The Church's One Foundation
“The Church’s One Foundation” Standing squarely within the English Victorian tradition of churchly song, this hymn bears all the hallmarks one would expect from that cultural milieu—a tune which is solid rhythmically but lilting melodically and a text which juxtaposes good and evil, right and wrong, black and white against one another.
Samuel Stone (1839-1900) published this hymn in Lyra Fidelium, a collection of twelve hymns, each devoted to one statement in the Apostles’ Creed, this being associated with number nine, “I believe. . . in the Holy Christian Church.” Its scriptural precedent is Ephesians 4: 4-6, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Samuel Stone had been distressed by some of the heresies that had plagued the Anglican Church in the late 19th century, particularly from a certain South African theologian, John Colenso, who had questioned the historicity of the Old Testament. Stone’s hymn is meant as an affirmation of the Church Universal, likewise a longing for a Church unified in doctrine and practice, “. . . built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2: 20)
The previous hymnal, Lutheran Worship, grievously omitted stanza three with its wrenching, vivid imagery: “Though with a scornful wonder the world sees her oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, Yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, ‘How long?’ And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.” The previous Commission on Worship excluded this stanza because, in their view, the referred-to phrase of the Apostles’ Creed refers to the Church Universal, “. . . to which belong only those true believers who, by the working of the Holy Spirit, have been brought to faith in Jesus Christ and His vicarious atonement. Hence omitted here. . . “By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.’” Obviously, heretics and schismatics are not members of Christ’s Church, although they may appear in the guise of “sons within her pale.” Yet, “The Church’s One Foundation” is not the creed and, like a sermon or tract, is able to usurp liberties in order to exegete and proclaim what this Church Universal truly is.
Christ has not yet returned, and we still live under the hope of the resurrection and Christ’s return. This has been promised us, but the promise will only be fulfilled on the Last Day. We certainly must be aware of the tribulations experienced by denominations and church bodies now. The Anglicans are close to a split, with the faithful wishing to disassociate themselves from the current heresies. The fundamentalists, it seems, seem to produce preachers who have a penchant for embroiling themselves in personal failures and spectacular lapses of judgment. And the Roman Catholic priesthood has managed to tarnish its image whereby priests are often amongst the least trusted members of society. Let us not even mention the mega-church “evangelicals” who have forsaken the preaching of law and gospel in order to proclaim a falsely-joyful version of works righteousness, a theology of glory, which extols our work for God and reduces His gift to us to secondary status next to the glamour and glitz of their Sunday morning productions. Indeed, these problems, depressing as they are to ponder, are not new. The Church has been through them before and, whilst we certainly do not wish to urge complacency, we must keep in mind that God guides His church in spite of the best efforts of some Christians, our Old Testament lesson this morning evidencing this fact when God says, “’Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’. . . I will set up shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.” (Jer. 23: 1, 4) The integrity of the Christian Church, then, is not dependent on the success of its human components.
We must always continue to fight for proper doctrine--law and gospel preached clearly whereby the Holy Spirit may work as He has promised. We must continue to promote practices which, whilst they can vary somewhat in style, always promote Word and Sacrament rather than simply entertain us or tickle our latest cultural fancy. At the same time, we must realize that we cannot solve these problems and, indeed, they will be with us until “. . . the consummation of peace forevermore, till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blest, and the great Church victorious shall be the Church at rest.”