John Piper Changed ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness.’ Experts Weigh In.

Reformed tweaks to Methodist hit raise the question: Should hymns keep the theological orientation of their authors?
John Piper Changed ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness.’ Experts Weigh In.
Image: JLM

The worship team at The Gospel Coalition's recent women’s conference selected “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” to conclude speaker John Piper’s remarks. But the prolific preacher and writer was concerned that the lyrics didn’t thematically match his sermon. So, he wrote two additional verses:

I could not love Thee, so blind and unfeeling;
Covenant promises fell not to me.
Then without warning, desire, or deserving,
I found my Treasure, my pleasure, in Thee.

I have no merit to woo or delight Thee,
I have no wisdom or pow’rs to employ;
Yet in thy mercy, how pleasing thou find’st me,
This is Thy pleasure: that Thou art my joy.

Piper is well known for his Reformed convictions, including the “Christian hedonism” reflected in the new lyrics. But the author of this famous hymn, Thomas Chisholm, was a Methodist, which means that he most likely held Wesleyan-Arminian views like his denominational fathers, John and Charles Wesley (though a third co-founder, George Whitefield, led a Calvinist minority within the movement).

In 2018, a scholarly “vetting team” of the United Methodist Church gave “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” the green light for its theological content, based on the “criteria of adherence to Wesleyan theology, appropriate use of language for God and humanity, and singability.” (The team is tasked with reviewing the CCLI Top 100 because most of its worship songs come from “artists whose theological traditions are not generally Wesleyan-Arminian” and instead are “charismatic, Pentecostal, Calvinist, or neo-Calvinist.”) While the hymn was among the 40 out of 100 top songs deemed to have “few if any obstacles … for our congregations to sing with confidence,” it did only score a 3 out of 5 on the “Wesleyan perspective” metric.

This all raises the question: Should hymns maintain the theology of their author? Or are they theologically neutral—a gift to the wider church, even—that can be modified at will?

CT asked experts on hymnody to weigh in. Answers are arranged (top to bottom) from those who favor hymns staying constant to those who favor their malleability. And they begin with John Wesley himself.

John Wesley, songwriter and evangelist, from the pre­face to the 1780 Col­lect­ion of Hymns for the Use of the Peo­ple Called Meth­od­ists:

Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though without naming us) the honor to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome so to do, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able. None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse. Therefore, I must beg of them one of these two favors: either to let them stand just as they are, to take them for better for worse; or to add the true reading in the margin, or at the bottom of the page; that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men.

Swee Hong Lim, director of master of sacred music program, University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College:

Hymns are theological statements. John and Charles Wesley convey Methodist ethos in and through hymns. Hence, I frequently frame the discussion on how Christian denominational doctrine is conveyed in this manner: Roman Catholicism has Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae; the Reformed tradition has John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion; the Anglican tradition is anchored by The Book of Common Prayer; and Methodism embeds its theology in song—lyrical theology. To that end, and particularly for Methodism, hymns are not theologically neutral but carry theological distinctiveness. This is one reason why the denomination has sought to review contemporary worship songs for their theological position.

A broader issue at hand is the music commercialization aspect. “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is scheduled to become public domain at the end of 2018. By adding additional stanzas, there is now an opportunity to copyright the soon-to-be public-domain hymn just like some contemporary songwriters have done when troping public domain hymns.

Constance M. Cherry, professor of Christian worship and pastoral ministry, Indiana Wesleyan University:

A hymn is a piece of art. It is a poetic text crafted by an author. As such, adding or subtracting from any work of art is questionable, especially if the original artist is not able to agree to the changes.

The practice of adding material to a hymn text is not new. However, several questions arise when altering hymn texts:

1. Are the additions consistent with the message of the original hymn?

2. Does the hymn truly need the addition in order to fulfill its mission? (Or are the additions purely functional in order to serve the purposes of the moment?)

3. Are the changes honestly faithful to the theological perspective of the original author or do they depart from it?

4. Is the poetic voicing seamless or does it sound like two different persons compiled it?

5. Is it legal to alter the text?

Manuel Luz, musician, creative arts pastor, and author of Honest Worship:

One of my earliest experiences of leading worship was as a volunteer pianist playing hymns at a local convalescent home. I still remember the antiseptic smells, the faint echoes from the hall tile floors, the semi-circles of wheelchairs in the community room where we conducted the service. It never ceased to amaze me that, though most of the residents lived in various states of lucidity, they would suddenly burst into song—strong and sure and certain—when we began to sing hymns. In those moments, I began to understand that these hymns were deeply embedded into their psyches. These expressions of worship form us and live in us in spiritually deep and sometimes profound ways.

I don’t believe that altering the lyrics to a hymn is controversial per se. People have been revamping lyrics and arrangements for a very long time. But radical changes to hymns—such as adding new stanzas which alter meaning—can be problematic. Not only are you compromising the intent of the songwriter and the integrity of the song, but you’re also meddling with the deep heart connection people have through that hymn. As worship leaders, our aim should be to encourage that heart connection.

Greg Scheer, worship leader, congregational songwriter, and co-founder of Hymnary.org:

There is a long history of preachers and church musicians writing new hymn texts to fit a sermon theme like a glove. In that, John Piper is following in the footsteps of Watts, Wesley, and other preacher/hymnists. There is also a long history of interchanging hymn texts and tunes at will. In the larger scheme of hymnody, the new “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” verses that Piper wrote are not unusual.

