More bad things done to good hymns

My researches for Sunday Cantata keep throwing up wonderful Lutheran chorales that never made it into English, or have been forgotten entirely. More distressing still is to find that hymns that have survived have been sadly mistreated by translators and/or hymnal editors.

The latest exhibit for this latter category, from BWV 166, Bach’s cantata for Cantate Sunday (5th of, or 4th after, Easter, depending on which way you like to count): Ämilie Juliane von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt’s hymn Wer weiss wie nahe mir mein Ende.

Here’s how Bach gives us verse one in that cantata:

[Performed by Bach Collegium Japan]

(Listen to the whole thing this Sunday on Lutheran Radio UK)

The original has 12 verses. TLH gave us 11 of them as Who Knows  When Death May Overtake Me (TLH 598), a translation reproduced also in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELH 483).

Question 1: If you’re willing to sing 11 verses, why not 12?

The missing verse is no. 7:

Ich weiß, in Jesu Blut und Wunden
hab ich mir recht und wohl gebett ;
da find ich Trost in Todesstunden,
und alles, was ich gerne hätt.
Mein Gott, ich bitt’ durch Christi Blut:
Mach’s nur mit meinem Ende gut!

An English prose translation by Francis Browne (on the marvellous site reads as follows:

I know that in Jesus’ blood and wounds
It is right and good for me to make my bed;
There may I find consolation in the hour of death
And everything I would happily have.
My God, I pray through Christ’s blood:
Make sure my end is good.

Why would you want to leave that out? Makes me want to know:

Question 2: What’s wrong with the blood of Jesus?

You see, not only do they leave out the bloody verse. Jesus’ blood is veritably written out of the hymn.

If you know TLH (or ELH) well, you will know that there is a refrain at the end of each verse, which goes like this: “My God, for Jesus’ sake I pray / Thy peace may bless my dying day.”

Except that it doesn’t. The German reads:

Mein Gott, ich bitt’ durch Christi Blut:
Mach’s nur mit meinem Ende gut!

That’s the blood of Christ. Something like, “My God, I pray through Jesus’ blood / Make Thou my life’s end only good.” (OK, so I’m no Shakespeare. Sorry.)

Verse11 (10 in TLH/ELH) declares in the original:

“I am and remain in his care,
fairly adorned with Christ’s blood.”

But the hymnal simply states:

“He grants the peace that stills all sorrow / Gives me a robe without a spot.”

The only blood the translators didn’t write out is the direct reference to the Lord’s Supper (verse 10/9). Which makes me wonder:

Question 3: Is it hard to tell the difference between cause and effect?

The translators seem to prefer translating Blut as ‘peace’. Now, as any well-catechised child will tell you, the blood of Christ does bring us  peace with God. That’s why we have the Pax Domini in the liturgy, and that’s why we have it where we have it.

But the blood and the peace aren’t the same thing. The one brings about the other. They are not synonymous. So why on earth would you treat them as synonymous?

Which leads us to:

Question 4: Why would the editors of a conservative Lutheran hymnal go to such lengths to avoid talking about the blood of Jesus (except in the Lord’s Supper, when they can’t get away from it)? Could it be that they were crypto-Ritschlians, perhaps without realising it?

As someone once sang, Ritschl shall reign where’er the sun

Question 5: Given that, even with such a deficient translation, this is a pretty stunning hymn (do read the whole of Browne’s translation, together with the original German, here), why would it be culled even further in the finest modern English-language Lutheran hymnbook, the Lutheran Service Book? All that remains of the 12 verses are  9, 10 and 12 in what has been re-cut as a baptismal hymn (‘Once in the Blessed Baptismal Waters’, LSB 598).

What on earth for? There are plenty of fine baptismal hymns in LSB as it is. No need to go a-butchering for another one, thus depriving the church of the opportunity to reflect on what gives us confidence on the edge of the grave.

And finally: You just heard the tune used in Bach’s time for this hymn: Georg Neumark’s Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten. Why would it be replaced by the later unremarkable creation used in TLH, ELH and LSB?

But at least that’s only a matter of opinion.

Jesus, Thy Boundless Love

Jesus, Thy boundless love to me
No thought can reach, no tongue declare;
Unite my thankful heart to Thee,
And reign without a rival there!
Thine wholly, Thine alone I am;
Be Thou alone my constant flame.

O grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell, but Thy pure love alone!
Oh, may Thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown!
All coldness from my heart remove;
My ev’ry act, word, thought be love.

This love unwearied I pursue
And dauntlessly to Thee aspire.
Oh, may Thy love my hope renew,
Burn in my soul like heav’nly fire!
And day and night be all my care
To guard this sacred treasure there.

In suff’ring be Thy love my peace,
In weakness be Thy love my pow’r;
And when the storms of life shall cease,
O Jesus, in that final hour,
Be Thou my rod and staff and guide
And draw me safely to Thy side!

Paul Gerhardt; tr. John Wesley

Give her something to eat

Standing over the lifeless body of the daughter—the only-begotten child—of Jairus, Jesus brought her life back by his life-giving words. Wonder of sonders and miracle of miracles.

Now what? How do you follow that up?

“He told them to give her something to eat.”

Death to life to being fed. That’s resurrection life in a nutshell.

A churchly copyright notice

The Augsburg Confession, first presented on 25 June1530, is the common property of the Lutheran Church throughout the world, and as an expression of the Christian faith belongs to all Christians.

From ‘The Augsburg Confession’, the edition produced and distributed (free of charge) by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England.

