning the atonement that was accomplished by Christ’s death on the cross. The Elizabethan English utilized in this hymn adorns the theology like jewels on a crown.

The LCMS hymnal, Lutheran Worship (LW), renders the first stanza like this:

Christ, the life of all the living,
Christ, the death of death, our foe,
Christ, yourself for me once giving
To the darkest depths of woe:
Through your suff’ring, death, and merit
Life eternal I inherit.
Thousand, thousand, thanks are due,
Dearest, Jesus, unto you.

LW also cut four of the seven stanzas that the LSB committee had the wisdom to restore in our current hymnal, as well as its much more beautiful rhyme scheme and hymn length. This hymn’s poetry is butchered in the rendering found in LW. When the Church intentionally hides the beauty that adorns here music in order to appeal to a more modern tongue, it is as if we are placing the veil over the face of Moses while he preaches God’s Word to us.

I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I’m not advocating that we go back to the Latin Mass, nor am I saying we ought to go back to singing the Divine Service in German. It is instructive that our forefathers clung so tightly to the German language for so long–even up to the World War era and beyond in some cases. However, we would do well to take Dr. Luther’s words to heart: pick one form of the text, even if an improved one becomes available. We do this for the sake of the young and inexperienced. When we seek to improve the translation of the Creed or make a hymn more understandable, we are guilty of recreating the curse of Babel.

The objection that I heard at a conference before the LSB debuted in the pews of our congregations was that TLH (in hindsight, I’m not sure why only this hymnal was singled out) contained many words that people didn’t use in their everyday parlance, and so they were words that were not understood. Admittedly, I never knew what “meet” meant in the phrase, “It is meet and right so to do.” The answer to this objection is not for churchmen to simply roll over and create a new language. Pastors ought to be trained to know and teach what these words mean. Words like “Hosanna” and “Sabbaoth” are central to our common liturgy of the Sacrament. If we simply let these words fall into obscurity of meaning, our ability to maintain the one text of the liturgy will remain doubtful. This will only serve to confuse the young and inexperienced.

My plea here is simple. As we seek further unity in the LCMS and with other English-speaking confessional Lutherans, we ought to, as much as possible, heed Luther’s words. However, the real aim, as Luther points out, is to instruct the young in what we believe, teach, and confess as Lutherans. Their first and most meaningful interaction with God’s Word is most likely going to be in the liturgy, either in the home or in the Church. Despite what modern educational theory tells us, repetition is good thing. Small children learn to confess Christ by repeating what they here on Sunday morning, long before they can read. Let’s make sure that what they here is consistent and faithful.

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