“My Very Dear Friends”

My church has been going through 1st Corinthians since late January of this year.

This week we found ourselves in the middle of a text warning the Corinthian church that their actions were dangerously reminiscent of Israel’s during their wilderness wanderings (1 Cor. 10).  Paul says even though Israel enjoyed a unique relationship with God their position did not shelter them from all the consequences of sin; “God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness” (verse 5).

Apparently some of the Corinthians thought that their Christian liberty was so great that there was no need to be mindful of the peril their actions might represent to themselves, or the “weaker” believers in the Corinthian fellowship.  “Therefore,” says Paul, “let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (verse 12).

As I was studying this difficult passage I stumbled across the words “my dear friends” in verse 14 (as in the NIV).  The New American Standard renders this phrase “my beloved” because the word here for “dear friends” (or “beloved”) comes from the Greek word agape, which means love, or “Christian love” (as the Aland Greek New Testament dictionary, 4th edition has).  The King James has a combination reading of the phrase: “my dearly beloved.”  The author of the most definitive commentary on 1 Corinthians I’m aware of to date writes that the popular translation “my dear friends” should be strengthened a bit; he suggests “my very dear friends.”

In the midst of a firm warning, there is tenderness.

Too often we read our definition of love into many Biblical passages and the result is either a distrust of the Bible itself, or a skewed theology and practice.

Our culture here in America largely defines love as affirmation.  While love may at times need to be affirming, it also sees a place for warning and even rebuke.  The Bible never condones truth without love (Ephesians 4:15).

But the reverse is true as well.  Love shares truth.

Next time we read a difficult biblical passage in the Bible, we need to remember the loving God that stands behind them.  We need to remember that often the words of warning or rebuke are preceded by words like “my very dear friends.”

 

Disney’s Frozen: A Glimpse at the Human Heart

A couple of months ago my family sat down at home and watched Disney’s new hit movie “Frozen.”  It landed in stores not long ago in March and made a splash for its divergence from the standard prince-saves-princess romantic story line everyone has come to expect in Disney princess films.  Nadia Ali writes in an interesting article at the Washington Post online “What Disney’s Frozen Can Teach Us About Mental Illness“:

I also love the updated themes of today’s Disney movie: The message of empowerment and the healing power of love for others. The focus on sibling love rather than romantic love. Unlike those in “Cinderella” and fairy tales, several characters in this movie actively advocate against getting engaged to someone you’ve just met. And finally, of course, the strength of the princess saving the day herself rather than waiting for a man to do it for her.

Many Christians are applauding the movie’s more realistic depiction of love and the serious attempt it makes to contribute to cultural moral discussions.  There are also very obvious redemptive themes in the movie.  Trevin Wax writes at TGC blogs:

It’s not hard to see the redemptive sketches in this movie. If you believe that love is more than just a feeling, that true love is expressed in self-sacrifice (which flows ultimately from Christ’s willingness to give His life for the world), and that true change can only take place through redemption not self-discovery, then you will find this movie delightful. More importantly, you will find ways to connect this movie’s theme to the gospel. We loved it.

For example, one song is titled “Fixer-Upper.”  The idea of the song is that everyone has flaws and love is the only real medicine that can change them:

Everyone’s a bit of a fixer upper
That’s what it’s all about
Father, sister, brother
We need each other
To raise us up and round us out

Everyone’s a bit of a fixer upper
But when push comes to shove
The only fixer upper fixer
That can fix a fixer upper is
True
True
True
True
Love

But even more stunning for me is the picture of just how deep our depravity as humans goes and our utter powerlessness over it.  Elsa, the queen and older sister of Anna in the movie, has magical powers to freeze things.  The problem is that she cannot control these powers; and the more intensely she feels emotion, the more violently and destructively they are unleashed–even on those she loves most.  In effort to deal with her problems she isolates herself in the middle of nowhere, builds and ice castle, and tries to convince herself that everything is okay.  The theme song of the movie, “Let it go” is sung by Elsa in the movie right in the midst of her vain attempts to deal with her uncontrollable problems:

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

This is truly a picture of our fallen, sinful nature which we are all born into.  Our sins are so deep, and such a part of our core being that there is no human device which can shake them loose, in fact, most often our attempts only deepen the hurt for ourselves and those closest to us. It is only when we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ that true and lasting healing can take place.  Just as the song above, “Fixer Upper” suggests, only love, God’s love can truly fix us up.

The Surprising Roots of Young Atheists

Why do so many young people today walk away from their church roots?

