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Use of Yahweh in
Church Songs

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.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
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 Relations, 10). Moreover, Christians should respect “the continuing validity of God’s 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. Yahweh Symbol

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 the liturgy. 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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Phone: (708) 331-5485   Fax: (708) 331-5484
E-mail: [email protected]