What Makes a Hymn “Great hymns of the Faith”? by Roger Bergs
By Sola Scriptura Ministries International
In the ongoing debate and discussions over musical style in many churches, defenders of tradition in worship will often refer to their canon of congregational songs as “the great hymns of the faith.” While every tradition (and every traditionalist) will identify certain songs of praise in this category, all too often “great hymns of the faith” is a thinly-veiled synonym for “the songs that I happen to like.” Their criticism of the subjectivity of the proponents of contemporary worship songs is being answered by a similar subjectivity of their own.
But do any objective standards exist to help us evaluate congregational songs? What is it that makes “great hymns of the faith” great? Let’s take a case example to point us in the right direction.
Crown Him with Many Crowns is a hymn with twelve stanzas in its original form. The text was written by two Anglican ministers—Godfrey Thring (1823–1903) and Matthew Bridges (1800–94)—in the mid 19th-century. The tune Diademata was written specifically for this text by George Elvey (1816–93), an organist at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.
It is a hymn that has achieved widespread popularity in traditions ranging from Anglican to Baptist. It is a hymn that would comfortably fit into the category “great hymns of the faith” in the estimation of most of those who would use such a term.
But what makes it “great”? Let me answer it in a roundabout way:
Do you know the difference between a contradiction and a paradox? In a contradiction, two opposing ideas are present, and at least one of those ideas must be false. It is impossible for both to be true simultaneously. In a paradox, on the other hand, two seemingly contradictory ideas are put forth, and we must wrestle with how it is possible for both to be true simultaneously. A paradox is a literary technique that is useful in pointing our hearts and minds to deeper truths that escape the grasp of common speech.
Faithful believers assert that the Christian faith is free of contradictions, but contains plenty of paradoxes. For example, we describe Christ’s nature as “fully human and fully divine”, and not half-and-half. Or we wrestle with the competing ideas of God’s total sovereignty and human responsibility for our sin. Even the very idea of the Trinity (one God in three persons) can seem paradoxical until we consider it more deeply.
In poetry, there is a device called a chiasmus that works like this: [idea or word A] followed by [idea or word B]; then [B] followed by [A]. A simple example from Julius Caesar: “Hail, Caesar! Caesar, hail!”
The textual brilliance of the hymn Crown Him with Many Crowns lies in the poets’ use of the chiasmus to articulate paradoxes in the Christian faith. So for example:
Crown Him the Son of God, before the worlds began,
And ye who tread where He hath trod, crown Him the Son of Man;
Crown Him the Lord of peace, whose power a scepter sways
From pole to pole, that wars may cease, and all be prayer and praise.
The most compelling line in the whole hymn runs:
Who died eternal life to bring, and lives that death may die.
The hymn is filled with reasons to praise our victorious Saviour. The triumphant nature of the tune that colours this text is a perfect fit. And when such a tune forces us to articulate such a paradoxical yet crucial truth—all in one breath—we have a near-perfect unity of poetry, theology and music that must elevate this hymn to be one of the “great hymns of the faith”. It is not just a nice song that many people like. And this unity of poetry, theology and music parallels the unity of mind, spirit and body that must form any worship that we can offer with any integrity.