Apparently John Piper added some words to the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and some people aren’t happy about it. Christianity Today spoke to a few hymnology “experts” for their opinion, and since my phone has yet to ring, I’ll go ahead and talk about it here.
Also, allow me to share this friendly message.
Dear Christianity Today,
Hymns have words, not “lyrics.”
The Essential John Piper
Knowing a little about Piper is important to this discussion, so I’ll provide some background.
Piper is a pastor/theologian hybrid who spent decades as Senior Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. He is probably best known for this thing he made up called “Christian Hedonism,” a term I try not to repeat too often, and for his soteriology, which is basically a Calvinist caricature. He became a modest mainstream success after publishing his best-known work, Desiring God in the 1980s.
Worshiped by the legions of seminary students led astray by the early-2000s neo-Calvinist “Young, Restless, and Revoltingly Reformed” movement, most everybody else, once they actually hear some of the stodgy and weird things he has to say, find him to be smug, alienating, and creepy. Like most neo-Calvinists, Piper accepts penal substitution as gospel and cannot navigate a casual conversation without picking tulips.
I find much of his theology to be suspect at best and abominable at worst, but I’m especially concerned by his low view of women, whom he thinks should ideally adopt a subservient role in society, not only within their own marriages and churches. He has also stated he thinks wives should endure spousal abuse for a season, for instance, if her husband merely “smacks her around one night.”
(By the way, the #MeToo movement came after Paige “Fried Chicken” Patterson recently for similar abhorrent remarks. When is it coming for John Piper?!?)
Piper also likes to field questions from his adoring fans, often about sex, which are usually about exciting and fun as listening to your grandfather talking about the subject. If you don’t know anything about John Piper, this video will help. Bring your own vomit bag.
Trigger warning: A creepy, old, male theologian talks about oral sex using while repeatedly using words like “copulation,” “genitals,” and “breasts.”
Let’s get back to the hymns, shall we?
I’ll admit that I find “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” to be a generally overrated hymn. I think the melodic drama in the refrain and the soaring final proclamation of the title line win over the singers, while textually, there are a number of superior hymns on the subject of divine faithfulness and human thankfulness.
That being said, I have no real theological problem with this hymn and its relative simplicity. Simple can be penetratingly profound, as is proved over and over in hymnody (Just think of “What Wondrous Love Is This,” “There Is a Fountain,” “Were You There,” etc.). Furthermore, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is one of the best hymns from the gospel hymn tradition. I try not to overuse it, but save it for those times when people need the familiar strength of a sturdy old favorite.
But John Piper, speaking to a group of Gospel Coalition women, decided that this hymn written by a Methodist pastor lacked the Calvinistic self-flagellation needed to follow his sermon. And so, this former Wheaton College lit major fixed it by adding two stanzas.
I could not love Thee, so blind and unfeeling;
Covenant promises fell not to me.
Then without warning, desire, or deserving,
I found my Treasure, my pleasure, in Thee.
I have no merit to woo or delight Thee,
I have no wisdom or pow’rs to employ;
Yet in thy mercy, how pleasing thou find’st me,
This is Thy pleasure: that Thou art my joy.
I don’t feel that adding to a hymn is the most grievous sin, and a casual perusal of the nearest hymnal will remind you that it’s not a novel idea. Heck, Thris Comlin and company make hand over fist today with that same strategy.
That being said, I think it’s generally a practice that should be avoided, and Piper’s addition is a good example of why.
1. It disrupts textual continuity.
With Chisholm’s original, we have poetry that springboards from Lamentations 3. While expounding on the biblical text, the original stays true to its context, extolling God’s faithfulness as seen by a lamenting believer. Piper’s first addition strays into Calvinistic conversion testimony, superimposes blatantly Calvinistic language about total depravity, and then brazenly, almost didactically, launches into a second added stanza that can only be called a primer for Piper’s own Christian Hedonism. Suddenly, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” becomes “Great Is My Sucky-ness” and finally “Great Is My Happiness.” Neither of these textual paths flow well into the hymn’s refrain, a steadfast, resolute proclamation of new mercies, the promise of provision, and unmerited favor.
2. It’s liturgically jarring.
Especially with hymns that are beloved by most who sing them, any impact that author desires to add will likely be lost on a congregation. They know and love the hymn, many have committed it to memory, but now unexpectedly they must shift gears and relearn what their heart has sung for many years. Practically, this might be disastrous.
Liturgically, I’m not inclined to bow to practicality or kowtow to emotionalism, but we have to be honest here. The strength of this hymn lies in its oft-repeated exclamation, “Great is thy faithfulness.” That’s the pinnacle, that’s the gist, that’s the essence meant to lift hearts out from temporal struggles and frailty to the constant Rock that is higher than I. Surprising a congregation is not an effective way to do this.
3. It feels dishonest.
This hymn is still months away from being public domain. Even so, there is no real ethical violation in changing the words for a conference, but it seems like cheating to borrow another’s work and adapt it for your own purposes.
4. It seems contrived.
If one feels the need to add onto a hymn in order to make it work in a certain liturgical context, it’s just the wrong hymn. You need to choose another, or if the creative juices are really flowing, write a whole new one. Obviously, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” wasn’t the perfect hymn in John Piper’s mind. That’s okay, and there are many others from which to choose. But thinking through this hymn with Piper’s addition gives the impression that he is simply trying too hard. So put down the hammer and the square peg, and go looking for the round one.
I don’t think it will happen here, but the worst thing that could come of adding stanzas to hymns is that they actually stick. The best example of this happening would be with the final stanza of Amazing Grace, which weakens it considerably from Newton’s original.
Perhaps what we need to do is to avoid the word “old” when we discuss hymnody. “Hymns” is not an ancient genre, but an ongoing collection that is still accepting submissions. Let those stand that are already written, and give the gift of beautiful, rich, strong new texts to the singing congregation.