Evangelicals and Tradition: Theological Hymnody

Orans, Roman Catacombs

Forgive my slowness in posting these Cyprus discussions. After the cautions about saints and such accretions in tradition, I called my evangelical brothers and sisters of Cyprus to read the theological hymnody of the ancients. The singing of theology is one of the gems of ancient Christianity.

The practice of theological hymnody goes back to Philippians 2:5-11, where Paul is likely quoting a song from church. Our earliest non-biblical hymn is the ‘Phos Hilaron’, of the second century:

O Light gladsome of the holy glory of the Immortal Father,
the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed, O Jesus Christ,
having come upon the setting of the sun, having seen the light of the evening,
we praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: God.
Worthy it is at all times to praise Thee in joyful voices,
O Son of God, Giver of Life, for which the world glorifies Thee. (trans. from Wikipedia)

I gave the example of Ambrose — inevitably! As readers of this blog know, I am fond of his hymnody. It was a way to help the Milanese worship God as well as to catechise them in the truths of the Nicene faith in an age of ‘Semi-Arianism’. I presented them with my translation of ‘Splendour of the Father’s Glory‘, but I also heartily recommend ‘Intende, Qui Regis Israel‘.

I have no desire right now to enter worship wars when I recommend an increased helping of theological hymns in our adoration diet. I was at the Vineyard church in Glasgow a few weeks ago, and I appreciated the emotional impact that sort of music can have in helping stir our hearts to worship God — I am no Neo-Platonist. Emotions exist to serve and worship the Lord.

However, if modern choruses of superficial content are all that you are employing to worship our Great King, I recommend adding sung poetic theology that goes deeper. Not necessarily Ambrose — although if you have to hand the OLD blue Anglican Church of Canada hymn book, you can find several under his name. But think perhaps of adding the Wesleys. Or hymns like ‘Man of Sorrows’ or newer songs, even, such as ‘How Deep the Father’s Love for Us’, or ‘In Christ Alone’ or things by Graham Kendrick that are not ‘Shine, Jesus Shine’ (I beg you!).

Imagine worship that stretches every part of our being — our emotions and our minds. Even our bodies. Worship that causes us to actually be filled with awe of our Creator.  This is the trajectory of ancient worship — people who sang theology and stood facing east to pray, palms and eyes upward as they addressed the incomprehensible Triune God. It is no surprise that over time genuflections and prostrations and incense and pictures and stained glass and organs and polyphony developed. The people in charge wanted to bring to God their whole selves, their very best.

I am glad to live in a post-Reformational world where we, the people, are active in worship. Let us become active with our whole selves — theological hymnody is one way to get our minds into the act of adoration of our mighty God.

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