Sunday, March 13, 2011

Baptist hymn singing, receptive ecumenism, and the Nicene Creed

In a previous post I expressed my appreciation for the Baptist-produced Celebrating Grace Hymnal (2010) in light of the implications for receptive ecumenism of the Baptist practice of hymn singing that I noted in my 2010 Lourdes College Ecumenical Lecture (subsequently published as "How Baptists Receive the Gifts of Catholics and Other Christians" in Ecumenical Trends 39, no. 6 [June 2010], pp. 1/81-5/85):

Baptist hymnals are arguably the most significant ecumenical documents produced by Baptists. They implicitly recognize hymn writers from a wide variety of traditions throughout the history of the church as sisters and brothers in Christ by including their hymns alongside hymns by Baptists....[In addition to numerous] patristic hymns, Baptists receive through their hymnals the gifts of Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Jesus, Martin Luther, the post-Reformation Roman Catholic author of 'Fairest Lord Jesus' from the M√ľnster Gesangbuch, the Methodist Charles Wesley, and more recently the Pentecostal pastor Jack Hayford, to name a few hymn writers whose ecclesial gifts Baptists have gladly received with their voices and hearts.

In that previous post, one of several things I praised about the Celebrating Grace Hymnal was this:

I'm delighted that the Celebrating Grace Hymnal has resisted the practice of altering the wording of hymns by non-Baptist hymn writers that were sometimes perceived in their original wording to be at odds with aspects of Baptist theology. While perhaps done with the best of intentions, such Baptist tweaking of hymn texts often results in disasters both theological and aesthetic. Case in point: “The Church’s One Foundation” by nineteenth-century Anglican priest and hymn writer Samuel John Stone (1839-1900). The first stanza of the hymn originally began with this couplet: "The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord; she is his new creation, by water and the word." That last phrase seemed to suggest a theology of baptism that was a bit too sacramental for Baptist voices to sing, so many Baptist hymnals--including the two hymnals of most of the period of my own Baptist formation, those published in 1975 and 1991 by the Southern Baptist Convention--altered "water and the word" to "Spirit and the word." Not only did that ruin a nice alliterative pair of words; it communicated a soteriology that is ultimately Gnostic. Thankfully, the Celebrating Grace Hymnal retains Stone's original wording. Many Baptist hymnals also excised the third stanza, which describes a church "by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed," and also omitted the original fifth and final stanza that began, "Yet she on earth hath union with God, the Three in one, and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won." With the omission of those two stanzas, many Baptists missed the opportunity to be formed by an ecclesiology that values the visible unity of the church, the doctrinal catholicity of the church, and the nature of the church as a Trinitarian fellowship in which all the redeemed of all the ages participate in God and in one another. The Celebrating Grace Hymnal restores these stanzas, too.

Recently I discovered in the Celebrating Grace Hymnal another instance of this salutary practice of receiving the ecclesial gifts of the hymns of other traditions without distorting or ignoring the theology embedded within them. I was searching for an appropriate Christological hymn to sing with my Christian Theology students at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity at the beginning of a class session on patristic Christological developments. To my great delight I noticed that the Celebrating Grace Hymnal includes as stanza 2 of the hymn "O Come, All Ye Faithful" a stanza that other Baptist hymnals have omitted from the hymn text attributed to eighteenth-century English Catholic hymn writer John Francis Wade (1711-1786):

True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,
lo, He shuns not the virgin's womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created.
O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

If the language of this stanza seems familiar, it's because the stanza incorporates the language of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made....

The restored stanza joins this creedal affirmation of the fullness of divinity present in Jesus Christ with an echo of the earliest polemical appeal to the doctrine of Christ's virginal conception as evidence of the true humanity of Christ (an appeal that may seem counterintuitive to contemporary evangelicals accustomed to hearing the virginal conception mentioned as a proof of Jesus' divine origin).

In a review of my book Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision (2006), Charles Scalise rightly suggested that the liturgical/theological formula lex orandi, lex credendi ("the rule of praying is the rule of believing") might function most appropriately for Baptists if re-envisioned as lex cantandi, lex credendi--"the rule of singing is the rule of believing" (Perspectives in Religious Studies 35, no. 4 [Winter 2008]: 433-35). Even if there are presently few Baptist congregations that include the corporate recitation of the Nicene Creed in Sunday worship (though there are some that do so), the many Baptist churches affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that are adopting the Celebrating Grace Hymnal now have the opportunity each Christmas season to sing a key portion of the Nicene Creed and to have their faith formed by it. Lex cantandi, lex credendi!


  1. One particularly irksome ammendation occurs in some versions of "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross" (No. 280 in the 1991 edition of The Baptist Hymnal). The last line of the chorus, which should read "till my ransomed soul shall find rest beyond the river" is sometimes badly distorted to read "till my raptured soul shall find..." However, the '91 Baptist Hymnal does get it right.

  2. It's nice to hear about this new Baptist-produced hymnal. I've argued for years that many people are shaped more by what they sing than what they hear in a sermon, and often illustrate this by asking theological questions and leading people to answer them with familiar hymns. This is why good liturgy and good hymnody are critical. No one memorizes my homilies, but they incorporate songs and liturgical responses into their hearts and are formed by them.

  3. Looking at Reynolds Companion to the '91, it doesn't say anything about the ransomed-raptured change. I'm not sure if "raptured" is primarily a reference to the state of ecstasy or the actual transport of the soul to heaven, and thus a vague allusion to THE rapture.

    The most egregious changes are the ones exchange Trinitarian language for functional language as in the Chalice hymnal's Doxology: "Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost." By changing "Father" to "Creator" the editors make a theologically incoherent statement: all THREE persons are involved in creation. But more problematic it is close to modalistic. But the Doxology is no longer clearly Trinitarian.

  4. True, Curtis. While I appreciate and affirm the motive for gender-neutral alterations of hymns and other liturgical texts--to make it clear that God transcends human gendered categories--many approaches to solving this problem end up creating other theological difficulties that are often more serious (though I grant those making such alterations aren't intending to reinforce problematic conceptions of the Triune God). The simplest solution seems to be to retain the biblical and traditional language of the Trinatarian formula and be very intentional about teaching what this language doesn't and does mean. (Gregory of Nyssa does this in his homilies on the Song of Songs, pointing out--even way back in the fourth century--that human gender cannot be ascribed to God and that Scripture itself uses maternal as well as paternal language; yet he retained the biblical formula (and explained what it doesn't and does mean).

  5. Thanks Steve. Indeed, I also want to make sure the worship of the church is attuned to all in worship, regardless of gender. But as you point out the de-gendering of the Trinity has problems beyond that. Father, Son, and Spirit are not merely IMAGES or METAPHORS. This is the name of the Triune God.

  6. There are several good baptist hymnals that reflect the fruit of the Ecumenical Movement and the Liturgical Reform Movement. Hope Publishing has a few (The Worshiping Church is my favorite). And I love the notion of lex cantandi, lext credendi. I'm going to find the journal article now. Thank you!