Posts Tagged 'Interpretation'

Let the Reader Understand (Review)

This fall I had the privilege of taking an independent-study course on the Psalms with Geneva College’s Old Testament professor Dr. Byron Curtis. My first reading assignment was Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton’s Let the Reader Understand (P&R, 2002). This helpful book defined the categories for some of the interpretive problems that arise when considering the Psalms or any other book of Scripture. The review below is a course paper I wrote to summarize the book and connect it to the study of the Psalms.

prpbooks2fimages2fcovers2fmd2f9780875525167One of the most persistent problems in biblical hermeneutics, at least from a layman’s perspective, is positing that a problem exists. Many Christians are content to consider the question of scriptural interpretation only in regard to particularly difficult books such as Daniel or Revelation, while leaving the more “obvious” passages of the Bible to the interpretation that comes most naturally, whether obtained from private study, homiletic application, or current Christian literature. Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton begin their book Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co., 2002) by establishing the central problem of hermeneutics: “Does the Bible teach something in particular, or is the meaning of a text simply ‘what I get out of it’?” (p. 1). How can we be sure our interpretation is accurate? How can we affirm with certainty what God’s revealed will for us is? “If we regard the Bible as the fountainhead of our faith, it is crucial that we resolve this problem. If we are to obey God, we must first understand what he said. If we are to believe, there must be something there for us to believe” (p. 2).

McCartney and Clayton begin with a study of presuppositions, which immediately challenges schools of “higher criticism” of the Bible. The most basic of the Bible’s presuppositions is “that submission to the God who speaks in his Word is the first step in understanding him” (p. 9). This is true not just because of sin, which darkens our perception of the ways of God, but simply because of our finite capacity of understanding. The fact that this Word is expressed in ordinary human language denies us access (for now) to a comprehensive, absolute knowledge of God. Yet the Scriptures do indeed contain all that is necessary for life and godliness, and the authors make the case that the ambiguity of human language is the Bible’s asset rather than its deficiency: “[I]f language were totally unambiguous, precise, and exhaustive, then words about God would be sufficiently inadequate to make them idolatrous. The flexibility of the elements of language is what enables sentences to be perfectly, though not exhaustively, true” (p. 20). The Bible’s nature as both the inspired Word of God and a book in ordinary human language should drive us to place ourselves under its authority while also exercising every effort to understand its true meaning.

Central to McCartney and Clayton’s presentation of hermeneutics is the role of the Holy Spirit, who “convicts and assures us of the truthfulness and trustworthiness [of the Bible] as we find it in Scripture” (p. 74). Not only did the Holy Spirit inspire the original authors of the text, he also continues to illumine the hearts of believers as they seek to understand the will of God. While there is “an accomplished, objective, definitive, and unrepeatable dimension,” through the Spirit “the Word is also applied continuously to individuals, who subjectively experience it coming alive to them, meeting their needs in special situations” (p. 75). Reinforcing the authors’ earlier presupposition about ultimate submission to the Word of God, interpreters of the Bible must recognize that it is only the Holy Spirit who can confront us with the divine authority of its texts.

From this starting point, the authors proceed to explain the history of biblical interpretation through the church, beginning with the early interpretations of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus and continuing through the influence of Derrida’s poststructuralism in contemporary scholarship. McCartney and Clayton then introduce the grammatical-historical method, which places the words and phrases of Scripture into a linguistic and cultural framework in order to reveal the authors’ original meaning. Building on this foundation, the authors introduce four principles to derive a present meaning from grammatical-historical analysis: the meaning must be organically related to the human author’s meaning; the meaning must be consistent with the total revelation in the Bible; the meaning must point to God’s redemption; and the interpretation must remain subject to the Holy Spirit’s directing of the church (pp. 173, 174). Putting these principles into practice, McCartney and Clayton outline a plan for studying God’s Word: preparing spiritually, consulting multiple Bible translations, considering discourses rather than just words and sentences, and discovering the historical and cultural background of the text. In closing, Let the Reader Understand discusses the various literary genres within the Bible and suggests how proper exegesis should shape Christian worship and witness.

