I was recently a part of a wonderful worship service. Unfortunately, it was interrupted by the hymn “Are Ye Able” (#530 in the United Methodist Hymnal). The hymn was sung in a setting where people should have been more aware of the theology that is being expressed by the hymn, but people seemed to be unaware of what they were singing.
Here is the first verse:
Are ye able, said the Master, to be
crucified with me? Yea, the sturdy dreamers
answered, to the death we follow thee.
Lord, we are able. Our spirits are thine. (etc.)
It gets worse in verse three:
Are ye able, when the shadows close
around you with the sod, to believe that spirit
triumphs, to commend your soul to God?
Lord, we are able…
As one of my seminary professors succinctly put it, this is heresy. Christians have long understood a basic part of the gospel message to be that we are not able to save ourselves, we are saved by God’s astonishing, undeserved grace. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. So, the basic problem with this hymn is that every time the hymn asks “Are ye able?” the answer the hymns gives is “yes,” but it should be “No!” We are not able. But the good news is that God is able.
Frankly, the idea that when we die, we are able to commend our souls to God is nearly as far as we can get away from the Christian understanding of salvation by grace through faith. “It is the gift of God and not by works, so that no one can boast.”
The next time the United Methodist Church revises the Hymnal, I would be delighted to discover that this hymn was no longer included in our hymnal.
We are not able, it is not about us or our ability. May we quit singing songs that help us feel more comfortable in our own sufficiency.
It’s great that you think about what you are singing. It’s unusual that this is an old hymn (I suspect) with bad theology. They are normally very grounded in orthodoxy. It’s usually the new praise and worship songs that seem to be littered with bad theology.
Kevin Watson said:
Brett – Thanks for the comment. Are Ye Able, relatively speaking, is actually not that old. It was written by Earl Marlatt in 1926.
I’ve never heard this hymn in my life. I agree that the theology is awful. It sounds to me like what I call a ‘Rallying-cry hymn’.
I would have said it was old enough to have been weeded out of a fairly modern hymn book (I’m not sure when the UM Hymnal was edited.) I think this is what happens to bad hymns – that history edits them out of use; it’s not that people never wrote bad hymns in the ‘good old days’. Must have been recent enough that some people were still sentimental about it?
Pam, this song is likely one of the songs that came out of the Methodist revival period which songs never made it to the Lutheran hymnal (April had never heard of it, either, so I am guessing at the connection).
I never noticed the part you mention, Kevin. My seminary prof criticised the saccharine-sweet tune (which is awful) and that the song misses the irony of the verse it’s based on (Mark 10.35-40. James and John say they are able, but don’t really know what they are saying ‘Yes’ to.
“Are Ye Able” was written by Dr. Earl Marlatt, then a professor at Boston University School of Theology, for a consecration service. He titled it “Challenge.” The Marlatt Chapel in the Perkins main chapel building is named for him, as he also taught religious philosophy there following WW II.
The chorus continues, “Lord, we are able/Our spirits are thine/Remold and make us/Like Thee, divine,” which to me sounds like an assertion if we are able to answer “Yes” to Jesus’ question, it is only because of the power of God at work within us. And in fact the second stanza asks, “Are ye able to remember/When a thief lifts up his eyes/That his pardoned soul is worthy/Of a place in Paradise?” (I’ve also seen the thief’s soul described as “ransomed” instead of “pardoned.”) Obviously, neither the thief’s soul nor our own are worthy of a place in Paradise on our own, but the addition of “pardoned” should make it clear that those souls have somehow been acted upon, and as Christians we would say that God has done that acting. We are unworthy without God’s action but that action makes us worthy. We are unable to fully commit ourselves to God without God’s support of that commitment, but the support makes us able.
Which to me is why the chorus has us answer every question about our ability by asserting our spirits belong to God. God’s possession of us enables us to follow Him and to respond that we are able to do what He asks. Further, the request to remold those spirits and make them more and more into a likeness of the divine implies to me that we understand our limited abilities to follow God grow *only* as far as we allow God to shape us.
