It’s a fascinating time in the church’s history.
That statement may sound a little naïve. “Has your head been buried in the sand this past year? Or even this past week?” you might be wondering. Between the aftermath of racism-motivated shootings, turmoil over recent Supreme Court decisions, concerns about tax-exempt status and religious freedom going forward, and the continuing liberalization of mainstream Christianity, it certainly doesn’t seem like the church is in prime condition.
But don’t let the news headlines faze you. If anything, we are merely re-entering the kind of atmosphere in which the church thrives, and in which it has thrived since the time of the apostles. “In the world you will have tribulation,” promised Jesus (John 16:33). Maybe we in the West haven’t been confronted with the full truth of this statement for the last few centuries, in which the surrounding culture has been overwhelmingly favorable to Christianity. Actually, I think there is abundant evidence the church of Jesus Christ has atrophied in such an environment, with liberalism and loose “cultural Christianity” as two likely byproducts.
The possibility that tribulation may be in our future is no reason to be discouraged, but it should make the church “get off the couch,” so to speak, and exercise its limbs and members in preparation for whatever rigors may be ahead. After all, we have the rest of Jesus’ promise too: “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
That’s why I say it’s a fascinating time in the church’s history: because, particularly in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, I find myself surrounded by encouraging signs of this reinvigoration. The one that pertains to us the most at URC Psalmody, of course, is a renewed concern for Biblical, God-glorifying worship—particularly through psalm-singing.
Now, combining a fresh interest in psalmody with the reconsideration of assumptions from the church’s past leads me to an interesting question: How did our worship come to be this way?
I’m not talking about the structure of Reformed worship services in general, like our series last summer. Here I’m thinking particularly about the unique combination of songs in the URCNA’s heritage of worship: not psalms only, not hymns mixed with psalms, but distinct categories of psalms and hymns—a Psalter Hymnal.
Although this combination has been a familiar part of our worship since the publication of the Christian Reformed Church’s first Psalter Hymnal more than eighty years ago, it’s not a common sight in the broader church. There are psalters, such as the RPCNA’s Book of Psalms for Worship (2009). There are hymnals, such as Word’s Celebration Hymnal (1997). But songbooks that devote separate sections to both psalms and hymns are hard to find. The OPC and PCA’s current Trinity Hymnal (1990) includes a significant number of psalm settings, but they are merely interspersed among the hymns. The PCUSA’s Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) has a separate psalm section, but it is incomplete. Even the new hymnal of the CRC and RCA, Lift Up Your Hearts (2014), merges psalms and hymns (though these denominations separately published Psalms for All Seasons, a complete psalter).
My point is that it is a little odd, both in theory and in practice, to sing both psalms and hymns in worship, yet still insist on distinguishing between the two. But that’s exactly the position held by the URCNA: “The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches,” yet sound hymns “may be sung” if approved by the Consistory (Church Order Art. 39). Moreover, the fact that the new URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal will (we expect) continue to separate psalm settings from hymns supports this distinction. Our churches’ position leads to an unusual conclusion: Psalms and hymns are equal as regards suitability for worship, but unequal as regards their essence.
The debate over the theological basis for this conclusion will have to wait for another day. For now, though, I want to probe into its historical origins. A useful starting point is the background behind the publication of the CRC’s first “red” Psalter Hymnal in 1934. As the CRC had previously adhered to a practice of almost-exclusive psalmody, the incorporation of hymn-singing was a significant shift and merited a 133-page booklet from the Psalter Hymnal Committee in explanation. That booklet is available for download from the CRC’s online archives (in English, fortunately), and I’ll start by commenting on its most relevant portions. Interestingly, this booklet also includes the textual changes made to the hymns included in the first Psalter Hymnal—many of which have been passed down to us in the current “blue book.” Studying this Psalter Hymnal Committee Report may not provide a complete answer to our historical questions, but as I said, it is a starting point.
Does this summer series sound boring? If you’ve read this far, hopefully you don’t think so. Even though rehashing synodical decisions from the 1930’s sounds pretty irrelevant, it should be obvious why the question of a Psalter Hymnal remains important today. After all, the pursuit of Biblical, God-glorifying worship should never stop—especially not at a time in the church’s history as fascinating as now.