Reclaiming a Perplexing Song

Try as I might, it’s hard not to be a teacher. So, with apologies for giving way to the pedantic, I’d like to help explain a perplexing phrase used by many churches in one of the oldest praise songs still widely used today.

While some evangelicals may not know it, a large number of believers regularly sing a doxology called the Gloria Patri:

Glory be to the Father,

And to the Son,

And to the Holy Ghost.

As it was in the beginning,

Is now and ever shall be,

World without end.

Amen. Amen.

(Traditional musical setting by Cynthia Clawson)

The problem comes from the second to the last line.

World without end certainly sounds like it is describing maybe being in heaven, or, maybe, just a very long period of time on the earth (as Ken Follett uses it in his novel with the same title). Follett uses “world without end” to describe the stable world of late Medieval Europe. But, like many people, he is totally misunderstanding the phrase. This is not surprising since the traditional “world without end” translation of et in saecula saeculorum is confusing at best, and misleading at worst.

Trying to figure out the meaning by looking at the rest of the lyrics doesn’t help much. Translated literally, what the original Latin actually says would be closer to “in world of worlds.” The word secular, in fact, is based on the Latin saecula. But even the more literal translation still leaves many unclear about what the phrase means.

One important key is to think more broadly about how we use the word “world.” Someone might say, “In the world of Julius Caesar, the Roman Republic was widely corrupt.” Used that way, the word “world” is not about a place as much as it is about a time. You could say, “In the age of Julius Caesar, the Roman Republic … “

That same alternate sense is also true of the Latin word saecula. Saecula saeculorum can be translated as “age of ages.” Some might already see where this is going because they remember some of the ways that phrase is used in the New Testament. In fact, if you sang the Gloria Patri in a Greek orthodox church, you would end the song by singing, “Kα? ε?ς το?ς α??νας τ?ν α??νων.” This is exactly the same phrase found in the Greek text of Galatians 1:5; Philippians 4:20; Revelation 1:18, 4:9, 5:13, 7:12 and in many other passages. If you look and don’t see “age of ages,” that’s because it is usually translated “forever and ever.”

So, the song is actually a praise of the Triune nature of God.

Glory be to the Father,

Glory be to the Son,

Glory be to the Spirit,

Three in One.

As it was in the beginning,

It will be forever.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

(Musical setting by Karl Digerness)

The same theme is found in other songs. “Age to age He stands. And time is in His hands. Beginning and the end. The Godhead, Three in One. Father, Spirit, Son. The Lion and the Lamb.” —Chris Tomlin in “How Great is Our God”

But most contemporary praise music, just like most revival gospel songs written over the past 150 years, avoid references to the Trinity. When it comes to a complex doctrine, even one as important as the Trinity, the normal approach of most church music for the past century has been avoidance. Music is supposed to make us feel, not think. Doctrines are for preachers, not song writers. It was not always so. The ancient Gloria Patri was calling upon the church to praise the Trinity. Glory is given because of the nature of God as Father, Son and Spirit, affirming such has always been and will forever be the nature of God.  

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tomlawson@churchleaders.com'
Tom has taught in Christian higher education for 25 years, with a focus on the theology and history of Christian worship. Tom, along with his wife Linda, serves on the faculty of Ozark Christian College (Joplin, Missouri, US). Tom grew up among the Primitive Baptists of the Appalachian mountains. Through his adult life, he has served in churches and taught at schools associated with the Christian Churches (of the Stone-Campbell Movement).