A good rule of thumb

for the orthodoxy of a Christian song: if Mormons have to change the words, it’s good.

[A thought inspired by this rather good post.]

How to grieve without words

Coming up on Sunday Cantata next week: BWV 12, Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen.

I have often said—and in this I am far from alone—that no one does joy quite as well as Bach does. When it comes to melancholy, Mozart gives J.S. a run for his money. But then there is music like the opening sinfonia of Weinen, klagen, and the question becomes settled.

A solitary oboe singing a heart-aching lament, accompanied by ‘sighing’ strings. By the time the choir enters with the words of lament—the opening words mean rougly “Weeping, lamentation, worry, apprehension”—the listeners’ hearts have been prepared for them without a word being uttered.

This is a good example of the right use of music as an affective tool  in worship: to give expression to what the words are saying in such a way as to assist the congregation in better assimilating them. All the best hymns do that, and no one did it better than Bach.

Here’s the music, from Vol. 3 of Bach Collegium Japan‘s complete set. Listen to the whole work on Lutheran Radio UK next Sunday.

Sanctification—joining the fray

Since the world and its dog is writing about this just now…

Recently, I have been heartened to read several blog posts each on sanctification, by Pr. Mark Surburg and Pr. Jordan Cooper, respectively. You can read them here and here. That means, amongst other things, that Pr. Paul McCain is no longer alone beating this worthy drum.

All those worthy folks make the case entirely to my satisfaction, sources and all. That walking repository of quotations, Pr. William Weedon, adds some pretty useful quotations to the mix in some of the comments. You can read them here, along with some sturdy criticisms as well.

This is a topic that has troubled me for some time. Even before I began to train as a pastor, I had come across the view that seems to be pretty widespread in certain English-speaking confessional Lutheran circles: that the Law only kills, and only the Gospel has a positive application. Of course, no one ever says that—but an awful lot of preachers preach as if that were true. Which amounts to the same thing. Indeed, Prs. Surburg and Cooper both nail the issue on the head by discussing the role of preaching in sanctification. Because that is the question.

There are so many different factors at work here that I lack the space, the energy and, frankly, the competence to deal with it all here. Just a couple of observations must suffice:

(1) Sanctification as a process—by whatever name you call it—is a biblical teaching. You can’t get past that. “Be ye holy even as I am holy” means that something needs to happen. It also means that it has a behavioural aspect. If the will of God is my sanctification, and that means that I must renounce sexual immorality, then my behaviour must be marked by holiness.

That doesn’t mean that holiness is defined by behaviour. Of course not. But if my behaviour is unholy, then my life makes a lie out of that which God has declared me to be. Why else would I pray that God forgive me and by His Holy Spirit increase in me true knowledge of God and of God’s will and true obedience to His word?

(2) Sanctification as a process—by whatever name you call it—is embedded in the Lutheran confessions. Just read the first 8 articles of the Augsburg Confession, and the fourth section on Baptism in the Large and Small Catechisms. FC IV:40 is pretty clear, too.

(3) To teach good works is the duty of every preacher. And it’s not a coincidental or secondary duty, but part of the whole counsel of God. It’s a salutary exercise to read through Paul’s letter to Titus and to make a note of all the things that Paul instructs Titus to do. And, if you are a preacher, place yourself in Titus’ shoes and do what Paul instructs you to do.

(4) Not to teach God’s will concerning holiness of life and good works clearly and explicitly to the Christian congregation but somehow to expect the Holy Spirit to do His work is simply functional enthusiasm. If you are a Lutheran who says that the Holy Spirit works through means, and is never separated from those means, then that applies to faith and love alike. The Christian learns God’s will by hearing what God’s will is, through the preaching of God’s word. For the Christian, the Law doesn’t only accuse, because the Christian delights in the Law, which is good and holy, and because the Christian is free to obey the Law, in love and therefore without fear.

In short: if you don’t expect people to believe the Gospel without hearing the Gospel, you shouldn’t expect people to be conformed to God’s will without hearing God’s will. The Gospel alone empowers fallen people to do God’s will. But what that will is must be taught and proclaimed.

(5) It’s never a good idea to define yourself reactively. It’s OK not to use red wine if that becomes a sine qua non amongst the Reformed. It’s OK not to wear a Geneva gown if that’s required by the local Presbyterian board of elders as the true mark of a Christian minister.

It’s not OK to deny the works of the Holy Spirit because the charismatic movement happened and went crazy. And it’s not OK to deny sanctification as a real-life fact just because Wesley preached and people believe what he said, or because the Pope is Roman Catholic and espouses Roman Catholic teaching.

It’s not OK not to teach good works because there are lots of evangelical, liberal and every other kind of legalists out there burdening Christian consciences.

The truth is true, and if someone twists the truth into something else, the Christian response is to trumpet the truth with ever-greater purity, rather than pretend that it isn’t true.

(6) The Law is not merely the foil for the Gospel. It’s part of the whole counsel of God. We are not saved from the Law: we are saved from the accusation of the Law. We are not freed from God’s will: we are freed to do God’s will.

(7) The Law-Gospel distinction is not a tool for select which bits of God’s word we proclaim. It’s not an exegetical hermeneutic, but a pastoral one.


Finally, don’t take it from me. Just this last Sunday, Luther proclaimed in the House Postil that the two great subjects of Christian preaching are faith and love. The apostles knew that, the fathers of the church knew that, the Reformers knew that, as did the great preachers of the 17th century, and all great preachers. How do I know they knew that? Because that’s how they preached. And that’s how I ought to preach, too.