Posted by: chuckbumgardner | December 16, 2008

Charles Wesley on the incarnation

Hark, how all the welkin* rings,
“Glory to the King of kings;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”

Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born to-day!”

Christ, by highest Heaven ador’d,
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!
Pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus! Our Immanuel here!

Hail, the heavenly Prince of Peace!
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.

Mild He lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

Now display thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
Stamp Thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner Man:
O! to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.

Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739).

_____

*”welkin” is an archaic word meaning “the sky” or “the vault of heaven.” The more familiar version, “Hark! the herald angels sing…” probably dates back to a 1760 revision by Martin Madan.

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Responses

  1. It is interesting to note elements of kenotic theology creeping into this and another great hymn of Wesley’s, namely “And can it be”.
    This hymn contains the line “Mild he lays his glory by”, whilst “And can it be” has the phrase “He left his Father’s throne above— so free, so infinite his grace— emptied himself of all but love”

    The key principle of kenosis is the idea that God gave up or laid aside some of his divine powers in order to become human. This, of course, goes against the traditional understanding of the incarnation, which is that Christ was FULLY God and FULLY human (see the usual Bible refs, eg John 1:1, 14, Col 1:19, 2:9, Rom 1:1-4 etc)

    However, I’m not sure that Charles Wesley really believed in Kenosis – surely his understanding of salvation would have been too evangelical for that. Going through his hymns with this in mind might make an interesting study though.

  2. Hello, Tim,

    I’m not sure we should read late 19th-century kenotic Christology into 18th-century Wesley, even into “And can it be.” Granted, I think that hymn is clearer if we adjust the wording. I’ve heard “emptied himself, and came in love.” But I strongly doubt that Wesley would buy into most of the “kenotic Christology” which flourished some time after he died. I admit that I do not know when kenotic ideas found their genesis, but as I understand, they flourished in the late 18th century in the writings of men such as P. T. Forsyth, Gottfried Thomasius, and H. R. Mackintosh. I suspect the whole “kenotic Christology” idea was too late to accuse Wesley of partaking in it.

    And in actuality, I don’t think the line in the present hymn “Mild he lays his glory by” is a problem whatsoever. As you say, kenotic Christology (and there were varying degrees of it) posited that Christ laid aside certain of his attributes, or (in some permutations of the idea) even his deity itself. But I do think Phil 2:5-11 supports the idea that Christ did lay aside his glory — the visible “form of God” that he chose not to clutch greedily. He took on the “form of a servant” instead, which involved setting aside his heavenly glory (cf. John 17:5).

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