Thursday, September 23, 2010

Old Hymns - Treat with Love, Use with Care

Yes, I know I tread on ground that is sacred. Ground that begs me to remove my sandals, exposing a well developed sandal tan. But tread I must. :)

One thing that is quite sad, perhaps even tragic, about the music debate in conservative Christianity is that while we are studying, debating, and evangelizing our applications of Scripture, we often overlook was Scripture actually says! What a strange occurrence. The vast majority of scriptural information on music is focused on the text. Yes, I said the text. Not the genre, or the beat, or the instrumentation. The two purposes for Christian musical texts are the worship of God and the edification of believers. Excuse me for a sec while a briefly explain these two purposes since they are foundational for my points of concern.

Glorifying God - Life is all about GOD. GOD created the world. GOD intitiated the redemption of man. GOD sacrificed His Son for us! Kind of makes sense that our songs should enthusiastically praise this God (1 Chr 16:9, 23; Ps 92:1; Heb 13;15; etc.)

Building up believers - The other scriptural goal of Christian music is building up our brothers and sisters in Christ (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19). These are in no way inferior purposes. Lyrical edification is essential!
So, here are 3 main problems with many older songs:

1. Theological error - This one is pretty much inexcusable in my mind. How is it that after 700 years this stanza of All Creatures of Our God and King can still be found in our hymnals? "Dear mother earth, who day by day, Unfoldest blessings on our way, O praise Him! Alleluia!" This should be the official hymn of the green movement! It is dangerous to be teaching through singing incorrect doctrine. Thankfully this isn't rampant, but we need to be careful.

2. Foreign words/phrases - This is kind of basic, but if you don't know what something means, you can't really teach, learn, or worship. Just sayin'. A couple examples you say? How about "Gladly for aye we adore him" and "here I raise mine Ebeneezer" (which some have thankfully translated to "sign of victory"). Holiday hymns also join the ranks by using different languages in the same song. Some Christmas favorites are "G.....L.....O.....R.....I......A. in excelsis Deo" and "Noel x 6."
3. Archaic or awkward language - This principle is similar to #2 and there is some overlap depending on the person. Typically though, the hymns in this category use mostly familiar words. You can clearly identify this category if, as you are singing, you find yourself scratching your head thinking "Could they have worded this any more awkwardly?" These hymns probably weren't always awkward, but they are now quite dated. While it is true that God understands and appreciates 1st century Greek, 17th century English, 19th century German, and 21st century English equally well, the same cannot be said of us. We read, speak, learn in, communicate love through, and express our deepest pains by means 21st century English. Shouldn't we worship in that language as well? The first verse of The Lord's My Shepherd, I'll Not Want is a perfect example. "The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want; He makes me down to lie / In pasture green; He leadeth me The quiet waters by." If you talk like that, I have a speech therapist you can see! Other words in this category include "thou, thy, hast, and ye."

The Good News:
1. I'm not advocating the abandonment of all old hymns. To some of you this is a sigh of relief. To others, perhaps a disappointment. The New Testament encourages the singing of psalms, which at that time were quite old (they had, however, been translated into "modern Greek"). I think we ought to respect and enjoy old hymns.
2. We need to examine what we sing, preferably before we sing it. Is it theologically correct? Is the language understandable? Are we able to sing with understanding or are we mumbling through 18th century incantations?
3. We need to adapt the older songs to make them theologically correct, understandable, and suitable for worship and for building up fellow believers. Thanks to technological advances, this is much easier to do with power point than it would have been to alter hymnals by hand.
4. We need to recognize the biblical emphasis on new songs (Ps 40:1-3; Ex 15:20-21; Lk 1:46-55). The church today needs to be writing and singing new expressions of what the Lord is doing in and through His people. For the record, I think that is one of the biggest reasons that conservative circles enjoy Sovereign Grace music, regardless of the style of musical accompaniment. The theological texts are phrased in modern English. Blows my mind why current authors would write their texts chock full of archaic language, but I don’t want to be too judgmental. Maybe it’s their language of love!
Guess that leads me back to the title. Use and respect the old hymns, but do it with care. Don’t overlook God’s purpose for you singing amidst the debates. And definitely continue bringing in the new songs!


  1. Good thought-provoking post. Chris Anderson had a recent repost on the same topic:

  2. Thanks Andrew. We're undergoing somewhat of a musical transition at our church and these are very good points.

  3. Just a minor note. The word "Ebenezer" is found in the Bible (including the ESV) three times. It is somewhat "defined" in 1 Samuel 7:12. No, the actual word meaning is not mentioned in this passage, but from the context the meaning seems apparent. So the inclusion of this word in a song is very biblical. :)

    Speaking of Ebenezers, back off the Christmas songs, Scrooge!! :)

  4. I think two of those usages are actually locations, leaving one usage mirroring the song. I believe Ebenezer is actually the Hebrew transliteration, the translation meaning "stone of help" (the 1 Sam 17 passage). The inclusion of a biblical transliteration in a song without the translation isn't necessary preferable, especially since God gives us the meaning.

    I'm not on a campaign to eliminate Christmas songs. I would hate to deprive anyone of their emotional holiday high! :) Just don't call it worship or edification if you can't understand it.