One of the regrettable features of the evangelical reformed scene in the UK is the outbreak of "hymn book wars". Some friends have real problems in singing certain contemporary hymns. This is not because they are against new compositions altogether. Not many would object to singing a hymn by Vernon Higham or Timothy Dudley-Smith! The issue is, should we sing hymns that have been written by "charismatics" like Graham Kendrick or Stuart Townend? I don't suppose that this post will bring hostilities to an end, but here are my reflections on why Reformed believers should not balk at singing hymns by charismatic authors.
C. H. Spurgeon laid down a good principle in the Preface to Our Own Hymnbook,
"Whatever may be thought of our taste we have used it without prejudice; and a good hymn has not been rejected because of the character of its author, or the heresies of the church in whose hymnal it first occurred; so long as the language and the spirit commended the hymn to our heart we included it, and believe that we have enriched our collection thereby."
On that basis, evangelical Calvinists have happily sung Wesley's hymns despite his Arminian theology. Nonconformists have sung hymns composed by Anglicans whose liturgical approach to worship has been very different to their own. Isaac Watts, the "father of modern English hymnody" had decidedly unusual views of the trinity and the Person of Christ, but as his speculations do not find their way into his hymns, we sing them gladly. The same goes for Richard Baxter's hymns, although his teaching on justification and the atonement deviated from the teaching of Reformed faith. If we can sing the hymns of these older writers despite their sometimes serious theological abberations, what's the problem with singing hymns by "charismatics" like Kendrick and Townend?
Some say that as Watts, Wesley and Baxter are dead, their unhelpful teaching can have little impact on contemporary worshippers. But are we no longer troubled by Arminianism? Richard Baxter's "neonomianism" bears more than a passing resemblance to Norman Shepherd's controversial views on justification. Baxter may no longer be with us, but his teachings are still very much a live issue. I once spoke to a man who held to the view that it is alright to sing hymns by an author who was dodgy but dead. I asked if he would sing a Townend hymn the day after the hymn writer passed into eternity. He said "no", because his influence would still remain for some time after his death. When I asked how long he would have to be dead before his hymns became acceptable, the friend replied that he did not know. So much for the death of a hymn writer atoning for his errors!
We Calvinists often complain that the "Charismatic Movement" is light on doctrine. But many of Kendrick and Townend's hymns are rich in biblical theology. They focus clearly on the Person of Christ, his propitiatory death and bodily resurrection. I was gratified to see Stuart Townend's name among the ranks of solidly evangelical luminaries who commend Pierced for Our Transgressions, (Jeffry. Ovey & Sach, IVP, 2007). He wrote, "there is a need for the vital doctrine of penal substitution to be clearly, comprehensively and compellingly explained." Many of Kendrick and Townend's compositions are gospel hymns. Take a look at In Christ alone (647, Christian Hymns 2004 edition. See here). It strikes me a little churlish to write off the "Charismatic Movement" as theologically vacuous and then refuse to sing their hymns even when they are filled with deep, orthodox Christology. Should we not be encouraging them for moving in this direction? Of course, people are free to say that they do not like the style of some of these new hymns and that they prefer the older compositions. But if that is the case, let them admit that this is an argument over taste and not principle.
Lest anyone misunderstand what I am saying, I do not go in for charismatic style "worship bands", or "happy clappy" services. I am a firm believer in using hymn books rather than OHP's because when hands are clasping hymn books, arms are less likely to be held aloft and waved around by "ecstatic" worshippers. But I like the statement of Paul to the Corinthians, "all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come - all are yours. And you are Christ's and Christ is God's." (1 Corinthians 3:22 & 32). I am not happy with much of what goes on under the "charismatic" umbrella. But I recognise that there are genuine godly believers in that movement, men and women who love the gospel. Some are even Calvinistic in their theology. If that is the case, the Spirit is at work in their hearts and lives. He has given these friends the gifts and graces that have produced some wonderful new hymns. If "all things are mine" as a member of the body of Christ, then these hymns are mine to sing just as much as those of Isaac Watts and Vernon Higham.