Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 3)

Here on URC Psalmody we’ve been spending some time considering why and how the first Psalter Hymnal came into existence more than 80 years ago. As we’ve already seen, the first impetus for the project came from several overtures on the question of hymn-singing to Synod 1928 of the Christian Reformed Church. If Classis Grand Rapids East was the primary voice arguing for hymns, Classis Zeeland was the strongest in arguing against them. You can read the entire overture here; it’s the eighth in the list. (I’ve provided a rough translation I worked out with the help of Google Translate, but if any Dutch-speaking readers would care to submit a better version, I’d be very appreciative!)

Classis Zeeland urged synod to declare uit dat het niet wenschelijk is gezangen in onzen openbaren eeredienst in te voeren—more or less, “that it is advisable not to introduce hymns into our public worship.” When I first read this, I expected them to back up their position with some of the standard exclusive-psalmody arguments against hymns: that they are not commanded in Scripture, that they are unnecessary additions to worship, etc. But whether or not they would agree with these points, Classis Zeeland left them out, giving six other grounds for their position.

  1. Historically, the introduction of hymns tends to crowd out or even exclude the psalms from worship. Both “cold facts” and personal experience back this statement up. Where hymns are used, the frequency and vibrancy of psalm-singing often fades. Eventually, the psalms become a lonely minority amidst a broad collection of music. Even for us in the URCNA, isn’t it often true that the last third of the blue Psalter Hymnal contains the songs we know the best?
  2. Hymns speak about the life of God’s people, but the psalms speak out of the spiritual life. I think this point is clearer in Dutch, having something do with the difference between the prepositions over and uit. The classis could be talking about the fact that psalms are divinely inspired, i.e. they speak “out of the Spirit’s life,” or they might be emphasizing that the psalms are suitable for every experience of the human “spiritual life.” In any case, the point is that the faith expressed in many hymns is shallow and sentimental compared to the all-encompassing range of the psalms.
  3. Even though metrical versions of the psalms are not themselves inspired, they are still based on the inspired Word of God in a way that hymns are not. Technically, metrical versions of the psalms are no more divinely inspired than hymns. However, rhymed versions of psalm texts are still rooted in and guarded by the inspired Word of God, while with hymns, “Anything goes!” Psalm-singing helps to safeguard our worship against unbiblical teachings and themes.
  4. Many English hymns are “leavened with Arminianism” (doorzuurd met het Arminianisme). Hymns have an incredible power to spread false doctrine. To be sure, many uninspired songs are thoroughly Biblical, even staunchly Reformed, and some of the best have made it into our current Psalter Hymnal. But even in the beloved blue book, there are songs I cringe to sing. On the other hand, it’s very hard to imagine an “Arminian psalm setting,” as long as the translation and versification have been done faithfully.
  5. If the current metrical psalter fails to shed enough New Testament light on the Psalms, the remedy is not hymn-singing but better versification. Now, the classis could mean one of two things here: that the psalms should be “recast” in New Testament language (à la Isaac Watts), or that faithful translations of the psalms will automatically allow New Testament light to fall on them. For my part, I think the second of these possibilities better honors the Word of God and edifies the church. While the psalms need to be explained and connected to Christian living today—and there are many opportunities for this during the worship service—I don’t believe we can only sing psalms after they’ve been “translated” into “New Testament language.” It is the same voice of the same God speaking to us.
  6. The introduction of hymn-singing would cause unrest in the churches. To be fair, there would continue to be unrest in the CRC on this issue whether or not hymn-singing was approved. But Classis Zeeland seems to have in mind the principle the apostle Paul emphasized to the Corinthians: Even if all things are lawful for the Christian, “not all things are helpful” (I Cor. 6:12). To suddenly change a significant element of the worship service—and one that had remained basically unchanged for more than three centuries prior—would necessarily cause turmoil and upheaval in the church.

How does Classis Zeeland’s overture apply to the church today? In the URCNA and the OPC, our position is significantly different than the CRC’s in 1928. Hymn-singing is a longstanding practice in our churches. The question the new Psalter Hymnal will force us to consider is not whether to sing hymns, but how to define the ongoing relationship between psalms and hymns in our worship.

At the same time, though, several of Classis Zeeland’s warnings still apply very much today: the crowding out of psalm-singing, the stunting of Christians’ spiritual expression, and the spreading of false doctrine. Thankfully, there’s a simple answer we can apply right here and right now: Sing more psalms. This is the most effective way to guard against the dangers mentioned above—and along the way, our spiritual lives, both as individuals and as a church, will be strengthened.

–MRK

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1 Response to “Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 3)”



  1. 1 Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 4) | URC Psalmody Trackback on July 16, 2015 at 10:10 am

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