By Garwood Anderson

Rock of Ages, cleft for me
Let me hide myself in Thee
Let the water and the blood
From Thy riven side which flowed
Be of Sin the Double Cure,
Cleanse me from its Guilt and Pow’r

I would be surprised if I were the only person of my generation raised in the Church to have never paid much attention to the words of “Rock of Ages.” The hymn was the quintessential and sentimental warhorse of our parents’ generation, or maybe even their parents’. If a television show of that generation (say, Andy Griffith) wished to evoke folksy, Protestant piety, “Rock of Ages” would do the job. It having been three or four decades since I had sung it, my mind was sent racing when we sang it in the seminary chapel this past September.

At first, I remembered only one thing about the hymn: it was corny. Dirge slow, hackneyed, mawkish — congregational singers obligingly scooping into each pitch as though it were in the musical notation. It’s strange that I would have come to that opinion of the hymn, given my earliest recollection was nearly the opposite. I have a memory — I don’t know if it happened — of standing and singing the hymn as a preschooler in a country church in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, my birthplace, our family’s home church.

The impression remains a half-century later. The congregation sang the hymn with a palpable earnestness that even a four-year-old could discern — weighty, even soulful, dotted-eighth and sixteenth notes moving over the purest simple harmony. And in my mind’s eye, I distinctly recall some of the congregants swaying slowly, piously, against a knotty pine backdrop on a summer morning. I distinctly remember this, because for some time following, every time we stood to sing a hymn in church, I swayed in imitation of this same piety, until my parents asked me why I was doing that and bid me Settle down in church. I remember telling them later that “people who really mean what they are singing sway like this,” demonstrating the rocking motion, eyes lifted to the heavens. They disagreed, and the smoldering wick of my latent Pentecostalism was snuffed out in my mother’s disapproving furrowed brow — never to be seen again.

I doubt that my parents’ censure had anything directly to do with my disdain for “Rock of Ages” — or, for that matter, with my want of Pentecostal inclinations. Fooled by the pedestrian musical setting, I assumed this was just another of those indistinct Moody-Sankey, Fanny Crosby gospel hymns of my evangelical past that I had outgrown, familiarity breeding predictable contempt.[1] Real hymns were curated by Pearcy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams,[2] and the lyrics waxed poetic and transcendent, not despondent and self-loathing.[3] It surprised me, then, that I would see this hymn again, 40 years later, as an Episcopalian, in that (general) paragon of detached tastefulness, The 1982 Hymnal. But remember, along with the “new” hymns of varying quality, 1982 held on to “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Rise Up, O Men of God,” and “Just as I Am.” Surely, I assumed, populist sentiment dictated the inclusion of “Rock of Ages” as well. That doesn’t mean we need to sing any of these. I was badly mistaken. And though “could my soul no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone,”[4] yet in what follows I make this atonement for a hymn long misjudged.

Certain controversies have followed “Rock of Ages,” and there are mysteries still unresolved. There is the question of what inspired Augustus Toplady to write the hymn in the first place. Although most now doubt this story, a cherished legend has it that he found refuge from a storm in a rock formation (sometimes a cave), a “cleft,” as it were, and the experience transformed into a soteriological allegory eventually set to music, the hymn written spontaneously on a playing-card.[5]

The actual inspiration for the hymn is more probably textual and rooted in Toplady’s spiritual autobiography. Though baptized and raised in the Church of England, Toplady was converted under lay Methodist preaching in Ireland:

Strange that I, who had so long sat under the means of grace in England, should be brought nigh unto God in an obscure part of Ireland, amidst a handful of God’s people met together in a barn, and under the ministry of one who could hardly spell his name. Surely this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous.[6]

Despite this early post-conversion Methodist influence, Toplady would soon turn to high Calvinism and famously locked horns with John Wesley in a notorious and bitter dispute. For that reason, Wesley’s theology and its idiom could not have been far from Toplady’s consciousness, even if for the sake of repudiation.

Whatever its inspiration, it must be noted that “rock of ages, cleft for me” qualifies as one of the more delicious and polysemous allusions in all of English hymnody. It is impossible not to hear the allusion to Exodus 33:22, where the Lord hides Moses in the “cleft of the rock,” covered by his hand until he has passed by (“let me hide myself in Thee”). But in the context of the hymn (and contrary to the legend), the “cleft” is not ultimately a noun but the perfect passive participle of “cleave.” The phrase thus deftly alludes to another, earlier story in Exodus, to the rock struck and broken (i.e., “cleft”) in Exodus 17:6, whence flowed the water of life to the thirsting wilderness wanderers. But, of course, this is not just any geological formation, but a “rock of ages,” that ancient Rock,[7]  God himself — God, that is, as manifest and incarnate in his Son. Lest there be any doubt of Toplady’s intentions, it is clear that he is conflating St. Paul’s allusion to Exodus 17 from 1 Corinthians 10:4 (“that rock was Christ”) with the piercing of Christ’s side from John 19:36 (“Let the water and the blood, From Thy riven[8] side which flowed”). This is figural interpretation at its complex best (cf. Ephraim Radner’s note that devotional writing has ever been the primary places for such work.).