The answer is most likely not what you think.

A recent article by Larry Taunton, founder of Fixed-Point Foundation, a group that “is dedicated to exploring those ideas that shape culture,” suggested that the main reason many young poeple embrace atheism is because of bad church experiences.

Yep, that’s right.  Not because of the strength of a growing body of scientific evidence against Christianity, the cogency of atheistic argumentation, or the allurement of secular culture, but because of repeated disillusionment and frustration with their church homes.

The question of what is leading youth to embrace atheism popped into Taunton’s mind not long ago.  It eventually moved him to launch a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS).  The college groups are, in Tauton’s words:

…the atheist equivalents of Campus Crusade.  They meet regularly for fellowship, encourage one another in their (un)belief, and even proselytize.  They are people who are not merely irreligious; they are actively, determinedly irrelgious.

The results of these many interviews was fascinating.  Some of their stories and answers are recorded in the full article, which you can read here.

In the end he summarizes the common threads of these student’s responses about their background and what lead them to their atheism:

(1) they had attended church

(2) the mission and message of their churches was vague

(3) they felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions

(4) they expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously

(5) Ages 14-17 were decisive

(6) the decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one

(7) the internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism

Food for thought.

 

Aronofsky’s “Noah” and the Nephilim

Darren Aronofsky’s movie “Noah” hit theaters on the 28th of March and is making a big splash in evangelical circles.  Despite complaints, it was still number one on it’s opening weekend.  I have not yet seen the film myself, but several of my friends have and online reviews already abound.  News outlets like The Huffington Post, Washington Post, New York Times, Breitbart, and others have weighed in as well as many, many evangelicals.  Click here, here, or here to taste some of what the evangelical world has been saying.

I was surprised to hear that the “Nephilim” (or more humorously, the “rock monsters“) make a serious appearance in the movie.  Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote recently on his website:

[Aronofsky’s] oddest characterization, by the way, may well be the “fallen angels” called the “watchers,” based rather loosely on the Nephilim found in Genesis 6:4. They appear in the film as giant figures made of something like rock and asphalt. They first appear as enemies of humankind, but one, speaking with the voice of Nick Nolte, protects Noah and convinces others to do likewise. They appear as mighty cartoon figures in the movie, but they really belong in a science fiction film. 1

Since the Nephilim are in the lime-light now, I thought it might be worthwhile to talk a little about them.

Tabletalk magazine featured an article in April of 2013 by Dr. R. C. Sproul titled “The Son’s of God.” The article is a brief commentary on Genesis 6:1-4.  You can read the piece online here.

This passage is one of the most debated texts in all of the Old Testament.  Sproul writes:

In the twentieth century, the German biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann gave a massive critique of the Scriptures, arguing that the Bible is filled with mythological references that must be removed if it is to have any significant application to our day. Bultmann’s major concern was with the New Testament narratives, particularly those that included records of miracles, which he deemed impossible. Other scholars, however, have claimed that there are mythological elements in the Old Testament as well. Exhibit A for this argument is usually a narrative that some believe parallels the ancient Greek and Roman myths about gods and goddesses occasionally mating with human beings.

The much debated text reads as follows:

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them,  the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.  Then theLord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”  The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.

Sproul, like many folks in the traditional Reformed camp, takes the meaning of the phrase “sons of God” to be a reference to believers based on the fact that believers are mentioned as such a handful of times in the New Testament (Matt. 5:9; Rom. 8:14; Gal. 3:26).  In this scenario the phrase “daughters of men” I’m presuming would be a reference to unbelievers.  His second line of reasoning is contextual.  He writes:

Following the narrative of the fall in Genesis 3, the Bible traces the lines of two families, the descendents of Cain and of Seth. Cain’s line is recounted in Genesis 4, and this line displays proliferating wickedness, capped by Lamech, who was the first polygamist (v. 19) and who rejoiced in murderous, vengeful use of the sword (vv. 23–24). By contrast, the line of Seth, which is traced in Genesis 5, displays righteousness. This line includes Enoch, who “walked with God, and … was not, for God took him” (v. 24). In the line of Seth was born Noah, who was “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (6:9). Thus, we see two lines, one obeying God and the other willfully disobeying Him.  Therefore, many Hebrew scholars believe that Genesis 6 is describing not the intermarriage of angels and human women but the intermarriage of the descendents of Cain and Seth. The two lines, one godly and one wicked, come together, and suddenly everyone is caught up in the pursuit of evil, such that “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (v. 5). We do not need to surmise an invasion of the earth by angels in order to make sense of this chapter.

