Sunday, 21 May 2017

Hillsongs Creed song - subtle difference between English and French accidentally reflecting an ancient move

It's been a while since I posted about a worship song - but as a former worship leader and a thinker on the prominent role that worship has on shaping our theology, it is still very dear to my heart.

This morning at church I was introduced to a powerful 2014 Hillsongs song of "Oui je crois (le Crédo)", which quite powerfully resonated for me as someone passionate about the Trinity. Here is the official French video of that song along with the French words. In a minute we will, of course, have a look at the original version in English and reflect again how the Triune Hub model can marshal reconciliation with older Christianity.

Notre Père Éternel, 
Toi qui a tout créé, 
Dieu Tout-Puissant. 
C'est par ton Saint-Esprit, 
Que Jésus fut conçu, 
Christ Notre Sauveur.

Oui je crois en Dieu notre Père,
Oui je crois en Christ son Fils,
Oui je crois en ton Saint-Esprit,
O Trinité divine.
Oui je crois à la résurrection,
Que nous vivrons à jamais, 
Car oui je crois,dans le Nom de Jésus.

Notre Juge et Défenseur,
Tu souffris à la croix,
Le pardon est en Toi.
Descendu jusqu'aux ténèbres,
Tu es ressuscité, 
A jamais élevé.

Oui je crois en Lui 
Oui je crois qu'il est Vivant
Oui je crois, que Jésus est Seigneur.(x2)

Oui je crois à la vie éternelle,
Je crois que d'une vierge il est né,
Je crois à la communion des saints,
Et en ta sainte Eglise. 
Oui je crois à la résurrection,
Quand Jésus reviendra,
Car oui je crois dans le Nom de Jésus.

A quick word about the visuals first. I really like the French video - I like its urban setting, which speaks of relevance to a 21st-century audience. That is important. By attempting a song of ancient Christian truth it is necessary to bind it through to the present, and the visuals play an important role in assisting this.

The French is led by a male singer without choral backing - I'm not so fussed about this point. Part of me likes the impacting clarity of a single voice, while another part appreciates the classic Hillsongs sound which includes the choral backing, even if it gets a bit "samy" to my ears.

Here now then is the English video and lyrics:

Our Father everlasting
The all creating One
God Almighty

Through Your Holy Spirit
Conceiving Christ the Son
Jesus our Savior

I believe in God our Father
I believe in Christ the Son
I believe in the Holy Spirit
Our God is three in one
I believe in the resurrection
That we will rise again
For I believe in the Name of Jesus

Our Judge and our Defender
Suffered and crucified
Forgiveness is in You

Descended into darkness
You rose in glorious life
Forever seated high

I believe in You
I believe You rose again
I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord

I believe in life eternal
I believe in the virgin birth
I believe in the saints' communion
And in Your holy Church
I believe in the resurrection
When Jesus comes again
For I believe in the Name of Jesus

Whereas before I felt quite critical of any song that for me "missed the mark" with respect to the Trinity - especially if I felt the song encouraged Father-Son blurring - I feel more these days a sense that this is a tough challenge to take on as a songwriter. I think one of my main issues is that songs that people label as "Trinitarian" aren't really trinitarian. What people mean by this most-holy of labels is that there is a line in the song that speaks some form of Trinitarian truth that sounds deep and historical to them, often without any deeper trinitarian structure to the song. My feeling is that this song is a bit like this. It's a lot better than Chris Tomlin's song I looked at in November 2015 here, but it too runs the risk of associating the Trinity with Christ, although more through its general direction than the blatant wording of Tomlin. To the song's defense, the song itself does not claim to be a song about the Trinity - it's aim is to reflect ancient (probably a mixture of second to fourth century) creeds in a contemporary style. A creed, of course, attempts the impossible, by summarising the entirety of the faith in a few short phrases, and it is true that the creeds focussed a lot on Christ, and at some points had very little to say about the Holy Spirit (see the Council of Nicaea in 325, for instance).

