From the very beginning of the church singing was important to the fellowship. Though many have unbounded confidence in their theories of what happened in local church gatherings, it is wiser to say “we don’t know precisely what happened, but we do are pretty sure about some things.” One of the elements we are sure of is singing. (For my Churches of Christ friends, trigger warning — not all of this supports your splendid commitments!)
Mark 14:26 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Col. 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
Eph. 5:19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,
1Cor. 14:15 What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.
1Cor. 14:26 What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
James 5:13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.
On early Christian singing and hymns, there is now a new book by Matthew Gordley, New Testament Christological Hymns. This book reshapes and condenses his major academic books on early Christian hymns, and I’m grateful to him (and to IVP) for creating a more accessible book. I’ll be dipping into this book for a series of blog posts.
So what’s a “hymn” in this sense?
By hymns I refer to short compositions that have their focus on praise of the divine in second- or third-person address and that describe the actions and attributes of the one being praised in an elevated prose or poetic style.
If hymns are part of worship, what is worship?
In this volume I understand worship as a practice of affirming, proclaiming, and confessing an allegiance to God that, among other things, enables worshipers to see themselves as part of a reality that is larger than the visible reality on offer within the world in which the worshipers live. Worship, in this sense, may include words, actions, and rituals, together with an overall pattern of values that constitute the orientation of ones life.
The big one: How in the world can we read the NT and find hymns if the authors do not tell us they are quoting a hymn?
- They are often inserted and introduced by such words as “deliver,” “believe,” or “confess” (see Rom 10:9).
- They are often marked by contextual dislocations (e.g., 1 Tim 3:16).
- They often do not fit into the context syntactically (e.g., Rev 1:4).
- They often exhibit a different linguistic usage, terminology, or style from their contexts (e.g., 1 Cor 16:22).
- They sometimes repeat the same formula in very similar form (e.g. 2 Cor 5:21).
- They often exhibit simple syntax, avoiding particles, conjunctions, complicated constructions, preferring parataxis to hypotaxis, and the thought proceeds by thesis rather than argument (e.g., Acts 4:10).
- They often stand out because of stylistic construction; that is, they favor antithetic or anaphoral style (e.g., 1 Tim 3:16).
- They are often rhythmical in form, by the number of stresses or even words (e.g., 1 Cor 15:3).
- They are often arranged in lines and strophes (e.g., Col 1.15-20).
- They are often marked by their preference for appositions and noun predicates (e.g., Ign. Eph. 7.2).
- They frequently favor participles and relative clauses (e.g., Rom 1:3).
- They refer to the elementary truth and events of salvation history as norms (e.g., Ign. Trail 9.1-2).
Gordley distinguishes the capacity to identify pre-existing hymns from the presence of poetic elements in the so-called hymns. The former is far more difficult to discern than the latter. Again, agreed. Along with the emboldened points above and the presence of more formal structures, Gordley concludes we can identify some early Christian hymns.
Once one studies with caution these NT hymns about Christ, what do we learn about early Christian worship?
- It was Christocentric. At the very least, we can say that the early Christian milieu was generative of passages that offer praise to Christ or hymnic declarations about Christ in elevated or poetic style.
- It invited participants to embrace a particular view of reality centered in the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
- It was deeply rooted in a Jewish conception of the divine.
- It was creatively and critically engaged with the Jewish Scriptures.
- It was closely connected to the Jewish psalm tradition.
- It was connected to a living tradition of psalm composition and religious poetry that had a long tradition of engaging culture and resisting easy answers.
- It appropriated aspects of Greek and Roman culture.
- It represented a fusion of Jewish and Greco-Roman literary conventions and styles.
- It was conscious of its imperial context.
- It provided its participants with resources to resist Roman imperial ideology and pagan religious beliefs as the overarching forces controlling their l ives.
- It was much more than doctrinal or cognitive; it also had an affective dimension and an allusive quality. Accordingly, early Christian worship offered imagery and language that had an allusive power capable of engaging the emotions of its participants.