by Father Michael Gilligan
In some of our churches, religious songs are used that name God
as Yahweh instead of “Lord.” Some of the most
popular of these are “Yahweh, I Know You Are Near” by
Dan Schutte, “Yahweh Is My Shepherd” by Millie Rieth,
and “Yahweh Is the God of My Salvation” by Gregory Norbet.
On the one hand, such liturgical use of Yahweh is an innovation;
as far as can be determined, it was never used before in Christian
liturgy. On the other hand, the Psalm settings mentioned are in wide
use and well received. They have been effective means of prayer for
thousands of people.
As the Second Vatican Council decreed, the words of church songs
are of the greatest importance. In fact, the first reason why liturgical
music matters is not that it is aesthetically pleasing, not that
it fosters participation, not that it highlights important parts
of the liturgy, not that it is good art, and not that it provides
a good human experience. The Council teaches that the reason why
music is important is that it is joined to the words, which are themselves sacred.
These texts, says the Council, should be in conformity with Catholic doctrine
and should primarily be derived from Scripture and from liturgical sources (Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, 112, 121). To what extent does use of the name Yahweh fulfill
the command of the Council? Should church songs referring to God as Yahweh be
used in the liturgy?
To answer these questions, this article considers the contemporary use of Yahweh, arguments
in favor of that use, and arguments against it.
Contemporary Use of Yahweh
The term Yahweh appears in many scholarly
works and so would be familiar to those who have studied Scripture
on an advanced level, for example, priests and deacons. As already
mentioned, it is also used in some popular church songs. It seems
that the use of this term owes its origin to the 1966 Jerusalem
Bible, an English version of the French Bible de Jerusalem where
the use of Yahweh is maintained in both the current French and English
editions. The use of the Jerusalem Bible at liturgies, especially in
lectionaries, would have introduced
congregations to the term, especially those who went to Mass during the week.
Other translations of the Bible have not used Yahweh. The name does
not appear in lectionaries or sacramentaries today among Roman Catholic communities
in the United States. For example, the new translation of the psalms from ICEL
does not use Yahweh “out of respect for the traditional Jewish
reverence for this name.” As always, Yahweh does not appear in
the Sanctus of the Mass. While liturgical sources available do use sabaoth, the
wording is Dominus sabaoth, Kyrios sabaoth, or the equivalent. The current
translation in use in the United States is “Lord, God of power and might.” Aside
from a few church songs, therefore, the name Yahweh does not seem to
be used in the liturgy in the United States.
Arguments in Favor of Use
Some may find value in the historical meaning of the name Yahweh and
so wish to use it in the liturgy. This use, however, is not applicable to later
books of the Old Testament, to the New Testament, or to the liturgy itself,
which is always a living reality. As Pope Pius XII points out in Mediator
Dei, liturgical renewal is not an anachronistic restoration of ancient practices
simply because they are ancient. Pius XII calls such a tendency “antiquarianism.” As
Raymond Brown puts it, the Bible is normative for Christian life only when it
is accepted by the Church and proclaimed as part of a living tradition in the
community of believers. The meaning of Scripture is not just what it once meant
but what it means today. And when the Second Vatican Council speaks of the Bible
containing truth that is for the sake of our salvation, that truth is not to
be identified with one stage of its development. Some may argue that Yahweh carries
with it important meaning, given by God. However, no one knows for certain what
that meaning is. All the speculation about the original meaning of Yahweh may
be beside the point. Even if we did know the authentic import of the term, the
Hebrews may not have understood it in that way. In fact, most etymologies in
the Bible are not correct, says John McKenzie.
If scholars do not know the original meaning of Yahweh, if
the Hebrews may well not have known that meaning, how can people
today possibly claim that by using the term they are recovering or
restoring something of significance?
All the concepts proposed to explain the name Yahweh are expressed elsewhere
in the liturgy, especially in readings from Scripture. Even the current version
of the Vulgate, in quoting the Canticle of Moses in Exodus 15:3, does not say “Yahweh is
his name.” It is Dominus quasi vir pugnator; Dominus nomen eius! (“The
Lord fights like a man. Lord is his name!”)
Some may argue that using Yahweh is a good way to stress our Jewish
origins and our bond with Jews today. Our origins, however, are in Judaism at
the time of Christ, not centuries before. Moreover, use of the name Yahweh does
not bind us to Jews; it alienates them. Our Jewish origins are emphasized in
many ways, especially in the use of an Old Testament reading and a Psalm in most
celebrations of the Sunday Eucharist.
Some may argue that songs using Yahweh are familiar and
that altering the text would be difficult for some people. With certain
songs, the copyright holders are not willing to permit alteration.
Dropping the songs would constitute a loss for the liturgy. This
line of reasoning would have some force, were it not for the many
cogent arguments against the use of Yahweh.
Arguments against its Use
Today, sensitivity toward
Jewish people demands that we respect their own feelings and traditions
as a living community of faith, not simply as an old religion from
which the Church came. Christians should acknowledge “Judaism
as a living tradition that has had a strong and creative religious
life through the centuries since the birth of Christianity.” (Secretariat
for Catholic-Jewish Relations, Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish
Moreover, Christians should respect “the continuing validity
covenant with the Jewish people and their responsive faithfulness,
despite centuries of suffering, to the divine call that is theirs.” (Bishops’ Committee
on the Liturgy, God’s Mercy Endures Forever, 31).
