Evangelical Worship and Chronological Snobbery

A Defense of the Hymnal

The hymnal is, for the most part, a dying artifact. Fewer and fewer churches have hymnals in stock, and even fewer actually make use of them during Lord’s Day worship. On the one hand, this makes a great deal of sense. It is expensive, after all, to buy a considerable number of physical books that eventually must be replaced—potentially soon, even, if children with Crayons get their hands on one or somebody spills their coffee on one. Why not just project the lyrics to whatever “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” are being sung, up on the big screen? Some people will claim, too, that worship with screens has the added benefit of creating a more somatically natural worship experience. Instead of looking down at a book, one can look forward, project his voice outward, and see the rest of the congregation worshiping alongside him. And instead of holding an object in his hands, his hands are now free to be elevated or held open in a posture of worship. I recently had a lengthy argument with another Presbyterian friend who made all these points.

As compelling as these arguments may be, the demise of the hymnal comes with an unintended, but horrible, consequence: evangelical worship that is marked by “chronological snobbery.” This reveals something about our current moment and has significant theological implications. Abetted by the strong influences of liberalism and consumer capitalism, our culture is one that suffers greatly from historical amnesia and is obsessed with the here and now

For example, if you quiz a typical American about pre-World War II history, most likely, they have scant knowledge. What little they do know might well be that whatever happened was certainly racist, sexist, homophobic, backward, anti-intellectual, unsophisticated, and outdated. C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Screwtape Letters, labeled this attitude “chronological snobbery,” and rightly characterized it as antithetical to Christianity. Indeed, our religion is not one that has to do with what is hot and fashionable in the current moment but is one that is predicated upon fixed eternal truths and, as J. Gresham Machen insists in Christianity and Liberalism, upon events—especially a set of particular events: the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—that occurred in the past. We assert, with the church catholic through the ages: “As it was in the beginning, [it] is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” In fact, this creed, itself—known as the Gloria Patri —is one of the oldest hymns in the Christian tradition, dating back to the first few centuries of the church. It is an heritage of the early church that has been shared by all major branches of Christianity, including evangelical Protestantism. Indeed, it was included in most of the Protestant hymnals published over the last few centuries—even the low-church Baptist Hymnals! But it is a safe bet that most evangelical Christians today have never heard of it. This illustrates the problem we face.

Hymns and spiritual songs from different periods in history reflect different emphases, based on the cultural milieus in which those texts were written. If one looks at the Trinity Hymnal—one of the best modern hymnals out there—one will find a constellation of hymns from different time periods that have different theological emphases or use different sorts of language and style. For example, there are a few of those hymns that have no clear author but have been universal standards in the church catholic since the few centuries immediately following the Council of Nicaea, such as, again, the Gloria Patri, the Te Deum, which appears in the Trinity Hymnal as, “Holy God, We Praise Your Name,” and the Gloria in Excelsis, which appears in the same collection as “All Glory Be to Thee, Most High.” These texts have a characteristic emphasis on the Trinity properly understood, and the centrality of this doctrine in redemption and the Christian life. And far from being relics of Popery, these texts remained centerpieces of worship following the English Reformation. Thomas Cranmer included English translations of all three of these texts in the Book of Common Prayer. Even today, for Prayer Book Anglicans (and Presbyterians), these texts remain important. Other hymn texts in the Trinity Hymnal that were composed by Church Fathers or other early church poets generally emphasize these same themes—dwelling heavily on the Trinity, or walking, over their several verses, through the themes of the Nicaean or Apostles’ Creeds. Examples include the fourth-century text, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten;” “O Light That Knew No Dawn,” written by the Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nazianus; and Ambrose of Milan’s poem, “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright.” These texts, unlike the previous three, were less known to early Protestants. They were re-sourced and translated by English clergymen during the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement, which, despite its multiple theological issues that can be fairly summarized as “crypto-Romanism,” nevertheless wrought a laudable emphasis on resourcing hymn texts from the early church. 

