Radio Series: Hymns of the Faith: Hymns of the Faith: I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art

by Bill Wymond, Derek Thomas, J. Ligon Duncan on June 15, 2008

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Hymns of the Faith

“I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art”

A Presentation
of First Presbyterian Church

Jackson,
Mississippi

With

Dr. Ligon Duncan, Dr. Derek Thomas, and Dr. Bill
Wymond

Dr. Wymond: Good morning! This is “Hymns of the
Faith,” brought to you by Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church. The minister of
the First Presbyterian Church is Dr. Ligon Duncan. Stay tuned for “Hymns of the
Faith”… and now here with “Hymns of the Faith” is Dr. Ligon Duncan.

Dr. Duncan: Thank you, Bill Wymond! This is Ligon
Duncan, along with Derek Thomas, with you today for “Hymns of the Faith.” We
have been loving our study of some of the great hymns of the Christian church
over the last almost two thousand years. Today we come to what is actually for
the English language a relatively modern hymn, but it is one of my favorite
modern hymns. It was only translated into English probably at the end of the
nineteenth century by a very famous Scottish Presbyterian minister and it was
published in a fairly well-known (for that period of time) magazine, as often
seems to have happened in English and Scottish hymnody. We’ve run into a number
of hymns, including All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, that originated in
the gospel magazine at the end of the 1700’s, written by Edward Perronet.

But this hymn that we’re studying today is I
Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art and it seems, Derek, to come out
of either Geneva or Strasbourg. Because of that, some hymnologists have
attributed it to John Calvin, while others have attributed it to a man named
Jean Garnier, who was the pastor of the French-speaking congregation in
Strasbourg for a period of time.

It might be helpful, Derek, if you would orient us
a little bit as to what’s happening in Geneva and Strasbourg in that period,
because those were two very fruitful cities with regard to the whole of
Protestantism in the English-speaking world, as well as the French and
German-speaking worlds. At the time of the Reformation, Geneva was an
independent city and Strasbourg had been declared a free city, thus both became
centers of refuge for Protestants fleeing religious persecution.

Dr. Thomas: Yes, in 1545, Calvin would be back in
Geneva, having spent two and a half years in Strasbourg, from 1538 to
1540-something…round about 1540. So that two-year period he was exiled from
Geneva in Strasbourg. The Reformation came to Geneva probably around 1530-31 or
so, Calvin arriving in 1536. Strasbourg may well have begun the Reformation a
little earlier than Geneva, and was more advanced, I think, along Reformed lines
than Geneva, and was more willing to accept Calvin in 1538, when he was banished
from Geneva…until he went back to Geneva again.

It’s interesting…this hymn,Je te Salue, mon
Certain Redempteur
, in French, appears in The Strasbourg Psalter
in 1545, and then Calvin of course introduces another psalter, The Genevan
Psalter
, beginning round about that time — a work that would occupy the next
fifteen or twenty years, translating and versifying all of the Psalms into meter
and providing tunes for them (which I’m sure Bill Wymond will want to say
something about).

I’ve been fascinated that the great collection of
all of Calvin’s writings (at least in the nineteenth century, all of Calvin’s
writings…other writings have come to light since then), the Corpus
Reformatorum
, edited by Edward Reuss and others, actually included this
hymn, although the editor was skeptical — I think it was under the section “The
Minor Works of Calvin” there. I would like to think it’s Calvin. You made a
comment earlier, that you were not surprised that Philip Schaff, the
Swiss-German church historian during the 1800s, is very positive about
attributing it to Calvin, not for any external reasons but for internal style.
And there’s something to say about that. I mean, there are a lot of Calvin-type
sentiments and it’s Calvin-esque in its piety.

Dr. Duncan: We were talking off-air, and I’m sure
Bill Wymond has often read the journal called The Hymn. There are
actually a number of important journals that were produced, especially in the
twentieth century, that dealt with hymnody — and Bill, you may want to mention
some of those in the course of your conversation with us today. But one that’s
of a more popular sort, almost magazine-like in its layout, is simply called
The Hymn
, and occasionally you can find some interesting researches in that.
I remember my mother sending to me a copy of an article in that magazine, in
which the researcher had done some work on this particular hymn, I Greet
Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art
, and had shown that it bore in its original
language (and I’m assuming that it was written in French originally, not Latin
and then into French, like some of Calvin’s stuff was) — but that it bore in its
French some resemblance to a medieval hymn of devotion to Mary, but that the
focus on devotion to Mary had been of course removed, and the hymn totally
focused on devotion to Christ, and that would be a very Calvinian thing to do,
to take an example of medieval piety focused on Mary and focus it squarely on
the person of Christ.