Liking or disliking the hymn is a personal choice — I always liked it because when you sing it as a men’s chorus it sounds like a tavern song roared around the fire. But the “blasphemy” label requires a *very* narrow reading of certain words, phrases or verses of the hymn in pieces, without paying enough attention to the meaning that the *whole* hymn might have when considered that way.
Kevin Watson said:
Brett – Thank you for offering a vigorous alternative way of reading this hymn. You have made a strong case for preserving the hymn in the UM hymnal. I appreciate your comments because it is a helpful reminder that there are many United Methodists that love this hymn. I do not mean to give the impression that it would be obvious to everyone that we should get rid of this hymn. You are of course right that liking or disliking the hymn is a matter of personal choice, though many people would argue today that liking or disliking a certain theology is similarly a matter of personal choice.
I also appreciate you raising the broader context of the hymn. I may have been guilty of proof-texting for the sake of brevity and making my point.
Thank you also for the background information on Dr. Marlatt. I did not realize that he was educated and then taught at Boston University. I actually think this strengthens my objection to the hymn. Boston University during the time that Marlatt was there had a specific approach to theology known as Boston Personalism, which was based on the work of Borden Parker Bowne (further description would require its own post). However, I think it can fairly be described as a product of nineteenth century (theological) liberalism, with its overly optimistic outlook and overemphasis on each persons ability to improve themselves and the world and the hyper-optimistic belief in the inevitable progress of the human race.
Ultimately, I think you provide a helpful corrective to my original post to remind us that every word of the hymn is not heresy (and I would like to point out that I described the hymn’s theology as heresy, I did not use the word blasphemy). There is perhaps something there that is of value. Nevertheless, I still hold to my original objection. At its most basic level I think the hymn is asking us to affirm things that we cannot do on our own. I think every time the hymn asks us if we are able, the answer should be “only by the grace of God.” And I though I understand your appreciation of the hymn, I think there is something important at stake, as to me it is an expression of the ways in which the gospel has been watered down to make us more comfortable with our own ability and the reality that we aren’t that bad after all. This kind of theology is the reason why there are too many United Methodists sitting in the pews thinking that they are able to earn their way to heaven by being “good Christians” which sometimes means nothing more than going to church one hour a week.
Perhaps the chorus offers a nuance that mitigates some of this, but I would prefer a hymn that more clearly calls us to look to Christ and the salvation that he offers us when we are most obviously unable to save ourselves. I just think there are much more faithful ways we can sing our faith.
Kevin — Thanks for the correction – cursed by a short memory and a shorter screen I did in fact use the word “blasphemy” even though you had not when describing your prof’s opinion of the hymn. Should have scrolled back up.
I doubt the hymn will go away, and you will be saddled with it as I am saddled with “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore” or we are all saddled with a number of songs we’d rather bypass even if our congregations like them. I suppose we’ll have to grit our teeth and figure out ways to teach from the aspects of them that are useful.
May have to leave out the discussion of Boston personalism, though — unless the congregation has been specifically praying for healing from insomnia…
Kevin Watson said:
Brett – Thanks for the interaction and for your sense of humor! I love the comment about leaving out the discussion on Boston personalism… unless the congregation has been specifically praying for healing for insomnia.
All the best,
Hey folks! Stop dissing my institution! 🙂 The BU personalist tradition also informed greats like MLK though he was not Methodist. But I guess that’s the point, huh?! Methodist do have a particular and unique understanding. I would like to join in the discussion and offer my thoughts, but at the moment I’m battling jet-lag and can’t think clearly. Perhaps I will return to it. This has been a very interesting discussion.
Cookie Antons said:
Thank you for the insight. I was in junior high when I first heard this at a revival. It struck me then that I’d like to be able to serve the Lord with a ‘willing spirit’ that this song seemed to speak of. The song itself hid in my heart for years while I questioned, took detours from the Lord and He brought me to Him in truth. It recently (I’m in my 60’s) re-surfaced in my mind with the sense that the Lord was asking me ‘if I was willing’ to commit ‘even more’ totally to Him — to accept (with His help and strength) what may come?
