Sunday, February 26, 2006

Praise God for his open word

Annie e-mailed me today to observe that she (and the Selwyn choir) had been singing in Peterborough yesterday and had encountered a hymn she didn't know, number 438 in the New English Hymnal.

The hymn (whose first line is "Praise to God whose word was spoken") is set to St Raphael in the NEH. The metre is 87 87 47 (same metre as Cwm Rhondda). Selwyn choir were agreed (I gather) that they liked the hymn.

But it has a double obelus in the NEH, so Annie's suspicions were aroused. Should we like this hymn as it is or should we prefer it as it ought to be?

Well I've done a little research. It's not easy because they've changed the first word of the first line, so you can't readily find it in the index of first lines of other resources, but a bit of help from dear Google enabled me to make progress, and I can now report the following.

The real hymn goes

Thanks to God whose Word was spoken
in the deed that made the earth.
His the voice that called a nation;
his the fires that tried her worth.
God has spoken:
praise God for his open word.

This is followed by a further four verses tracing the idea of God's Word as creative (verse 1), Incarnate (verse 2), delivered in scripture (verse 3), delivered orally throughout the world (verse 4) and continuing to speak to us today (verse 5). Each verse finishes with "God has spoken, Praise God for his open word", except the last one which goes "God is speaking: praise God for his open word."

The hymn was written in 1954 by a URC minister called Reginald Thomas Brooks, for the 150th anniversary of the Bible Society. Hence the theme of thanks for the Word of God, and the idea of the "open word", open for us to read. It is a teaching hymn, as Frank Colquhoun points out (A hymn companion page 146): "The virtue of the hymn lies in its teaching character. It helps us to understand what is meant by the 'Word of God'".

It's not clear to me who is responsible for the massive re-writing that has happened to this hymn en route to the New English Hymnal. That book attributes copyright to precisely the same owner of copyright as the original words (which can be found on the Oremus Hymnal at http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/t/t062.html ). It doesn't confess to the fact that the editors have written something rather different, although the Oremus Hymnal evidently understand that the NEH owns copyright of the new words and they therefore don't supply the NEH words online.

So what have the NEH editors done? Here are some of the things:

They've changed "thanks" to "praise" in the first line of every verse. That's why I couldn't find it to begin with.

They've changed "Praise God for his open word" to "Praise him for his saving word" in the last line of each verse, adding a capital letter on "Word" in the verse about the incarnate word.

They've cut out one verse (the one about the word spread orally throughout the world).

They've changed the order of the verses so that we get the one about the scriptures before the one about the incarnate Word. This is interesting theologically: I'll come back to it.

They've rewritten the fourth line of the Incarnation verse, stupidly, so it no longer spells out the significance of the incarnation, nor makes grammatical sense (though they only needed to retain the full stop that it had originally to remedy the latter fault). Now we are told "Deeds and words and death and rising Tell the grace in heaven's plan" whereas Brooks wrote "Deeds and words and death and rising, Grace in human form declare."

They've rewritten the last verse fairly heavily to make it talk about God speaking to us through his spirit, not our spirit within responding to God speaking to us direct. In the course of this they've added some gratuitous man-speak, and they've put in a silly bit about showing us the Father's plan — compare these:

Original:

Thanks to God whose Word is answered
by the Spirit's voice within.
Here we drink of joy unmeasured,
life redeemed from death and sin.
God is speaking, God is speaking:
praise God for his open word.

New English Hymnal substitute:

Praise to God who through his Spirit
Ever speaks his word to man;
Spirit dwelling deep within us,
Show us all the Father's plan.
God is speaking:
Praise him for his saving word.

Now (taking up the thought I left hanging earlier) why did they move the scriptures to before the incarnation? Well, I suppose they thought that chronologically, God was speaking to us through the scriptures before Jesus was born, so the order of events goes creation and the law (verse 1), then some written words of scripture, then the incarnate word, and then us.
But that's not as clear as all that, because (a) it's a bit limiting to think only of chronological order, and the more significant thing is the order of priority in the Godhead, and also a sort of order of increasing spread outwards from God. God the creator is, as it were, the first move towards making his word accessible and open to the world. Then there's the giving of his very self into the world in the incarnation. Then there's the distribution in the scriptures, as the written word, spoken by him but not as close to being God himself as the incarnate word. And then there's our distribution of the oral word at second hand. In a sense those are also chronologically ordered in the same way, since the canon of scripture for Christianity was only assembled after the Incarnation, even if it includes some texts written earlier.
So I see no good reason to intervene and change those verses round. It's either pointless interference or it's theologically suspect.
But if it's a nice hymn (let's agree it might be a nice hymn, especially if sung to a good tune) then I think it's probably even nicer if sung in the original words with their biblical theme, and not messed up by the editors of that new hymn book.
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