Augustine Gives Us A Clue As To The Meaning Of “Hymns” In The Ancient Church

Meanwhile, a certain Hilary, a Catholic layman of tribunitial rank, incited to anger, for some reason or other, against the ministers of God, as often happens, in abusive, censorious language, wherever it was possible, was violently attacking the custom which, at the time, had been introduced in Carthage, of singing hymns from the Book of Psalms either before the oblation or when what had been offered was being distributed to the people; he insisted that this should not be done. At the urging of my brethren, I answered him; the book is called Against Hilary.

Augustine of Hippo | The Retractations, (ch. 37), ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, trans. Mary Inez Bogan, vol. 60, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1968), 140 (italics added).


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4 comments

  1. Augustine’s Commentary on Psalm 40 (39 LXX) has this explanation on the new song of that passage that uses all three terms psalms, hymns, and songs:

    “And He has put a new song in my mouth. What new song is this? Even a hymn unto our God Psalm 39:3. Perhaps you used to sing hymns to strange gods; old hymns, because they were uttered by the old man, not by the new man; let the new man be formed, and let him sing a new song; being himself made new, let him love those new things by which he is himself made new. For what is more Ancient than God, who is before all things, and is without end and without beginning? He becomes new to you, when you return to Him; because it was by departing from Him, that you had become old; and had said, I have waxed old because of all mine enemies. We therefore utter a hymn unto our God; and the hymn itself sets us free. For I will call upon the Lord to praise Him, and I will be safe from all mine enemies. For a hymn is a song of praise. Call on God to praise Him, not to find fault with Him….

    If haply any one asks, what person is speaking in this Psalm? I would say briefly, It is Christ.”

    • Joel,

      Can you clarify your comment? I’m asking because 1) I’m not sure what you’re saying; 2) Augustine was aware that Psalms, Hymns, and [Spiritual ] Songs were 3 of the 4 types of songs in the Psalter/Psalms in the Septuagint.

      • I think Augustine is using psalm, hymn, and song synonymously in that passage, which I think bolsters what was said in the original post.
        The psalm speaks of a new song, which Augustine calls a hymn. He thinks that the new song is the Psalm that he’s commenting on, an ancient Psalm, like our Ancient God, yet new to us because of our new man.

        It hadn’t occurred to me that it could be read another way until after I had posted.

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