What distinguishes Let the Reader Understand from many contemporary works on biblical exegesis, both popular and scholarly, is the humility with which it approaches the Word of God. The author’s statement that “genuine understanding occurs to the degree that our basic presuppositions and operating assumptions are in line with those of the Bible” (p. 289) roots hermeneutics in a realization of the authority of the Word of God, not an arrogant demand for the Bible to prove its worth. Related to this perspective is an acknowledgment of both the perspicuity (clarity or simplicity) of Scripture and its unfathomable depths. A solid exegesis of many Bible passages can begin with a very simple, literal interpretation, which accumulates significance in the “hermeneutical spiral” of contextual and historical analysis (p. 40). In this way, Let the Reader Understand encourages careful study of the Scriptures while undermining critical scholarship’s claims to self-sufficiency.

Let the Reader Understand is a uniquely valuable introduction to hermeneutics, deftly explaining difficult philosophical concepts and navigating complex interpretive arguments while remaining readable. One of the book’s notable features its extensive crossover to questions of philosophy and communication, some of which seem unrelated at first to Biblical interpretation. For example, Chapter 4 delves into the ideas of F. de Saussure, C. Levi-Strauss, and J. Derrida, while Appendix A provides a ten-page discussion of the question “Where is meaning?” However, such conversations are key to appreciating the rest of the book—not only because of their relevance to communication studies, but because they interact with the philosophies that have consciously or unconsciously shaped much of the debate over biblical interpretation in recent years.

This review would be incomplete without mentioning the special value of Let the Reader Understand for a study of the Book of Psalms. Although it may not be debated as hotly as prophetic or apocalyptic literature, the genre of biblical poetry can present significant problems of interpretation for the thoughtful Christian. While popular views of the Psalms may treat them as collections of inspirational sayings for a faith-based life, the organization of this collection (Why five books? How are the Psalms laid out?) and their historical nature as the songbook of ancient Israel challenge us to reconsider this common perception. The Psalms have often fallen victim to hermeneutical crimes like quoting Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” without recognizing the object of this command (the warring nations on earth) or the context of the surrounding Psalm. In addition, the difficult themes of lament and imprecation throughout the Book of Psalms present a challenge to any modern reader. How are Christians to understand vindictive statements such as “May they be…like a stillborn child that never sees the sun” (Psalm 58:8 NIV) or “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow” (Psalm 109:8)?

Let the Reader Understand offers a way toward greater understanding of the Psalms by affirming their divine inspiration, not just their historical or cultural value. The authors describe several modern theories of interpretation such as the autonomous text theory, the reader-response theory, and the sociolinguistic-community theory (p. 24). Yet all of these drain the psalms of the spiritual value that makes them much more than interesting artifacts of ancient Israel. Studying how the Psalms are referenced by New Testament authors, recognizing the redemptive-historical context of these songs of the saints, and understanding the genre of poetry are a few of the applications that can be made from this book to a study of the Psalms, each of which will yield rich rewards in individual or corporate hermeneutical efforts.

Of course, to return to the central message of Let the Reader Understand, the most important factor in understanding the Book of Psalms is the recognition that these songs, like the rest of Scripture, point to the salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ. McCartney and Clayton quote the church father Irenaeus in regard to the New Testament fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy: “And therefore when the Law is read by Jews at the present time, it is like a myth; for they do not have the explanation of everything, which is the coming of the Son of God as man. But when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hidden in the field but revealed by the cross of Christ” (qtd. p. 85). Without the aid of the Holy Spirit, the Book of Psalms will be just another record of the worship practices of an ancient nation. But with the Holy Spirit’s help, this collection of songs will inspire us with newfound praise when we discover in them “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (I Peter 1:11).


Exclusive or Inclusive? (Part 3)

Over the past week or so, we’ve looked at the notion of “exclusive psalmody” and how it relates to the more familiar view of “inclusive hymnody.”  Don’t worry if you missed the first and second installments in this series; they’re easily accessible at any time in the blog archives.  My purpose today is to offer a personal response to the exclusive-inclusive debate.

First, let me say that I am not a proponent of exclusive psalmody.  At least, not yet.  Since I’m still researching and learning, it is entirely possible that I’ll eventually become convinced of the necessity of singing only the psalms.  Until then, however, I’m going to share these thoughts from the perspective of an inclusive-hymnist URCNA member.

