There is no part of the general field of Christian hymnology so baffling to the student or so full of difficulties as the one under consideration in this paper. Many accounts of the subject are in existence but are far from conclusive. This is due, first of all, to the unexpected scarcity of original sources. When one views the rise of Christianity from its inception to the period of the Council of Nicaea, 325, its numerical growth from a handful of original adherents to millions of followers at the time of the Edict of Milan, 313, its literary development from early scattered records to the works of the great Greek and Latin fathers, one cannot help inquiring, |What has become of their hymns?|
Another puzzling aspect of the study is the complex historical background against which the progress of Christianity appears. The peace and constructive progress of the Augustan era, in which Christianity was founded, have often been cited as factors contributing to its evolution and spread. But this is not the whole story. The civilization of that day, especially in the eastern Mediterranean lands most concerned, was largely Hellenistic, of mingled Greek and oriental features which were necessarily wrought into the fabric of the new religion. An understanding of pre-Augustan conditions, in which these diverse historical and literary trends were merged, is essential, for without it the subject is unintelligible.
A further problem which confronts the student is that of interpretation. It is well known that any general treatment of early Christianity is apt to conform to the point of view of the author. The study of hymnology, like that of other features of the early Church, is apt to be affected by the opinion of the commentator.
It is no wonder that the field has been neglected and that the accounts of it are vague, incomplete and unsatisfactory. In fact, the task of re-examining the mass of extant records of early Christianity and other relevant material, which might illuminate the subject of hymnology, seems never to have been undertaken with this purpose in view. It is, actually, too vast a project for the casual student and certainly has not been attempted here. Our best accounts of early Christian hymnody are often subordinated to a general history of Christian hymns. This is the case with the article, entitled, Hymnes, by H. Leclercq, in the Dictionnaire D' Archeologie Chretienne et de Liturgie, probably the best short account in any language, containing a section on the hymnology of the first three centuries. Charles Stanley Phillips drew generously from this source for the first chapter of Hymnody, Past and Present, which is written from the liturgical standpoint. Independent studies are rare. Among them, Die Hymnendichtung des fruehen Christentums by Josef Kroll, a distinguished classical philologist, deserves a much wider circulation and should be translated for the benefit of English readers.
In view of the dearth of available material in English, it has seemed timely to approach the whole subject from a new standpoint. In this study, the extant hymnic sources will be presented objectively. Groups of hymns will be used to illustrate the types current in the period. In connection with them, the related historical and literary influences will be noted.
Let us abandon at once our contemporary connotation of the word hymn which is derived ultimately from the hymns of Ambrose, 340-397, that is, a metrical lyric constructed in stanzas. In the pre-Ambrosian period Christian hymns were largely of the psalm type, to be chanted in rhythmic periods without rhyme. Not only should the word hymn be conceived in terms of ancient thought, but also the futile attempt to differentiate among psalms, hymns and canticles should be avoided. Specialists in liturgical matters testify to the confusion existing among ancient writers in the use of these words and to the uncertainty of definition which results. It is better not to multiply difficulties but to hold fast to the actual texts which we know were used in Christian worship.