Sung Theology: Hymns & the Formation of Faith

How do hymns display and express the theology of a particular Christian community or tradition? And how does this sung theology shape and form our faith (belief, affection, and action)?

For the sake of the discussion, let’s focus on evangelical hymns. In American Evangelical Christianity, Notre Dame historian, Mark Noll, attempts to probe the message of evangelical Christianity through the medium of its hymns. In doing so, he identifies three distinct layers of hymnody that define the modern evangelical movement at its best. For our purposes we will consider just two: Christ-centered picture of redemption and social vision (the other is ecumenism). Even if you don’t identify with the evangelicalism Noll expounds, consider how the sung theology of your tradition shapes your beliefs – your credo.

The Scandal of the Cross Is the Scandal of My Forgiveness

“And can it be that I should gain An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused such pain? For me? Who him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be That thou my God, shouldst die for me?” (Charles Wesley)

The first thing to notice about this hymn is its characteristically evangelical focus on the individual person’s salvation. It casts the scandal of the cross primarily in terms of how the love and forgiveness therein could be for “me.” Wesley wonders over the radicality of Christ’s death and asks: “For me?” And why is it a scandal that Christ died for “me?” The hymn’s answer is my personal sin.

Wesley’s sin made him unworthy of such a sacrificial love. Yet Wesley can exclaim “Amazing love!”, because his God loved him to the point of death for his sins. As the filth of personal sin is paired with the lengths God took to procure forgiveness, the profundity of God’s love emerges, giving rise to emotions of gratitude and awe, emotions which charged and energized revivalism and its preaching of the Gospel of the individual’s forgiveness through the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Hymns like this express and reinforce evangelicalism’s evangel as an intensely personal message, one calling for an individual’s repentance on the basis of their very individual forgiveness available in Christ. Noll thus concludes that “Their overriding message and the single offense upon which they insisted is compacted into the four words that best summarize their message: Jesus Christ Saves Sinners” (272).

But as we reflect on hymns like this, can we not recognize how a Gospel concerned primarily with an individual’s sin and forgiveness can form a faith that is rather apolitical? As Noll notes, although Charles Wesley was adamantly opposed to the American Revolution, “American patriots hardly noticed as they went on printing his hymns in edition after edition.”

However apolitical the message of evangelical hymns may have been, they were not unconcerned with the broader culture and its needs.

A Social Vision of Relief through Jesus

Noll notices a “persistent concern for the relief of suffering” in early evangelical hymnody. Although this theme is “almost never developed systematically or structurally, it is nonetheless there from the first” (275). Here is a sampling:

Blessings abound where’er he reigns; The prisoner leaps to lose his chains, The weary find eternal rest, And all the sons of want are blest (Isaac Watts)

A charge to keep I have, A God to glorify, A never-dying soul to save, And fit it for the sky: To serve the present age, My calling to fulfill; Oh, may it all my powers to engage To do my Master’s will (Charles Wesley)

Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grace;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save (Fanny Crosby)

Here again we observe that great evangelical tradition of seeing the Gospel as the most real cure for earthly ailments. What each of these hymns share is the conviction that the rest, rescue and relief of the needy is found in Jesus and the salvation he offers. The love evangelical Christians have for the suffering world is cruciform. Would it be going too far to see this mentality behind evangelicalism’s Gospel-centered ministry to the poor and sick?

Hymns and Faith – Expression, Formation, or both

Several interesting questions arise when we think about the relationship between hymnody and faith. Are hymns merely the expression of a community’s faith or are they integral in forming the faith of that community? And if so, should they be?

The question here concerns the role of hymns in the Christian life. Do we sing primarily to praise God and express our gratitude for his grace, or is singing a significant medium through which we are uniquely instructed? To some extent this is a false question, for surely hymns teach us both how to express our thanksgiving and from what our praise should arise, so they obviously form us. But for evangelical Protestant churches that cast formation primarily, if not exclusively, in terms of preaching, it might be viewed as inappropriate that hymns instruct us theologically. Might those churches which place a premium on preaching need to rethink their theology of proclamation and worship?

