Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Are Contemporary Songs Trinitarian enough?

I will post a report on our Evening Church Planning soon. But just to say that we visited Church By the Bridge on Sunday at 5PM. It was great to be there, and I'll write some thoughts about it soon -- things I am thankful to God for. Mark Smith gave a great sermon on the Trinity. And it got me thinking lots. Which is good.

We sang a set of four contemporary praise/worship songs at the beginning of the service -- all good etc. But the sermon prompted me to think about the songs: they were all very unitarian, rather than Trinitarian. Lots of 'Praise God' and 'You are Holy', and 'How great is God'. Lots of wonder in God; the stars speak of his majesty etc. They were good. And we loved singing them. But they seemed to lack the depth and power of a Trinitarian faith.

Now, this is just a gut impression. I haven't really checked out whether its true against the lyrics.
  • So is my impression true?
  • Are the classic Hymns more Trinitarian? (besides Be Thou My Vision!)
Pic on Flickr by Forgiven!


David Ould said...

hmmm, interesting. Never thought about it that way before.

Small sample - our songs from Sunday.

Crown Him with Many Crowns - is overtly Christ-centred.

Only by Grace - again, all about Jesus

How Deep the Father's Love - Binitarian, I would say (channeling Hurtado)

Love Divine - Again, the focus is on Jesus.

Justin, do you mean instead to ask whether a lot of modern songs are unitarian? ie talking about "God" in what may be understood to be a generic sense without clarifying that God is known in Jesus?

If so, then I'd say you may have a point.

Justin said...

Good point, DO.

Just changed it...

David Ould said...

hmmm, the great LW once pointed out to me that the biggest unitarian disaster of modern song-writing is the classic "Blessing and Honour" where the persons of "Ancient of Days" and the Son of Man of Daniel 7 get conflated.

He wrote a great mock article on the obvious redaction of the text but it's not on his website!

Anonymous said...

The only contemporary song I can think of that has an explicit reference to the Trinity (a line in the second verse) is "How great is our God" (Chris Tomlin) - "The Godhead three in one: Father, Spirit, Son..."

Matthew Moffitt said...

I've been thinking about this for a while. I've noticed that rather than writing songs about the Trinity, we write songs about Jesus, songs about the Spirit, or songs about YHWH, which we assume to be the Father (aren't the Son and Spirit also YHWH?).

David Ould said...

that's right, MoffIt!

Part of it stems from an erroneous assumption that we all so often fall into that the Old Testament should be read in a unitarian way.

Anonymous said...

Rob Smith has written some trinitarian songs - "O the Splendor" (an oldie but, I do think, a goodie) and "We Cry, Abba" (EMU, on Let all Creation Sing) and I've also just found another on EMU "Loved" (On EMU Live 2 See Him Coming).

Seumas Macdonald said...

I suspect your vibe is right, and I hypothesise it's because contemporary song-writers do not have enough of a trinitarian-shaped faith. I don't say that to accuse, but merely as a reflection - the time I've spent reading a lot and reflecting a lot on the Trinity, reshaped my thoughts and prayers and if I was a song-writer I imagine it would have some of the same effect.

Karen Marie said...

I have always found these dialogues about the theology of worship songs interesting. It is of course important that our worship songs are theologically sound and give visitors a taste of the gospel. But maybe we overcomplicate it to think that all of our worship songs need to portray the fullness of our theology. That would make for a long song. We are after all worshipping the "God-head, three in one" and by worshipping a "unitary" God don't worship all three parts at the same time?

michael jensen said...

That Chris Tomlin song drives me nuts: he just puts in the line 'The Godhead three in one' but it has no verb or nothing. What about the GTIO? Do they do something? Are they something?

It sounds like he pulled in a little religious mumbo jumbo just to fill a line. Like that song 'and his kingdom's rule and his kingdom's power and authority'... well? What about it?
As for the line 'sing with me' ... it makes me wanna barf.

annie said...

I was raised on the old, 'big' hymns, where almost always the last verse was some sort of 'Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost'-type doxology.

I have been very saddened by the paucity of old hymns in the Sydney Anglican world!!

But I am not from your culture, and I realise that as a guest I cannot expect to impose my cultural preferences on this ultracontemporary culture! So I'll happily (okay, a little wistfully!) sing Coldplay-esque songs in the Sydney Anglican world, and then go home and crank up the old hymns on my CD player.

