Sing a New Song, Chapter 4: Wesley, Watts, and Worship Wars

Although it’s not entirely according to schedule, we return today to our ongoing study of Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio.  Today we discuss Chapter 4, by the well-known OPC scholar and historian D. G. Hart, entitled “Psalters, Hymnals, Worship Wars, and American Presbyterian Piety.”

JDO: Darryl Hart’s chapter is fairly technical, tracing the change from exclusive psalmody to mixed psalms and hymns in Presbyterian churches. He focuses heavily on two hymn-writers, Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, and shows that their hymns were a major influence in the change in Presbyterian, and by extension our own Dutch Reformed, tradition.  Our own blue Psalter Hymnal includes eight selections by Charles Wesley and seven by Isaac Watts, which is substantive proof that this is a conversation not just for Presbyterians, but for us in the URCNA.

MRK: Hart begins with the question, “What is the appropriate psalm to sing for a Christmas Eve service?” This question drives right to the center of the conflict in Reformed worship.  Churches that sing the Psalter usually don’t observe the liturgical calendar.  Churches that observe the liturgical calendar don’t usually sing the Psalms.  Hart uses this thought-provoking example to make the case that “Reformed worship has traditionally been a tapestry of mutually reinforcing convictions and practices” (p. 61).

JDO: What Hart is getting at, and what he unpacks in the rest of the chapter, is that our worship styles and our systems of doctrine must be linked in order to make sense.  This isn’t necessarily a judgment on exclusive psalmody or Christian holidays, but Hart’s main point rings true: If you’re going to be biblically-based in one area, carry it through.

And so Hart begins the discussion, as any discussion of worship should begin, with the regulative principle of worship.  He says, “The gravity of worship and the fear of blasphemy made Presbyterians cautious about all elements of worship” (p. 63).  This idea is consistent with Presbyterian and Continental Reformed doctrine, and is echoed in our own Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 96).

MRK: Hart describes two different philosophies of worship music during the Reformation.  One view was held by Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, who outright forbade music in the church because of its “destructive power” and because they found no scriptural warrant for it.

JDO: That might strike us as outrageous, but you have to realize the context in which they lived.  Music was associated with the inaccessible and overly complicated mass, sung exclusively by trained choirs in a language and style that was not understandable by the congregation.  In addition, Zwingli and Bullinger realized the truth behind the old adage, “Heretics sing hymns.”  The singing of hymns was commonly practiced by heretics in the early church as a method of teaching false doctrine to the common folk.  The singing of non-biblical hymns was associated with false doctrine, and hence would be too dangerous to risk.  In a period where hymnody was oft-misused, it would be easy for them, in their desire for restructure and reformation, to toss out the baby with the bathwater.  While I don’t agree with their conclusions, I can at least respect their reasoning.

MRK: Calvin, however, seems to have reached a better (and more Biblical) balance.  As Hart puts it, “Believers should really sing, both with voice and heart” (p. 64).

JDO: Yes.  Calvin (like Augustine before him) understood congregational singing to be a form of corporate prayer, an easy way to facilitate corporate praying.  His solution to the problem of heretical hymnody was to look to the psalms as a source for music—which makes sense, because the Reformation’s return to the Bible should naturally be accompanied by a return to Biblical music.  Like Hart said, doctrine and practice and worship all should logically fit together.

MRK: While Calvin’s general pattern of worship continued for centuries in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, exclusive psalmody as the hallmark of Reformed worship did not last long.  In America hymns were first introduced in 1729, in the form of a songbook published by Benjamin Franklin. Its title: The Psalms of David Imitated by Isaac Watts.

JDO: I have that book sitting right in front of me now.  And looking through it, it’s easy to see how hymns subtly infiltrated worship.

MRK: With a name as innocent-sounding as The Psalms of David Imitated, what was so revolutionary about Watts’s work? And why is he widely credited (for good or no) with the introduction of extra-Biblical hymns into worship?

