“Trinity Psalter Hymnal” Editors Appointed

Hymnological MathAs Danny Olinger reports in the latest issue of New Horizons, Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen (URCNA) and Rev. Dr. Alan Strange (OPC) have transitioned from being chairmen of their respective denominations’ Psalter Hymnal committees to the official co-editors of the new proposed “Trinity Psalter Hymnal.” This news serves as a welcome–but still jarring–reminder that the final vote to approve our denominations’ new songbook will occur within the next year (June 2016), and if approved it may be in production in a year and a half!

I’m beyond excited that we have this opportunity to work together as sister churches on such a worthwhile project, and that it is so close to completion. I do have two questions that keep popping up in my mind, though–whether due to my perspective as a URCNA member rather than an OPC member, or just because I’m a (20-year-old) fuddy-duddy. Neither one is earth-shattering. Neither one makes me want to pull the plug on this excellent project. But I still feel the need to raise them here, if only to start a conversation about them.

Okay, the first one is really pretty insignificant. It’s about the proposed title of the new book: Trinity Psalter Hymnal. I have to say, I’m just not won over.

I get it, I get it. Both of our denominations have longstanding relationships with our previous songbooks–the OPC since 1961 (Trinity Hymnal) and the URCNA/CRC since 1934 (Psalter Hymnal). The new compilation contains a significant amount of material from both–so why not combine the names? Also, the word “Trinity” reminds us that when we sing psalms and hymns, we sing them as Trinitarians. The psalms are sung to the Father, about (and by) the Son, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is good.

At the same time, we have never felt the need to refer to the Book of Psalms in our Bibles as the “Trinity Book of Psalms,” any more than we would refer to Acts as the “Trinity Book of Acts.” It simply goes without saying that the Psalms are Trinitarian. Plus, between the awkward acronym “TPH” and the near-certainty that pastors in both churches will be messing up the title from the pulpit for at least the next five years, I just can’t see a need for this cumbersome appellation. Maybe it’s just my Dutch tendency to want to call it what it is–a Psalter Hymnal. I’m happy to hear explanations and thoughts from my brothers and sisters on the OPC side of the aisle.

My second concern has to do with the comparative sizes of the psalter and hymnal sections. As of the last count, the psalter contains 279 selections and the hymnal contains 428. With almost two hymns per psalm setting, the new songbook has the potential to give the priority to hymn-singing, detracting from the official position (at least in the URCNA) that psalms are to have the principal place in worship.

I’m not as concerned about this trend as I could be. First, I understand that the OPC comes from a rather hymn-biased worship tradition in producing this book, and that the decision to include all 150 psalms is already a significant change for them. I respect the fact that this transition will take time. Second, even many URCNA churches use supplemental hymnals which push our own hymn-to-psalm ratio far past half-and-half. For that matter, many URC’s use the current Trinity Hymnal themselves!

Nevertheless, if this project is ultimately to serve the church of Christ, we need to see a conscious effort made (from the pew-backs or the pulpit) to re-emphasize our biblical and denominational commitment to the preponderance of psalm-singing. Knowing the two godly men who have assumed the responsibility of editing this book, I hope and pray this will become a reality.


2 Responses to ““Trinity Psalter Hymnal” Editors Appointed”

  1. 1 Josh Schulz October 26, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    I’m curious to know what you would consider an appropriate response to your second concern. Sure, it’s nice to say that the disparity between psalm settings and hymn tunes should be more reflective of our high value of the psalms. On the other hand, however, I am not inclined to advocate for an increased number in settings for a particular psalm, since I think it can hinder memorization more than help it, and I also think that having a large selection of hymns is very valuable. In my experience hymn singing is most powerful when it is most strongly tied to the message preached that morning, which I think also helps to keep the focus on the truth of scripture more than the poetry of people. Having a larger hymn section should, if anything, make such experiences more possible, even if learning a lot of new hymns is difficult for congregations. At the end of the day how we write our Psalter Hymnal isn’t going to keep anyone from favoring hymns in their worship. A book is hardly going to stand in the way of someone who is errant. After all, having the Bible hasn’t kept churches from straying in their doctrine; it’s been happening pretty much from day one. Also, as you mentioned, many churches already use hymn supplements. While I don’t think that any of them are likely to give those up right away, isn’t having a smaller hymn section only going to encourage more of such things? Shouldn’t our priority in writing a Psalter Hymnal be more on creating an effective worshiping tool that can encourage faithfulness and unity within both denominations rather than worrying about how the page ratio might be twisted by some to avoid psalm singing? You’re right to say that we should re-emphasize our commitment to psalm singing but that commitment comes from the elders and members of our congregations first, not so much the book we sing from as long as all of the psalms are faithfully set therein.

    • 2 Michael Kearney October 26, 2015 at 11:01 pm

      These are good points. Actually, they reveal some deeper questions that probably not even the Songbook Committees can answer:

      – Whose responsibility is it to ensure that the psalms are getting the principal place in worship? (Back in the 30’s people in the CRC favored synodical regulation. One such suggestion was a flat quota–i.e. a synodical declaration that at least 50% of the songs sung in any worship service were to be psalms.)

      – What does “principal place” mean? Does it mean we ought to sing numerically more psalms or just that our worship should be shaped more by the psalms? (I’ve heard both argued. If I was going to make a numerical argument I would say that there should be no more than 150 hymns in the repertoire of any church. I’m not prepared to make that argument though.)

      – Our CO says hymns must be “approved by the Consistory”; it does not delegate this authority to classis, synod, or a synodically-appointed committee. How should this influence whether/how many hymns a committee should pick? What would happen if our denominations decided to just produce a psalter and let individual consistories choose supplemental hymnals to use if desired?

      – Would the effect of a smaller hymn collection be to limit churches’ extra song selections or encourage them even more, and possibly introduce more questionable/doctrinally unsound material? (I tend to think the latter, which would actually be a huge reason for having a larger hymnal, as you’ve said).

      – In any Psalter Hymnal, what is the stimulus to pick psalms above hymns? If pastors pick hymns because they want to, but psalms because they should, the decks are already stacked against psalm-singing–even if not numerically. In order for any of this to work people need to want the psalms at least as much as they do hymns.

      Difficult questions. How do we “re-emphasize our biblical and denominational commitment”? I’m not sure . . . maybe hence the vague ending.


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