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.

A Poem of St. Ambrose

Given that today is the Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan (Saint of the Week here), a man whose hymnody we have discussed in the past, here is a Christmassy/Advently hymn for your enjoyment. The translation is mine, based on the text of Early Latin Hymns (ed. A. S. Walpole for Cambridge Patristic Texts, 1922: pp. 35-39).

It is known by first line as ‘Splendor Paternae Gloriae’:

Splendour of the Father’s glory,
bringing forth light from light,
light of light and source of brightness,
the brightening day of days,

and true Sun slide in,
gleaming with eternal brilliance,
and radiance of the Holy Spirit
pour into our senses.

 

With prayers let us also call the Father—
the Father of eternal glory,
the Father of mighty grace—
that he may remove the deceitful blame,

that he may shape our actions of vigour,
dullen the teeth of the grudging one,
favourably guide harsh occurrences,
bestow the grace of carrying things through,

guide the mind and rule it
with a chaste, faithful body;
may faith be inflamed with heat,
may it not know the poisons of fraud.

And may Christ be food for us,
and may faith be our drink;
happy, may we drink the sober
inebriation of the Spirit.

May this happy day come to pass,
may modesty exist as the dawn,
faith like the noonday,
and may the mind not know the dusk.

Dawn pulls the chariot,
may the complete dawn come,
the Son complete in the Father,
and the Father complete in the Word.

St. Ambrose and hymnody

St. Ambrose of Milan is, unsurprisingly, best remembered for his role in the conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo.  Many also remember him for his humbling of the Emperor Theodosius.  At Orthodox Vespers the other night, this was a recurring theme in the hymns.  He is also well-remembered for the dispute surrounding the Altar of Victory.

But how many remember him as the writer of many a hymn (see the list at the CyberHymnal)?

Indeed, St. Ambrose was a hymnist.  And why not?  Who better to supply the people of Milan with hymns than their bishop?  Especially when we consider that they didn’t really have any Latin hymns before St. Ambrose.

What? No hymns?

It seems that congregational singing — ie. everyone singing a hymn together — was an innovation in the West on the part of St. Ambrose.

Furthermore, although we have a certain amount of pre-Ambrosian Christian Latin poetry, the only hymnist who predates dear St. Ambrose is Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368).  Not only this, but Christian Latin poetry doesn’t really start rolling until the fourth century, anyway.

Why?  Because poetry is pagan, of course!  No, seriously — poetry’s relationship to paganism, ribaldry, and myth gave it a certain stigma in Rome, thanks to such illustrious Romans as Plautus, Terence, Virgil, and Ovid.  Oh, and Catullus.  Dirty, dirty Catullus.  Anyway, poetry was not associated with the sorts of things Christians liked to be associated with.  Nevertheless, Christians did write poetry in the 300’s, like Juvencus’ harmony of the Gospels in epic meter.

Anyway, there weren’t very many Latin hymns to go around in St. Ambrose’s day, anyway.  So he wrote a bunch and encouraged the whole congregation to sing.  I imagine it must have been like Vespers the other night with Fr. Raphael singing everything alone.  So here’s a hymn of Ambrose for you today, translated by Carolinne M. White in Early Christian Latin Poets:

Splendor paternae gloriae

Radiance of the Father’s glory
Bringing forth light out of light,
Light of light and source of all light,
Daylight, illuminating days,

True sun, come down upon us,
Shining with brightness eternal,
And pour forth into our minds
The Holy Spirit’s brilliance.

Let us pray to the Father, too,
Father of eternal glory,
Father of all-powerful grace,
To rid us of seductive sin

And to fill us with energy,
Blunt the tooth of the envious,
Support us in times of hardship
And give us the grace to endure.

May he guide and control our minds
In bodies pure and full of faith;
May our faith be fervent, burning strong,
Far from the poisons of deceit.

Let our nourishment be Christ,
Let our refreshment be the faith,
Let us with joy drink in the Spirit
Who inebriates us soberly.*

May this day be spent joyfully;
May our purity be like the dawn,
May our faith be like the noontide,
May our minds never know the dusk.

As dawn moves steadily on her course
May the Dawn entire advance,
In the Father the Son entire,
In the Word the Father entire.

*Albert Blaise notes this as typical of Christian Latin’s love of anithesis (Manuel du Latin Chretien)