Does My Argument in Authorized Apply to Old Hymns?

A pastor friend in urban Chicago asked a great question:

How does the case you make in your book regarding [unintelligible language in] the KJV apply to our hymnody? I’m editing our Sunday slide presentation and am finding that the “thees” and “thous,” while beautiful and transcendent, may not be clear to an outsider attending our fellowship. In some cases, the old English is updatable without ruining the message or meter. But, in other cases a small tweak would ruin a rhyme.

I replied that that question is a really good one, one other friend has already posed. And here’s what I’ve come to so far:

First, nobody is 17th-Century-Hymnody-Only or has made a doctrine out of using archaic hymns exclusively, so the pressure to push back against unintelligible language in hymns is not as great as the need to push back against unintelligible language in Bibles.

Second, the Bible is also more important than hymns, so that’s the battle I’m picking first.

But, third, to be consistent with my argument in Authorized, I have to say that we should not use unintelligible language when intelligible language is available. What a lot of KJVOs think I’m saying (or want me to be saying so they can burn up my straw man) is that we should remove all difficulty, including literary beauty and metaphor, from our worship. They say I’m calling for an emoji Bible. I’m not; and nor do I want an emoji hymnal. “I woke, the dungeon flamed with light” is a beautiful metaphor, and totally gettable. It should stay. Maybe “Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed / Bruise in us the serpent’s head” is a bit harder. But it’s straight Bible, with a small interpretive twist (“Bruise in us the serpent’s head”)—and I don’t want to get rid of such things. I’m actually fine with challenging metaphors, particularly if they’re drawn from the Bible—or comparable to the Bible’s metaphors in their obscurity quotient. Parts of the Bible are hard to understand; Peter said so (2 Pet 3:16). A good shepherd knows when to lead his sheep to those pastures, and how to lead them there. The same goes for our tradition of (non-inspired) hymnody.

I think “thee” and “thou” and “thy” really are not very difficult or unintelligible to modern English speakers with any education whatsoever. They are part of a recognizably high or sacral register in modern English. They show up on TV, even. But I want to be sensitive to my audience. I want to be on the lookout, because of 1 Corinthians 14’s edification-requires-intelligibility principle, for traditional wording I just have to know my congregation won’t get. “Naught be all else to me save that thou art” probably qualifies, I’m afraid. I tried to explain it recently to my congregation (I’m manic about this when I lead singing), but I’m not 100% sure of my own interpretation—even after watching the great Randy Leedy in class try to parse it one time. If he can’t get it, no one can. It probably needs to be revised—or what are we? Hidebound traditionalists who care more about aesthetic forms than about understanding and the edification that comes from it. And considering how poor our low-church aesthetic forms are compared to those of High Anglicanism or Rome itself, that’s pretty sad.

I love certain old hymns like “And Can It Be?” for their text and their tunes. The latter have been updated often in recent years; perhaps it is time for a concerted effort to update the former—just enough to retrieve intelligibility while preserving the doctrine and the metaphors.

Sort of fourth: to clarify one point I’ve been making… For almost six years I “pastored” an outreach congregation full of functionally illiterate people. I loved it. But we sang simple songs that I don’t sing in my current middle-class congregation. My current church can surpass the simple, for their spiritual and even aesthetic benefit. I’m not trying to dumb everything down; I’m trying to make understanding possible for my audience rather than impossible. That’s part of my calling when I shepherd the flock.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

7 Comments

  1. Tancredi on August 2, 2018 at 7:00 am

    Rom 16:20 seems pretty straightforward as the scriptural basis for Wesley’s line, “Bruise in us the Serpent’s head.” And I suppose the sentiment of “Naught be all else to me, save that thou art” is, “May nothing else be as important to me as You are.”



  2. Archaic Language in Hymnody | Jubilate Deo on August 2, 2018 at 8:21 am

    […] Ward addresses the issue here. I would add two […]



  3. trjones1792 on August 2, 2018 at 8:21 pm

    It is always time for singing with understanding. Singing without understanding is never acceptable. How to address that? Congregations and leaders alike differ on their levels of understanding and in their abilities to achieve growth, but grow we must. The music and performance must not distract from the meaning, and the lyrics may not obscure it either!



  4. Brian Morgan on August 3, 2018 at 6:30 am

    I agree that there is a line of distinction. While hymns are important in our worship, their use is not as broad or frequent as the Bible itself. So then, the argument for more “majestic language” or “sounding more like the Bible” (KJO notions) can be had with hymns more easily. There is a cadence, a poetic structure that might not allow for one to one replacement/update of words and phrases.
    But the implications are different than the Bible itself. Prior to leading that hymn, as Mark indicated in his article, I explain words and phrases that might be less understood today. Then we sing the hymn.

    But when talking about Bible translations, the need for clarity vs “majestic sounding words” holds greater ramification. I cannot be by my 10 year old’s side at all times to explain and clarify the obscure words, and this is a text for daily feeding, for study, for witnessing, for preaching. The ramifications are broader, so must be viewed differently.



  5. dustinbattles (@dustinbattles) on August 3, 2018 at 6:45 am

    There is an updated text of “Be Thou My Vision,” but, in my opinion, it lacks something compared to the original—as difficult as it is to understand “Naught be all else to me save that thou art”:

    “Lord, be my vision, supreme in my heart,
    bid every rival give way and depart:
    you my best thought in the day or the night,
    waking or sleeping, your presence my light.”

    http://www.praise.org.uk/hymn/lord-be-my-vision-supreme-in-my-heart/



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