JDO: The most familiar example would be Psalm 72.  There are two versions here.  The first is a fairly accurate paraphrase; some liberties were taken for rhyming and meter, but it’s as good as, or better than, many selections in our Psalter Hymnal.  The second version of Psalm 72, on the other hand, takes significant liberties with the psalm text in order to make its Christological applications more explicit.  This version is the familiar song “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun.”

MRK: Yes—Psalms 72 (“Jesus Shall Reign”) and 90 (“O God, Our Help in Ages Past”) probably exemplify some of Watts’s most dramatic alterations to the Biblical texts.  For the record, both are in our Psalter Hymnal.

JDO: So you can see that as songs like these easily began to sneak into psalters, the door opened to including hymns not even remotely inspired by the psalms.  Now as I said last week, I have a love-hate relationship with Watts.  His work is commendable.  Recognizing the continuing value of the Old Testament, he brought out its relevance and Christ-centered significance.  But the effect of his psalm-hymns on the psalm-singing tradition is regrettable.

MRK: Now that brings me to a more immanent matter.  In the forthcoming URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal, should paraphrases like “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” be kept in the psalm section, or should they be moved to the hymn section?  Or, if they detract from true psalm-singing, should they be omitted entirely?

JDO: I’ve thought about that a bit, but every answer I come up with is overly complicated.  Most of these psalm paraphrases are still good and biblically helpful to sing, but they can’t in all fairnes be called psalm settings.  What if we marked “looser” psalm settings as 72-HYMN, for example, or printed them in a different color?  Or what if we stuck a psalm-hymn cyborg area between the existing psalm and hymn sections?

MRK: Right.  Presenting the Psalter Psalm-Hymn Hymnal.  Seriously, though, I’m sure there are many ways to approach the problem, and I’m sure it will be handled wisely by the Songbook Committee.  But I think the take-home message would be that we need to prioritize good, literal psalm settings, even if they’re not as familiar as some of these paraphrases.  If we have a good base of psalmody in our worship, hymns and “imitations” like the work of Isaac Watts will fall into their proper place.

JDO: Now in Watts’s wake, hymns from many different perspectives began to creep into the repertoires of the Church.  Among them were the works of Charles Wesley.

MRK: And whatever Wesley may have been, he was certainly prolific—writing over 6000 hymns, compared to Watts’s 700.

JDO: But now we return to what we’ve mentioned before: the importance of matching practice with theology.  Hart points out that for Presbyterian and (by extension) Reformed churches to sing Wesleyan hymns is “a theological and liturgical oddity that has not generated sufficient comment” (p. 71).  Seriously, hasn’t this ever struck anyone as odd before?

MRK: Perhaps it’s just something we don’t think about too often.  Many people, including me, couldn’t tell you who wrote “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” off the top of their head.  We tend to accept familiar hymns as familiar, without giving any thought to their authors—and that’s a very detrimental oversight, in my humble opinion.  While we don’t want this to become an exposé of Charles Wesley, we do have to admit that his beliefs were not in line with orthodox Reformed theology.

JDO: Yes.  Hart describes the combination of Presbyterian doctrine and Wesleyan piety as an “unstable compound” (p. 72).  As we’ve pointed out before, what you sing affects what (and how) you think—and the easiest way to spread change (good or bad) is to get people to sing it.

MRK: Exactly.  The first alarm should be going off in our minds as soon as we realize that Wesley’s hymns were designed primarily to evangelize the unchurched and unsaved.  Thus, Wesleyan hymnody was created to appeal to the general public, with emotional and fairly shallow content.  Upon further thought, it occurs to me that this very same mentality has shaped the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) movement: “Win them with the music, and then they’ll turn to Christ.”

JDO: That’s completely backwards.  Paul’s injunctions to sing are to the end of glorifying God, “making melody in your heart to the Lord.”  The Psalms speak the same way.  Songs are not meant to draw people in, like some third key of the Kingdom.  While the Holy Spirit is entirely free and able to use a variety of means, the preaching of the gospel is his modus operandi (Romans 10:14-17).  So to purposely create songs to function as means of salvation seems to go against the Scripture’s very basis for singing.

