The Significance of New Testament Hymns to Christ

New Testament hymns to Christ celebrate what he did before Creation, his mission of incarnation and reconciliation, and his present exalted position as Lord of the universe. In so doing, they counter heretical ideas that were influencing some segments of the early church.

The Reason for Christological Hymns

The teasing question asks what purpose was served by these Christological hymns. The examples we may point to in Paul’s writing suggest that they were well known in the various churches, or why would Paul have taken them over, sometimes with slight—if important—adaptation? They were clearly fresh creations and not simply a reworking of ancient Jewish or messianic texts, though their imagery and idiom have identifiable echoes drawn from the biblical literature. They were also more extensive in length and scope than either the messianic psalms or the fragments of creedal statement that can be spotted very obviously in Paul’s pastoral discussions in such places as Romans 10:9–10, 1 Corinthians 12:3, and Colossians 2:6; these are all variations on the creedal “Jesus is Lord” motif.

Hymns As a Response to Gnostic Ideas

What was the “catalyst” for the creation of the more elaborate “hymns to Christ”? The delicate issue is to ascertain why this hymnic praise to Christ took the shape it evidently did, namely in celebration of what Christ was and did before Creation and in his mission of incarnation and reconciliation that led to a universal acknowledgment that he is now installed as Lord of all worlds and ruler of every agency, heavenly, human, and demonic.

The reason may be traced to a serious threat to the Pauline kērugma associated with a religious attitude known generically as gnōsis. As early as the situation in 1 Corinthians, a rival understanding of the Christian message arose, partly drawn from the prevailing Greco-Roman religious scene and partly as an attempt to turn the church into a Hellenistic conventicle. The fullest example is seen in the crisis that prompted the writing of Colossians and perhaps the Pastorals and Ephesians. Gnostic teachers offered a teaching that quickly challenged the apostolic message as Paul had delivered it and imposed their presence on the churches of the Pauline mission. The tenets of this “alternative gospel” are seen in features such as these: (1) a denial of the lordship of Christ as the sole intermediary between God and the world; (2) the insidious relaxing of the moral fiber, which led Christians to be indifferent to bodily lusts and sins; and (3) the uncertainty that underlay the meaning of life, since the star gods still held sway and needed to be placated. At this point, we uncover an important fact: the main specimens of New Testament hymns address the various situations in which the presence of Gnostic ideas has been suspected and form the polemical counterthrust to deviant teaching in the areas of doctrine and morals.

These threats form a network of ideas and practices that are built on a single notion, namely a dualism that separated God from the world. In Gnostic thought, God is pure spirit who, by definition, is both untouched by matter and has no direct dealings with the material order. The Creation of the universe was relegated to the work of an inferior deity, sometimes linked with the God of the Old Testament. The interstellar space between the high God and the world was thought to be populated with a system of emanations or aeons in a connected series and stretching from God to the point at which contact with matter, which was regarded as evil, was just possible. In the Colossian teaching that threatened the church in the Lycus valley, Christ was evidently given a role as one aeon in a hierarchy and treated as himself part of the network spun off from the emanating power of the high God.

The “fullness” (plēroma) of aeons that filled the region between heaven and earth was somehow thought to contain “elemental spirits,” which in turn the Colossians needed to venerate (Col. 2:8, 18). Nor was there any assurance that a person’s destiny was secure since the regimen of “decrees” (dogmata, Col. 2:20–21) imposed an ascetic way of life, which, being essentially negative, gave no certainty of salvation and inspired no confidence that these astral deities had been successfully overcome. Life’s mystery remained to haunt the devotee, and he or she was virtually imprisoned in a mesh of superstition, fear, and uncertainty with no way to break the iron grip of astrological control and cultic taboos. What was needed—as we learn from contemporary tributes of praise offered to deities in the mystery religions—was fellowship with a mighty god or goddess who would lift his or her adherents out of this imprisoning circle and give assurance of salvation and new life. Not surprisingly, the delivering deity was hailed as “lord” (kurios) and “savior” (sōter).

Paul’s use of the traditional hymns directed to Christ exactly met the need of his congregations. The ruling idea in such Christological tributes as survive is a portrayal of the odyssey of Christ. His course is surveyed from his life in the Father’s presence, where he functions as God’s alter ego or “image,” to include his descent and humiliation in obedience and on to his exaltation in heaven, where he receives the accolade of a title and a new dignity as ruler of all (cosmokratōr). The imagery is one of descent/ascent, which replaces the Judaic model of rejection/vindication current in earlier Christianity.