As Pope John Paul II puts it, Jewish and Christian believers must
come to know each other more thoroughly. We must do so, not just
because we coexist in the same place, but also because we are so
closely bound together. Christians, says the Pope, must try to know “as
exactly as possible” the distinctive beliefs, religious practices,
and spiritual life of the Jewish people.
Perhaps the most direct prohibition of the use of Yahweh is
that found in the Ecumenical Guidelines of the Ecclesiastical
Province of Chicago. This document says explicitly: “Even apart from services with the Jews,
the public use of the name of the Lord in Hebrew (YHWH) should be avoided.” While
not normative legislation for the whole United States, this is Church
law for Catholics in Illinois.
The teaching of these Church documents is supported by many scholars.
As Balthasar Fischer puts it, Psalms in the liturgy must never speak
of God as Yahweh. This
is so because “the pronunciation of this most holy Hebrew
name violates the deepest religious feelings of our Jewish brothers
and sisters.” Roy
Rosenberg points out that Yahweh is too sacred a word ever
to be used by Jews. The Jewish Orthodox, he says, do not even substitute Adonai in
ordinary speech. The editors of The Catholic Study Bible acknowledge
this practice of avoiding use of Yahweh. With understatement,
these editors say that “the modern translator and commentator
will have to make a decision on whether to try to respect this understandable
religious sensitivity.” Gail
Ramshaw says that using Yahweh “wholly disregards
the religious sensitivities of pious Jews who deem speffing and
pronouncing the divine name blasphemous.” She says that it
is “shocking that within a generation
of the Holocaust Western Christians could adopt a religious practice
with apparently no concern for its religious offense to Jews.” Gerard
Sloyan says that “‘Yahweh
is the God of my salvation’ is both offensive to the pious
Jewish ear and is scarcely recognizable” as a Psalm.
The teaching of official Church documents and the writings of scholars
are in agreement. For reasons of charity alone—love for our
Jewish friends who worship the same God—we should not use Yahweh in
Furthermore, as many authors have pointed out, the New Testament uses Kyrios and Dominus with
reference to Christ. With the use of Yahweh comes a loss of a Christian
and Christological interpretation of the term. Fischer, for one, says that such
usage destroys the bridge to any such interpretation, “a bridge which
Providence built before Christ, when the Greek Septuagint translated the Hebrew
name for God by Kyrios.” Ramshaw expresses the same judgment.
Even more important is the pastoral reception of the term Yahweh. To
many people, says Fischer, it sounds like another deity, perhaps a fourth divine
person, in addition to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. How can ordinary
Christians make the term Yahweh a natural expression of prayer, when
it is found neither in private piety nor in official liturgy? As the Roman Instruction
on the Translation of Liturgical Texts says, whatever vocabulary we select
should be in common usage, suited to the majority of the people who speak it
every day, including “children and those who are not well educated.” There
is, therefore, a serious psychological difficulty in using the term Yahweh. It
is not in common usage and may be misleading.
Another argument against use of the term Yahweh is that Christians explicitly
model their prayer on that of Christ. He is both our intercessor with the Father
and our teacher of prayer. We say the Our Father, because that is the pattern
of prayer Christ gave us. We wish to pray as he prayed, to trust in the Father
as he did, to take part in his own sentiments and thoughts as much as possible.
This is one reason why the Gospel of John includes so much prayer attributed
to Christ; that is the way we, too, should pray.
As the New Testament bears witness, Jesus Christ never used Yahweh in
his prayer, never taught his disciples to use this term, never would have conceived
of using it. In fact, Jesus Christ and his disciples would have been shocked
and scandalized by any use of Yahweh. The
term had been out of common usage for three hundred years. It was excluded from
the liturgy by the traditions that the Messiah said he had come to uphold (Matthew
5:17-19). Christians, then, should follow the example and teaching of the one
they acknowledge as their Messiah.
A final argument against the use of Yahweh in the liturgy is, in a way,
most critical. Songs used in the liturgy must harmonize with it, support it,
and be in the same spirit. Neither the current lectionaries nor sacramentaries
in the United States use the term Yahweh. Since this is so, such church
songs as “Yahweh, I Know You Are Near” are in conflict with our liturgical
books, with the idiom of our common prayer.
It is not the liturgical books that need to change; it is the texts of some of
our songs. For sound pastoral reasons, these songs must either be altered or
omitted. In days to come, perhaps the Ecumenical Guidelines of the Province
of Chicago, in this respect, will be applied to the whole country. In the meantime,
parish priests and music directors must do what is necessary.
In sum, there is no Catholic doctrine that God is to be addressed as Yahweh. On
the contrary, there is a constant tradition that God is not to be addressed as Yahweh but
as “Father,” as well as by other names. The term Yahweh is
improperly derived from scriptural sources and not at all from liturgical sources.
Therefore, by the criteria of the Second Vatican Council, this term should have
no place in our liturgy.
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