Hymns are a theological repository of the church. Through hymns we make a catechism for the generations. As time goes on, hymns come to contain the doctrines most well known and most closely cherished by the people of God. By setting the truth of God to music, the church of God is united not only in orthodoxy of belief, but in worship.
This is nothing new. Although our Hymns of Grace is the most recent collection of such hymns, the church has been summarizing biblical doctrine through song and passing it on from the very beginning.
One such hymn, possibly the earliest extant example of this wise habit in the church outside of Scripture, is known as Phos Hilaron, or in English, “Hail, Gladdening Light.” It’s unclear how old this hymn exactly is, since our earliest references to it in the 4th century refer to its antiquity, but we do know that it was relatively widespread throughout the early church in its first few centuries.
What stands out about this short hymn, only six lines in length, is how doctrinally rich it is. In the liturgy of the ancient church, it was sung at the time when lamps were lit at evening, and one full line is devoted to this chronological fact. The other five are brimming with biblical truth. It begins with two lines stating the excellency of the Father and the fact that Jesus is the blessed light of the Father. It concludes with two lines about how Jesus is worthy to be praised because he is the one who gives life.
Most notably, in the central couplet of the hymn, we find the line, “We hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- God.“ Here we have a hymn, called ancient when cited in the 4th century, that helped Christians all around the Mediterranean articulate the doctrine of the Trinity. We praise God – singular – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Because of this, the theologian Basil the Great was able to allude to this hymn in his work defending that the divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit were both biblical and the perpetual understanding of the church. This serves as a model for what we hope our hymns today can be as well – orthodox in belief, warm in affection, and held closely by the church when the winds of doctrine blow.
A translation of the text of the hymn is:
O Gracious Light of the holy glory of the immortal Father,
Of the heavenly Holy One, O blessed Jesus Christ,
As we come at the sun’s setting, seeing the evening light,
We sing to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: God.
It is proper that you be praised at every time with right voices,
Son of God, Giver of life; because of this the world glorifies you.