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.