Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

"Blood in the hymnal" seems an odd theme to pursue until you encounter a person with furrowed brow or someone with tongue-in-cheek asking a member of a hymnal commission: "Have you taken the blood out of the hymnal?" Given the near earth-shaking significance in Covenant history of the doctrine of the atonement, it is not a question that should be passed over lightly or answered in a defensive manner.

In most cases, the one who asks the question seriously feels there has been a conspiracy afoot by a hymnal commission to exclude "Power in the Blood" or "Are You Washed in the Blood?" or "Nothing but the Blood of Jesus" from the canon of the hymnal. Rarely indeed is the hymn, "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood," found in newer hymnals because the images seem for many to be over-stated and downright offensive. But even here the exceptions to such cases are noteworthy. In the recent Lutheran hymnal for African-American congregations, This Far By Faith (1999), nearly all such Gospel hymns coming out of 19th century American revivalism with blood imagery are included. Perhaps this represents a prophetic protest to our white, middle-class fixation on propriety and good taste which would remove from the hymnody of the church the offense of what, in most cases, is solid Biblical material in both Old and New, Testaments.

The pietistic revival movement of our origins in 19th-century Sweden borrowed many hymns from the Moravians. While the older Lutheran piety emphasized in its hymnody the themes of sin, repentance, and a struggle for holiness, Moravian piety was characterized by songs of joy, triumph, peace and blessing given in the Crucified. But the blood-imagery, according to Karl Olsson, could be downright ghoulish where, in one instance at least, believers were described in a hymn as blood-worms in the wounds of Jesus.

One of the Moravian hymns that has survived in all of our Covenant hymnals over the past one hundred years has been: "My Crucified Savior" (in Swedish, "Min blodige Konung," meaning "My Bleeding King"). See The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, Hymn 236. In the second stanza where the original stated the old satisfaction theory of the atonement which spoke of the Savior as having "appeased the Creator and mankind restored," the word "appeased" was changed to "obeyed" thus bringing it into line with traditional Covenant theology.

But finer examples of this Moravian hymnody are contained in "O Let Your Soul Now Be Filled with Gladness" (Hymn 494) in which the Savior’s blood has brought us freedom, unending gladness, and the unfailing love of God and, thereby, banished sadness even in the most trying circumstances. Also, the Moravian emphasis on the blood of Christ is the theme of another hymn that is both strong and joyful as a confession of faith:

If asked whereon I rest my claim to full salvation’s joy, if nothing more I need to name or other words employ besides our Savior’s blood and wounds, to me all satisfying grounds, I answer then, "My claim is good! ’Tis based on Jesus’ blood." (Hymn 353)

If our Covenant history and the definition of the atonement given by our theological leader, Dr. P.P. Waldenström, have taught us anything, it should be that Jesus’ blood is not a magic "stain remover" that makes God gracious but that—

blood is an expression which means life, and this understanding immediately sheds a beautiful, heavenly light on the words of the scriptures about the blood of Jesus. The blood of Jesus means nothing else than his life which was sacrificed in death (P. P. Waldenström).

Then he adds that the life sacrificed on the cross is the means of our participation in that same sacrifice thereby bringing about change in us.

There is much more about "blood in the hymnal" which needs to be said in a future sighting. But meanwhile, the offense stands. In an era when church marketing and church growth strategies would have us distance ourselves from any hint of suffering, death, the cross, the blood, or even the sacraments if we are to be "successful," we need more than ever in "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" to sing praise to God for the blood, the life laid down and life restored, that has revealed this wondrous love which has redeemed us and made us His people.

"Amazing love! how can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?" (The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, Hymn 306.)