Saturday, October 3, 2015

Jesus loves me … The Bible tells me so!

This morning a friend shared a newsletter mailing from Larry Warner, a professional Christian spiritual director she follows. The article began:
What if I told you that the children’s song, “Jesus Loves Me”, is a propaganda tool promoting a rationalist stance toward the Bible and subtly communicating that the Bible is not living, not active, not in need of the agency of the Holy Spirit to understand it. Rather, this song conveys that the truths of the Bible are arrived at by the applications of certain prescribed principles (hermeneutics), and a working knowledge of the original languages (primarily Hebrew and Greek) that leads to an intellectual assent to said truths.

Now, I have sung that song, encouraged others to sing that song on countless occasions. But in hindsight I now see it as heretical and unorthodox, for it deviates from the simple truth found in Romans 8 where Paul pens these words: “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father! The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God…” It is not the Bible but the Spirit that declares it to be so – the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit!

The irony of the song … is that [it implies our] ability to have a personal relationship with Jesus who loves us … is a matter of doctrine, the Bible says it, so I believe it, rather than a truth that has been communicated to us in a personal way through the Holy Spirit that indwells us and in fact is the agent of that very love (Romans 5:5).
(Emphasis as in the original). I don’t have room to reprint and respond to the whole newsletter — nor would this be fair use — so I encourage those who are interested to read the argument in its original.

Visceral Reaction

My initial reaction was that this attack on the time-honored children’s hymn was exaggerated for effect. Fortunately, I was on the way to the gym and had an hour to mull it over.

And yes, this also upset me, because of my fond memories of the song, particularly upon the birth of our first child. After a sometimes anxiety-producing pregnancy, my wife and I were greatly relieved when she was born healthy. When I held her in my arms — only a few minutes in this world — all I could do was sing “Jesus loves me,“ both to let her know of God’s love, and also to acknowledge our gratitude to Him for making this possible. (It was totally spontaneous, and I was embarrassed that I could only recall one verse.)
About the Hymn

Ian Bradley in the Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns writes:
It was written by Anna Bartlett Warner (1820-1915). … [It] first appeared in Say and Seal (1859), a novel on which both [Warner and her sister Susan] collaborated. It rapidly achieved immense popularity as a Sunday School and missionary hymn.

[O]lder church members…remember from their youth the original rather surgery tune, written by William Batchelder Bradbury (1816-68). A native of Maine, Bradbury turned out a large number of Sunday School tunes including Woolworth which is still used for Charlotte Elliott’s hymn ‘Just as I am.’
The Cyberhymnal quotes several examples from Asian missionaries who used the song effectively in reaching children in the 19th century.

My copy of the Baptist Hymnal (1975) lists as written in 1860, with an 1862 tune. It lists four verses, as does The Cyberhymnal, although they disagree over the last two phrases of the fourth stanza. The three verses where they agree:
Jesus loves me—this I know,
For the Bible tells me so;
Little ones to Him belong—
They are weak, but He is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me—He who died
Heaven’s gate to open wide;
He will wash away my sin,
Let His little child come in.

Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me—loves me still,
Though I’m very weak and ill;
From His shining throne on high
Comes to watch me where I lie.

Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.
Theological Defense

As I worked out at the gym, I wonder what this was due to some defect in the commentator’s view of the Bible. But on the website of the firm he founded, he states:
We believe the Bible to be the infallible, authoritative word of God, written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

We believe that there is one true God, eternally existent in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The other possible explanation is that such a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit is rooted in a Charismatic — IMHO excessively so — interpretation of faith.

I am not a theologian nor professionally trained, so rather than argue it point by point, let me offer two theological arguments.

First, per Sola scriptura (and Warner’s statement of faith), we Protestant Christians hold to the infallibility and completeness of Scripture. As Article VI of the 39 Articles states, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.” So relying on the Bible is something we are commanded to do, as both Paul (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and Peter (2 Peter 1:20-21) attest.

Second, some Reformed traditions emphasize that our personal response, our works or something else that we do is essential to our salvation. The Lutheran (nay, Christian) response to this is that because we are imperfect — all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) — we can never be sure whether or not we are “good enough.” What kind of loving God would put us through such torture? Instead, per Sola gratia we are saved by God’s perfect grace.

Pedagogical Defense

If we were in the same room, I suspect Warner and I would find some common ground — points where we overlap, even if we are not in complete agreement. And perhaps we could both agree that “The Bible tells us of God and His promises, but it also invites (even commands) us to have a relationship with Him through his Son and the work of the Holy Spirit.”

I am certainly willing to stipulate that the theology of this children’s hymn presents an oversimplified view of God. For example, it’s not at all Trinitarian but focuses on the one member of the Trinity who was witnessed (and personified) on this earth two millennia ago.

So what? We're talking about a song for preschoolers and elementary school age kids. Are we suggesting that once they learn this song, they can stop reading their children’s Bible and going to Sunday School? Of course not.

Any teacher — or parent - will tell you that you have to start somewhere. Oversimplification is inherent not only in dealing with small children, but also with any primer — a first exposure to a new concept.

So learning of the love of God the Son seems like a perfect place to start with preschoolers, but no, we don’t want to stop there. There are plenty of other hymns — not to mention Scripture, scriptural meditations and even fiction by Lewis, Tolkien or L’Engle — that can educate, train and nurture them on their path towards adult Christian formation.


Larry Warner said...

My name is Larry Warner and I wrote the musing Joel commented on. I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful and grace filled response - for not reacting but thinking through what I wrote, going to my website seeking to discern what I believe and then responding. I do believe there is much, probably most, that we would agree on when it comes to our faith in God.

The point of my musing was to highlight the need of the Holy Spirit when it comes to reading the bible and living a God honoring, Christ focused life. I know in my own life I have not known how to partner with the Spirit and have read the bible with the tools I acquired in school and such, depending on my rational skills to understand the bible, but not always depending on the Spirit that communicates the words and thoughts of God to us, God's beloved children.

Anyway I appreciate your thoughtful response. God's blessing on you and your family as you seek to honor God with your life and point others to Jesus.

J.West said...

Thank you for your response. Throughout my adult life, I’ve had to remind myself that a Christian response requires patience, listening, and not imputing motives to others. The more I reflected upon your post, the more I concluded that we differ probably more on emphasis — and context (child vs. adult catechesis) — rather than on the core ideas.

Your grace-filled response is proof that I must continue to work on my patience and trust in the good intentions of fellow believers. I imagine if we had coffee sometime — or a beer —we’d find many areas of agreement.

God’s blessings upon your ministry.