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.

About Pastor Jordan McKinley

Rev. Jordan McKinley is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Vallonia, IN. He’s a 2012 graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN, and a 2006 graduate of Ball State University in Muncie, IN. He served his vicarage at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pagosa Springs, CO, and served from June 2012 to August 2015 at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Bennett, IA, and St. Paul Lutheran Church in Stanwood, IA. He is the husband of one wife, Andrea, and the father of three (Naomi, Collin, and Theodore). Though he has a deep and abiding love of all things Star Trek, he will not likely be writing any theological treatises in Klingon.


Pentecost or Babel: A Plea for a Common Language in the Church — 29 Comments

  1. “This hymn’s poetry is butchered in the rendering found in LW.”

    Actually with the three lines all beginning with “Christ,” I’d argue it’s a better poetic setup.

  2. I’ll admit a preference to the Elizabethan rendering. However, the overall point was from the catechism quote found earlier in the article. Changing the texts, even if there is an improvement to be made, confuses the young and inexperienced. What do you think about that point from Luther’s Catechism preface?

  3. @Joe #1

    Oh, I see what you’re talking about more specifically. The first three lines begin with Christ in the older translation, too.

  4. I fully agree with the author in regards to the hymns and, as an extension, the liturgy. In regard to the catechism, I think there can be some careful, thought-out updating as it is not generally sung and is primarily for teaching, i.e. conveying knowledge as clearly as possible. I went through catechism with the 1986 (it think that right) SC translation with the NIV. That’s what I memorized. Now, as an adult, I have the newer version. I think the new ESV translation and accompanying catechism is more accurate and easier to understand.

    I think the burden should rest on the adults to learn the occasional updated texts and teach that to their children, instead of insisting on the text they grew up with. Teach your children the most current version, then when they are adults, and have the capacity to understand how language changes, they can then learn the newer version and teach that to there children. Of course, this would work if there was only an updated every 1 or 2 generations. If there are updates every 5-10 years though, then probably not. My 2 cents.

  5. Luther’s recommendations were probable applicable during his lifetime, however today the literacy rate has vastly improved since than.

  6. I see what you are saying, but I think it’s only as big an issue as we make it to be. After all, Luther’s Catechism was written in German, not English. So I think it is appropriate to translate it into a form that children understand. The Catechism uses some terms and language that are actually beyond kids’ understanding in places. For example, Luther uses some legal terms when discussing the commandments. It is something that is certainly surmountable but it’s a distraction. So would it make more sense to explain it in terms they recognize? I think it does. So I personally would not take issue with translating the Catechism into the language common to the day. Many people make the same argumentation with regard to bible translation. Just listen to any KJV Onlyist. While I agree that we have entirely too many Bible translations due to publishing houses not wanting to pay rights to another, I still agree with the principle that spreading the gospel is best done by speaking the language natural to the audience we are addressing. Educating our children isn’t a formula. It takes effort.

  7. @Gary C. #4

    What do you think about Luther’s admonition to stick with one text, even if improvements can be made?

    The other issues comes with adults having more difficulty with memory work than youth. Why make it more difficult when they already have the text learned by heart? What else are we preventing people from memorizing?

  8. @Jason #6

    Jason, thanks for commenting. If you look at my article again, I don’t suggest going back to German (or even Latin). I actually stopped short at suggesting a solution, because I don’t really have a good one. We’ve put ourselves in a bad place by having so many translations in a relatively short period of time. My congregation alone has people who have memorized three different translations of the catechism!

    To your point about explaining it in a way that children understand: I think that burden is with the catechist, whether it be the parent or the pastor. Just like we wouldn’t paraphrase the Bible but would teach what terms like “righteous” and “propitiation” mean, we teach what the words in the catechism mean. I agree that teaching takes effort, which is why catechism instruction is not just a formal 2 year period with the pastor. It starts early in the home. It’s amazing how often my 3, 5, and 7 year old will stop me during devotions and say, “Daddy, what does that word mean?” It’s a natural way to keep the original wording and help them grow into the text. The catechism is a book for the whole life, not just for children.

