The Theology of the Song Book

Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise (James 5:13)

“Theology” is a loaded word; for some, the subject is all but unapproachable, while others would do better if they maintained some mystery and awe and felt it to be more unapproachable. When “theology” is mentioned many envision esoteric conversations going on in the ivory tower of academia or by men in robes in medieval church structures. In general theology is not seen as significant for the masses; people certainly do not expect to learn theology from a song book.

Yet in truth “theology” is the study of God, and whether they are aware of it or not, everyone has a theology. Everyone has some way they look at the divine or transcendent (even if they seek to deny it). Theology cannot be envisioned as some arcane, esoteric subject left unapproachable by the many; good, solid, and strong theology must be as easily found and as thoroughly spread as copies of the Bible or television shows about God or Jesus. How can this be accomplished?

We do well to consider how theology has been disseminated throughout time. Large theological tomes or treatises have their place but remain inaccessible to most; the same is true for deep theological discussion, meditation, and instruction in a seminary or post-secondary setting. Such persons and books have proven highly influential for those who study such things, and some of their thoughts get filtered down to the average believer. Some preachers are able to effectively communicate many of these truths. Many have gained it through deep study of the Bible and prayer. Yet so much of the transmission of theological truths took place in recitation of creeds and in song, and even of those means, the most impressionable is song. Do you want to understand the theology of a group of believers? Consider not only their song book but the particular songs they frequently sing!

In a previous study of the history of doctrine in Christendom I was struck by Jaroslav Pelikan’s argument that the liturgy of the church in the late Roman period set the parameters of orthodoxy firmly despite all of the theological and Christological arguments of the day. “Liturgy” is another word loaded with all sorts of baggage but is the most effective term to describe the things said, prayed, and sung constantly in Christian assemblies. Their continual repetition, incantation, and singing over time becomes a part of the participant, deeply pressed within their minds and souls. In moments of meditation or distress they bubble up to the surface. And if anything is said or taught contrary to the doctrinal substance of that liturgy there will be automatic resistance, even if subconscious, because one can perceive the disconnect between what has been constantly repeated in the liturgy and what has now been heard.

Within the church liturgy songs are especially important in this regard. We remember songs more effectively than spoken or memorized messages. Songs speak not just to the mind but especially to the heart; it is far easier to find people with stronger and more visceral emotional attachment to various songs than to various passages of text. It is reported that no less a theologian than Karl Barth, when asked to summarize his view of theology, responded with “Jesus loves me / this I know / for the Bible tells me so.”

This should not be surprising since Paul expected us to do this very thing:

Speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19).

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God (Colossians 3:16).

What Paul expects to take place unfortunately often gets lost in the midst of all the discussions of singing among Christians. Many well-meaning people, wanting to glorify God, have spoken and acted as if praising God is the main purpose of singing together, yet that’s not what Paul says. Paul envisions singing as an opportunity to speak to each other, to each and admonish each other, through the substance of those psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. If that takes place, is God glorified? Yes. Are there times and places for communal songs primarily praising God? Yes. But we must never lose sight of the instructive and exhortative nature and purpose of many songs and that God knows what He is doing. Some of the best sermons have never been preached but they are sung somewhere every week; some of the most powerful and effective messages came not from the hands of theologians but from hymn authors. Martin Luther wrote many books of theology; his “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is far wider known. Many have heard of John Wesley; some have even explored his theology in depth through his writings. Yet his brother Charles’ messages have spread far wider and more effectively in the many songs he wrote (e.g. “Soldiers of Christ Arise”).

For Christians of all types, from blue-collar workers to the wealthy, from homemakers to theologians, much of their theological concepts have been formed through the songs they have sung and learned. The song book, therefore, proves as vital for theological development as the pulpit, the Lord’s Table, and even the message of Scripture. If the song book has this importance, we do well to consider: what is the theology one would gain from the average song book and the songs sung from within it? How deep and enduring will that theology prove when things do not go as planned?

