We Believe . . . Redux

Last week I posted some notes on the translation of the Nicene Creed. So I’m leading chapel today. A service of communal intercessions. Hmmm, what  liturgical hymn to use? How about Lutheran Book of Worship 939: “You are God, we praise You. You are the Lord, we acclaim You.” Notice again the “we.” This is the old Lutheran Worship Hymn of Praise from Morning Prayer. It is simply an alternative (and more accurate) translation and setting of the Te Deum, which is used also in the Order of Matins in The Lutheran Hymnal, Lutheran Worship, Lutheran Service Book.

The Te Deum is a phenomenal text, and, if played and sung in the right setting and with gusto, creates an atmosphere of majesty that is, I think, unparalleled. This hymn goes back to the fourth century, and may have been composed by Nicetas of Remesiana (in Greek in the fourth century) but has been passed down, in Latin, as part of Matins since the sixth century. I have a beat-up old German Bible from the 1680s, printed in Nürnburg. In addition to the standard OT/Apocrypha/NT, like many Lutherbibeln it includes the “Four Ecumenical Creeds” and the Augsburg Confession. What is the “fourth” ecumenical creed? The Te Deum, of course. And, as a confession of the Church, it is confessed together: We. Us. One.

Te deum laudamus te deum confitemur . . .

And my favorite part:

Te gloriosus apostolorum chorus,

Te prophetarum laudabilis numerus,

Te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus.

Te per orbem terrarium sancta confitetur ecclesia,


You the glorious choir of the apostles,

You the praiseworthy body of prophets,

You the white-robed army of martyrs [and finally the clinching verb] praises

You the holy church on earth throughout the world confesses.

Notice the connection back to the opening line: ladaumus / “We praise” . . . confitemur / “We confess” is repeated with laudat / “apostles,” “prophets,” “martyrs praise” . . . confitetur / “church confesses.” Great stuff. You’ve got all of God’s people there: Those who spoke the Good News (apostles, prophets) which created the (one) church; the martyrs who testified with their lives to that Good News and now await the end result of that Good News, the resurrection; and those of us still on this terrestrial orb who are part of Church. We, all together, with one voice, praise and confess. There is no “I” in the Te Deum.

There are a couple other hymns based on the Te Deum scattered throughout LSB: Notice the “we” in Luther’s “We All Believe in One True God” (953, 954); notice the “we” in my personal favorite, the adaptation by Stephen Starke set to the phenomenal fourth movement of Gustav Holst The Planets (I commented on Holst’s piece last year). For the latter, though, the music and text is so awesome that it is disappointing to hear it sung by a congregation unfamiliar with the tune. So practice it with the congregation, then sing it.

Contrast this ancient emphasis on “we” confessing together (in the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Te Deum) to other hymns — let alone “contemporary praise music (I’m not out to start a fight, just making an observation). Flip through the “Praise and Adoration” section of even LSB: 809: “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided; Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!“; 801: “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder . . . Then sings my soul”; 794: “My Father who will shield And keep me day by day And make each moment yield New blessings on my way.” Not that the first person is always inappropriate, but these sound more like personal prayers than the songs of the gathered faithful. And in our Americanized, customized, individualized world, maybe we need a little less me and a little more us: “You the holy church on earth throughout the world confesses.”





6 responses to “We Believe . . . Redux”

  1. Rob Donaldson Avatar
    Rob Donaldson

    The “US” is so sweetly depicted in John’s Revelation of hope, especially by the great multitude in the final stanzas of the Te Deum (Rev. 19). Come quickly Lord Jesus so we may enjoy the wedding feast for enternity!

    1. Jeff Kloha Avatar
      Jeff Kloha

      Sure, bring up Revelation, Rob. Don’t get me started.

  2. Travis Scholl Avatar
    Travis Scholl

    I love the way the lists work in the Te Deum. As a poem, they remind me of Whitman at his best. Or maybe Whitman reminds me of the Te Deum. Either way, it is a sublime hymn of praise.

    1. Jeff Kloha Avatar
      Jeff Kloha

      Latin (and Greek) are far better for poetry than English, because the function of the word in the clause is based on the form, not the position. So “Te” in the four consecutive lines quoted above is the accusative (direct object), but in Latin that can stand first in the sentence, in this example placed first for emphasis (and, my translation into English matches somewhat the Latin structure, but is a bit nonsensical in English as a result). And, because Latin (like Greek, German, etc.) is inflected, the same terminations can be used, creating similar and even identical sounds at the ends of the lines. So “chorus” “numerus” and “exercitus”.

      One of these days I’ll post something about the Dies Irae, another incredible (albeit terrifying) liturgical piece. Though one we’ve chosen not to use any longer. The “Historic Liturgy” is constantly adding, changing, and dropping things along the way.

      One other note on this: Three adaptations of the Te Deum in Lutheran Service Book (939, 940, 941) are all placed in the “Biblical Canticles” section. Surely this is a mistake. They should have been placed in the following section, under “Liturgical Music.” Not a big issue, obviously, it is not like it really matters.

  3. Jeff Kloha Avatar
    Jeff Kloha

    I mentioned in the post that we’d be singing the Te Deum in chapel yesterday. Tuesdays are the day of the week when we include “communal prayers” in the service. At the close of the prayers, Dr. Burreson (Dean of the Chapel) has added this prayer:

    Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your most beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, these desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    It is attributed (probably spuriously) to Chrysostom, but came into English via Cranmer’s Prayer Book. It has been added to the Morning Prayer service now also in Lutheran Service Book.

    Notice, again, the first person plurals: “us,” “our,” and a phrase lifted from Acts: “with one accord” (ὁμοθυμαδὸν – Acts 1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; 15:25).

    Yesterday, since our Center for Hispanic Studies students are on campus for classes, Vicar Nelson Rodriquez also led the same prayer in Spanish. Nelson, BTW, is featured on pp.8-9 in the latest “Concordia Seminary” magazine. “With one accord,” no matter the tribe or nation or language or people.

  4. Chris Born Avatar
    Chris Born

    My favorite setting of this is Herbert Howell’s “Collegium Royale”, with the traditional text. Take a listen!

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