It is essential that a hymnal produced for our use express the Orthodox Faith in its rich and ancient beauty. Modern texts, as well as translations of ancient texts, must be evaluated for their orthodoxy. As a guiding principal for hymn selection we have kept in mind Metropolitan Anthony Bashir’s direction that in the Western Rite of the Antiochian Archdiocese we may make use of “all such Western liturgical rites, devotional practices and customs as are not contrary to the Orthodox Faith…” (emphasis added).1 Through the ages the Church has often defined orthodoxy only in reaction to heresy. Rather than to state what theology we wish to declare in our hymn choices it is more appropriate (and manageable) to describe what we must avoid. Theological areas where the Orthodox Church differs from the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches are of particular concern. Hymn texts are often shaped, directly or indirectly, by these issues. Some questionable texts can be adapted while some others must be discarded. An overview of some of these issues follows.
One of the principal areas of difference between the Orthodox and later Western positions (Roman Catholic and Protestant) is in the understanding of Original Sin. In the West, in particular after the schism of 1054, the dominant teaching on the effect of the sin of Adam and Eve was that of St. Augustine of Hippo. The Council of Trent (1545-63) stated what had become the classic Western Augustinian position that the sin of Adam “is one in origin and passed on by propagation not by imitation.”2 This position has affected numerous areas of Roman Catholic and Protestant Church life from how to understand the basic condition of fallen man (utterly depraved) to why children should be baptized (to avoid hell), to human sexuality (which is the act by which our sinful condition is passed on), to the conception of the Mother of God (the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary). Conversely, the Orthodox Church, while recognizing St. Augustine as a true Father of the Church3, avoids making the mistake of singling out any one Father as the authority, instead seeking balance in the combined wisdom of the Fathers.
Following the lead of St. Irenaus of Lyons, Orthodox theologians tend to present the fall of Adam and Eve as the disobedience of children, rather than the intentional act of mature adults in possession of all their faculties (the Augustinian position). This leads Orthodoxy to see the fall somewhat differently (the disobedience of a child being a different matter from the disobedience of an adult). The very fabric of creation itself has been warped and damaged by man’s disobedience. Sickness and death have entered into creation as man turned away from God (who is the source of life and health), but man is still made in the image and likeness of God — basically good — although that goodness is marred and obscured by our sin. The spiritual life is occupied in the work of restoring and cleansing the imago Dei within each of us, co-operating with God, that we may become more God-like, more Christ-like in our lives.
Some Orthodox theologians are more prone to speak of ancestral sin than to use the term original sin with all its associations. We say that each child is born into a world that has been made sick by the actions of our parents, that we are born with a tendency towards rebellion and sin, even as the child of a drug dependant mother may be born with a drug addiction. We emphatically deny, however, that an individual today is personally responsible or guilty for the sin of Adam; a person is only accountable for his or her own actions. Likewise we deny that the act of human procreation is inherently sinful or the vehicle for passing on inherited guilt, as God has created us to reproduce in this manner, telling man to be fruitful and multiply.
This issue has effected hymnody in a number of ways. Western references to the wrath of God as a response to man’s sin are inappropriate for us, as Orthodoxy sees man’s disobedience in a different light.
Then weep we hearty tears, to turn the wrath of God, and cry – that when our cry he hears, he drop the avenging rod.4
Instead we are inclined to stress the response of God’s healing care.
Now is the healing time decreed, For sins of heart and word and deed, When we in humble fear record, The wrong that we have done the Lord.5
Although we do use language calling the Mother of God “immaculate” and “all-pure” in our liturgical texts, we mean this in a different sense from that of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore we must carefully examine hymns from Roman Catholic sources which use such language.
Hail, Queen of the heavens! Mistress of earth! Hail Virgin most pure, of immaculate birth! Clear star of the morning, in beauty enshrined, O Lady make speed to the help of mankind.6
We also work to avoid obvious or subtle reference to the depravity of man, our guilt for the sin of Adam, the need to baptize children to keep them from hell (as opposed to baptizing them to bring them into the family of God and feed them with spiritual food) and other related issues.