For first 1650 years or so of the church the question was mostly irrelevant: most of what was sung came from the Psalms, and since the Psalms are inspired Scripture, their theology was more soundly rooted and had greater depth (even if their ecclesiology needed work, some covenant boundaries were better established, and the Psalms were not de-contextualized and proof-texted for specious doctrinal purposes). Over the past two hundred years hymnody has proven more popular and has by now almost entirely replaced psalmody as the primary expression of Christian devotion in song outside of denominations espousing a strongly formal liturgical bent. This period of time has also happened to coincide with the Enlightenment and the modernist project which has also strongly influenced theological endeavors.

Some hymns maintain a robust theology with appropriate emphases on God’s divinity, His role as the Creator, and on Jesus’ death, resurrection, lordship, and return. Many hymns have incorporated Biblical images and phrases into their lyrics; not a few hymns are simply a verse or two of Scripture set to a tune. Yet many hymns prove to be quite contextual creatures, like “Mansions Over the Hilltop,” which made sense in the 1930s but seems disingenuous to the experience of most American Christians in the 21st century. In fact, many hymns of the last two centuries, and especially the hymns of the last two centuries that are sung most frequently, at least in my experience among churches of Christ, focus on praising God, Jesus’ death, exhortation (occasionally toward holiness but mostly unto conversion), a few psalms, and a lot of emphasis on “going to Heaven” and a generally escapist eschatology (e.g. “This World is Not My Home”).

I am personally convinced that many believers have come to believe in an afterlife quite different from the picture presented in the Scriptures because of this escapist eschatology of “going to Heaven” as expressed in the hymnody of the past two hundred years. Such an eschatology cannot make much of the resurrection, its imperative and the grounding of its hope, and does not offer a lot of strength to the believer to make sense of his or her present condition. The Psalms, on the other hand, always keep in mind that YHWH is the Creator and the creation is good even if presently subject to corruption; the hope of the Psalms is vindication, victory, and firm confidence in YHWH despite the trials and travails of life, themes prominently displayed in passages like Romans 8:1-39, Revelation 12:1-22:6, etc. We do well to remember that the Psalms were the songbook of Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the rest of the Apostles; their theology was informed by the things they sung/chanted from the Psalms in the name of YHWH. How did they make sense of what YHWH was doing through Jesus? By means of the Psalms, which prove essential for Peter’s proclamation of the resurrection (Acts 2:14-36), Paul’s theology of the resurrection (Romans 1:4, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58), the Hebrew author’s whole theology of Jesus as the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek and its implications (Hebrews 7:1-9:28, let alone his understanding of Jesus, Moses, and the sabbath in Hebrews 1:1-4:11). Early Christians were going to suffer; when they suffered, they took solace in the Psalms (e.g. Acts 4:24-30). The Psalms are real; they deal with things that actually happen to people in life, like betrayal, disappointment, suffering when righteous, suffering because of sin, moments of doubt, moments of jubilation, and hope. Modern hymnody, especially the hymnody that actually gets sung, is far more restricted, praising God the Creator and Savior, exhorting people toward faith in Him, looking toward an escapist future, and precious little about what it is like to live before God in faith in the here and now.

When the theology of the song book does not seem to have room to make solid theological sense of the moments of joy and pain, triumph and defeat, hope and betrayal, and other experiences of life, should we be surprised to find out that many believers live in constant doubt, fear, and anguish, believing their faith is too disconnected from their life, since they see pain, fear, anxiety, distress, etc., but the song book is always happy? If the theology of the song book is a gussied up veneer attempting to whitewash the real problems of life, does it really reflect God’s understanding of the human condition?

Meanwhile the Bible has the very resources necessary for modern humans to give voice to their trials and distress; they are in the Psalms. They are laments. Modern people do not quite like lament; they would rather deny or ignore the travails of life, since they are distressing, depressing, and lead to consideration of death and mortality, and that is all just a bummer. A. Sibley Towner recognized that modern hymnody prefers to celebrate God as the Creator and to thank God as liberator rather than to lament before the God who listens: “we prefer to sin and repent, lament and die in privacy.”

