Experts Weigh In After John Piper Adds Reformed Verses to Methodist Hymn ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’

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?

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Morgan Lee