Old Christian Hymns

An old hymnal called Christian Hymns (three editions) was used in my parents’ early history in the South.  This blog is not about that book, nor is it about any other hymnal per se.

There’s a common misunderstanding in Christendom:  that a “hymn” is an older Christian song or a song from a hymnal.  This blog is not about that fallacy.  (See Song Book Content or Hymns — definitions, and one good example for more on this point.)

This blog is, however, about early Christian hymns.  Gary Collier has recently shared a more or less commonly known, neat listing of apparent hymn texts that appear in our New Covenant scriptures:

  1. Phil 2:6-11
  2. 1Cor 13
  3. Rom 3:24-26; 6:1-11; 8:31-39; 11:33-36
  4. Col 1:15-20
  5. Eph 1:3-14; 1:20-23; 2:14-22; 5:14
  6. Titus 3:4-7
  7. 1Tim 3:16
  8. 2Tm 2:11-13
  9. Heb 1:3
  10. 1Pet 1:3-5; 1:18-21; 2:21-25; 3:18-22

While not all of these texts qualify as hymns “proper” from a lyrical standpoint, the fact that they have been identified as a) poetic, b) lyric, and c) likely to have been sung by early believers is significant.  I will not attempt to comment on all of these but will begin with the first in the list.

In Philippians 2, Paul gives no hint that he is quoting from an external source.  The inherent Christology (≈ word about Jesus’ nature and person, His Christ-hood) is very direct:  e.g., the name that is above every name is lavished upon Jesus.   This name is not “Jesus,” despite all those worship songs that link “Jesus” with “name above all names.”  Rather, Gary Collier and others have asserted that YHVH, God’s divine namewhich is now tantamount to KURIOS (LORD)—is that name.

The International Standard Version has shown great care in rendering this and other poetic passages in English poetic form.  I would like to share a sample here, and I may share a musical setting of this soon, too.

In God’s own form existed He
and shared with God equality,
deemed nothing needed grasping.
Instead, poured out in emptiness,
a servant’s form did He possess,
a mortal man becoming.
In human form He chose to be
and lived in all humility,
death on a cross obeying.
Now lifted up by God to heav’n,
a name above all others giv’n,
this matchless name possessing.
And so, when Jesus’ name is called,
the knees of everyone should fall
wherever they’re residing.
Then every tongue in one accord,
will say that Jesus the Messiah is Lord,
while God the Father praising.

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible: International Standard Version®. Copyright © 1996-forever by The ISV Foundation. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED INTERNATIONALLY.  Used by permission.

Addendum, a week after initial composition of this blogpost:

For two different reasons, I floated questions about this Philippians 2 “hymn text” to two different internet groups.  And for multiple reasons, members of each group were somewhat critical of this ISV rendering.  Perhaps I have been too quick to gravitate to the ISV attempt here.  Perhaps my standards are wishy-washy when it comes to translation.  Perhaps my standards are too low when it comes to poetry.  Still, I applaud what I take as a fine intent of the ISV folks to render poetry poetically.

11 thoughts on “Old Christian Hymns

  1. Gary D. Collier 06/13/2014 / 9:52 am

    Since you mention my name in the article, perhaps it is inappropriate for me to respond. However, I say first, the list of NT hymn-texts is not original with me and may vary slightly from one place to another.

    Secondly, I am interested in your definition of hymn (having read your listed article). Would you say that hymn has a static, unchangeable definition? That there is a once-for-all quality that cannot vary? The point of course is how do we decide what is and is not a hymn at various times? This is not a trap, but a sincere question with an interest in ancient Christian hymns. For example, I would love to see you give an academically critical (studied) response to the article “Hymns, Hymn Fragments, Songs, Spiritual Songs” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (IVP) written by Ralph P. Martin.

    Finally, I’m interested in your addendum: I would like to see you expand that.

    Sorry to be intrusive here. I appreciate your writing.



    • Brian Casey 06/13/2014 / 4:59 pm

      Thanks, Gary, for clarifying that the list wasn’t original. I suppose I assumed that but really didn’t say as much. I’ve changed the wording from “Gary Collier has provided . . . ” to “Gary Collier has recently shared a more or less commonly known, neat listing of apparent hymn texts. . . .”

      I’m planning to post a response to your more substantive inquiry as a separate post — presumably in a day or two. Long & short is this: 1) a word’s range of meanings may certainly change over the years/decades/centuries; and 2) my primary concern in being specific with the word “hymn” is not in confining that word, but in calling believers to be intentional with their words. We ought to be able to distinguish between speaking to God and speaking to others.

      As for expanding my addendum, I’m not sure what more there is to say, but I’ll think on it. Not intrusive at all, by the way!

      On Fri, Jun 13, 2014 at 9:52 AM, NT Christianity wrote:



  2. godschildrenorg 06/13/2014 / 5:39 pm

    Two internet groups not withstanding, I’d like to hear your musical setting for these poetic verses from Phil. 2. While reading the verses, I listened for “the message,” not whether the form was modern enough. I “heard” a melody in minor key…maybe because I’m old, and I love classical music. (BTW, these verses would never be sung by those who prefer songs that repeat two lines again and again.) — Anne in Transylvania


    • Brian Casey 06/14/2014 / 5:30 pm

      [Gary’s 6/13 6:21 p.m. should have been placed here. He was replying, tongue-in-cheek, to Anne’s mention of repetitiveness above. -bc]

      Gary Collier:
      What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean?


