By Steven Norris

     As an undergraduate trombone major, I learned of the Moravians through their affinity for my chosen instrument. When graduate studies led me to a school that neighbored the Moravian community of Old Salem, I would learn that they revered the trombone for what they perceived to be its spiritual significance.

     Martin Luther (and others) translated the Christian scriptures into German in 1534 as part of his larger reform movement. His desire was that everyone be able to read and apply the scripture for themselves rather than relying on clergy to interpret the available Latin texts.

     When Luther translated a number of texts dealing with brass instruments, he used the German term posaune. In the German of his day, posaune was a generic term for “brass instrument.” In more modern usage, however, this is a specific term for the trombone. As a result of the evolving language, modern Moravians read the text as “Praise the Lord with trombone sound,” (Psalm 150:3) as well as this heavenly scene: “When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trombones were given to them” (Revelation 8:1-2).     

     Naturally, when some Moravians read this translation of scripture, they determined that the trombone was a uniquely sacred instrument. For the most literal interpreters, this meant that all congregational music should be led by trombone choirs ranging in size from soprano trombone (equivalent to a “slide trumpet”) to contrabass trombone (“slide tuba”). These “choirs” were used to accompany congregational hymns instead of a piano or organ.

     As a trombonist, I find this idea charming and love the idea of giving the trombone such a prominent place in worship (and scripture). After all, Beethoven is said to have referred to the trombone as “the voice of God” and Felix Mendelssohn was quoted as saying that the trombone was “too sacred for frequent use.” As a pastor and theologian, however, I find this reading and application of scripture to be quite regrettable as it obscures the author’s intent for these important biblical texts.

     How many other times have we taken a translation of scripture, made applications for it outside of its historical and linguistic context, and enshrined those (mis)translations into universal principles? For example, many of the current conversations around the role of women in church leadership need (and often lack) precisely this kind of historical and contextual nuance. Almost all modern conversations around sexual identity and practice hinge on translations of words that may or may not adequately correspond to modern usage and practice. The list could go on.

     As unusual as it may seem to imagine Sunday services led only by trombone choirs, the existence of such a practice illustrates the importance of having a community that interprets scripture with care and integrity. We must not shy away from nuance or linguistic and historical scholarship in the ways we read and apply our sacred texts. In some cases, there are literally lives that hang in the balance.