4 Christmas Carols with Bad Theology

It’s a shame that more churches don’t sing Christmas carols year-round. After all, the reason Christians gather as the Church is because of the Incarnation. Jesus’ birth as a human is just as important for the salvation of God’s people from their sins as is his death and resurrection. According to Hebrews 5:8, Jesus learned obedience through his life of suffering. Christmas carols reflect on some of the most important points of Christian theology. Sadly, though, even when churches do sing Christmas carols, they often include songs that contain bad theology.

To be clear, I absolutely love two of the songs listed below, and the other two I don’t dislike. I’m also not saying that Christians should never sing these songs. My objective is to encourage brothers and sisters in Christ to think about the lyrics of the songs they sing. Being included in the hymnbook doesn’t make a Christmas carol theologically accurate or robust.

1. “We Three Kings”

Many people probably assume that I selected this song because we don’t know how many wise men traveled to Bethlehem or because they most likely were not kings. If you’re interested in learning more about the magi, I encourage you to visit this post by Greg Lanier published by The Gospel Coalition.  However, the possible historical inaccuracies are not the reason why “We Three Kings” made this list.

The reason for the song’s inclusion is found in the chorus. “We Three Kings” doesn’t really celebrate Jesus; it celebrates the star. “O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding. Guide us to thy perfect light.” The first verse, which I won’t quote, isn’t any better. When we celebrate the First Advent in song, we should celebrate Jesus.

2. “O Holy Night”

If churches sang the original version, “O Holy Night” would not have made this list. In that eventuality, it would also go by the name “Midnight, Christians.” Sadly, though, we sing the watered-down version that was reworked by Unitarian minister John Dwight Sullivan, who didn’t like the Trinitarian theology of the French version. In the first verse, the original includes the wonderful and theologically robust lines, “When God as man descended unto us; to erase the stain of original sin, and to end the wrath of his father.” Sullivan’s anti-Trinitarian version changes the lines to “It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth; long lay the world in sin and erring pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

Not only did Sullivan remove the Trinitarian reference, but he also turned Jesus’ coming into little more than existential relief for oppressed humanity.

3. “Mary, Did You Know?”

Of course, Mary knew. Read her prayer recorded in Luke 1:46-55. During her pregnancy, Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with John the Baptist at the time. While there, in her prayer, Mary praised God for His faithfulness and goodness because He chose her to be the one to give birth to the promised Messiah. In fact, if you read the questions in the lyrics of “Mary, Did You Know?” in conjunction with Luke 1:46-55, you’ll see that she has basically answered the questions with a resounding, “Yes, I do know!”

4. “Away In a Manger”

If you’re unfamiliar with the heresy called Docetism, “Away in a Manger” illustrates it nicely. Before I get to the lyrics of this beloved Christmas carol, allow me to provide a brief definition of Docetism. I’m pretty sure that you’ll pick up what’s wrong with “Away in a Manger” before you finish reading the definition.

Docetism: the doctrine that Jesus’ body wasn’t human, but only seemed to be. It’s a denial of the humanity of Jesus.

The offending lyrics of “Away in a Manger” are found in the song’s second verse – “The cattle were lowing, the baby awakes, But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” If you’ve ever been around the birth of a baby, you know that those lyrics do not reflect what happens. Jesus, as a fully-human baby, most assuredly cried. And being awakened by the braying of cows would definitely have induced the newborn Jesus to squalls of fear. “Away in a Manger” presents a picture of the Incarnation that undermines the humanity of Jesus.