  9. Dear readers,

    I’m interested in working more through my thoughts here. I’d like to keep the conversation going. I am comitting to keeping an eye on things here. If I ask you a question, I’m not looking to put you down. I’m interested in developing my thinking on this further.

    As I’ve said in at least one other comment, I haven’t made a solid proposal, because I don’t have one. We have put ourselves in a bad position with so many translations, so the ship may have sailed. However, I think this is really worth thinking about. It’s probably up to my generation of pastors to put together the next hymnal, so I want to be ready.

  10. @Pastor Jordan McKinley #9

    I understand, and I didn’t imply that you meant that. It was only an illustration. I would say if you have a congregation that have memorized three different translations of the Catechism then you have a wonderful blessing disguised as a problem. Keep in mind that Luther felt that catechetical instruction is the burden of the head of household. So if the complaint is that it isn’t standardized from home to home, I’d smile because it shows your families have faithful parents.

  11. @Pastor Jordan McKinley #7

    What else are we preventing people from memorizing?

    Hymns! There was a time when I could say the liturgy and sing a LOT of hymns without a book. Very convenient when I had small children!

    Now with five liturgies, and other variations in a bulletin for special Sundays, “not so much”. In fact, not at all. And memorization is not as easy as was some decades ago.
    And yet, I think it’s more urgent than ever to have the basics of the faith “between our ears”. What we have learned may be all we have.

  12. @Jason #11

    It is a blessing to have faithful fathers leading their children into the truth of God’s Word. You’re right! It does cause me to smile at this “problem.” But it has also caused some difficulty in our congregation’s united confession. Yes, we are confessing the same thing, but with slightly different words. Ideally, we would be totally united in confession in heart and word, so as not to have any unnecessary divisions in the body.

    This is where we do well to have the heads of the individual households submit–out of love toward all the members of the congregation–to one translation. This binds us together in a unity that would be even more difficult for the devil to penetrate. After all, it is the Lord of the Church who teaches us what our vocations are, and that ought to proceed from a single source. I’m not willing, however, to exercise an iron hand in this matter. I think it would be better for a greater authority to make these determinations for congregations in a given locality.

    This really does touch on a whole host of other issues, though, that I haven’t completely thought through. I’m hoping my friend, Rev. Christopher Neuendorf, who has been thinking about this issue himself, will chime in to help us all think more clearly and sharpen our arguments.

    Jason, can I ask, what do you think of Luther’s admonition from the Small Catechism preface to sticking with one text, even if a better one comes along?

  13. @Terry A #12

    Latin is certainly a beautiful language, and I don’t think we have turned out backs on it. I know many faithful pastors who still work diligently with the language. I’m hoping to begin to learn it myself soon.

    However, we do well to follow the example of our Lutheran fathers by bringing the Catechism and the Bible into the heart language of the people. We do our best and take the time we need to put it into that language and stick with that text, though. That’s where my article comes in!

  14. @helen #13

    Helen, that’s a big part of what I’m driving at. I have spent some of my capital in the parishes I’ve served to pair down the number of services used. There are so many benefits to avoid using the 24 or services in the LSB in favor of using just a few. For instance, the very young, who cannot yet read, can still participate in the service very easily. Mothers of those young children can do the same. Those who cannot see the print in the hymnal, those who cannot hold a hymnal, and even those with dementia can all participate in the service, because the liturgy is engraved onto their hearts. I’m reminded of St. Paul’s admonition to stick to a sound pattern of doctrine (II Timothy 1:13)!

    I also really appreciate your point about only having what we have between our ears. This was an urgent concern of Dr. Luther, who believed that the Muslims would overtake Christian Europe in his own day and destroy all the Bibles, hymnals, and catechisms. We do well to prepare for persecution, even if it may not come in our lifetimes. As Rev. David Petersen says it so well, if we sweat in training, we bleed less in war. There may come a time when the only catechism, liturgy, and hymnody we have is what we’ve committed to memory. How wonderful would it be if they were in a common language!

