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Hymnody and the Supposed Sin of John Piper

Article referencedà https://relevantmagazine.com/god/should-john-piper-have-changed-the-name-of-great-is-thy-faithfulness/

I read an article from Relevant magazine recently where John Piper was taken to task for adding a verse to the now classic hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” I must admit, an article that takes John Piper to task for theological stances is normally “click-baity” for me because I disagree with John Piper in so much of his theology. We come from different places and I continually appreciate the challenges he presents me with when I read his teachings because it sharpens my own theological wit. I thought “what has John Piper done now that I’m gonna have to argue with”? Well, nothing really that blew my thinning hair back (it doesn’t take much these days). He was at a conference and wanted to make more connections to the theme throughout the worship experience that day. One response critical of the decision was put so well to Christianity Today:

The University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College’s  director of master of sacred music program Swee Hong Lim told them, “Hymns are theological statements …  To that end, and particularly for Methodism, hymns are not theologically neutral but carry theological distinctiveness. This is one reason why the denomination has sought to review contemporary worship songs for their theological position.”—Swee Hong Lim

Should Piper be taken to task for taking a Methodist hymn and adding verses to add to the context of his message? Sure, why not? Does the above argument made against him make sense? Sure, why not? An artist’s original meaning for a piece is important. Acknowledging the integrity of a piece of art is important, especially when the art is to be used as a teaching tool of some sort. But I caution us to fully take that argument all the way in our ministry contexts and houses of worship. As worship leaders, our aims should be different from perfect performance. We cut and paste, rearrange, modify, add, and take away, all the time when it comes to a piece of music (and how often are we also doing this to Scripture?). We do this to fit our contexts of ministry; hopefully, it’s a faithful modification. And yes, sometimes we might be missing some of the rich theological teaching a particular verse might hold for the overall message of a piece (assuming that the people we are serving are engaged in both lyrics and tune of a song….but that’s a different topic for a different day). But unless one is sticking to the author’s exact meter, order, the original instrument the author had in mind for the piece, sometimes the geographic location of the composition, sometimes even the placement in a worship service (or for concert/performance intentions only) they are marring the song at least partially. This happens when we add elements to a piece as well, like verses, or perhaps an extemporaneous prayer in the song.

As to the ethics of this practice, I tend to take a more Roland Barthes and “death of the author” stance, though I don’t carry his argument nearly as far as he would like me to. On some level, when any modifications are made, I realize I am at least partially bending a piece of art to my will and judgment. How many times have I cut a verse out of a hymn by Charles Wesley (I’m looking at you O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing), or a bridge or a  repeating chorus from another song (I’m looking at you Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Matt Maher, Matt Redman and others)? The answer is that I do this as a worship leader virtually every Sunday. And so do many of the artists and composers mentioned above because their music context is continually changing.

But back to John Piper and this particular emphasis of “meaning” in a hymn. Honestly? I don’t see anything particularly blasphemous or damning in the verses he added—both in adding them and the contents of their message. I get it. I get the argument about how, in this instance of adding, the theology and the tone of the song can change and original meaning can be stretched. But the fact these additional verses might take a more Calvinist turn since Piper is Calvinist (which, I would argue you could impose whatever spin you want on virtually any text if you played with it and stretched it long enough; and the verses in question don’t exactly scream from the TULIPS) I think enhances the tapestry of faithful beliefs and meanings in a hymn. As to whether I like the additions? Meh. They worked for his context and probably won’t show up in a worship service I lead. Happy hymnody!

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

1.

Great is Thy faithfulness
O God my Father
There is no shadow of turning with Thee
Thou changest not
Thy compassions they fail not
As Thou hast been
Thou forever will be

Refrain:

Great is Thy faithfulness
Great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
And all I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness
Lord unto me

2.

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,

Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,

Join with all nature in manifold witness

To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.

3.

Pardon for sin
And a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer
And to guide
Strength for today
and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside

John Piper’s apparently miasmic additions

I could not love Thee, so blind and unfeeling;
Covenant promises fell not to me.
Then without warning, desire, or deserving,
I found my Treasure, my pleasure, in Thee.

I have no merit to woo or delight Thee,
I have no wisdom or pow’rs to employ;
Yet in thy mercy, how pleasing thou find’st me,
This is Thy pleasure: that Thou art my joy.

 


final-bridges2Matt Bridges is an ordained elder in the United Methodist church and currently serves in New Mexico as the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lovington. Matt has served in ministry in one form or another for the last seventeen years. In particular, he has a passion for music ministry and other types of worship ministry. In all of the things he’s learned in ministry, if he were to write a book on worship right now it would most certainly be titled 1001 Times (and counting)  I said “Well, I’ll Never Do It That Way Again” in Worship. He is joined in ministry by his wife, Corinne, and daughter Emilie. And they all love being the church together.

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