Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

7 Mar 2017

And Can it Be Another Post on Music?

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Music has been a controversial topic in nearly every generation since the beginning of the church. And while I don’t plan to solve anything with this post, I propose the following four principles as a baseline for what I think is acceptable music in a worship service:

  1. The music should be singable by a congregation
  2. The genre of music should be appropriate to the lyrics
  3. The lyrics should be theologically accurate
  4. The lyrics should be understandable to the congregation

In this post, I want to talk about the last two. Consider the song And can it Be. Passing over the curious fact that it starts with a conjunction, I would argue that the song does not clearly meet the criteria of the last two principles. Before looking at my comments below, see if you can discern where the song falls short.

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,

For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

As for the first two principles, this song passes (though some congregations may decide that its antiquated style makes it difficult for their congregation to sing). But that the song passes the third principle—i.e., the lyrics should be theologically sound—is questionable. One question concerns whether we can say “God died.” Theologians disagree on this question, and it is wrapped up in understanding the relationship between the natures of Jesus and the persons of the Godhead. I don’t want to get into that conversation here, but I would say that the statement is open to misunderstanding.

The second concern is the line, “emptied Himself of all but love.” Undoubtedly, Wesley was thinking of Philippians 2. Yet, I think the best way of interpreting Philippians 2 is to take κενόω as a figure of speech, not meaning, “empty,” but meaning, “made Himself nothing.” If it means “empty,” we must answer the question, “Of what did Jesus empty Himself?” Paul’s use of the word elsewhere in the NT, however, suggests the figure of speech we noted above—to make oneself nothing (Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 1:17; 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3). This has the additional benefit of highlighting the main point Paul is making in the passage—i.e., Jesus humbled Himself.[1] Consequently, stating that Jesus “emptied Himself of all but love” is clearly not true, and can lead to further confusion within the congregation. I could also develop the potentially confusing line about the “small inward voice” or the suspect line, “nature’s night,” but the previous has been enough for our purposes.

This song also falls short of the understandability principle. The turning point in the song is masterfully crafted in the fourth verse to shift the congregation’s focus from the death of Christ to the application and benefit of that death for forgiven sinners. Indeed, the fourth verse is theologically rich in that it appears to refer to regeneration and the necessity of God’s action in salvation.[2] Nevertheless, I wonder how many congregants even recognize that this is what they are singing about. “Thine eye diffused a quickening ray.” Read that line again and ask yourself what most people think it means. Images of superman’s laser eyebeams may not be far from some people’s conceptions. Of course, quickening means life-giving, but many people don’t know that. Understanding that line makes the next line understandable—“I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.” But if we failed to understand the first line, this second one also makes no sense (though one could imagine an eye beam catching things on fire!).

Why be concerned about this?  Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (ESV). Our songs are to “teach one another” and this “in all wisdom.” None of us would think bad theology in the pulpit is OK, so why should bad theology in our songs be OK? None of us would think incomprehensibility in the pulpit is OK, so why it is OK in our music lyrics? Of course, there are differences between preaching and singing, but both share the role of communicating and teaching.

So, if we want to sing “And Can It Be,” I suggest two options. First, perhaps someone should modify the lyrics. We have already done this on some songs (e.g., changing “all our race” to “every race” in Arise My Soul Arise), and I think this song has rich potential for modification. Second, if we keep the eye analogy in the fourth verse, perhaps a worship leader could explain the analogy along with defining terms like diffuse and quicken.


[1] For an excellent and short analysis of this passage see Rodney Decker’s Treatment.

[2] I say appears because I realize that Wesley did not believe in regeneration in a Calvinistic sense; nevertheless, it is hard to interpret his words in any other way. One might say that he speaks of prevenient grace, but it more naturally reads as grace that regenerates. Whatever Wesley’s original intention, certainly it can be sung with regeneration in mind!

21 Responses

  1. Mark Snoeberger

    Tim, thanks for this. You’ve certainly got some good fodder for critique with “God dying” (a serious problem in some modern hymns as well), the idea that Christ “emptied himself of all but love,” and the “inward voice.” The “nature’s night” bit hasn’t bothered me, as I’ve taken it as a metaphor of depravity, but I can see your point.

