History of Hymns: 'Victim Divine'
by Charles Wesley
The Faith We Sing, No. 2259
Victim Divine, thy grace we claim
While thus thy precious death we show,
Once offered up a spotless Lamb
In thy great temple here below,
Thou didst for all our kind atone,
And standest now before the throne.
Charles Wesley Preaching: Painting by William Gush, 1813-1888 (mid 19th C.)
(Image found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles-Wesley-preaching.jpg)
Sometimes, when looking for the story of a hymn, instead of finding the origin of the hymn, we find a related text that inspired the writing of the hymn. Such is the case with “Victim Divine,” the 116th hymn (of 166) in a collection published by the Wesleys titled Hymns on the Lord’s Supper (1745, hereafter HOTLS). Notably, the introduction to this collection included an abstract from Dr. Daniel Brevint (1616-1695), a priest in the Church of England, who wrote in his book, The Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice (1673):
This victim having been offered up in the fullness of time and in the midst of the world, which is Christ's great temple, and having been thence carried up to heaven, which is his sanctuary; from thence spreads salvation all around, as the burnt offering did its smoke. And thus his Body and Blood have everywhere, but especially at this Sacrament, a true and real presence. When he offered himself upon earth, the vapour of his atonement went up and darkened the very sun; and by rending the great veil, it clearly showed he had made a way into heaven . . . Now since He is gone up to heaven, thence He sends down on earth the graces that spring continually both from his everlasting Sacrifice, and from the continual intercessions which attend it. So that we need not say, who will go up into heaven? since, without either ascending or descending, this sacred Body of Jesus fills with atonement and blessing the remotest parts of this temple (Dixon, n.p.).
The importance of this abstract becomes evident when considering portions of Charles Wesley’s (1707-1788) text that mirror the images and phrases of Brevint. Note some of the text from the hymn: in the second stanza, lines 5-6, we sing, “Thy blood is still our ransom found, and spreads salvation all around”; and in the third stanza, lines 1-3, we sing, “The smoke of thy atonement here darkened the sun and rent the veil, made the new way to heaven appear . . .” (The full text of the hymn can be found at hymnary.org/text/victim_divine_thy_grace_we_claim.)
S.T. Kimbrough (b. 1936) has referred to this text as one of the most significant hymns in HOTLS and writes, “It is one of the fullest expressions of Wesleyan ecclesial theology and sacramental evangelism . . . one sees Charles Wesley, the sacramental evangelist, diligently at work as poet-theologian through dramatic imagination as he combines liturgy and evangelism and turns the congregation into evangelists” (Kimbrough, Jr., 47).
In this vein, nearly all analyses of this hymn have centered on the eucharistic language and intent of the hymn (rightly so), but there is another aspect of theology, or mix of theories of theology, concerning atonement that can be parsed out in these verses. Before analyzing these atonement theories in the text, we should remember that the Wesley brothers did not formulate any systematic approach to theology, so words of different theories together sometimes appear in their writings. Paul Chilcote writes, “Jesus came to save, and Charles demonstrates his belief that those who seek God receive redemption in a manner unique and appropriate to them; no single theory of atonement suffices for him” (Chilcote, Faith that Sings, 16).
The hymn begins with an arresting incipit – “Victim divine” – at first glance, a paradoxical concept, combining two ideas that do not seem compatible. The imagery of the hymn points to the passion account in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapters 26-27) and the language of sacrifice found in the Letter to the Hebrews (10:5-11). Atonement theology is usually presented in dry and didactic ways, but Charles Wesley, through this hymn, focuses on clear scriptural imagery. Atonement, or the way Jesus reconciles the world (the at-one-ment of God and humanity) is not an abstract concept or a distant one, but concrete and ever-present. It is not an event like the Battle of Gettysburg or Yorktown, important but long ago and driftingly irrelevant. Instead, it is ever-present due to the reality of what was accomplished on the cross. “We need not go up to heaven, to bring the long sought Savior down,” Wesley begins the last stanza. The life of faith is not only about our future with God, but also about our present made holy here and now due to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Charles Wesley focuses much more on scriptural imagery than on defined doctrines of atonement. In this, though, we can see how the Bible is not uniform in its descriptions of Christ’s actions. The first stanza focuses on Christ as the spotless lamb, as the sacrifice pure and perfect. The second stanza brilliantly places Christ in the figure of the High Priest without saying those words. The High Priest is the only one who can ever enter the Holy of Holies. The High Priest is the one who sprinkles the blood and speaks and prays. Then there is a shift to the language of ransom, which points to the Christus Victor theology of atonement promulgated by the early church fathers.
In stanza 3, we again pull out, back to the moment when Jesus dies; the veil is rent, and “the new way to heaven appear[s].” The language here becomes much closer to the satisfaction theory of atonement first promoted by Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109). God is pleased, satisfied, with the sacrifice.
The hymn tune SELENA (1850) paired with “Victim Divine” in The Faith We Sing was composed by Isaac B. Woodbury (1819-1858), one of the persons who helped compile the Methodist Hymn Book of 1857 (Ellinwood, n.p.). The shortened phrases that begin the tune are well-suited to the two short clauses that begin the first stanza; however, the text soon begins to feel mismatched with the rhythmic scheme placing a longer clause over two similar short phrases. There are some nice dramatic moments where the melody expands as it rises to a D-flat for the text “thou didst for all” and then settles over a sturdy hemiola for “standest now before the throne”; but the misalignment of important words on key rhythmic and melodic points continues throughout the rest of the stanzas.
During this season of Lent, when this lesser-known text finds a home, a discerning director may choose to program it differently. Another tune that has been paired with this text is that of DAS NEUGEBORNE KINDELEIN by Melchior Vulpius (1560-1616). Written in a minor mode, with long lyric phrases, the text sings beautifully and relays the message almost effortlessly. Congregations can easily manage the range (C#4 - D5), and the mood of the music is appropriate; the message will be lyrical, just as Charles Wesley intended.
Sources and Further Reading
Paul Wesley Chilcote. A Faith That Sings: Biblical Themes in the Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016).
Paul Wesley Chilcote. Recapturing the Wesleys’ Vision: An Introduction to the Faith of John and Charles Wesley (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
Neil Dixon, “Victim Divine, Thy Grace We Claim.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed February 18, 2019. https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/v/victim-divine,-thy-grace-we-claim?q=Victim%20Divine
Timothy Dudley-Smith. "Charles Wesley." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed February 19, 2019.http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/charles-wesley.
Leonard Ellinwood, “I. B. Woodbury.” Hymnary.org. Accessed February 25, 2019. https://hymnary.org/person/Woodbury_Isaac.
S. T. Kimbrough, Jr., The Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley: A Reader. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).
Victoria Schwarz is the recording secretary of The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts; Director of Music at Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX; and a Master of Arts in Ministry Practice student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Rev. Wilson Pruitt is the pastor of Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Duke Divinity School, Rev. Pruitt is passionate about the theological and formational aspects of hymns at the intersection of faith and practice in the liturgy of the church.