Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Three Theological Hymns

This past Sunday, I was happy to hear a sermon on Hebrews 1 and 2 from Amy (located here if you'd like to listen to its Sunday evening form). Hebrews has long been my favorite book of the Bible, largely for its theological depth, as well as all its temple and covenant imagery. For this sermon, which focused on God speaking to and through the Son, the Son becoming human, and the Son's subsequent reign in heaven, we chose three hymns: "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise," "Of the Father's Love Begotten," and "At the Name of Jesus."

These are three excellent hymns, all with weighty theological statements. Rather than reproduce all their texts here, I will provide links to their cyberhymnal versions. They all three deal with the Father and the Son, and, while it was not a focus of the sermon, angelic beings, which do figure in the text (reminding me of Eastern Syriac liturgies). The first, "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise," is well-known. While I've heard complaints that it's not the best because it ascribes attributes to God with no reference points, its latter verses, especially, tell much of the wonder of the incarnation. Most hymnals combine the last two verses in order to remove the "vile from our hearts" language, and to conclude with "light hideth Thee" in order to make a nice reference back to the first line of the hymn. It was written in 1876 by Walter C. Smith, a Scottish Presbyterian minister.

The second, "Of the Father's Love Begotten," has briefly come up before because of its Trinitarian final verse. Its text is usually shortened to three verses, those beginning with the title, "O ye heights of heaven...," and "Christ to Thee, with God...." I've wondered why it is always included in the Christmas sections of hymnals, but reading the full verses make it more clear. It gives a wonderful view of the incarnation (even in just those three included verses). It comes from the fifth century, but was translated during the Oxford Movement by John Mason Neale. Its chant tune makes it slightly difficult for congregational singing, but not impossible.

The final hymn, "At the Name of Jesus," is a version of Philippians 2:5-11, the famous Christ hymn. A weighty statement itself with its idea of kenosis, the hymn gives singers much to think about. Our hymnal includes verses 1, 3, 4, 7 and 8, with the majestic tune KING'S WESTON by Vaughan Williams.

While these are three excellent doctrinally-conscious hymns, I began considering if they were too difficult when put together. I don't delude myself to think that everyone pays attention to the texts they're singing all the time, but I like to think that some do and that everyone does part/most of the time. Each of these hymns, though, could have a whole sermon series based on it. Is it too much to ask to have a congregation sing them all in a Sunday? Or is it better to have more hymns like these and leave out some of the others, in the hope that people would learn their theology better?

1 comment:

tim said...

Fascinating insights, Lance. These decisions are of critical importance to worship. Our pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian goes away alone for one week each year and plans worship for the next year. He selects texts, sermon topic and title - and hymns. He gives the plan to Chris Pardini, our Director of Music, who makes suggestions on the hymns and decides on the rest of the music. They publish the year's worship plan.

I once contended in a discussion that most Protestants learn more theology from Charles Wesley than from sermons, the Bible or books on religion. We also learn defective theology from the wrong worship music.