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ELW and the Abuse of Language

by Pr. Dan Biles (St. Paul Lutheran Church, Spring Grove, PA)

January, 2007

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) is now out in print. People will make various comments about it, from deeply theological critiques to matters of personal taste. My concern in this paper is one topic, which I take to be the most serious of all: its language, what I call below the "inclusive language project." The language of worship is far more than just a matter of personal preferences. It is much more serious. As the timehonored axiom of liturgy states, the way we worship shapes our faith. That surely includes language: what we say in worship both expresses and shapes the faith of believers.

Let me summarize my judgment on the ELW's use of language: It is an offense against Trinitarian theology, the integrity and beauty of our liturgy, and the plain proper English that we all should have learned in grammar school.

The inclusive language project is nothing new. I recall it beginning back in the early 80's. Most of us treated it as a harmless novelty, the latest quackery cooked up by academics needing something to do to justify their jobs. "PC jokes" became a fashion. How far we have come, or should I say fallen, in the last two decades.

Yet this silliness is rampant in ELW. Take, for example, the Venite from Morning Prayer:

  • O Come, let us sing to the Lord,
  • Let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.
  • Let us come before God's presence with thanksgiving,
  • And raise a loud shout to God with psalms.

Or this version of the Gloria, from With One Voice:

  • Glory to God, glory to God,
  • Glory to God in the highest.
  • Glory to God, glory to God,
  • And peace to God's people on earth.

God … God … God …. God …. God…. God. No one talks like this in real life. To do so makes for ponderous, banal speech. Which leads to the next criticism of the inclusive language project: it is simply bad grammar. Why? Because we use pronouns to make connections within and between sentences. Without pronouns, there is no way to tell from sentence to sentence, or even within a sentence, that we are talking about one and the same person or thing.

How are we to know in samples like those above that the same God is being talked about in each case? Only because we know in our minds that all these proper nouns stand in some places for pronouns, which would establish relationships between what they refer to and their antecedents. What happens in a generation or so, when people (what people will be left in the ELCA) have been trained to think this way, will have no memory of that all these "Gods" refer to just one Lord and God?

Again: It is an old truth of liturgical theology that the way we worship forms our faith. What faith is ELW's worship forming in those who use it?

Another sample, from Psalm 43:

  • Put your trust in God, for I will yet give thanks
  • to the One who is my help and my God.

Are these all one and the same God?

In some places this farce of language goes so far as to leave us wondering what we are doing. For example, the invitation to the Venite asks us:

  • Give glory to God, our light and our life.
  • O Come, let us worship and praise.

Praise whom? What or whom is the direct object of this sentence? This is not even a complete sentence. We are left dangling about, instead of -- as the correct translation would tell us, worshipping Him -- which would refer back, of course, to "God" in the previous sentence.

It was the achievement and principle of Martin Luther to put the scriptures and liturgy in the language of the people. ELW has undone all that. ELW's language is surely not the language people use from day to day. It is a construct, a farce, a charade of the beauty of the English language and the classical liturgy of the Church.

At many other points, especially in its treatment of the Psalms, ELW simply mistranslates the scriptures, thereby doing violence to the sacred text and changing the entire focus of what God or we are doing.

In the Venite, which is based on Psalm 97, the Psalm is changed from an invitation to others to join us in the worship of God to direct praise of God. That is not what the Psalm is about. Nor is it what we are about at the beginning of morning prayer: we invite all who will respond to join in the praise of God. We praise God before those whom we invite to join in worship with us.

In Psalm 1, the original singular is changed to a plural. "Blessed is the man who…" now becomes, "Happy are they who…." Or in Psalm 24, which asks in the singular "Who may ascend to the hill of the Lord and stand in God's holy place?" and answers in the plural, "Those who have clean hands and a pure heart…" (A further question: are the hill of the Lord and God's holy place referring to the same deity, as they are in the correct translation: "…hill of the Lord … His holy place"?)

In the Benedictus, ELW sings, "You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way…" The way of what? Whose or what way is this referring to? The correct translation is "His way," referring back to the Lord.

