This famous Christian hymn is also one of the oldest, being almost 1,600 years since the text was written by a Spanish monk, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, circa 400 AD. The Roman Empire was in decline—the city itself would be ransacked by marauding Vikings ten years later, with the last emperor lasting until 476. The Church, on the other hand, was growing and gaining converts as had not been seen since the Acts of the Apostles.
Prudentius was educated; he was a lawyer and judge before he was appointed to a court office by the Emperor Theodosius (who in 379 had made Christianity the “official” religion of the Roman Empire.) He retired at age 57 and lived in seclusion, writing hymn and poetic texts (in Latin of course) which were to prove influential during the Middle Ages.
The melody is first found in manuscripts from the 12th century, and would have been sung as “plainchant,” or “Gregorian chant” by monks during worship. Several famous tunes derive from these ancient chants; “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and “Savior, of the Nations, Come,” are two hymns which have been adapted from plainchant. Originally, chant was meant to convey text—the words—of a hymn. There was no recurring meter, such as 4/4 or ¾. The music was sung freely and unrestrainedly.
This hymn is devoted to Christology, that is, the study of Christ’s nature and mission. During the 4th century, there were many disagreements as to who Christ was. One group, led by Arius, maintained that Christ was created by God the Father, so that Christ did indeed have a beginning. Others, led by Athanasius, countered that Christ existed eternally with the Father and He had no beginning. (Both were thinking in terms of linear time—which might have been part of the problem.) The Nicene Creed (325/381 AD) settled the matter (in the West at least) so that Christ was “begotten of the Father before all eternity. God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made.” Notice how this hymn echoes such sentiments: “Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He, Of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore.”
At first glance, it might appear that Prudentius was of Arian persuasion; that is, that he held Christ to have been “begotten.” However, notice that this stanza refers to Christ’s substance being of the Father, not that He was created in terms of linear time. “Begotten,” in this context, refers to substance and not to a specific point in time. Prudentius then proceeds to elevate Christ over time: He is Alpha and Omega—but He is even longer than that! Evermore and evermore. . . Things that “are,” things that “have been” belong to Christ and His Father!
Then, as is typical with anti-Arian hymns of the fourth century, this hymn closes with a doxology affirming the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are honored and praised equally. Finally, in case you should wonder, the Holy Spirit never elicited as much controversy as did the Father and the Son. In many ways, the role and person of the Holy Spirit was so nebulous that people at this time rather ignored the Spirit.