The Inauthenticity of Christmas Carols

Venite Adoremus: In Praise of the Creedal Hymnody of Christmastide.

I come from a Christian tradition where large segments of our denomination do not observe a church calendar or liturgical year. A few congregations do, a few more have a quasi-Advent observance during the month of December. But for the majority of congregations, it’s simply the weekly cycle of Lord’s Day Morning worship and Lord’s Day Evening worship each and every Sunday.

There are a whole host of reasons for this reality and my point here is not to debate the merits or detractions of a liturgical calendar, but simply to point out that, in American Protestantism at least, regardless of how high-church or low-church an individual congregation may be, almost every congregation I know of gives some sort of head-nod to the two predominant high-holy feast days of the year: Easter and Christmas. And for that, I am thankful.

I am thankful, particularly, for the latter holiday for various and sundry reasons, not least of which is the hymnody and season of congregational singing that always accompanies the month of December. In addition to the Christmas hymns and carols being among the most beautiful, sing-able, and familiar, they are also among the most richly doctrinal and creedal. I know of no other time of the year where so many Evangelical and Protestant congregations (from all sections of the worship-style spectrum) are singing and meditating on such explicitly creedal confessions of the church and Scripture with such frequency and regularity. Perhaps it is lamentable that this is a phenomenon that does not happen more often. But the national worship scene being what it is, it is worth celebrating the fact that such singing is happening and that our Christian worship as is the more blessed and enriched because of it.

Indeed, we could pause and consider how the very act of corporate and congregational singing contributes to the enhancement of humanity and is a humane pursuit in and of itself. But for our purposes here, let us specifically consider the humane pursuit of rich confessional theology found in the hymns of the Incarnation. If you will indulge me a few examples and comparisons, I think you will see why such creedal hymnody excites and encourages me and causes me to consider that the state of Christian worship in this nation may not yet be totally forgone and forsaken.

Consider the first line of the Nicene Creed (or the Niceano-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 AD):

 I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man….

Now consider stanza 2 of Charles Wesley’s famous “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”:

Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!;
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin’s womb;

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity….

Or stanza 2 of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (perhaps the most explicit example):

God of God, Light of Light Eternal,
Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created;

And later in stanza 4:

Jesus to thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing

Or stanza 2 of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (though not a Christmas carol—as it comes from the fourth/fifth-century Liturgy of St. James and is sung in conjunction with the Holy Eucharist—this hymn is found in many Protestant hymnals filed under the “Lord’s Supper” category as well as the “Incarnation” category, due to its language and obvious reference to the glorious truths and mysteries of the Incarnation):

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood,

Or stanzas 2 and 3 of “Of The Father’s Love Begotten”:

O that birth forever blessed, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom heav’n-taught singers sang of old with one accord;
Whom the Scriptures of the prophets promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,

Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore!

Or stanza 1 of “All Praise to Thee, Eternal Lord”:

All praise to thee, eternal Lord, clothed in a garb of flesh and blood;
choosing a manger for thy throne, while worlds on worlds are thine alone

Do you see the obvious borrowing and linguistic allusions these hymns take from the creed? I am sure there a great many more examples that have escaped my notice.  I encourage you to be on the lookout for such language as you worship and sing this season.

So what does any of this matter? Why or how should it affect our thinking? Though maligned in modernity as irrelevant, these doctrinal confessions are the stuff that split empires and spilt the blood of martyrs. There’s even a delightful old legend that tells of Saint Nicholas (yes, the Saint Nicholas) at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, having grown positively infuriated after listening to Arius deny that Jesus was divine and equal to God the Father but was merely the highest creature, strode across the room and punched Arias in the face!

“Very God of Very God”—language that can cause imperial turmoil, the death of faithful disciples, and even provoke Santa Claus to slap the face of old Egyptian heretic!

The fact that you and I sing the words “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’ Incarnate Deity” is, historically speaking, quite extraordinary and might never have come to be (save for God’s providential superintendence). To think that these words pass through our Pandora stations ad nauseum without the least bit of appreciation might make Athanasius roll over in his grave.

You see, we here at Humane Pursuits are dedicated “…to live lives and build communities in modern America that reflect the pursuits that make life worth living…humane pursuits.” Indeed, part of the gospel message is the fact that Christ came and took on humanity in order to redeem it. That man is created in the imago Dei and that there is good news of a God-Man Savior only serves to underscore the preciousness and beauty of that which is humane.

Therefore, if, as people of faith, our humanity is both blessed and in various degrees redeemed by the coming of a Savior who took on our humanity, then by all means, hymnody that extols such beautiful truths is worth singing and celebrating! Not to mention the fact that the injection of such rich biblical, confessional language into our worship will only serve to benefit the American church as well as instill a sense of connection and identity with the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” of which we profess to belong!

As beneficiaries of these poignant and most humane of expressions, might we pause and appreciate afresh the gift we have in the hymns of Christmastide as vehicles of such expressive beauty, and realize how much we are enriched and made all the more humane because of them?

I submit to you the creedal hymnody of Christmas: singing which extols Christ’s humanity, all the while enhancing ours.

Sean Morris
Born and raised along America’s snowbelt in North Kingsville, Ohio, Sean attended Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, earning his BA in Biblical and Religious Studies. He also attended Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS where he earned his Master of Divinity, with an emphasis in Biblical Exegesis. While there, he served as Honors Scholar and Teaching Assistant to the Academic Dean and to the Chancellor, in addition to serving as the Senior Minister’s Intern at First Presbyterian Church of Jackson.

Beyond theology, writing, and good literature, Sean is passionate about good coffee and the works of J.S. Bach. He has even been known to dabble on the pipe organ every now and again–preferably when no one is within earshot.

Sean and his wife, Sarah, presently live in Salem, Virginia where Sean serves as the Associate Minister of the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Roanoke. They have one son, Benjamin, and an adorably useless beagle, Max.