However, apart from “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” which has become somewhat of a Christmas standard, and a very small part of the Latin text of Gloria in Excelsis—which, again, appears in the chorus of the nineteenth-century English Christmas carol, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” few evangelicals today know any of these early church hymn texts. Yet the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the doctrines that has most plagued the contemporary evangelical church. I could point to the heterodox doctrine of “social trinitarianism” that has so insidiously pervaded so much evangelical scholarship in the last half century, or simply call to mind all of the poor analogies for the Trinity that venture into modalism, Sabellianism, Arianism, and a whole host of other classic heresies that are prevalent enough among laypeople for Hans Fiene’s Lutheran Satire to have, years ago, created a funny video entitled “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” that remains evergreen and salient to all its watchers. Even in the Reformed evangelical world, the most popular systematic theology written the last few decades, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, despite its general ease-to-read and helpfulness, is unfortunately marred by the crypto-Arian error known as “Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son—a doctrine that ignited a firestorm of controversy in the evangelical world about ten years ago. I must wonder, if the evangelical church had been more diligent in catechizing its members by preserving, in regular worship, these ancient hymn texts that dwell so richly on Nicaean Trinitarianism, would we be dealing with so many trinitarian errors today?

Jumping forward in history, several periods of post-Reformation hymnody that one can find in the Trinity Hymnal also contain differing, but valuable, theological and stylistic emphases. The Pietist movement in the late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Germany, for example, which is considered by many historians to be one of the forerunners to what we now call “evangelicalism,” produced a litany of hymns that dwell, disproportionately, on the believer’s experience dealing with suffering, and God’s providence amid this. One might call to mind “Whate’er My God Ordains Is Right,” a 1675 composition by German theologian Samuel Rodigast which so beautifully calls the believer to remember that,

“Though now this cup, in drinking // May bitter seem to my faint heart // I take it, all unshrinking // My God is true; each morn anew // Sweet comfort yet shall fill my heart, // And pain and sorrow shall depart.” 

Or one might think of Henrietta von Hayn’s composition, “I am Jesus’ Little Lamb,” which is often aimed more toward children but is just as prescient for adults. This text emphasizes how we believers are sheep in the care of a Good Shepherd, and thus, “Should I not be always glad? // None whom Jesus loves are sad; And when this short life is ended, Those whom the Good Shepherd tended, Will be taken to the skies, There to dwell in Paradise.” Then, there’s Paul Gerhardt’s 1653 composition, “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me?” which asks why the believer should be grieved by suffering when, “Christ is near // with his cheer; // never will he leave me.” Indeed, “Who can rob me of the heaven // that God’s Son // for my own //to my faith hath given?” There are many more that I could mention, but I will merely point out one more as an example—the very well-known hymn, even by many evangelicals today, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” 

This 1680 composition by Joachim Neander, which riffs off of Psalm 103, is clearly intended as a call-to-worship hymn, so it is not as narrowly focused on God’s providence amid suffering in the Christian life. And yet, even this hymn still focuses on God’s providence in the Christian life in verses 2, asking the believer, “Hast thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been // granted in what he ordaineth?” And in verse 4, which is not well-known at all, the hymn text reflects on “The Lord, who, when tempests their warfare are waging … // Biddeth them cease, turneth their fury to peace // Whirlwinds and waters assuaging.”

