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Learning from hymnody

Learning from hymnody


(Photo: Getty/iStock)

One of the sources of theological reflection that I believe is uncared for at the moment is hymnody. We are inclined to look to sermons, books, movies or podcasts because the sources of theological educating and but do not take note of what we are able to study from hymns. However, I believe we might profit if we did and on this article I illustrate why I believe that is the case by contemplating what we are able to study if we use two verses from the hymn Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken by the Anglican hymnwriter John Newton as a place to begin.


Newton wrote this hymn in 1799 whereas he was Vicar in Olney in Buckinghamshire. He primarily based it on two Old Testament passages, Psalm 87:3 and Isaiah 33:20-21 and its first two verses run as follows:

‘Glorious issues of thee are spoken,
 Zion, metropolis of our God.
 He whose Word can’t be damaged
 fashioned thee for His personal abode.
 On the Rock of Ages based,
 what can shake thy certain repose?
 With salvation’s partitions surrounded,
 thou could’st smile in any respect thy foes.
 See, the streams of residing waters,
 springing from everlasting love,
 nicely provide thy little kids
 and all worry of need take away.
 Who can faint whereas such a river
 ever flows their thirst to assuage?
 Grace, which just like the Lord, the Giver,
 by no means fails from age to age.’

In Psalm 87 and Isaiah 33, ‘Zion’ is an alternate title for the town of Jerusalem, however within the New Testament, in addition to referring to this earthly metropolis, ‘Jerusalem’ can be used to consult with the heavenly metropolis of which God’s new covenant persons are residents. Thus, in Galatians 4:26 Paul contrasts the earthly Jerusalem with ‘the Jerusalem above’ who’s ‘our mom,’ and in Revelation 21:2 John refers to ‘the holy metropolis, new Jerusalem, popping out of heaven from God.’

In the sunshine of this New Testament utilization, subsequent Christian custom has understood the references to Jerusalem/Zion within the Old Testament as having twin significance, referring each to the earthly metropolis and to the heavenly metropolis referred to within the New Testament. This is the custom wherein Newton stands and what he’s saying is that the guarantees of God’s safety of Jerusalem discovered within the Old Testament are to be understood as referring additionally to the safety that God affords to all who belong at the moment to the heavenly Jerusalem.

If we ask what is supposed by the heavenly Jerusalem, a standard reply is that it refers back to the Church. The Church is the heavenly Jerusalem. However, the true reply is extra complicated than that. This is as a result of the time period ‘the Church’ has two meanings.

As Archbishop Thomas Cranmer famous within the sixteenth century:

‘In the Scriptures, the phrase church has two fundamental meanings … certainly one of which suggests the congregation of all of the Saints and true believers, who actually imagine in Christ the top and are sanctified by his Spirit. This is the residing and actually holy mystical physique of Christ, however identified solely to God, who alone understands the hearts of males. The second that means is that of the congregation of all who’re baptized in Christ who haven’t brazenly denied him nor been lawfully and by his Word excommunicated. This that means of church corresponds to its standing on this life in that in it the nice are blended with the evil.’

To put it one other approach, there may be the invisible Church, which is the paranormal physique of Christ and which consists of all true believers (no matter their denomination) and there may be the seen Church, the human establishment, divided into numerous denominations, wherein those that are true believers and people who aren’t stay blended collectively just like the wheat and tares in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 13:24-30) till the ultimate judgement.

Newton is referring to the invisible church, since God’s guarantees of safety don’t apply to those that don’t actually belong to his folks. This then raises the query of who belongs to the invisible church. The fundamental reply to this query is offered by Augustine in his e book The City of God, wherein he declares that there are ‘two sorts of cities created by two varieties of affection.’ There is the ‘earthly metropolis’ marked by ‘self-love reaching the purpose of contempt for God’ and there may be the ‘Heavenly City’ created by ‘the love of God carried so far as contempt of self.’ The earthly metropolis ‘seems to be for glory from males’ whereas ‘the Heavenly City glories within the Lord.’ The invisible Church is Augustine’s Heavenly City, the physique consisting of these individuals who lives are marked by love of God moderately than love of self, and who search glory from God moderately than from different folks.

