Hermeneutics of Hymnody: A Compre Hensive and Integrated Approach to Understanding Hymns

By Karim, Armin | Notes, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Hermeneutics of Hymnody: A Compre Hensive and Integrated Approach to Understanding Hymns


Karim, Armin, Notes


Hermeneutics of Hymnody: A Comprehensive and Integrated Approach to Understanding Hymns. By Scotty Wayne Gray. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2015. [xx, 411 p. ISBN 9781573127677. $28.] Music examples, bibliography, indexes.

Born out of a lifetime of teaching, Scotty Gray's Hermeneutics of Hymnody is a widereaching introduction to hymnology. Instead of focusing on a single aspect of hymns, such as tune or historical background, Gray's monograph steadfastly maintains a wide scope, even while treating an encyclopedic range of topics in turn. The book is organized into seven chapters, each treating one general approach to hymn study: "The Bible," "Theology," "Liturgy," "Poetry," "Music," "History, Biography, and Socioculture," and "Practice." These core chapters are framed by an introduction and conclusion that argue for "a comprehensive and integrated hermeneutics of hymnody" (p. 12). Within each chapter this emphasis is reiterated and applied in analytical sketches of hymns that focus on the topic at hand-for instance, "Theology"-but bring in the other six approaches as well. Each chapter concludes with an extended analysis taking the same tack.

Gray's intended audience is primarily "scholars, teachers, and serious students," and also "hymn writers," "hymnal editors," "worship leaders, ministers, and the singers of hymns" (p. 3). His style is reminiscent of a college lecture, both methodical and discursive and at times repetitious. His tone also seems to stem from a teaching setting: thoughtful, didactic, discriminating, pastoral, and scholarly. The advantage of this style and tone is a personable exchange of information and wisdom, while the disadvantage is an idiosyncratic and potentially tiring read in order to mine the riches of his insight.

The usefulness of the book rests primarily on the presentation of the broad scope of material that might be touched on in a hymnology course. While the preponderance of excursus and the extended nature of the work (411 pages) render it less than ideal as a hymnology textbook, "there is no other volume that does for the study of hymns what this one does" (p. ii). These are the words of David Music, Professor of Church Music at Baylor University, in the prefatory accolades. Music is also the reviser of the introductory hymnology text by William Jensen Reynolds on the history of hymnody, A Survey of Christian Hymnody, originally published in 1963 and now in its 5th edition (William J. Reynolds, David W. Music, and Milburn Price, A Survey of Christian Hymnody, 5th ed. [Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing, 2010]). Although there is historical depth in Hermeneutics of Hymnody, it was not Gray's purpose to include a historical survey of hymnody-a summary of the history of hymnody is sketched in five pages (pp. 289-93)-and thus the Reynolds volume could serve as a good companion text for classroom or personal study.

In the preface and introductory chapter, Gray gives some of his reasons for writing the book. One reason is his "increasing disappointment in the neglect of the facets of hymnody in churches" (p. xvi). His book thus takes on something of the characteristic of an apologetic, occasionally throwing a disparaging glance at contemporary Christian worship songs and hymns with "poor biblical bases, shallow theology, trite poetry, and unimaginative music" (p. xviii), but more often emphasizing the merit of "fine hymns" (e.g., p. 69), "finer hymnals" (p. 71), "fine expression" (p. 174), "sensitive, skillful writers" (p. 178), "sensitive composers," (p. 178), and "sensitive singing" (p. 245). Relatedly, his book champions the education of "those responsible for congregational singing" in a "comprehensive and integrated hermeneutics" of hymnody (p. 335) so that they can thereby champion the education of their congregations of "maturing disciples" (p. 17) in and through hymns.

Due to the related facts that (1) the field of hymnology has been dominated by historical and biographical approaches (p. …

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