The Hymnal as Teacher

Part of my job at Faith Alive Christian Resources and on the editorial committee for the new hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts was to be one of the “theological police.” But is it truly important to make sure hymns pass theological muster? They’re only songs, after all.

Theology is not some arcane, abstract activity best left to owl-eyed theologians in their book-lined studies. It’s increasingly recognized that a theologically ignorant church will soon lose the heart of its faith. We often say our theology has to be biblical—that is, theology comes out of the Bible. We forget, however, the equally true corollary: we cannot fully understand the Bible without the key of theology and doctrine. A large part of the purpose of the church’s confessions is to provide a key into the often-confusing maze of the Bible. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity, worked out in the fourth century, opens up texts about Jesus’ baptism or the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.

It has often been said (because it’s true) that Christians learn more of their working theology from the hymns they sing than from all their catechism or Sunday school classes.

Theology not only opens the Scriptures, it guards the church from serious error. I’ve often heard the Arian heresy—the belief that Jesus was not truly human—coming from the mouths of Christian adults. They might say something like, “Well, yes, Jesus was human, but not like we are. Jesus was God!” That phrase “but not like we are,” flies in the face of the most radical and important claims of the doctrine of incarnation. If Jesus is not human like we are, then he cannot assume our sin.

It has often been said (because it’s true) that Christians learn more of their working theology from the hymns they sing than from all their catechism or Sunday school classes or adult education groups. Why? Because of that magical combination of words and notes that, sometimes maddeningly, sticks in your head all day. My grandkids know the lyrics to hundreds of rock songs, some of which I’m not sure I want spinning through their young minds. And churchgoing Christians know more about the fundamental doctrines of the church—from incarnation to salvation, from creation to eschatology—from the hymns they sing, rather than from any other source.

Let’s look at a few examples of hymns and their theological freight. Many of our older hymns were written by theologians, and they combine glorious poetry with dense theology in their metered lines. What better incarnational theology than in Charles Wesley’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:

Christ, by highest heaven adored,

Christ, the everlasting Lord!

Late in time behold him come,

offspring of the virgin’s womb.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;

hail the incarnate Deity,

pleased as man with us to dwell,

Jesus, our Immanuel.

Or take this lovely verse by Ambrose from the fourth century, paraphrasing John 1:13:

Not by human power or seed

did the woman’s womb conceive;

only by the Spirit’s breath

was the Word of God made flesh.

Then there’s the twentieth-century Canadian hymn writer, Margaret Clarkson, whose “We Come, O Christ, to You,” is a veritable compendium of Christology.

Though many have commented that contemporary worship music tends toward vague sentiments of devotion to God rather than firm theological content, there are striking and beautiful exceptions. Many of Keith Getty’s songs, for example, have strong theological foundations, such as the widely known “In Christ Alone” and “See, What a Morning,” both of which are included in Lift Up Your Hearts. Their singable hymn-like tunes join strong theological language with personal faith.

Note here how the theological truths of Christ’s oneness with the Father, the Spirit’s work, and the meaning of the resurrection combine with a shout of praise and a cry of personal faith.

Unfortunately, just as hymns can help strengthen our theology, they can also be a vehicle for questionable, if not heretical, theology to enter the church. Many older hymns, along with some contemporary songs, tend to pick up on a rather Gnostic and certainly un-Reformed idea of the Christian’s relationship to God’s creation. There is an escapist strain in some old favorites: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.” What a contrast to

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears

all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.

Another more contemporary creation hymn, “The First Place” by Matthew Westerholm, features Christ as creator and extols his reign over the universe:

Jesus, the perfect picture of the unseen God.

Maker of things we cannot comprehend.

Wisdom, the earth displays your strength and beauty.

Sovereign, yes, every throne knows you are God.

Every inch of this universe belongs to you, O Christ.

For through you and for you it was made.

Your creation endures by the order of your hand.

So you must have in all things the first place.

Words: Matthew Westerholm © 1999 Matthew Westerholm

Singing this hymn, worshipers will not only recall Christ’s centrality in creation but be reminded of his lordship in “every square inch” of the universe (á la Abraham Kuyper).

There are many hymns that speak of human sin and its consequences. But I know of only one that expresses sin’s connection with the fall in Genesis 3 with theological accuracy and vitality. Thomas Troeger’s “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea” (see p. 38) connects the boundaries God built into creation with the boundaries God has placed around our lives as his creatures.

Anyone singing that hymn has a new metaphor for understanding human sin and the fall.

Another feature of Lift Up Your Hearts aimed at enhancing the theological understanding of worshipers is the inclusion of a number of quotations from the creeds, confessions, and testimonies of the church. On one page spread you’ll find two lovely hymns of trust in God’s providence: “Children of the Heavenly Father” and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (see next page). Following the last words of the former (“his the loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy”) come the words of Q&A 26-27 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which includes the following:

I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need . . . and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world.

People scanning those two pages will not only be comforted by the words of the hymns but learn some of the crucial distinctions in the doctrine of providence that guard it from a kind of mechanical determinism.

Unfortunately, too many Reformed congregations pay little attention to the theological integrity of the hymns and songs they sing. Many churches I’ve visited use a broadly evangelical hymnal, carrying into their minds and hearts a number of theologically questionable hymns. Others survive almost solely on a diet of vague and banal contemporary Christian songs, missing out on the church’s robust tradition of richly theological hymnody.

There is no better way to learn that crucial theology than to sing it in church—and then to hum, whistle, and sing it under your breath all through the day. Lift Up Your Hearts is a hymnal designed to help your congregation learn the deep truths of the faith in song.


Leonard J. Vander Zee is pastor of South Bend (Ind.) Christian Reformed Church.


Reformed Worship 108 © June 2013, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.