Sing a New Song, Chapter 3: The History of Psalmody

It’s Thursday again, and here on URC Psalmody that means one thing: it’s time for another installment of our ongoing review of Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio.  Today’s discussion brings us to Chapter 3, by Terry Johnson: “The History of Psalm Singing in the Christian Church.”

MRK: Having considered some specific milestones in the progress of psalmody in the Christian church in the first two chapters, I relished the chance offered in Chapter 3 to view the history of psalm-singing from a wider angle.  Sadly, this history, as Johnson shows, has its lows as well as its highs, but as a whole it truly invigorated my desire to see the psalms restored to their proper place in Christian worship.

In the first section of the chapter Johnson takes us through the apostolic era of the early church.  Even though I find some of his exegesis a bit confusing, he unequivocally shows that the psalms were integral to the worship of the apostolic church.

JDO: Yes.  In God’s providence, early Christian worship took on many characteristics of the synagogue.  And so the singing of psalms, already important in Jewish worship, naturally became essential to the Christians, who had an even greater “right” to them through Christ.

MRK: While Johnson’s material overlaps a bit with the content of Chapter 1, he goes on to outline the psalm-singing practices of the patristic (pre-medieval) church by quoting several notable church fathers besides Cassian and Benedict.  Athanasius called the psalms “a mirror of the soul”; Eusebius commended the near-universal psalm-singing of his day; and Basil the Great praised the “harmonious psalm tunes” that enabled Christians to sing the psalms on any occasion.  Chrysostom’s quote was most uplifting: that “many who know not a letter can say David’s Psalms by heart” (pp. 45, 46).

JDO:  I think that these three and a half pages on the patristic church are once again worth the price of the book.  These quotes are all uplifting—quite a testimony to the power of the psalms.  To see how each generation cherished them is amazing.  How can some people be so blasé about psalm-singing?  And how can others just skip it?

Sadly, however, as history went on, the tradition of psalm-singing faded.  As we mentioned last week, the Middle Ages saw the decline of congregational singing.  More and more this duty was relegated to monks, and the Latin liturgy became inaccessible to the common people.   Yes, the monks still sang and cherished the psalms, but in a way that no one else could appreciate.

MRK: By the time of the Reformation, the Church was in desperate need of a revival in the area of psalmody.

JDO: By that time it was in need of all kinds of revival.  Psalm-singing wasn’t just one sort of revival, though; the practice of psalm-singing itself was a major instrument in the Reformation.  I thought Johnson expounded that idea brilliantly.  Psalmody didn’t flourish merely as a result of the Reformation; it was a crucial element in the growth of Protestantism itself.  And I loved his emphasis on the importance to the Reformers of singing entire psalms on pp. 49, 50.  How do you view this position?

MRK: This question actually hits very close to home for me.  In the Evangelical Free church my family attended before coming into the URCNA, my psalm-singing experience was limited to the little praise songs we used to sing—“versicles,” as John Witvliet calls them.  “I Will Enter His Gates” (Ps. 100:4), “This is the Day” (Ps. 118:24), “I Will Sing of the Mercies” (Ps. 89:1), “I Exalt Thee” (Ps. 97:9)—all of them were connected to the psalms only by the slenderest thread.  Without any balance of praise and prayer, petition and thanksgiving, or confession and redemption, singing these practically meaningless excerpts of God’s Word was quite like being stranded on a scriptural island.  All of it was all one-sided and, usually, self-focused.  When the Lord led us to a Reformed church and we began to become familiar with the Psalter Hymnal, I was so refreshed to be able to sing these same passages in context, with their full meaning!  Looking back, it’s my heartfelt conviction that we gravely rob ourselves if our psalm repertoire is limited to those unsubstantial three- or four-line choruses.

The theme of this section of Chapter 3 could best be summed up in an excerpt from p. 50.  Johnson says,

To sing the Psalms is to sing the Psalter.  Each psalm has its own thematic integrity.  The book of Psalms as a whole is characterized by theological, christological, and experiential wholeness.  The Holy Spirit gave the Psalter as a complete collection whose strength is collective: laments not isolated from praise, imprecations not isolated from confessions of sin, but all together.  The whole gospel of the whole Christ is found in the whole Psalter.

MRK: As the Reformation progressed, Johnson goes on to explain, psalm-singing became a “chief means of spiritual formation” like preaching and the catechism.  As Witvliet says, “Metrical Psalm singing was a maker of the Reformation” (p. 51).

JDO: Johnson picks up later with the parallel stories of the French Huguenots and the Scottish Presbyterians. Both groups were persecuted Protestant Christians and both groups found courage, comfort, and consolation in the metrical psalms they loved.

MRK: Incidentally, I was glad that the Dutch psalm-singing tradition was featured a little more prominently in this article than in the previous chapters.  The primary influence in this area was Peter Dathenus’s Dutch translation of the Genevan Psalter, which would be the official Protestant songbook in the Netherlands for the next two hundred years. That’s why our churches enjoy such a rich heritage rooted in the Genevan texts and tunes!

