The Apostle Paul exhorted, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). We are to be “filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [our] heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:18–21).
In Old and New Testaments, the people of God have been a singing congregation. The drama of creation, redemption, and the future consummation of Christ’s kingdom give rise to a host of doctrines that fill our hearts with praise and thanksgiving. Of course, the Psalms have always formed the heart and rule for this covenantal response. Filled with the whole spectrum of godly faith, the Psalter gives words to our lament, petition, praise, and longing.
Many in the Reformed tradition have taken “hymns and spiritual songs” simply as synonyms for the inspired “psalms.” I am among those who see precedence in the New Testament itself for godly hymnody that is not only a direct citation of Scripture (or paraphrase), but a meditation on and exposition of biblical teaching. The analogy would be preaching and free prayer, where Scripture is not only read but also expounded and applied. New Testament scholars have identified early Christian hymns, such as Philippians 2:5–11, which were incorporated in inspired apostolic scripture.
Nevertheless, if the purpose of singing is (1) making the word of Christ dwell in us richly with all wisdom, (2) teaching and admonishing one another, and (3) expressing thanksgiving to God in Christ through the Spirit, then what we sing is of utmost importance. Especially given the fact that, unlike sermons, many of our hymns are repeated over a lifetime in many places, these songs can have a significant impact on the faith and practice of the people of God over many generations. This can be a blessing if they are faithful to Scripture.
The possibility of leading the sheep astray is also evident in the history of hymnody. It is an area that requires wisdom and discretion. Although a musician himself, the Zurich reformer Ulrich Zwingli concluded that it wasn’t worth the trouble: he simply abolished public singing in worship. Martin Luther held the Psalter in the highest esteem, but also composed hymns based on it, and the Lutheran tradition created some of the brightest gems in Protestant hymnody. Taking a mediating position between Zwingli and the Lutherans, John Calvin favored congregational singing of the metrical Psalms, along with other biblical songs as well as the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed.
Like the sermons that are preached, the songs that are written reflect their time and place as well as the marvelous truths that unite the saints across all times and places. Many of the hymns that are most beloved of my grandparents’ and even parents’ generations are shaped by the spirit and thought of nineteenth-century America. Some hymn-writers of this era, like John B. Dykes (author of “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”) were part of the Oxford Movement—a high church party in the Church of England. Henry Van Dyke, author in 1906 of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” (to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”), was a liberal Presbyterian—perhaps even Unitarian—who plied his considerable command of the English language to the celebration of the Romantic Movement. Van Dyke was one of the modernist opponents of J. Gresham Machen. We meet nothing explicitly injurious to the faith in these hymns, but there is an important shift from the earlier hymns of Lutheran writers and Reformed and Anglican writers like Watts, Toplady, Newton, and Wesley. These newer hymns alluded to biblical images for essentially Romantic themes.
In America, Romanticism had a decisive impact on the “higher” culture of liberal evangelicals like Horace Bushnell. However, it also merged with revivalism on the frontier to create a massive reservoir for the “gospel song” genre. During this era, a host of new songs were produced, like “In the Garden.” In these songs, Jesus is often referred to, but less as the Incarnate Son whose life, death, resurrection, and ascension won everlasting salvation than as the sublime friend, even lover, whose famous portrait (“Solomon’s Head of Christ”) hung over many family tables and Sunday school classes in evangelical circles.
The words of “In the Garden,” by C. Austin Miles (1868–1946), reflect a Romantic—even Gnostic—image of Christ. The believer is alone with Jesus in the garden, “while the dew is still on the roses,” experiencing an utterly unique rapture that “none other has ever known.” “He speaks, and the sound of His voice is so sweet that the birds hush their singing. And the melody that He gave to me within my heart is ringing.” There is nothing about Christ’s person and work; everything turns on the saving impression of his personality. This was a common emphasis in the liberal evangelical (pietist) circles of Germany, England, and America. Although the poetry and melody are not as good, the sentimentality reflects the Romantic era. With all of these songs, a good question to ask is “Could a Unitarian sing these?” In some cases, Unitarians wrote them.
Many of the gospel songs that arose in the nineteenth century are more evangelical (in the positive sense), but hail from the revivalistic heritage—especially as it was shaped by the Holiness tradition. Fanny Crosby’s 1873 hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” is one of the most popular examples. First published in Phoebe Palmer’s Guide to Holiness and Revival Miscellany, the hymn reflects theology of the Holiness movement, with its Wesleyan doctrine of perfection (the “second blessing”). According to this view, one may be justified yet not baptized with the Spirit. In order to enter into this second stage of “victory,” one must become “fully surrendered.” In this condition, one may live above all known sin, in perfect love. So verses 2 and 3 of “Blessed Assurance” sing,
Perfect submission, perfect delight! Visions of rapture now burst on my sight; Angels descending bring from above Echoes of mercy, whispers of love. Perfect submission, all is at rest! I in my Savior am happy and blest, Watching and waiting, looking above, Filled with his goodness, lost in His love.
