Calvin music professor edits new hymnal

Classical hymns listed in chronological order


Spring 2010

They knew that “Amazing Grace” would make the cut and that “How Great Thou Art” was a sure thing. The committee that chose the 250 hymns for Hymns for Worship considered these songs “classical hymns,” said Calvin music professor Bert Polman.

“[The new hymnal includes] hymn texts from olden time to modern times,” elaborated Polman, a member of the committee and the co-editor of Hymns for Worship.

The category of “classical hymns” also includes songs such as “In Christ Alone,” at seven years old, one of the younger inclusions in the new collection. “‘In Christ Alone’ is a fabulous piece,” Polman said. “It has gotten popular in the last five years for very good reasons.”

Besides its breadth—everything from psalms and canticles to contemporary worship songs—what makes the new hymnal distinctive is that its songs are listed chronologically. “The order of the book follows the early Christian church, the medieval church, the Protestant tradition, the rise of Methodism, the Oxford movement, the Great Awakening, the rise of the black church in the United States and so on,” Polman said.

This musical walk through church history is intentional, he explained, because Hymns for Worship was designed to serve as more than a hymnal. The collection is also a textbook for courses in hymnology, church history—even systematic theology. “In systematics, you’re dealing with doctrines, and hymns tend to be a lay person’s theology text,” said Polman of the latter-named usage. “What we believe, we tend to sing.”

While a layperson typically knows something of doctrines and creeds, Polman said, she or he also knows a lot of hymns. And hymns articulate the range of the Christian believer’s experience: “We sing doxology. We sing prayers of petition. We sing baptism and burial songs. We sing songs about faith and sometimes about doubt,” he said.

Hymns for Worship is among a trio of hymnals co-produced in the last couple of  years by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Faith Alive Christian Resources. (The first was Contemporary Songs for Worship, and the third, Global Songs for Worship, will appear later this year.) The three smaller hymnals are meant to stand on their own as worship resources and also to serve as trial runs for a new hymnal to be co-produced by the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America. “Hopefully, people will get their hands on them, use them and give feedback,” Polman said.

A hymnologist by trade, Polman has edited several hymnals in his career. “There are very few of us in the world,” he said. “To be a specialist about hymns is rare.” He is also an author/composer who has contributed to several hymn collections. His name adorns number 256, the final song in Hymns for Worship: “God We Sing Your Glorious Praises.” Two years ago, that song was chosen as the banner hymn of the 150th anniversary of the Christian Reformed Church.