Making the Case for Classical Christian Hymnody
“Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.” Psalm 145:3. On this I suspect Christians of every stripe could agree. The Lord is great and the Lord is greatly to be praised. But we might see the cleft that has developed in the Church if we venture to the next verses: “One generation shall commend your works to another and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, and I will declare your greatness. They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness and sing aloud of your righteousness.”
What has happened in some sections of the Church is that THIS generation has told all the other generations to shut up and keep silent. Instead of listening to their proclamation of God’s majesty (who He is) and His wondrous works (what He’s done) and being inspired by their witness to join in their song with our own, some would silence their song and replace it entirely with the song of the present generation. Instead of the Church’s classical way of operating: supplementation, the rich treasury of hymns that goes back so far, growing and being added to by each generation, first listening to and learning to love the old praises of prior Christians as they tell us of God’s wondrous works; we have instead supplanting - replacing of this heritage of proclamation in song that reaches century upon century back through the ages with the songs of now.a
And we need to be honest about the nature of the songs of now. A friend of mine sought to use some of the modern sounds in his church one Sunday, but all the classic texts. It was very telling when a woman left that worship service in tears and she told the musicians on the way out: “You’ve taken away my music.” They were befuddled because they’d striven so hard to use the musical idiom that that congregation had come to expect. Why would it not be welcomed? She gave them the answer: “It’s not what I hear on Christian radio.” AH! The commercial interests driving so called Christian radio is to get folks to download and listen over and over again to the current song and then promptly to forget it when they need you to download the newest, latest, greatest hit. Do you see what has happened? The throw away generation, the disposable everything generation, has come to treasure disposable, throw away songs too.
The demand for the music of today exclusively to reign supreme in the Church, whatever else it does, simply cuts off the prior generations in a way that the Church has not known before. We become an orphan Church that way, a church without our spiritual fathers and mothers. Anyone who knows me know that I love reading the Church fathers. Great stuff. And yet THE way that the prior generations have always spoken in the Church to the current generation is not in the dusty study of Patristics but in the living voice of the congregation. We take up THEIR song and it becomes OUR song and so their theology, their witness to Christ, continues to shape and mold us.
But there’s more. Dr. John Kleinig helpfully wrote about the theology that runs with the praise music that came originally out of the Pentecostal Church. The idea of this music is move a person. To move them spiritually from entering into the courts of God with loud and joyous songs of thanksgiving, to move them into the more mellow music of the inner courts of the temple with lush and quiet songs of praise, and finally for the congregation to peak, dare I say it, to spiritually orgasm in the singing in the spirit, often done in tongues and musically sustained by held chords and arpeggios and shimmering on the cymbals. Music here at its base is employed to achieve the desired emotional outcome. To bring a person to a feeling of the presence and closeness of God.
This is in huge tension with the sturdy objectivity of the Church’s historical musical deposit. For the Church classically simply did not see music as first and foremost a vehicle to move emotions. She knew that it does this. Luther confessed as much in any number of places. And yet that was just an inevitable result of music, but not it’s task. It’s task was rather to give voice to God’s Word. To proclaim to one another the great things that God has done for us in Jesus Christ and to summon one another to taste and see the goodness of the Lord and to proclaim the person blessed who trusts in Him.
We might wonder how this shift toward exclusive use of compositions of the present generation could possibly make its way into a Church like ours which has traditionally been a bulwark of preserving the music of previous generations. The answer, I believe, is that those who studied Church Growth were trained to match in church the music liked and listened to by their community. So that when new folks came in through the narthex doors they immediately would feel at home with the same sounds that filled their lives outside the doors. More than one writer has pointed out the disingenuousness of this approach, for the Church does not invite the old Adam to settle down and feel at home, but to his own execution. Nor, even sociologically, has it proven to be the case that unchurched folks expect the music at church to mirror the music they listen to when washing their cars on Saturday. You can read more about this in Daniel Zager’s stupendous monograph “The Gospel Preached Through Music: The Purpose and Practice of Lutheran Church Music” (Good Shepherd Institute 2013).
