‘New Testament Christological Hymns: Exploring Tests, Contexts, and Significance’ Review

Craig DumontBlog

Some scholars believe that the Bible begins with “a great formal creation hymn.” Whether Genesis One is a hymn or not, there’s no doubt the Holy Spirit was acting as a Master Composer and Choir Director each day of creation. As the foundations of the earth were set, “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Indeed, being “made in the image of God” included not only the capacity to sing, but a mind embedded with a sophisticated understanding of music — and a physical body that was moved by it. Mankind was imbued with a passion for song that drove technological innovation and advanced the methods of communication. This creational aspect of mankind produced, in very short time, civilizations of incredibly high culture.

We too quickly pass over the admittedly short mention of Jubal, son of Lamech, in Genesis 4:21, where we’re informed that “he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” It’s possible that Jubal was born while Adam was still living. He was born into a world populated not by undeveloped and backward “cavemen,” but of incredibly knowledgeable people with advanced technological and manufacturing skills. Composing music requires conceptual thinking at the highest level (and the time to do so, eliminating the possibility that we evolved from a group of hunter-gathers), as does visualizing and then creating instruments capable of faithfully transforming that music into an audible reality. It further highlights the implied existing skill-set needed to actually play instruments as they are invented. Jubal was born into a culture, while fallen and increasingly sinful, was still functioning with the recognition of God and maintained, even in a perverted way, Spirit-given knowledge and the pre-flood expertise to pursue it.

From day one (or six, to be precise), men and women possessed a vast, Holy Spirit formed vocabulary, being created as speaking, and yes, singing people. Speech allowed mankind to re-form the world after the flood. Even following God’s judgement at Babel, where He divided them by confusing their languages and scattering them around the world, they became technologists, innovators and city builders who valued and created powerful cultural institutions that appreciated skilled hymn writers, musicians and singers. Communities formed great choirs that performed the compositions, and placed them at the center of religious and civic life. It shouldn’t surprise us that music and song would hold a central place in the life of all peoples.

Matthew E. Gordley, in his imaginative (in the best sense) and well-researched book, New Testament Christological Hymns: Exploring Texts, Contexts, and Significance, discusses little of the above – he does refer to Genesis One in his discussion of the prologue in the Gospel of John as a hymn and repeatedly points out the importance and abundance of hymn writers and choirs in the ancient world. However, the masterful manner in which he explores and explains the ancient history, content and context of hymns, both pagan and Jewish, not only enlightened and engaged me in his fresh look at the Christological hymns in the New Testament, but also called to mind the creation of mankind in the image of God and the music that has filled heaven and earth ever since. I have no idea if the author hoped this would be the case, although he points out that new creation themes are present in early church hymns. Regardless, that’s what transpired as Gordley opens his first chapter with this powerful insight:

“’The Christian church began with song.’ So claimed Ralph Martin, and from the witness of the New Testament, we may readily agree. The songs sung by Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and the angelic host in Luke’s Gospel and the hymns recited before the throne in Revelation mark the advent of Christ and the exaltation of Christ, respectively, as events that were generative of hymnic praise.”

As the early church utilized hymns in innovative ways with Jesus at the center, they experienced “Christian worship as a phenomenon that was dynamic and complex.” At the end of the chapter the author quotes John Anthony McGuckin, who claims that “the Christian community was embryonically formed within the womb of worship.”

That strikes me as profoundly true. It also caused me to contemplate on how the world itself, including the first church of Adam and Eve, made its debut as a heavenly choir sang with joy. Creation itself was “formed within the womb of worship” and that worship used hymns to powerful effect. The worship could quite possibly include what would have been the obscured, but very real act of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Although I’m speculating on this, it would fit into the theme that is most prominently featured in the Christological hymns of the New Testament: Jesus crucified on the Cross. This is a topic I’ll return to below.

My Creation/New Creation, Old Testament Church/New Testament Church parallel continued to grow as Gordley laid out the context for early Christian worship by touching on the history and use of hymns throughout the ancient pagan and Jewish world. “Hymns and hymn singing,” Gordley tells us, “were important features of Greek and Roman public life. Hymns were composed in praise of gods in connection with several aspects of society, including the cultic offering of sacrifice, public thanks and praise, large public festivals, and more intimate banquets known as symposia. Accordingly, they played important roles not only for religious rituals but also in shaping culture, teaching values, and promoting particular ways of the world.”

The early Greeks held festivals accompanied by hymns. “Special choruses were formed for the singing of hymns, a practice that continued well into the Roman era. Individuals were given special titles of hymnodoi and hymnetiai (The hymnodoi were a small group of elite singers – about 30 to 40, drawn from a large group of 320 or so choir members – crd)…within choral societies individuals ‘were trained to sing the hymns properly and they performed them in honour of the gods or deified men on the festival days.” The pagans, we are told, had their own specialized hymn or song leaders for worship, many of whom collected hymns and created hymnals. Writers such as Aristotle, Quintilian and Cicero, along with a large number of less known men, wrote a tremendous volume of books about the nature of hymns in light of the other kinds of praise in the ancient world.

Gordley provides this historical narrative to demonstrate, among other things, that the ancients made clear distinctions between hymns, psalms and other praise songs, and their use. “Hymns carried a particular weight and authority of their own, as hymn writers often claimed (or sought) divine inspiration for their work and also drew on established traditions in their compositions. These conventions conveyed a sense of grandeur and conferred intrinsic authority on a hymn in a way that differed from other genres…There was a conventionally accepted way to compose a hymn, and when done right a hymn conveyed something that other genres could not.”
This brings us to the main purpose of the book, which is “a study of those New Testament passages that have captured the attention of biblical scholars and that have been identified as Christological hymns—hymns in praise of Christ,” although it is much more than that.

