Doctrinal Precision and “Come, Thou Savior of Our Race”

One of the blogs I frequent highlighted this poem by Ambrose of Milan (originally written in Latin as Veni Redemptor Gentium) as a Christmas meditation worthy of reflection. From what I can gather, this particular version was translated into German by Martin Luther, then translated from German into English by Lutheran W. M. Reynolds. Several other versions are available (1, 2, 3). This version effectively pointed me Christ-ward, and I’m glad it was posted. However, upon reading it a second and third time, two lines struck me as being less than orthodox. Can you find the lines that concerned me? Could you sing them?

Come, Thou Savior of our race,
Choicest Gift of heav’nly grace!
O Thou blessèd virgin’s Son,
Be Thy race on earth begun,
Be Thy race on earth begun.

Not of mortal blood or birth,
He descends from Heaven to earth;
By the Holy Ghost conceived,
God and man by us believed,
God and man by us believed.

Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
Of the virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
Still to be in Heaven enthroned,
Still to be in Heaven enthroned

From the Father forth He came,
And returneth to the same;
Captive leading death and hell—
High the song of triumph swell,
High the song of triumph swell!

Equal to the Father now,
Though to dust Thou once didst bow,
Boundless shall Thy kingdom be;
When shall we its glories see,
When shall we its glories see?

(Note: I found two different versions ascribed to Reynolds, so I’m not certain which he wrote).

(Disclaimer: I make no claim to speak with authority on matters of church history, hymnology or Latin. In other words, I’m a hack, dealing only with this translation of a translation. Anyone able to shed more light on this hymn is encouraged to do so.)


4 Responses

  1. Hi Chris

    Not of mortal blood or birth…

    So… no human nature, except by our faith?

    Equal to the Father now…

    Only now? Not always?

    I suppose one has to make some allowance for the limits of poetic expression, but these seem a little too much.

    As to whether I could sing them, the question presupposes that what I do is singing.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. Those are the ones. The problem may be with the translation and not the original, but I think both are pretty bad.

    I heard a more contemporary song years ago that said “He laid aside His deity to become humanity.” That’s the opposite problem of this hymn, but no less heretical.

  3. Methinks you got a poor translation from the original. Several lines in your translation puzzled me, especially given that, as I understand it, Ambrose was known for his Trinitarian position and his vigilance against Arianism. Anyway, I found what I think is probably a much better (and much more beautiful) translation of this hymn. This page (see link below) shows both the Latin and its English translation (by J.M. Neale, not Reynolds). It is interesting to me that the problems I note below with your version do not appear in this different translation.

    I am currently studying Latin with our kids, but I am not yet sufficiently well-versed to state authoritatively which English translation best reflects the original Latin. This exercise does remind me, though, of the great contribution that Catherine Winkworth made to our hymnody by her magnificent translations of many ancient hymns into English.

    Now, to answer your question, working backward through your translation of this hymn–I would not want to sing “Equal to the Father now,” certainly not without further explanation of exactly what I was and was not saying. It’s too easy for the phrase to be understood as “He was not, but is now equal,” which, of course, is heresy.

    “Not of mortal blood or birth, He descends from Heaven to earth” also concerns me. Without further explanation or amplification, it appears to deny the hypostatic union of Christ. He WAS of mortal blood and birth, but He was not ONLY of mortal blood and birth. He was both fully God and fully man, a truth vital to the Gospel.

    Finally, “Be Thy race on earth begun” concerns me. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone makes us children of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. Does it make of us Christ’s “race”??? (Am I missing something?)

    Oops, I see that you noted two problematic lines and I have raised three. . . . Oh, well. :)

  4. Lyn, your third didn’t strike me as particularly problematic, in that we are repeatedly described as being “born of God,” children of God vs. children of the devil, etc. But yes, the other two are bad.

    It’s interesting to me how differently one work can be translated. I know it’s largely due to the desire for artistry in the target language, but it’s still a pretty inexact process, it seems.

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