The Epistle to the Ephesians enjoins the use of "psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs." Some of these hymns are to be found in the New Testament itself, imbedded in its text. From a very early date, perhaps from the beginning, Christians employed in their services the psalms found in the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. Since the first Christians were predominantly Greek-speaking, these psalms were in a Greek translation. We hear of at least one form of service in which, after the reading from the Old Testament, the "hymns of David" were sung. This was done as a solo, presumably as a chant. At the end of each verse the congregation would join, taking up the final words in a short refrain. Later the responses might be by a choir. In Rome the custom arose of singing a psalm from the ambo, or gradus, and hence this psalm was called the gradualis, or the gradual. Another psalm was called the tractus, or tract. Some distinctly Christian hymns were early written in Greek, but in prose form, conforming to the pattern of the psalms as put into Greek. At least as early as the fourth century it became customary to follow the psalm with the Gloria — in one of its forms translated into the familiar "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen."
In Gnostic circles religious poetry arose to compete with the Old Testament Psalms. Some Catholics therefore distrusted the composition of hymns after this pattern, on the ground that they might smack of heresy. Yet from at least the second century hymns were written by the orthodox which, like their Gnostic counterparts, employed the forms of Greek poetry. Clement of Alexandria concluded one of his works with a hymn to Christ in Greek classical metre. Until near the end of the fourth century, in the services of the Catholic Church only the Old Testament Psalms and the hymns or canticles from the New Testament were sung: the other hymns were for personal, family, or private use. Gradually there were prepared versical paraphrases of the Psalms, hymns with lines of equal length, and hymns which were acrostics.
In Constantinople in the days when John Chrysostom was its bishop, the Arians are said to have congregated in the city squares and around the gates, or to have paraded through the streets at night, going to their meetings outside the walls, chanting antipho-nally songs which denounced the Catholic views. To counter their efforts, John encouraged some of the Catholics to chant their own hymns in nocturnal processions. As a result violent conflicts between the two factions arose, and several on both sides were killed.
Just when the custom of antiphonal singing arose is not clear. One church historian of the fifth century ascribes it to Antioch not far from the beginning of the second century. Another church historian, also of the fifth century, declares that it began in An-tioch in the fourth century, when two of the laity divided the choirs into two parts to sing the psalms of David antiphonally, and that from Antioch the custom spread in all directions. It is from the antiphon that the word "anthem" is derived.
Great writers of hymns began to emerge as early as the second century. Thus Bar-daisan (Bardesanes), suspected of heresy late in that century, had a collection of one hundred and fifty hymns in Syriac. In the fourth century, Ephraim, clearly orthodox, a powerful preacher, wrote many hymns in Syriac for liturgical purposes, some of which are said still to be in use. Also in the fourth century, Hilary of Poitiers, in Gaul, during a sojourn in Asia Minor was so inspired by the Greek hymns which he heard there in the churches that on his return to Gaul he began writing hymns in Latin, some of them acrostics, and others in the rhythm of the marching songs of the Roman legionaries. It was in this century that one of the most widely used hymns of the Church, the Te Deum, seems to have been composed. The authorship and date have been disputed, but the majority opinion appears to credit Niceta, a bishop in Dacia (north of the Danube), with the authorship. Niceta is said to have employed hymns in the winning of the pagan barbarians in his diocese. Quite undisputed is the fact that Ambrose, the great Bishop of Milan, composed hymns which he taught his flock to sing. His most famous convert, Augustine, has recorded how deeply moved he was by them. They proved extremely popular and for many centuries were the inspiration of other Latin hymns, written, as were they, in eight stanzas. A Spanish contemporary of Ambrose, Prudentius, developed what seems to have been a new type of hymn, having more warmth and glow than those of Ambrose, but for personal and domestic use and not for liturgical purposes. The so-called Athanasian Creed, beginning with the words quicumque vult, has by some been classified with hymns. Its precise date, author, and place of origin have not been indisputably determined, but it appears to have originated in the West, perhaps in Gaul, and possibly as early as the fifth or the beginning of the sixth century. Like the Te Deum it put into verbal form what were held as central convictions and was widely employed in public worship. Late in the fifth century the Nestorian Narsai (Narses) wrote many hymns, some of them for use in church services. Roughly contemporary with him was Romanus, a pioneer in Byzantine hymnody, whose compositions were to come into extensive use in Constantinople in the sixth century.
Numbers of these Christian hymns, like the Te Deum, were what might be termed with accuracy but still in misleading fashion, theological. They put into verbal expression either for congregational worship or for the individual, the central and distinctive convictions of the Christian faith. They were, accordingly, a witness to the effect of Christ on the human spirit. As the worship of the Christian communities centred around the Eucha rist, with its commemoration of the sacrificial death of Christ, so the hymns of the Christians of the first five centuries concerned themselves chiefly with Christ and with what God was believed to have done through him.
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