One of the more commonly known issues dividing the later West from the Orthodox Church is Pneumatology. The Nicene Creed, in its original form, follows the Scriptural teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). The West, beginning in Spain in the 6th century, added a phrase declaring that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Although Rome opposed this innovation at first, by the 11th century it was commonly used throughout the West. The filioque controversy was one of several elements leading to the Great Schism (1054) and it continues to be a principal concern for Orthodox dialogue with the Roman Catholic and other western Churches. Rather than a simple matter of semantics, Orthodoxy sees the filioque as altering the whole nature of the Holy Trinity. In the Orthodox understanding of the Trinity the Father alone is the source of divinity – the Son is God because He is the Son of the Father; the Spirit is God because He is the Spirit of the Father. The late Western view alters this economy and the Holy Spirit often is de-personalized, becoming merely the bond of love which exists between the Father and the Son. The doubleprocession of the Holy Spirit can be seen both in hymns referring to the Holy Spirit:
From thy throne, as April shower, Thou descendest, heavenly One, Freighted with thy sevenfold dower, From the Father and the Son: Bring me, noble Guest divine, God’s own blessing – they are thine, Freely dealt at thy good pleasure: Fill me in abundant measure.7
And in doxologies:
This later example is easily made useful by substituting who from One with both is one.
Many other areas of theological concern are less obvious. In Orthodox Ecclesiology, for example, we hold that the Church of Christ is one; it cannot be divided. Thus we say that schism is from the Church rather than within the Church and we deny that the so-called branch theory of the Church is an accurate way to portray divided Christendom. For this reason, a well-known hymn, “The Church’s one foundation”, is not appropriate due to the implied ecclesiology:
Though with a scornful wonder, Men see her sore opprest, By schisms rent asunder, By heresies distrest; Yet saints their watch are keeping, Their cry goes up, “How long?” And soon the night of weeping Shall be the morn of song.10
In our Sacramental Theology we affirm that the bread and wine of the Eucharist truly become the Body and Blood of Christ(while avoiding the scholastic Roman Catholic position of trying to say how this happens). We also deny the position of many Protestant groups who say the Eucharist is a simple memorial, in the common sense of that term.
Thus we remember Thee, And take this bread and wine As thine own dying legacy, And our redemption’s sign.11
Concerning Baptism, as stated above, we see important reasons, other than avoiding hell, for baptizing children and we maintain that baptism is truly a new birth for a new life (unlike some Protestant groups which deny Baptismal re-generation).These positions, as well as theological positions on Marriage, Holy Orders, Chrismation/Confirmation, Confession/Reconciliation, and Unction can have influence on hymn texts and must be carefully evaluated.
An additional area of concern is the merits of the saints and the related issues of purgatory and prayers for the departed. In the Roman Catholic understanding12 — we owe a debt to God due to our sinfulness which is an offense to God. Our good works help to “pay off” this debt (as does our time enduring the punishments of Purgatory). The saints, in their virtue, have an over-abundance of goodness or merits. This surplus can be drawn upon to help us pay off our own debts; in this way the merits of the saints aid in our salvation as shown in this hymn in praise of a Confessor saint:
When we in chorus gladly do him honor, Chanting his praises with devout affection, That in his merits we may have our portion Ever and ever.13
Orthodoxy rejects this understanding. Instead of imagining a “celestial ledger book” in which God carefully keeps a running balance of what we owe (and allowing us to withdraw from another’s account), Orthodoxy stresses God’s efforts to help us repent and grow. Although we do use language about Christ “paying our debts” and ransoming us from hell, we say this only in the sense that Christ’s self-sacrifice for our salvation makes the conditions right for us to return to our Father, destroying the power of sin and death by his perfect obedience to the Father, and by entering into our life and death. We deny that Christ “paid the price” to an angry Father or to the devil; Christ alone redeemed us by His Victory on the Cross, accomplishing all that was needed. We have only to accept this gift by our co-operation or reject it through our continued disobedience.
On whose dear arms so widely flung, The weight of this world’s ransom hung: The price of humankind to pay, And spoil the spoiler of his prey.14
As a general rule Orthodox liturgical texts emphasize the victorious Christ, praising his victory and resurrection even while singing of his crucifixion. Thus texts which emphasize the suffering of Christ without mentioning the redemptive and victorious value of that suffering are inappropriate for our use (cf. the Negro spiritual “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” which, in the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 version, never mentions that anything comes after the tomb)15. Judging emphasis is often a difficult (and somewhat subjective) task. We have worked to remove emphases that are foreign to Orthodoxy (e.g. overly sentimental hymns or hymns which stress personal religion to the exclusion of corporate involvement — “and He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own…”16) and worked to strengthen those which are truly Orthodox (e.g. how we understand the feasts of the Church year). At times this can be accomplished by judicious word choice in translation or paraphrase.