It cannot be insignificant that the same imagery featured frequently in Wesleyan hymns, indeed, so much so that Toplady is sometimes charged with a kind of plagiarism. But this is almost certainly incorrect, for Toplady’s hymn was rather clearly intended as a repudiation of the very notions it is sometimes alleged to have cribbed. The original publication of the poem bears this out. The first full appearance of “Rock of Ages” appears not in a hymnal but in a journal of which Toplady was the editor, Gospel Magazine, October 1775, where it served as the poetic clincher to its rather eccentric preface. Finding analogy for human sin in England’s insurmountable national debt, Toplady published an essay in the form of an extended question-and-answer on the unpayable extent of the sinner’s debt. One would say “incalculable” debt, were it not for the fact that Toplady went to great lengths precisely to calculate it. He began by supposing for argument’s sake that “a person was to break the law once in 24 hours,” then escalating (more realistically, in Toplady’s mind) to sin twice a day or even once an hour, concluding finally that it can be estimated that the sins of the octogenarian can be estimated to be 700,800, at the rate of 24 sins per day.[9] However, giving human depravity its Calvinistic due, Toplady thought it more probable that we are guilty of one sin per minute — no, make that a sin per second. Or, again for the octogenarian, 2,522,990,000 (not to put too fine a point on it). A debt, if with some effort calculable, yet unpayable.

That, however, these calculations were ultimately not only for the edification of the grateful penitent but a shot across the bow at Wesley is indicated in what follows. Indeed, sin continues unabated for the regenerate at a pace undifferentiated from the reprobate. He asks,

Qu. (sic) Is there a single minute from the first of our existence to the very article of death, wherein we come up to the whole of that inward and outward holiness which God’s all-perfect law requires? Ans. Most certainly not.

It is hard not to recognize a thoroughgoing repudiation Wesley’s Account of Christian Perfection in the question and emphatic answer, an intuition confirmed in the thoroughly juridical soteriology that suffuses and concludes the curious essay. Moreover, the hymn is originally titled not by its first line but, remarkably enough, “A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in All the World.” Only one conclusion can follow: the “holiest believer in all the world” can only be the sinner whose 2.5 billion sins, give or take a few, have been atoned for, those elect in Christ, upon whom the iniquity of us all has been laid. Far from moral reform, holiness, in this account, is remission of the entire “aggregated sum,” the pardon of the Lord, in whose sight “shall no flesh living be justified by works of human performance.”[10] In other words, Take that, Wesley.

Yet if the hymn owes its genesis to theological polemics, it is not clear that Toplady quite succeeded in making his point, or at least that he left himself vulnerable to more than single interpretation. Indeed, the reception history of the hymn suggests that his original version of the hymn is a theologically felicitous failure. It is notable that the imagery of the first stanza runs strikingly parallel to a passage from Daniel Brevint’s Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice, the very passage that introduced the Wesleyan collection of hymns: “O Rock of Israel, Rock of Salvation, Rock struck and cleft for me, let those two streams of Blood and Water which once gushed out of the Side, bring down Pardon and Holiness into my Soul.” If Toplady had wished to distance himself further from Wesley — clearly he did — he might have been a bit more vigilant.

Consider especially the final two lines of the first stanza as originally penned:

Be of Sin the double Cure,
Cleanse me from its Guilt and Pow’r.

Parallel to Brevint’s “Pardon and Holiness” is this “double Cure,” both from Sin’s “Guilt” and its “Pow’r,” in other words, arguably a salvation both juridical and transformative.

It is not surprising that a subsequent and very influential revision of the hymn makes certain “improvements” on the original just at this point. In his 1815 redaction of T.S. Cotterill, the final line would come to read “Save from wrath, and make me pure.”[11] The verbs save and make certainly befit their respective objects more appropriately than cleanse correlates with guilt and power. But this may in fact be the point. “Saved from wrath” and “made pure” now count as a single, twice-described action of God, coincident with conversion. Juridical and cultic metaphorical fields define the co-extensive content of salvation, restoring Toplady’s quite probable sentiment while changing the sense of the original. In Cotterill’s version, the felicity of Toplady’s ambiguity is lost. If Toplady knows a gospel administering sin’s double cure, now the final line fails to deliver on the promise of the penultimate if purity is merely a variant of a legal “innocence” and if deliverance from uncleanness is only principial.