  15. @Pastor Jordan McKinley #14

    I don’t think Luther is the final authority on all things. I think he has somewhat of a point, but I wouldn’t overstate it. We aren’t making separate confessions by using modern language translations unless one tries to force the issue. I don’t see this as any different than someone who tries to argue that one and only one translation of the Bible is the final authority on things. I personally think we should evaluate the merits of a translation based upon its pros and cons. But that’s me. I generally do not make liturgical issues into law.

  16. There’s $ to be made at CPH by constantly tinkering with the text.

    What else besides our speech could we update to keep in step with a decaying world? Let’s see… there’s our clothing (vestments), our architecture, music, art, our concept of authority, the passage of time, the roles of men and women, etc.

    Then there’s all the “wonderful” things this world has to offer if only we would adopt them into the Church, e.g. technology, comfort, convenience, egalitarianism, variety, impatience, tolerance, and so much more.

    I think that the more our speech is seen as out-dated (and even incomprehensible) to the modern world, the more we confess that we’re not of this world. And to Pastor McKinley’s point, the more uniform we are in our prayers, confession and hymnody, the more we show that we belong to a kingdom that values unity rather than variety.

  17. @Buddy Wetuski #18

    Buddy wrote, “I think that the more our speech is seen as out-dated (and even incomprehensible) to the modern world, the more we confess that we’re not of this world.”

    It’s interesting then that Jesus and His apostles used Aramaic and koine (common) Greek. They could have used the outdated Ancient Greek or Classical Greek but instead used the languages of the people of their time. They didn’t want their message to be incomprehensible. Do you think that perhaps there’s a lesson there for us?

    And then there’s this:

    And [the people] were bringing children to [Jesus] that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them. (Mark 10:13-16)

    I’m guessing that Jesus wasn’t speaking gobbledegook or theological jargon to the children, but was speaking simple, comprehensible words to them.

  18. As an ELS person (little brother to WELS), I don’t have an issue with the word “human,” particularly since “he” is used in the rest of the creed.

  19. @helen #13

    Five liturgies is not a serious problem for memorization, *if* your church is actually using them, and not cutting and pasting, or inventing new rites frequently. it will, of course, take more time.

  20. @Rev.David R. Mueller #21

    Five liturgies is not a serious problem for memorization, *if* your church is actually using them, and not cutting and pasting, or inventing new rites frequently. it will, of course, take more time.

    One congregation uses the same LSB order for a year and then chooses another.
    Another congregation changes with the seasons, with bulletins for ‘special’ services.
    I think learning the service is easier in the first congregation (which I hear on line).
    But there are basic parts which are “common” to all, for which I’m thankful.

  21. @Rev.David R. Mueller #21

    “Five liturgies is not a serious problem for memorization, *if* your church is actually using them, and not cutting and pasting, or inventing new rites frequently.”

    Since my retirement I’ve had the opportunity to visit many LCMS congregations around the country. In I’m guessing 90% of them the worship service is some form of cutting and pasting or using new rites. Thousands (millions?) of trees are cut down to print one-use worship “booklets” for each Sunday. The hymnal may be used for hymns but not for the liturgy. Or the complete service, including hymns, may be printed in the worship “booklet” (thus making it easy to include such “gems” of hymns as Shine, Jesus Shine!). The hymnals sit in the pew racks like some curiosity from a bygone era. Ain’t they quaint! Hopefully they’re dusted once in awhile.

    You’ll hear all kinds of justifications for not using the hymnals for the liturgy but I haven’t heard any yet that are really convincing to me.

  22. A large LCMS church bought ELS hymnals for its pews.
    But, last time I was associated with it, it printed a complete bulletin (with hymn texts) every Sunday and festival. Only visitors like myself ever looked at the hymnal in the pew rack. I wonder why they spent the money!

