I received a note from a parish friend, Gary, this morning responding to my post about “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”. Of course, we traditionalists know Luke 2:14 as one of those verses that the Douay-Rheims and Clementine Vulgate present in a much more theologically precise manner.
Glory to God in the highest;
and on earth peace to men of good will.
Glória in altíssimis Deo,
et in terra pax homínibus bonæ voluntátis.
This is the verse, as you notice, where we get the wording for the Gloria at Mass. Well not exactly. At least not from the Clementine Vulgate. The Clementine you see altissimis is used here instead of excelsis. So when Trent said the Vulgate was the authentic version…which one were they talking about? We’ll leave that be at the moment.
It appears the King James Bible is where the author of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear took his text “peace on the Earth good will towards men”. The NAB, NIV…and frankly most new versions out there all have something to the effect that peace should go to those upon whom the favor of God rests. I find that to be quite Calvinist on its face. It is times like this I wish I knew Greek. The Latin is a little more clear to me.
So how are we to read “Men of Good Will”? We could easily take “of good will” to mean those who are of “God’s good will”. It seems, even though I cannot read Greek, that this is what the modern translators have done. And after all, if you have good will it generally means that your will is in alignment with God’s. We have to really read into the text deeply to see what these words all mean. But it is true that God’s peace and his favor do indeed rest upon those are have good will. So the modern (not the KJV) rendering is decent, though garbled. When I heard it on Christmas Eve I just rolled my eyes. But now that I have really thought about it, there is a way of looking at it that will work.
All that being said, when we hear “Good will towards men” we don’t take it to mean these things. Everyone hears: “be nice to everyone during Christmas.” That is a fine message to sing for a carol regardless of which scripture verse got mangled in order to make a lyric fit a tune. I suspect, rather I know, if we really looked at all of our hymns we would find line after line of mangled verses.
N.B. - The inclusive version of the protestant KJV rendering “peace on the earth good will to all” is in fact easier to sing because the “ooo” sound flows better to ah and keeps it in tune. “Eh” vowels are much more difficult to tune because people tend to be lazy forming their mouths to the proper shape to sing “eh”. But I guess if you are going to ruin the theology of a line it matters little in reality whether or not it is inclusive or not.