I appreciate your (both) insight and see the truth of what you are saying. I guess I took it more like ‘I Surrender All’. I know that I don’t and can’t without the Lord’s strength and help ‘surrender’ and that it is a daily battle (make that minute by minute). In fact there are times I won’t sing that song or ones like it when I don’t feel my heart is not right with the Lord – or I’ll make it a plea for His help that I might be able to do it. The song ‘Have Thine Own Way, Lord’ I change the last part of the first verse to say ‘help me to wait’ rather than ‘while I am waiting’ as the truth is I don’t ‘wait’ well. Point is, you’re right, it is only by the grace of God! And I don’t want to take anything lightly as more and more things are being accepted and allowed into the Christian realm as OK when it is not. My main objective (as it seems your’s is too) is to honor the Lord and do as He would desire. His word in Hosea 4:6, says that His people are destroyed for lack of Knowledge. So I pray we seek His knowledge and wisdom of how to share it, and stand in His word…
I wonder if the words could be changed to ‘Are You Willing’ instead of ‘Are You Able’ ?
Well, all that to say, I thank you for sharing your thoughts on this and attempting to keep us aimed at truth.
God bless in the love of Jesus,
M. Wayne Deardorf said:
Attn: Kevin Watson: This is not an attack or a personal insult; I did not believe you were a Methodist and then it came to me.
You are one of those Methodists who says he loves Jesus but doesn’t accept his Gospel but are rather more comfortable with Paul’s Gospel because it requires no real personal responsibility,i.e. “God sent his son to die for the sins of the world.” That is Paul’s gospel confirmed by the Church at the conference of Nicea. He later changed but the Church did not until the past 100 years or so. Paul originally took this position to appease the tremendous guilt he felt for agreeing with the Crucifixion and subsequent persecution of the Christians which is why he didn’t tarry in Jerusalem as Jesus commanded. The problem is that every time you repeat this blasphemy you in a sense re-crucify our Lord. There was a victory on the cross, however, if you can’t understand or do not want to listen to Jesus…it is lost to you. There are three sentences in this Hymn which need to be changed otherwise it is very much in agreement with the real message of Jesus – the one he said not what is said about him or his purpose. You know it would really be wonderful if people paid attention to what Jesus said rather than celebrating his murder.
I agree with you–as my blog today on Wordwise Hymns indicates. In fact, even the disciples, who boldly proclaimed their ability “all forsook Him and fled.” The only possible hope for the hymn–and it is slight indeed–lies in the words of the chorus: “Our spirits are Thine. / Remold them, make us, / Like Thee divine.” To be generous, that sounds like an admission of inadequacy, and a need for daily grace. But… No, let’s not use the hymn.
I attend a UM church and this is one of our favorite hymns. I have always taken the words to mean that with God’s guidance and grace, we are able to do anything. I guess that just shows that there are many ways to interpret the same words.
Gentlemen, Thanks for this interesting dialogue! We sang this song in our baptist church last night (and often do when we are putting an emphesis on missions~although I fail to see the connection). Each time we do I am disturbed by the lyrics and the lack of explaination or understanding of them. In my opinion, this is one of those songs that needs an asterisk with comment below on the hymn book page. Reading your differing opinions of the hymn have helped me better understand why I am so bothered by text of the verses. Our hymn book even goes so far as to include this verse: “Are you able to relinquish/Purple dreams of power and fame,/To go down into the Garden,/Or to die a death of shame?” (And we always sing every verse of every hymn.) My father always taught us to pay attention to what we are singing and I am very thankful he did!! Some times a hymn book makes the song leader’s job too easy! Thanks again for both views expressed in this blog!!
Tricia Dower said:
Well, here it is nearly three years after the last comment and I’ve just come upon this interesting discussion. I’m using the hymn in a novel that takes place during the Vietnam war. The Methodist minister in my novel has selected it to inspire parishioners to protest the war and, thereby, risk arrest and physical harm at the hands of police. He’s also using Thomas Merton’s words that “Without a personal willingness to go to the cross, a Christian’s talk of peacemaking is a counterfeit of the Gospel and an act of hypocrisy.”
