Saturday, May 28, 2011

Built on a Rock

Praise for the Lord #82

Words: Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, 1837; translated by Carl Doving, 1909
Music: KIRKEN, Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1840

Nikolai Grundtvig (1783-1872) is perhaps the most prominent Danish thinker next to Kierkegaard, and had a great impact on religious thought in that nation, as well as being a democratic reformer and promoter of public education. A child of the Romantic era in arts and literature, he accused the Lutheran state church of having become a rationalist abstraction, and argued instead for the historicity of the church as the revealed, miraculous body of Christ. Unable to maintain a pastorate because of his views, he was nonetheless made a bishop--without a diocese--and remained a prominent if controversial voice in his generation.

Grundtvig was also an important historian, and did some of the earliest scholarly work on the Norse eddas (the great repositories of pagan Scandinavian history and mythology), as well as an important translation of Beowulf that advanced the study of the Anglo-Saxon language. From his own poetry, however, he is best remembered as a hymn-writer. His Sang-vaerk til den danske kirke ("Vocal works for the Danish church"), a five-volume collection published between 1837 and 1881, is considered one of the greatest contributions to Scandinavian hymnody.(Britannica)

Grundtvig's desire to reconnect to the living church founded by Jesus Christ, and his faith that Christ's church is ever present if we will seek to enter it, inspires this beautiful hymn. Surprisingly, this hymn was not included in Elmer Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church (the starting point for Praise for the Lord), even though Jorgenson, the son of Danish immigrants to the United States, could hardly have been unaware of Grundtvig. The translator of this text, Carl Døving (1867-1937), was a Norwegian immigrant to the U.S. who pastored Lutheran churches in New York and Chicago. He is best known, however, as a translator of Scandinavian hymns.("Døving")

Stanza 1:
Built on a rock the church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
Bells still are chiming and calling;
Calling the young and old to rest,
Calling the souls of men distressed,
Longing for life everlasting.

The pathos of Grundtvig's description is peculiarly modern; this is not only an oppression of the church from without, but also by the far more deadly enemy of apathy. Grundtvig had rebelled against the 18th-century Englightenment's tendency toward a dry rationalism that removed God from daily life; but he lived to see that when the 19th century turned away from rationalism, it was not turning in the direction of God. The distant, depersonalized "God" of rationalism was replaced with an imminent but even more depersonalized "God" experienced through nature, mysticism, even paganism, and always on the terms of subjective experience. The decline Grundtvig saw continued, of course, into the secularism and postmodernism of the 20th century. Having turned this way and that looking for an answer (that is, an answer other than the God of the Bible), much of the "Christian West" has now stopped looking at all.

But as Grundtvig points out, the church as it really is--the kingdom that "is not of this world"(John 18:36)--is alive and well, because it is built on a Rock. Many hymnals give the title of this hymn as "Built on the Rock," though we need no such specificity; "For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ."(1 Corinthians 3:11)

The quality of a building's foundation does not guarantee its future longevity, but it certainly can guarantee its failure! The famed "leaning tower" of Pisa is perhaps the most renowned engineering failure of this sort. Likewise, any church built on merely human wisdom is bound to be as flawed as its originators. But God had in mind a church. Paul told the Ephesians,
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that He has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Ephesians 3:8-11)
The church is part of a "mystery hidden for ages," through which "the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known." The church is part of the "eternal purpose" of God; it was not an accident or an afterthought.

