Friday, November 9, 2007

Heresy in the Hymnal

A clergy colleague recently noted a line in the 1982 Hymnal that he described as heretical and said he would not sing. I found this comment particularly interesting since my colleague strikes me as someone left of center who is not invested in doctrinal controversy and debate.

The hymn in question is #324: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” Here’s the verse with the suspect line:

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords in human vesture,
in the Body and the Blood
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.

“Lord of lords in human vesture” …

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the word “vesture” derives from the Latin vestivus, which is the past participle of vestire, meaning “to clothe.” It also derives from the Vulgar Latin ("the everyday speech of the Roman people, as opposed to literary Latin") word vestitura, meaning “clothing” or “vestments.” So to say that Jesus is “Lord of lords in human vesture” is tantamount to saying that Jesus was clothed in flesh – that his body was a mere covering for his “real self,” sort of like a priest vesting in alb, stole, and chasuble.

It all sounds rather suspiciously like a denial of the full humanity of Jesus along the lines of docetism. Here’s what theologian Shirley C. Guthrie says about this heresy:

The heresy is called “docetism” from the Greek verb that means “to seem.” It is a heresy that threatened to destroy the Christian faith almost as soon as it was born and is just as popular and dangerous in the twentieth century as it was in the first. Docetism asserts very strongly that Jesus was divine but denies that he was really human. He only “seemed” to be a human being. Actually he was God disguised as a man. His human nature was only a mask or a costume behind which his true divine self was concealed. Jesus was not a truly human being but a spiritual being who was not really subject to all the limitations and problems of earthly existence. In him God was only pretending to be with us in the midst of our sinful, suffering, creaturely existence. His purpose was not to help us in the world but to help us escape from the world [Christian Doctrine Revised Edition (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 237; emphasis in text].

Part of what makes all of this so fascinating is that the words to Hymn 324 are a paraphrase of the Liturgy of St. James. (The words from the liturgy that appear in Hymn 324 were paraphrased by Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885), an Anglican priest and poet.) One site says that this liturgy, “which was until recently only celebrated on the island of Zakynthos on his feast on 23 October and in Jerusalem on the Sunday after Christmas, is today celebrated in an increasing number of Orthodox churches. It was the ancient rite of Jerusalem, as the Mystagogic Catecheses of St Cyril of Jerusalem imply. It is still, in its Syrian form, the principal liturgy of the Syrian Oriental Church, both in Syriac and, in the ancient Syrian Orthodox Church of India, in Malayalam and English.”

A Google search will take you to several websites that include a translation of the Liturgy of St. James in its entirety. The part of the liturgy lifted for the words to Hymn 324 come from a cherubic hymn sung before the Great Entrance when the unconsecrated bread and wine are brought forward. Here are two translations of that cherubic hymn (notice that neither one of them says anything about “Lord of lords in human vesture”):

Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and with fear and trembling stand. Ponder nothing earthly-minded, for the King of kings and Lord of lords advances to be slain and given as food to the faithful. Before him go the choirs of Angels, with every rule and authority, the many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim, veiling their sight and crying out the hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself:—
For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Moultrie’s paraphrase turns the theological intention of the Liturgy of St. James on its head.

A hymn is not just a piece of music with words. A hymn is first and foremost a theological text, and thus, if included in our Hymnal, should teach and communicate the faith of the Church. So while I personally love the tune of Hymn 324, I am dismayed to find that Moultrie’s paraphrase of the Liturgy of St. James espouses a docetic Christology at variance with the faith of the Church as articulated in the classical creeds and in the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer.


Scott Gunn said...

Hey, if you want to get upset at "hymnal heresy", make sure you protest at this year's Christmas services. Hymn 87, verse 2. You'll see what I mean. That one bugs me more than 324, though your point is well taken.

Maybe someone can fix this for the next hymnal, because I think the Liturgy of St. James rocks -- and I generally like the paraphrase in 324.


Bryan+ said...

Excellent comment, Scott. I thought there was another hymn with similiar language to #324, and you've pointed that one out. And to think that the words for #87 were written by Charles Wesley!

Tobias Haller said...

As Scott notes, there are a number of dicey theological verses in the Hymnal. My sense is that it is a case of the authors having points on their poetic license... I think people bend the rules a bit in order to make things scan properly; however, in these cases, "Who sings, prays 1/2 as much."

My own least favorite verse is 469.2, whose opening seems to challenge divine impassibility in a somewhat sentimental way. Perhaps not heretical, but I wish it were phrased a bit differently. (And me, a process guy!)

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for your comment, Tobias.

You may be right about "poetic license" playing a role here. But if hymns are first and foremost theological texts, then it seems to me that hymn texts that run counter to the faith of the Church as expressed in our creeds and liturgies should not be used in our hymnal.

I think there's a problem if what we sing denies the faith we pray.

Tobias Haller said...

Oh, I quite agree, Bryan. I think the problem is that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music is heavy on musicians and liturgists and light on theologians. And it is very easy to be "lulled" by a tune into singing something which, on more sober reflection, you might object to. The main thing is to have a poet and theologian on hand when the work is being done.

Might I suggest, for #324:

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of Lords, enfleshed and present
in the Body and the Blood...


Bryan+ said...

Good suggestion, Tobias. Now we know someone who needs to serve on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music!

Dan923 said...

The real heresy is the mystery of the mass; that angels watch in awe as Jesus brings his flesh to be sacrificed as food for the faithful. As a 39 Articles Anglican I can no longer sing a hymn that denies that Christ was sacrificed for sin once for all and that proclaims we chew his flesh. The melody is hauntingly beautiful but the words are rank false doctrine.

Bryan Owen said...

When Jesus died to save us,
a word, an act he gave us;
and still that word is spoken,
and still the bread is broken.

He was the Word that spake it,
He took bread and brake it,
and what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it.

~ The Hymnal 1982 #322

Dan923 said...

Thank you, Bryan, for this beautiful hymn I celebrate the Lord's Supper often. I proclaim the Lord's death, not his dying, for my sins. I proclaim that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed, not that he is being sacrificed.