Finally, given that hymns form us, what type of formation attends to the specific medium of music? Kevin Vanhoozer has variously noted the ways in which specific genres elicit specific responses from readers, and so how might the conventions of lyric, melody, rhythm, timing, harmony etc shape us?

A straightforwardly personal way of addressing these questions might be to ask, how have hymns been formative for your faith?


10 thoughts on “Sung Theology: Hymns & the Formation of Faith

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I remember taking a class called a Biblical Theology of Christian Education. One point of discussion in that class was on what, how, and why the Psalms were used. As you guys noted, “it might be viewed as inappropriate that hymns instruct us theologically.” Our professor made a strong case for the psalms use in theological training, not only to the Jewish community but also to instruct the Gentiles of nature of God as Creator/Redeemer. I think the same can (should) be said for our hymns, or any style of Christian worship.

  2. Damian, thank you for reminding us of the role the Psalms played in the history of Israel – and the Gentile church. Could we even say that the hymnody of the Christian church is our “book of Psalms”?

    If that is the case, I wonder why our hymnody doesn’t reflect the same diversity found in the Psalms. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any hymns that have the imprecatory character of some Psalms and only a handful that give voice to our lament. Any ideas for why that is the case?

  3. That is a good point. I suppose based on that observation it would be difficult to sustain a one to one comparison between the two. Then again our hymns cannot be construed as Scripture either. And I think we’re all aware that there is more to the Psalms than simply to instruct Israel and the Gentiles of the nature of God. They did act in an imprecatory fashion, like you say. They also were utilized for prophetic purposes, whether the writers knew that or not.

    As far as why no imprecation nowadays…My guess would be something to the effect the theocratic nation in which Israel lived in based on much of the old covenant promises in which the Psalmist(s) wrote. In the NT we find Jesus offering a different perspective to love our enemies; give them something to eat; pray for them. Therefore it would imply a different action and reaction toward our enemies.

  4. Damian, thanks for the continued discussion. As you say, certainly Jesus is our authoritative interpreter of the scriptures. Yet, even in light of Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies I’m not sure the imprecatory Psalms have lost their function for the Christian community.

    Perhaps the imprecatory Psalms functioned for Israel as they should function for believers today: A vehicle for bringing our rage before God in the movement toward forgiveness. Rather than keeping anger within or taking revenge on those who wronged us, the imprecatory Psalms serve our relinquishment of rage, our handing-over of that rage to the ultimate arbiter of justice. Rather than hurting those who hurt him, the Psalmist doesn’t so much threaten his enemies with his own revenge, but asks God to do so, and in so doing, he gives his rage and desire for revenge over to God.

    Consider John Swinton on this:

    “[W]ithin the imprecatory psalms we find the psalmist expressing torrents of real rage; but this rage is contained within the context of conversation with God. In a strange way, the imprecatory psalms may point to a way out of the slavery of revenge and into the freedom of forgiveness. In enabling us both to express and hand over our rage to the crucified God, as Bonhoeffer puts it: ‘The psalms of revenge lead to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God that forgives enemies.” The victim cannot forgive. But by handing over his rage and unforgiveness to God, who offers forgiveness to all, the victim makes a first move toward the possibility of forgiveness. For the followers of the crucified Messiah, the main message of the imprecatory psalms is this: rage belongs before God (Raging with Compassion (Eerdmans, 2007) 174).

    If we interpret the imprecatory Psalms in this manner, then surely hymns or worship songs that lead believers to deal with their anger along these lines would be appropriate. But do we really want to deal with our rage in a way that leads to forgiveness?

  5. I really appreciate attention being drawn to the expressive and formative aspects of sung worship. I am just tagging on to the end of your discussion really to say I think it is worth pushing the question why doesn’t our corporate worship reflect the breadth of worship in the Psalms? In particular, psalms of lament as Kent highlighted. I think on a really practical level we fear too often the vulnerability in laying ourselves open to God in corporate worship as it means also laying ourselves open to each other. It seems to me we in turn underestimate how beneficial and edifying it could be to allow ourselves to worship God individually and corporately embracing lament at the appropriate times. I guess this could really deepen the formative aspect of a community in worship. I am coming at this from a contemporary worship point of view but I feel the challenge is similar to many liturgical contexts.