  23. “I wonder why they spent the money!”

    Strictly speculation here. Perhaps one pastor liked and used the hymnals. Then a subsequent pastor liked the “cut and paste” worship booklet approach and the hymnals gathered dust.

  24. @Rev. Robert Fischer #25

    Your speculation might be correct.

    Except that the Sr. Pastor in that congregation was there for decades before the magnificent new church was built and the hymnals were purchased, and is still on their web page, additional decades later. 🙂

  25. @Pastor Jordan McKinley #7

    “What do you think about Luther’s admonition to stick with one text, even if improvements can be made?”

    I agree, when it involves memorization and use by children. As another comment mentioned, now, education is much more common. Don’t quote me, but I believe that around 83% of people graduate from high school nationally and middle school graduation is in the high 90% area. I think that indicates a level of literacy and knowledge of language that is common now that did not exist when Luther wrote his admonition. Therefore, I believe the problem he was addressing is less of an issue, especially when you consider the head of household, now being literate, is well educated (compared to then) and has access to additional educational tools.

    “The other issues comes with adults having more difficulty with memory work than youth. Why make it more difficult when they already have the text learned by heart? What else are we preventing people from memorizing?”

    I realize the dangers of assuming we are “smarter” now. But, we are also accustom to our language changing more quickly now. Unlike other languages, English is an ever changing language, for better or worse. Until we are all speaking Chinese, Spanish or Russian, we have to deal with the complications of English.

    Language is important. Asking “what does this mean?” implies that we want to understand and communicate a meaning with the words that follow. I think asking adults to learn a few new or different words or phrasings in order to properly convey a meaning is a small accommodation/sacrafice we can make as part of our vocations to continually teach the meaning of the faith and pass it on accurately to our children.

    Again, I think hymns are different. They are poetry set to music. But there are reasons that we (hopefully) don’t use textbooks written in the 1850’s, yet still recite the original pros of Shakespeare. The catechism is trying to convey meaning through text and we want that to be clear. Also, as I said, I think children and parents should have one translation/edition and use it exclusively for family unity. Then, if there was only one edition every few generations we wouldn’t have an issue. When the new one came out, the adults, could learn it and start their new children with it.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article. If this is a problem, then it is a good one to have.

  26. Modern English is not unique in that it’s in a constant state of flux. Remember that Luther’s translation of the Holy Bible into German is what solidified that language across the region for several centuries (similar to the KJV where English was spoken). The point of sticking to one unified text, from generation to generation, is to maintain a consistency across generations regardless of how the world is flippantly changing around us and to receive this consistency from those who have gone on before us and pass it down to those who come after us. The words we us to confess and pray will change over time out of necessity but, we certainly shouldn’t be constantly changing them in order to keep pace with how the world speaks. That only serves to separate us from the saints before us and the saints that will follow us.

  27. @Rev. Robert Fischer #19
    Rev. Fischer,
    Sorry for the long lag-time in responding to your critique of my comment. I live way out in the sticks and don’t have internet at home is my sorry excuse.
    If I read your comment right, I think you might be confusing the issue of the original giving/writing of texts and the subsequent translating of them into a common language with the issue of a never ending retranslation of the text. And remember, the OP, Pastor McKinley, was talking about hymns, prayers, and confessions (Norma Normata) not Holy Writ.
    Imagine the chaos that would befall us if the text of our Norma Normata were updated and changed even more often than that of our Norma Normans. How would we keep up? How would we know which to teach our children?
    The fact is that this is already the case.
    As to the incomprehensibilty of the Word that our Lord speaks to a dead and decaying world through His church, I could simply point out the (not-too-much updated, tinkered with, or modified, etc.) Athanasian Creed, as well which ever current version of St. John chapter 1 you might have.
    Any snarkiness or jackassery inferred above is not implied. It’s actually meant as brotherly banter. I just don’t know how to use emojis yet.

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