What Defines a Hymn?

Throughout church history there have been debates on what is acceptable and permissible to be sung at a church. I’ve read books that argue that we should only sing songs from the book of Psalms. I’ve got churches just down the road from where I live that play top 40 hits as a part of their Sunday morning worship. I’ve also got people in the church I currently serve who talk to me like the only thing we should sing on Sunday morning are hymns (generally meaning older songs). So that leads to the question: how do we define what a hymn is? Augustine, writing in the 4thCentury stated that a hymn is comprised of 3 things: “song, and praise, and that of God.” So it must be sung, it must be praise, and it must be to God. Let’s take a look at these 3, and then 3 more that didn’t make Augustine’s list.

  1. Sung

This one should go without saying, in order to be a hymn, it must be sung. It’s hard to have a hymn without singing! This obviously isn’t including instrumental music, which can also serve a role in a service, but for Augustine, a hymn must be sung.

  1. Praise

According to a quick Google search, to praise is to “express warm approval or admiration of.” In the case of a hymn, we are demonstrating admiration of God, which ties us in to the next point. My question with this, is what do you do when you are not exactly in admiration of God? I’m currently reading through Job and have been reminded how difficult life can be. I also see Psalms where they aren’t praising God, such as the imprecatory Psalms. So maybe this point isn’t as helpful in defining a hymn.

  1. To God

Finally, Augustine says a hymn must be to God. This will come up in one of my 3 points, but what about Paul’s command in Ephesians 5:19 where we’re called to address one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? Or what about Psalms like 42 and 43, where the Psalmist speaks to his soul, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are in turmoil within me?” Apparently we can have songs that are addressed not just to God!

 

So 3 more things that I would add that Augustine didn’t include in his definition are:

  1. Scripture saturated.

A phrase that I like to use is “be steeped in God’s Word.” Just as tea is made by soaking leaves in water, so should our lives as Christians be steeped in God’s Word. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christdwell 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.” Songs are an amazing way to allow the Word of Christ to soak into our lives. This is why I create Spotify playlists, and give chord charts to anyone who asks, I want our songs to affect our lives.

  1. Addressing One Another AND God

Songs can be addressed to God, but part of the reason we sing is to “address one another.” (see above) But we’re also called to sing praises to God. This is a healthy tension that we walk when choosing the songs we sing, but we are called to do both.

  1. Don’t just sing hymns

Both Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 talk about singing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” Psalm 98:1 says “Sing to the Lord a new song.” I am so tired of the “contemporary versus hymns” debate and wish people would instead focus on the content of what we’re singing. There are some incredible hymns that are being written today, just as there were some terrible hymns written hundreds of years ago! (and bad songs being written today just as there are good hymns from hundreds of years ago) But the Bible doesn’t tell us what kinds of songs to sing, nor what instruments we’re supposed to use, nor what melodies we’re supposed to sing. So let’s sing a wide variety of Scripture saturated songs that allow us to teach and admonish one another, and encouraging each other all the more as we see the day of the Lord’s return drawing even closer!

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