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?