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):
(2) Depth of religious feeling.
(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?”