I will briefly contrast these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century German hymns’ emphasis on God’s providence in the Christian life with the therapeutic mindset that is prevalent in the culture at large, and even the church, today. These German hymns all assumed that suffering/crosses/trials were a feature of the Christian life rather than a bug, and that they were not going to simply go away. Like the Psalms, which contain many laments where the Psalmist then turns from his lament to focus on God’s providence and God’s works in history, these hymns encouraged the believer to rest, amid his suffering, in the finished word of Christ on his behalf and in God’s overarching providence. Nevertheless, there were no false promises that this life would cease to be hard. However, a quick perusal of many of today’s popular contemporary worship songs shows these truths do not seem to be understood well. For example, in Lauren Daigle’s smash hit, “You Say,” the problems she faces are not external but are all internal struggles with “voices in [her] mind that say [she’s] not enough” (which, ironically, is actually true!) with the solution to this problem being, dwelling on how God has affirmed her in Christ. In fact, God says she is “strong.” Hillsong Worship’s popular song, “Who You Say I Am,” follows along similar lines. Or we could look at Elevation Worship’s song, “Graves into Gardens,” that, again, starts with the problem being self-weakness and assumes that for the believer, God turns “mourning to dancing,” “shame into glory,” “graves into gardens.” Certainly—do not get me wrong—I do not want to say these songs do not hit on some true themes. God very much can, and does, do these things in Christians lives! What about believers, though, who do not resonate with this happy-clappy, therapeutic response to suffering in the Christian life? These worship songs do not have much to say to the faithful believer who has placed his “identity in Christ” for his whole life, and then his mother gets stage-four terminal cancer. So many Christians who leave the faith today are, in some form or another, dealing with the practical problem of evil. “Why did bad things happen to me and to those whom I love?” In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though, living without modern medicine or modern comforts, Christians constantly had death and suffering in their faces. Evangelicals would be wise today to sing hymns that inculcate us in the wisdom of how our forefather’s faced these trials and yet rested in God’s providence amid them.

There are many other eras of hymnody that I could point the reader to. For example, the hymns of Charles Wesley, John Newton, and other eighteenth-century English evangelicals that, influenced by the First Great Awakening, often focused heavily on the conversion experience and the religious affections felt by believers; or the “Gospel Hymnody” of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America, epitomized in the hymns of Fanny Crosby, which, influenced by American revivalism, often emphasized the believer’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I sense that these themes are less lacking in evangelicalism and its popular worship music today. This article, also, is becoming quite long, and I believe that my point is fairly clear—if we cast away hymnals, such as the Trinity Hymnal, which should force us to encounter hymns and spiritual songs written from many different historical and cultural perspectives from across the wide range of Christian history, we are at risk of a certain kind of “chronological snobbery.” Indeed, our worship music, as seen in above some of the examples of contemporary worship songs, may far too easily become songs that only reflect the cultural biases, styles, and emphases of our current day—which today, means that our worship music will too easily fall into a self-focused, therapeutic, affirming, mode that historians in the future could easily identify as influenced by what philosopher Charles Taylor described as “expressive individualism.” More than this, discarding hymnals puts us at risk of losing wisdom that has been bequeathed to us by fathers of the Church on theological matters on which we are so apt to fall into error again and again—like the doctrine of the Trinity—if we detach ourselves from this wisdom. Far from being an artifact of the past, hymnals are vital resources that ensure we remain grounded in modes of piety above and beyond our cultural contexts and fixed in orthodox doctrine. When we consider that worship songs are one of the primary ways that Christians are catechized in the Christian life, it is hard to understate how important this is.

Finally, I would be remiss to not mention that the best collection of timeless hymns that speaks to all cultural contexts, addresses all the emotional registers of the Christian life, directs the Christian away from himself and unto God, masterfully balances law and Gospel, and keeps us fixed in orthodox doctrine is The Psalms. It is no coincidence that many of the best hymns in Christian history—whether Isaac Watts’ many hymns, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” which I mentioned earlier—as well as many of the best contemporary worship songs, such as several of Shane & Shane’s compositions, are directly or heavily based on Psalms. Sadly, few evangelical congregations sing the Psalms today, but I will finish this article with this exhortation: when the Apostle Paul talks about singing to one another in “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs,” contrary to how many evangelical churches act today, the “Psalms” part of that is not a suggestion. Sing the Psalms! And please think twice before discarding your hymnals.

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Jacob Huneycutt

Jacob Huneycutt serves as field staff with Reformed University Fellowship at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, FL. He is also an M.Div. student with Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. He resides in Tampa, FL and is a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Lakeland, FL.

