Locating Hymns in Church History

These days, I most often find myself in the pew on Sunday morning, instead of in the pulpit. Recently, I’ve started playing a little game with hymns that that I am asked to sing in the course of Christian worship. I call it “Guess which year the hymn was written.

When the words and tunes were written to together, it’s almost too easy to guess with accuracy. Even when the tune is not original, however, I can usually come close. Most hymns give themselves away through their lyrics. Christians in different ages and places understood and practiced the Christian faith differently. The words of the hymns reflect how the Christians who produced them thought and spoke about the faith.

Besides being a fun little game, I think there’s some significance to my pastime. The hymns most closely tied to a particular era or stream of thought within Christian tradition are often difficult to sing without discomfort. Locating hymns within one of the streams of church history helps me sing the hymns with integrity, recognizing both the strengths and the weaknesses of that particular approach to the faith. The hymns I most like, by the way, are those that are most difficult to pin to any one age, place or theological tradition.

I learned to think about hymns this way, I suppose, by reading the scriptures within their historical contexts. Hymns and sacred scriptures, however, are not precisely in the same category. I might respect how Christians of bygone eras came to understand the faith as they did, but I’m not required to think that they got it just right. All Christian traditions are not equal in that respect. Some get it more right than others. The texts of scripture, however, are not just religious texts produced by the people of God at various points in history. They are that, but they are more than that. God has chosen to reveal himself to the post-apostolic church through them. I am bound, then, to submit myself to them in in a way that I am not to any other Christian writing. I sing hymns with a critical eye on the text; I listen to the scriptures with a critical eye on myself.

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