Friday, September 14, 2007

Sing to the Lord a new song

Stuart Townend
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.


Anonymous said...

Preach it Reverend!

Guy Davies said...

Aaaaamen brother!

Family Blogs said...

Hi Guy,

This post and your previous one this week on 'Faithful and Contemporary' are among the finest to appear on your blog, in my humble opinion! Both address issues which need deep thought, gracious engagement, and humility of Spirit - and you've managed to capture all three.

I was reading the introduction to the old Christian Hymns last night, and was blessed by the statement from Spurgeon that you quote today. Like you, I can't abide the vacuous, performance led machinations which pass as worship so often today; but I do love many of the modern pieces. It's a blessing that Christian writers have once agained trained their focus on hymns rather than the ubiquitous 'chorus', and are giving us meat and substance to sing to God's praise.

When Jonathan Hunt featured a post on Townend on his blog recently I quoted a favourite verse of mine from one of his hymns. You've given me a good excuse to do it again:

'When every unclean thought,
And every sinful deed,
Was scourged upon His back
And hammered through His feet;
The innocent is cursed,
The guilty are released -
The punishment of God, on God
Has brought me peace.'

Good theology indeed.

God bless you,

Anonymous said...

Interestingly most conservatives don't seem to have bother (rightly I believe) singing Bernard of Clairvaux hymns, even though he was most likely what we would call a Roman Catholic Monk, yet there are few finer hymns that his "O sacred head now wounded" and "Jesus thou Joy of loving hearts"......I think your argument is sound that as in so many areas of life "content is king".


Jonathan Hunt said...

On this issue, we are almost peas in a pod.

I have not really come across any Kendrick I'd want to use, though.

David McKay said...

A great post, Guy.

The first charismatics I ever met [back in the early 70s] were also Reformed, and were getting us all to read Loraine Boettner's Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.

Townend and Kendrick have written some insightful, biblical lyrics, I think.

Anonymous said...

In our church we do sing one kendrick song(1988). I have forgotten which one at the moment. We do sing hyms by john and charles wesley, if they have good theology. So basically we choose each song on its merit.

I'm not sure how big Hillsong music is in Britain. But it dominates Australia. We don't sing any of their music. We do this as we do not want to financially support their movement.

You should try some EMU music from Australia. Bryson Smith writes music but also pastors a Presbytn church at Dubbo.

I'm from Oz, if you can't already tell.

cheers Ian R

Anonymous said...

Hi Guy,

I am afraid that I would come under the title of a friend who would not sing these things. I do however generally keep quiet about these things as most of the evangelical church would hold to your view, if not the whole thinking behind it.

The reason that I hold to my view however is not because I think that the general theological errors of the writer are to be considered, outside of the hymns words, but the specific error in the theology many modern songwriters have in the area of hymn writing itself. There is a clear, and expressed, desire for the worshipper to be moved by the music emotionally and when they have been the words can be expressed. Now this is unsurprising given the charasmatic background that many of these songwriters come from, but it is not how I understand true worship to take place. Instead I believe, as I am sure you do, that the words must first take effect in the mind so that the emotions will respond with true joy. It is here that my fundamental objection lies to many contemporary songs. This error is not found in the many great hymn writers of the past who understood the words to be the important part and the music to aid the words, not to drive the song. If we wish to rid these songs of the errors within in them, as I see them:), as we do for many of the older hymns then perhaps we could write new tunes that do not seek to be the primary driver of the song but instead tries to aid our singing and understanding of the words.

Just a few thoughts, and perhaps another view you could take into consideration when next saying why all those who won't sing these songs are wrong:) I have no doubt that I will have convinced no-one, and indeed do not expect too, but at least I have given another view.



Guy Davies said...

Thanks for your comments, Ian. I agree that when singing hymns, we should concentrate on the words rather than the tune. But tunes do matter and they are meant to have an effect on how we sing the words.

Would you sing a Townend hymn to a traditional tune?

Anonymous said...

Hi and thanks for the response,

In asnwer to your fional question, would I sing a stuart Townend song to a different tune it would obviously depend upon the song but if the lyrics were acceptable then yes I would. (there may even be some acceptable lyrics in a few of his songs:)) However, in the current climate I have never seen a modern song have its tune changed but I have seen a number of older hymns have their tunes modernised.

As to the tune playing a role in the hymn, I would absolutely agree. Yet this role is subserviant to the words and is only to aid them. The tone of the hymn is set by the lyrics and not by the music. The emotional repsonse of the worshipper is to the words and our understanding of them. The modern song writing aim is to have the music lead the affect on the emotions rather than having the words do that.

I hope that I have made my view on tunes a little clearer, and answered your question. I'm afraid that I can't compete with the many theological minds that seem to troll around your blogg but I can state my twopence worth:)



Martin said...

I agree with your thoughts on worship but it is just plain wrong to say that Baxter's views on atonement deviated from the Reformed faith - unless you want to say that pretty much all the early reformers and many greats from the 17th C did also.