Calvinistic Corruptions

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First Edition King James Bible (1604)

Two Anglican publications have had a profound effect on the worship of nearly all English-speaking Lutherans: The King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). Nearly every reading, intervenient chant, and collect used in our liturgy today has come to us through one of these sources. The Encyclopaedia Britannica speaks truly when it says that “the Book of Common Prayer has influenced or enriched the liturgical language of most English-speaking Protestant churches.”

Influenced or enriched? These are not quite the same thing. Without doubt our liturgical language has been enriched by the lyrical beauty of the KJV, especially those portions drawn from the Psalms. But what of the historic prayers that we borrowed directly from the BCP? Did these enrich us, or have they “influenced” us in a way that is decidedly un-Lutheran? To answer that question, a brief history of the BCP is in order.

Early Edition of the Book of Common Prayer

The first edition of the BCP, published in 1549 under the supervision of Thomas Cranmer, had a distinctly Lutheran influence. Cranmer, himself a moderate, followed the conservative principle of the German reformers in attempting to retain what was good and salutary from the Church’s tradition. Cranmer’s translations of the historic Latin collects are also extraordinarily beautiful, demonstrating his mastery of the English language.

But a series of revisions to the BCP from 1552 to 1662 radically altered its contents in accord with Calvinist theology. The comfort of the pure Gospel was overshadowed by a new emphasis on Puritanical legalism. These alterations in the Anglican world had little effect on Lutherans, who were busy doing Lutheran things (or maybe being Pietists) in Germany and Scandinavia. But this changed after Lutherans came to the United States and then switched, almost overnight, to worshipping in English.

Did we do what the Reformers had done and carefully translate the the historic Propers from the original languages into the local tongue? There was no time for that. Our people needed an English hymnal now—goodness, they were already singing Methodist hymns. Thankfully, the Anglicans had a masterful English translation of the Bible. They also had Calvinist-approved renditions of the historic collects. Well, beggars can’t be choosers. We borrowed both.

The Lutheran Hymnal (1941)

Now, to be fair, though the volunteers for The Lutheran Missal have sorted through 70,000 Latin prayers of Western Christendom, we haven’t yet compared every historic collect with the Anglican renderings that made their way, generally word for word, into our worship via The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH, 1941). Nor have we looked closely at Lutheran Service Book’s (LSB, 2006) alterations of these collects. Perhaps the yeast of Calvinism did not work its way through the whole loaf. In fact, at this present time, I have only fully traced the history of one collect, selected at random from the Sundays after Trinity. But let us consider the story this one collect tells.

Collect for Trinity 10: Augsburg 1510

Cranmer’s translation of the historic Latin collect for Trinity 10 is both faithful and beautiful:

“God, which declarest thy almighty power, most chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Give unto us abundantly thy grace, that we, running to thy promises, may be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Collect for Trinity 10: Book of Common Prayer, 1549

This decidedly Lutheran, nay, Evangelical Catholic collect appeared as written above in the first several editions of the BCP. Unfortunately, some years later, while most of the Puritans were busy removing the head from King Charles I, others were removing the Gospel from this collect. In the 1662 printing of the BCP, it reads thus:

O God, who declares thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord…

(emphasis mine)
Book of Common Prayer, 1662

Massey H. Shepherd, twentieth-century Episcopal priest and liturgical scholar, remarks unfavorably on the revision:

In translating this Gelasian [c. 750 AD] Collect the 1662 revisers made changes that altered the sense. The ending originally read: ‘that we running to thy promises, may be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure.’ The alteration gives the Collect a legalistic overtone, making salvation a future reward for obedience rather than the present possession of a free gift; God’s gift of mercy becomes a well-earned prize, not an immediate proffer. The revision also distorts the striking metaphor of the original Latin—the picture of men running in haste to receive what is freely offered them. We should also not miss the illuminating statement of the preamble, namely, that the almighty power of God is shown chiefly, not in His lordship and sovereign providence over creation, but in His redemptive love and mercy…”

The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, 1950

At least one Episcopalian (since deceased) recognized what the Lutherans missed with the printing of TLH. To their credit, the editors of LSB also seemed to have noticed that something was amiss. They removed the most offensive clause from the collect, but sadly, did not restore the original metaphor of men running to the offered means of grace.

O God, You declare Your almighty power above all in showing mercy and pity. Mercifully grant us such a measure of Your grace that we may obtain Your gracious promises and be made partakers of Your heavenly treasures; through Jesus Christ…

Lutheran Service Book, 2006

We can hardly fault LSB for this shortcoming, its editors not having at their fingertips, as we now do, the recorded prayers of the greater part of Western Christendom.

As the editors of The Lutheran Missal work through the historic collects, we will most certainly pay close attention to Cranmer’s original translations as found in the first edition of the BCP, comparing these to the original Latin and the German translations of the Reformers. It is our hope that we can cleanse the historic collects from the remaining vestiges of Calvinistic corruption while restoring some of the lost beauty of the originals. And perhaps we will discover, as the rich confession of the Gospel in the Trinity 10 collect suggests, that the ancient church fathers who penned these treasures may have been Evangelical Catholics all along.

Reminder: If you haven’t done so already, please consider enrolling as a field tester for the lectionary.

One thought on “Calvinistic Corruptions

  1. Thank all of you who are working on this great project, on behalf of all of us who neither have the ability, or the means to look into much less understand and analyze all this ancient data for the purpose of keeping our liturgy as true as it can be to the early church, and the Lutheran reformation.

    I pray that this great work is widely received, utilized and appreciated.

    Rev. Dan Vines Calvary Lutheran Church Aberdeen, Washington



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