Thank you all for a meaty discussion of this hymn. As I am contemplating a sermon series that explores the scriptures, history, and theology behind some hymns; I thought of using this one as a negative example. Even from a fairly young age, I was disturbed by the way, in my reading, this hymn misses the whole point of the scripture it is referencing.
In Mark 10.35-40, I always read Jesus’ question as a rhetorical one, to which the proper answer would be ‘no’, as in the title of this post. Note that Jesus doesn’t address whether they are able to be baptized and drink alongside him, he just asserts that they will.
It does help, though, to know that the hymn emerged from a Wesleyan perspective. That, and the time period, help me to understand the chorus (which I personally find dreadful). The line about being made divine sounded almost like Orthodox theosis (or even stronger); knowing that it is probably more connected to a Wesleyan understanding of sanctification helps. The line ‘Thy guiding radiance / above us shall be / a beacon to God / to love and loyalty’ just strikes me as so much early 20th century positivist drivel.
Howard Curtis said:
As an ex-Christian, I happen to love this hymn. I got up this morning hearing it in the background of my mind and listened to it on Youtube. Reading this blog reminds me why I feel that I follow Jesus and not those neurotic convoluted theologians!
We are sturdy dreamers. It is our dream that we are able. We are able to try, to stumble in the footsteps of the one who was not dreaming – but living a divinely fueled life.
As I look out at my sparse congregation, in an old Vermont church, as they sing some grand hymn like “We’ve a story to tell to the nations” at the top of their not very solid voices, I feel both despair at how fragile and idiotic we are (what could we possibly tell the nations when we can barely get coffee hour together) and with maternal love at how beautifully rich in faith we are (let us run the race with our walkers and gout and heavy hearts).
Being able means making a choice to try. Am I able to preach the gospel tomorrow morning? Yes. I am able. Doesn’t mean I won’t make a total mess of it. Nonetheless I shall drag myself up there and do what I can. And through that effort, sometimes, in the cracks of my humanity, God can shine.
As Thomas Merton wrote, “We do not see the road ahead of us. We cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do we really know ourselves, and the fact that we think that we are following your will does not mean that we are actually doing so. But we believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And we hope we have that desire in all that we are doing. We believe that if we do try to please you, that you will lead us by the right road, though we may not know anything about it.”
Peter failed to say “Yes I Know Jesus” but it didn’t stop him. He went on. That’s what being able is. Failing. Falling. Rising. Moving on. And indeed, for Peter, “to the death” he followed thee. Not in a straight line, but with the sturdy legs of a fisherman who had seen a dream of what could be.
Pastor, Williamstown United Federated Church
The Church of Sturdy Dreamers
Sheri Simms said:
I stumbled on this blog and discussion after searching out the lyrics to this old hymn, which was always one of my favorites, growing up Progressive Primitive Baptist (Westminster Confession, 5 point Calvinist, baptism by immersion, foot washing as part of communion service). In spite of Sovereign Grace doctrine, we sang this hymn. It never stuck a sour note for me. Though the Bridegroom courts us, at some point we have to say yes to Him, and IMHO this hymn says it sweetly and eloquently.
Kevin Watson said:
Thank you for your comment, Sheri. I am fascinated that you are able to affirm the theology of this hymn given your own theological perspective. The author of this hymn was about as far away from you on the theological spectrum as one could be.
This song “Are you able” is not about salvation but consecration. This is both learned in the historical context of the writing of the song and the song itself stemming from Mark 10:35-40 and Luke 23:39-43. The thief’s soul is pardoned; he does not save himself. The commending of the soul to God is trusting Him to do His work to save. As the chorus states, our souls belong to God and He must remold and make them like Him. We cannot do it but we must choose to yield as Romans 6:11-23 says.
I think the hymn would be better worded by substituting ‘Are ye willing’ for ‘Are ye able.’ As another commentator pointed out – we are not able – which is actually the whole point of Christianity – we are not able but God is. This beautiful hymn could be enjoyed if we simply substituted the word ‘willing’ for ‘able.’ Are we willing? That’s the question.