The more I look at this passage, however, the more I see evidence for the position Sproul is refuting.  Speaking of context, the Old Testament always uses the phrase “sons of God” in reference to angles, without exception (that I’m aware of, see Job 1:6; 21:1; Ps. 29:1).  To Sproul’s credit, he mentions these verses, though not in his discussion on context.

Another point I find confusing about his argument is why sons of God and daughters of men is a reference to believers and unbelievers respectively.  Why does the text put emphasis on gender here?  Is there anywhere else in the Bible where “daughters of men” is used to refer to unbelievers?  None that I’m aware of.  And if the problem was the fact that God’s people were having sexual relations with outsiders why does the writer draw a distinction between “sons” and “daughters”?  Surely we are not to believe that it was only the believing men who and the unbelieving women who were being naughty are we?

And what are we to make of these “mighty men,” “the men of renown”?  What about believers having relations with unbelievers produces “mighty men”?  To me, it seems much more straightforward to see this as implying somethingphysical and not spiritual in nature.

I’m not sure I have the answers to this text.  It’s a tricky one over which much ink has been spilled.  This budding theologian is not going to solve all the problems in a few paragraphs.  However, I don’t think we need to rescue the Bible from what appears on the surface to be a historical narrative about angels having relations with men (it’s definately not mythology).

But just because it’s not mythology doesn’t mean we need to strip the story of any meaning that might be hard for us to understand.

  1. See “Drowning in Distortion–Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah'”, AlbertMohler.com, http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/03/31/drowning-in-distortion-darren-aronofskys-noah/.  Accessed on 4/4/2014.

The Case for Easter

This is the question of all questions for Christianity: Did Jesus Rise?  Many religious philosophers and historians believe that if you can adequately show that Jesus rose from the dead, then you can prove the whole of the Christian worldview from there.  Even hard core skeptics see the crucial place of this doctrine in the Christian worldview.  Lee Strobel writes of his perspective as an atheist, legal editor working for the Chicago Tribune before his conversion to Christianity:

The starting point [to disproving Christian claims] seemed obvious to me: clearly the resurrection was the linchpin of the Christian faith.  After all, anyone can claim to be the Son of God.  But if someone could substantiate that assertion by returning to life after being certifiably dead and buried–well, that would be a compelling confirmation that he was telling the truth.  Even for a skeptic like me. 1

We are in the middle of what we Christians call Lent: a season of preparation for Easter Sunday, the day when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead some 2000 years ago.  Appropriately, it is a time to ask the very real question: did Jesus actually rise from the dead?

On Easter Sunday this year we will be giving away a book that looks at some of the evidence for the resurrection.  The former skeptic turned believer, Lee Strobel, has penned a handy little book just over 90 pages long entitled The Case for Easter in which he gives his personal testimony about his journey sifting through the facts about Jesus’ resurrection.  He looks are three important questions:

(1) The medical evidence: Was Jesus’ death a sham and his resurrection a hoax?

(2) The evidence of the missing body: Was Jesus’ body really absent from his tomb?

(3) The evidence of the appearances: Was Jesus seen alive after his death on the cross?

Come out and get your free copy this Easter Sunday, April 20, and hear about the powerful evidence for the historical reality of this massive, earth shattering event!

  1. Lee Strobel, The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 8.

Women and the Resurrection

The resurrection is one of the most central beliefs in Christianity.  It is also one of the most disputed.

Among the unchurched there is a commonly held conviction that the miraculous claims of the Christian faith were non-historical amendments created after the fact by religious zealots “with an agenda.”  For these folks, the resurrection would fall into this category.  It was a hoax; a concoction created to establish some kind of religious power structure.

Most Christians in the world would reject this idea.  For us, the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after his crucifixion is historical fact.  We know this because it is recorded in the Bible by eye-witnesses.  Time and space will not permit me to outline an entire defense of this belief, but here I offer one piece of evidence for skeptics to chew on for now: the Bible says that it was  a group of women that first discovered the empty tomb (see Mark 16:1-8).

What significance does this have on whether or not the resurrection is a historical fact?

Two things: First, skeptics have to explain how the belief in Jesus’ resurrection thrived in the very city where he was publicly crucified.  How could anyone have embraced such a ridiculous idea if Jesus’ body still lay in the tomb?  Could not the authorities have produced the body at any moment to silence them?  The belief in the resurrection hinges completely on the fact of the empty tomb.