    You went a different way than I expected on the “quickening ray.” I thought you might object to the fact that for Wesley the quickening ray is probably not regeneration as we would define it, but prevenient grace or possibly even baptism. I’ve tended to swallow hard and sing it with regeneration in view, knowing all the while that I was bending my own principles of authorial intent.

    If Wesley had meant regeneration, though, I wouldn’t object to the line at all. The vocabulary is not simple (most people don’t use “diffuse” and “quickening” on a daily basis), but I’ve never been one to sack a song because the poetry is complex, the vocabulary high, or the content dense (like, e.g., persistent put-downs of “raising my Ebenezer” or “Mt. Pisgah’s lofty height”). I rather appreciate that some hymns make you think hard and even have to do some biblical research. To me those kinds of features actually make for some of the very most fulfilling of hymnody.

    But maybe I’m the obscurantist on this one.

  2. BE


    A few thoughts.

    First, “all our race” is actually superior biblically and theologically to “every race” since biblically there is only one race–the human race. Granted there may be some measure of cultural confusion, but I’m in favor of promoting a better understanding rather than capitulating to the flawed idea of our culture (i.e., regularly pointing out that we are biblically one race, with a common ancestor, and that’s what this song is saying)

    Second, someone already has amended the phrase to “Humbled Himself and came in love.” (I think I’ve also seen “Emptied Himself and came in love”)

    Third, I’m generally ok with the language of God dying in this hymn (recognizing there is theological complexity involved) since (1) we don’t expect the same level of precision in poetry as we do in prose (artistic license) and (2) Acts 20:28 uses language that is similar.

    Fourth, another option is to not use a stanza if it could create confusion and the others are good (e.g., many hymnals do not include the 2nd and 5th stanzas, which eliminates the concern of the “small inward voice”)

    Finally, while I’m in favor of clarity in communication, I’m not sure that means we need to eliminate all instances of complexity or artistic expression that is not immediately grasped. In fact, one of the things that makes good poetry good is that you may be forced to contemplate a line for a period of time before you fully grasp it. That’s why “to be or not to be: that is the question” is better than “I’m trying to decide if I should keep living or just kill myself” There is certainly some point where the nature of the language is so difficult to grasp it becomes counter productive–it is not challenging you to deeper contemplation but just leaving you utterly confused. I’m not convinced the language of this hymn crosses that line.


  3. Chad McCune


    You suggest “someone should modify the lyrics” re: confusing and/or theologically inaccurate/debatable phraseology. One of the lines you highlighted—“Emptied Himself of all but love”—is a line we have modified at our church. I believe we sing it, “Humbled Himself and came in love.” I, for one, cannot recall ever singing it as transcribed above. Personally, I’ve always had the act of regeneration in mind while singing the “quickening ray” line—a quite vivid description, that.

    I try to allow latitude for a writer’s imagery in hymns. Deeply trained theologians can almost always find lyrical issues to quibble over, but I think that can tend toward pedantry (absent outright inaccuracy or heresy, obviously). I second Dr. Snoeberger in the above comment, actually preferring the more complex and deep lyrics to the too-simple variety of the last half century or so. Provided the pastor or worship leader explains some of the more archaic phrases, I think they are helpful and provide a richer lyric to sing (“Here I raise my Ebenezer,” e.g.).

  4. L. Mark Bruffey

    Thanks for the post. A hymn worthy of deep thought. And effective at provoking it. Perhaps a scholar of Wesley will chime in. In the meantime:
    Immortal. Is the Second Person of the Trinity immortal? Did the Second Person die? Perhaps this the reason for Wesley’s recourse to mystery.
    Emptied. Perhaps Wesley had in mind the atonement rather than the incarnation. In the category of obedience driven by love for his Father and the race, Christ relinquished everything else. No one ever emptied himself as our Savior at the Cross.
    Common Folk. The common folk in the humble Baptist congregation in the backwoods where I grew up understood this hymn. They knew Ebeneezer, too.

  5. Wally Morris

    Concerning your second point: So any form of music is acceptable as long is the music is “appropriate to the lyrics”? Hard rock, Heavy metal, Rap? Who decides what is “appropriate”, and what does “appropriate” mean? I noticed that in the Rice Lectures scheduled for later this month that the speaker is an elder at a Southern Baptist church which uses blended music, including drums & electric guitars, which usually accompanies CCM. So I guess DBTS doesn’t have a problem, in principle, with this music. Perhaps this post reflects DBTS’s changing beliefs about music.

