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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

12 May 2008

Reverend Lord, Reverend Pastor

Awesome, Honored, Cool, or Terrifying?

Q: Hello, pastor. I am from Malaysia. Why do pastors call themselves “Reverend” when it is clearly stated of God that “holy and reverend is his name (Psalm 111:9 KJV)”? Thank you.

A: Good day, dear friend in Christ. After I’ve been involved for more than a decade in this column, yours is, as far as I know, the first question or comment to come from your land.

Before getting into the Biblical dimension of your question, we should touch on a bit of grammar. Remember that “reverend” is an adjective; that is, a word describing someone or something. It isn’t intended to be a title, although current English usage normally does just this. If we use it correctly in connection with a person, we would speak of “the Reverend So-and-So” rather than directly addressing the person as “Reverend So-and-So.”

Marc Chagall: Moses and the Burning BushI obviously think that it’s foolish to compare any pastor with this “reverend” God. However, we need to examine the translation you use. In English, “reverend” changed in meaning since the translation of the King James Version of the Bible, which you cite in your question. Its Hebrew root is the verb yara, meaning “to be afraid.” Another form appears in the next verse, where the KJV, the ESV, and most other Bibles say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Fear — both awe and terror — formed the basic understanding of reverence in 17th Century English. In the years that followed, it lost such a strong connotation and moved toward our present understanding of “honored” or “highly respected.”

Most newer translations use a word other than “reverend” coupled with “holy” in verse nine. Recently, most seem to favor “awesome.” The Revised Standard Version gets closer to the root meaning: “Holy and terrible is his name!” This follows Jerome’s rendering in the Vulgate, Christianity’s first great Latin Bible. Due to numbering differences, we read Psalm 110:9, which says, “Sanctum et terribile nomen ejus.” A direct, literal translation into English would be “holy and terrible (or terrifying) His name is.”

I prefer “terrible” because “awesome,” like “reverend” before it, has lost its most fearful connotations. Most people use “awesome” and “cool” as synonyms — and “cool” is a weak word to describe Yahweh Elohim, the Lord God who “created the heavens and the earth, (Genesis 1:1)” who generated “thunders and lightnings (Exodus 19:16)” atop Sinai, before whom “the mountains melt like wax. (Psalm 97:5)”

Pastoral InstallationAgain, compare any pastor with this “reverend” God: None of us is “holy and terrifying” — unless terror is strictly an emotional response to our occasional sinful behavior. However, with “reverend” commonly understood as “honored” or “respected,” I don’t mind being called “the Reverend Pastor Walter Snyder,” as long as the respect is not nearly so much for me as a person as it is for this office instituted by Christ Jesus to preach His Gospel and administer His sacraments to bring salvation to His people.

Finally, in a bit of a personal editorial comment, consider the Ray Boltz song Our God Is an Awesome God. It gets clobbered by many liturgically-minded Christians as one of the major mistakes of “Contemporary Christian Music.” While I am not particularly fond of it, Boltz still captures a more Biblical understanding of awesomeness than do many others. The song refers to the Creation, God banishing Adam and Eve from Eden, Christ’s shedding of blood for our sins and His return in judgment, “judgment and wrath” over Sodom but “mercy and grace” at the cross, and God’s eternal reign in “wisdom, pow’r, and love.”

For a bit more, you can read an earlier column, Addressing the Clergy.

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Send email to Ask the Pastor.

Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Newspaper column #536


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