One of the great perceived evils of modern preaching is proof texting. As commonly defined, proof texting is using a passage (usually a single verse) to make a point without any regard for its context. To be certain, some measure of risk exists in such preaching and many a false doctrine has been propagated by means discarded context. But what we commonly refer to as proof texting is not inherently wrong. In fact, Jesus did so when He referenced Exodus 3 to prove that there is a resurrection. That wasn’t the main point of that passage, and Jesus didn’t even address the main point. Of course, I’ve just proof-texted Jesus, because I’ve chosen not to deal with that context of that passage.
So why talk about this on a blog about hymns? If a purpose of our singing is to teach and admonish one another (Eph 5.19; Col 3.16), then hymns constitute the most ubiquitous case of proof texting ever known to Christians. If you’ve not already read it, take a look at the analysis of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” as an example of throwing all manner of references together into a single text. Some of my fellow hymn writers and I joke about playing “Scripture bingo,” to see if we can fit one more reference into a hymn without overloading the hymn with too much content to process.
There simply is not sufficient space in a hymn to expound upon more than a handful of biblical expressions, much less explain the use of every reference or the points that the hymnist might be making from them. As much as it might be interesting to have an annotated edition of our hymnals, (1) the footnote numbers would be distracting, (2) it would be nearly impossible to run down every reference, and (3) the resulting work could be as much as twice as thick, depending upon the verbosity of the annotator.
As has already been discussed, this is why we need to use scriptural expressions according to their use in Scripture. That is perhaps my chief objection to saying that the Father turned His face away in “How Deep the Father’s Love”—if I go to the places where that expression (or something like it) is used and really wrestle with the context, personally I have a hard time making the use in the hymn fit with the use in Scripture.
We should strive for scripturally-consistent use of scriptural language so that even without a human interpreter, we have a divinely-given interpreter in the Bible. If our hymns consist of biblically-used biblical expressions, then the Bible can tell us what those expressions mean. If we can’t explain it, we probably need to be thinking about whether we can sing it. And yes, this is an allusion to 1 Corinthians 14.
So what do we do?
- For everyone, we need to demand biblical content in the hymns. Can the hymns we sing be understood in a biblical context, or do we have to perform “mental gymnastics” to make it fit a biblical understanding? The more contortions we have to do to make a lyric scriptural, the more concerned we should be.
- For song/worship leaders, we need to be the congregation’s guides in understanding the songs we sing. We are the last line of defense in making sure that scriptural songs are being sung. Some allusions are not as obvious as others. “For God so loved this sinful world, He gave His Son to die” is a fairly well-understood reference. “Here I raise my Ebenezer” not so much. Make sure all can sing with understanding.
- For hymn writers, we need to strive for clarity in our writing, and ensure that when we make reference to Scripture, that our references are not the product of mental gymnastics and the twisting of those references. Obscure references are fine (any excuse to motivate Christians to read their Bibles, right?), but when people find the reference, will it make sense?
Hymns that do not use biblical content biblically have a hard time teaching and admonishing. Hymns that do not teach and admonish have a hard time being expedient (beneficial) to the musical worship of God’s people. Hymns that are not expedient probably shouldn’t be sung.