Ask Aquinas: Why don’t we hear ‘Yahweh’ in church anymore?

For several decades (starting during my own early childhood), some Catholic hymnals contained a few hymns that used the Divine Name Yahweh (e.g., “Yahweh, I Know You Are Near,” by Dan Schutte of the St. Louis Jesuits, 1970 — a graduate of the same Milwaukee Jesuit high school from which I later graduated, whose music had therefore become very common during Masses there by the time of my own attendance).

In 2008, by a directive of Pope Benedict XVI, the Congregation of Divine Worship instructed Catholic bishops that all liturgical use of this Name, including in vernacular hymns, was to cease. Why?

In the original Hebrew text of Exodus 3, God, speaking from the burning bush, reveals to Moses that his Name is the four-letter ’HYH (the ’ is the letter aleph), meaning approximately “I Am” (v. 14), and then proceeds to equate this Name with the somewhat similar and possibly related YHWH (v. 15), typically written in English as “Yahweh” (the Hebrew alphabet doesn’t actually include vowels like “a” and “e”). The Name YHWH is accordingly found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

Very likely by the end of the Old Testament era, the Jewish people had stopped pronouncing the Name YHWH while reading the Scriptures. This was probably for a couple of related reasons.

First, the Name itself is considered to share in God’s own holiness. Second, and partly following from this first reason, God has commanded us not to take his Name in vain, and a way to avoid accidentally transgressing this commandment is by refraining from pronouncing it at all. Instead of pronouncing YHWH out loud, Jews adopted the practice of substituting the word ’DNY (“Adonai”), meaning approximately “Lord.”

As evidence for the development of this practice, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was prepared beginning in the 3rd century B.C., known as the Septuagint, substitutes the Greek word kurios, “Lord,” for YHWH in Exodus 3:15 and most other places (occasionally theos, “God,” is used instead).

The Septuagint translation is still used by Greek Orthodox Christians. Subsequent translations by Christians into other languages frequently followed the example it set. St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation uses Dominus, “Lord,” as does the most recent update of the Vulgate (1986) found on the Holy See’s web site.

Martin Luther’s German translation uses Herr, “Lord,” as does the latest update of the Catholic “Unity Translation” (2016) used by all dioceses in German-speaking countries. The English Catholic Douai Old Testament (1609) uses “Lord,” as do the King James Bible (1611) and its most recent successor the Modern English Version (2014), as does the related Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (1966; 2nd edition 2006), as does the New American Bible Old Testament in Catholic liturgical use throughout in the United States since 1970.

The Church’s adoption of and constant adherence to this custom not only respects pious and valid Jewish sensibilities (as is fitting; the Jewish people are, as St. John Paul II said, “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham”) but is also in accord with our own understanding of Scripture.

St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Jesus Christ is Lord (kurios).” It is especially because, over two centuries before the time of Christ and St. Paul, kurios (and before it ’DNY) had become the Name for God, that we know that Paul is teaching that Jesus Christ is (together with the Father and also the Holy Spirit) the same one, true God who makes himself known in the Old Testament.

This essential point about Christ was reiterated by early Church Fathers in response to various heresies. When we ourselves refer to Christ using the biblical Name “Lord,” we are, together with 2,000 years of Christians, receiving and professing and handing on this key biblical and Christian teaching. Joining both Jews and Christians in substituting “Lord” for “Yahweh” when reading – or paraphrasing, as in prayers and hymns — Old Testament texts — so recognizing “Lord” as the equally valid Old Testament Name for God — is a key element of our profession of this faith in Christ and even more basically in the Trinity.

The question, then, is not so much, “Why should we not say ‘Yahweh’?” as “Why should we say ‘Lord’ (instead)?” We should say “Lord” because it is both the Old Testament and the New Testament Name for the One who has fully revealed himself to us as the eternal Triune God: Father, Son who is incarnate for us as Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit.

– Dr. Kevin Miller

1 Comment

  1. Another scripturally bogus St. Louis Jesuit hymn that should be avoided is “City of God.”

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