The Book of Hymns

*What follows is a part one of a two-part rationale prepared for my church to remind it why we have purchased hymnals and why I have selected the particular hymnal that we will be introducing to our assembly in the next few weeks. Part Two will eventually be posted


The hymnal is a book; a book of hymns. Because it is a book it is very important that its contents faithfully represent the doctrine, values, and convictions of our church even as our church aspires to faithfully represent the doctrine, values, and convictions of the Holy Scripture. No human book is inspired, and there is no work of man that is not without its faults. The best of hymnals is no different. It is a book with weaknesses. As such, there is no hymnbook that perfectly represents in its totality our holiest aspirations, our loftiest goals, our sanctified cultural proclivities, and our spiritual emotions. Yet the admission of this basic fact does not preclude the importance of the hymnbook to the long term health of our church. It merely reinforces the deep-seeded conviction of your pastor that the selection of the hymnbook is a holy responsibility.

A book that is bought by the hundreds and prominently placed at the disposal of any worshiper is a very important book. Some question whether we should have the hymnbook at all. Our church uses and will continue to use the projection of the lyrics on large screens and this, it is argued, is sufficient to aid in the united worship of a singing congregation, not to mention the cost effectiveness of not having to spend thousands of dollars on hymnals. I am told that we will not often open our hymnbooks and that we have already committed ourselves to a method of hymn and song selection that cannot limit itself to any one hymnal. For example, we employ new hymns and songs frequently and we simply do not have any interest in wedding ourselves exclusively to any one hymnal.

This is all true. And it is not my intention to change that element of our worship. However, the value of the hymnbook is far more than the selected worship guide from Sunday to Sunday. It is an important piece of furniture in the home of a local church, a symbolic sign of cherished truths, and of course, a great source of holy songs that should be referenced often in the corporate and private lives of our believers. It is a book that needs to be in our house.

First, let me offer some explanations and reasons for why I consider the ownership of a good hymnal to be very helpful, though admittedly not required in Scripture. Then, secondly (in another post), I will offer explanations for the selection of the particular hymnbook we are going to purchase.

Explanations and Reasons Why We Should Own Hymnbooks as a Church Body

The hymnbook virtually unites us with the universal Body of Christ. Indeed, we are spiritually one body with all believers who are in Christ Jesus, but the hymnbook serves the congregation as a visible symbol of this reality. Besides the Bible itself, the hymnbook is often the most sectarian-free theologically-sound book on the market. The same book may be seen in many different denominations. Our hymnbook may contain songs and hymns written by Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans but they all point us to the fundamental truths that unite all true believers. The hymnbook is the quiet and defiant contradiction that rests serenely in the pews of many hyper-separatistic churches. Therefore, the first reason for why we should own hymnbooks is that it visibly and symbolically connects us to the Universal Church.

The hymnbook anchors us to our history. The Church of Jesus Christ is a people with a history. We are one with the past. Luther, Calvin, Knox, Spurgeon, Toplady, and Watts are not just forefathers; they are brothers. The hymnbook serves as a family album where we can freely peruse the holy feelings and heartfelt beliefs of our godly forebears and be freshly reminded of the family insignia (its other-worldly affections), the family passion, and the family’s unchanging God. If we are wise we may routinely measure ourselves against the stature of our brothers’ and sisters’ noble affections. We will analyze our spiritual emotions against the backdrop of the spiritual emotions of the redeemed centuries before our time. By hymns we rid ourselves of “chronological snobbery” or the dumb parochialism of the contemporary. Therefore, secondly, the hymnbook helps to anchor us to our history and link us to the long, enduring redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ in and through His Church.

Thirdly, of lesser importance, but of practical implication, the hymnal liberates the leadership of the local church to respond selectively and spontaneously to the moving of God’s Spirit with choice words appropriated for the moment. In other words, as a pastor I like to have the option to turn our attention to an unplanned song or hymn that may have only just then come to my mind as perfectly fitting for the conclusion of the service or for the mood of the congregation. It also facilitates the opportunity for a closer examination of the text of a hymn. Projection technology is wonderful and ought to be used, but it too has its limitations. (I must say parenthetically that I reject the reasoning that hymnbooks should be kept in the church so that people learn how to read music. People should learn to read music somewhere else. We don’t have Bibles in the church so people can learn how to read.) Thus, the hymnbook can facilitate the spontaneity of formal worship!