How can exclusive psalmody be advantageous to a congregation?  Two main reasons come to mind.

  • As so many theologians have noted, the psalms are unquestionably the best songbook the Christian could ever have at his disposal.  Singing the psalms is a great privilege and a definite requirement for worship.
  • Amidst a Christian culture so illiterate with the singing of God’s Word, it is hard to overdo the psalms.  For that reason, exclusive-psalmody churches are radically and refreshingly different from the seeker-sensitive Christian worship atmosphere so prevalent today.

Yet the doctrine of exclusive psalmody also has its pitfalls and drawbacks, including the following:

  • Are we to believe that Paul was simply being redundant (or triply emphatic) in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians when he speaks of singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”—that is, “psalms, psalms, and psalms”?  Although non-inspired songs were probably just as common then as they are now, Paul makes no special effort to distinguish the psalms from any other Christian songs.  If he had exclusive psalmody in mind, I find it surprising that he would use these three distinct terms.
  • This position presents some inconsistencies when applied to other elements of Christian worship, such as preaching.  If the regulative principle of worship were applied to a sermon in the same way as the exclusive psalmists apply it to singing, I have to conclude that anything beyond the unembellished reading of God’s Word would be forbidden.
  • Often, exclusive psalmody denominations insist upon using one particular Psalter and reject all others.  As one example, the Presbyterian Reformed Church sings only from the Scottish Metrical Psalter of the 1600’s.  Some other denominations hold exclusively to the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter.  As reassuring as it may be to sing from a centuries-old songbook, the advocates of exclusive psalmody must acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that these songs are not divinely inspired either.  Yes, they are originally based on God’s Word, but in order for us to sing them, they have been translated into English by uninspired men, and have additionally been rendered into poetic verse.  It’s also evident that the meaning of many of these psalm settings has been modified.  A study of some of the selections in the 1912 Psalter, for instance, reveals that a large number of songs have been interpreted to include themes from the New Testament—exactly the fault propounded against the use of hymns.  Thus, while the exclusive psalmists insist upon singing only the inspired Word of God, the very psalm settings in use often contradict this stipulation.

Which view is more Biblically accurate?  At this point, I can’t really say.  Dozens, probably even hundreds, of essays have been written on both sides of the debate (and many are available online if you’d like to do some extra reading).  Both sides can find Scriptures to support their claims.  But regardless of your view on exclusive psalmody, there are a few important points that we would all do well to keep in mind.

  • If your church is confidently and consistently singing the Psalms in worship, whether or not hymns are also in use, the best course of action is probably to leave the matter alone.  If it’s obvious that the worship of the congregation is sincere and God-glorifying, promoting change may do more harm than good.
  • If the leadership of your church strongly feels that a move should be made in either direction (towards exclusive psalmody or inclusive hymnody), consider making the change gradually.  Putting an announcement in the bulletin one Sunday morning that reads “The elders have determined that from now on we will sing only the psalms in worship” will certainly create more strife than a slow, well-planned transition.
  • In general, it’s safe to say that we can always sing more of the psalms.  Whatever your denomination’s views on psalmody may be, never forsake the psalms.  If necessary, introduce more recent arrangements or get a new songbook.  But remember that singing the psalms is not an optional activity for God’s people.  It is a command.

Joel Pearce, a musician and member of the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee, shared his reaction to exclusive psalmody on his own blog a few years ago:

I continue to wonder why the Psalms are not used more often in corporate worship. They cover the entire spectrum of human emotion in worship; they rehearse Christ’s saving work, death, resurrection, and glorification; they contain themes of repentance, forgiveness, joy, praise, and awe; and they are songs which are inspired by God written for our use! Why wouldn’t we want to sing them more often?…

I’m not an exclusive psalmist (yet?), but when we have 150 Holy Spirit-inspired texts to use in worship, why wouldn’t the church at least sing mostly Psalms? Instead of singing man-written hymns and songs with an occasional Psalm thrown in, I think a more biblical ratio should be mostly Psalms with an occasional man-written hymn or song thrown in. When I hear/sing many of the “positive, encouraging” contemporary praise choruses or even some of the overly-individual/emotional/experiential revival hymns of the 1800s, they just seem so radically inferior to the Psalms. This isn’t snobbery, because shouldn’t the inspired Scripture trump man-written texts? When we’ve been given a rich hymnbook in the book of Psalms and are commanded to sing them, why settle for less?

