Deborah Milam Berkley, Ph.D
Many of us delight in the old hymns of the church. They can lead us to
worship God because of their majesty, or because of the intimate
relationship with Christ that they depict. But sometimes when we sing them
in church these days, the wording unexpectedly catches us up short. The
words have been changed from what we used to know! Many of the hymns in _The
Presbyterian Hymnal_ from 1990 have had their words revised. Now a committee
has been formed  to work on a new hymnal, and it is quite possible that
more revisions will be in store.
Why should we care about this? Is it just that we don’t like change, and we
are sentimentally attached to the old wording? Aren’t the old hymns going to
give way to praise choruses anyway, as worship style changes across the
My contention is that we need to care about this, because wording changes
that have been done for what appears to be good reasons sometime lead to
unintended bad effects, and so we need to be more vigilant about what
changes are made. In addition, this will matter even if, in future hymnals
or worship songbooks, the old hymns are abandoned for praise choruses. If
the people selecting the praise choruses use the same judgment as was used
to make the hymn revisions in 1990, their ability to select choruses wisely,
or fairly in a way that reflects more than a narrow, progressive theological
point of view, may be in question.
Let me discuss some of the troubling aspects of the revisions in the 1990
The revisions in the 1990 hymnal seem mostly to have been done to avoid
gender bias (and also outdated language). Whenever possible, masculine
words, such as _he_ or _Father_, used for God, or for believers, have been
changed. Avoiding gender bias is in general a benign change that can be
helpful to women. In addition, however, there are other more subtle changes
that have been made, such as removing words that refer to God triumphing, or
words referring to darkness. I will discuss these changes below.
The effects of the changes can be good, such as helping women feel more
included, but they can also be bad from an orthodox theological point of
view. I will point out some of these bad effects later in this article.
Sometimes, as in the case of gender neutrality, the effects of the changes
have been accomplished deliberately by the revisers. In other cases, it may
be that the change was deliberate, or it may just be that the revisers
either did not notice or did not care about the theological change that
their revision made. In the new hymnal, we do not want to find these bad
In general, in revising the words of a hymn, it is fine to avoid unnecessary
gender-specific language, or outdated wording such as “blesseth”. However,
in changing this wording, it is important not to change other aspects of the
original in such a way that other important theological points are lost.
Such extra changes happened with the hymn “Be Thou My Vision,” #339 in the
1990 hymnal. The third verse in that hymnal is actually a combination of
the second and fourth verses of the original. This combination was made in
order to omit the second half of the second verse and the first half of the
fourth verse, both of which contain masculine language referring to God.
These are the lines that were omitted:
Thou my great Father, I thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Son!
In order to avoid calling God “Father” and “King”, and ourselves “son”, we
have also missed singing about our parent-child relationship with God, our
oneness with him, God’s sovereignty, and the joy we can look forward to in
Another general point that the revisers seemed to be concerned with was
racism, but they evidenced this by removing words concerning darkness, often
in a misplaced way. It is excellent to avoid racist wording, but not all
wording about darkness is racist, and removing it can remove important
meanings that should be left there. For example, in “Eternal Father, Strong
to Save”, #562, the “chaos dark and rude” upon which the Holy Spirit brooded
is now called the “chaos wild and rude”, and instead of saying that the Holy
Spirit gave “life and light and peace”, it now says that the Holy Spirit
“gave, for fierce confusion, peace.” It is a far stretch to think that
darkness in this context could be racist. Instead, it is important for us to
know that into spiritual darkness, the Holy Spirit brings light,
illuminating our spirits with God’s presence. The changed wording deprives
us of this insight.
I am going to give some more specific types of changes that have been made
to hymn wording, and why they are unhelpful.
Besides trying to avoid gender-specific language, advocates of progressive
theology also often try to avoid both “hierarchicalism” and what they call
“triumphalism.” It is indeed wrong for Christians to believe that some
people are better than others, or to think that our culture or country
should triumph over other cultures or countries. However, it is right and
proper that God should be higher–more hierarchical–than people, and that
his goodness should triumph over sin and evil, and references to this sort
of hierarchy and this sort of triumph need to be left in hymns in order to
help us properly understand God’s attributes. That is why the following
changes are troubling.
First, in “Be Thou My Vision”, #339, “High King of heaven” has been replaced
with “Great God of heaven”. This is in order to avoid the masculine word
“King”, but it is unfortunate that we also lose the reference to God as
sovereign over heaven. God IS the ruler, and we need to know that.