The rest of the hymn, if not overtly Calvinist, is characteristically Reformed, stressing the incapacity of humans to self-atone or morally attain their own righteousness: “Not the labors of my hands / Can fulfill thy Law’s demands … Nothing in my hand I bring / Simply to thy Cross I cling … Naked … Helpless … Foul.” Even if certain traditions more frequently rehearse their lost estate so to more fulsomely glory in God’s mercy than do others, this piety is not unwholesome. But there is nothing in the remainder of the hymn that does not accord happily with the robust soteriology of the first stanza. If the human dilemma is twofold — an objective guilt and an enslavement to sin — nothing less than a “double cure” will do. And the cure flows from his riven side in that work of grace whereby an undeserved pardon flowers into an unmanufactured transformation. Blessings abound; how great a salvation!

Of the most frequently used hymn tune, Thomas Hastings’s Toplady, I have little to say. It doesn’t do all that much for me — except remind me of the words, and incline me to sway.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
when mine eyes shall close in death,
when I soar to worlds unknown,
see thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee
.

Footnotes

[1] Writing in 1979, Erik Routley probably does not overstate the case in calling “Rock of Ages” “until recently … one of the world’s most famous hymns” (An English-Speaking Hymnal Guide [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1979], p. 76).  Cf. John Julian, “No other English hymn can be named which has laid so broad and firm a grasp upon the English-speaking world (John Julian, ed., A Dictionary of Hymnology: Setting Forth the Origin and History of Christian Hymns of All Ages and Nations [New York: Dover Publications, 1907], p. 972).

[2] The editors of the 1906 English Hymnal, by almost any account a high-water mark in English hymnody.

[3]  The impression is muted ever so slightly by the regrettable excision of the third verse in the 1982 Hymnal, as in many, following the T.S. Cotterill 1815 three-verse revision.

Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

On the textual history of the hymn, see Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology, pp. 971–72 and Raymond F. Glover, The Hymnal 1982 Companion, 4 vols. (New York: Church Hymnal Corp., 1990), 3:1264-67.

[4] From the second verse of the original 1776 version.

[5] The legend may in fact be the creation of the Rev. Dr. John Swete, the rector of the parish of Toplady’s curacy nearly a century later and the father of famous biblical scholar, H.B. Swete, Regius Professor of Divinity, Cambridge (perhaps best-known for his critical introduction to the Septuagint and for his commentaries on the Gospel according to St. Mark and the Apocalypse of St. John). For his part, the younger Swete disavowed the legend (William Budd Bodine, Some Hymns and Hymn Writers [Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1907], p. 385).

[6] Note Toplady’s penchant for biblical allusion, this time Ps. 118:23 (cf. Matt 21:42; Mark 12:11).

[7]Rock of ages” obviously recalls the frequent reference to God as Israel’s “Rock,” perhaps most directly to the “eternal Rock” of Isaiah 26:4 (‎tsur ‘olamim).

[8] The line is now more familiar to us as “wounded side,” but originally for Toplady, it was “riven.”

[9] The entire remarkable preface is reproduced in Routley, An English-Speaking Hymnal Guide, pp. 113–14.

[10] Toplady’s conflating paraphrase of Romans 3:20 with its allusion to Psalm 143:2, where, for Toplady, “works of the law” become “works of human performance.”

[11] Selections of Psalms and Hymns (London, 1815). This reading was and is followed by many, including the 1892 and 1916 hymnals of the Episcopal Church. The 1940 edition restored the original wording, the English updated, which remains in the 1982 Hymnal. A still different, and very popular variant — the provenance of which I am unable to trace —  “improves” on the original by means of conflation: “Save me from its guilt and power.” Arguably the verb save correlates to both objects, guilt and power, better than the original cleanse, which was more probably determined by its metaphorical subject (water and blood flowing from Jesus’ side) than by its objects. Still, I think this variant should be counted a friendly amendment; it is a replication of the substance of the original and not to be confused with the 1815 alternative

About The Author

Garwood P. Anderson is professor of New Testament and Greek at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. His most recent publication is a major study on Pauline soteriology, Paul’s New Perspective: Charting a Soteriological Journey (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

2 Comments on "The double cure"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted

Thank-you for this. Marvelous theological explication. The tune Petra (in H1940) is much more palatable than Toplady.

I didn’t know that. I need to check that out. Thank you.

wpDiscuz