Dr. Thomas: Robbing Peter to pay…John…in this
case, instead of Paul! [Laughter] Yes, I think that’s quite a likely
story. I suspect that the attribution to Calvin has also gained emphasis by the
“exclusive Psalm vs. inclusive Psalm” debate, and it’s useful to say that Calvin
wrote a hymn that was included and sung in Geneva when it sort of deals with a
…. Geneva-exclusive Psalm.

Dr. Duncan: Well, let me raise that, because
you’ve obviously thought about that a lot, and you mention the inclusion of this
in The Genevan Psalter. Do we know whether the inclusion of non-Psalms in
the psalter meant that they were using them for public worship, or were they
being used for private devotion? Or was it a little bit of both? Do we know?

Dr. Thomas: I suspect…I’ve just come back from
exclusive-Psalm-singing Dutchmen in Canada this past weekend, and at the
beginning of the service, before the Call to Worship, we sang a hymn — a
well-known hymn. But only before the Call to Worship. Once the Call to Worship,
it was all Psalms. And I suspect that maybe something like that took place. I
mean, certainly with both the Genevan liturgy and Strasbourg liturgy they sang
things other than the Psalms. They sang The Lord’s Prayer, for example, and
Nunc Dimittis
was there for a while, and the Ten Commandments, and the …
“Lift Up Your Hearts…” Circum Corda.

Dr. Duncan: Yes. Let me ask Bill to talk to us a
little bit, and even to play this tune…because off-air, Bill, you were
speculating that this tune may actually be a shortening or a corruption of
another tune. I love this tune; I also love the other tune that this one may be
based on, and I’ll bet that this hymn, in both its tune and text, is less
familiar to our listening audience than a lot of them that we’ve been studying,
so it would be good for them to hear the tune and then to hear you tell them a
little bit about the tune.

Dr. Wymond: So here is the original tune for this
song, and then I’ll talk about the related tune. [Dr. Wymond plays.]

Dr. Duncan: Now that tune is called
TOULON in our hymnal, and apparently comes out of The
Genevan Psalter
from 1551, but it’s related to another tune.

Dr. Wymond: It’s related to what’s called the
OLD 124th, which
is really the same tune that just has a little bit more in the center of the
tune because the 124th Psalm had longer verses and so they needed
more meter to cover that… and that little middle section goes like this…[plays
one phrase
]. That’s all it is. That’s just stuck into the middle of the
tune. And of course, if I were really doing this right, I would sing it. I
wouldn’t be playing it if I were in the Genevan mode! But also, I would not be
playing this in harmony. This appeared in harmony later in a hymnal that was
published by Claude Goudimel in Paris. It was published somewhere around 1572 or
something like that.

The interesting thing about this tune the way we
just did it is that the melody is on the top, and heretofore, until Goudimel
published it like this, the melody was in the tenor line, as it was in most of
the hymns that were published at that time. He started this practice of putting
the melody in the soprano — at the top. So I thought that was just sort of
interesting when he did it. Otherwise, in Geneva it would have been sung
unaccompanied and melody only
. So I think that this tune is simply the 124th
with just that little middle section added to it.

Dr. Duncan: The 124th, with the
addition of that section in it, has…I think there’s a real strength to it in the
middle of the 124th that gives it sort of a martial feel, and you’re
sort of steeling yourself for battle. You take that out and put it in this
song…this has a much…it has a more devotional, reflective sort of feel with that
middle line taken out. It’s interesting how just one line taken out of a tune
can have a dramatic effect on the feel of it. But this one is much more
reflective, relaxed, and devotional; whereas the 24th, you could see
a roomful of a thousand men sort of singing it to get fired up to do something
brave.

Dr. Wymond: I think this tune is peaceful
rhythmically
, and some of the tunes that appear in The Genevan Psalter
are very strong and a bit jerky because they have unusual rhythms to them. Some
critics call them “Genevan jigs”–I think partly that reflected on the speed at
which they were done, which was probably relatively fast, and also the fact that
they had these rhythms that sort of made them uneven and a bit jerky-sounding.

Dr. Duncan: And of course, Queen Elizabeth I of
England is often credited with that jab against the Genevan music as being
“Genevan jigs,” and if you listen to the English church music of that time,
certainly the kind of English church music that Elizabeth liked personally, you
think of…you get these long, elongated, almost “plainsong-y” kinds of melodies:
so… “Hear my prayer, O Lord…” [sings]–very long. And so to come along and
get something sort of jerky and fast-paced, I can see how she would have come up
with the dig that it was a Genevan jig, although I don’t think it strikes us
that way when we hear it today.