  6. This is a fantastic post and an even better dialogue – thank you to all who are contributing. Personally, I have a few thoughts on the above discussion. First, what you all are proposing – a place for either imprecatory or lament psalms – would constitute a radical shift in the contemporary church service. A collective crying out to God in rage or in anguish flies in the face of many of the more popular church growth models that currently dominate the landscape. What would a church look like – and are we willing to pay the price – that incorporates imprecatory and lament within the service, small group, and prayer life?

    Second, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that all of the psalms were not primarily composed for hymns, but were latter added to meter. Seen as such, imprecatory becomes a highly personal and authentic experience that might not find a place in the corporate church life but one that finds a place in the activity of the shepherd when he/she is tending to the sheep. Similarly, lament finds a home in the personal and interpersonal where transparency and authenticity find their outlet. I have sung many a hymn in which the words and meter demand a specific heart reaction, however, I have lacked the experiential context in which to engage the hymn. Saying that, I recognize the value in singing hymns in which my heart does not engage in, but I question the level of value with it. As a disclaimer, I am writing about some of the more extreme hymns that engage in significant levels of lament rather than more of the simply hymns. Any thoughts on this?

    Finally, the composers which Noll highlight according to the post were those for the most part – I could be wrong here- trained theologically thinkers already in a church context where catachistic education was highly utilized and the norm for most to all children. It would have been totally appropriate for certain themes to be used because, by and large, the church community would have a context for understanding the theology that was being used. Are our lay people theologically and biblically trained enough to adequately respond to the use of high theology?

    As a final note, it should be noted that these authors were not simply mass produces of hymns (I guess one could suggest that Charles Wesley was!), so the hymns that were written were composed out of much meditation and thought and not simply to produce another album. I fear that many of the songs sung today have fallen pray to the American evil of efficiency and expediency over meditation, solemnity, and silence. As we all know, to be exposed to the presence of God for too long demands a total unraveling of all that we hold dear to. However it is here where we are confronted with the “dark night of the soul” (John of the Cross suggests), from where the deep truths of the psalmists spring forth to challenge, mystify, and call us to an authentic experience with the Divine.

  7. Derek, highlighting the need for some basic theological education is entirely correct. In order for hymns/songs of lament to function well there would need to be some teaching (informal or formal) to accomplany it. If anyone has seen this in action, I would love to hear about it.

  8. Appreciate your comments Derek, I think there is tremendous power in praying the Psalms individually, whether it be lament, praise or thanksgiving or even just with brothers and sister of faith enduring hard times. In that regard I would direct anyone to read Swinton on friendship as a resistance to the problem of evil in ‘Raging with Compassion’. A question that came to mind was in relation to the need for biblical training for lay people in thinking about using the Psalms in a corporate setting. I guess overall I am agreeing with what you said especially in a context if biblical illiteracy was particularly problematic. I just wondered if we could come too close to being elitist in thinking laity couldn’t handle the Psalms appropriately?
    I like Kents indication of either informal or formal teaching but I just would not want to say too quickly that the training we can get in the academy is the sort of training one only needs to handle high theology.
    Just some thoughts.

  9. Stephen, thank you for your comments because you helpfully point out my need to clarify a little.

    By referring to formal or informal theological education, I was thinking entirely of the church as the location for such teaching and even the worship service itself as the its most immediate instance. In fact, on the most informal level, I think using the Psalms of lament in worship could be made far more productive simply if the worship leader/pastor would put the Psalm in its context and briefly reflect on its function. Even something that simple and informal would go a long way toward an increased appreciation and use of these Psalms in corporate worship. It should be said, on the other hand, that in order for the pastor/worship leader to do this, some study and intentionality will need to take place.

    I am happy to keep this discussion going if you have more thoughts or want to push this around a little more.

  10. Pingback: Top posts from our first year « Theology Forum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s