Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen V. Wiberg

As a lover of hymns, I have learned to tread gently in offering critiques of hymns, especially those in popular usage. Gracia Grindal, Professor of Rhetoric at Luther Seminary, St Paul has recently raised a question about the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which has won such universal approval including approval by people other than Christians. One hears it at state funerals and other solemn national occasions as an affirmation of general grace, leading Grindal to ask the question “Whose Grace?” The composer of the hymn, John Newton, most certainly intended it to be a witness to the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Grindal would not discourage its public usage, but wonders if those hearing the hymn might ask whose grace is being referred to and in searching discover Jesus. But she thinks that might be a stretch. Yet for those within the believing community who have been found by such amazing grace the hymn remains a robust and joyous witness.

One of the most remarkable books I have read this past year is NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, the Mission of the Church. To my great surprise one of the first things this Anglican bishop critiques is several popular hymns including “How Great Thou Art” which was made popular by the Billy Graham Crusades and Beverly Shea. Shea sang a translation by Stuart K. Hines. The original was written by an early Covenant Pastor in Sweden, a fine poet and noted writer, Carl Boberg (1859-1940). Speaking of this wonderful hymn, NT Wright takes issue with the translation of the final stanza:

When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.

Wright makes the point, in keeping with the original Swedish, that the song doesn’t talk about Christ coming to take me home but speaks rather of “the veils of time falling, faith being changed into clear sight, and the bells of eternity summoning us to our sabbath rest” which Wright says has a lot more to recommend it. And then he offers his own second line of Boberg’s final verse: “And heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart.” This anticipates Wright’s later argument that Christ’s coming again has a larger purpose than taking us out of this world. Rather, the purpose is to bring to fulfillment the New Creation of New Heavens and a New Earth.

The final critique is not of a hymn but of Covenanter’s love and knowledge, and lack thereof, of Covenant Heritage music. Take any of Lina Sandell’s three most popular hymns: “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Day by Day and With Each Passing Moment,” and “Thy Holy Wings Dear Savior,” found in our current hymnal and ask to which church in Sweden did Lina Sandell belong? I would wager close to 90% would say Lina Sandell belonged to the Swedish Mission Covenant. That would be partially true because of all the other Swedish background churches we claim her as our own. Covenanters are the ones who still know and sing her music and who have preserved her hymns in all of the official hymnals from the very beginning. Many think of her as blueblood Covenant as you can get. But that is incorrect.

Like our forebears in Sweden, Lina Sandell was Lutheran and like them was active in the revival movement. But when conflict arose over P.P. Waldenström’s theory of the Atonement she feared the revival moment would lose its life and end up as a debating society. So Lina Sandell chose not to align herself with the Covenant Mission Friends when it was formed in 1878 but instead remained in that part of the Lutheran Church that was friendly to revival movement and most closely aligned to its earlier leader and editor of Pietisten, Carl Olof Rosenius. That part of the revival movement that remained in the Church of Sweden is still a lively movement identified as the EFS, which stands for Evangeliska Fosterlands-Stiftelsen or “The Evangelical Homeland Foundation.”

In conclusion, I would like to pay warmest tribute to the editor of Pietisten 2.0, Phil Johnson and his lovely wife Sandy who have been host and hostess to the monthly meetings of the Committee. But even more I wish to express our profoundest gratitude for the hours of work Phil has given in preparing for each issue of Pietisten. We offer Sandy and Phil our blessing for work well done and for preparing the way for the beginning of Pietisten 3.0 and an exciting, promising future.

Glen Wiberg, veteran Covenant pastor and writer, lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen V. Wiberg