The foundation of that church is eternal, because the foundation is Christ Himself: "Behold, I am laying in Zion a Stone of stumbling, and a Rock of offense; and whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame."(Romans 9:33, cf. Isaiah 8:14) Christ's church exists because of this fact, as famously stated in Matthew chapter 16:
[Jesus] said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it."(Matthew 16:15-18)
The true church rests first on the fact of Christ's divinity, and then on obedience to His authority and His teachings: "Everyone then who hears these words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock."(Matthew 7:24) The true church of Jesus Christ acknowledges the authoritative word of God, and is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone."(Ephesians 2:20)

Scripture shows us that the building up of a local congregation of Christ's church must follow these principles as well. In 1 Corinthians chapter 3, Paul discusses the process by which the congregation in Corinth was planted: "According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it."(v.10) Did Paul lay another foundation in addition to what Jesus said in Matthew 16? No, for in the very next verse he asserts, "For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ." Paul was the first, however, to preach the gospel of Christ in that city. And as he indicates in verse 10, others built up the church in Corinth on that same foundation.

Paul warns at the end of verse 10, however, "Let each one take care how he builds upon it." It is possible for a church (in the local, temporal sense) to start on the right foundation and later go wrong. Some in modern times have even pulled the foundation out from under themselves, denying the basic doctrine of Christ's divine work. "But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: 'The Lord knows those who are His.'"(2 Timothy 2:19) Just as a church can go wrong, it can also get back right; wherever followers of Christ clear away the flawed construction, and start over again from the correct foundation, they may build up Christ's church in that place.

Jesus said at the end of the famous passage in Matthew 16, "And the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." Death and hell could not prevail against its founding, because Jesus rose from the grave having completed His work of redemption. Death and hell could not prevail against it when its enemies sought to wipe out the infant church in its cradle at Jerusalem; in fact, God turned the church's greatest persecutor, Saul, into its greatest evangelist, Paul.(Acts chapters 8-9, cf. chapters 22, 26) Death and hell will never prevent its revival; though it seems to disappear in one place or time, it will appear again in another. And death and hell can never touch those millions of saints in the church triumphant, waiting in paradise for the final gathering in of their brothers and sisters still on this earth, and those still to come.

Stanza 2:
Not in our temples made with hands
God, the Almighty, is dwelling;
High in the heavens His temple stands,
All earthly temples excelling;
Yet He who dwells in heaven above
Deigns to abide with us in love,
Making our bodies His temple.

Grundtvig takes another tack from his opening lines about "crumbling spires;" the loss of a physical edifice does not matter, because the church was never about the building. As a young man Grundtvig likely witnessed the destruction of Copenhagen's medieval Church of Our Lady, during a British naval bombardment in the Napoleonic Wars; this might in fact be the source of his imagery.(Wikipedia) But the greater part of his controversial message concerned what he saw as the crumbling edifice of the state church, a work of human hands that was equally subject to decay and eventual death. By contrast Grundtvig points to the fact that "Christ is the Head of the church, His body, and is Himself its Savior."(Ephesians 5:23) It is a kingdom "not of this world,"(John 18:36) both in physical location and also in its source of authority. It is built by Christ Himself and guided by His Spirit, and is not meant to be governed by the traditions or philosophies of His subjects.

Solomon understood, at the dedication of his great temple, that God does not need our advice in building His house: "But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built!"(2 Chronicles 6:18) Likewise, one of the great lessons for us from the excruciatingly detailed and repetitive descriptions of the construction of the earlier tabernacle, which take up much of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, is that God's house was to be built God's way; He didn't ask for the advice and improvements of the Israelites.

Paul echoed this fact in his sermon in Athens:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.(Acts 17:24-25)
If this was the case for physical temples, why would it be any more true of a church today "made by man?" But God appointed His Son "as Head over all things to the church."(Ephesians 1:22) It is His church we must strive to be, not consisting in buildings, traditions, councils, conferences, or any other work of human origin, but instead being "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord."(Ephesians 2:20-21)

Paul goes on to say that, "In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."(Ephesians 2:22) The beautiful truth of God's indwelling Spirit in His church and in the lives of Christians is introduced in the final line of the second stanza, and is the subject of the third:

Stanza 3:
We are God's house of living stones,
Built for His own habitation;
He fills our hearts, His humble thrones,
Granting us life and salvation;
Were two or three to seek His face,
He in their midst would show His grace,
Blessings upon them bestowing.

