Referents (hymns, etc. — pt. 2)

Friday’s post on the identification and nature of old Christian hymns drew questions from a NC Textual scholar and friend.  I’m following up here with a presumably clarifying post or two.


  1. How did Paul, and how can we, identify the hymn, the psalm, and the spiritual song?  [And what in the world is a “gospel song”?]  What are the referents of these words?  (See here for the Pauline letter references.)
  2. Do such identifications matter?  If so, why and to what end?

Pursuant to good teaching as well as instinct, I would not assert that any words are (necessarily) static in their ranges of meaning, although some words may certainly mean roughly the same thing for centuries.  Attempts to identify, e.g., the “hymn” are problematic.

When I say, for example, that a hymn is a specific thing, and a gospel song isn’t that thing, it’s not that I care about the specific labels as much as that to which the label refers — the referent.  This distinction begs the question of which language we’re dealing in — Paul’s Greek or my English.  Should we care about what Paul’s hymnoi are, or what my hymns are, or both, or neither?  (The words in both languages have ranges of meaning.)

At this point I want to clarify what is behind all this for me:

I am concerned with Christian intentionality in worship, i.e., that believers know what they’re doing when they’re doing it — resulting in more meaning and thrust behind each activity.

Aside:  although I am a professional, academically trained musician, it is decidedly not my interest that we get too deep in the musical aspects here.  Little may be gleaned or replicated (in terms of musical style) from any era prior to the early Baroque or Renaissance, and, in any event, I’m relatively unconcerned that musical considerations enter into substantive discussions on believers’ worship.  Now, having relegated musical considerations to the sidelines, I’ll admit that, when a non-musician attempts to refer with any specificity to supposed, ancient “musical genres” (as a couple of otherwise knowledgeable theologians¹ in Worship Leader magazine have, for instance), I may react!   A musical genre, e.g., psalms, hymns, might or might not have existed.  What’s clear is that we will not be able to determine anything about such a genre’s musical praxis in this lifetime.  For example, no musical notation for a Davidic psalm, if discovered, would be musically replicable by us in this millennium.

The three iconic Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 expressions — which communicate something along the lines of “psalming, hymning, and spiritually singing” — seem to depict some degree of textual variety, although perhaps the three terms overlapped in meaning at some point.   In other words, it seems clear that Paul was describing a plurality or plenteousness in some respect, if not categories per se.

I don’t know that Paul was concerned that his “psalms” be thought of as a category limited to the Hebrew Psalms.  It could very well be that a contemporary psalm was composed in the year 44 in Antioch, and another one in 52 in Corinth, and that both of these circulated in small regions, taking their respective places among the Hebrew Psalms — and effectively blurring the lines of the “psalms” category.  Or, a spiritual ode such as Philippians 2:6-11 could have been lyrically morphed into a more God-directed, “hymnic” song — i.e., starting with “. . . Who existed in the form of God” and ending up with something along the lines of “You, O Lord Christ, have always existed as God.”  All this assumes Paul had categories in mind, to some extent.

I see no indication that Paul prioritized one over the other, and I don’t want to prioritize, either.  In using the designation “hymn” to refer to a specific type of text and a first-person, God-directed vantage point, I do not intend to downplay interest in other poetic texts that seems to have served some poetic, aesthetically charged function for/with ancient believers.  All of these poetic texts are of interest, whether God-directed or not.

The point is not that we sing “psalms” more or less than “hymns,” or that we always draw from each category, but that believers become more intentional, whether singing/speaking to oneself, to one another, or to deity.

So, should we care about what hymnoi are, or what hymns are, or both, or neither?  I’d say both, but that we should care more about the actual activity (as opposed to the word).  Coming to understand what hymnoi were, or could have been, in the first century will of course inform what our actual activities are today.

May each Christian activity — whether singing this type text or that, or encouraging, or mowing, or cleaning — be intentional and impassioned.

P.S.  And what is a “gospel song”?  That label carries quite the range of meanings, too.  Ask a mainstream media reporter, a Christian bookstore employee under the age of 30, a Baptist in the southern U.S., and a CofCer from a Stamps-Baxter-loving heritage, and you’ll get four different understandings, the last three of which will be based largely on limited experiences with musical styles.  If we asked Paul what a “gospel song” might be, he might say, “a song that speaks of the good news of the death and rising of Jesus.”  The label “gospel song” is not used in scripture, and it’s not advisable that it be equated to the “spiritual song” of Eph. 5 and Col. 3.  I daresay a lot of psalms and hymns are more “spiritual” than most of the “gospel songs” I’ve experienced.

To be continued . . . coming up:  a poll on the referents of psalm, hymn, and spiritual song, plus inquiries into rhyme and assonance


¹ The reference I have in front of me is Ron Allen, who asserted in some connection with Psalm 68 that “Paul spoke of three genres of music in [Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16].”  Even if that statement could somehow be proven, the conclusion would be less than helpful, since no one could remotely begin to replicate or approximate said genres.  I would suggest that Dr. Allen revisit this notion and then illuminate any echoes of the Hebrew text that are not apparent to English readers when comparing Psalm 68 with Paul’s letters.


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