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From the July/August, 2009 issue of Touchstone


Durable Hymns by Donald T. Williams

Durable Hymns

Donald T. Williams on Five Marks of Excellence That Could End the Worship Wars

The “worship wars” that rage in the church today are nothing new. St. Ambrose was considered an innovator for writing hymns and teaching his people to sing them. The controversy over melismatic textual elaboration in the Middle Ages was (according to legend) settled by Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass. The Reformation started debates over exclusive psalmody and the use of instruments, debates that continue among Protestants to this day, although they are now overshadowed by heated arguments over contemporary praise and worship music versus traditional hymnody.

Part of the answer to these debates was inscribed over the door to the old Ayres Memorial Library at Taylor University: “What is past is prologue; study the past.” We study the past not because the present is unworthy of our attention but because only by studying the past can we learn the criteria by which to discern what is worthy in the present. No one has explained this principle better than Dr. Johnson:

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised on principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high without the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing can be styled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. (Samuel Johnson, Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare, 1765)

How do we apply these principles to the Worship Wars, as pastors, as ministers of music, or as those who train them? We do it partly by recognizing that a great deal of today’s music is very poor. Well, that shouldn’t be too surprising; some of the music of the past was, too. The difference is that, with the past, the weeding-out process described by Dr. Johnson has already taken place. Therefore, we cannot find, encourage, and preserve the best contemporary music without knowing those marks of excellence that made the best of the past stand out and survive so long.

What are those marks? There are at least five: (1) biblical truth; (2) theological profundity; (3) poetic richness; (4) musical beauty; and (5) the fitting of music to text in ways that enhance, rather than obscure or distort, its meaning.

These are the marks of excellence in any age. They are not arbitrary but are derived from biblical teaching about the nature of worship (it is to be in spirit and in truth, and involves loving God with our whole person, including the mind) and from an understanding of the nature of music and how it can support those biblical goals.

Biblical Truth

The faithful Church has always insisted on biblical truth, and Protestant hymnody started out with a special emphasis on it. The earliest congregational songs for the churches of the Reformation were paraphrased Scripture texts, especially the Psalms. John Hopkins’s collection of the metrical Psalms of Thomas Sternhold (1549) was one of the most popular books in Elizabethan England. What these renditions lacked in literary elegance they made up for in biblical faithfulness:

The man is blest that hath not gone
By wicked rede astray,
Ne sat in chair of pestilence,
Nor walked in sinner’s way;

But in the law of God the Lord
Doth set his whole delight,
And in that law doth exercise
Himself both day and night.

By the eighteenth century, writers such as Isaac Watts, William Cowper, John Newton, and the Wesley brothers felt at liberty to compose words of praise that were not strict paraphrases of Scripture. But they still felt strongly the obligation to make sure that their words were scriptural if not Scripture. The printed versions of their hymns often included the biblical references that justified their content at the end of every verse or even every line.

One of the healthy trends in contemporary Christian music is the revival of the ancient practice of singing Scripture. Unfortunately, this revival is sometimes limited to the mantric repetition of short and simple phrases rather than encompassing a fuller train of biblical thought through longer passages, as was more typically the earlier practice.

Theological Profundity

Theological profundity is also a mark of the best of past hymnody. Even simple laymen did not turn their minds off in worship but praised a majestically transcendent Trinitarian God with a graciously incarnated Son who had saved them by grace through faith. The best texts not only lifted them above themselves in worship but also helped them interpret their own religious experiences in biblically sound ways.

So they sang to One who is “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, / In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” They gave their “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” Because the Lord is “A Mighty Fortress” whose Son “must win the battle,” they trembled not for the prince of darkness and could “Let goods and kindred go, / This mortal life also.”

Has anyone ever done a better job of applying the specifics of the Atonement to the process and experience of conversion than Charles Wesley in “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” Recent choruses sometimes limit themselves by being so simplistic and repetitive that theological reflection never has a chance to get started. But without it, how can we love and worship God with our minds, as Christ particularly commanded us?