A final category of theological concern in the process of our hymn selection is that of theological “trendiness,” hymns which reflect the fads and fashion of the day. Issues include: an approach to evangelism and missions (mostly 19th century) which is colonial and patronizing, if not racist; an emphasis on the “brotherhood of man” as a means to heal the woes of society, at times to the virtual exclusion of any divine role; “warm fuzzy” hymns expressing an “I’m O.K., you’re O.K. — let’s all feel good about ourselves” philosophy; and hymns which express the modern notion that “new and change = good and living,” “old and traditional = bad and dead,” at worst putting the author’s words into God’s mouth.
“Let my people seek their freedom in the wilderness awhile, from the aging shrines and structures, from the cloister and the aisle”: so the Son of God has spoken, and the storm clouds are unfurled, for God’s people must be scattered to be servants in the world.17
Although these categories do make many well-known hymn texts unusable by Western Rite Orthodox congregations, through research and careful choice we find a wealth of appropriate texts, ancient and modern, which declare Orthodox teaching. Our faith is wonderfully rich and this is expressed in our liturgical texts, spoken and sung, which cover all areas of our theology. Lex orandi lex credendi – how we pray (and sing) determines and shows what we believe. A well known definition of a hymn is provided by St. Augustine:
Hymns are praises of God with song; hymns are songs containing the praise of God. If there be praise, and it is not of God, it is not a hymn; if there be praise, and praise of God, and it is not sung, it is not a hymn. If it is to be a hymn, therefore, it must have three things: praise, and that of God, and song.18
To this, in this pluralistic day and age, we would add that the praise must be right praise; an Orthodox hymn is right praise sung of the One, true, and living God. Thus we wish to make use of the very best of hymnody in our worship, directed by the dogmatic understanding of our Church and our liturgical needs.
1. Western Rite Edict and Directory, (Stanton, NJ; St. Luke’s Priory Press, 1994).
2. Quoted in The New Dictionary of Theology, 1989, s.v. “Original Sin” by Gabriel Daly, p. 728
3. cf. Seraphim Rose, The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church, (Platina, CA: St. Hermon Brotherhood, 1983).
4. Verse 4 of “Solemne nos ieiunii”, Paris Breviary (1736), tr. by W.J. Blew in Songs of Syon, (London: Schott & Co., 1923), no. 51.
5. Verse 1 of “Ecce tempos idoneum”, Evening Office Hymn for Lent III to Passion Sunday, c. 11th c., tr. by T.A. Lacy in The English Hymnal, (London: Oxford University Press, 1906), No. 67.
6. The Sodalists’s Hymnal, ed. E.F. MacGonigle (Philadelphia: E.F. MacGonigle, 1887), p. 162, vs. 1.
7. “O du allersusste Freude” by Paul Gerhart (1607-76), tr. by G.R. Woodward in Songs of Syon, vs. 2 of No. 125.
8. “Tantum ergo” by Thomas Aquinas (1263), The Hymnal 1940, vs. 2 of No. 200.
9. Orthodox Ritual
10. S.J. Stone, 1866, vs. 3 in The Hymnal 1940, No. 396.
11. Hymns and Liturgies of the Moravian Church, (Bethlehem, PA: Provincial Synod, 1920), p. 93.
12. What follows is an over-simplification for the sake of brevity.
13. “Iste Confessor”, 8th century, Evening Office Hymn for a Confessor not a Bishop, in The Anglican Breviary, vs. 4, p. 1672. Other translations avoid this problem by word choice or omitting this verse.
14. “Vexilla Regis” The Evening Office Hymn for Passiontide by Venantius Fortunatus, 6th c., translation by John Mason Neale, in Songs of Syon, vs. 5.
15. The Hymnal 1940, No. 80.
16. C. Austin Miles, The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville, The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), No. 314.
17. T. Herbert O’Driscoll, The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville, The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), No. 586.
18. In psalumum lxxii, quoted in Music in the Early Church. ed. James McKinnon. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 158.