So it was with the best of motivations that our churches began to dump the deposit of the church’s treasury of hymnody. But it wasn’t wise. And it hasn’t worked if the purpose was simply to bring in the folks from outside in droves. We’re a smaller Synod today than we were prior to the time when classic church music reigned.
But I must issue this caveat. Dr. Nagel was always fond of asking what’s the opposite of an error? Not the truth! Just the opposite error. So the error of thinking that the Church’s hymnody is fixed. You have the old songs and you should be content to sing them. Period. Full stop. Nonsense. With the Spirit extolling our Lord Jesus through the Word, the new song springs up in the Church continually. Not everything written in a generation will be found worthy of adding to the deposit, but the current generation tends not to be in the best position to evaluate the final worthiness of its own contributions. The generation to come will weigh and decide in which of our new songs they hear the words and promises of God most clearly issued for their consolation and upbuilding in the faith. But that the deposit grows with each generation is simply a given. The Church’s song is richer now by far than it was at the time of the early church or even the Reformation. It keeps being enriched and for that all glory to God!
So when we speak of making the case for classical Christian hymnody we mean defending the proposition that previous generations ought be given an ongoing voice in the church’s praise, and this praise consists of meditating upon God’s glorious majesty (that is, proclaiming WHO He is, and above all who He has revealed Himself to be in the Crucified and Risen One), and in meditating on His great works. We do both of these by proclaiming them together to each other in song in the presence of God.
How far back does the treasury reach? Well, certainly biblical scholars will tell you that it reaches right into the pages of the New Testament. Philippians 2; Colossians 1; numerous portions of Revelation; 1 Timothy 3. You can find tantalizing bits of the song that the Christians sang to each other there. Maybe it was something like Philippians 2 that St. Paul and St. Silas sang together at midnight in the jail of Philippi.
Outside of the New Testament, though, we have these ancient hymns that have come down to us and even made it into the liturgy. In the Divine Service, we sing the Gloria in Excelsis or Agnus Dei or Sanctus. In the Daily Prayer Services, we sing Te Deum Laudamus and Phos Hilaron. That last is particularly of interest to those who study the history of the hymns. You see, in literature, I think the first mention of Phos Hilaron (our “Joyous Light of Glory” from Evening Prayer, but also in the hymnal O Light Whose Splendor Thrills and Gladdens or O Gladsome Light of Grace), the first mention is in a little book by St. Basil the Great (and he died in 379). He writes: I will now adduce another piece of evidence which might perhaps seem insignificant, but because of its antiquity must in nowise be omitted by a defendant who is indicted on a charge of innovation. It seemed fitting to our fathers not to receive the gift of the light at eventide in silence, but, on its appearing, immediately to give thanks. Who was the author of these words of thanksgiving at the lighting of the lamps, we are not able to say. The people, however, utter the ancient form, and no one has ever reckoned guilty of impiety those who say “We praise Father, Son, and God's Holy Spirit.” (Par. 73 On the Holy Spirit)
Just like we have no idea who wrote the Gloria in Excelsis or the Te Deum (medieval legend notwithstanding), so with Phos Hilaron. It simply was a song Christians sang and have continued to sing throughout generations. Is it not amazing that we here in America today continue in our Evening Prayer to offer praises in a hymn that St. Basil the Great thought was positively antique back in the 370’s?