–from Token Lines

Mr. Pearce’s view is extremely similar to mine.  Even if we cannot concur on the virtue of uninspired hymns, certainly all Reformed Christians should be able to agree that the psalms must play a significant role in our worship.

To the exclusive psalmody churches, I pose this question: Do you hold to your tradition of singing only the psalms merely for the sake of tradition, or do you hold to it with firm belief that it is in accordance with God’s Word?  As is the case in many human settings, “accepted practice” can slyly sneak into a place of authority even higher than God’s Word.  No, this is not a condemnation of exclusive psalmists; rather, it is a call for them to re-examine their hearts and motives.

In conclusion, I can see truth and wisdom on both sides of the debate.  But here is my challenge to all: Whichever criterion for worship we choose—exclusive psalmody or inclusive hymnody—let us hold to it not just because we want to follow our forefathers, but because we desire to worship our God faithfully.


Christianizing the Psalms

One of the main points I was careful to mention during my recent articles about psalm-hymns had to do with the relationship between the New Testament and the Old.  I pointed out that many psalm-hymns interpret the psalms in light of the New Testament in a way that literal psalm settings cannot.  In his excellent book Singing and Making Music, Dr. Paul Jones (organist and music director at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia) makes a similar point about hymns and psalm paraphrases.  I can’t resist inserting a few quotations from his book here.

“At the same time, psalms are not the only appropriate worship songs of the people of God.…From New Testament examples, worship should also include our Christian response to the finished work of Calvary.  This response could be characterized as a ‘Christian interpretation of the psalms’ through hymns and canticles as well as biblical songs and hymns of the present day.  According to [Hughes Oliphant] Old, ‘The doxology of the earliest Christians kept psalmody and hymnody in a dynamic balance.’  Without Christian hymns, our praise of God through the psalms would still be rich, but it would be missing our acknowledgment of and gratitude for the manner in which Christ has redeemed us and fulfilled what the Old Testament promised.”

A little later in the same chapter, Dr. Jones refers to the work of Isaac Watts, an eighteenth century English song-writer whose works are still widely sung in churches today.  Dr. Jones explains:

“Isaac Watts authored psalm paraphrases and hymns with a related purpose—a quest to ‘Christianize’ the psalms.  Like Luther before him, Watts wanted believers to benefit from psalm singing, so that it would not be an intellectually or culturally remote activity, but one from which they would learn and with which they could associate.…Watts abbreviated lengthy psalms and avoided potentially confusing metaphoric language.  Further, he makes direct reference to Christ or the gospel within at least one stanza in most of his psalm paraphrases.…

“While we understand that many of the psalms have their prophecies fulfilled in Christ, the psalm texts do not refer to Jesus or the gospel by name.  Some of the psalms (such as Psalm 45) were understood even in Old Testament times to be messianic.   Watts wanted to make Christ’s fulfillment of them evident: ‘In all places I have kept my grand design in view; and that is to teach my author to speak like a Christian.’  He instructed congregants to carry psalm books with them and asked the clerk to read the psalm aloud before it was sung so that people might better understand what they were to sing.  In so doing, he restored Christian praise to its rightful place in the worship of the Dissenting Church of the early eighteenth century.”

I’ve given enough of my own thoughts on this topic in the past few posts, so I’ll let these quotations speak for themselves.  Overall, though, this book, Singing and Making Music, is a great resource.  If I had to recommend a single all-around “church music manual,” this would be it.  Dr. Jones thoroughly discusses the purpose, history and structure of church music—and some of the controversies that plague it—in a very personable and helpful manner.  In fact, it’s more than likely that you’ll see some more quotes from his book on this blog in the future.

Singing and Making Music by Dr. Paul S. Jones is available from, about $12 for the paperback and $8 for the Kindle version.  Or, if you’d prefer to support Dr. Jones’s ministry directly, you can buy the book for $17 from Paul Jones Music, Inc.

The quotes are from pages 101, 102, 105 & 106 of the paperback edition.



