Vol. 31 Num. 47
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”
First Published: December 3, 1998
This month our Hymn of the Month is the beautiful Christmas song: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” It is one of the oldest in our hymnal. The melody is plainsong chant from the 12th century and the text is a John Mason Neale translation of the Latin of Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (AD 348-413), a Spanish poet. The final stanza is a doxology added by Sir Henry Baker. The tune will be familiar to almost everyone, even if you’ve never sung the hymn, because the melody is almost ubiquitous at Christmastime.
A.S. Walpole, in his book Early Latin Hymns, says that Prudentius’ idea is that “at every hour of the day should a believer be mindful of Christ who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Prudentius therefore praises Him as the creator of all things, as the everlasting Son of the Father’s love begotten.” The first three stanzas of the hymn, thus, revel in the glory of who Christ is and what he has done. In the third and fourth stanzas a call is issued successively to the whole of creation, the angels, and every person on earth to praise the Lord forevermore. In the fifth stanza, we ourselves, the singers of the hymn, lift up our voices in doxology.
The first stanza proclaims that Christ is “Of the Father’s love begotten ere the worlds began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the Source, the Ending he, of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!” This is a bold theological assertion designed to directly contradict the Arian claims that “there was a time when the Word was not.” The Arian heresy asserted that Christ was merely the first creature, and the Arians boldly propagated their false teaching through song (Hilary, Ambrose, and Augustine had heard them singing their theological deviations in Asia Minor, Africa, and the East: so they wrote orthodox poetry and hymns to combat their influence!). Prudentius is here poetically expressing the creedal statements of the Council of Nicea (AD 325) regarding the deity of Christ. The stanza also reflects the language of John 1:14, Colossians 1:15-20, and Revelation 22:13. As we sing it, we should not only take comfort and revel in its truth, we should also send it up as our personal credo: an expression of our belief about the Lord Jesus Christ as over against the relativistic, pluralistic, liberal views of the age.
The second stanza acknowledges Christ as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin birth and affirms the truth of the Apostles’ Creed “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” Surely as we contemplate that miracle (so ably defended against the minds of modern skeptics, by J. Gresham Machen in his masterpiece, The Virgin Birth), we too ought to be moved to willing praise.
The third stanza continues the theme of Christ as the fulfiller of divinely given prophecy and calls out for the whole of creation to adore him because “now he shines, the long-expected.” This call to worship provides a natural segue into the fourth stanza, which is an expansion of the exhortation to worship Christ: “O ye heights of heaven, adore him; angel hosts, his praises sing; all dominions, bow before him and extol our God and King; let no tongue on earth be silent, ev’ry voice in concert ring, evermore and evermore!”
The fifth and final stanza in our hymnal was appended by Henry Baker and supplies suitable words of response for our hearts to the glory of our Savior. And what Christian can fail to be moved by great thoughts of his Lord. May God bless your hearts as you sing to him.