So the deposit goes very far back, especially if we think of those ancient hymns of the church that were not rimed or set in stanzas. But the riming and setting in stanzas goes back a long, long way also. The man traditionally regarded as the father of western Christian hymnody is St. Ambrose of Milan. Our LSB features three hymns attributed to this great father of the Church. We even get to know a little bit about how this form of hymnody took root and spread. Listen to St. Augustine in his Confessions, paragraph:
Not long had the Church of Milan begun to employ this kind of consolation and exhortation, the brethren singing together with great earnestness of voice and heart. For it was about a year, or not much more, since Justina, the mother of the boy-Emperor Valentinian, persecuted Thy servant Ambrose in the interest of her heresy, to which she had been seduced by the Arians. The pious people kept guard in the church, prepared to die with their bishop, Thy servant. There my mother, Thy handmaid, bearing a chief part of those cares and watchings, lived in prayer. We, still unmelted by the heat of Thy Spirit, were yet moved by the astonished and disturbed city. At this time it was instituted that, after the manner of the Eastern Church, hymns and psalms should be sung, lest the people should pine away in the tediousness of sorrow; which custom, retained from then till now, is imitated by many, yea, by almost all of Thy congregations throughout the rest of the world. [Confessions IX:7:15]
So Ambrose is popularly considered the father of hymnody as we’ve come to expect it: a poem consisting generally of number of consistent stanzas that rime and often concluding with the doxology: an ascription of praise to the Blessed Trinity.
If we listen to THAT generation proclaim to us the great deeds of God and call us to meditate with them on who He is and what He has done, we get something like this:
Savior of the nations, come,
Virgin’s Son, make here Your home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.
Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh—
Woman’s offspring, pure and fresh.
Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this truth was shown:
God was there upon His throne.
Then stepped forth the Lord of all
From His pure and kingly hall;
God of God, yet fully man,
His heroic course began.
God the Father was His source,
Back to God He ran His course.
Into hell His road went down,
Back then to His throne and crown.
For You are the Father’s Son
Who in flesh the vict’ry won.
By Your mighty pow’r make whole
All our ills of flesh and soul.
From the manger newborn light
Shines in glory through the night.
Darkness there no more resides;
In this light faith now abides.
Glory to the Father sing,
Glory to the Son, our king,
Glory to the Spirit be
Now and through eternity.
Let’s note a number of things about this. It clearly proclaims Christ. Proclaims Him as the Virgin’s Son, God of God, yet full man, whose source was God the Father. It proclaims His deeds: His conception by the Spirit, his birth of the Virgin, His coming from God and returning to God even His descent into hell. It proclaims what He has won: the victory and in our flesh to make whole all our ills of flesh and soul. And it summons us one and all to join in praising the Trinity in and through Him.
And consider that these words by Ambrose or from someone around that time, have continued to proclaim Christ in each generation. Year after year, when Advent arrives, this hymn is found on the lips of Christians to bring comfort to each other and to join their voices with that of all the previous generations, extolling the Lord’s incarnation for us. So much did Luther value this Latin hymn that it was the first he rendered into German. When we sing this hymn each Advent truly “one generation commends your works to another and shall declare your mighty deeds!”
Ambrose’s hymns primarily are set to sanctify time and to celebrate the events commemorated in the Church’s year: the great story of the life of Christ. They had their home first and foremost in the Daily Office, Matins and Vespers etc. But you couldn’t really keep the hymns away from the Lord’s Supper. They migrated. And did so even before the Reformation. Remember that “O Lord, We Praise Thee” was a folk hymn long before Luther took it hand. Or remember the hymn of Huss for the distribution.
With the Reformation, the ancient heritage was conserved, even in many cases in Latin, but much was also put into the vernacular and of course it was added to. New hymns couldn’t but continue to be birthed by the joy of the Gospel’s clarity that took hold agin in those days. Luther’s first great hymn was Nun Freut Euch. Listen: “Dear Christian, one and all rejoice, with exultation springing, and with united heart and voice and holy rapture singing: proclaim the wonders God has done, what His right hand the victory won; what price our ransom cost Him!” There’s the theology of praise right in a single hymn stanza. Luther never ceased to marvel at music: “After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely by proclaiming [God’s Word] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.” (AE 53:323) Or as Luther said in the preface to the Bapst hymnal: “For God has cheered our hearts and minds through his dear Son, whom he gave for us to redeem us from sin, death, and the devil. He who believes this earnestly cannot be quiet about it. But he must gladly and willingly sing and speak about it so that others also may come and hear it.” (AE 53:333).