8 thoughts on “Evangelical Worship and Chronological Snobbery

  1. I very much appreciate the above article, but there is a perspective that Honeycutt misses about hymns: the music itself. Music without words carries a message. The hope of any song sung in a church services is that the message of the music coincides with or adds to the message of the words sung. And so here we should compare contemporary worship music with hymns, such as those from the Trinity Hymnal. What is missing in many, but not all, of the contemporary worship songs is the sense of reverence. The sense of reverence comes from the realization that we are not where we deserve to be when sitting in our churches. We sinners are in a special presence of a holy God. We often forget that God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden over one sin. And the Garden was more than just a place where food was abundant and more easily accessed, it was a place where personal fellowship between God and man was taking place. And thus, God kicking Adam and Eve out of the Garden showed that God’s holiness cannot allow the presence of even one sin.

    The problem with using contemporary music for the worship music itself is that, unlike hymns, contemporary music itself revolves around our horizontal relationships, around our relationships with other people who are fellow sinners. Thus, what is missing in too much of the contemporary music used for worship music is the reverence that is present in the music of hymns. That is because the music of the hymns more often revolve around our vertical relationship–our relationship with God. And so much more care must be taken in the selection and playing of worship music based on contemporary styles of music. That doesn’t rule out the use of contemporary music in worship, it simply means that we need to be much more selective than what a lot of churches are in the music they use.

    Finally, to avoid chronological snobbery in music, we must realize that that snobbery cuts both ways. And so to avoid that snobbery, we shouldn’t take and all-or-nothing approach to selecting music for worship. We shouldn’t play just hymns from the hymnals or just Psalms or just contemporary worship songs. We need to blend the best from each style and from multiple genres of music. We also need to blend worship songs from places that have different cultures from our own. For if our worship music comes from a church’s local culture only, there is a greater possibility that people in a given church will start to conflate their own society’s culture with Christianity.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Curt. I agree with everything you have said here. I partly did not address music because that is not so relevant to my argument. Music and style are things that are culturally contextualized, and can and should fluctuate via time periods—as long as it is being reverent. There is nothing wrong with Indellible Grace’s new hymn tunes, for example, if they are reverent within the congregational context in which they are being employed (my church, which is an older, more cathedral-looking church building, and which plays most songs with the organ, is an example where Indellibe Grace tunes would arguably NOT be most reverent… but they are perfectly appropriate for other contexts, like new PCA church plant with more low-key worship).

      To your last paragraph—yes, and good hymnals, as new ones are released, should do this. For example, if any hymnal were released today, it would be hard to justify not including many of Stuart Townend & Keith Getty’s compositions. The latest edition of the Trinity Hymnal is three decades old at this point (though there is the newer Trinity Psalter Hymnal, which is wonderful), yet it, itself, was not afraid to include newer compositions that had been written since the first edition of the Trinity Hymnal came out. And it is an ideal hymnal for congregations in a largely white, Anglo-Protestant cultural heritage, but probably less so for even an English-speaking congregation in some country in western Africa, to give an example. That hymnal should incorporate music and styles more appropriate to their cultural context, but it should be incorporating texts from across the range of Christian history.

      So, yes, I agree with everything you said.

      1. Jacob,
        Thank you for your feedback.

        One thing I didn’t mention is that I understand the perspective of those who contemporize worship music. I understand it because I apply odd and irregular meters to various hymns to be played as performance pieces such as during an offertory. There are couple of my arrangements that I would not play during a worship service but would play them during a special event. I would not play those arrangements during a worship service because the music I ended up arranging was not reverent enough. BTW, I have learned about music with odd and irregular meters from listening to certain Jazz artists and some Eastern European folk music.

        Most of my arrangements though are reverent enough for worship. It’s just that I understand from experience what those who want to contemporize worship music struggle, or should struggle, with.