It is safe to say that such a public and controversial execution as that of Jesus would have been well know in all its details; Jew and Gentile alike would have known where Jesus’ tomb was.  Street preachers declaring that he had risen from the dead would have no doubt induced examinations of the burial site.

Secondly, not only do we have no known record of anyone producing the body of Jesus after the disciples preaching on the resurrection began, but the Bible says that it was women who first discovered the fact of the empty tomb.

To see the significance a person must understand the low status of women at the time this event is supposed to have happened.  In first-century Jewish culture, the testimony of a woman was not considered credible.  Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37–100) wrote in his book Antiquities of the Jews, in a section describing the rules regarding admissible testimony: “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of their inconstancy and presumption of their sex.” 1  Paul L. Maier, an authority on Josephus and 1st-century Christianity, adds in the commentary on this section in Josephus’s Antiquities: “None of our copies of the Pentateuch say a word [about not legally allowing a woman’s testimony in courts of justice].  It is very probable, however, that this was…the practice of the Jews in the days of Josephus.” 2   In other words, this practice was not a biblical one, but had its roots in the patriarchalism of first-century Jewish culture.

Here’s the rub: if the story of the resurrection as we have it in the Bible is a product of legendary development or tinkering on the part of Biblical scribes hundreds of years later, why would they depict women discovering the empty tomb?  These women would have been the chief witnesses to the empty tomb, yet their testimony was considered worthless by the culture of the time; so why fabricate a story built upon such a sketchy foundation as this?

Don’t you think that if later writers were trying to amend the facts and make the story more believable they would have placed Peter or John at the empty tomb?

Mark’s placement of women at the empty tomb first can only be plausibly explained if they actually were the discoverers of the empty tomb, and the gospels faithfully record what for them was a very embarrassing fact.  3

This does not prove the whole of the resurrection account, but it does cast some doubt on the claim that the Bible is merely the product of later legendary development.

 

  1. Josephus, Antiquities, IV.8.15.
  2. William Whiston, trans., Paul L. Maier, Commentary, The New Complete Works of Josephus,Rev. (Kregal: Grand Rapids, 1999), 165.
  3. William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 2010), 228-229.

Another Look at Diversity

Today, there is talk of the need for “diversity” everywhere.   Around every corner we see a push for greater diversity in all things.  It is assumed that diversity is always a good thing.  Without going to far, one could probably argue that “diversity” is the mantra of our time and place.

I’m not going to dispute the “goodness” of diversity.  God created a universe full of diversity.  What I wish to dispute in this post is that diversity should be the measure of all things, especially Christianity.

Many young Americans today reject organized religion because it appears narrow and exclusive.  Sadly, this is the impression that many have of Christianity.  Tim Keller in his book The Reason for God writes on the very first page of chapter one:

During my nearly two decades in New York City, I’ve had numerous opportunities to ask people, “What is your biggest problem with Christianity?  What troubles you the most about its beliefs or how it is practiced?”  One of the most frequent answers I have heard over the years can be summed up in one word: exclusivity. 1

Another way of framing the idea of exclusivity is to see it as a lack of diversity.  Christianity is not “open” or “tolerant” of other viewpoints and is therefore, “exclusive”; it is not congenial to a diversity of opinion or practice.

But is this a fair evaluation of Christianity?  Does this claim hold water?

Two thoughts on this matter will be enough for now.  (1) Often when this objection is put forward what the person means is that Christianity claims to be the one true religion; it’s core doctrines do not leave room for a plurality of “true” perspectives.  (Nearly every religion claims this in one way or another.)  For a great deal of people today such a claim sounds ludicrous on the surface.  They might say something like “How can you know the truth?  Nobody really knows whose right and whose wrong.”  Or they might say that it’s arrogant to insist your religion is right and to seek to convert others to it.  These are all common critiques of religion, especially Christianity.  2

These critiques are usually presented by a person who is an advocate of “diversity” and plurality in the marketplace of ideas and perspectives.  But Christianity is just that.  In fact, as we will see in a moment, Christianity is one of the most diverse movements in all of recorded history, and certainly in today’s world.  The real problem with the critiques above however, is that they fall on their own sword.  If a person insists that no one can adjudicate with confidence between one view and another, why should we be persuaded of what they are saying?  Or, if a person says that it’s arrogant to try and convert others to your point of view simply ask them what they are trying to do with you.