Dr. Wymond: That’s right. If this tune were done in
that manner, it might have sounded like this… [plays]. That’s the way
that many of them go.

Dr. Thomas: Oh, I’d like to hear more of that!

Dr. Duncan: I’d just say it’s not unlike what we
know of some of the rhythms of the German pieces. Even A Mighty Fortress
had a little bit more jerky, angular sort of rhythmic feel.

Dr. Wymond: That’s right, and that’s because
they were rooted in dance forms
, and maybe the “jig” came because….A
Mighty Fortress
goes, I think… [plays].

Dr. Duncan:
It would have been very different from what Elizabeth and her courtiers would
have been used to in English church music, which would have had a lot of
influence still from the chant music of the Roman Catholic church,
and which
they preferred (I guess as more contemplative and mystical and such), and this
was designed for congregational singing and to encourage vigorous congregational
singing.

Dr. Wymond: I
have to say, though, I sort
of have been bemused thinking about the parishioners there in Calvin’s church in
Geneva, because they had not been singing until Calvin came. Can you just
imagine what it would be like to introduce a whole new hymnal of tunes that
nobody
knew, because they were all original, and to try to get those people
who had never sung to sing?

Dr. Thomas:
You’ve done some research here. Is there any evidence of how they went about
teaching them to sing those tunes?

Dr. Wymond:
Well, what I have read says that Calvin took the children of the congregation
and taught them these tunes, so that when he introduced them to the congregation
the children could lead the parents
.

Dr. Duncan:
Oh, I know that something not unlike that still happens in the Free Church
today, especially when children are taken out … the youngest children taken
out…at a certain point in the service, the people will actually sing Psalms with
them to teach them the tunes so that when they come back in they’re able to
sing. So that’s very interesting that that tack would have been taken.

Dr. Wymond:
It’s just a reverse of that…let the children lead the parents. And I think
probably that it took a while to get the people really involved in the singing.

The tune is called, by the way, THE
OLD TWENTY-FOURTH, that we
were talking about. There are various tunes that we find in our tune reference
in the back of hymnals, and they’re called “The Old” because it means they came
from The Genevan Psalter.

Dr. Thomas:
It’s a tune that is extremely well known, of course, in Scottish and Irish
Presbyterianism. We would have sung that OLD 124TH probably once a
month in Belfast. As a closing Psalm…it’s a little bit like A Mighty Fortress
Is Our God
…the words of Psalm 124 and Psalm 46 are similar, facing battle
and conquest. And we’d have sung it to a quarter of the speed, I’d say, in a
very solemn, grave, military sort of fashion.

Dr. Wymond:
Well, I do have to tell you that in spite of the fact that these tunes here and
then the German chorale tunes sometimes had very vigorous sounding rhythms,
Burney, who was an eighteenth century music critic traveling all over Germany,
wrote that when he went to Bach’s church (this was after Bach was gone) that the
people sang the chorales so slowly that he could go from that church to a church
about two blocks away and come back, and they would still be singing the
chorale! So their tempos are not always fast!

Dr. Duncan:
That’s fascinating! You know, this hymn, as both you and Derek have pointed out,
since it was in that Psalter, may well have been utilized by Huguenots for many
years, but as far as I know it comes into English-speaking hymnody through the
translation of the text by Douglas Bannerman, who Derek will know as a very
famous Scottish Presbyterian theologian, the son of James Bannerman, …D.D.
Bannerman, for some of you who know his writings…who wrote a very important book
on the doctrine of the church, the Scripture doctrine of the church. And he
translated this for a journal that was produced in Scotland edited by Robert
Rainey, who was a very famous end of the nineteenth century, early twentieth
century Scottish figure — somewhat controversial figure, in fact — and the
journal was called The Catholic Presbyterian — the idea of catholic
being sort of a broad-spirited Presbyterian, a Presbyterian who wasn’t just
going to be narrowly sectarian, but was going to have a broad spirit of
catholicity and cooperation with other Protestants and such, and this journal
called The Catholic Presbyterian featured this translation. I’m
guessing…well, our particular hymnal has this listed as a translation by
Elizabeth L. Smith, from 1868. And frankly, I haven’t compared it with the
Bannerman translation. I’d like to go back and look at that.

But the words of this hymn, Derek,
are just excellent, and very, very personal and passionate in their expression
of devotion to Jesus Christ.