  6. Tim Miller

    Great interaction. I would add only a few things. First, I am not against complex metaphors, but I am against complex metaphors draped in archaic language. Modern people do not use “diffuse” or “quickening.” I am convinced that we assume more people will understand that metaphor than actually do. Further, I am not sure where the line of appropriateness between complex metaphors/poetic creativity and clarity falls. On the whole, I lean towards clarity.

    Second, a few posts appeared to go entirely off-track. This was not a criticism of hymnody or a style of music. If read as such, I think people have “read into” the post and not actually read the post.

    Finally, I wanted to address Wally Morris’s comments. Your concerns are not directly related to the actual content of the article. I left the phrase “appropriate to the lyrics” intentionally vague, because that was not the point of the article. Indeed, addressing that issue would be an entirely different article. As for whether this post “reflects DBTS’s changing beliefs about music,” I would say a few things. First, one member of the faculty’s view on a topic is not the view of the institution. Second, I think you have read way more into this post than it actually said. If you read the article again, I think you will find that everything I said is in harmony with a “hymn-only, piano/organ only” position on music. As for the speaker for the Rice Lecture Series, I don’t think inviting an expert on a topic to discuss that topic communicates approval of the music style of the church he attends.

  7. While I certainly applaud the concern to be sure that what we sing is theologically accurate, I think many with this concern miss the power and purpose of poetry (how’s that for alliteration?).

    I’m not just talking about “poetic license” (so give the guy a break!!!). I’m saying that a phrase like “the Immortal dies” is not supposed to be a theological assertion about God dying, but rather, it is supposed to grip the imagination and affections with the profound and complex mystery of the Son of God, who is himself fully God, dying. It’s not theologically inaccurate to be perplexed by that reality, and the phrase captures that perplexity quite well. I’ve never been extremely bothered by the “emptied himself” line, either, for similar reasons. It portrays the gravity of what Christ did for us.

    Further, while I commend a desire for comprehensibility in hymnody, However, there is great value in speaking and singing in a heightened way, different from how we “normally speak.” Again, this is part of the purpose and power of poetry. I see many hymns being written today that are certainly theological accurate, but there’s not a lick of beauty or elegance about them. They’re either so much how we “normally speak” that they’re practically slang, or they read like a dry systematic theology that happens to rhyme. Might as well get rid of the poetry and tune altogether and just lecture.

    Poetry enables us to say/sing things and do things that are simply not possible with mere prose and propositional statements. So while I’m all for theological accuracy, we also need to be sure we’re evaluating theological poetry in terms of what it was meant to do.

    1. Tim Miller

      Thanks for the substantive feedback. I know you have thought about this topic extensively, so I would like to make sure I understand your thought.

      Let’s consider the song, “Mansion over the hilltop.” The first line with chorus is below:

      I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
      A little silver and a little gold
      But in that city, where the ransomed will shine
      I want a gold one, that’s silver lined

      I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
      In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
      And someday yonder, we’ll never more wander
      But walk on streets that are purest gold

      The author is clearly using poetry to express his point. The overall point of the gold mansion that is silver lined is that God’s provision for us in eternity is grand, and that we should not consider the things of this earth to be comparable to it. Of course, the author has misunderstood the biblical passage (it speaks of rooms, not mansions). Would you say that since the imagery of a gold/silver mansion evokes the imagination and potentially affections, it is acceptable? I would say that since it communicates a false idea, it should be avoided. True, poetry should not be held to the same standard of clarity as other writing, but it still needs to be accurate. Indeed, since poetry is designed to lead to meditation, shouldn’t one take extensive care that such language does not mislead the worshiper?

      On the whole, I do understand the distinction between poetry and prose, and the effect each is designed to have. But when is the line crossed from poetic license to false statement?

      Perhaps I have misunderstood you, but if so, perhaps others have as well, so I look forward to your response.

      1. Tim,

        I’m not Scott nor am I presuming to speak for him, but I’ll take a crack at answering your question.

