Theology 101

A Plea for the Second Verse of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’

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It all started as a hunt for a simple classroom illustration. I was teaching a seminary course on Christian history and preparing a lecture on the events of the famous council of Nicaea. Those who know their Christian history will immediately recognize that this is the first Ecumenical Council called by the new Christian emperor Constantine in the fourth century. A momentous occasion with lasting implications for the relationship of church and state. 

The council was intense, with heated debates over careful, nuanced theology. Eventually, when the dust settled, the council offered a unified confession called the Nicene Creed. Without a doubt, this creed is the most unifying statement of faith in the history of the church (for a good introduction to the creed see this new study).

But I wanted to do more than teach history. I wanted to show how this creed—in obvious and subtle ways—shaped Christian worship and consequently, shaped their views of God and their mission in the world. Throughout Christian history, the creed—Tom Holland reminds us in his work Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World“would continue to join otherwise divine churches, and give substance to the ideal of a single Christian people.” Through the church’s united effort, joined around this confession, the people of God would remake the Western world.

The Search

So, I began a search for some worship songs to help illustrate these points. I googled my way around for a while, eventually landing upon a few Christmas songs that use phrases from the creed. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and several others have beautiful lyrics that are infused with the words echoing the creed. 

Then I found “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” noting the second verse:

God of God, Light of Light,

lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb;

very God, begotten not created;

The Second Verse

That was it! Here in these little phrases are the words capturing some of the most important words of the creed. As I contemplated the song again, I realized how the second verse was key to the whole thing.

The first verse is a call to worship; “O come, all ye faithful!” means to come and worship this newborn king. The second verse explains why we worship this little baby born in Bethlehem. He is God of God and light of light. Christ is no mere creature; he is truly God, eternally begotten of the Father. The last few verses parade through the scenes of joyful creatures gathering to worship God. All God’s creatures, angels, and people, united in worship of the one true king. 

To use this song as an illustration in class, I tried to find someone performing the song with the traditional second verse. Again and again, I struck out. Nearly every contemporary version jumps from verse one, “O come, all ye faithful…” to verse three, “Sing choirs of angels…” No God of God, no begotten not created. No Nicaea. 

Do me a favor, please. Go on Spotify right now, search “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and start listening; see how many of the songs skip the second verse. If it’s not a traditional church choir singing from an old hymnal, chances are the second verse is missing. (While writing this post, I discovered here and here that I’m not the only one who noticed this omission!)

Now this might seem like a simple oversight, but I think there is more going on here. 

The Omission

The second verse is gone, but what happened and why? Music history is complex. I’m sure there are more than a few church music historians who can shed light on this topic, but a quick perusal of hymnary illustrates the problem. By my count, the vast majority of hymnals—well over one hundred—leave out the second verse.

The origins of the hymn are fuzzy. The carol’s original Latin text, Adeste Fideles, is attributed to the English hymnist John Francis Wade, who is believed to have written the lyrics in the early to mid-eighteenth century, during a time when there was a resurgence of interest in Latin hymns and liturgical music. Wade, a suspected Jacobite, fled during the uprisings of 1745 and made his way to France, where the song gained further popularity. 

The English version of the carol, with the familiar lyrics we know today (including the second verse) is often attributed to Frederick Oakeley, which helped the carol become more accessible to a broader audience. The uplifting melody and heartwarming lyrics have made this Christmas hymn a timeless classic. 

But the second verse has not been timeless. All hymnal editors are free to make decisions about the hymns they include in their collection. I am sure there are a variety of reasons that the second verse is missing. For some, I suspect the omission is an innocent one. At some point, one rendition left out the verse, and others just recycled that edited version. For others, I suspect that the language of the verse feels a bit archaic or awkward. They love the sentimentality of the other verses but not the cumbersome theological wording of the second verse.

Still, I can’t help but think that for others the omission is more purposeful. Some want to sanitize the song for a broader, more secular audience in non-liturgical settings. They want the joy and peace of Christmas but without all the theological baggage that comes with it. And this is part of the problem. 

The Basics 

Everyone recognizes that we are entering a time of significant cultural shifts in attitudes toward religion. Ryan Burge estimates that today “a total of 31.3 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation.” This number had been increasing at a rapid pace in recent years with no signs of slowing down. 

Combine those statistics with the recent, sobering studies which revealed a significant increase in evangelicals who deny Jesus’ divinity. Based on a 2022 study, when presented with the statement that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God,” 43 percent of evangelicals agreed. 

It seems to me that we are facing a cultural moment where people are moving away from the faith, while at the same time those in the pew are struggling with basic theological claims about Christ. 

Within this world, I think the first step is getting back to the basics. Back to discipleship and catechesis. In my forthcoming book on cultural engagement, I argue that the first step to engaging this world is spiritual formation. We need to start in the hallowed walls of the church among the people of God and show them how the Christian faith shapes everything else. This involves the slow but steady discipleship of God’s people in the basic contours of the Christian faith. 

Church services help develop us in deep and profound ways through preaching, Scripture reading, taking the sacraments or ordinances, and, of course, music. I also think that music forms us in certain ways. The old adage of “lex orandi lex credendi,” meaning “that which we pray is what we believe” rings true. The way that we worship guides us toward what we believe. 

All of this brings me back to the second verse of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Please, please, please sing the second verse! We need to remember our basic beliefs, our essential Christian orthodoxy that has united the church for centuries and animated a people on their mission to change the world. The Nicene Creed has united and guided the church for centuries and been a cornerstone of Western civilization.

What connects us is our belief in Christ, who is God from God and light from light, true God, begotten not created. There are many ways to celebrate this truth on Christmas, but the second verse of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is a great place to start. 

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