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Credo
5 February 2024

 

… addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart
.

Ephesians 5:19

Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs have been an integral part of the life of the Christian Church since its inception.

Theologians like Athanasius in the fourth century and Boethius in the sixth, as well as Protestant Reformer Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, maintain that Christian music has the ability to help the believer to grow in the virtues.

In a letter to Ludwig Senfl, written at Coburg on October 4, 1530, Luther declares: “I am not ashamed to confess publicly that next to theology there is no art which is the equal of music, for she alone, after theology, can do what otherwise only theology can accomplish, namely, quiet and cheer up the soul of man…”1

Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs fulfil a number of functions in the Church.

They play an important role in corporate worship, enabling God’s gathered people to articulate and express their adoration, praise and thanksgiving to God. They also fulfil a didactic function in that good hymns are always inspired by and saturated with the Scriptures, even as they give voice to the most profound theology of the Church.

In addition, as Hans Boersma has pointed out, the fathers teach that Christian music is “a sacramental means that enables one to participate more deeply in the harmonious reality of God himself”.2

The people called Methodists have a huge and rich repository of hymns and spiritual songs, thanks to John and Charles Wesley who authored more than 9,000 hymns and poems. Some of these hymns are compiled in the United Methodist Hymnal [UMH] and are sung in Methodist churches throughout the world today.

David Hempton describes in Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, “Almost every Methodist gathering began and ended with a hymn… hymns were not only sung on public occasions, they were sung privately or memorised. Wherever one looks in Methodist archives, from the recorded experience of itinerant preachers to the diaries of the faithful, hymns are used for expression, consolation, anticipation, and interpretation. Methodists absorbed their faith through the words of their hymns and sacred verse.”3

The hymns of Charles and John Wesley bring to lyrical expression the doctrines of the Trinity and the humanity and deity of Christ that is articulated in the Nicaean and Chalcedonian creeds.

Charles Wesley wrote between two to three hundred hymns on the Trinity, the most famous of which is “Maker, In Whom We Live” [UMH 88], which provides a glimpse of each person of the Trinity in the first three stanzas.

In the famous Christmas hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” [UMH 240], we not only find the splendid portrayal of the Incarnation (“Veiled in flesh the God-head see; hail th’incarnate Deity”), but also its purpose (“Born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth”).

In 1746, the Wesley brothers published Pentecost Hymns, a collection of hymns about the Holy Spirit. One of the hymns found in this collection is “Spirit of Faith, Come Down” [UMH 332], which was originally titled “Praying for a Blessing”. This hymn sings about the Holy Spirit as the revealer of the divine mysteries (“Spirit of faith, come down, reveal the things of God”), and as the inspirer of the faith of Christians (“Inspire the living faith … the faith that conquers all, and doth the mountain move, and saves whoever on Jesus call, and perfects them in love”).

I mentioned elsewhere that John Wesley was a theologian of grace par excellence. Thus, it is not at all surprising that there are numerous hymns in this rich repository that deal with grace in its various aspects.

For example, “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast” [UMH 339] focuses on God’s prevenient grace—an important emphasis in John Wesley’s theology of grace. Based on the parable found in Luke 14:16-24, the first stanza of the hymn emphasises the universal nature of the divine invitation (“Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind”).

There are hymns about God’s justifying grace (“And Can it Be that I Should Gain” [UMH 363]), and his sanctifying and perfecting grace (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” [UMH 384]). There are also numerous hymns on the various means of grace, especially the sacraments (Holy Communion—”O the Depth of Love Divine” [UMH 627]; Baptism—”Come, Let Us Use the Grace Divine” [UMH 606]).

These hymns are an articulate treasury of the heritage of Methodism—its theology and spiritual ethos. They serve an important catechetical and formative function.

They should therefore have an important place in the lives of the people called Methodists.

 

1 Cited by Walter E. Buszin, ‘Luther on Music’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1 (January 1946), 84.
2 Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 144.
3 David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2006), 71.

 


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.