One would think that a Lutheran Church, whose tradition was founded on the principle of sola scriptura, would treat Holy Scripture with much more reverence and respect. Martin Luther criticized the Pope of his day for turning scripture into a "wax nose," molded into whatever the Pope wished it to mean. Luther never met the likes of the writers of ELW, who are masters of twisting scripture to say what it does not mean.

But the issue is more than a case of bad grammar and mistranslation. It is also bad theology. In both Psalm 1 and 24, the "he" referred to in the accurate translations has in Christian theology been taken to refer to Jesus. Jesus is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor sits in the company of sinners, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law He meditates day and night. Jesus alone is the man who has clean hands and a pure heart, and thus can enter God's holy place. It is through our Baptism into Christ that we are granted the privilege of standing in God's holy place, pure and undefiled. All this great Christological tradition of interpretation is lost, however, in the bowdlerized translations of ELW.

Indeed, in many places ELW shifts the focus from God to us. In the Preface of Holy Communion, the Pastor proclaims, "Let us give thanks to the Lord our God." In the Tradition, the congregation replied, "It is right to give Him thanks and praise." Not in ELW, where we simply say, "It is right to give our thanks and praise." This response does not refer to the Lord our God as the object of our praise. Instead, the focus shifts from God to ourselves, to how right it is for us to give thanks and praise.

Again, a tradition founded on the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works would take care not to boast of how good we are in giving our thanks and praise, to whomever we give it.

The final outcome of ELW's mistranslating of scripture and mastication of the English language is an anti-Trinitarian theology which goes to every contortion possible to avoid praise and prayer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The classic offense here is the Apostles' Creed, where Jesus is confessed as "God's only Son, our Lord" not "His only Son, our Lord," with the "Him," of course, referring back to God the Father. Never mind that this is the language our Lord himself used. ELW will not have us confess plainly that the same God Jesus is the Son of is God the Father. The reluctance to confess our God as Father is rampant in ELW, such as in the Proper Prefaces of the Liturgy of Holy Communion: in all of them the address to God as "Father Almighty" has been dropped for a simple, flaccid "O God." As Robert Jenson so famously stated in a speech at St. Olaf College in 1989: A Church that is ashamed of the Name of her God is ashamed of her God.

One simply cannot do Trinitarian theology without the use of pronouns, which establish relationships between the persons of the Trinity. Jesus addressed His God, "Father." In the resurrection our Lord published a new name for God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Since "Father" cannot be referred to as "she" or "her" without sounding nonsense, "He" and "His" are all we have to work with. If that particularity is offensive to some, so be it: the particularity of Christian faith -- that God chose the Jews, became incarnate in Jesus, died on a cross, designated a Sabbath Day, made us male and female, commands fidelity in marriage, etc. -- has always offended someone in every age and place. So what else is new? Get over it!

ELW simply has a hard time saying that the Second Person of the Trinity is the man Jesus, Son of God, Who addressed His God "Father." The Docetists had a hard time with that, too.

There are those who will object to this line of reasoning with the retort that using the term "Father" or male pronouns for God reinforces a tradition of male oppression of women, especially for those who have been abused by their fathers. Quite the contrary. The root of the anger of women who have been abused by their fathers is in truth a cry of betrayal, a grieving and mourning for what as children and young women they should have known: a loving, caring father who would not abuse them. That cry of pain is met in the love of God our Father, who does not abuse his children, but is faithful to them, who sacrifices himself for them, even to the point of death – as the Father has shown in sending his Son, Jesus, to die for us. That is love we all – women and men – need. It is the invitation God gives us when he invites us to pray to him, beginning, “Our Father ….”

Now some will say this is all nitpicking over "mere words." Not for a religion whose God reveals Himself in His Word, as the Word made flesh. Liturgy is prayed doctrine, scripture in the form of worship. The last word to be said about ELW is: This is not the way the Church worships her God. In making a mess of words, we are offending the Lord our God. Himself.

  • Pr. Dan Biles
  • St. Paul Lutheran Church
  • Spring Grove, PA
  • January, 2007