It is significant that in his famous book, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923), J. Gresham Machen discerns the drift from evangelical orthodoxy in the hymnody. His reflections are worth quoting at length:
The Christian doctrine of the atonement, therefore, is altogether rooted in the Christian doctrine of the deity of Christ. The reality of an atonement for sin depends altogether upon the New Testament presentation of the Person of Christ. And even the hymns dealing with the Cross which we sing in Church can be placed in an ascending scale according as they are based upon a lower or a higher view of Jesus’ Person. At the very bottom of the scale is that familiar hymn:
Nearer, my God, to thee, Nearer to thee! E’en though it be a cross That raiseth me.
That is a perfectly good hymn. It means that our trials may be a discipline to bring us nearer to God. The thought is not opposed to Christianity; it is found in the New Testament. But many persons have the impression, because the word ‘cross’ is found in the hymn, that there is something specifically Christian about it, and that it has something to do with the gospel. This impression is entirely false. In reality, the cross that is spoken of is not the Cross of Christ, but our own cross; the verse simply means that our own crosses or trials may be a means to bring us nearer to God. It is a perfectly good thought, but certainly it is not the gospel. One can only be sorry that the people on the Titanic could not find a better hymn to use in the last solemn hour of their lives. But there is another hymn in the hymn-book:
In the cross of Christ I glory, Towering o’er the wrecks of time; All the light of sacred story Gathers round its head sublime.
That is certainly better. It is here not our own crosses but the Cross of Christ, the actual event that took place on Calvary, that is spoken of, and that event is celebrated as the center of all history. Certainly the Christian man can sing that hymn. But one misses even there the full Christian sense of the meaning of the Cross; the Cross is celebrated, but it is not understood (127).
It is well, therefore, that there is another hymn in our hymn-book:
When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of glory died My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.
There at length are heard the accents of true Christian feeling—‘the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.’ When we come to see that it was no mere man who suffered on Calvary but the Lord of Glory, then we shall be willing to say that one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is of more value, for our own salvation and for the hope of society, than all the rivers of blood that have flowed upon the battlefields of history.
Machen’s critical allusion “the battlefields of history” is directed especially at nationalistic anthems like Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (1861), which blasphemously raises the Union’s triumph in the Civil War to the level of Christ’s last judgment. Machen quite properly wonders how those seeking refuge from the tumult of violence between the clashing armies of this age could be served by such a confusion of Christ and culture. The late eighteenth century in both Britain and the United States saw a profusion of romantic hymns to empire and nation that have no place in the public service where Christ is gathering a remnant from all peoples and nations. There is nothing more dangerous than arousing religious emotion for national causes.
Having studied for a year under the great liberal pietist Wilhelm Herrmann, Machen knew well the subtle shift from the vicarious sacrifice of Christ to an attachment to his meek and gentle personality. Machen writes,
Thus the objection to the vicarious sacrifice of Christ disappears altogether before the tremendous Christian sense of the majesty of Jesus’ Person. It is perfectly true that the Christ of modern naturalistic reconstruction never could have suffered for the sins of others; but it is very different in the case of the Lord of Glory. And if the notion of vicarious atonement be so absurd as modern opposition would lead us to believe, what shall be said of the Christian experience that has been based upon it? The modern liberal Church is fond of appealing to experience. But where shall true Christian experience be found if not in the blessed peace which comes from Calvary? That peace comes only when a man recognizes that all his striving to be right with God, all his feverish endeavor to keep the Law before he can be saved, is unnecessary, and that the Lord Jesus has wiped out the handwriting that was against him by dying instead of him on the Cross. Who can measure the depth of the peace and joy that comes from this blessed knowledge? Is it a ‘theory of the atonement,’ a delusion of man’s fancy? Or is it the very truth of God? But still another objection remains against the Christian doctrine of the Cross. The objection concerns the character of God. What a degraded view of God it is, the modern liberal exclaims, when God is represented as being ‘alienated’ from man, and as waiting coldly until a price be paid before He grants salvation! In reality, we are told, God is more willing to forgive sin than we are willing to be forgiven; reconciliation, therefore, can have to do only with man; it all depends upon us; God will receive us any time we choose (128–129).
Of course, there are wide disparities between Protestant liberalism, with its attachment to “high culture,” and the evangelical revivalism that created the gospel songs of fundamentalism. Nevertheless, the common denominator is Romanticism: the movement in nineteenth-century Germany, England, and America that turned its focus away from the objective to the subjective, from external authorities to inner autonomy, from truth to experience, and from the orthodox view of Christ’s person and work to a sentimental portrait of Jesus.
The best hymns of the historic Church, modeled on the Scriptures themselves (especially the Psalms) are rich with godly experience, but experience arising directly and explicitly in view of the mercies of God in his Son. When their goal is to make the word of Christ dwell in the saints richly, such hymns train generations of covenant heirs to invoke and to give thanks to the Triune God, not as an expression of autonomous zeal, but as a response to the Word that they hear and embrace. Depending on the wisdom that we exercise in selecting them, hymns can be a blessing or a curse in the church of God.
Dr. Michael Horton is Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. He is the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine and the author of several books, including The Gospel-Driven Life.