Venite Adoremus: The Creedal Hymnody of Christmastide
I realize that there is a spectrum of opinion and conviction amongst the readership of Ref21. There are those in the Reformed orbit who are entirely opposed to singing hymns in corporate worship, to say nothing of any sort of acknowledgment of anything even vaguely approximating the liturgical calendar! Those convictions are certainly respected and respectable, but (fair warning) for adherents of such a position, the following article will probably serve only as an irritant.
However, for those within the Reformed communion who do not hold to the aforementioned convictions, I suspect many of you might be like me: I serve in a Reformed Christian tradition where large segments of our denomination do not observe a church calendar or liturgical year. A few congregations do, a few more have a quasi-Advent observance during the month of December. But really for the majority of congregations, it’s simply the weekly cycle of Lord’s Day Morning worship and Lord’s Day Evening worship each and every Sunday.
There are a whole host of reasons for this reality and the aim here is not to debate the merits or detractions of a liturgical calendar, but simply to point out that (in American Protestantism at least) regardless of how high-church or low-church an individual congregation may be, almost every congregation I know of gives some sort of head-nod to the two predominant “festival” days of the year: Easter and Christmas.
We can argue another day about whether this should be. There is a venerable tradition of its custom, particularly coming out of the Continental Reformed Tradition. But I digress.
No, the point of this article (assuming the reality of Christmas and the hymns that accompany it) is to give some attention to the theologically rich and particularly creedal congregational singing that comes ‘round at Christmastime.
In addition to the Christmas hymns and carols being among the most lovely, sing-able, and familiar, they are also among the most richly doctrinal. I know of no other time of the year where so many Evangelical and Protestant congregations (from all sections of the worship-style spectrum) are singing and meditating on such explicitly creedal confessions of the church and Scripture with such frequency and regularity.
Perhaps it is lamentable that this is a phenomenon that does not happen more often. But the national worship scene being what it is, it is worth celebrating the fact that such singing is happening and that our Christian worship as is the more blessed and enriched because of it.
If you will indulge me a few examples and comparisons, I think you will see why such creedal hymnody encourages me and moves me to consider that the state of Christian worship in this nation may not yet be totally forgone and forsaken.
Consider the first line of the Nicene Creed (or the Niceano-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 AD):
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man….
Now consider stanza 2 of Charles Wesley’s famous “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”:
Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!;
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin’s womb;
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity….
Or stanza 2 of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (perhaps the most explicit example):
God of God, Light of Light Eternal,
Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created;
And later in stanza 4:
Jesus to thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing
Or stanza 2 of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (though not a Christmas carol—as it comes from the fourth/fifth-century Liturgy of St. James and is sung in conjunction with the Holy Eucharist—this hymn is found in many Protestant hymnals filed under the “Lord’s Supper” category as well as the “Incarnation” category, due to its language and obvious reference to the glorious truths and mysteries of the Incarnation):
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood,
Or stanzas 2 and 3 of “Of The Father’s Love Begotten,” a text with 4th century-chant origins:
O that birth forever blessed, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!
This is He Whom heav’n-taught singers sang of old with one accord;
Whom the Scriptures of the prophets promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore!
Or stanza 1 of Luther’s “All Praise to Thee, Eternal Lord”:
All praise to thee, eternal Lord, clothed in a garb of flesh and blood;
choosing a manger for thy throne, while worlds on worlds are thine alone
Do you see the obvious borrowing and linguistic allusions these hymns take from the creed? I am sure there a great many more examples that have escaped my notice. I encourage you to be on the lookout for such language as you worship and sing this season.
Though oft-maligned in modernity as irrelevant, these doctrinal confessions are the stuff that split empires and spilt the blood of martyrs. There’s even a delightful old legend that tells of Saint Nicholas (yes, the Saint Nicholas) at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, having grown positively infuriated after listening to Arius deny that Jesus was divine and equal to God the Father but was merely the highest creature, strode across the room and slapped Arius in the face! This account is most likely apocryphal, but even embellished legends and myth have their rightful places.
“Very God of Very God”—language that can cause imperial turmoil, the death of faithful disciples, and even provoke Santa Claus to slap the face of old Egyptian heretic!
The fact that you and I sing the words “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’ Incarnate Deity” is, historically speaking, quite extraordinary and might never have come to be (save for God’s providential superintendence). To think that these words pass through our Spotify stations ad nauseum without the least bit of appreciation might make Athanasius roll over in his grave.
And, let’s be honest, the injection of such rich biblical, confessional language into our worship will only serve to benefit the American church as well as instill a sense of connection and identity with the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” to which we profess to belong.
Reformed folk love a good deal. Well, here’s one for maximal liturgical-theological efficiency: singing (which we must joyously do anyway!) which gladdens the heart, fortifies the mind, sings sweetly in the ear, and causes the soul to soar. Truly, these Incarnation carols are among the greatest liturgical “bangs for your buck.”
I submit to you the creedal hymnody of Christmastide: doxological theology at its finest.
Sean Morris serves as Associate Minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA and as the Academic Dean of the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education. He is currently pursuing a PhD in historical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"Preaching during the Christmas Season" by Sean Lucas
"A Tale of Two Advents" by Harry Reeder
"Therefore My Heart Is Glad" by Kevin White
The Theology of Christmas, with James Boice, Donald Barnhouse, Philip Ryken, and Richard Phillips
40 Favorite Hymns for the Christian Year by Leland Ryken
 Do with this information what you will. Much of it was born out of compromise and as a result of tensions between ecclesiastical leaders and various civil magistrates. As historians, we must acknowledge the historical reality and subsequent traditions that followed:
Synod of Dordt Church Order: “Article 67 – The Churches shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, with the following day, and whereas in most of the cities and provinces of the Netherlands the day of Circumcision and of Ascension of Christ are also observed, Ministers in every place where this is not yet done shall take steps with the Government to have them conform to the others.”
Second Helvetic Confession: “The Festivals of Christ and the Saints. Moreover, if in Christian Liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly.”