Theological Themes In Contemporary Hymnody -- By: Edward S. Steele

Journal: Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry
Volume: JBTM 07:2 (Fall 2010)
Article: Theological Themes In Contemporary Hymnody
Author: Edward S. Steele

Theological Themes In Contemporary Hymnody

Ed Steele

Dr. Steele is Associate Professor of Music at Leavell College New Orleans, Louisiana


From the beginnings of the early church, the songs sung in worship have been a reflection of what Christians have believed. The theology expressed through the text of these songs has declared the glories of the Incarnate Christ to the hope of the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s reigning as King of kings at the end of time. Hymnals have long produced a canon of worship songs of collected themes that expressed the beliefs and understandings of the faithful. With the rise of the use of multimedia in worship, the role of a theologically reviewed collection such as a hymnal has been modified so that worship songs made popular by Christian artists find themselves in use in congregational worship without having to go through the theological filters of a review of a hymnal committee before widespread use. What issues does this theological bypassing raise? Are there theological standards for this new growing body of hymnody that flashes across the screens of so many churches? Perhaps a foundational question to be addressed is how the text of a song is theological.

If theology may be defined in its simplest terms as the study of God, then the words used in worship are a reflection of how God is perceived and understood. S. T. Kimbrough is emphatic: “The hymns of the church are theology.”1 Don Saliers believes that to know one’s conception of God, ask him or her for his favorite hymns.2 Rowan Williams states that the texts of songs propose “a way of seeing and articulating what has been apprehended as God’s act.”3 Lyrical theology is the term Kimbrough uses that “designates a theology couched in poetry, song, and liturgy, characterized by rhythm and expressive of emotion and sentiment.”4 The use of hymns and songs provides a unifying element that draws the Body of Christ together in worship, affirming what is believed and understood as the truths of the nature and character of God, the

plan and purpose of God, and his actions in relationship with his creation. To underscore this, Brian Wren believes that if texts “do theological work, their work is communal and public.”5 One of the major difficulties of the genre is to encapsulate theological truths—truths about which volumes have been written—in a few words.

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