  2. Grew up in a traditional, organ/hymnal Presbyterian church. Got saved during the “Jesus Revolution.” My path from there to here has been through Charismatic store front church, Assembly of God (small & large), Presbyterian Church in America, and now generic Evangelical Protestant.

    I’ve never been much taken with the music part of the worship service, generally accepting it as something to get through to get to the sermon. Whether traditional (“Are we going to sing ‘Lift High The Cross’ again?), Scripture choruses (“Are we going to sing ‘Therefore the redeemed of the Lord…’ again?”), or contemporary (“Are we going to sing the bridge in ‘Waymaker’ again?”).

    That said I have to admit that contemporary Hillsong/Elevation/Bethel cranked to 90db has grown on me (I wear earplugs so my tinnitus doesn’t get any worse than it already is), and I didn’t select my current church home based on the music anyway. Give it a try for a couple months and you might grow to like it, a little bit, maybe. There are some songs like “Worthy of it All” by David Brymer that are absolutely scriptural and very moving.

    Two more plusses to hymnals:
    1. The congregation can keep track of where they are and what the words are and aren’t left wondering what’s going on quite as often as when the only thing they have to go on are words on a screen.
    2. Hymnals like the Trinity hymnal and Trinity Psalter hymnal have confessions, creeds, and catechisms printed in them. I remember reading the Westminster Confession for the first time during a flat spot in the service and thinking “YEAH, that’s what I believe!” Apparently, I was genetically predisposed to being a Calvinist (LOL).

  3. I would offer that a more recent Hymnal offers a better support for your arguments. The Cantus Christi, 2020 version, makes a point of having representative hymns from a wide range of time, from very old to modern. It is quite singable and has some livelier settings of common songs than the staid Trinity hymnal. The other advantage it has is that it contains all 150 Psalms, most in several settings. I long to be in a church that uses that hymnal!

  4. Sorry, but you fail to make your point. Or perhaps, because of your opening paragraph I missed your point. It seemed like you were objecting to the use of projectors to put the words on screens rather than having a physical hymnal in your hands, but you never show why this is a problem. You go into a long diatribe about the many wonderful hymns in various hymnals, but never come back to show why projecting the words from those hymns on a screen is in some way inferior to reading them from the hymnal.

    I started using a projector for our worship services in the mid 90’s, and it was the seniors in the congregation who were most appreciative of the change. They no longer had to hold a hymnal and try to make out the words in a too small font in a poorly lit church, but could look up and see the words clearly on the screen in front of them. (I also used the projector for all my sermon notes that helped them follow along.)

    Its the person who plans the worship service that will determine what hymns are sung in the service, and it makes no difference whether the congregation reads the words in a book or on a screen.

  5. I greatly miss hymnals. Just thinking about a beautifully bound hymnal elicits memories of the oak pews and stained glass windows of the Reformed church in which I was raised. We used to have hymn sings throughout the year, where attendees could request their favorite song; mine was always #261–Wonderful Grace of Jesus. Even as a teenager–who couldn’t sing on key–I enjoyed this special time. We had a highly animated song director (who was also the high school band director) who waved his baton and had us all singing on beat and in glorious, melodious harmony.

    Nowadays I need reading glasses to magnify the small letters in the hymnal when I visit that old church. The words are much easier to read on the screen at my home church, where we sing 75% traditional hymns and 25% newer works, with careful attention paid to glorifying God in the words and instrumentation. But there is a downside to not seeing the notes or holding the book. In my perfect worship world, I would like both screen and hymnal for each song.

    Last summer my 25 year old daughter was church-shopping, and I went with her a number of times. I discovered that a common theme among the non-denominational churches in our area is their obnoxiously loud, contemporary music, the mood-inducing lighting that fades in and out during the singing of it, and the surprisingly good biblical teaching that follows. My SIL, not raised in church, pronounced the music portion of a service a ‘rock concert’ after visiting a Calvary Chapel with us one Sunday morning. He was not a fan, and I felt somewhat embarrassed of this musical spectacle, which cast a shadow on the excellent sermon that followed.

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