My favourite: Holy Holy Holy ( "merciful and mighty ...God in three persons, blessed trinity..." )

Martin T said...

I realize many of you are seminarians and better versed in this stuff than I, but isn't it a tad strong to call a worship song "unitarian" because it doesn't mention the Trinity? Don't unitarians deny the existence of a triune God, often denying Christ's divinity as well?

I agree that there's some pretty weak theology in contemporary worship music (and don't get me started on Christian pop--The Fray is in the Christian market...what?). But I don't think there's a problem with emphasizing God's creative power in some songs (e.g. "Indescribable") and others focusing on Jesus' life and death and resurrection. My favorite hymns, and the ones that mean the most to me, have some theological heft. To call the less hefty ones "unitarian," though, seems a little strong to me.

David Ould said...


I think the point I'm wanting to suggest is that they're implicitly unitarian.

There's no actual desire to deny the trinity, but perhaps because we're not thinking these issues through properly we're writing songs that don't affirm the doctrine of God in all its rich fullness.

And songs are very important. Our congregations learn lots of theology from their songs. That's why a man once composed a famous ditty:

There was a time when He was not...

Michael Canaris said...

Would tacking a fairly standard doxology to the end of a song render it Trinitarian?

annie said...

Michael - I think it's a good reminder, in any case. The classic hymns I was thinking of don't just arbitrarily tack it on; the trinitarian doxology is built-in, or at least is perceived that way by people accustomed to it. It might just be weird in Sydney Anglican world.

Justin said...

Annie -- it should be noted that Cammaray is the home of the Sydney Anglican World!

York Street is home to the big old hymns.


Justin said...

Martin T -- Great to have more than one American on this thread. (Meet Annie)

Actually, I'm not dissing on the Contemporary Songs. I enjoyed the 6 or so we sang at Church By the Bridge.

But I just think that some of the classic Hymns that have survived weren't just me'n'God'n'the Universe.

The Hymn Writers composed richly of a Triune God.

Justin said...

@Karen Marie --

Oops. There are three Americans -- Annie, Karen and Martin T! Oh, and David O is a Pom, and I'm pretty sure that Seamus is a Scot!


KT -- You are right. I'm not trying to complicate things. I don't mind the songs. I just like depth, as is fitting our great God. I like wonder too (which the Contemporary songs are working on), but I'm at home with what is profound.

annie said...

I really should come over to York Street more often to get my fix of the big old hymns!!

I thought of another great trinitarian song I love - not a big old hymn but also not written in the last five years. It's the one with the verses that start with the lines:

"Almighty Infinite Father...."
"Wonderful Merciful Saviour..."
"Counselor Comforter Keeper..."

A quick Google search reveals it's by Russell Mauldin. Anyone in Sydney sing that one?

andrewE said...

Nathan's right to mention "How great is our God". The lines: "The Godhead three in one, Father Spirit, Son, the lion and the lamb, the lion and the lamb", are, I reckon, the best piece of lyrical writing in ages.


apodeictic said...

@Annie: All I can say is "Amen sister"! But unlike you I *AM* from the Sydney Anglican world so I don't have to worry about appearing culturally insensitive. I'm one of them so I can just tell it like it is ;-)

As an insider (of sorts at least -- I'm sure most Sydney Anglicans don't really consider me one of the inner sanctum because although I am theologically evangelical and Reformed I have a penchant for the Prayer Book, choral evensong and the like which most Sydney Anglicans under the age of 65 just don't get ;-) ) I'm quite happy to say we're making a big mistake by abandoning all the old classics. I'm not against modern songs per se (there are actually some good ones) but most of them simply don't rate theologically (or even poetically) when compared with the old classics. (Although that said there are some truly awful "old" hymns as well; the Victorian era was responsible for quite a lot of hymnodic pap). Whether we like it or not, hymns and songs are how we learn much of our theology -- good or bad (lex cantati lex credendi est?) -- and we neglect this truth to our peril (which is one reason why I think we should re-introduce Psalm singing into our services (or "meetings" as is the current linguistic fad -- but that's probably another topic for discussion).

Like you Annie I was exposed to solid Trinitarian theology as a choirboy singing the great old doxologies. I can remember as a boy chorister singing the words "consubstantial" and "co-eternal" and not having a clue at the time what they meant and then going home and looking the words up in the dictionary after the service! To this day I never forget that the persons of the Trinity are coeternal and consubstantial ;-) Do you know the doxology to which I'm referring?

