Teaching One Another In…

I have always been a part of churches that have sung the rich hymnody of Christendom in the worship services (specifically those hymns that were the fruit of the theology of the Reformation). I have only been in one church that regularly sang Psalms. I am not an exclusive Psalmists, but  believe that we should all be inclusive Psalm singers (i.e. include them in our public and private worship). I rejoice in the fact that we have clear commands to sing Psalms: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col. 3:16); “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:19-20). Lee Irons has an outstanding article on New Covenant hymnody, in which he provides some of the best arguments against exclusive psalmody in light of Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19-20. You can read it here. While it is abundantly clear that the Scriptures do not teach “exclusive Psalmody,” an argument against “exclusive psalmody” must never degenerate into an argument against “inclusive psalmody.”

We are currently in the process of introducing one Psalm, every other week, into the mix of songs we sing in our worship services at New Covenant Presbyterian Church. It seems to me, however, that there are several hindrances to the introduction of Psalms in an “exclusive hymnody” or “exclusive spiritual song singing” congregation.

The first challenge is that many of the Psalters paraphrase the Psalms in such a way that they loose their richness. The language may be antiquated and, therefore, lacking in linguistic relevance. The Reformers zealously fought to have the Bible in the vernacular, the common language of the people. This principle should be applied to the Psalms, no less than any other portion of Scripture. Having searched out the various options for Psalters, we finally went with the digital version of Crown and Covenant’s Book of Psalms for Worship. This PDF package comes with the following:

Familiar Tunes Index (This links many of the Psalms up with familiar hymn tunes)

Digital Psalter (This gives you the option of printing off the music with the words)

Text Only (This allows you to easily cut and paste the text into a bulletin insert or use it on a screen. This is what we do since we are often changing the tunes to which the hymnal sets many of the Psalms).

The second difficulty has to do with the tunes we sing the Psalms to. It was this very reason that led the editors of the Trinity Psalter to produce a new Psalter in 1994. Learning to use the tune system in the back of the Trinity Hymnal allows you to set the Psalms to different meters. Terry Johnson has also written a  helpful post on learning the tunes of the Trinity Psalter in order to help introduce them to your congregation. You can read it here. Thinking through the tune association is also an important factor. I love singing the Psalms–including the imprecatory Psalms–but singing an imprecatory Psalm to “Amazing Grace” just doesn’t work. It doesn’t feel right asking God to pour out His justice and wrath to the tune of a song in which we praise God for His mercy and grace in Christ. I wholeheartedly understand that salvation comes through judgment, and that judgment and mercy meet together at the cross (see my February 2011 Tabletalk article), but most of the people in our congregations will not be able to make theological connections as quickly. They will sense a tension in singing about God judging others to a tune about God’s mercy to me. James E. Adams War Psalms of the Prince of Peace  is a good treatment of the imprecatory Psalms. It would be good to read through it prior to incorporating Psalm singing to the congregation.

The third challenge that needs to be addressed is the accompaniment of the Psalms in worship. Knowing the challenges produced by the CCM culture, and the fact that most contemporary churches have rock bands (making old school “piano-only” accompaniment in worship seem out of date), it seems imperative for us to think through what instrumentation we use as accompaniment. Mant Old School Reformed churches are fine being exclusive-piano when it comes to accompaniment. Based on a strict understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), one cannot be dogmatic about this position. The RPW breaks everything we do in worship down to Elements, Forms and Circumstances. Instrumental accompaniment falls squarely and exclusively in the realm of circumstances. Circumstances are indifferent things (adiaphora) that aid the people of God in carrying out the elements of worship. For instance, the building, lighting, hymn book, screens, mics, chairs, pews, etc. are all circumstantial things. Musical accompaniment is merely circumstantial. For someone to oppose the use of a certain instrument principally in the name of the RPW is to deny the principle itself. It may not be best to use a certain instrument on a certain score (merely because of a subjective musical appropriateness), but one cannot be dogmatic on which instruments can and cannot be used. For this reason I suggest that churches wishing to incorporate Psalms into their services use a diversity of instruments for accompaniment. We have seen how this helps the congregation sing out more freely to something that is already foreign to them. It can help make the Psalms seem less antiquated too. The Psalms are the living and abiding word of God. This means we should be able to sing them in the vernacular, and with freshness. Musical accompaniment can be a great aid to the incorporation of the Psalms in worship. For an outstanding, brief treatment of the RPW, see Derek Thomas’ July 2010 Tabletalk article.

