Monday, June 27, 2022

Nitpicking Hymns: Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart

I will love thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower. I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies (Psalm 18:1-3).

So, I took a quick look at the first three lines of TLH 429, “Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart.” After studying the German translations of other hymns, I wasn’t surprised to find, what is to me, a significant discrepancy between the author Martin Schalling’s German text, and the altered translation from Catherine Winkworth. As in every case, the German text is much more orthodox than its English counterpart.

In the first stanza, we sing:

Lord, Thee I love with all my heart;
I pray Thee, ne’er from me depart,
with tender mercy cheer me.

This raises the question for Lutherans: Can I love the Lord with all my heart? We are certainly commanded to do so. God commands His people to love Him will all their heart, soul, strength, and mind. Jesus tells the Pharisees that this is the greatest of God's commandments. 

Just because we are commanded to do something, however, does not mean that we are able to do it. 

In our fallen state, our sinful hearts are inclined away from God, not toward him. We cannot, by our own reason or strength, believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ, or come to Him. 

For theological traditions which believe that they cooperate in their conversion and salvation, this line poses no problem. If I can decide to have faith in Christ by an act of my own free will, why wouldn’t I be able to decide to love Him with all my heart? It’s the same thing, isn’t it?

For the confessional Lutheran, however, we must take issue with this translation. There is no scriptural basis for saying that we regenerate humans, who are simultaneously sinner and saint, can love the Lord our God with our whole hearts. Indeed, we confess weekly that we have not loved Him with our whole hearts, and that we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.

Putting the best construction on the text, one could look at it as an expression of overwhelming thankfulness and joy. However, making such an expression is equivalent, as one of my pastor friends put it, to receiving a million dollars from a billionaire and then offering to buy him lunch as an expression of gratitude. 
Saying that I love the Lord with all my heart is a bit like deciding to respond to an altar call. Without the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word, you would not have been able to decide to follow Jesus, nor would you want to do so. The Holy Spirit already made you a Christian before you stood up, walked down the aisle, and said the Sinner's Prayer. You didn't decide to believe in Jesus. He chose you, even though it may look like you made a decision by an act of your will.

This issue, however, does not exist in the original language. This is what the author wrote originally:

Herzlich lieb hab' ich dich, o Herr,
Ich bitt' woll'st sein von mir nicht fern
Mit deiner Güt' und Gnaden.

Translated, this would be something like:

I love you dearly, oh Lord;
I beg you not to be far from me,
with your goodness and grace.

This is a much more orthodox, confessional Lutheran, English rendering of Schalling’s original text, though not poetic and singable.

According to the Handbook for the Lutheran Hymnal, “This hymn, a prayer to Christ, the consolation of the soul in life and death, after Psalms 18 and 73, is a treasure bequeathed to the Church from the heart of Schalling.” Indeed, the beginning of Psalm 18 sounds similar to the first stanza of the hymn:

I will love thee, oh Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower. I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies (Psalm 18:1–3).

David writes that he will love the Lord. He does not write he will love the Lord with all his heart.

One argument could be that the new man we are in Christ certainly loves the Lord with all his heart. It is the old man, whom we fight against daily, drowning him in the waters of our baptism, who doesn’t.

The idea that the new man cooperates with God, and does good works, while the old man remains is not contrary to scripture. It is affirmed in the Lutheran Confessions. All of Paul’s epistles recognize this tension between the Spirit and the Flesh, the chief passage being Romans 7. Paul continually exhorts Christians to abandon their pagan ways. He calls us to stop gratifying the flesh and its desires. He calls us to walk in the good works God has prepared for us to walk in. He calls us to walk according to the Spirit, to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit, and to turn away from the acts of the Flesh. Paul calls us to the lives of Christians, the new creations into which Christ has made us, by doing good. The good we do is not ours, nor does it save. It is a natural outgrowth of our faith in Christ and our regenerate state.

The good works which God gives us to do to benefit and serve our neighbor, as Schalling writes in stanza two of his hymn, praises God’s grace to us.

This is how David can say that he will love the Lord. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, this is how we can say we love the Lord. It may not be right, however, to say that we love the Lord with all our hearts. We can only do so properly if we project this phrase into the future. After Christ returns, and He destroys sin and death forever, and we live with Him with glorious bodies like His, in the new creation free from sin, we will indeed love him with all our hearts.

Personally, I would much prefer a more accurate poetic rendering of Schalling’s first three lines. That way, this whole issue is moot. 

In the meantime, in this fallen creation, while our new man struggles with our flesh constantly, we must be content to say by the Holy Spirit, as David did, “I will love thee, oh Lord, my strength.”

Regardless, this still remains one of my favorite hymns. ###