Grundtvig is no doubt referring to 1 Peter 2:5, "You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." Paul develops this idea further, in two corollary passages in his first letter to the Corinthians, bringing home the practical importance of this teaching:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.(3:16-17)

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, Whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.(6:19-20)
The English Standard Version notes that in the first passage, the Greek pronoun rendered "you" is distinctly plural ("y'all" in Southern U.S. English). This passage follows Paul's discussion already mentioned, in which he speaks of Christ as the only foundation of the church (v.11), and warns of the necessity to build carefully (v.10). It is enough that we are told to obey; but now we see the great reason behind the warning--we in the church are the dwelling place of the Spirit of God.

Consider the holiness with which the Hebrew temple was regarded. What would have been the fate of the Israelite who dared to deface the temple, or even to speak ill of it? And yet, how often do Christians speak ill of the church, "despising the church of God,"(1 Corinthians 11:22) and act in ways that are divisive and destructive to the faith of others? "Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her,"(Ephesians 5:25) and will we dare disrespect His bride? "So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church."(1 Corinthians 14:12)

Consider as well, that there were times in the history of the Hebrew temple when it fell into disrepair, or even worse, into misuse. King Hezekiah came to the throne at the end of a period of neglect, and on his orders the Levites "consecrated themselves and went in as the king had commanded, by the words of the Lord, to cleanse the house of the Lord."(2 Chronicles 29:15) The young king Josiah had to undo the idolatry of his father Amon, who had perverted the worship of the temple; in 2 Kings 23 we read of his determined efforts to take everything out of the temple that did not belong there.

Jesus followed the same practice when He drove the merchants out of the temple who had set up shop there, fulfilling the prophecy, "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up."(John 2:17, cf. Ps. 69:9) Is His living body, the church, any less holy than the physical temple of the Hebrews? If we seek to be a part of His church, is it not likewise proper to follow His example, and the examples of two of the best kings of Judah, in clearing out anything that does not belong there "by the words of the Lord?"(2 Chronicles 29:15)

But though Paul calls the church as a whole a temple of God, in the second great passage on this subject, Ephesians 6, he informs us that we are also temples of the Holy Spirit individually. Just as the conduct of the church should be holy and fitting for His indwelling, so our individual lives should be fit for His presence. Just as Hezekiah and Josiah cleaned out anything unwholesome or idolatrous from the temple in Jerusalem, just as Jesus drove out the moneychangers who perverted the temple from its holy purpose, so we should clean out sin from our lives, confessing it and repenting of it, being determined to keep the body and mind a pure and holy dwelling place for our Creator's presence.

Stanza 4:
Yet in this house, an earthly frame,
Jesus the children is blessing;
Hither we come to praise His Name,
Faith in our Savior confessing;
Jesus to us His Spirit sent,
Making with us His covenant,
Granting His children the kingdom.

In his classic satire The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis gives this imagined advice from a senior devil to a junior devil on the practical matter of winning back a soul who has been lost to the "Enemy" and begun attending church:
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. . . .

Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like 'the body of Christ' and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really containes. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy's side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.
It is hard for us to see, Sunday by Sunday, that what we are striving to be is really something of eternal importance, both to ourselves and to others. Perhaps if we in the United States had to meet in secret, if we had to walk for miles to attend a worship service, if we lived in such an utterly secular society that our faith was a constant source of ridicule and ostracism--and there are brothers and sisters in many parts of the world in just such situations--we might realize the actual beauty and worth of the church.