In the final analysis, you cannot make “diversity” the measuring rod of all other belief systems, without being exclusive and narrow yourself.

(2) The second thought is simply this, despite the impression that exists in many places in our Western culture today, Christianity is in fact a religion of enormous diversity, inclusion, and breadth.  For one, Christianity the most diverse religion on the planet in many respects, just as a point of fact.  There is no religion, ever, to my knowledge, that has been embraced by so many different cultures and people groups.  Currently, to the surprise of many, Christianity is predominantly a non-Western religion.  The largest numbers of Christians, in fact, live on the continents of South America, Africa, and Asia.  Philip Jenkins writes in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity:

If we extrapolate the [current growth model data for Christianity] to the year 2025, the Southern predominance becomes still more marked.  Assuming no great gains or losses through conversion, then there would be around 2.6 billion Christians, of whom 695 million would live in Africa, 610 million in Latin America, and 480 million in Asia… By 2050 only about one-fifth of the world’s 3.2 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic whites.  Soon, the phrase “a white Christian” may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as “a Swedish Buddhist.”  Such a people can exist, but a slight eccentricity is implied. 3

It is difficult to grasp how a “narrow”, “exclusive” religion could be so widely embraced by so many peoples of different backgrounds, language, cultures, and values; the diversity found within Christianity seems to imply otherwise.

Maybe Christianity is not as “exclusive” as some suppose.

 

  1. Keller, “The Reason for God” (Dutton: New York, 2008), 3.
  2. These examples are used by Tim Keller in his book The Reason for God, 9-12.
  3. Jenkins, “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2011), 3.

“The Bills”: An Interview with Wired Magazine

I just read an interesting article in the December issue of WiredThe cover story of this edition is about an interview with the “Bills”, that is, Gates and Clinton.  As you may be aware, these men are founders of massive philanthropic organizations.  Gates founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Clinton founded the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

The article (and interview) discusses some of Gate’s and Clinton’s ideas about how to better the future of the world.  The essence of their argument was this: if we want the world to improve, then we need to work together.  Globalism was inherent in nearly everything to the two tycoons said.

Of course, the benefits of globalism are debatable.  But there are bigger fish to fry at the moment.  Yes, I said it that way intentionally.  Globalism is a really big deal, literally (a really big problem in my book), but there are still bigger problems.  Let me explain.

Maybe the easiest way to get at it is to ask a question: what is good?  When Gates says “It was not ‘good’ for the world for the U.S. to generate 30 percent of the economic activity” what does he mean?  Or when Bill Clinton says things like “Congress needs to keep our future in ‘good’ shape” what does he mean?

And that’s the rub.  Who decides what the standard is?  Who decides the definition of good?  Who determines the yard stick by which we will understand “goodness”?  Take a guess.  I’ll give you three, and the first two don’t count (as my dad used to say).  Well, the billionaire philanthropists get to decide.  Which means the top 1% of the world are calling the shots about the future of the other 99%.  And you know what?  You don’t get to be a billionaire by being philanthropic; you become a billionaire by being a business man.  And I’m not convinced that “the Bill’s” philanthropy is not just more business in disguise.[1]

But there’s another big problem.  Technology is NOT going to fix the world.  I hate to break it to you, but it’s not.  Over and over again in the interview this assumption is made.  Technology is the key to our global threats.  Technology only makes human wickedness more sophisticated and appalling.

Technology isn’t “good” or “bad” in itself, what makes technology good or bad is how its employed, and that’s something that technology has very little to do with.  In other words technology is only as “good” as its inventors and consumers.

The world’s solutions do not lie with billionaire businessmen concocting new technological ideas and scheming about how their products can shove their foot in the third-world door first.

Jesus said that “There is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man… For from within, out of the heart of man, proceed… all these evil things” (Mark 7:15, 21, 23).

A man’s heart will determine whether or not he uses his baseball bat to play baseball or beat his wife.

The future of the world hinges infinitely more on the condition of man’s heart than it does the gizmo’s he holds in his hands.

And neither of the Bill’s said anything about that.

 


[1] In the article Clinton admits that his foundation is really a glorified “launching pad” for “projects benefiting the global good.”  It’s hard to imagine that the “global good” is not directly tied to the Clinton family’s financial portfolio.  Clinton gives a couple of examples of how his foundation facilitates business in the article.  I’m amazed at how his political side still comes out in all of this, conveying and packaging controversial ideas in a way that makes them publicly appealing.  Speaking of Google’s idea to use balloons that provide internet connectivity to the rest of the world where there is none, Clinton says “Connectivity can be incredibly empowering to the people at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”  But he then goes on to give examples in which he arranged deals where the “the six big banks” and the “biggest cell phone company” where involved in solving problems in South Asia.  Who benefits more here is highly debatable: the big banks and corporations, or those on the “bottom of the economic pyramid.”

