Recent efforts by some to re-translate liturgical texts have ignited discussions about how best to express the unchanging teachings of Orthodoxy in language that is comprehensible to modern people, which is a good thing. (See John Fotopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou’s article here.) The practice of the Church has always been to adopt local language and custom wherever possible to make the Gospel available to people. That is why Cyril and Methodius undertook their work of translating Scripture and liturgy from Greek into Slavonic. That is why the apostles and early fathers struggled to express Aramaic and Hebrew ideas in Greek. That is the miracle of Pentecost: everyone can say, “We hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). Every time someone understands the Divine Liturgy in their own language, the miracle of Pentecost happens again.
It is imperative that we live up to that ongoing miracle and the radical welcome of all people it implies. In “Wrestling with the Word” (Worship, September 1992), Nathan Mitchell writes, “Both Word and [liturgical] assembly are by their very nature inclusive, open to all regardless of gender, race, age, ability, social status, or moral stature.” Furthermore, “the liturgical word is an act of rebellion against every human category…that constricts our vision of what belongs to God.” Verbal language of liturgical celebration—like the visual language of iconography—enables all mankind to participate in the life of God.
Some have taken to rephrasing the Nicene Creed to read “Who, for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven….” But that leaves unanswered: Us who? Us Americans? Us Orthodox? Us Chalcedonians? Us Christians? Us Caucasians? Us moral people? Us well-to-do people? Us….? Who? That’s the reason the text specifies “for us men and for our salvation.”
Many of us have forgotten that the term woman itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon wife-man, meaning a human person capable of being a wife. Man is the default for human in English. “God created man in his own image…male and female created He them” (Genesis 1:27).
But some say the term man is not customarily used any more when referring to humanity, and that its use to mean more than males is archaic. Folk or folks is a wonderfully gender-neutral Anglo-Saxon word; kinfolk and trans-folk and Hi, folks are all in acceptable contemporary usage, but might strike some as informal.
Criticizing the use of man to mean the human race or human person ignores current usage in which guys (as in Hey, guys!) functions as people; the word is used to address groups including both men and women as well as groups consisting only of either women or men. (I have heard women address a group consisting only of other women with Hey, guys! or C’mon, guys!) But using men in the Creed is more elegant than saying “for us folks [or guys] and for our salvation.”
Some assert that the Greek anthropos (ἄνθρωπος), used in the Creed and elsewhere, is the generic for mankind and that man is inadequate to translate such a gender-neutral term. But anthropos itself is used on occasion to mean male, as when Cato writes, “All other men rule their wives; we rule all other men, and our wives rule us.”
There are several places in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament where anthropos is used to mean both male person as well as mankind, such as, “Then you shall bring out that anthropos or that woman, and you shall stone them with stones” (Deuteronomy 17:5).
It is also used to mean male person in the New Testament: “Therefore shall an anthropos leave his father and mother, and hold fast to his wife” (Matthew 19:5); “If such is the case of an anthropos with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10 ); and, “It is good for an anthropos not to touch a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1). All use anthropos to clearly refer to adult males.
No one wants to use slang in the liturgy. The liturgy, by definition, is archaic. Why else do we still use “Our Father, Who art in heaven… forgive us our trespasses…” etc.? Why else do we have processions with bishops dressed as Byzantine civil authorities? Why else do we expect priests to dress as well-to-do gentlemen of the late Roman Empire? Why else do we use older versions of prayers and services during Great Lent and Holy Week?
In a similar way, some have begun to expand the common liturgical exclamation to include spiritual ancestors of both genders: “Through the prayers of our holy fathers [and mothers], have mercy on us!” Most languages that use fathers in this way—i.e., ancestors, as opposed to a group of the local male parents—understand it as a generic term, much as parents is a generic term. But to expand the phrase to read “fathers and mothers,” or to expand the common opening of Epistle readings from “Brethren” to include “Brothers and Sisters,” is an inoffensive, grammatically correct—and appropriately archaic!—way to make explicit what is already there in the language.
As the liturgical scholar Father Aidan Kavanaugh wrote, “No ritual system in the world…has ever couched its language in a merely accurate vernacular…. To do so is to trivialize—not secularize—but trivialize—the object of worship and, in doing so, to patronize in the most condescending way the illiterate and the uneducated.” Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) points out “that the Greek used in canons and hymns…was never a contemporary or spoken language. [They] wrote in a liturgical style that was consciously ‘artificial,’ even though it was never intentionally obscure or unintelligible.” (I highly recommend those interested consult the November 1978 issue of Worship, which was dedicated entirely to questions of translation.)
The question of translation is fraught with many issues. Embracing linguistic fads, no matter how well intentioned, only exacerbates issues rather than resolve them.
Stephen Morris is an independent scholar of Byzantine church history and has degrees in medieval history, theology, and education from Yale University, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and Hunter CUNY. His “When Brothers Dwell in Unity”: Byzantine Christianity and Homosexuality was published last year. He is also a novelist, and has served as the Orthodox chaplain at Columbia University.