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The people of God have always sung their faith. Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn after the Last Supper before leaving for the Mount of Olives. The church sang hymns throughout the Apostolic age (Col. 3:16) and continued to do so for many centuries afterward. Yet particularly during the Renaissance, congregational song in the church’s corporate worship began to disappear. Pre-Reformation church music was dominated by beautiful yet complex polyphony. The difficult rhythms, melodies, and harmonies could be mastered only by choirs of well-rehearsed singers, confining congregations to passive observation. A major intervention was required to recover congregational singing. This occurred during the Reformation by means of the written notation of the hymnal.
Martin Luther gave the German church two books in the vernacular: the Bible and the hymnal. Luther published the first hymnal, known as the Achtliederbuch, in 1524. This pivotal collection of eight hymns formally launched Luther’s revival of singing as a congregational activity and did much to cement a recovered biblical theology in the hearts and minds of early Protestant Christians. Both friends and opponents of the Reformation admitted that Luther’s hymns did more to spread Protestant theology than his sermons.
For centuries since Luther’s Achtliederbuch, Christian leaders and denominations have followed suit by editing and publishing hymnals. These hymnals have helped set the boundaries of theological orthodoxy and musical expression in the worship of a given denomination. Texts and tunes chosen for hymnals have made statements about what Christians should believe and how we should approach God in corporate song. A hymnal says, “These texts are worthy and truthful” and “These are the tunes best suited to express these texts in a corporate setting.” For instance, John Calvin’s Genevan Psalter reflected his belief that only God’s Word is appropriate material for congregational song. Louis Bourgeois, a church musician under Calvin’s leadership, worked to set the Psalms to music in a fitting manner. Luther’s hymns had broader boundaries that included scriptural paraphrases, prayers, and systematized doctrine. Luther borrowed from music that already existed in the church by adapting chant tunes for his hymns. It is a myth that Luther used bar tunes to compose hymns. Rather, Lutheran chorales are constructed according to “bar form,” in which the first musical line is repeated before moving on to new melodic material. The use of secular compositional material for hymns came after Luther and was protested by theologians.
Hymnals have stewarded a core “canon” of hymnody over the centuries. One of the earliest hymns after the biblical canticles still sung today is the third century’s Phos Hilaron, translated “Hail, Gladdening Light” or “O Gladsome Light.” Hymns and psalm settings are still being composed today. We should sing some of these, yet there should be an established set of timeless hymns that every Christian knows. Christians need hymns that can unite them whether they find themselves in churches or in jail cells, like Paul and Silas. This shared experience of hymnody binds generations of believers together. “One generation shall commend your works to another” (Ps. 145:4). A church I once served had a tradition of Christmas caroling at a nursing home with their children’s choirs. Residents wept as they resonated with familiar words and tunes. In the memory-care wing, where names of loved ones were long forgotten, Christians knew their Christmas hymns, and they sang.
The hymnal is the layman’s theology text. Over the centuries, hymn writers have beautifully fleshed out every aspect of faith and doctrine. The devotional and catechetical nature of hymnody can deepen our piety and develop our theological knowledge. This should motivate us to move beyond singing familiar favorites to explore hymns from other genres and time periods. One may be well versed in nineteenth-century gospel songs that highlight the Christian’s personal experience of Christ. But if we are to be well rounded in our hymnody, we should also be singing Ambrose of Milan’s hymn “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright,” Samuel Crossman’s “My Song Is Love Unknown,” and Paul Gerhardt’s “O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee?”
Hymnals invite participation. Worshipers with little musical background can learn to read the music in the hymnal by observing the movement of melody and rhythm. More experienced musicians can read and sing the harmonies. Good hymnals thoughtfully limit tunes to those that are well constructed and can be sung with relative ease by congregations. These tunes generally consist of straightforward rhythms, melodic lines, and harmonies. Good hymnals pair texts with tunes that appropriately convey the message of the text. In the best pairings of text and tune, the tune will “paint” or exposit the meaning of the text.
Hymnals, like creeds, can help us avoid theological drift and a resulting diluted, culturally syncretistic Christianity. Creeds remind worshipers of core beliefs that Christians have confessed over the centuries and guide them in confessing those beliefs. Likewise, hymnals remind worshipers of what they believe and guide them in singing their faith. Churches are wise to guard against worship forms that foster a congregational passivity mirroring that of the pre-Reformation church.
If your church doesn’t use a hymnal, find a good one for your private family worship and sing through it. Let us be a people who do not neglect to sing our faith. As Isaac Watts admonished in his hymn “Come, We That Love the Lord”:
Come, we that love the Lord,
and let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord,
and thus surround the throne.
Let those refuse to sing
that never knew our God;
but children of the heav’nly King
may speak their joys abroad.