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Alistair Begg on the Theology of Hymns

Alistair Begg, writing the Introduction to Sinclair Ferguson’s book In Christ Alone, says some important thing about church music. First he bemoans the tendency of this generation to sing vapid songs:

“[H]ear our loss of focus on the gospel in our songs. This is no comment on musical styles and tastes, but simply an observation about the lyrical content of much that is being sung in churches today. In many cases, congregations unwittingly have begun to sing about themselves and how they are feeling rather than about God and His glory.”

However, Begg does take heart in the fact that we are being directed to “gaze on Christ” by books like Ferguson’s and by hymns of the past and present:

“We are helped in the process by the work of gospel-saturated hymn writers. Over the centuries, Isaac Watts, John Newton, William Cowper, and many others provided the church with biblical theology in memorable melodic form. Today, men such as Keith Getty and Stuart Townend are doing the same with compositions such as their contemporary hymn that shares the title with this book: ‘In Christ Alone.’ We should be encouraged by the fact that ‘In Christ Alone’ has become something of an anthem for the church in the first decade of this century. As Alec Motyer has rightly observed, ‘When truth gets into a hymnbook, it becomes the confident possession of the whole church.’ Perhaps all that is necessary to expose the shallowness of our songs and to cause us to praise God as we ought is for pastors and poets and musicians to drink from the same fountain. Then biblical exposition will issue in song and our hymns will be full of the gospel.”

Good stuff! Lots of important ideas to digest in that paragraph. Here are some to remember and apply, especially as we choose hymns for corporate worship:

  • Hymns are “biblical theology in memorable melodic form.”
  • “When truth gets into a hymnbook, it becomes the confident possession of the whole church.”
  • “Pastors and poets and musicians” must “drink from the same fountain”—the Scriptures.
  • Hymns should be full of “biblical exposition.”
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7 Responses

  1. Hear, hear! Excellent post!

  2. That’s rich with truth!

  3. Steve Lawson says basically the same thing here in their music philosophy – http://www.cfbcmobile.org/site/cpage.asp?cpage_id=119&sec_id=377&nc=1303226870523

    Here are two excerpts – “Worship is of the utmost importance at Christ Fellowship Baptist Church, and not just any worship. Majestic, historic, logocentric, theocentric, christocentric worship – is our central passion. It has been rightly stated, ‘Great theology produces great hymnology, which in turn produces great doxology.’ This is the heartbeat of CFBC, to present a transcendent, God-honoring worship”
    “Moreover, there is an inseparable bond between the centrality of the Word of God and the worship of God. To this end, the prolific pastor and noted author, James Montgomery Boice writes, “To worship God we must know who God is, but we cannot know who God is unless God first chooses to reveal Himself to us. God has done this in the Bible, which is why the Bible and the teaching of the Bible need to be central in our worship.”

  4. Also – John MacArthur echoes same sentiment when he says
    “…So the only way true worship can occur is if we first come to grips with the depth of spiritual truth. Our people can only rise high in worship in the same proportion to which we have taken them deep into the profound truths of the Word. There is no way they can have lofty thoughts of God unless we have plunged them into the depths of God’s self-revelation. “

  5. I appreciate these sentiments, but I also wonder if Dr. Begg unknowingly contributes to the loss of musical taste with his frequent references to secular pop/rock lyrics. Could it be that quoting pop culture references, rather than elevating the discernment of musical selections, tends to cloud the issue?

  6. Sorry I didn’t get back to this before now, Ken. I really can’t say much in an informed way, as I don’t know a lot about Begg’s ministry. I think I probably differ from him regarding musical styles used in the church generally, though the one service I attended there was very conservative. As for pop allusions, I’d not make a habit of quoting, say, the Beatles (I don’t know if that’s a common thing with him or not, as I’ve not heard him preach more than a few times). I’ll just say I’m appreciative of good things he’s saying and doing, his providing a home church for the Getty’s, etc. Having a guy like him call for more robust doctrine in church music is helpful.

    Have a great day rejoicing in the resurrection!

  7. I think Begg’s statement regarding “biblical theology in memorable melodic form” is helpful, but I seriously question his overall philosophy of music if it is the same as it was less than 10 years ago.

    He evidently believes that Christians should seek to understand the Beatles and their music. I don’t agree with him at all. Listening to the world’s music will develop and increase a taste for it, and that will ultimately bring it into the church.

    The link to the interview is below:

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/aprilweb-only/4-21-22.0.html

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