The final difficulty with which we are faced is in helping the people of God understand the Christological (i.e. “Messianic”) nature of the Psalms. The Psalms are some of the most quoted portions of Scripture in the New Testament. The apostles saw in them a Christological focus that manifested itself most fully in the specific acts in the outworking of the redemption we have in Jesus. It has been all too common for exclusive Psalm singers to say it is sufficient to sing the Psalms without explanation to the Person and work of Christ. One of the principle arguments against exclusive Psalmody comes from Col. 3:16-17 and Eph. 5:19-20 (see above), where Paul follows his instructions to teach one another in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with an exhortation to do everything “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is part of the Messianic Glory of Jesus for Him to receive praise  from His people in His Messianic name. This is certainly a reason for Christians to produce new, theologically sound hymns in which Christ is praised for the salvation He has provided, but it is also grounds for us to consider how we might teach our congregations about the Christological focus of the Psalms. We ought to take a moment, as we do in our Lectio Continua readings of the OT and NT, to make some short, Christological annotations on the Psalms prior to singing them. Thankfully there are some very helpful books written to help guide the reader to better grasp the biblical theology of the Psalms. They include: Richard Belcher’s The Messiah and the Psalms, William Binnie’s A Pathway into the Psalter, Geoffrey W. Grogan’s Psalms, C.H. Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, Wilhelm Hensgstenberg’s Commentary on the Psalms (vol. 1), (vol. 2), and (vol. 3), and O. Palmer Robertson’s Psalms in Congregational Celebration.

James Grant has some beneficial posts and audio on Introducing the Psalms to Your Congregation herehere, and here.

Jim Cassidy also provides some very good thoughts on the biblical theology of the Psalms here.

*This post was originally posted in 2010. I has been updated quite a bit.

4 Responses

  1. Pingback : Combing the Net – 5/29/2012 « Honey and Locusts

  2. Jesse Pickett

    I’ve always wondered what exclusive Psalmodists would say if asked (Ive never met one so that I could ask) their opinion about reciting creeds or confessions in public worship.

  3. Thank you for your very interesting (now rather old) post! I just found it when doing a google search. As a church musician, not a theologian, I’ve been endeavoring to be biblically faithful and am wrestling with the meaning of Eph. 5:19 and Col 3:16. So far my position is that these verses teach that as Christians living in community we are free to use other songs than the 150 (and should!), but that we are not free to refrain from using the 150. I think it’s a position similar to yours.

    I spoke about this to the elder board, thinking that I was being such a revolutionary, but it wasn’t well received. The most outspoken elder (who said that he’d endured quite a bit of ghastly psalm singing as a youth) was very much opposed to the idea that these passages required the singing of the 150 in corporate worship in any sense. He was unfailingly kind in making his arguments and willingly gave his permission for the church to sing an occasional psalm, but clearly believed it was to be done because I wanted it, not because the church was obeying some biblical command.

    Our church does sing 2 faithful metrical paraphrases –“All people That on Earth Do Dwell”, and “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want” –but not much more than those.

    So, I’d like to ask you a few questions.
    1) Do you agree with me that the church disobeys Scripture if we refrain from singing the 150 at all?
    2) I believe that we must invariably help our people understand what they are singing, but do you think that the “understanding gap” between the original psalm in an English translation and the singer should be bridged by the versions of the psalms which are sung? Another way of asking it is, if we say we are singing a psalm, should it be phrased like the NASB, the NIV, The Message, or the Jefferson Bible. 🙂
    3) After 4 years of Psalm singing , how many different psalms do you sing regularly? (I ‘d call 2 times per year the minimum to be considered “regular.”)

    I know this is long, so thank you for you time,
    John Finney

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