For Those in the Back, Edification Does Not Require Intelligibility: A Story

Mark Ward is fond of leveraging I Corinthians 14 in the text and translation debate. Unfortunately he completely overlooks the fact that Paul clearly has in mind those languages foreign to the hearer. As such Ward has removed Paul from the immediate context in order to critique the use of a version of modern English in comparison to another version of modern English. After Ward runs roughshod over this fact he then proclaims the eminently tweetable bumper-sticker phrase, “Edification requires intelligibility.”

In sum, Ward daftly compounds eisegesis with shallow theological rhetoric and we have dealt with such daftery here and here. And as the Lord would have it such an occasion has arisen again to address the failure of Ward’s theology on this point.

When my family meets around the table for a meal we pray before we eat. On most occasions after the supper prayer we also offer a song of praise to the Lord. The song is usually The Lord is Good to Me or Thank You Lord.

Our ninth child will be 3 years old tomorrow. She talks as only a 3 year old can and she cannot yet read, but she sings with us. She sings the syllables she knows but has yet to sing the whole song word perfect. I am quite sure she does not know what she is singing when she sings:

O The Lord is good to me
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need
The sun and the rain and the apple seed
The Lord is good to me
Amen Amen Amen Amen Amen.

The question is, “Is my daughter edified by the singing of a song she does not understand?”

Then this last Sunday morning we were in Church singing from the Psalmody a song that none of the family knew but much of the Church did, and so my 3 year old daughter sang how she knew even though she could not read the words of the Psalmody nor did she understand them.

Again, was my daughter edified by the singing of a song she does not understand?

I think the answer must be yes and on multiple accounts. Take the instance I spoke of at home. My daughter is participating in family worship with the family around a family meal with her voice in concert with others at the appointed time. She is doing so with exuberance and is shown appreciation for her efforts. She is singing without fear of what others think of her and she is singing out. She is not being made to sing, thus her singing is a willful choice on her part.

If most of the American Christian church had the heart of my 3 year old daughter when it comes to singing praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, the Church would be in a better place on all accounts. My daughter serves as an encouragement and indictment on all those who know to sing, understand what to sing, and understand what they are singing. In fact, it is often those who understand who also seem to lack the ability to be edified by what they sing in the hymn book. Many who find the song intelligible don’t sing at all and neither edify nor are they edified. My daughter on the other hand, does not understand what she is singing and yet she is being edified, albeit in a very simple way, by the very act of making a joyful noise.

What is more, others are edified when they hear a young child so spontaneously and willfully participate in corporate worship. After the service was over a woman about our age turned around to encourage my daughter for her singing. Did she understand the woman? Probably not. Was my daughter edified by the woman’s smiling face and encouraging tone? Probably.

In sum, Ward’s insistence that edification requires intelligibility is simply false. Perhaps it is better to say that edification improves as intelligibility improves but that doesn’t have the same tweet-ability and it’s too long for a bumper-sticker. To go a step further down this rabbit hole, perhaps Ward might be more accurate [and more frightening in our overly intellectualized world] to say that edification requires only affection. The intellect need not apply.

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