As I continue in this short series on worship, spurred in large part by two excellent posts by Tim Challies, I’d like to interact with one particular comment he made in “What We Lost When We Lost the Hymnal.” Challies helpfully points out that, when we lost the hymnal, we lost an established body of songs. Hymnals were updated only every decade or so, which means songs were chosen carefully and introduced slowly. He writes that “songs were vetted carefully and added to its repertoire only after careful consideration. After all, great songs are not written every day and their worth is proven only over time.”
Now, I have no wish to argue the point. I do think one of the great challenges facing contemporary music is balancing “newness” (Psalm 40:3?) and familiarity. We’ve seen a renewed emphasis on congregational singing, which I applaud, and the congregation doesn’t sing—and certainly doesn’t sing with gusto—when they don’t know the song. In addition, when churches introduce new songs quickly, they often shortcut the vetting process (especially if the pastors/elders are uninvolved in song selection), which has resulted in some truly awful songs entering into much wider circulation. In other words, Challies’ point is well taken.
However, I think it is important for us to note that even many of the great hymns of old have questionable moments in them. While often much richer theologically than their contemporary counterparts, the theology isn’t always spot on. I imagine there are a variety of reasons for this, which might include later scholarly developments, historical movements and traditions that weren’t as theologically robust (we seem to imagine ours is the first period in history when the average songwriter didn’t have Luther’s depth of theological knowledge), or even just simple imprecision (possibly owing to the same emotionalism that can steer lyricists awry today). I’m sure there are other reasons, but let me at least given an example of each of these.
- Later Scholarly Developments: I’ll give two examples here, actually, in part just because I don’t want to pick on Wesley’s wonderful hymn “And Can It Be” too much. In one stanza, Wesley writes that Jesus “emptied himself of all but love / And bled for Adam’s helpless race.” The troubling bit is the first half, which seems to affirm a kenotic Christology (a heresy). Kenotic derives from the Greek word kenoô, used of Christ in Philippians 2:7, and which means “to empty.” However, it is also used in a metaphorical sense—“to make of no effect; to make nothing”—which is its more common usage in the New Testament. To argue that Christ “emptied himself” of the attributes of divinity has no basis in the text, and is more than a little theologically dodgy. Some hymnals have emended the text to read, “emptied himself and came in love,” which suggests the metaphorical reading. A much better choice, I think. The other example comes from Featherston’s “My Jesus, I Love Thee.” In the final stanza, we read, “In mansions of glory and endless delight, I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright.” The trouble here is that “mansions” follows the KJV, which follows the Latin Vulgate, which doesn’t really translate the Greek of John 14:2 well. The word used signifies “dwelling place,” and given that we’re talking about the Father’s house, it’s hard to see how the house could have many mansions. Probably better to translate “rooms,” as many English versions now do. Not a huge theological crisis, for sure, but one likes to have an accurate picture of Glory. In both cases one doesn’t really fault the writer, because these were mistakes common to their era, and fortunately addressed by later scholarly research.
- Theologically Suspect Traditions: Many of the revivalist hymns struggle theologically, which makes sense, considering how much the revivalists struggled theologically (I’m looking at you, Charles Finney). So, for example, the beloved and simply wonderful “How Great Thou Art.” In the English translation, the final stanza declares, “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, / And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” The trouble here is that when Christ comes, he is coming to establish his forever kingdom here on earth. This is the glorious moment when heaven and earth at last become one in the New Jerusalem. So, if that’s what he’s coming to do, how precisely is he going to “take me home”? If I’m around for that (and I don’t expect to be), I’ll already be home, although my home would be blessedly remade. The lyrics, as they stand, seem to imply that we’ll be taken home to an otherworldly heaven, which doesn’t jive with the teaching of Scripture. N.T. Wright suggests a better wording: “When Christ shall come. . . / And heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart.” Our view of eternity—specifically, God’s remaking the world we currently inhabit—certainly shapes our present, and so it would be good to sing accurately about it. (I should add, the original Swedish lyrics do not fall into this error, so translational issues are at work here too!)
- Simple Imprecision: Here one would simply quibble with a bit of phrasing. For example, consider Wesley’s “And Can It Be” again, specifically the chorus: “Amazing love! How can it be / That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” I don’t think anyone would hesitate to sing these words, because the intent of the line is understood easily enough. But one could easily imagine a young believer (or even skeptic) singing along, wondering how precisely the immortal God can die. Strictly speaking, Scripture never speaks of God dying, but only of God in Christ A subtle imprecision, but imprecision nonetheless.
Now, what do we do about this? I would be the last to recommend we abandon these great songs of old (although there are many revivalist hymns that I would gladly abandon because of their insipid sentimentality). In some cases, a simple emendation might do. In other cases, sing away—but hope that the teaching from the pulpit is clear and compelling, so that truth and precision displace beloved lyrics that have taken deep root in our minds. And, above all, continue to vet songs carefully, especially the new ones. But keep in mind, a song with a moment of imprecision might still be worth singing—even centuries later!—if the substance and pathos of the bulk outweigh the slight misstep.
 See Peter O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991): 216-223.
 Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 22.
 See John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996): 153ff. for a fuller discussion.