What is a Hymn?

In Worship Leadership class during Red Carpet week 2012 a question arose: “When do contemporary songs become hymns?” One of the leading sources on hymnology that has arisen among evangelicals in recent years is by David Music and Milburn Price, A Survey of Christian Hymnody. The following can be found in the opening chapters of their book: “Hymns are part of the branch of poetry known as ‘lyric poetry.’ The lyre was an ancient Greek musical instrument, and lyric poetry was poetry that was to be accompanied by the lyre; thus, poetry was designed for singing. Hymns contain many of the characteristics that are familiar from other types of poetry such as stanzaic form, rhyme, poetic meter, and poetic device” (Introduction, vii). In terms of distinguishing Old Testament singing and New Testament singing, they define all OT singing as Psalms (probably not completely canonized until Bablonian captivity) and or Canticles (other lyrical poetry in OT that were “antecedents for the songs of faith of later eras.” Regarding the emergence of the word hymn in the NT, Music/Price said the following: “Paul encouraged believers to sing ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ both as an instrument of praise to God and as a tool for teaching (Eph. 5: 19, Col. 3:19). Whether this referred to three specific types  of songs or is to be interpreted as a rhetorical device that Paul used for emphasis is a matter of some uncertainty.  . . .  Early Christians sought to supplement their heritage of psalms and canticles with songs that would praise the name of Christ, share the gospel, and express their own religious experience”  (3). Three of the earliest Christian songs come directly from scripture: Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-56), Benedictus est (Song of Zacharias, Luke 1: 67-79), Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Luke 2: 14), Nun dimittis (Song of Simeon, Luke 2: 29-32). Also, portions of Paul’s letters appear to be hymn-like refrains emphasizing a particular theological point, possibly existing before Paul’s original penning of the words. If we use this possibly loose NT definition of hymn, a contemporary song could become a hymn quite quickly. But from a hymnologist’s standpoint, there are more specific designations among modern Western Christian categories for song, which can be very helpful to trace historic patterns. For example, Harry Eskew/Hugh McElrath distinguishes hymns as “usually [existing] in strophic form, using the same music for each stanza. The number of phrases of the hymn tune correspond to its text, ranging generally from as few as four. . . . There will sometimes be a refrain of four or more additional phrases.” (Sing with Understanding, 36). Clearly, a typical worship song that might have emerged in the 80’s as a chorus of few words that is continuously repeated would not fit this definition. However, a song like “Blessed Be Your Name” does appear to match the criteria stated above. Because of the influence of rock on worship songs from 1980’s to present, a bridge is often included. So, one must decide if the inclusion of a bridge is enough to not count a song as a hymn.

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