Poetic Richness

Poetic richness is a virtue that must be pursued carefully, for a text that is too allusive and too difficult for average laymen to unpack will hinder worship rather than enabling and enriching it. Nevertheless, appropriate kinds of literary excellence have a role to play. Examples include gems like the use of the questions in “What Child Is This?” to capture the wonder of the Incarnation; the appropriate military metaphors in that great meditation on spiritual warfare, “A Mighty Fortress”; and the choice of a simple but evocative word like “wretch” in “Amazing Grace.”

Little touches that make a text more intellectually suggestive or emotionally powerful without making it unnecessarily difficult tend to show up in hymns that have survived the test of time. How many “praise and worship” texts would be worth reading simply as devotional poetry without the music? Many classic hymns rise to that level.

Musical Beauty

Musical beauty might be thought by many to be in the eye of the beholder (or the ear of the hearer), and to a certain extent this is true. Nevertheless, there are certain contours, structures, and cadences that make for a singable melody and certain harmonic felicities that can make that melody more memorable or even haunting. Think of the way Slane (“Be Thou My Vision”) rises and falls like an ocean wave or a sine curve; of the gently rolling ABA structure of Ebenezer (“Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”); the way each phrase of “Gift of Love” (“Though I may speak with bravest fire”) varies the same pattern; the way the men’s voices in Diadem (the “complicated” version of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”) punctuate the flowing women’s line in the chorus; or the way the inner parts move against the still melody in the third measure of Nicaea (“Holy, Holy, Holy”).

Though some very beautiful pieces have come out of contemporary Christian music (“El Shaddai,” much of John Michael Talbot’s and Michael Card’s work), too many of the more recent praise choruses seem to ignore all the rules of good composition, giving us not well-shaped melodies but just one note after another. These “tunes” are not very singable, but it often doesn’t matter because the “worship team” plays them so loudly that no one can tell whether the congregation is singing along or not. (I am not against rock-influenced styles or amplified volume as such, but there is a difference between giving a performance and leading a congregation in worship.) And where did so many guitarists get the notion that it is somehow cute to avoid ending a song on the tonic chord (i.e., “home base”)?


A good fit between the words and their musical setting is essential to great worship music even when text and tune are both excellent in themselves. The most egregious violation of this principle may be A. B. Simpson’s “A Missionary Cry”: “A hundred thousand souls a day / Are marching one by one away. / They’re passing to their doom; / They’re passing to their doom.” If ever there was content demanding a minor key and a mournful, dirge-like tempo, this is it. But this song is set to a completely inappropriate snappy march tune, as if we were happy about the damnation of the unsaved!

Examples of a good fit between message and music are the quietly meditative, plainsong-derived melodies of Picardy in the contemplative “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” and Divinum Mysterium in “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” or the sprightly and joyous rhythms of Ariel in “Oh, Could I Speak the Matchless Worth.” A contemporary song with a good fit is Don Francisco’s ballad, “I’ve Got to Tell Somebody.” Michael Card is especially good not only at writing worthwhile texts but also at giving them appropriate settings.

Old Nurtures New

Biblical truth, theological profundity, poetic richness, musical beauty, and fitness of words and music are not matters of style or personal preference, but are the marks of excellence for worship music in any age. But only the comparison of many ages—in other words, a knowledge of musical history—can tell us this. It is therefore shortsighted for a Christian college music department to offer a degree in contemporary worship music that does not require study of the classic hymnody of the past. I do not say this out of hostility to contemporary music, but out of concern for its health and the health of the Church. Only those musicians who are classically and historically (as well as biblically and theologically) trained are in a position to help pastors and elders guide the church in a judicious appropriation of the best of the new music as a supplement to the church’s rich musical heritage.

Something old and something new: we need both, but the old has a privileged position because it has already been sifted by time. Thus, the wise cling to the best of the old, not to exclude the new, but to nurture it. Like the early Church, we still need both to be healthy—and to please our Lord.

Donald T. Williams , PhD, is Professor of English and Director of the School of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia (www.toccoafalls.edu).

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“Durable Hymns” first appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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