Finally, and of much more importance, the hymnbook is a receptacle of evidence. It holds the proofs of what an assembly says it believes or what it once believed. In some churches the hymnals are the lone witnesses of the former days of glory when the truth was supreme in the minds and hearts of the church. They testify to the fact that the truths contained in their silent pages were once the truths sung with fervor from the lips of congregants in former days. They bear witness to the apostasy. The hymnbook may also indicate to visitors the bent of our heart, the direction of our souls, and the details of our doctrine. They will serve as a repository of evidence. Thus, fourthly, when we purchase our hymnals they will serve as witnesses of our core beliefs.

Because hymns serve as witnesses of our core beliefs they are generally content-driven. Doctrine is primary. Teaching is supreme. Thought matters. These are not the primary concerns of the contemporary church. Instead, there is a generally impatient attitude toward hymns that are content heavy. Hymns that proclaim fact more than feeling are inconvenient to the modern evangelical conception of worship. We should ponder over the warning that Geerhardus Vos (1862 – 1937) issued to the backsliding Princeton Seminary in 1906:

“To join in the outcry against dogma and fact means to lower the idea of what the Christian consciousness ought normally to be to the level of the spiritual depression of our own day and generation. How much better that we should all strive to raise our drooping faith and to re-enrich our depleted experience up to the standard of those blessed periods in the life of the church, when the belief in Bible history and the religion of the heart went hand in hand and kept equal pace, when people were ready to lay down their lives for facts and doctrines, because fact and doctrines formed the daily spiritual nourishment of their souls. May God by His Spirit maintain among us, and through our instrumentality revive around us, that truly evangelical type of piety which not merely tolerates facts and doctrines, but draws from them its strength and inspiration in life and service, its only comfort and hope in the hour of death.”

I think a good hymnal will help “strive to raise our drooping faith and re-enrich our depleted experience up to those blessed periods” of holy devotion in the Church. Therefore, the expenditure of thousands of dollars for hymnbooks is one of the single most important expenditures of the assembly’s life. When a church buys multiple copies of any book it says it endorses what the book teaches. When an under-shepherd places a book within the reach of every sheep in his flock, he is saying the book points to the Shepherd as few others do. The books may very likely outlast the under-shepherd for decades. The decision is critical.

Therefore, as your pastor and currently the only ordained elder in this young church, I have retained the decision for this hymnbook as my sole responsibility. I have not taken this responsibility without long thought and prayer. It is not infeasible that the books will outlast me.

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9 Responses

  1. Bob,

    Excellent. I applaud you.

  2. Which hymn book have you chosen ? Having said that it probably won’t mean anything to me – we have different hymn traditions – I still haven’t got over the shock of learning that in our poor rebellious western colonies “Go tell it on the mountain” is a …

    is a ….

    is …..

    a Christmas carol ….

  3. Bob,

    I think your third point is good, that it allows some spontaneity in worship.

    The others, not so much, IMO. Frankly, there is a lot of doctrine and evidence in most hymnbooks that I would prefer not being connected with, particularly with a lasting record of evidence. The historical church has believed and written about a lot of things that should not be remembered, particularly in song.

    I don’t find the hymnbook to be the most “theologically sound” book on the market, as you argue. Most hymnbooks are a mixture of theology that would make any reasonable systematic theology blush, not to mention any decent doctrinal confession. In fact, most hymnbooks are very theologically diverse, and intentionally so. They are, as you say, “sectarian free,” and I am not sure that’s a good thing, at least in the definition of sect that is essentially addresses doctrinal distinctives. I am not convinced at all that the Bible is sectarian free, or that we as a church should strive to be sectarian free.

    Unless you make up your own hymnbook, I doubt that it will be any sort of meaningful evidence of what your or my assembly believes. I think a doctrinal statement and way of life is a much better testimony to that.

    Neither do I think it unites us with the universal body of Christ in any meaningful way. I am not sure I even understand that argument.

    I think your comment on “chronological snobbery” is right on target (though I am not sure that it requires a hymnbook).

    I would sooner argue that a hymnbook helps people to learn to read music than it does make a statement about what we believe or connect us to the historical church. (And I don’t believe a church exists to teach people to read music. I think people should learn to read music, and should do it somewhere else.)

    I think every family should have two or three good hymnbooks to use for learning and worship.

    And I think a church should have them, but primarily for the third reason, not the others.

    But I will look forward to hearing which hymnbook you picked (in order to see what you believe).