If we are in Christ, we are in His body; so if we are in Christ, we are in His church. We can no more be "in Christ" without being in "the church, which is His body" than I could say that I have a finger that is mine, but is not and has never been connected to my body. And what wonderful blessings are found "in Christ!" This is the thought of this final stanza--that God "blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing,"(Ephesians 1:3) an extravagance of blessings that includes:

  • Redemption (Rom. 3:24)
  • Grace (1 Cor. 1:4)
  • Forgiveness (Eph. 4:32)
  • Reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19)
  • Salvation (2 Timothy 2:10)

  • New creation (2 Cor. 5:17)
  • Freedom (Rom. 8:2)
  • Sanctification (1 Cor. 1:2)
  • Victory (2 Cor. 2:14)
  • Eternal glory (1 Pet. 5:14)

And these are just some of what Scripture promises we will receive. Paul assured the church in Philippi, "My God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus."(Philippians 4:19) But these promises are to those who are in Christ, and thus in His body, the church.

Grundtvig mentions here the chief avenue through which these blessings continue to flow to Christ's church, that is, through the Spirit of God that dwells within this "living temple."(1 Corinthians 3:16) Paul expanded on this theme in the second half of his letter to the church in Ephesus:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call--one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.(Ephesians 4:1-6)
The Spirit lives within the church, and is the guarantor of the new covenant, "by Whom you were sealed for the day of redemption."(Ephesians 4:30) "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit."(1 Corinthians 12:13) It was God's will thus to bring together all His new creation into one kingdom under His Son, as this hymn notes in its closing line. "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."(Colossians 1:13) "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe."(Hebrews 12:28)

About the music:

Ludvig M. Lindeman (1812-1887) was the most prominent member of a veritable dynasty of Norwegian musicians. His father, Ole Lindeman (1769-1857), was organist for the Church of Our Lady in Trondheim, and edited the first major collection of Norwegian chorales. Two of Ludvig's brothers were also church organists. Ludvig's son, Peter (1850-1930), co-founded the Christiania Conservatory with his father, and later directed the Oslo Conservatory. His grandson, Trygve (1896-1979), directed the Oslo Conservatory until 1969.

Ludvig was also primarily an organist, and participated in the 1871 dedication of the new organ at the Royal Albert Hall. But though most of his music career was spent in church music, he had an avid interest in the folk music of his country. As Bartok would later do in Hungary, and Grainger in England, Lindeman tramped through the hills and valleys of Norway collecting the music of the people. Though he displayed the unfortunate 19th-century characteristic of "correcting" and "improving" the results, no doubt much of this might otherwise have been lost as the folk traditions began to disappear in the 20th century.(Grinde)

This particular tune was written for the 1840 Christ­elige Psalm­er published by Wexel in Oslo.("Built") The melody is not minor, but actually Dorian mode, a close cousin. (If you play a scale on the piano starting on D, but play only white notes, that's Dorian. It's a common scale in European-based folk styles, from the Tudor-era "Greensleeves" right down to the theme from Gilligan's Island.) Technically the Dorian scale on D differs from the natural minor scale on D in that it has a B-natural instead of a B-flat; but in actual practice, the "melodic minor" form of the minor scale would often raise the B-flat and C pitches when going up to the tonic, and the Dorian scale often uses a C-sharp to make a strong cadence.

The biggest "Dorian" feature of this melody is in the second phrase, when the melody runs A, B-natural, C, A, F, G, E, D. In D minor this would have been a B-flat, and it strikes the ear a little funny at first. The melody actually never uses B-flat at all, but the other appearances of the B-natural are more woven into the harmonic progressions, and just seem like logical necessities of writing harmony in a minor key. Other examples of Dorian mode in Praise for the Lord include the American folk hymn, "What Wondrous Love is This," and the Lutheran chorale, "Jesus, Priceless Treasure." Lindeman really does a commendable job of harmonizing this modal tune in a very singable fashion.


"Grundtvig, N.F.S." Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., 32 v. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002, v.5, p.523.

"Carl Døving." Cyberhymnal.

"Church of Our Lady (Copenhagen)." Wikipedia.

Grinde, Nils. "Lindeman." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 20 v. New York: MacMillan, 1980, v.11, pp.1-2.

"Built on the Rock." Cyberhymnal.

No comments:

Post a Comment