        The biggest issue with “Mansion Over the Hilltop” is not its imprecision on the nature of heavenly architecture. The bigger problem is that essentially every image in the song expresses (and thereby cultivates) a love for what is least important in the believer’s aspirations for heaven. The song is (at least close to being) worthless as an expression of Christian devotion; because it has a skewed presentation of Christian affections, the better it is at portraying its object, the worse a song it becomes.

        To put it another way, the song is an expression of this Piper quotation: “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?”

        Our hymnody is designed to teach; that is indisputable. But the teaching of hymnody is a different kind of thing than the teaching of the pulpit or the Sunday school lesson. The teaching of hymnody is not merely the inculcation of accurate propositions. It is not an attempt to set systematic theology is rhyme and meter.

        Indeed, poetry is, most often, an expression of what is true by saying what is false: our God, after all, is not a rock, else we are idolaters.

        Poetry teaches us not just what is true (and so it must be true), but how to feel about those truths. “Mansion Over the Hilltop” fails as a song not because of inaugurate propositions (though it has those), but because of a warped expression of what we should love.

        By contrast, “And Can It Be” not only expresses truth, but a proper kind of astonishment at the truths that it is expressing. This is why it is fitting for us to marvel that God died for us and that Christ emptied himself for us.

        1. Tim Miller

          Great to hear from you! Thanks also for the clarifications.

          I probably should not have muddied the water by using such a poor hymn in comparison. Nevertheless, I chose that one purposefully because I think it shares the same error as “And Can It Be.” That is, I think both explicitly state something that is not true. This is different from God is a rock, for that is clearly an analogy. But that we will have a mansion is not understood as an analogy , and I would suggest that “Jesus emptied Himself” is not understood as an analogy either.

          On my reading of Scott’s initial post, he appeared to argue that while “Jesus emptied Himself” is not technically true, since it evokes appropriate awe and affections, it is acceptable.* I suppose it is here that I just can’t fully agree. I know that poetry is not designed to be precise, and I know part of its power rests in that ambiguity. Nevertheless, isn’t it possible to evoke awe and proper affections without using language that can mislead? If so, wouldn’t that be a better direction?

          *I know that some translations still use “emptied Himself.” I am assuming here that this is a bad translation (see original post).

          1. Hi, Tim. Thanks for the question and the chance to clarify.

            I absolutely do not mean what you took me to mean, that if a particular statement is “not technically true,” but “it evokes appropriate awe and affections, it is acceptable.” That is is not at all what I’m saying, and it’s my fault for not being more clear.

            So let me be clear: Truth is absolutely what is at stake in what we sing. We should not sing anything unless it is true.

            However, we need to be careful in how we determine truth. I’m afraid that many of us have adopted a Modernistic conception of the nature of truth as merely factual correspondence. Truth is correspondence to reality, and in this case, correspondence to God’s inspired revelation of reality in his Word.

            But reality is more than mere propositional, factual accuracy. Reality (truth) involves the affections, the imagination, and the aesthetic. In fact, imaginative language is actually the only way we can come anywhere close to a knowledge of God and his truth since God is a spirit and does not have a body like man and much of reality is metaphysical.

            This is where I agree wholeheartedly with everything Michael said above. If the measure of truth is merely propositional, factual accuracy, then the statement, “God is a fortress” is a lie. It is not factually correct.

            Calling God a fortress is poetic; it is aesthetic. And it is necessary. The use of poetic, analogical language is the only way God can communicate himself to us. This is why very little of the Bible is strict, prosaic propositions.

            So in this way, as Michael correctly states, art is a “lie that tells the truth” (I think Picasso is credited with that particular statement, ironically). Art draws comparisons that are not factually accurate (God is not really a shepherd, fortress, rock, or tower) in order to communicate TRUTH that would not otherwise be known.

            Therefore, if we evaluate the truthfulness of a poetic statement (like in hymnody) in the same way we evaluate a strictly prosaic theological proposition, then we are actually missing the real truth

            So, like Michael, I do not object to “I’ve got a mansion” because it’s somehow factually inaccurate. I object to that song and would never sing it because it is not true in the sense that I have described above and as Michael has so helpfully expressed.

            For this same reason, a song that is a word for word quotation of Scripture set to a tune and performed in a way that actually contradicts the Scripture is also not true.

