Poetic Reflections on “In Christ Alone” - Part I

Striking contrast, opposites, paradox, powerful biblical images, metaphor, epistrophe, anaphora. These are some key literary secrets of the greatest hymn of our day, in my assessment. That is not to say that “In Christ alone” is a paragon of poetic propriety. This text was created with great intentionality as a congregational hymn to be loved and sung, not as an academic piece to find a home in an anthology of verse. 

The drama of a turbulent wind whipping the landscape suddenly stilled to a breathless hush and tranquility is painted in stanza 1. Alliteration-- “firm /fiercest” --carries us through the drama, through the drought. Thirst can be fierce, whether in a person or a land. There are reasons why this hymn was sung by military personnel in Iraqi foxholes so soon after its release. The opposite of a storm is stillness. The opposite of turbulence is also a Rock, the massive stone outcropping amid endless, shifting desert sands that is our Foundation, our Christ.

The story of Jesus’ life and finished work—the gospel story that systematic theologians call the “Christ-event”-- is vividly retold in the inner two stanzas.  It is the heart of every Getty hymn. The paradox of divine fullness in a “helpless babe,” the bitter irony that the Christ was “scorned” by the very ones he came to save, make this narrative pointed and poignant afresh. Within the text’s overall structure, the outer two stanzas expressing a personal confession of trust in Christ frame the inner two stanzas as follows:

  • Storm and Rock  [personal confession]
  • Incarnation/crucifixion [Christ event]
  • Resurrection/implications for believer [Christ event]
  • No condemnation, destiny, birth and death, Christ’s return [the most personal]

Stanza 4 voices the believers’ triumphant personal confession most fully as we face our unknown future, even our final dying breath, in light of the promises and unshakeable character of God and deathless victory of Christ. Because of it I like to call this a “lifespan hymn,” singable and appropriate at every time, crisis, and turning point of life, much like “Because He Lives” has beautifully served the church in previous decades. It has only been a few months since my husband lay anesthetized in surgery and this stanza was my constant companion. No family or congregation is can be without such hymns.

Much more could be written in a full poetic explication of this text. Master hymnwriters understand and exploit the potency of location of ideas within a line and within the structure of the stanza. Some lines are two-by-four-inch beams, others (like those in the exterior walls of a house) are two-by-six beams; the first and last lines of a stanza bear greater responsibility. The signature title phrase “In Christ alone” suggests anaphora by virtue of its appearance at the opening of both stanzas 1 and 2. The modified single-line refrain, or epistrophe (Here in the . . . ), that concludes each stanza carries the load-bearing ideas and images of the gospel: love of Christ . . . death of Christ . . . blood of Christ . . . power of Christ..

For a discussion of the hymn’s doctrinal and biblical roots and its role in proclamation and congregational declaration, check back next week for Part II.

Esther Crookshank

Dr. Crookshank is a Professor of Church Music at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. She teaches in the areas of hymnology, musicology, applied ethnomusicology, and musical aesthetics. Since 2009 she has also served as director of the Academy of Sacred Music, the seminary’s guest artist and lecture forum.