    • Brian Casey 06/14/2014 / 10:06 pm

      Yes, I think I could easily hear a mode other than major myself. I opted for major, and this is a relatively “choral” thing, unlikely to be sung by about 90% of churches of any stripe these days. OK, since you asked, I’ll share the song in printed form and will send you a .mid and .pdf files by e-mail.


  3. Gary D. Collier 06/13/2014 / 6:21 pm

    What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean?


    • Brian Casey 06/13/2014 / 11:37 pm

      Gary, what you’re after here isn’t clear to me, but I assume you’re referencing the Addendum. The last sentence of my post could be of interest in several minor respects.

      Are you wanting to know why (I think) members of each group were critical of the one aspect of the translation? Why I think I might have been too quick to accept the ISV efforts? Why I think my standards are too low w/poetry or translation?

      Honestly, I don’t think the answers to any of those are all that satisfying or worthy of pursuit.

      The last sentence is the most interesting to me, but going much further with it eludes me right now. I’ll try. Maybe it’s the feeling I get from hearing balance and form in works of performance art that piques me with the ISV Phil. 2. Just as with musical tones, there’s an element in poetry that can defy explication, yet come to roost in our souls. When words are formed and combined with attention to what I’ll label “poetic sensibilities,” it’s not as though the meanings of the individual words are altered, I don’t suppose, but the effect of the whole is enhanced — and possibly given a communicative edge. This enhanced whole is what I experience through Philippians 2:6-11 and some other poetic texts. When the ISV or someone else tries to reckon with the poetic X factor and achieves something relatively poetically viable, then something deep within me is satisfied . . . as long as there has been no overt violence done to an exegetically derived reading of the text.

      Not incidentally, I am reminded of your and another’s low opinion of the place of word *sounds *in human communication. (I refer here to another conversation we had on rhyme and assonance, alliteration, etc. in Greek texts.) I take at this point that a solid majority believes that rhyme had little or no place in ancient Koine Greek. Yet people hear and respond to oral inflection. My 5-year-old hears puns and makes a pun on his own once in a while. Entire languages are known as “tonal” — a trait indicating that the meaning of a word may be changed by the mere alteration of a pitch level or pitch pattern. That ancient Greek rhetoricians didn’t deal with homonyms and rhymes and assonances as communicative/literary devices is curious, but perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. It seems logical, based on human nature, that at least a large segment of human ears would respond to rhyming or assonant syllables in some way.


    • Gary D. Collier 06/14/2014 / 2:58 am

      Oh, my! I apologize. If you like, you can remove my comment about “What do you mean?” I thought I was replying to godschildrenorg–agreeing with her last comment “these verses would never be sung by those who prefer songs that repeat two lines again and again” My reply was intended as a playful agreement. That’s all. But it looks like I hit the wrong button, and my comment did not get printed under her post at all. My mistake.

      Let me reiterate that I have great appreciation for what you are doing. Very thoughtful. I might quibble some about the ISV version of the early hymn, but that does not diminish my appreciation for what you are doing. I want to hear your song. 🙂


    • Brian Casey 06/14/2014 / 12:56 pm

      Oh! Now it makes sense to me. Thanks much for clarifying that you meant to be replying in agreement with Anne’s comment. I now see that, for some reason, the last few lines of my reply to your reply were truncated. I’ve added the conclusion to my reply now.

      Thanks very much for this interaction — it means a lot.


  4. Gary D. Collier 06/14/2014 / 3:23 am

    Brian, on another note: Your comment about my “low opinion of the place of word *sounds *in human communication. (I refer here to another conversation we had on rhyme and assonance, alliteration, etc. in Greek texts.)”

    I think I have mis-communicated once again. (I’m batting about 30 here). I’m simply not aware of any real significance to *rhyme* in either Heb OT or Greek NT. I’ve seen a few things in Hebrew and Greek that seem to rhyme (none that I can think of off the top of my head), but these are not common in either language for this literature as far as I know. How much of a role *rhyme* played in common speech, I don’t know.

    However, the use of things like tone and pitch would have been very important. Also, alliteration and other such things are more common. The importance of “human sounds” does play a role in this literature. I suggest google searches for things like “rhyme, assonance, and alliteration in the bible” and “rhyme, assonance, and alliteration in Homer” (even though you’ll end up with “saxamaphone” from Homer Simpson).



    • Brian Casey 06/16/2014 / 11:14 am

      Thanks — this is very helpful and encouraging to me personally. I appreciated this fleshing out of your feelings/findings very much. I’d felt a closed door from you and another scholar on this question, although I’d seen a hint or two elsewhere that there might be something to investigate, at least. Now, the door seems open a little more for me to follow up. I’ll be looking more for instances Lisa’s brain and Bart’s wit than Homer’s malapropisms.

      On Sat, Jun 14, 2014 at 3:23 AM, NT Christianity wrote:



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