MRK: Not only are Wesleyan hymns “me-focused,” but they’re often so individualistic that they simply can’t apply to the whole body of Christ.  The alarming part is that, as Hart says, “Presbyterians in America had no intrinsic objections of principle to the evangelistic purposes or experiential piety involved in Wesley’s hymns” (p. 73).  Their songs became inconsistent with their doctrine, and they didn’t seem to mind one bit.

JDO: I do want to point out that not all Wesleyan hymns are, well, blatantly Wesleyan.  For instance, I love “And Can it Be” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”  I think these songs are appropriate and beneficial for corporate worship.

MRK: Yes—one should be careful, Zwingli in mind, not to throw the hymnological baby out with the bathwater.

JDO: But I guess the lesson to learn is that we mustn’t be afraid to question the hymns we sing.  It’s so easy just to let songs slip into our worship without thinking about their implications.  Take, for instance, Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.”  I hope I don’t get into trouble here, but notice how the words are so personal, so autobiographical, so specific to me.  I’m not necessarily saying that we need to throw that song out of the Psalter Hymnal, but I would definitely recommend caution.  Let’s always make sure to balance songs like that with songs that focus on God and His glory.  For every “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” it’d be wise to sing a decent handful of “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”s.

MRK: And, of course, a bunch of psalms.

JDO: Absolutely.  With the psalms, you’re guaranteed to get the balance right.  They are, after all, inspired.  And even when the psalms sing of personal experience, it’s to the end of glorifying God.

MRK: Back in Sing a New Song, Hart mentions one other extremely influential hymn writer: Horatius Bonar (1808-1889), who’s been called “the greatest of Scottish hymnwriters” (p. 74).  Bonar’s four selections in the Psalter Hymnal are “O Love of God, How Strong and True” (329), “Not What My Hands Have Done” (389), “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” (413), and “Fill Thou My Life” (449).  Now I do love many of Bonar’s hymns, including “Not What My Hands Have Done” and “Fill Thou My Life.”  But the same Wesleyan emphasis on personal experience can be traced through many of Bonar’s works.

JDO: There’s no doubt that our churches today are still reeling from the effects of experience-based, me-focused, results-oriented forms of Christianity.  And those ways of thinking creep in through music.  Catchy, memorable, beautiful songs are the quickest way to spread ideas.  That’s precisely why we at URC Psalmody, like Hart, are so passionate about a return to psalm-singing (if not exclusively, at least primarily).  More importantly, we need to love the psalms.  Wouldn’t it be great if a love for the psalms could spread in the same way as a love for Wesley’s experiential hymnody?

MRK: After his detailed hymnological study, Hart spends the last three pages of his chapter reflecting on the importance of psalm-singing.  Again and again he brings out the need for Presbyterian and Reformed Christians “to be discerning about the common idiom of American culture” (p. 76).

JDO: Sadly, I often see people who are bored by psalm-singing, but flock to shallow revivalistic gospel songs or flimsy repetitive choruses.  Now Hart is careful to point out that psalm-singing is not a “cure-all” that will fix everything in our churches.  But it is an important step toward a God-centered, Christ-glorifying worship practice.  In other words, it’s a way to make sure that our practice matches our theology.  Hart concludes his chapter with a profound evaluation:

Presbyterians and Reformed Protestants may have a valuable remedy for resisting the novelty, emotional excess, and disorder that characterizes so much worship in the contemporary church—a return to the Psalter.  It is certainly not a magic cure-all that will suddenly cause teenagers to be attentive and put an end to worship committees’ desire to experiment with new forms of worship.  But…if Presbyterians are jealous for singing the right songs in worship, debates over the regulative principle, questions about spontaneity, and worries about bored children and confused visitors may actually fall into their proper place.

Next time: Chapter 5, by Rowland S. Ward, on “Psalm Singing and Scripture.”

Until then,


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