I'm not currently in Sydney (currently overseas doing a PhD) but when I'm back (not long now I imagine) I would be happy to get together with any like-minded Christians to sing some good hymns (and Psalms too if anyone's up for that).

annie said...

@apo - delighted to meet you! Where are you doing your PhD overseas? Give us a shout when you're back in the Underworld and we'll have a hymn-sing. I've even got a psalter. :)

apodeictic said...

I'm in Oxford so technically I'm doing a "D.Phil" and not a "Ph.D" (I see from your blog that you went to "the other place"! I saw a reference to your support of Cambridge in the Varsity Boat Race). If I can find a way at your blog to drop you my contact details (or post them on my own without inviting spam) I shall do so.

What you experience as "Sydney Anglicanism" is a rather modern mutation. And it's not entirely down to the "informal" Australian culture as you put it. That's part of the explanation but to a much larger extent it's due to the baby boomer generation taking over and imposing this style of worship on us and now the younger generations knowing nothing better and thinking that this is completely "normal" Anglicanism. (You may want to read what Bishop Forsyth says here in relation to the phases of our history: http://is.gd/2D0mg ; what I am referring to is Phase 2 in Bishop Forsyth's schema.) Things used to be *very* different -- and not that long ago. Now of course not all was well back in the day and I would be the first to admit that some things *have* changed for the better. But if we're going to be honest then we also need to admit that some things have also changed for the worse. Most people in Sydney Anglican circles who are my age or younger (I'm 30) are not really familiar with traditional forms of Anglican worship (I'm a bit of an anomaly for my generation because of (1) my background as a chorister and (2) attending a Prayer Book [AAPB 1978] service of Morning Prayer [before the baby boomers had trampled it under foot] from the age of 11 with my father instead of going to the Sunday Morning group for school years 6-9 once I got too old for Sunday School which finished at Year 5).

As a social experiment, go up to someone under the age of 30 (maybe even 40) at your local Anglican church and say something like "Lift up your hearts!" (or "O Lord, open thou our lips") and look at the blank stares you get :-D . Anyone who was brought up on traditional Anglican forms of worship would know exactly what you were on about. But most people of this age wouldn't have the foggiest about what you are saying.

Anyway I'm getting off topic. The topic is music and specifically modern songs and Trinitarianism. I suspect that most modern song writers -- and evangelical Christians in general for that matter -- are to a large extent "practical unitarians". For the most part we are only nominal Trinitarians. Trinitarianism is something on the peripherary of our doctrinal beliefs which makes little difference about how we think about God, ourselves and indeed the world more generally. And it goes without saying that it should make a substantial difference.

Hayley said...

You raise good food for thought.

I think perhaps modern worship songs are filled with more Jesus & God.... rather than referring to the three persons in the Godhead. And maybe Hillsong has a high use of "Lord" / "Saviour"???

But to be fair you would have to do survey of the lyrics...

Having said that off the top of my head I can think of the following songs that we sing at Church by the Bridge about the triune God - or assume it.


"your spirit makes me new"...
"your presence in me, Jesus light the way"
"This is our God".
Yet No reference as such to the Father.

assumes we are addressing the Father as we sing.
"fire consuming all for your Son's holy name"
"You asked your Son to carry this"
and its by "the spirit of power that raise Christ from the grave."

"The precious blood of Jesus Christ redeems"...
"convicted by your spirit, led by your word"
"Cause I know you gave, the world your only son for us to..."

Huw said...

Grant Retief asked me to program the song "Heavenly Father Beautiful Son" by Sovereign Grace Music in his talks on the Trinity at this years NextGen conference. Sovereign Grace have a commendable collection of contemporary and varied congregational songs covering most biblical topics (and it's ever expanding, at least 2 or 3 albums per year). Lyrics can be found here


Justin said...

Thanks Hayley and Huw -- good call.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. Can someone please write some music for the Nicene Creed please?


Pretty please?

Yewtree said...

Hi, I'm a Unitarian and I have to say the Unitarian hymnals are full of theological depth, breadth and satisfaction.

If I recall correctly the Orthodox Church sings the Nicene Creed (and they have much better liturgical music than the Western church).

There aren't that many Biblical "proof-texts" for the Trinity, and many of the great 19th century hymns were written by the Methodists, who weren't particularly insistent on the full complexity of the doctrine of the Trinity, complete with kenosis, hypostases, perichoresis, and Filioque controversy.