But the real point of distinction has more to do with an exploration of the cosmological role attributed to the person of Christ. There is a double way in which that adjective came to be applied. First, his preexistence and pretemporal activity in creation were made the frontispiece of the hymns. The existence of Christ is taken back to speak of a relationship with God he enjoyed “in the beginning.” Whether the raw materials of this idea derived from wisdom speculation or from the idea of a heavenly man or from an idealized picture of Adam cannot be ascertained; what matters is that as a direct response to the threatening charge that Christ was part of an angelic hierarchy and so linked more with the creation than the Creator, the early church in its outreach to Gentiles came quickly to trace back his being to the very life of God himself. This was done not in a developed way nor, at this stage, as a piece of theologizing, but by attributing to the cosmic Christ an active share in the glory of God (Phil. 2:6) and a role in the creating of the world (Col. 1:15; cf. John 1:1–3). His protological significance was seen as a necessary part of his true being since only if he existed with God and was God at the beginning (John 1:1) was he able to be linked with creation not as part of it but as its maker and ground plan. And only on the assumption of his preexistent relationship with God could these confessional texts meaningfully speak of Christ’s “being sent” (Rom. 8:3, 32; Gal. 4:4) or alternatively of his “choosing” to accept the humility of incarnation and obedience (2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:6–8).

Second, at the conclusion of his earthly life, he took his place in God’s presence by receiving universal homage and the acclamation of cosmic spirit powers that confessed his lordship and so were forced to abandon their title to control over human destiny. This eschatological dimension, heralding the dawn of a new age already glimpsed as a present reality—since “Jesus Christ is Lord”—would be important to assure believers that their lives were safe under the protection of the reigning Christ. The church that sang the text of Philippians 2:6–11 knew itself to be living in that new world where, all external appearances to the contrary, the astral powers were defeated and Christ, the sole ruler of all the worlds, was truly Lord. His lordship offered the living assurance they needed to face their contemporary world with its many “gods” and “lords” (1 Cor. 8:5–6) and to rebut the false ideas, both theological and practical, that their lives were the playthings of fate or chance or in the grip of an iron determinism. The enthronement of Jesus Christ “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11) gave confidence that God had brought victory out of defeat, installed his son as world ruler, and now wore the face of Jesus Christ, whose characteristic name for God was “Father” (note that the hymn of Philippians 2 ends with this word, as though to betoken a restoration of men and women in God’s family).


We have seen clear signs of Christian hymns that are in transition. The idioms and concepts the hymns use vary with a changing cultural scene so that Judaic messianic canticles no longer served the needs of Pauline churches in Hellenistic society; new forms needed to be created, while there was still a reluctance to cut ties with the past. The Aramaic maranatha persisted even in a Greek-speaking environment like Corinth. So, we may say, modern hymns should express a cultural sensitivity to modern needs, without rejecting the best of our heritage.

The use of hymns as weapons of warfare is seen already in the New Testament period. Paul exploits traditional hymns (if we are correct in seeing pre-Pauline examples in Phil. 2:6–11 and Col. 1:15–20), yet he suitably adapts the hymnic material to bring out emphases he felt were in danger of being neglected or denied. He can add phrases like “death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8) and “the church” (Col. 1:18) to underscore the atonement wrought at the Cross (against any idea of automatic cosmic reconciliation). Repeatedly in church history, the hymnbook has kept the people of God on course and faithful to their apostolic deposit of faith.

The genius of the Christian hymn on its New Testament side is the carmen Christi, the worship in song offered to the exalted Lord (Rev. 5:9–12). Admittedly there remains a tension the New Testament writers are apparently content to live with. They are too unflinching in their monotheism to accord any veneration to God’s creation, even where the angels are proposed as mediators (Col. 2:18). The finale of Philippians 2:6–11 ensures that the confession “Jesus Christ is Lord” is made “to the glory of God the Father.” The throne of Revelation 5:13 is occupied by both God and “the Lamb.” Yet as Christ’s saving achievement in bringing the world back to God implies that he has done what God alone can do, it was a natural step for a functional Christology to take on a Trinitarian formulation. And that implies, too, that the first Christians made in worship the decisive step of setting the exalted Christ on a par with God as the recipient of their praise. Hymnody and Christology thus merged in the worship of the one Lord. And, from the controversy to the modern Christology debate, the litmus test remains:

That the Maker should become man and should even go to death for the love of man—that astonishing thing evoked rapturous praise from believers.

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