Oh, For a Thousand Tongues

The general synod was at evening prayer. The prayers and the scripture were in English. The question of language arose when it came time to sing. Every hymn came in four languages, one language per verse. Xhosa, Venda, Zulu, Afrikaans, English, and a few others I didn’t recognize. Once the music began, however, the language didn’t matter. The music carried us as we sang it all together, in languages of our birth, languages we’d learned, or languages we could scarcely get our mouths around.

I was attending the general synod of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa as a fraternal delegate on behalf of the Reformed Church in America. The meeting resembled countless synods I had attended before. The long rows of tables drew a shallow semi-circle around tables set on a podium behind which sat the stated clerk, moderator, recording secretaries, and other leaders. This was indeed a Reformed synod. Its schedule included Bible study; its debates included references to the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. And when delegates wrangled on matters of church order or pension policy, I could have been in Pella or Schenectady. Many of the issues sounded strangely familiar as we debated homosexuality and poverty and AIDS. It was a world I understood.

Then something would happen that made me realize I was in a different land with a people of a different language. When, for example, church unity was on the table, it wasn’t about relationships with Anglicans or Lutherans but with the white Reformed church and other churches of the Reformed family across southern Africa. When the discussion turned to confession, it took up not Heidelberg and Dort but Belhar, and addressed a confessional situation right now. When the synod discussed poverty, it focused on WARC’s recent meeting at Accra, Ghana, and the confessional claim that economics is a matter central to the faith itself.

For that matter, language itself was an issue. The official language of the synod was English, not to accommodate visitors like myself, but because English was not the first language of any delegate. It was to put everyone at equal disadvantage so as not to privilege any one group’s native tongue. The church counted thirteen languages, I was told.

I was further from home than I had ever been, but the encounter with a multitude of languages wasn’t as odd as it first appeared. The American church lives with a similar plurality. The classis where I serve in northern New Jersey counts at least five languages every Sunday morning, and some of them in different dialects. The RCA’s Synod of New York worships every Sunday morning in twelve languages.

But language is only the beginning of the story. Behind languages are cultures.


We can get things into theological terms so that it seems as though we agree. But do we? Maybe sometimes we should revert to song.


We can translate so that it appears that we are talking about the same thing. We can get things into theological terms so that it seems as though we agree. But do we? Do the conceptual varieties of one culture match up with another? And how do we know? Babel has left us in separate worlds even when we think we’re speaking the same tongue.

This situation is familiar to philosophers of hermeneutics, thinkers who ask how we can translate meaning from an old text into the present–or from one culture to the next. They wonder how a text written in one context, where words and ideas have a shared set of meanings, can find understanding in a later age. Is it possible for us to understand what the Torah means by “truth” or “love”? Is it anything like what we understand as truth or love?

The text remains the same. But those who read it–the “original” readers, and the shifting audience that reads through the centuries–hear that same text differently. That is necessarily so because what hermeneuts call the “horizon of understanding” is different. We live in worlds where even the same word shifts meaning. We work very hard to understand by “getting inside” the earlier world of the text.

Consider the confessions of Reformed churches. When our forebears in the seventeenth century talked election, did they live in a world that connects with those of us who live in the twenty-first century? As the RCA considers the Belhar confession, it is common to hear the comment that the situation in which Belhar was written is not that of North America. True enough. But the same is true of the Heidelberg Catechism; its world is also strange to ours.

The mention of Belhar brings us back to the Babel of languages in our own time. The distance in meaning does not only happen diachronically, through history; it also occurs synchronically, in the present. And not only across different languages but within the same language as well.

We hear and learn from within the contexts where we find ourselves, and these contexts differ. That can make for mutual incomprehension, even when we speak the same language in the same church. That appeared clearly to me at another general synod, the RCA’s 2005 gathering. There incomprehension emerged around the reading of one Scripture concerning the issue of homosexuality. To some extent that happened because delegates were reading the text to support positions they had already taken; we all use texts as pretexts at times. Still, even when we factor that out, everyone can only read from the lived context of their own history, the life of their culture, and so forth. The Synod resembled Britons and Americans, both speaking the same language, but hardly in the same world.

I have no key to solve this puzzle. I certainly am not claiming that anything goes. We certainly recognize that the church has had to come to decision in the midst of plurality of languages. I offer rather two suggestions, each the back side of the other.

First, Reformed folk particularly get into trouble because we are a people of the Word. And that has come to mean that we have defined ourselves by words. We are the people of confessions. We have learned to parse words and phrases so closely that we can divide on a nuance. Words are our glory–and our downfall. When it comes to the confusion of tongues, we can get hopelessly lost, even when it appears that we are in familiar territory. Secondly, when words fail, perhaps we should revert to song. Moving to words too often has meant shifting to theology, and we too easily forget that theology is second-order language: it is language about something else. The Word, after all, is first order. It is God’s address to us. The Word is God calling us to existence. And our words as first-order activity are responses to God. So that what really counts in our words is prayer or song. Thus the old rule: lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer implies the law of belief. Or, “how we pray is how we’ll say it.”

Let’s return to the URCSA’s general synod. Picture the closing service of the Lord’s Supper. African Reformed folk in an Anglican chapel. A learned Reformed sermon and lively African hymns. Communion served in tiny glass “Reformed” cups from an Episcopal altar. Countless languages in hymns from American revivalism and from the center of Africa. We could pray them and sing them. Across the cultures.

Allan Janssen is pastor of the Community Church of Glen Rock, New Jersey, and is a Contributing Editor to Perspectives.