So with the Reformation comes this explosion of new music, filled with the joy of the Gospel, and aimed at the consolation of those terrified in conscience or broken in heart. All designed to lift you up through preaching the promises of God into your heart via putting them onto your lips.
Of the many great hymns that arose in that time, two deserve particular mention. They were by Philip Nicolai, Pastor in Unna, Westphalia. He saw his congregation decimated by plague. Between July of 1597 and January of 1598, Pr. Nicolai buried no less than 1,400 of his parishioners– 300 in the month of July alone. He could have fled the plague, but he didn’t. He stayed put. He preached. He celebrated the Sacrament. He prayed. He buried, and he prayed some more. And he did one more thing. He wrote a book. A book he called The Mirror of Joy. It was all about the joy that filled his heart as he thought of the heaven his Savior had won for all upon His cross and to which He would one day bring His people as they share His risen life in the New Heavens and the New Earth. In the words of Luther, he “gladly and willingly sing and speak about it.” At the tail end of his little book, he put three poems he wrote, two of which he also set to music. One is called: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright) and the other: Wachet Auf, Ruft uns die Stimme. Wake, Awake! For Night is flying.
In the face of unspeakable tragedy, to families where mothers had lost their sons, daughters their fathers, sisters their brothers, brothers their sisters, husbands their wives - with no family left untouched by the horror of death- faithful Pastor Nicolai sang the hope of heaven into his people as they waited for the day of the Savior’s return and learned to sing in hope along with him even with tears in their eyes. No wonder these two pieces became known as the Queen and the King of the Chorales. They are triumphant in the cross. Just listen in to sections from either hymn:
Almighty Father, in Your Son
You loved me when not yet begun
Was this old earth’s foundation!
Your Son has ransomed us in love
To live in Him here and above.
This is Your great salvation.
Alleluia! Christ the living
To us giving Life forever,
Keeps us Yours and fails us never.
O let the harps break forth in sound!
Our joy be all with music crowned,
Our voices, gladly blending!
For Christ goes with us all the way—
Today, tomorrow, every day,
His love is never ending!
Sing out! Ring out!
Tell the story!
Great is He, the King of glory!
Now let all the heaven’s adore Thee;
Let saints and angels sing before Thee
With harp and cymbal’s clearest tone.
Of one pearl each shining portal,
Where dwelling with the choir immortal,
We gather round Thy radiant throne.
No eye has seen the light,
No ear has heard the might
Of Thy glory.
Therefore will we eternally,
sing hymns of praise and joy to thee.
I don’t know about you, but I think it’s nigh unto a high treason when a Lutheran (well, when any Christian) is deprived of the comfort and power of such great hymns! And they abound. Those are just two. Note that they sing of Christ. They fling the comfort of Christ against the darkness. They hold tight to the joy of what shall be when Christ renews all things. They proclaim: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, and they add the promise: “for you!”
You might notice if you’ve been around our Church for any length of time, that SOME of our hymns are really, really long. Take Luther’s delightful Christmas hymn: “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” It’s got an eminently singable melody, but it goes on for 15 stanzas. Yikes! What gives with that?
That’s a hint that the singing of hymns in the Lutheran Church, it’s use of the classical Christian hymnody, from the start employed “wechselsingen” as Dr. Walther termed it: “back and forth singing” would be a good translation. So take “From Heaven Above…” and you might have the choir sing all together stanza one, then just the women of the choir on stanza two, then the men, stanza three, then all the choir on stanza four, maybe just four voices, one on each part for stanza five, then the whole congregation on stanzas six, seven and eight. Children’s voices along on stanza 9. Women on 10. Men on 11. All on 12 and 13. Choir on 14 and then all on 15. What does this back and forth singing do? It enables us to preach to each other in the song. We literally sing the comfort the Gospel into each other’s ears, hearing it and then in our turn sounding it forth.