As the colonial American era began to dawn, however, some threats to psalmody arose.  The most notable of these was the work of Isaac Watts, whose famous “loose” psalm paraphrases would shape Christian hymnody right up to the present day.

JDO: I always have mixed feelings about Isaac Watts.  His hymns and poetry are some of the things that have recently brought me to love singing the psalms more.  But he had exactly the opposite effect on the church.  Watts’s paraphrases, because they were loosely based on the psalms, crept into the psalm-singing churches—but they were so loosely based on the psalms that they opened the doors for more and more hymns.  Eventually, psalm-singing was eclipsed.  So I view Watts’s place in history as bittersweet: I like him and his work, but I am deeply saddened by what became of it.

MRK: Watts’s paraphrases seem to have had the same general effect on modern church hymnody.  While some of his songs like “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” appear frequently in contemporary hymnals, they have been completely separated from the psalms they once represented.

Psalm-singing was the dominant musical practice in Protestant churches from the sixteenth century into the early part of the nineteenth century. Then, with dismay, we ask, “What happened?”

JDO: Pages 55-57 contain a very depressing section describing the decline of psalm-singing from the 1800s to today.  Of course, there were always some faithful denominations, like the RPCNA, but they became few and far between.

MRK: This begins to tie into our own heritage more closely.  Johnson doesn’t mention it here, but if my history is correct, one of the main reasons for the Christian Reformed Church’s split from the Reformed Church in America in 1857 was that the RCA allowed the singing of over 800 non-Scriptural hymns.  The problem in the church, as we might view it from an inclusive-hymnody perspective, was not the existence of hymns, but the fact that hymns had overshadowed and even replaced the psalms.

Johnson notes another disturbing trend that I’ve seen evidenced in some hymnals: While the psalms still formed part of the repertoire of the churches, they were mixed with and undifferentiated from the hymns.  One can find examples of this practice in a vast number of modern songbooks—even the beloved Trinity Hymnal of our OPC and PCA brethren.

JDO: Hymnals began to be arranged topically, with no distinction between psalms and hymns.  Sadly, I believe this sort of reasoning belies a denigration of the psalms.  In that mindset, a psalm is just like any other song.  It doesn’t matter whether we’re singing an inspired or uninspired song as long as the topic is right.

MRK: Although this portion of the chapter was a bit disheartening, Johnson doesn’t leave us without hope. In the very last section he discusses various ways in which psalmody has been revived in the twentieth-century Christian church.  Perhaps this century’s landmark songbook was the 1912 Psalter, which forms the basis for many of the songs of the CRC Psalter Hymnal.

JDO: Yes!  While the Psalter still shows some of the detrimental effects of 19th-century hymnody, it was better than nothing—and where it shines, it shines brightly.  And look at how many great psalters have been based on or inspired by this book—best of all, the Book of Psalms for Singing!

The current revival in psalmody is tremendously encouraging.  New Psalters are being published all over the place; many churches are “rediscovering psalmody”; Christian music artists are writing new settings of psalms.  It’s an exciting time.

MRK: Indeed it is.  But as I reflect on the history of psalm-singing and the state of the modern church, an unsettling question comes to mind.  What if the current “worship wars” regarding hymns vs. contemporary music are a direct result of the tragic neglect of psalmody?  Do you think that’s a plausible evaluation?

JDO: I think you have a great point.  Why do we have “worship wars”?  Because everyone has his own opinion on what enriches his worship.  If what we sing isn’t governed by the truths of Scripture, then it becomes governed by the whims of man.  War, then, is inevitable.

MRK: So true.  However, on an extremely positive note: If the decline of psalm-singing has been a cause of the “worship wars,” then the solution to the problem is merely to restore the psalms to their rightful place!  So let’s obey God—let’s sing the psalms.  And let’s watch for the multitude of blessings that will result!

JDO: In closing, I will say this: Within the last decade or so, there’s been an exciting trend in the church.  Calvinism is now considered “cool.”  Reformed pastors and theologians like R. C. Sproul, Tim Keller, and John Piper have gained traction all over the place.  “Hip” speakers and churches are starting to reinstate catechism teaching.  All of this is great, but I pray that these reforming trends will expand into the area of music as well.  If any of you “young, restless, and Reformed” type are reading this obscure little blog, look into the singing of psalms.  Johnson closes his chapter with four reasons for psalmody: it’s biblical, it’s historical, it’s sanctifying, and it’s satisfying.  Sing the words of Scripture—it will enrich your understanding of the God of Scripture and of Jesus Christ.

We close with the timeless words of John Calvin as quoted on p. 49:

No one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from Him.  Therefore…we shall not find better songs nor more fitting of the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him.  And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if He Himself were singing in us to exalt His glory.

“Psalters, Hymnals, Worship Wars, and American Presbyterian Piety” by D. G. Hart, the next chapter in Sing a New Song, promises to continue treating some of these important topics.  We hope you’ll join us again next Thursday!

Until then,


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