  8. Pingback : Poetic analysis of hymns | Conservative Christianity, Worship, Culture, Aesthetics, Classical Education, Homeschooling, Family - Religious Affections Ministries

  9. Greg Phillips

    “I think the best way of interpreting Philippians 2 is to take κενόω as a figure of speech….” Paul used a figure of speech in trying to explain, in some small way, the mystery of Christ’s humiliation, but Wesley, in his poetry, is not allowed such liberty? Scott’s comments about how poetry is used to further our contemplation in worship are spot on.

    1. Mark Snoeberger

      Greg, there are two problems with the “emptied himself” idea. First, I’d argue that translating κενόω as “emptied himself” is a bad translation of Philippians 2. But even if I were to accept that translation, the song goes on to say that Christ emptied himself “of all but love.” That’s a known Wesleyan theological peculiarity that is just wrong. We might try to be magnanimous and call it a poetic metaphor that could be interpreted more generously than even Wesley intended, but at the end of the day, Miller’s got the goods on this one. At ICBC we’ve tweaked these words for accuracy for decades, and I’m good with that.

  10. Tim Miller

    Greg, Not sure where you picked up the idea that Wesley can’t use a figure of speech. Again, my point is that the figure of speech, shrouded in archaic language is problematic for modern worshipers. Actually, Philippians 2 offers a great analogy there, since in Paul’s day the people would have recognized his figure of speech, but later readers might (and did!) not.

  11. Kent

    At what point is the Bible itself archaic for the modern worshiper? We sing the psalms and most people don’t know even half of what they are singing. There is a lot that comes into understanding the psalms. I have taught through them all and then preached through 100 or so of them. Even after completing an in depth expositional series, will they remember everything that everything means. I don’t even remember everything that everything means. They’ll get better over time because they are singing the psalms. How about this though? God says He wants to hear them, so the decision to sing them doesn’t center on the people, but on God. The people have to get up to speed, because God is the one that needs to be pleased.

    Is imputed versus imparted sin not a concept we should sing because most people don’t understand it? I can keep going like this. There is a flaw, I believe, in the point that you have given, that is, numbers one and four above, which dovetail. Someone has written that list. Is it historical? Is it biblical? I’m not saying that we should instead have a principle, lyrics should be incomprehensible to the audience. I’m just saying whatever the Bible says is good. I might need to teach what “emptied,” the kenosis, means. We’ll still sing something like that while people get up to speed.

    I’m glad you guys at least keep talking about this. God is seeking for true worshipers.

  12. Pingback : More on truth in hymnody | Conservative Christianity, Worship, Culture, Aesthetics, Classical Education, Homeschooling, Family - Religious Affections Ministries

  13. Jon Nason

    I commend Scott’s emphasis on understanding the purpose and power of poetry for both music and Scripture. As a solution, ought we not to approach musical lyric (poetry) in the same way that we approach an understanding of literary genre in the Psalms, Proverbs, etc.? We know they are not the same in nature, yet they have similar genre characteristics. Shouldn’t the song lyric receive scrutiny for understanding (and accuracy) rather than summarily eliminated? In my situation, we have concluded that it is beneficial and even necessary to take a bit of time to explain the meaning of certain phrases and words that are “archaic” to the congregation. Additionally, in our experience, this is often followed by a sense of relief from the average congregation member. In thinking through this thread, I came across a reminder from John Wesley: “When we sing, the focus should be on God, not ourselves or others. Thus, we must use care to see that our heart is not carried away by the charms of the music itself so that we are bewitched more by the music than being absorbed by the glory of God.”Though referring to emotion in music worship, Wesley’s words still apply to the matter of understanding content: it should enhance God’s glory, not obscure it.

  14. On the lines “the Immortal dies” and “that thou my God didst die for me,” there should be no objection among orthodox believers (pace Ligonier Ministries). The communicatio idiomatum has abundant Biblical warrant and is right doctrine. My favorite example is 1 Cor 2:8.

  15. Juan Moreno

    Interesting discussion. I am still wrapping my mind around the accuracy of the phrase “God estranged from God” as it relates to the Unity of God. Love the song— His Robes for Mine—struggling with the theology of that line.