As someone who likes hymns, singing, and the Bible, discussion of hymn fragments in the New Testament is a made-to-order attraction. Many scholars believe what have become known as the Benedictus, the Nunc dimittis, the Magnificat, and the Gloria in excelsis are examples of hymns in the New Testament. It seems an increasing number of scholars view quotes in Paul’s epistles as fragments of earlier Christian hymns – perhaps excerpts of what he himself had written. J. B. Lightfoot favored this view, and modern professors such as Reggie M. Kidd of Westminster Theological Seminary believe that fragments scattered through the New Testament represent hymns written by the apostle and sung by the early churches.
Texts identified as hymns or hymn fragments
The entry Hymn in the Holman Bible Dictionary identifies the following New Testament hymns and fragments: "Luke 1:46-55, Mary's song—“The Magnificat”; Luke 1:68-79, Zacharias' prophetic song—“The Benedictus”; and Luke 2:29-32, Simeon's blessing of the infant Jesus and farewell—“The Nunc Dimittis.” Numerous doxologies (Luke 2:14; 1 Timothy 1:17; 1 Timothy 6:15-16; Revelation 4:8, for example) doubtless were used in corporate worship. Other passages in the New Testament give evidence of being quotations of hymns or fragments of hymns (Romans 8:31-39; 1 Corinthians 13:1; Ephesians 1:3-14; Ephesians 5:14; Philippians 2:5-11; 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:11-13; Titus 3:4-7)." In addition to those names in Holman, the following texts are often identified as fragments of hymns and/or doxologies: Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 1:15-20; 1 Timothy 6:15-16; Revelation 4:11, 5:9b-10, 12-13; 11:17-18; 15:3-4; 19:6-8. From the six pericopes in Lawrence DiPaolo, Jr's Hymn Fragments Embedded in the New Testament: Hellenistic Jewish and Greco-Roman Parallels we can also add John 1:1–18, 1 Corinthians 8:6, and Hebrews 1:3–4 to the growing list.
Going beyond simply identifying hymn fragments, Leading This Generation in Worship (Spring 2011) editor Ken E. Read divides them into two categories: "Christ-hymns, which exalt Jesus" (e.g. Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:3-4), and "one-another-hymns, in which the church is encouraged in its belief or action" (e.g. Romans 11:33-36; Ephesians 5:14; 2 Timothy 2:11-13).
Criteria for identifying hymn fragments
Modern scholarship has developed various criteria for identifying hymn fragments. For example, here is a summary of seven criteria of Christian D. von Dehsen*:
* The passage contains vocabulary which is different from that of the surrounding context
* The passage is written in poetic form, that is, it exhibits rhythmical patterns and careful structure
* The content of the passage interrupts the context
* The name of the deity is absent and is replaced by a relative clause or a participle
* Words are used in the passage which are found nowhere else in the New Testament
* The cosmic role of God or Christ is emphasized
* Theological concepts and Christological doctrine are expressed in exalted and liturgical language
Similarly, the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (edited by Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard, p. 397) suggests six criteria used in identifying New Testament fragments of hymns:
* Use of introductory formulas
* Use of a relative pronoun at the beginning (e.g. Phil. 2:6; 1 Tim. 3:16)
* Descriptive participles
* Use of conjunctions introducing indirect discourse or causal clauses
* Vocabulary differing from the context
DiPaolo believes “we are encountering one [i.e. a hymn, rlv] when we encounter a break in the prose narrative in which the author digresses from his argument...to expound upon the characteristics of Christ or recount some aspect of Christ’s life.” (p. 22)
Hymn fragments subjective and controversial
While some have thought that "biblical scholars generally agree that certain passages of scripture were early Christian hymns," this is far from accurate. The divining of hymn fragments out of the prose text of the New Testament is a subjective venture and a controversial topic.
After noting four "canticles of the New Testament" that "appear within the Gospel narratives," Ruth Ellis Messenger states: "In the remaining portions of the New Testament other hymn fragments are found. Some of these are direct quotations from known sources."** Despite her enthusiasm for the subject, Messenger cautions, "It is interesting to re-read the New Testament in the search for hymns, but one should remember that the field is controversial."
In Chapter 2 of his book, Exclusive Psalmody, A Biblical Defense Brian Schwertley points out "A study of the literature which speaks of these so-called hymnic fragments reveals that the methodology for determining what is and is not a hymn fragment is totally subjective and unreliable." The polemical context of Schwertley's writing must be noticed, but his point should not be dismissed. No hymns are identified as such by the biblical writers. While we may see them in our studies, we must be careful not to have a motive for finding them there. Let us not fall prey to a "when you're a hammer everything looks like a nail" debility.
