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TLH Hymn 240 “Father Most Holy, Merciful, and Tender”


The doctrine of the Trinity has been called “The supreme mystery which theology is to proclaim.”1 The Bible clearly teaches that there is one and only one God, and that this one true God exists as three separate persons—yet each person individually is fully God, not one third of God. Martin Luther wrote and preached much on the subject, but always with the understanding that the nature of God is, ultimately, beyond human understanding. So, for example, he said with regard to this doctrine, “Here reason, corrupted by original sin, must be taken captive in the obedience of faith, nay, must be extinguished together with its light and wisdom.”

Unlike most of the seventeen hymns in the “Trinity” section of The Lutheran Hymnal, Hymn 240 does not use successive stanzas to sing the particular work of each person of the Trinity. Rather, it is more in the nature of an overall invocation to the Triune God, offering our adoration and praise. Only verse 1, in the form of a direct address to the one true God, mentions each person individually, saying “Father most holy, merciful, and tender;/ Jesus, our Savior, with the Father reigning;/ Spirit all kindly, Advocate, Defender,/ Light never waning.”

Christians have been singing this hymn (“O Pater Sancte”) for more than a thousand years. It dates from about A.D. 900. Think of that. When Martin Luther was preaching and teaching, this hymn was already six hundred years old! I like that. Certainly, good Christian music is being written and performed today. Our ILC Tour Choir includes some of that in their concerts. Good CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) can have a place in our worship services; it can present the truth of God’s Word as well as “the oldies.” However, there is also a disconcerting trend in some circles to make worship services mimic secular entertainment, apparently in the ill-considered belief that doing so will bring in more people.  Personally, in an age when so many of those churches known as “evangelical” seem to be huffing and puffing to keep up with the latest fads and trends in popular culture in the mistaken idea that hipster “song leaders,” drums, and amplified guitars will attract people who are “turned off” by traditional hymns, I find this thousand-year-old link to historic Christianity to be refreshing and soul satisfying. I delight in being part of such a long and unbroken succession of believers who express their biblical faith in reverent song.

This hymn was written during what is sometimes called the “Viking Age” (ca. A.D. 800-1050) throughout much of England and northern Europe. The language the Scandinavians carried with them throughout those areas is called Old Norse, and although “O Pater Sancte” was written in Latin, it nonetheless uses one of the literary devices of the Old Norse poetry from that age. Namely, it uses kennings.

A kenning is a figurative compound term used to express a single concrete noun, without saying the noun itself. For example, in the Viking epic poem Beowulf, blood is called “battle sweat,” the sea is a “whale road,” and death is “sleep of the sword.” So also in this hymn, the simple noun God is expressed with the figurative compounds (“kennings”) “Light of the angels,” “Life of the forsaken,” “Hope of all living,” (Verse 2) and “Highest and Greatest” (Verse 4).

Although this is a thousand-year-old hymn, the truth it expresses is both contemporary and eternal: There is one God, Who exists as three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and it is this God Who is the object of our worship. “To the all-ruling Triune God be glory!/ . . . We, too, would praise Thee,/ giving honor worthy/ Now and forever.” (Verse 4)

Now in this Trinity season and always, may we also sing our praise to the one true, Triune God.

Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.