Second, in “Jesus Comes with Clouds Descending” (formerly “Lo, He Comes with
Clouds Descending”), #6, “Thou shalt reign, and thou alone” has been changed
to “Everlasting Christ, come down.” If the problem were merely a matter of
outdated language, it could have been changed to “You shall reign, and you
alone.” Evidently the revisers do not like the “hierarchical” and
“triumphalist” connotations of this phrase. But Christ _will_ be the one to
reign, and Christ _alone_ will be the one to reign. This is an important
point of orthodox Christian theology. To find it expunged from our hymnal is
In this same hymn, saints that originally “swell the triumph of his train”
now “join to sing the glad refrain.” Once again, in the 1990 hymnal, God is
not allowed to triumph. And this leads to another point. The revisers in the
1990 hymnal seem reluctant to allow God to be God, with power and majesty as
well as love and gentleness. In “O Worship the King, All Glorious Above!”,
#476, God’s “chariots of wrath” have become “chariots of heaven”, and though
we used to sing “dark is his path”, we now sing “bright is God’s path.” We
are no longer allowed to know that God can be an angry, fearsome God. But
sin and evil do anger God, and his power and majesty are fearsome indeed.
When we do not know this, we take God less seriously than we should.
Some wording changes in the 1990 hymnal also seem to transfer responsibility
from God to us, as though we were the ones to accomplish salvation and bring
about God’s reign. Take this example from “Come, Labor On”, #415. Formerly
it said, “By feeblest agents may our God fulfill his righteous will.” But
now it says, “Though feeble agents may we all fulfill God’s righteous will.”
This is a subtle but theologically important change. In the old wording, God
carries out his will through us. But in the new wording, it is not God, but
we, who carry out God’s will.
_The Reality of Sin and Problems in Life_
Other wording changes seem done to avoid acknowledging that sin exists, or
to minimize any references to problems that people must face. In “Take Up
Your Cross, the Savior Said”, #393, the third verse once boldly proclaimed
that “Thy Lord for thee the cross endured, To save thy soul from death and
hell.” But now instead it merely says that “The Lord for you accepted death
Upon a cross, on Calvary’s hill.” This is not a mere change of outdated
pronouns; further modification has evidently been done to avoid stating that
the Lord saves from death and hell. Without such knowledge, repentance is
This same hymn also has a change from “Nor let thy foolish pride rebel” to
“And let your foolish heart be still”. This fits well with some progressive
theology, which minimizes the importance of personal sin. But for orthodox
believers, this is a disconcerting change. People need to know about
sin–that people are prone to prideful rebellion–in order to know that they
Even other “negative” aspects of life, besides just sin, are avoided in the
1990 hymnal. In “Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above”, #483, where once we
sang “Thus all my toilsome way along,” now we sing “Thus all my gladsome way
along.” Evidently the revisers want to make life seem all sweetness and
light. But this is not a true picture of life. People do have struggles and
problems, and it is good to know that God can be there to help us in the
midst of them. It is true that God can give us joy in any circumstances, and
perhaps this was the message that the revisers wished to emphasize. But we
will often have a toilsome way in this life, and it is not necessary, and
not helpful, to pretend otherwise.
_Tendency to Universalism_
Finally, I found some evidence of a tendency to universalism–the belief
that all are saved, regardless of repentance or faith in Christ–in at least
one of the wording changes. The hymn “In Christ There Is No East or West”,
#439/440, originally said that “Who serves my Father as a son Is surely kin
to me.” But now it says that “All children of the living God Are surely kin
to me.” True, there is an avoidance of the masculine words _Father_ and
_son_, and that avoidance may have prompted the revision. But more than that
has been changed. We have lost the reference to serving God as God’s child
as a requirement for being part of the family of Christians. This may have
happened accidentally, but it shows once again that changes related to
gender inclusion can have other effects, and such changes need to be done
with great care. Perhaps the revisers didn’t notice because such a change
doesn’t seem important to them. But it is indeed important to believers in
Music has a mysterious power and a place in worship. Even in the earliest
days of the Old Testament, people sang as expressions of praise to God. And
it remains in our minds. We often find a snatch of some song repeating
itself over and over in our thoughts. So the words that we sing in church
are important. We want to be sure that the words that we repeat in our
minds, the words that visitors to our churches hear, the words that our
children learn, the words that we sing to God, express the truth about God.
Furthermore, the Presbyterian hymnal needs to represent more than one
theological point of view. It must not come from a progressive theological
point of view only. It must include an orthodox (conservative) theological
point of view. According to the Presbyterian Panel  , only 19% of
Presbyterians consider themselves progressive theologically, while 41%
consider themselves conservative theologically.
If you wish to make suggestions to the new hymnal committee about the
contents of the new hymnal, the committee can be contacted here:
Presbyterian Hymnal Committee
100 Witherspoon St.
Louisville, KY 40202
Let us pray for the hymnal committee as they go about their task of
providing a resource for our future worship.
 From this point on, all hymn numbers will be from the 1990 hymnal.
 This part of the hymn, about chariots of wrath and God’s dark path, may
actually even be inspired by Habakkuk 3, so it would even have Biblical