At this level somebody would possibly ask the place the grace referred to by Newton comes into the image. Is Augustine saying that it’s our self-generated resolution to like God that makes us a part of the Heavenly City? The reply is ‘No.’ For Augustine, as for the New Testament and the orthodox Christian custom as an entire, we’re enabled to like God to the purpose of contempt of self as a result of in his love for us God provides us new life by means of Christ and the Spirit by means of religion and baptism, delivering us from sin and making it potential for us to like him in return. In the phrases of 1 John 4:19, ‘We love, as a result of he first beloved us.’ It is that this gracious, life altering, divine love given to us by means of the Spirit to which Newton refers when he writes about ‘the streams of residing water flowing from everlasting love’ (see John 7:38-39).

An additional query which somebody may additionally ask is what it means in follow to dwell as a part of the Heavenly City? If I’m a citizen of Zion, what distinction ought to it make? A traditional reply to this query is given by one other author from the Early Church, the nameless writer of the second century apologetic work often known as the Epistle to Diognetus. He explains that:

‘Christians are distinguished from different males neither by nation, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their very own, nor make use of a peculiar type of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they observe has not been devised by any hypothesis or deliberation of inquisitive males; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek in addition to barbarian cities, in accordance because the lot of every of them has decided, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothes, meals, and the remainder of their atypical conduct, they show to us their fantastic and confessedly putting methodology of life. They dwell in their very own international locations, however merely as sojourners.

‘As residents, they share in all issues with others, and but endure all issues as if foreigners. Every international land is to them as their native nation, and each land of their delivery as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget youngsters; however they don’t destroy their offspring. They have a standard desk, however not a standard mattress. They are within the flesh, however they don’t dwell after the flesh. They move their days on earth, however they’re residents of heaven. They obey the prescribed legal guidelines, and on the identical time surpass the legal guidelines by their lives. They love all males, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they’re put to demise, and restored to life. They are poor, but make many wealthy; they’re in lack of all issues, and but abound in all; they’re dishonoured, and but of their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and but are justified; they’re reviled, and bless; they’re insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, but are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life.’

This citation highlights the strikingly paradoxical character of being a citizen of Zion. Those who belong to it dwell on this planet and but they dwell in it as resident aliens whose true citizenship lies elsewhere. They conform to the customs and legal guidelines of the locations wherein they dwell, and but additionally dwell extremely distinctive lives in obedience to the legal guidelines of God. They do good and but get insults, persecution and punishment in return, and when this occurs, they reply with rejoicing, blessing, honour and love. They die and but they nonetheless dwell.

In abstract, what Newton’s hymn is about is the lifetime of the folks of God. It is about receiving God’s grace, turning into a part of his folks because of this, and being protected by God as we dwell as a part of his folks.

This safety doesn’t imply that nothing unhealthy will occur to us. As the Epistle to Diognetus makes clear (and as many Christians world wide at the moment can testify) unhealthy issues could occur to us exactly as a result of we belong to God and dwell in obedience to his will. Rather, ‘salvations’ partitions’ referred to by Newton defend as and when unhealthy issues occur to us. They defend us from giving up. They allow us to remain the course as we journey by means of this world as God’s resident aliens. They preserve us a part of God’s folks till we attain our remaining house on this planet to return.

Newton’s phrases, and the classical Christian theology underlying them thus present us with an excellent promise. However, additionally they present an excellent problem to us and to different folks identified to us. The problem is whether or not we actually are members of the town of God. As now we have seen, the difficulty just isn’t whether or not we attend a church (since one can attend a church and nonetheless not be a part of the Heavenly City). The problem is whether or not now we have put our religion in Christ, obtained his Spirit in baptism, and allowed him to vary our lives in order that now we have begun to turn out to be somebody who places God earlier than self and seeks glory from God moderately than from our fellow human beings.

If we can not actually say that that is the case then we have to change the state of affairs whereas there may be nonetheless time. Likewise, if we all know others who haven’t but put their religion in Christ, obtained the Spirit in baptism and allowed God to vary their lives, then the identical applies to them. To quote Isaiah, the message is ‘Seek the Lord whereas he could also be discovered, name upon him whereas he’s close to’ (Isaiah 55:6).



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