By the way, this way of singing is also key to getting the best way to sing, say, “Isaiah, Mighty Seer.” Picture it like this:
Choir 1: Isaiah, mighty seer in days of old,
Choir 2: The Lord of all in spirit did behold,
with the whole congregation joining in on: Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth!
Luther’s Gloria hymn works the same way. This back and forth is the royal priesthood at its work: proclaiming the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. It is the fulfillment of the Apostles’ exhortation: Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in PSALMS, and HYMNS, and SPIRITUAL SONGS, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
And the centuries roll on and the witness keeps ringing out. The nineteenth century was a time of rich meditation on the Church herself. Everyone was thinking about it and singing about it. So we have “For All the Saints” and “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” and so many others. The focus wasn’t on Church for her own sake, but look at who the Spirit has called us to be in Christ! And through them all ring comfort: “And when the fight is fierce the battle long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong! Alleluia! Alleluia!”
In the 20th and 21st century a new flowering of hymnody took place and to the old songs were added numerous new proclamations of Christ. We don’t have time to even begin to delve into the richness, but we must note the hymns of Stephen Starke (“We praise You and acknowledge You, O God, to be the Lord, the Father everlasting by all the earth adored…” - great paraphrase of the Te Deum and set to the Jupiter tune, proclaiming who the true King of the universe is!); Martin Franzmann (O thou who when we loved thee not, didst love and save us all; thou great good shepherd of mankind, O hear us when we call! Send us thy Spirit! Teach us truth! Thou Son, O set us free, from fanciest wisdom, self-sought ways to make us one in thee. Then shall our song united rise to Thine eternal throne where with the Father evermore and Spirit thou art one); Vajda (How could I not have known Isaiah would be there, his prophesies fulfilled, with pounding heart I stare: A child, a king, the prince of peace for me, a child, a king the prince of peace for me); so very, very many others.
One last point I think needs to be made in favor of classical Christian hymnody. It has, somehow, survived the fragmentation of the Church. So a hymn written for a Roman Catholic eucharistic conference in 1976 ends up being sung in Lutheran parishes around the world: “You satisfy the hungry heart.” Or an EWTN broadcast of the Roman Mass for Ash Wednesday, opens with the solemn singing of Luther’s “From Depths of Woe.” The Baptists might have owned “Just as I am” at the start, but it is sung universally by Christians. This united song of the Church gives me great hope. And it witnesses a very Lutheran thing: if it sings truth, we say, it is ours! We joyfully can take it to heart and praise God with it. So our hymnal is not merely limited to the stream of music that flowed directly from the medieval church to the Churches of the Augsburg Confession. Rather, when Geneva sang truth, we sang it with them. When Rome sang truth, we sang it with them. Did you know that Beautiful Savior was originally composed to be a song of Eucharistic devotion? Tis true! And yet its words are simple truth and so we take them gladly on our lips.
Psalm 145 goes on to say: “All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your saints shall bless you. They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom and tell of your power to make known to the children of men your mighty deeds and the glorious splendor of your kingdom… The Lord is faithful in all his works and kind in all his deeds.” One generation declares His great works to another in the classic hymnody of the Christian Church. And our calling in this generation is to hear their song, to sing it with them in joy, and then to add to it as best we may in our own day and age.
When Isaiah pictured the Church, he described her in chapter 35 in these words: “And the redeemed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing, everlasting joy upon their heads. They shall obtain gladness and joy and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” The Church is one long procession of the people of Zion headed home, and the song we sing here at the tail end of the procession at the moment is one we learned from those who went before. Let us treasure the gift bequeathed to us and learn to love it and to pass on such a tremendous heritage to our children and children’s children until the glorious appearing of Lord Jesus when we join the saints and angels in the song of the Lamb!