Friday, August 05, 2005

"We used to sing our theology"

This was a comment made to me by a class mate.  He was mourning the loss of theological depth in worship, believing that in many churches, songs focusing on a personal experience of God have supplanted songs focusing on the nature of God.

Now, I'm a big fan of both forms of worship, both Hillsong/Vineyard and Sovereign Grace/PDI, Matt Redman and Mark Altrogge, Michael W. Smith and Augustus Toplady.  Balance is wonderful.  If all I sing is experiential -- how wonderful God is to me -- then eventually my worship is more about me than about God.  If all I sing is objective -- how wonderful God is in Himself -- then I am not glorifying God fully, since part of praising Him is treasuring Him personally.  So I seek to emphasize first how wonderful God is, then reflect as well on how wonderful He is to me.

But that's not the main point of my wandering comment this morning.  I was looking through a hymnal at home last night, and was struck by the breadth and depth of these older hymns.

You see, I love old books.  Mostly I love to read them, but I also love to have them in my hands, if possible.  My grandfather was an enthusiastic collector of old books, all old books.  Library sell-offs (and cast offs), auctions, all of these were fertile ground for harvesting more old books.  His shelves are a fascinating collection of peculiar tomes ("The Life of Man as Illustrated in a Series of Woodcuts"), pragmatic pamphlets ("The Knotts' Berry Book"), long-forgotten editions ("Best Short Stories of 1912") and a few remarkable gems ("The Atomic Age Begins").

Amongst these was a short, stout, warped and tattered volume whose title can just barely be made out amongst the cracked leather of its spine: "Methodist Hymns".  The title page is a little more readable and voluble: "Hymns for the use of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Revised Edition, New York, 1854."  Written in pencil on the front and back inner pages, in a childish scribble, is the name Martha Long.  If I remember correctly, she is my great-great aunt.  Maybe there should be another "great" in there.

Now, being hard-core Calvinist, I am in disagreement with some significant elements of old Methodism (and even more with modern Methodism), but boy! could they sing!  All of the members of this church back in Aunt Martha's days had their own copies of this hymnal.  It was clearly designed to be used both on Sundays and throughout the week.  And talk about singing your theology!  Just look at the categories of songs in this 750+ page book:
  • Introduction to worship
  • The Divine Perfections
  • Jesus Christ
  • The Holy Spirit
  • Institutions of the Gospel
  • The Ministry
  • The Church
  • The Sabbath
  • Baptism
  • The Lord's Supper
  • Provisions and Promises of the Gospel
  • The Sinner
  • Depravity
  • Awakening
  • Inviting
  • Penitential
  • The Christian Life
  • Justification by Faith
  • Adoption and Assurance
  • Sanctification
  • Means of Grace
  • Prayer and Intercession
  • Family Devotion
  • The Clost
  • Reading the Scriptures
  • Christian Fellowship
  • Duties and Trials
  • The Warfare
  • Patience and Resignation
  • Growth in Grace
  • Humiliation
  • Unfaithfulness mourned
  • Backslidings lamented
  • Rejoicing
  • Deliverance from Trouble
  • Communion with God
  • Prospect of Heaven
  • Special Occasions
  • Time and Eternity
  • Close of Worship 

And let me just share one of these hymns with you.  This is number 676.  The songs did not for the most part have titles, but summary lines, which for this one is "Riches of God's word".
The counsels of redeeming grace
    The sacred leaves unfold;
And here the Saviour's lovely face
    Our raptured eyes behold.

Here light descending from above
    Directs our doubtful feet;
Here promises of heavenly love
    Our ardent wishes meet.

Our num'rous griefs are here redresse'd,
    And all our wants supplied;
Naught we can ask to make us blest
    Is in this book denied.

For these inestimable gains,
    That so enrich the mind,
O may we search with eager pains,
    Assured that we shall find.


1 comment:

kerux said...

I love these old hymns, too! When I was 21 I bought my first hymnal and started to read it (actually, I think I never paid for it!!). I could not believe how much I could learn from a hymn and how it directed my heart in worship. I think part of the Wesley's progress in England was a direct result of getting so many to sing their theology. One old hymn writer that has owned my heart lately is John Newton. Here is one of his:

The LORD Will Provide.
Though troubles assail And dangers affright,
Though friends should all fail And foes all unite;
Yet one thing secures us, Whatever betide,
The scripture assures us... The Lord will provide.

The birds without barn Or storehouse are fed,
From them let us learn To trust for our bread:
His saints, what is fitting, Shall ne'er he denied,
So long as 'tis written... The Lord will provide.

We may, like the ships, By tempest be tossed
On perilous deeps, But cannot be lost.
Though Satan enrages The wind and the tide,
The promise engages... The Lord will provide.

His call we obey Like Abram of old,
Not knowing our way, But faith makes us bold;
For though we are strangers We have a good Guide,
And trust in all dangers... The Lord will provide.

When Satan appears To stop up our path,
And fill us with fears, We triumph by faith;
He cannot take from us, Though oft he has tried,
This heart-cheering promise... The Lord will provide.

He tells us we're weak, Our hope is in vain,
The good that we seek We ne'er shall obtain,
But when such suggestions Our spirits have plied,
This answers all questions... The Lord will provide.

No strength of our own, Or goodness we claim,
Yet since we have known The Savior's great name;
In this our strong tower For safety we hide,
The Lord is our power... The Lord will provide.

When life sinks apace And death is in view,
This word of his grace Shall comfort us through:
No fearing or doubting With Christ on our side,
We hope to die shouting... The Lord will provide!

John Newton, Hymn #7, Olney Hymns (London: W. Oliver, 1779).