What is a Hymn?

At the Council of Toledo in Spain, A. D. 633, the definition of a hymn was canonized and written into the law of the church. The definition was adopted from St. Augustine who wrote over 200 years earlier that “a hymn…containeth these three things: song (canticum), and praise (laudem), and that of God.”

This understanding endured for years, with the minor exception (or major, depending on your perspective) that laudem was also given unto many saints and not just to God. Many hymns thus included praise for those saints who were revered by the church and did not solely reserve praise for God alone. It was also not uncommon for hymns to include content on the various seasons of the church year.

Later, Calvin and many of the Reformers asserted that only the Psalms were inspired. All other songs were of human origin and therefore deemed unworthy of divine worship. The Psalms were cast into metrical language and became the music of the Church in England, Scotland, and Holland, and in the parts of the American colonies that were settled by people from those countries. “Hymn”-singing was thus stigmatized in these places until the coming of Isaac Watts (died 1748), though some peoples (even some Reformed) continued the practice in spite of some of Calvin’s teachings (i.e. Germans, Scandinavians, and Hungarians). Today the psalm-singing churches make up only a tiny fraction of the English speaking world.

In modern times, the word “hymn” has come to mean many various things and the content greatly expanded. Hymns today cover a range of topics including: forgiveness, Christian unity, loyalty, missions, good will, fellowship, the Church, social justice, and countless other topics and objectives of the Christian life and of the Kingdom of God. By the early twentieth century The Hymn Society of America had adopted a definition (though not necessarily representing the views of “the Church” everywhere) which reveals this great expansion of meaning. The Society adopted Carl F. Price’s (died 1947) definition, which goes:

A Christian hymn is a lyric poem, reverently and devotionally conceived, which is designed to be sung and which expresses the worshipper’s attitude toward God, or God’s purposes in human life. It should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic, and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in its ideas so direct and so immediately aparrent as to unify a congregation while singing it.

Whatever one’s thoughts on the ethics of hymns, good hymns generally have the following characteristics according to Price (with some additions by Armin Haeussler):

(1) Simplicity.
(2) Depth of religious feeling.
(3) Didactic.
(4) Propositional.
(5) Hortatory.
(6) Commitment to various patterns which include (a) Trinitarian, (b) Conversational, (c) Hebrew based on thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, (d) Paradoxical, (e) Petitionary, (f) Litany, (g) Words of Jesus, and (h) penitence.

There is also much debate about whether or not a “hymn” includes both text and tune, or is it confined to the text solely. Suffice it to say for now that the word “hymn” seems to include both text and tune in modern usage. David McKinley Williams (died 1978) said in an address delivered on Oct. 19, 1941: “A hymn is not good because of the merit of its verse or for the excellence of its tune, but for the felicitous union of both words and tune.”

Maybe, in my opinion, the most important piece of the discussion is reflected in what Kierkegaard (died 1855) said of hymns: “God is the audience.” Because God is the audience, hymns must be guarded by certain principles, most importantly the word of God. In other words, a hymn must not simply contain religious language or phraseology, but must be submitted to the teaching of Scripture. A hymn can only said to be properly Christian in as much as it reflects the truths of the Christian faith. Psalm 66:2 captures this: “Sing the glory of His name, make His praise glorious!” (NAS). In other words, the music won’t be glorious unless it accurately reflects the glory of God’s name. It would not be fitting to sing a song to God that doesn’t accurately describe him, his Church, his dwelling place, his actions, or his purpose in the world. The content is crucial.

In closing, I quote Williams again,

When we sing, through our emotions the door of our understanding is opened to things beyond the meaning of words. We sing ourselves into the grace of believing; too often we talk ourselves into doubt. So then, let us once in a while be filled with the freedom and the ecstasy of singing. The reward will be great. It will be that we are numbered among the immortals who sing the never-beginning, the never-ending, the ever-old, the always-new song to the praise of God.

Amen, “Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of his wondrous works! (Psalm 105:2).

Note: Most of the content from this entry was adapted or quoted from The Story of Our Hymns by Armin Haesussler. See specifically pages 1-10 on “What is a Hymn?”