Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

Revise us again? This was the title of an article in the September, 2013 issue of Christian Century. It is a question which every hymnal commission has faced. Should churches alter worship texts? In a hymn text, theology can turn on a single word or phrase.

The Covenant Hymnal Commission of most recent times (1996) spent endless hours with a single word or phrase in the hymn much loved by Covenanters, “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing,” where the text includes the phrase, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer.” The problem was our fear of a lack of biblical literary in newcomers that many would stumble on what is meant by raising an “Ebenezer.” If asked its meaning, the uninitiated might respond by saying that Ebenezer is the skin-flint miser in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Someone suggested we might put an asterisk by the word referring to the Old Testament passage at the bottom of the page. What finally won out was using the meaning of the world itself: “Here I raise to thee an altar, hither by thy help I’m come.” What happened in the newer alteration was to make the hymn more commonplace and less mysterious.

I confess to being the one who proposed making the change from Ebenezer to altar. And I also freely admit that the first time after the change, I sang Ebenezer lustily with the rest of the congregation. The lessons we learned were: “don’t mess with the memory banks of people when singing hymns,” and “think twice before altering well-known worship texts.”

More than the obvious alterations made by our committee, it took my doctor, who is a bright, perceptive Christian (and a reader of Pietisten), to ferret out the nuance in one of the alterations that our committee missed. It was in the hymn my friend pointed out to me after singing hymn 426, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” on Reformation Sunday.

I must add that throughout the work of our commission we sought wherever possible to emphasize inclusiveness in language. But we theologians on the commission were caught napping on this alteration. The text was revised by a single word that put us out on the edge of heresy. And I will have to refer this matter to our Covenant theologian Dr. C. John Weborg to verify if there has been a cultural overreach in our altering such an ancient text as Luthers.’ The phrase in the second line of verse two begins like this:

“Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right one on our side,
The one of God’s own choosing…”

The “right one” suggests to me that there is a matter of choice. The “Right Man” is not one among many, for there is none other. For this reason the doctor and I came to full agreement on the much preferred text, “Were not the Right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.” The Right Man in his full humanity, Son of God and Son of Man. There is no other than the Man of God’s own choosing. I thank my good friend Dr. Randy Beahrs, whose father-in-law was a strong Presbyterian preacher who no doubt made him aware of such nuances as these in our vocabulary about God.

In a different article about changes to the lyrics of the worship song “In Christ Alone,” Bob Smietana, writing in USA Today, concludes: “So the words in a hymnal matter. The faith of current generations and future generations is shaped by what we say and what we sing. That’s why you stress over every word.”

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