Piper has written serviceable lyrics that wed sermon theme and congregational song. His creativity and attention to sung theology are admirable. But while Piper’s verses certainly served his particular sermon and conference context well, they fit the original hymn less well. The theme of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is simple and direct: We see God's faithfulness in creation and redemption. Piper’s added verses dilute this focus, which ultimately weakens the hymn.

It would be wonderful to see Piper’s example of binding sermon and song themes followed more widely. However, let’s go to the next level: Let’s begin communication between preacher and song planner early enough so that we can engage some of the fine modern songwriters we find in our local congregations or who work at a national level. This would allow our generation to produce fresh new congregational songs that have a strong scriptural backbone and tap into the sounds and words of our time.

Russell Yee, PhD, affiliate associate professor of Christian worship, Fuller Theological Seminary:

To write new lyrics to older, public-domain hymn tunes is something I generally encourage. While properly crediting and honoring original musicians and lyricists, their works are a gift to the church. Like all gifts, they should be used with gratitude, thoughtfulness, and propriety. Given such care, hymns can be fruitfully used as a living inheritance rather than as museum pieces.

However, such reuse can be motivated charitably or uncharitably. Someone could consciously rewrite lyrics to have an opposite theological perspective and do so as a kind of snub, or they could do so with humility and care. I can imagine someone introducing revised lyrics with a grateful acknowledgment—free of any sense of criticism or superiority—that the original writer had a different background and likely would not say these particular things. In the end, if we write the most theologically true and well-crafted lyrics but don’t have love….

David Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary:

Taking a hymn in a new theological direction is far from novel in church history. The Calvinist Whitefield altered Charles Wesley’s text, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and made it a smidgen less Wesleyan. The Unitarian J. S. Dwight sent Placide Cappeau’s poem, “Noël d’Adam,” aka “O Holy Night,” in a new doctrinal direction. The Universalist Kenneth Patton turned God “the mighty fortress” into Man “upright and proud.”

To those who argue that we ought absolutely to maintain the theology of a text’s author, I simply point to what Christians have done for centuries with the theology of the Psalms: seek to teach its authors “to speak like a Christian,” as Isaac Watts famously said. Revising and relocating worship songs is how Christians make hymns meaningful.

Was Piper wrong to transpose Chisholm’s hymn to a Reformed key? No. Is it always permissible? No. Is it always profitable? No. Is it always faithful? One can certainly hope so.

Carlos Colón, assistant director of worship and chapel, Baylor University:

As a composer and editor, I wrestle with this all the time: Poets and composers want the integrity of their inspiration respected. On the other hand, editors want to make sure that the church at large receives theologically sound and aesthetically constructed hymns and spiritual songs.

Now, the fact that we have Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc., hymnals shows that we want our theological and cultural preferences respected in what we sing together.

It is more urgent for composers to be less concerned with the particulars of our denominational, cultural, and political preferences and to immerse ourselves in the Scriptures and in our common Christian tradition. We must understand that our job is not so much to be original but to be messengers of the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Christ. We, North American evangelicals, need to be re-evangelized and re-oriented to Christ and his glory. Good solid hymnology can play a part to move us away from our ideological idolatries.

Angie Hong, worship leader, speaker, writer:

Worship leaders and liturgists have been changing and modifying hymn texts for years. There are many reasons to alter texts. First, there is the relevance of language. Replacing all the “Thees” and “Thous” might prove the hymn to be more singable and relatable. Sometimes it is the context of the hymns itself. Times have changed, and there are different views on women, children, and people of color. Finally, changing texts to hymns begs the question, “Why not create more songs of faith?” Hymns are familiar to many. But there are times that call for innovation and creativity. Time to create new freedom songs, anthems, and calls to faith. There can be different expressions of our faith and culture that are created. There can be an investment in creating new art for a changing world.

Kenneth L. Wallace, Jr., doctoral student at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies:

As an ethnodoxologist that focuses on contextualization, I feel that Piper justly contextualized the hymn, allowing his text to speak. Jesus was asked a similar question by the Samaritan woman in John 4. She asked if her Samaritan ways of worship were valid even if they did not, necessarily, line up with the theological viewpoints of the Jews. Jesus loosely said, “Lady, you have missed the point. If your heart is right, then I’ll take it.”

Hymns can be contextualized if the worshiper’s heart is in line with God’s. Although Thomas Chisholm may not have held the same theological viewpoint as Piper, his hymn holds truth that transcends denominationalism and has been used in many settings, Arminian and Reformed alike. I do not know of many congregants who refuse to sing a hymn until they know the theological leanings of the author. Instead, a right heart leads into worship.

Robin P. Harris, director, Center for Excellence in World Arts and president, International Council of Ethnodoxologists:

As an ethnodoxologist (studying the worship of cultures around the world), I believe that heartfelt and theologically rich expressions of poetry, song, and other arts are welcomed by God if they are truly a response of worship. A Kenyan ethnodoxologist, Kiplagat, recently remarked to me that in his context, people often adapt hymns by creating additional refrains and other ways of singing and moving that reflect local aesthetics. He said, “Each group needs to make the song their own.” Piper has done that with these new verses, and it clearly resonated with people, bringing a whole new appreciation of the hymn to this generation.

If Piper had modified the existing lyrics of an “Arminian” song (which this is not) to make it Reformed, that would be a more difficult discussion. But to create new, additional lyrics is a marvelous model of the white-hot worship of God that Piper promotes.

CT previously asked experts if we should update old hymns to address modern themes.

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John Piper Changed ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness.’ Experts Weigh In.