The author begins by defining what is a hymn, which I found interesting, a section that offers a scholarly critique from those who disagree, which may be needed as it is essentially an academic look at the subject, but held little interest to someone like me who was reading from a pastoral-applied theology perspective, and also discusses hymn composition and singing in the early Christian worship. This, for me, was captivating as he presents the Christian use of hymns as “innovative,” even to the extent they tackle thorny political issues (in reality, however, all issues are theological), teach doctrine and counter false or heretical teaching, or as Paul puts it in his first letter to Timothy, “protect right belief and encourage right behavior in the church…to protect ‘sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which He entrusted to me.”

Critically, the New Testament church did not shy away from appealing to the whole being of the worshiper, but hymns actively engaged the emotions of its participants as “the language used is intended to create an experience for the listener,” and it wasn’t “merely an exercise in thinking but also one of experiencing an event.” Christians wrote and sang hymns as ways to develop a comprehensive worldview, a way of “conceptualizing the world,” but the “passing on of values, teaching, and other worldview dimensions was not simply a rational, cognitive process, but also an emotional, affective one. Through painting a picture of reality, and inviting listeners into the imaginal world of the hymn, listeners not only heard content but also were ushered into an experience of the numinous.” Through their hymns the Christians of in the New Testament era expertly connected the head and the heart.

But what makes these hymns so effective is that they are, obviously, unabashedly Christological, and almost all of them strikingly feature Christ’s humiliation and death on the cross “as the center point of the hymn and its turning point.” Writing specifically on the Philippian hymn Gordley notes that “the status of a slave and the ignominious death by crucifixion represented the lowest possible position of dishonor. By placing these as central themes within this hymn, Paul was putting forth a new paradigm… In this context the cosmic exaltation of a crucified individual identified as a slave represents a shocking reversal of dominant values.” Exploring the Colossian hymn we find this focus on Jesus’ gruesome death on cross again at the climatic point. Jesus is remembered for the death on the cross. “It does not deny that the crucifixion occurred, but reinvests it with new meaning.”

Vitally important, however, is that while the central theme may be the death of Jesus on the cross, the hymns certainly don’t leave Him there. These hymns rejoice in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, His ascension into Heaven and His rule over all the cosmos. I’m reminded of what Michaelangelo once reportedly said following visits to several great art galleries in European cities. It seems the great artist was deeply impressed by the preponderance of paintings depicting Christ hanging on the cross. He asked, “Why are art galleries filled with so many pictures of Christ upon the cross—Christ dying? Why do artists concentrate upon that episode, as if that were the last word and the final scene? Christ’s dying upon the cross lasted only for a few hours. But to the end of unending eternity, Christ is alive! Christ rules and reigns and triumphs!”

The Christological hymns make sure that message is sang unambiguously. Matthew E. Gordley turns to Ralph Martin for the right phrase once more; “If there is one motif that pervades the New Testament hymns, it is this ringing assurance that Christ is victor over all man’s enemies, and is rightly worshipped as the Image of the God who is over all.” That is underscored with an observation Gordley includes from theologian and author Richard Bauckham, who states, “The earliest hymns celebrated the saving death and heavenly exaltation of Jesus as the One who now shares the divine throne and, as God’s plenipotentiary, receives the homage of all creation.”

New Testament Christological Hymns by Matthew E. Gordley is a book that will be of interest to all pastors and staff who lead musical worship in the church. The Bible is filled with songs and singing and multiple styles, and of course the largest book in the Bible is a song book. The Song of Solomon takes on the form of an opera, while several creatures before the throne in heaven sing a very repetitive (it never ceases, day or night) “praise and worship” song: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8) If music and singing is this important to God, it should be of importance to us.

Theologian Karl Barth, in his Church Dogmatics, points out that singing is not an option for the people of God; it is one of the essential ministries of the church:

“The Christian church sings. It is not a choral society. Its singing is not a concert. But from inner, material necessity it sings. Singing is the highest form of human expression….What we can and must say quite confidently is that the church which does not sing is not the church. And where…it does not really sing but sighs and mumbles spasmodically, shamefacedly and with an ill grace, it can be at best only a troubled community which is not sure of its cause and of whose ministry and witness there can be no great expectation….The praise of God which finds its concrete culmination in the singing of the community is one of the indispensable forms of the ministry of the church.”

Matthew E. Gordley has written a superb, fascinating and refreshing book the Christological hymns and their use in early church worship. The author makes no attempt to downplay psalms, spiritual songs or praise songs in his journey, thus it is not a book that will used or abused in the so-called “worship wars,” and the author makes no mention of his personal preference in musical style, although Pentecostals will appreciate his positive acknowledgement of the role of emotions and experience in singing and he does mention that in the Iliad, Chrysis “plays in a loud voice with uplifted arms.” (It took me a while to figure out how to get that line included in this review!) Nonetheless he does intend to elevate the important historical and theological role of Christological hymns in the early church, especially as they are used in the New Testament, and to use that as “a renewal and rebirth that is needed in the present moment.” In my opinion the author makes a compelling case and I give it my highest recommendation.

New Testament Christological Hymns: Exploring Tests, Contexts, and Significance
Matthew E. Gordley
Paperback: 252 pages
Publisher: IVP Academic (August 7, 2018)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0830852093
ISBN-13: 978-0830852093