  4. At this point, until proven otherwise, I believe Trinity Hymnal, Baptist Edition, is the most Scriptural, God-honoring hymnal available.

  5. To be honest, none of the philosophical points you made about the hymnal have ever crossed my mind. I’m going to assume it’s just because I’m an ignoramus, although I must be honest and admit that in my first reading it all sounded a bit contrived.

    I’ve always viewed it as a mere book that sits under the chair in front of me that I need to whip out if I decide I want to sing a part, or if, as you stated, you decide to spontaneously sing a hymn. (BTW: Don’t forget that without a hymnal, “favorites” night becomes exceedingly difficult, if not impossible ; )

    Other than that, I’ve grown quite accustomed to lifting my head and singing from the screen behind the platform. I actually think that because of my different posture, I am given to better singing…if that makes sense. In fact, I’ve noticed that when our congregation sings a song that is ONLY on the screen, we seem to sing with more passion and gusto.

    I suspect that once we get the new hymnals, the only difference anyone will actually notice from the old one is the color of the cover (unless of course you have chosen brown).

  6. Larry,

    I’m sure you (and others) will have a heyday when I do say which hymnbook I have selected!

    However, the key to understanding my assessment of the hymnbook (not all hymnbooks, or course) as theologically sound is the all-important compound adjective “sectarian-free.”

    Perhaps I mis-read you, but…..

    If you define a “theologically-sound” hymnbook as dispensational, pre-millennial, four-point Calvinist Baptist hymnal (as I suspect you might) then you are quite right to say that there is no such book. But there is such a thing as a good “sectarian-free” and that would be the kind of “sectarian-free” fundamentalism that characterized the early 20th century fundamentalists and helped them highlight the core truths while recognizing that not all doctrinal distinctions are of equal weight.

    The theological diversity of which you speak (for the conservative hymnals that I have referenced in my research) is not heterodox. Theological diversity does not equal heterodoxy. Although some fundamentalists practically assess amillennialism or post-millennilism as heresy, others maintain strong personal convictions on such matters minus the chronological snobbery that elevates that doctrine so high that to be consistent they shouldn’t even sing “Joy to the World,” much less any song written by a non-baptist, non-twentieth-century-fundamentalist, non-dispensationalist songwriter.

    “Sectarian-free” as I am trying to suggest is Christianity minus the “chronological snobbery” and twentieth-century, Mid-western fundamentalist parochialism. This is a healthy freedom for congregations who see themselves as part of the Universal Church.

    The recognition of that simple fact induces a humility of spirit toward the Body Universal that I would argue is not only healthy, but biblically mandated.

  7. Bob,

    I wouldn’t define a good hymnbook as you have suggested. It doesn’t have enough points for me …

    Seriously, however, my objection is not to hymnbooks with a variety of doctrine. My objection was, first of all, to saying that they were the most theologically sound books aside from the Bible. There are books on the market that are more theologically sound than any hymnbook I am aware of. And it seems to me that “sectarian free” is, by nature and necessity, going to compromise on some doctrine somewhere, or be so doctrinally bland as to mean very little or contain very little.

    A second objection was to the connection to the universal church. I confess that I must be obtuse since I still don’t get what you are saying. I think “Christianity minus the ‘chronological snobbery’ and twentieth-century, Mid-western fundamentalist parochialism” is a good thing. But I am not seeing how using a hymnbook connects us to the universal church in the manner of which you speak. Wouldn’t singing these old hymns (which we should sing) off a screen accomplish the same humility and connection? How does a hymnbook accomplish this relationship in a way that other forms do not?

    Please pardon my confusion …

  8. Ah! Perhaps I should be more specific and say that hymns (not hymnbooks per se) symbolically unite us with the church by virtue of the fact that when we sing “The Church’s One Foundation” other believers in other denominations are singing it who will one day be as right as we are doctrinally when we all get to heaven (snicker, snicker). And, I would add, that when we sing “The Church’s One Foundation” we are also singing a song that spiritually ministered to saints many years ago who are now part of the Church Triumphant. I don’t mean to suggest that there is an actual organic union via hymns. Rather, a shared experience.

    I don’t know if that clarifies.

    Also, I might point out the very small detail that I said that hymnbooks are “often” the most theologically sound blah, blah, blah. Not always. Obviously. Not exclusively either.

  9. Bob,

    Have you looked at “The Christian Life Hymnal”? It’s a fairly new one from Hendrickson. I like it.

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