Sunday, August 15, 2010

After 150 years, the perfect hymn for our time?

First of two parts.

Tuesday’s (Aug. 10) webcast of Issues Etc. examines the 1866 hymn “The Church’s One Foundation,” by Samuel J. Stone (1839-1900), with the 1864 tune Aurelia by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876). It is really Issues Etc. — and an oral discussion of any hymn text — at its best. But then, this hymn deserves such a discussion, as it captures both timeless truths and the perils of the modern culture that threaten the church today.

Both of the participants in this discussion were LCMS pastors with special ties to the hymn. Host Todd Wilken chose it for his wedding 23 years ago because “The picture of human marriage is only a reflection — a beautiful reflection — of Christ and his bride.”

His guest, Dr. Arthur A. Just, Jr. of Concordia Seminary Ft. Worth, noted it was sung at his ordination 30 years ago. He flatly declared: “I sometimes call it the perfect hymn, because it does everything a hymn should do.” Later on, he added:
He obviously was a great theologian: Nobody could write a hymn like this without being a great theologian. And clearly — at least for this hymn — an incredible poet. I don’t know that there is any greater poetry in all the hymnody that we sing than this [first] stanza…
At one point, Dr. Just said that he could spend an hour discussing just one verse, and near the end he said the hymn’s “depths and its riches are almost beyond description.” (In fact, the hymn is so important that I’m going to offer my own thoughts in a future posting.)

He noted that the hymn is a product of the times of the Rev. Stone, an Anglican clergyman who served a working class East End church. (Wikipedia helpfully notes that the Oxford-educated Stone was a curate in Hackney when he wrote these words.)

Dr. Just’s remarks tie the work of Stone to a problem that is distressingly familiar to Anglicans today:
There was a theological controversy in the church of England in the 1860s. It was a controversy in which liberalism was threatening to destroy many of the cardinal doctrines of the Anglican Church. …

It was really for the humble folk of his parish: He wrote this hymn to reaffirm the central articles of the faith and to combat the skeptical liberal scholarship that was overcoming the church at that time.
Jerusalem the GoldenBelow are my annotated excerpts from the conversation, which was accompanied by the Wells Cathedral performance (on a CD I bought during my last visit to Wells.) The hymn text sung by the choir is the version published in The English Hymnal.

1. “The Church’s one foundation”: The centrality of Christ’s atoning sacrifice

A New Testament scholar, Dr. Just explained about how the theology of this verse ties to the entire New Testament. While as a Pauline scholar he saw “new creation” as being from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians, it also draws on Ephesians, the Gospels, and Revelations. In addition, the core idea of the verse ties back to the Old Testament:
The entire Old tTestament looked towards the blood of the Messiah. ... As it says in Hebrews, there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood. ...

The idea of the Messiah shedding his blood for the sins of the people and dying for them — that is the heart of the Old Testament faith.

And so it shouldn’t surprise us that a pastor like Samuel Stone would see the that the way in which the new creation of the church by water and word comes about is by the coming of the bridgegroom to His bride and giving up His life for her. That's Ephesians language, that’s the langauge of Paul.

The idea of placing oneself in a position to sacrifice oneself for someonse else — “Greater love has no man than this than a man would give up his life for his friends” [as] Jesus says in John — that was just embedded in the Israelite mentality.
2. “Elect from every nation”: the unity of Christians in his church

This verse alludes to Ephesians 4:4-6:
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
As Dr. Just notes, this was a miracle of the church at the time of Ephesus, unifying all races, ages, male and female. He alludes to Galatians 3:26-28:
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
3. …“By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distrest”

As Dr. Just noted in his introduction, Rev. Stone was upset by liberal heresies that both divided the church and took it away from the truth — just as Jesus was upset by the Pharisees.

He saw this verse as a call to Christians for patience and faith in the church, despite its failings due to the sinfulness of its members and the challenges of ongoing heresies:
If you love the church, and you love her Lord and you love its unity and you love its cofnfesion and its long confession that has left to martyrdom over those years, [then] it hurts deeply to see it rent asunder by those that are pushing it to be more relevant, to be something that it so not.
Dr. Just continued (after the second break):
He was living in a time when there [were] attacks on the church and they were fighting back, and it made them better. It made them better -- not even better apologists for the faith -- but deeper in their understanding and their living out the faith.
4. “Mid toil and tribulation”: awaiting the perfection of the end times

Stone, troubled by the heresies and tumult mentioned in the previous verse, offers a vision of a happier future. Or as Dr. Just said, “This is as beautiful a description of heaven and the end times as any in the church.”

5. “Yet she on earth hath union with God, the Three in one”

Heaven on Earth: The Gifts of Christ in the Divine ServiceThis verse promises “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” This phrase resonated with Dr. Just, author of Heaven on Earth: The Gifts of Christ in the Divine Service.

Meanwhile, the phrase “we like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee” calls to mind the Beatitudes, which apparently were important to Rev. Stone. (Given his posting, it is easy to see how.)

The hymn begins and ends with a prayer for God’s grace.


In the final segment, Rev. Wilken played the entire Wells Cathedral performance from beginning to end, as he often does in a hymn study. Then Dr. Just read his closing thoughts. Here are some excerpts:
One of the things that this hymn really does remind us of is that we do live in a world that attacks the church, and that the church is under stress, under duress and needs to be loved like we love Jesus. Even in its darkest moments, we have to remember that the church is His body and what we get when we come to church is Him.…

These broken people who come for the gifts, they come because they know — even if they are not able to articulate it — there is something beyond themselves. There is this mystic sweet communion. They come for peace and they come for rest. They come to hear the glorious truths that the scriptures proclaim and they come to receive those gifts.
I wish that were broadcast on a Sunday morning: with an inspiration like that, why would anyone ever skip church?

PostScript: In Praise of Issues Etc.

During one of the commercial breaks, the show announcer encouraged listeners to listen online:
Listen at the gym, in your kitchen, in your garden, on your iPod, your computer, or in your car. The technology may be new but the truth never changes.
Listening to this episode on my computer Saturday night reminded me of why I find Issues Etc. a priceless resource. This is Issues Etc. at its best: I recommend the entire 55 minute discussion (with ads) to all my readers, and have added it to my permanent collection of Issues Etc. hymn podcasts.

Dr. Just is obviously very educated, articulate and thoughtful scholar, with two degrees with Yale and Ph.D. from the University of Durham. He is the author of the semi-official LCMS two volume commentary on Luke, published by Concordia. I will make it a point to listen to his other visits to Issues Etc.

There is only one thing I don’t get: this is #4 on the Top 5 hymns as voted by the show’s listeners, and I never even heard of the other four. The LCMS and its Midwest base are German-American Lutherans, so how about some Bach, or even ol’ St. Martin himself?


jleecbd said...

I have to admit, that while the hymn was always one of my favorites, its first verse is actually biblically somewhat inaccurate. Scripture tells us that the Church's foundation is the Apostle's and Prophets, with Christ as the chief cornerstone. The ecclesiology of this hymn is really the ecclesiology of the reformation, not that of Scripture. (Ephesians 2:19-21).

Of course, I can be a bit of a contrarian. :)

9 said...

Actually your former mentor Fr. Chris says that us Anglo-Catholics break ways with Rome (and the East?) by saying the church was founded by Jesus, not mortal man.

jleecbd said...

Hah! Perhaps Rome, but not the East. The foundation may be on the apostles and prophets, but we know whose church it is and thus who built it on that foundation. :)