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Thursday, March 23, 2006 

A Modest Proposal for a New Book of Concord Translation


Today I am pleased to have a post by a guest contributor, His Eminence , A. Blaise. Enjoy!

The recent flap over the “McCain edition” of the Confessions having its doctrinal certification removed raises a number of issues that perhaps we have overlooked far too long. For my own part, I think the removal of the certification is patently ridiculous and a clear case of the increasingly nasty power politics the leaders of the Missouri Synod seem increasingly willing to play.
It seems there are three things the (anonymous) doctrinal reviewers didn’t like about McCain’s edition: 1) He makes it clear in the translation of LC 66 that no Lutheran would ever assert that Jews, Muslims, hypocritical Christians, or pagans actually believe in the one true God despite their heretical stance. It is plain from the context, Luther’s and his colleagues’ other writings, and the Latin translation of Large Cathecism 66, that this is an entirely correct and theologically responsible position to take, well supported by the facts and context of LC 66. All that is being said in LC 66 is that even those who claim to be monotheists cannot thereby be considered true believers. 2) That McCain’s edition makes it very difficult indeed to argue that the 16th century confessors would be supporters of modern “liturgical diversity”, annoys the critics who seem to wish to sweep all our current liturgical controversies under the rug of “adiaphora” with little further serious theological reflection. 3) That McCain’s edition translates the Treatise 11 “the church is more than the ministers” (an honest formal equivalent translation of the German, and the second most common meaning of the Latin supra) showing that in context the confessors are simply saying the church is not just clergy, rather than making a precise statement about ecclesiastical supervision, seems to annoy the reviewers deeply, as it (rightly) removes a favorite proof-text for certain modern notions of lay supervision of the clergy. But that an honest and scholarly responsible translation makes us uncomfortable and forces us to rethink some of the positions we’ve grown comfortable with over the last 50 years, does not seem an adequate reason to remove a book’s doctrinal certification!
No, the main reasons for revoking the McCain edition of the Concordia’s certification would seem, on the face of it, to be silly and fallacious. His edition is as good as or better than any English edition of the Book of Concord currently in print. However…
There is a legitimate concern raised in the “challenges” to the McCain edition that we should consider. It is the eclectic nature of the text employed—translating sometimes the Latin, sometimes the German. (What is unfair about this charge though is that Jacobs, Bente/Dau, Tappert, Kolb/Wengert all do the same thing! For some parts of the Confessions, they translate the German, for others, the Latin, but never with a clearly explained rationale for their choice! Furthermore, editions like Kolb/Wengert engage in serious textual mischief by trying to reconstruct the original version of the Apology and other texts, instead of going with the actual text in the 1580 Dresden edition (which is substantially different from Melanchthon’s originals).
It would seem that modern Lutheran scholars have wrong-headedly imported the standards of biblical text criticism into text criticism of the Book of Concord. Why is that bad? Well, for one thing, in biblical criticism it is beyond argument that the authoritative text is the original autograph of each biblical book. What Matthew penned and signed is the authoritative text of the Gospel of Matthew. Since we don’t have any of these original autographs, we must try to reconstruct as best we can what the autograph must have looked like.
But when it comes to the text of the Book of Concord, the “autograph” situation is different. It really doesn’t matter at all what Melanchthon originally signed off on in 1531 as the Apology to the Formula of Concord. Granted, it has a certain scholarly interest, but it really makes no difference confessionally. What exactly Luther did or didn’t include in his Small Catechism of 1529 is likewise, really beside the point. What is authoritative for the Lutheran Church is the text that was subscribed by the churches on June 25, 1580. And in fact, there is no serious issue as to what that text is—it is the German language Dresden edition of the Book of Concord, of which we have 5 extant (autographed!) copies. There are minor differences among the five, and that is a legitimate area for text critics to ply their scholarly trade.
But there can be no argument that what was signed, autographed, and subscribed as the Lutheran Confession on June 25, 1580 is a well established German text. This is what needs to be translated, for this alone is the real Book of Concord. What Tappert, Kolb/Wengert and even McCain’s edition offer is, in too many places, just the early source material for the Book of Concord, rather than the thing itself. And that is simply no longer adequate. Unreflectively importing theories of biblical text criticism into our establishment of a text for the Book of Concord has worked much mischief and it is time to be clear that the only autograph that matters is the German text signed June 25, 1580!
As far as the authority of the 1584 Leipzig edition (the official Latin translation of the Concordia) confusion seems to reign here as well. The translation was made official only because so many people were doing their own private Latin translations and it was getting confusing. The Latin edition was made official simply to standardize a single Latin edition, not to authorize it as equal to the German (the Leipzig edition differs from the Dresden in this important respect—it has no page of signatories—no “autographs” because it was never subscribed as our Confession). 20th century scholars made much of the fact that the Latin text is often cited by 16th and 17th century scholars. But this is not proof that the old Lutherans therefore preferred the Leipzig edition over the Dresden, or saw its authority as equal to the German, but simply shows that Latin was still the language of theological scholarship back then. Since Latin is no longer the language in which even our professional Lutheran scholars do their work, it would seem the day is long past that the Latin translation should be used for any purpose other than as a scholarly resource that demonstrates how the official 16th century translators construed the authoritative German text.
So my modest proposal is this: how about translating the best text of the 1580 Dresden German edition of the Book of Concord in a careful, scholarly, formal equivalent (literal) fashion, employing standard 21st century English? Since most of our pastors (and even a number of our scholars) are no longer comfortable with medieval German, it seems vital that we have a scrupulously accurate translation of the text that was actually subscribed as the Book of Concord, not some fair approximation of that text.
One could argue that, as late as the 1950’s, this was not a big deal, as most pastors of the LCMS could still read the original 1580 German text quite easily. The English translations of the time, Bente/Dau, and Tappert were scholarly luxuries and could afford to pursue other interests than simply presenting the authoritative text of the Book of Concord of 1580. But today, we do not have that luxury any longer, as few pastors, and not even all our theological scholars, can use the German original anymore. A reliable translation of the real Book of Concord is an urgent need among us!
We have professors at our two Concordia seminaries who are well versed in medieval German, able to write good, modern English, and possessed of the theological acumen necessary to produce a good translation of our Confession. Let’s have them get to it! What could be more important for a church that claims to be a confessional church than to have a solid and reliable vernacular text of her Confession for her pastors, scholars, and laypeople to use as the norm of our Synod’s preaching, teaching, and practice? Maybe only a text of the Holy Scriptures that is similarly translated, but that’s another article for another time!
While the translators of the Dresden text are at it, they should take care to translate the entire book of Concord—something not a single English language edition has ever done! Every English translation extant has failed to translate huge sections of the Concordia—the biblical quotations, instead, taking the easy way of just inserting their favorite bible translation instead of treating the biblical quotations as part of the text of the Concordia. But since the German Bible they used in the Concordia is different in important ways from the KJV, RSV, NKJV, or ESV, and since the Concordia is nothing but an exposition of a vast array of biblical texts, translating precisely the version of the text actually being cited is crucial to clarity, understanding, and theological integrity. So let’s refuse any and all shortcuts!
Finally, I know many will claim “We’ve got Kolb/Wengert and McCain! Surely the market for new editions of the Book of Concord is glutted!” But marketing and sales should not enter into this question. Our only concern should be fidelity to the true Faith, rightly confessed by the Book of Concord of 1580. Questions of money, marketing, and sales should take a back seat, here at least, to questions of theological and confessional integrity…

I'm happy to tell you that this post won an Aardie. Congratulations on a job well done, Frank.

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