Hymnology: Trinitarian Worship

Last year, Andrew Wilson wrote A Songwriting Rant about modern worship songs. He brought a number of charges against contemporary worship songs, but the one which really made me think was the third one:

3. Lack of Trinitarianism. I was at a funeral recently singing “Eternal Father, strong to save” … The entire hymn, Victorian and English though it is, is structured around the Trinity … That sort of thoughtful Trinitarianism, even in hymns which we might dismiss as rather quaint and overly reminiscent of the scene in Titanic, was standard fare for songwriting and liturgy for hundreds of years … Yet the vast majority of modern songs are functionally binitarian or unitarian, and only use generic forms of address (you, God, Lord) as opposed to specific ones (Father, Christ, Jesus, Spirit, etc). If you’ve ever heard people start their prayers with “Yes, Father Lord Jesus, we …”, you’ll know that this phenomenon has got into the evangelical water cycle, and its main way in, I suspect, has been through our songs.

This really struck me at the time, because it was something I think I’d only realised subconsciously before. How many contemporary worship songs glorify God for being triune? I’m not a betting man, but I’d bet that if you went through the latest edition of Songs of Fellowship you wouldn’t find many of those 500 songs talking about the Father, Son and Spirit.

People are confused about the Trinity. This is not surprising: it’s a difficult subject and often one which is avoided for that reason. But those difficulties have not changed over the centuries and yet many of our forebears managed to write hymns and songs which glorified the Trinity.

I was reminded of this recently with the hymn Christ is made the sure foundation. It’s a wonderful ancient hymn (translated from Latin written in the seventh century).The second verse ends with the lines: “God the One-in-Three adoring / in glad hymns eternally.” And the fifth and final verse says:

Praise and honour to the Father,
praise and honour to the Son,
praise and honour to the Spirit,
ever Three and ever One:
one in power and one in glory
while eternal ages run.

Those are wonderful words, which will be familiar to you if you’re used to traditional forms of Anglican worship: Psalms, for example, end with the doxology: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever. Amen.”

Why does all this matter? Why is it so important that we get the Trinity right? Most Christians – and this would have included me until not so long ago – see the Trinity as something intellectual, abstract, removed from the daily Christian life. It’s something which we need to believe to be Christian, but we don’t really think much about it day-to-day. It doesn’t affect how we love God, love other people, etc.

But this is completely the wrong way to look at it. God is good news precisely because God is Trinity. In John 17:3 Jesus says: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you [the Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” So eternal life means knowing God. The Christian life is about knowing God – and knowing God is about knowing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is no other way to know God.

Right at the start of Mike Reeves’ book The Good God, he says this:

For it is only when you grasp what it means for God to be a Trinity that you really sense the beauty, the overflowing kindness, the heart-grabbing loveliness of God. If the Trinity were something we could shave off God, we would not be relieving him of some irksome weight; we would be shearing him of precisely what is so delightful about him. For God is triune, and it is as triune that he is so good and desirable.

The Trinity is not some dusty, philosophical doctrine which we grudgingly need to hold on to but is remote from our everyday experience as Christians. It is the beating heart of the Christian faith, the gospel, our everyday experience. Jesus the Son brings us to God the Father, we have access to him in one Spirit.

The Trinity is something which should be celebrated, which should be sung about, which should be better known in our churches! We don’t worship ‘God’ in a generic sense, we worship this God – the one-in-three and three-in-one, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who has revealed himself to us. What is distinctive about Christian worship is that this is the God we worship – and so our worship music should reflect that.

So my plea and my hope is that more songs will be written which reflect the triune nature of the glorious God we serve – and to that end I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who can recommend modern songs which are good on that front. Please do drop me a line if there are any you can recommend!


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