Hymns as “Compacted Theology”

Hymns as “Compacted Theology”

Recently we hosted a celebration at Fuller Seminary of the life and mission of the late David Allan Hubbard, who served as Fuller’s president from 1963 to 1993. In our chapel service that day we sang several of David’s favorite hymns, and his love of hymns loomed large in the tributes to his marvelous leadership.

My favorite Hubbard line on the subject of hymns was his observation–I heard him make it several times–that hymns contain “compacted theology.” This was one of his favorite examples, from “The Solid Rock”: “His oath, His covenant, His blood,/ Support me in the whelming flood.” He would quote those words and then observe that “there are several centuries of theology packed into those lines.”

A few years ago I read a story on the religion page of a newspaper about a pastor who organizes his services around show tunes. He would use these as a springboard for a dialogue with the gathered worshipers about various lines in the songs. The pastor admitted that some worshipers were not happy with this approach. They wanted some traditional hymns sung in their worship services, and they would ask him, “How’s this got anything to do with religion?” To which he would respond: “If you are sitting in church for an hour, reciting words and singing hymns you hardly know, what’s that got to do with religion?”

He probably meant this question as rhetorical, but David Hubbard’s observation about hymns is exactly the right answer. The hymns of the past are the shorthand poetic records of the spiritual and theological memories of the Christian church. For example, take this verse from “Crown Him with Many Crowns”:
Crown Him the Lord of love:

Behold His hands and side,

Rich wounds, yet visible above,

In beauty glorified;

No angel in the sky

Can fully bear that sight,

But downward bends His wondering eye

At mysteries so bright.

I find the imagery here very striking. Jesus took his wounds with him to heaven; they are still “visible above,” and they are “in beauty glorified.” There is indeed much theology packed into those few lines. The mysteries that they point us to are deserving of much contemplation. In fact, I commend that contemplation as a special spiritual exercise during this Lenten season.

We can hope that new generations of Christians will contribute to the storehouse of “compacted theology” by composing and singing new hymns, ones that preserve their own spiritual and theological experiences. But we can also hope that they will not ignore the riches that are readily available in the storehouses that record the memories of those who have walked the paths of discipleship in the past. For those who have come to faith in an age of screens and praise teams, we call those storehouses “hymnbooks”!


  1. Great post. I too pray that we will continue to write hymns as well as sing the wonderful hymns that our brothers and sisters in ages past have left to us.

    I love the line about “compacted theology.” It’s so true. Poetry is so colorful yet so succinct.

    Comment by Bobby Gilles — February 5, 2008 @ 5:36 am

  2. There is indeed something beautiful about singing compacted theology. This entry is very important to we Americans who are obsessed with novelty. My only wish is that Dr Mouw could have dealt with the bodily, and not simply intellectual or contemplative, nature of singing–in singing, the lyrics become our words of confession, enabling us so to confess elsewhere as well. Which is also why singing “show tunes” in CHURCH, contrary to this pastor’s good intentions, makes church irrelevant!

    Comment by JA — February 5, 2008 @ 11:09 am

  3. Dear Rich,
    Your comments on hymns hit the target, and they are particularly needed in today’s apparently ahistorical approach to the Christian faith, which perpetually seems to be seeking the new and exciting in the hopes of being attractive and relevant. This shallow approach was best exemplified by the pastor’s tragic comment, “If you are sitting in church for an hour, reciting words…you hardly know, what’s that got to do with religion?” How sad that this pastor assumed his congregation was more familiar with show tunes than with hymns inspired by Scripture. I wonder if this pastor realized that his comment could also apply to reading the Bible, which many Christians also “hardly know.” Ironically, Scripture itself is replete with admonitions not only to repeatedly read about the past but also to remember it (e.g., Deuteronomy 6; Psalm 119). In contrast, adopting an approach that focuses only on the present and the future is an effective way to insure that the mistakes of the past are repeated…repeatedly.
    As the writer of Ecclesiastes notes, there is indeed nothing new under the sun, and as such, the Church would do well to retain an active historical link with Jesus and his twelve disciples, as well as with all those believers who have gone before. Aside from Scripture, I believe that the great hymns of the faith represent the clearest means of maintaining this connection. If the Church is to continue growing up like a tree with new branches reaching toward Heaven, it must continue to nurture the tree’s roots as well. Thank you for reminding us!

    Comment by Jeff Bjorck — February 5, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

  4. I have to tell you personally I am sooo put off by modern worship. When I was in college we were on the starting fringe of singing choruses/worship songs. They were simple, adoring songs with simple, adoring messages. It was when I went to church on Sundays that I truly felt I worshipped because we sang “real” music.
    Today, I have to endure “worship” music where it’s all about me and Jesus, sung 30 times over and over and made to stand for 45 minutes! Oh please. Worship? Feels more like torture!
    As a music major in collge and having studied hymnology I confess my bias and young people seem to really love the Me and JC music but it leaves me spiritually flat. I stand there week after week asking myself why these young people aren’t being exposed to the great hymns of our faith? Culture, leadership, simplicity, laziness…? not sure. but I fear it doesn’t bode well for the future. Give me “compact theology” any day!
    But then, at my age, my future is limited on earth anyway. I’m not sure they are singing what I like in heaven but in some ways I at least hope they aren’t ONLY singing what I have to sing on Sunday mornings these days. If that were the case, I might be tempted to question where my eternal destiny really actually was.

    Comment by Don Walley — February 14, 2008 @ 9:03 am

  5. I am proud of my future President. That is a good article about worship. May the Lord be with You all at Fuller Theological Seminary.

    Comment by Edens — February 27, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

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