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Hymn board

Should we stop singing ‘Love Divine’?

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Posted by Chris Edwards, 23 May 2016

Chris Edwards asks whether we should still be singing Charles Wesley's hymn, 'Love Divine'.

“Why are we all belting out a fervent prayer for a second blessing of sinless perfection, in which I imagine precisely none of us believe?” That was the thought that went through my mind recently, in a good evangelical gathering, as we sang Charles Wesley’s Love Divine at the top of our voices. And it set me thinking about the nature of language, and about the nature of words and music.

Incidentally, there’s no doubt that the hymn is (or, at least, was) a prayer for a second blessing. The second verse, now invariably toned down, if not omitted altogether, originally read:

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast;
Let us all in thee inherit,
Let us find that second Rest.
Take away our power of sinning,
Alpha and Omega be,
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

When you read that, you start to understand what some of the other verses are really on about. For example, “perfect love” (1 John 4:18) was a hugely loaded phrase in 18th century Methodism, used to describe the experience of perfection. When in the last verse we ask to see God’s “great salvation” then the second blessing is what we’re praying for. Think even of the quotation from 2 Corinthians 3:

Changed from glory into glory / Till in
heaven we take our place.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see what Charles Wesley probably meant by the second degree of glory.

I should say a number of things at this point. Firstly, I am a great admirer of both John and Charles Wesley, notwithstanding substantial theological differences in places. Secondly, let’s not forget that behind all their meanderings into “sinless perfection” lay (1) a true longing for holiness of life, (2) a fervent desire to see the Holy Spirit at work, and (3) an attempt to explain genuine experiences of other people’s changed lives. In all three of these they put me to shame.

I also apologise if I have just ruined the hymn for you! But that leads precisely to my point. On the assumption that one doesn’t hold to the Wesleyan doctrine of perfection, to what extent can it still be right and helpful to sing it?

The first thing to note is that the hymn has been edited almost since its birth. By 1779, when Charles was still alive, one of the brothers – maybe John – had changed “Take away our power of sinning” to “our bent to sinning”; other editors used the unobjectionable “love of sinning”. In the 1889 and 1933 Methodist Hymn Books that awkward second verse is absent altogether.

And that makes a difference. Without the second verse, it is possible to read the rest, either consciously or subconsciously, in a charitable fashion. We sing the final stanza:

Finish, then, thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.

and we imagine that the whole verse is talking about the return of Christ and the consummation of our union with him. In fact, for Wesley the first five lines were talking about something different: a great(er), more perfect salvation now; this side of heaven.

Does it matter? Well, in one sense it doesn’t. Even if, objectively, the words have a rather different meaning, a congregation can still intend something sound and wholesome by them. Of course we can sing biblical phrases like “perfect love” and “from glory into glory” without being constrained by the ways the author might have misused them!

But in another sense, it does matter. For a start, Love Divine just doesn’t work all that well in the “charitable interpretation”. You aren’t sure, when you sing verse 1, whether it’s a prayer for believers to grow, or for unbelievers to be saved. It just doesn’t quite make sense as either. For a long time I thought Charles Wesley had just got careless and confused the two. Now I know that he wasn’t careless at all. The hymn makes perfect sense when you realise what he’s actually on about. But if you are not praying for Wesleyan perfection, then it reads like a bit of a mess. It has some glorious lines (“Pure, unbounded love thou art!”) but it doesn’t express doctrine very well. And if we believe that Colossians 3:16 tells us that music ministry is a ministry of the Word (which it does!) then that matters.

It’s a good thing, up to a point, to give hymns and songs the charitable interpretation, and we should be mature enough to do it. It means that we can benefit from hymns written by people we probably wouldn’t invite into the pulpit, without looking for a heretic behind every tree. However, when meaning starts to get confused and fall apart, or people end up led astray, then that’s a different story.

I imagine that Love Divine has become so widely venerated largely because of its age, the beauty of its poetry, and a succession of cracking tunes. Let that be a warning to us!

Yes, it is possible to sing it (especially in an edited form) and mean good. But when we have so many other good hymns and songs to choose from, I reckon it is time to put it quietly to bed.

As for other hymns and songs: well, let’s choose them as carefully as we can. Let’s have them as full of the Word of Christ as we can. Let’s edit them judiciously if necessary, as and when copyright law permits. But let’s leave room for the charitable interpretation too. If the words can be taken well, then let’s be glad, sometimes, just to take them that way.

For another take on a similar question, readers might like to consider this blogpost from Bob Kauflin on the Worship Matters website.

Chris Edwards is training for ordination at Oak Hill College, having previously been Music Co-ordinator for All Saints, Crowborough (Diocese of Chichester) and Jesmond Parish Church (Diocese of Newcastle).

Photo by Leo Reynolds

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