Dr. Thomas:
Well, I’ve always been struck by the opening words: “I greet Thee….” It’s
not something that you’d readily think of as the opening of a hymn, that
Christ is coming towards you and you are greeting Him.
It’s a beautiful way,
when you think about it, that at the beginning of a worship service you are
greeting the coming of Christ into your midst
. It’s not irreverent, but it’s
extremely intimate and personal. I love the closing line: “Our hope is in no
other save in Thee; Our hope is built upon Thy promise free.” I think that’s a
beautiful expression.

Dr. Duncan:
Derek, I think you point out one of the things about this hymn that I like the
most, and that is it stays in the second person throughout. So many of our
hymns, and appropriately so, because the Psalms do, are in the third person.
We’re singing about God: we’re singing about Him, though we are singing
to Him. This one gives a direct address to the Lord Jesus Christ, and I suspect,
again, if the song is modeled on a song that had been directed towards Mary out
of medieval piety, that “I greet Thee” actually comes from the angel’s address
to Mary, “I greet thee,” in the Gospels.

Dr. Thomas:
I would love to know, given the extraordinary lines (and referring to Matthew
10, I suppose), “Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness; No harshness hast
Thou, and no bitterness.” I can imagine that attributed to Mary in medieval
Catholicism as the gentle woman, but attributing it here to Christ…

Dr. Duncan: And can you imagine how
powerful that would have been to sixteenth century Genevans, who had been told
(and their ancestors) for hundreds of years that Christ was this foreboding,
inapproachable figure
, but if you could get His mother
on your side, you know, you could approach Him through her? And now all of these
things being attributed to Christ, and the beauty of Christ, and the tenderness
of Christ, and the receptivity of our overtures to Christ by Christ…all of these
things being emphasized in the text. It must have been an overpowering
experience for people to sing this for the first time.

Dr. Thomas:
You know, it’s often said that Jesus rarely draws attention to Himself,
or at least His own personality, except when He says, “I am meek and gentle
in heart.”
I always find that very moving, that “Thou hast the true and
perfect gentleness; no harshness hast Thou, and no bitterness.”

Dr. Duncan:
The third line, Derek, I think could send you into the stratosphere meditating
upon Calvin and the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, but it’s a powerful line:

“Thou art the Life, by which
alone we live,

And all our substance and our
strength receive;

O comfort us in death’s
approaching hour,

Stronghearted then to face it by
Thy power.”

And I don’t know the original French there, but in the
first part of that when, you know, you hear echoes of Calvin’s language about
receiving the life of Christ as we feed on Him by faith, and receiving His
substance as we feed on Him by faith…all sorts of stuff swirls around that in
the history of early Calvinism. I’m sure that’s another reason why Schaff is
positive in his attribution of this text to Calvin.

But the whole song encourages the believer. It gives
warrant to the faith of the believer in Christ. Take the second stanza:

“Thou art the King of mercy and
of grace,

Reigning omnipotent in every
place:

So come, O King, and our whole
being sway;

Shine on us with the light of Thy
pure day.”

Thinking of Christ as the King of mercy and of grace
just…as you say, as an opening hymn it’s inviting you to entrust yourself to Him
as Savior. It’s giving you reasons why you ought to entrust yourself to Him as
Savior. I just love the text. Every time I sing it, I think there’s a different
aspect that sort of grips me, and my attention is drawn to that particular
aspect.

Dr. Wymond: I was just going to say — didn’t want
to interrupt your flow of thought here, but I’ve often thought about the fact
that Calvin went to Strasbourg probably very sad and depressed, having been
invited to leave Geneva for that short period of time, and yet that was such a
formative time for him. He not only found a form of worship that he liked,
Bucer’s, and copied it pretty much for Geneva, but he found this hymn as well
and brought it back, and it was included in The Genevan Psalter, the
second one that he published.

So it’s time now for us to listen
to this. I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art.

“I greet thee, who my sure
Redeemer art,

My only trust and Savior of my
heart,

Who pain didst undergo for my
poor sake;

I pray thee from our hearts all
cares to take.

“Thou art the King of mercy and
of grace,

Reigning omnipotent in every
place:

So come, O King, and our whole
being sway;

Shine on us with the light of
Thy pure day.

“Thou art the Life, by which
alone we live,

And all our substance and our
strength receive;

O comfort us in death’s
approaching hour,

Stronghearted then to face it by
Thy power.

“Thou hast the true and perfect
gentleness,

No harshness hast Thou and no
bitterness:

Make us to taste the sweet grace
found in Thee

And ever stay in Thy sweet
unity.

“Our hope is in no other save in
Thee;

Our faith is built upon Thy
promise free;

O grant to us such stronger hope
and sure

That we can boldly conquer and
endure.”

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