A Common Language
Rev. Peter Bender, arguably one of our Synod’s foremost experts on the Small Catechism, is fond of saying that one of the functions of fixed terms, translations, and figures of speech in our regular liturgy and the Small Catechism is having “a common language” to understand the Lord and His Word, and the faith He gives.
Children learn language even before they can speak it. They soak it up like sponges! This happens even more so when certain phrases and responses are in patterns and can be anticipated. The most basic example is a two-year-old picking up on responding to a prayer with a hearty “Amen.”
Of course, we have had challenges even in our hymnals. In the 1970’s and 80’s, there was a movement to give fresh translations to even basic phrases. The “salutation” and response that precede some prayers is a good example. The Latin phrase spoken by the pastor was, “Dominus vobiscum.” The congregation responds, “Et cum spiritu tuo.” In German, the excellent translation is, “Der Herr sei mit euch.” “Und mit deinem Geist.” For centuries, the English of this was the precise, “The Lord be with you.” “And with your spirit.” Sadly, committees in the later 20th century felt the language of the response was outdated, and wanted to jump on the Vatican II band wagon. They changed it to: “And also with you.” Sure, that is the “gist” of it, but it is more paraphrase than translation.
Ironically, while Lutheran Service Book was being compiled and edited, Rome returned to the translation, “And with your spirit,” while LSB kept a mixed bag of using one response in some services, and the other for the rest. The result is we have mixed, garbled responses even within the same congregation, since no one is sure from memory which way to respond. People are confused. The elderly who have learned one way are frustrated, while the very young are confused by multiple possibilities.
Luther said in his preface to the Small Catechism that pastors should choose a translation and stick with it, for multiple generations. This serves the Church in caring for her people and serving them God’s Word with the repetition of it in preaching, teaching, and liturgy. In 1986, a new translation of the Catechism was produced. In a number of ways, it is not as strong as the 1943 translation that many of us grew up with. Still, over 90% of our Synod uses the 1986 edition. So for the sake of this common language, we use it, and simply incorporate some explaining into catechesis, to be sure our people understand it better.
Serving Your Neighbor
When I was in confirmation instruction, my home parish purchased the 1982 hymnal, Lutheran Worship. LW had changed a great number of hymns to push for updated language, and in the process, often changed the entire poetry and rhyme scheme. A few of us in the youth group took pride in singing the older Jacobean/Elizabethan English, while everyone else was singing the new words. At the time, we felt we were being more authentically “Lutheran,” and took pride that we sang hymns the “right” way.
Looking back, I see that we were not serving our neighbors. Even though it may have been more helpful to our understanding of those hymns, it was confusing (or at least distracting) to those in the pews around us. Singing “you” rather than “Thee” in a particular hymn may feel right, but if it is delaying the pre-schooler from learning it by heart, or throwing off the grandmother whose sight is failing, is not helpful. Rather, it is selfish. I had been wrong. And I repent.
Repetition is the Mother of Learning
The “new” translation of the Catechism is now 28 years old. The “new” hymnal is now eight years old. The “new” translation of Scriptures in our midst, the English Standard Version, is now 13 years old, and many pastors like myself have been preaching from it for at least 12 years now. No translation is perfect. Still, we have agreed to “walk together” as a Synod, and part of walking together is using that “common language.” Use it. Speak it. Again and again. The Holy Spirit uses this to nourish and sustain you, and builds you up with your neighbors to receive Christ’s forgiveness and life. Treasure the tools the Lord has given for that common language: The Scriptures, Lutheran Service Book, and Luther’s Small Catechism. Learn them by heart, according to your ability, and the Lord will use that as a blessing to you and your neighbors. And when you fail, or when you have moments of speaking in other “dialects,” that are not helpful in walking together, remember your loving and forgiving Lord has rescued and redeemed you, His baptized child, washing that guilt away, that you ”may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”
What Does This Mean?
A Series of Articles on Luther’s Small Catechism
for this 485th Anniversary Year
by Rev. Richard A. Heinz