NT hymn fragments and exclusive psalmody
In addition to New Testament interpretation and understanding, hymn fragments supply an element of controversy in the exclusive psalmody versus inclusive hymnody debate. According to Wikipedia, Exclusive Psalmody "is the practice of singing only the biblical Psalms in congregational singing as worship." In Exclusive or Inclusive? (Part 1), Michael R. Kearney identifies "three general categories of beliefs" on biblical worship in song:
1. The 150 divinely inspired biblical psalms are the only acceptable songs for worship. [Exclusive Psalmody, rlv]It is not uncommon to find the presence of New Testament hymn fragments developed as an argument against exclusive psalmody and in favor of inclusive hymnody. While the presence of hymns in the New Testament, if proven, can strike a blow at exclusive psalmody this in itself does not provide an argument FOR inclusive hymnody. The New Testament by nature is inspired and hymns written after the close of the canon by nature are not. What New Testament hymns and hymn fragments considered alone would prove is Kearney's No. 2, permissive psalmody which embraces Old Testament psalms and New Testament hymns and scripture songs.
2. Only biblical songs may be sung in church, but selections outside the psalms, such as the songs of Zacharias, Simeon, and Mary, may be used. [Permissive Psalmody, rlv]
3. The use of biblical psalms and songs is encouraged, but non-inspired hymns are also appropriate for worship. [Inclusive Hymnody, rlv]
Schwertley writes, "A common method for arguing against exclusive Psalmody is to appeal to the existence of hymnic fragments within the New Testament. The existence of these hymnic fragments, we are told, teaches us that the apostolic church was engaged in hymn writing, and thus we also ought to compose our own hymns. The problem with this argument is that it is not based on solid scriptural evidence, but is basically the speculation of modernistic theologians and commentators." Further, he says, "Those who find justification for the singing of uninspired songs… from the “hymn fragment” argument, are letting their presuppositions and emotional attachment to uninspired hymns influence their exegesis." Though Schwertley is too dogmatic, his point is well-taken. Much of the writing about New Testament hymn fragments is speculative and is not a solid foundation on which to build a theology of inclusive hymnody.
I read the New Testament and find passages that feel like “poetry”. I think some hymns may be there. But I remain unconvinced of positive or irrefutable proof for the existence of hymn fragments in the New Testament. A biblical argument can be developed for inclusive hymnody on other grounds (which is beyond the scope of this piece). Exclusive psalmody is antithetical to the fact of New Testament revelation and the inspiration of the Scriptures. If we can only sing the Psalms, we cannot sing John 3:16 or Acts 1:8 or Galatians 2:20 or Romans 8:28-39*** – all of which are the divinely inspired inerrant word of God given His churches! We can read it but not sing it? That makes no sense to me.
There may be some hymn fragments in the New Testament. Their existence cannot be conclusively proven in cases where the writer does not identify them as hymns.
References and further reading
A Symphony of New Testament Hymns, by Robert J. Karris
"Homologies and Hymns in the New Testament: Form, Content and Criteria for Identification," W. Hulitt Gloer, Perspectives in Religious Studies 11 (1984) 115-32
Hymn Fragments Embedded in the New Testament: Hellenistic Jewish and Greco-Roman Parallels, by Lawrence DiPaolo, Jr.
Hymn Singing in the New Testament, part two: So Which Scriptures are Fragments Of Worship Songs? by Bobby Gilles
Philippians 2:5-11: Hymn or Exalted Pauline Prose?, by Gordon Fee
Sing a New Song, Chapter 5: The Psalms and Their Tuning Fork, by Michael Kearney and James Oord
Some Reflections on New Testament Hymns, by Ralph P. Martin
* Christian D. von Dehsen, “Hymnic Forms in the New Testament,” Reformed Liturgy & Music, 18, No. 1 (Winter, 1984), p. 8
** Apparently meaning the Old Testament; See Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries Ruth Ellis Messenger, New York: Hymn Society of America, 1942
*** For example, in our church we sing the words of scripture of Galatians 2:20. Examples of this, though with different tunes than we use, can be found on YouTube: Galatians 2:20 (Crucified with Christ) and Galatians 2:20 and Colossians 3:1-3. There is also Sing the KJV! Verbatim Full-Chapter Scripture Songs.