Thursday, November 04, 2010

A Brief Look at John Newton's Amazing Grace

I have been interacting with some folks over at Dave Armstrong's blog where the question of whether it is appropriate for a Catholic to sing Amazing Grace, a Protestant hymn, is being discussed. It's Dave's opinion, and seems to be the consensus there, that the hymn is not anti-Catholic and is appropriate for Catholics to use in worship. However, there also exists the viewpoint that the hymn is of Protestant origin and therefore is to be dismissed outright as heretical and inappropriate for the Catholic.

I have broken down the lyrics below to try to determine if those Catholics opposed to the hymn have a valid argument. This is by no means an exhaustive argument one way or the other. I don't know what verses specifically influenced John Newton. I'm sure that can be researched in the various Newton biographies. The reader may, in fact, find many other verses from which Newton's lyrics could have been drawn, (and better ones), but I'd like to suggest a few. At the end I will draw a few conclusions.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

7 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Romans 7:24)

4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? (Luke 15:4)

24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:24-25)

17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (Revelation 3:17)

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

24 The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. (Deuteronomy 6:24)

16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16)

4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
We have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)

9 But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24)

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

--John Newton, Olney Hymns, 1779

The final stanza below is an anonymous addition to Newton's hymn.

(When we've been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we've first begun.

29 "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:29-30)


It's obvious that we shouldn't take this hymn as being theologically exhaustive. It's not a confession or creed. There is no specific mention of, for example, (except by certain implication) the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, preaching, baptism, the Lord's Supper, and any number of other doctrines with which Catholics and Protestants may contend regarding the faith. Nor does it discuss the nature and mechanism of justification, the critical dividing line for Catholics and Protestants. The hymn is a reflection of Newton's own personal experience, as is the case with most of his hymns. One Catholic commenter objected to the hymn on the grounds that grace is operative in the sinner from the time of baptism, and not merely at the point where one first believes in Christ. I would point out that what is in view here is Newton's perception of grace, his recognition of it as it came to him, not the actual application of it to him by God. He is not saying that grace only put in its first appearance when Newton believed. If he had, that would be contrary to biblical and Reformed teaching, as well as Catholic teaching.

I welcome any further thoughts on the hymn, which is, as I said, much less doctrinal and more oriented to personal experience. Please feel free to comment and add any Bible verses that you think may apply.


Dave Armstrong said...

Superb job. There is nothing here contrary to Catholic teaching, or objectionable (or unbiblical as you demonstrate). It is only the so-called "traditionalist" Catholics who tend to be anti-Protestant, that have any problem with it at all.

For some reason, those types want to come to my blog. I have no idea why. Fundamentalism is a plague in both our houses.

thisrestlesspilgrim said...

"we shouldn't take this hymn as being theologically exhaustive"

This, for me, is the the main mistake people make when they start objecting to certain songs and hymns. By all means, songs sung in a Church setting must express orthodoxy, but commentators need to remember that these are *songs*, not creeds or catechisms.

As such, songs very often cannot define their own terms or the theological nuances they are applying. They will often use hyperbole and will very often not give a "complete" theological picture. This is shown to be the case by simply examining some of the psalms of lamination.

Jerry said...

Great piece! Thank you for taking the time to do it. A great enjoyment to read the verses and see trhe connection to this glorious hymn.