While this article deals with hymns, it is not the intention of the writer to enter at this time into the present controversy concerning the use of hymns in our church services. There seems to be little question concerning the use of hymns in our schools and homes, at “hymnsings,” for special programs, and on our radio broadcasts.
Let’s begin with a formal definition of “hymn.” Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “hymns” as “an ode or song of praise and adoration; esp. a religious ode or song.” This broad definition includes our “psalms” (better, psalm versifications and paraphrases), so, for our purposes, it is best to use the conventional distinction in which “hymn” means a religious song other than those based on the Psalms. It should also be made clear that “hymn” means text. When referring to the music, we use “hymn tune.”
If one were to ask the question, “Why do we sing hymns?” The most probable answer would be that we sing to praise and glorify God, to thank Him for His great goodness to His people. This lofty ideal should motivate all our singing and speaking. To deviate from it is to walk in error. When hymns become tools to be used in “saving souls” or they are mere entertainment, the signs of the true Church are probably absent.
It is obvious, from the instant objections raised by some to the introduction of hymns in our services, that there are many hymns which are not usable in Protestant Reformed circles. To these people “hymn” has a distressing connotation. When “hymn” reminds them of such horrors as “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” this attitude is easily understood! Perhaps at this point some refining of our definition of “hymns’ is in order. What, then, constitutes a good hymn?
We should insist that all hymns be based on Scripture. This, of course, means that hymns contain doctrine. Not vague generalities acceptable to all who call themselves “Christian.” No, we must have hymns with Protestant Reformed Doctrine. It is sad and strange, but distressingly true, that songs having little or none of this doctrine are often heard in Protestant Reformed gatherings. We hear altogether too much of the religious entertainment that characterizes the fundamentalist movement.
Further, hymns are poems. A good hymn is a good poem. Those who say that there are no acceptable hymns and that we should write our own seem to forget this fact. We need good poems, but, with very few exceptions, the poets are not in evidence . . . We can learn much from the multifarious poetical garbage turned out by the “Tin Pan Alley” of modern fundamentalism.
If we judged hymns, then, on their faithfulness to Scripture, their doctrinal content, and the quality of their poetry, we can weed out many that are completely undesirable. First, there are those that contain error. Sometimes this error is obvious; more often it is not. The Arminian heresy is present in all its subtle forms:
Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast, Let every soul be Jesus’ guest’
You need not one be left behind, For God has bidden all mankind.
Jesus is pleading; O list to His voice; Hear Him today, hear Him today.
They who believe on His name shall rejoice; Quickly arise and away.
Calling today . . . Jesus is tenderly calling today.
Fanny J. Crosby
Sinners turn, why will ye die? God, the Spirit, asks you why;
He, who all your lives hath strove, Wooed you to embrace His love;
Will you not His grace receive? etc.
All heresy is not Arminianism. The modernist has his “hymns” too . . .
For Socrates who, phrase by phrase, Talked men to truth, unshrinking,
And left for Plato’s mighty grace To mold our ways of thinking;
For all who wrestled, sane and free, To win the unseen reality,
To God be thanks and glory.
Then there is the hyper-emotional “Gospel song.” This traditional tool of the wandering evangelist is important in obtaining the “decisions for Christ” that are their stock in trade. These songs, supercharged with emotion, usually do not say very much . .
O turn ye, O turn ye, for why will ye die?
When God, in great mercy is coming so nigh:
Now Jesus invites you, the Spirit says “Come”
And angels are waiting to welcome you home.
Rev. Josiah Hopkins
Late, late, so late! And dark the night and chill!
Late, late, so late! But we can enter still
Too late, too late, ye cannot enter now;
Too late, too late, ye cannot enter now.
Now then, what are we to do? Our hymns must express Protestant Reformed truth. They must be good poetry, free of emotionalism and excessive subjectivity (over-use of “I”, “mine,” “me, etc.). This is a Large order, but it can be filled. Compare the following with the above examples:
Ye that know the Lord is gracious Ye for whom a cornerstone stands
Of God elect and precious, Laid that ye may build thereon,
See that on that sure foundation Ye a living temple raise
Towers that may tell forth salvation Walls that may re-echo praise.
Living stones, by God appointed Each to his allotted place,
King and priests, by God anointed, Shall ye not declare His grace?
Ye, a royal generation, Tell the tidings of your birth,
Tidings of a new creation To an old and weary earth.
C. A. Alington
The people that in darkness sat A glorious light have seen;
The light has shined on them who long In shades of death have been.
For thou their burden dost remove And break the tyrant’s rod
As in the day when Midian fell Before the sword of God.
For unto us a child is born To us a son is given
And on his shoulder rests All power in earth and heaven.
His name shall be the Prince of Peace The Everlasting Lord
The Wonderful, The Counsellor, The God by all adored.
Father, long before creation Thou hadst chosen us in love;
And that love, so deep, so moving, Draws us close to Christ above.
Still it keeps us, still it keeps us, Firmly fixed in Christ alone.
Though the world may change its fashion, Yet our God is e’er the same;
His compassion and His Covenant Through all ages will remain.
God’s own children, God’s own children, Must forever praise His name.
Chinese: anon. Translated by F. P. Jones
Of the Father’s love begotten, Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending, He,
Of the things that are, that have been, And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.
Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413)
These, and the many hymns like them are not found in a single hymnal. One must hunt through many books to find them. Often a hymnal will not contain a single worthwhile hymn: occasionally, there are several. They are worth searching out, however, and when they are found they are worth singing wherever and whenever we can.
Jesus live! Our hearts know well Naught from us His love shall sever;
Life nor death nor power of hell Tear us from his keeping ever. Alleluia
C. F. Gellert