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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

The ‘Vulgar Language’ Principle

July 1, 2015 •

Almost from the very first time I read the Westminster Confession of Faith I remember being struck by its choice of words to describe the character of Bible translations. It says they should be in ‘the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come’ (WCF 1.8).

Clearly the primary focus of this statement, as originally composed by the men of the Westminster Assembly, was the task of Bible translation. But it would be a mistake to think that it was not born out of a larger focus that characterised Reformed and Puritan theology that related to a wider spectrum of issues in the life, work and witness of the church.

Most notably, given that the catalyst that launched the Reformation was the desire to reform the worship of the church (which inevitably required a reformation of its understanding of salvation as well) we see how the principle of expressing biblical truth in the language of ordinary people was there from the start.

Mediaeval Catholicism insisted that the Mass should be celebrated only in Latin. So, for the ordinary man or woman attending worship, the act of adoration was incomprehensible to them. Indeed, whether or not the claim that the description of the magician’s art as ‘Hocus Pocus’ derived from the priestly invocation Hoc est Corpus as he elevated the Eucharistic host is correct, it would certainly have been regarded as sorcery with the claims of transubstantiation attached to it. But add to that the fact that the public reading of Scripture was also only in Latin (not to mention that the Bible was frequently chained to the lectern in church) it too was beyond the comprehension of the average worshipper.

In that sense the cultus [worship] of the church in which the Reformation was born was the very kind of religion that gave rise to the modern use of the term ‘cult’ as something that brainwashes, indoctrinates and enslaves. We can only thank God for the work of Tyndale, as the great pioneer of Bible translations in the language of the common man, and of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer who all brought public worship truly into the public domain. More than that, they expressed it in what the Westminster divines would later call, ‘the vulgar language of every nation’.

Despite the hugely significant achievement of the Reformers and their immediate successors, their self-acclaimed heirs have not always been true to their Reformation heritage. Too often in professedly Reformed churches, the sins of Mediaeval Catholicism have been replicated under the guise of safeguarding the Reformed tradition they have espoused.

One of the most obvious areas in which this can be seen is in the sphere of hymnody. It manifests itself on two fronts. The first is in relation to the question ‘Whose hymns should we sing?’ In very many instances (from the evidence of the kind of hymn books used by Reformed churches) the answer would seem to be, ‘Only those whose compositions predate the beginning the beginning of the 20th Century’. (And even in the case of those Reformed churches that are committed to exclusive psalmody, the versions of the Psalter they use are often in the language and idiom of the 17th Century.)

Perhaps without their realising it, these churches are doing the very same thing their pre-Reformation Roman Catholic forebears did in the way they crafted worship. They made it inaccessible to ordinary people.

Not only is the language often obsolete, but so too is the idiom, and this is the second major way in which church hymnody has all too often become distorted. For example, many of the hymns composed in the 19th Century reflect the Romanticism of their day and are thus somewhat alien to those who seek to sing them in our day. Of course, this does not mean there are not ‘classic hymns’ composed not just in the 19th Century, but across the centuries that rise above the limitations of their literary and poetic eras and stand the test of time. There are many such hymns (and many such renditions of the psalms).

The key issue is that if (as Jesus says) authentic worship must be ‘in spirit and in truth’ (Jn 4.24), then it must be comprehensible to the worshiper as well as to God. (I lean towards Geerhardus Vos’ view that ‘spirit’ and ‘truth’ in Jesus’ statement are not meant to be capitalised since they refer primarily to the worshiper’s frame of heart and mind and not to the Holy Spirit and the Holy Bible.)

Our sung praise should be in ‘the vulgar language of every nation’ – not the language of the Cathedral or the academy, but the language of the market place. If God has ‘ordained praise’ from ‘the lips of children and infants’ (Ps 8.2), then the God who has ‘lisped’ to our race in language that accommodates himself to us (Calvin), then it stands to reason he must delight in the lisping praise of the most inarticulate saint he has redeemed to be his very own.

The same principle applies equally to how we pray. Our prayers – both public and private – should be in the vernacular. If they are not, then they run the serious risk of degenerating into the ‘babblings’ or ‘vain repetitions’ to which Jesus compares the prayers of the religientsia of his day (Mt 6.7).

The fact Jesus goes on in this passage to teach his disciples the Lord’s Prayer as the paradigm prayer for his family only goes to show that even the youngest member of his family is capable of taking it on his or her lips and understand what they are saying.

It is a myth to think that to read, sing, pray and administer the sacraments in this way is somehow inimical to reverence in worship. Reverence is not an art form; it is an attitude of heart and mind. To be reverent in worship is not the same as speaking a language that may sound pious (or pietistic), but which those around us struggle to understand.

One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ preaching was the fact that ‘the common people heard him gladly’ (Mk 12 37) KJV. But this was really the hallmark of his entire ministry, whether he was ministering during Sabbath worship in the synagogue or interacting publicly with the religious elite – everyone knew exactly what he was saying.

There has been an entirely appropriate evolution of faithful worship across the centuries that reflected the evolution of language and culture with which it has kept in step. The Westminster divines saw it and those who delight in all that they stood for (including those who modified their confession to serve their own particular polities in Baptist and Independent churches) should see it also. The ‘vulgar language’ of every nation (and of their every generation) is more pleasing to God than we often realise.

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