Monday, July 4, 2011

Teacing Theology Through Hymns

Reflecting the old maxim of Prosper of Aquitaine Dr. David Scaer noted that "Dogmatics springs from the liturgical life of the church and dogmatics find its ultimate fulfillment in the liturgical life of the church" (Springfielder, Dec. 1971).  He specifically applies this to the hymnody which he said "serve(s) to broaden out the people's theology." They do so for the simple reason that they contain solid theology.  "Hymns from the earliest centuries of the church and from the Reformation reflect the highest degree of doctrinal development," he writes.  "Ambrose, Luther, Origen, John of Damascus and others were also great theologians of their time.  They were aware that the best way to teach dogmatics or doctrine to the people was through the hymns.  I would even endeavor to say that more can be done through hymns than through sermons; and the liturgical life of the church in some centuries and generations was the church's only salvation."

We might think Scaer's comments a bit exaggerated, especially concerning the idea that hymns could teach more than sermons.  However, we should not discount the simple power of hymns to penetrate the memory, especially through years of repetition, versus the tendency for people to forget most of the sermons they hear. Given that we should also be cautious about the songs and hymns offered on Sunday morning.  Proponents of contemporary worship avoid hymnals and traditional hymns out of a claim that they are boring and irrelevant.  Yet they substitute tunes and texts either lacking any substance or containing 'theology' which contradicts the faith we have taught.  I fear for where these parishoners will be a decade or two from now, especially as some drift into that shadowy place of dementia. 

John L. Bell, in his book The Singing Thing (2000), writes: "Consider a child born in the 1970's, finding himself coming toward the end of his life in a geriatric ward in the 2060's, and as he prepares to make his peace with God summoning up such a deeply spiritual ditty as: If I were a fuzzy wuzzy bear, I'd thank you, Lord, for my fuzzy wuzzy hair.  Children's hymns should never been seen as a form of entertainment to keep the kids happy.  These songs, in the future, will be evocative of God."

Dr. Bell makes his point well.  How sad it will be when the pastor struggles to minister to the elderly of another era because he cannot bring to mind a single hymn verse, save the vapid refrain from a contemporary ditty...

1 comment:

Steve Harper said...

I currently attend a church that requires its elders to subscribe to the tenets of the Westminster Confession. As one who has been deeply influenced by Reformed theology, especially in terms of soteriology, I was enthused to learn this. Yet, the "worship" service is totally contemporary complete with electric guitars, drums, synthesizer, and 7/11 songs (7 words sung 11 times). A couple of weeks ago we actually sang a song with "La La" and "Hey-Hey". It was absolutely void of any theological truth or meaning and was in fact erroneous from my theological perspective. Contrast that with the words from "A Mighty Fortress" and there is no comparison in regard to worth and value. But we persist in singing songs that most people don't know. Today, churches are more interested in performance by a third rate band than they are in meaningful participation by the congregation. Hymns can teach theology. Consider the words from the Christmas hymn O Come All Ye Faithful, "Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing" or from Hark the Herald Angels Sing, "Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth." Today's church songs are more man centered instead of God centered and are further concerned with how I feel rather than what should be rightly expressed towards God. It is shameful and I agree that we will reap a poor harvest in the future.