That’s a powerful indictment. When modern man wants to confront his problems he turns to psychology and psychotherapy; he gets the impression that he just needs to get a better outlook on life, and then there are those infectiously positive praise songs he can focus on and try to drown out the sorrows of life in that praise. Unfortunately modern man cannot just paper over his existential angst and the travails of life with self-help and positive thinking mantras! For generations Christians knew where to go when things got rough: before God through the Psalms. The Psalms give voice to the pain and suffering. The Psalms provide an opportunity to lament but do not allow the believer to wallow in despair. Lament psalms always provide movement toward submission to God in faith and relinquishing the troubles of life to Him and His strength. Thus the Psalms honor and dignify man’s condition even in distress; some have spoken of the Psalms as “psalmno-therapy,” and that is not inappropriate, for through lament we are given voice to speak our pain before the God who created us and who, according to Christian theology, is the only One who can truly heal us. In the end the Psalms give us the power to get back up and move forward in faith, movement almost entirely lost in a time and place which has sought to push away evil as opposed to overcoming it in Christ and who finds every excuse for a lack of faith in circumstances which precisely demand the most faith.

There are many Psalms which many Christians would have major difficulties singing or praying before God and among one another. Some of that discomfort is rightly placed; commending people who would bash babies’ brains out against the rock does not seem appropriate under the reign of Christ (Psalm 137:9). Yet many of the difficulties come from feeling as if it would be impious to speak to God in the ways that the Psalms do. Such squeamishness says much more about us than the Psalms; they indicate our lack of faith. The Psalter cries out before God as he does not because he does not have faith but precisely because he does; he expects and demands for God to prove faithful to His covenant. He cannot make sense of why things are happening as they are. If we are honest with ourselves, we have those moments sometimes as well. If we are honest with ourselves, we know we have moments of anger, feelings of betrayal, impatience, and a host of other raw emotions for which the Psalms can give voice, and just as importantly, a productive and faithful way forward. Such resources are lacking in much of modern hymnody which does not venture deeply into what it means to praise God and put one’s trust in Him.

Thus, from where do the concerns, misapprehensions, distortions, and discomfort regarding the value of this creation, the hope of the resurrection, the grappling with the difficulties of this life, the inability to give voice to and vent the frustrations and pains of this life, and the feeling that we all have to put on the happy face and sing happy songs and act like everything is okay when it is not and we’re just plodding along until we get transported into the sky? Certainly not from the New Testament! Such is the power of the theology of the song book. The song book can anchor and root theology in a meaningful way; it can also distort and confuse when it reflects prevailing cultural assumptions more than the “whole counsel of God.” There is a place for hymns and hymnody, but there also ought to remain a place of prominence, as Paul and James gave, to psalmody, and not just the Psalms we like or find comfortable, but the whole Psalter (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, James 5:13).

What are we effectively communicating about God? You will find it in the songs we sing. May we align our songs to the plan, purpose, and emphases of God and find ways to incorporate the Psalter in our song and prayer lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

One thought on “The Theology of the Song Book

  1. Thanks for this article and all you do.
    “Liturgy” in “low churches” is interesting since it is theoretically open to change and augmentation, but tends to lock-step habits. Most song books have a variety of songs that meet needs you note, but they are passed over by those leading (and those requesting/demanding). The narrative that is truly believed and that drives a group is shown by the songs that folks request/demand IF the emphasis is on teaching in song. But too often the desire is to comfort the group by singing and hearing songs that the deep brain has encoded as “ours.” This may be as important as the sensual pleasure of hearing or singing in many people.
    Song leader and singing classes that focus on songs that teach important messages that are under communicated is both possible and important when/if people understand and accept the teaching and praying purpose of songs. Many books have a variety of songs for this, and many congregations have photocopiers and permission to print songs not found in current books to achieve more teaching and praying variety. But it is hard to overestimate the drawing power of deep brain habits and comforting as a desired outcome in liturgy.
    Thanks again for all you do for the LORD and His people.

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