OK time to point out an important difference introduced by the French translator, whom I am certain had no intention of introducing the nuance I am going to bring out here. In English, we have a direct affirmation of the Triune God: Our God is three in one. No attempt is made to clarify here of course - as I said these are short, ultradense statements that were carefully defined and rigourously debated for centuries. The way it was worked out was to build an understanding of God around the stuff he was made (although he was never made, of course). Once God had stuff, and the first introducer of the Latin word trinitas, Tertullian, was most clear on that point, it became easier to have three in one. The stuff was called "godhead" and was shared between the Father, Son and Spirit in perfectly equal measure and then at some point - probably in the early 400s, I'm still trying to find out quite when - it lost the necessity of "head", thus returning the stuff to the one called "God".

Unfortunately, although this reflects a very old form of Christianity dating back 1600 years - it does not reflect how the earliest Christians understood their Trinity. Thus it is most interesting (to me at least, as a franco-English worshipper!) to see that the French translators have unwittingly bridged that historical evolution (or "mutation") undergone by the early church. The French version states:
Oui je crois en Dieu notre Père,
Oui je crois en Christ son Fils,
Oui je crois en ton Saint-Esprit,
O Trinité divine.

Note only the Father is called God (Dieu), although all three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit receive perfectly equal prominence. Finally, note also that these three are not called "Our God three in one", but simply "O Trinité divine" (Oh divine Trinity!)

This subtle difference is a perfect example to my mind of how we can see the hermeneutical circle functioning in the earliest centuries of the church. Every generation of the Christian faith has to establish what the texts mean to their day and age through the lenses provided them by their forefathers. The task comprises meaningful application but also meaningful safeguarding.

What we are trying to put out there on this blog via the Triune Hub model is that the Triune God, although absent strictly speaking from Christian Scripture is an interpretative move that was both meaningful and necessary according to the Greek philosophical frameworks undergirding the Hellenised church's thought process. This church knew that there had already been very early distillation of the Christian faith around a radically-reshaped core, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (see Didache, Matthew 28, 2 Corinthians 13, etc.). Prior to that radical reshaping, the strictly monotheistic Jews reserved this core for only One: Yahweh. Yahweh alone. The parts of Isaiah that are generally agreed to have been written from a context of Babylonian exile are if anything more monotheistic than previous Israelite writings, and Hurtado claims that this tendency to monotheism just got stricter and stricter as Judaism progressed through to the Roman era in which Christianity was born out of its Jewish beginnings. To cut a long story short, this "successful" mutation of the core of Jewish faith won out over other early forms of Christianity (deemed heretical) and required naming. However, in the image of the New Testament writers, "God", that is the "ho theos" of the New Testament and the Greek Septuagint, was one of the three, synonymous with "the Father" (or even "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ", e.g. Romans 15:6). But centrality is accorded to all three, and it is in interaction with Father, Son and Spirit that the church's faith, vocation and hope crystallised and was put into practice. In the fourth century, perhaps with a few exceptions, the battleground had moved away from those early threats which blatantly denied such threefold centricity (e.g. gnosticism, docetism, ...) to a more subtle threat: creating a hierarchy between the blessed Three.

And that is what some Christian history books downplay. Written from a perspective of victorious orthodox belief it can be considered that the fourth-century threat that wanted to keep Jesus' statement of the Father is greater than I a literal one, was totally committed to upholding and preserving the Trinity! The problem with that interpretation of a hierarchy meant by implication (this is the premise of the Triune Hub model) that One member, namely the Father, would be more central thus upsetting the careful balance maintained since the beginning. That couldn't and wouldn't do.

So, back to the Hillsongs song (can anyone else out there be making these kind of connections?!), I believe we have encapsulated here as we move (back) from French to English a nice summary of how the church worked out and safeguarded its understanding of its all-new threefold core, a.k.a. "The Trinity".

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