P.S.  A busy weekend is ahead, entailing a Classis Eastern US meeting, a weekend with a visiting URC pastor, a piano competition, and, of course, a welcome day of rest on Sunday.  I hope to rejoin you at the beginning of next week!

Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 2)

Last week I brought to your attention the concept of the “psalm-hymn” and how it relates to current discussions about the new URC Psalter Hymnal.  Since then, I’ve received a few comments in favor of psalm-hymns, and a few in favor of literal psalm settings.  Honestly, I’m still on the fence myself regarding how to strike the proper balance between Scriptural accuracy and congregational edification.  I think enough has been said about the merit of literal settings for now, though, so in this post, I’m going to briefly outline a few possible advantages of using psalm-hymns in worship.

First, many psalm-hymns interpret the psalms in light of the New Testament, in a way that literal psalm settings cannot.  For instance, in Psalter Hymnal number 135 (“Christ Shall Have Dominion”), Psalm 72 is understood to speak of Christ as the eternal King.  While this exegesis is not found in the actual psalm, we cannot really say it is unbiblical, since this message is confirmed throughout the rest of Scripture.  In fact, even Jesus often interpreted passages from the psalms to refer to himself (Psalms 110 and 118, for example).  Similarly, the author of Hebrews not only quotes from the psalms extensively, but applies them to New Testament truth as well.  Just as our ministers preach on Old Testament texts and interpret them through the lens of the whole gospel, so these psalm-hymns bring the songs of God’s people Israel into focus for the people of God’s new covenant.

Second, in some cases, these psalm-hymns may actually be wiser choices for congregations than literal psalms.  Yes, singing literal psalms is a commendable goal for Reformed churches that desire to improve the psalm-singing they have practiced for decades.  But what about newer congregations that are emerging from more contemporary music styles?  Mightn’t switching from gospel songs and praise choruses directly to complex literal psalm settings easily discourage such churches?  The psalm-hymns in our songbook preserve the basic unaltered message of the Scripture, yet present it in an easy-to-learn hymn-like format.  Many of the tunes used with these texts are from familiar songs like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “To God Be the Glory.”  All this to say that, regardless of the excellent value of literal psalm settings, I believe psalm-hymns might be more practical for some congregations, and more helpful in learning to sing God’s Word—especially for the first time.

Third, the paraphrase settings of the Psalter Hymnal have become very familiar to many URC congregations.  Forsaking the old, well-known songs completely, even to incorporate newer and more accurate psalm settings, is hard to justify for these churches.  Yes, all churches should be open to change, when change is necessary to worship God more faithfully!  But is it helpful or hurtful to such congregations to remove familiar favorites just because they are psalm paraphrases rather than literal translations?  And is it any coincidence that many of the most beloved psalm settings in the Psalter Hymnal—“Lord, our Lord, Thy Glorious Name,” “O Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord,” “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah”—are actually psalm-hymns?  Time itself has shown that these songs resonate with worshipers across multiple generations, often in a way that literal psalm settings cannot.

Fourth, and last, psalm-hymns have a definite advantage when it comes to memorization.  I do agree with those who have pointed out that singing literal psalm settings is an excellent way to memorize the words of the Bible.  However, the elements of rhyme and meter in the psalm-hymns are extremely helpful for the memorization of the theme of the psalm, since each line nudges the reader on to the next.   Personally, I know it’s much easier for me to memorize Psalm 8 in this manner—

Moon and stars in shining height
Nightly tell their Maker’s might;
When Thy wondrous heavens I scan,
Then I know how weak is man.
How great Thy Name!

—than to memorize the literal ESV text: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (vv. 3, 4).  The flow of the melody, the number of syllables, and the rhyme at the end of each line—all of these things give the reader clues about what to expect next.  Sometimes literal psalm settings are able to accurately render the Scripture while still conforming to this rhymed-meter flow, but often these poetic elements become compromised in the effort to translate the psalm literally.  Both kinds of psalm singing can be used as an aid to memory, but the method of memorization is quite different.

In these few points I’ve simply tried to bring your attention to some of the benefits of psalm-hymns.  All that I’ve written is just an amateur appraisal of singing the psalms from a fairly inexperienced onlooker.  So, comments, questions, corrections, concerns—all are heartily welcome, as usual.  I’d especially like to hear how you view psalm-hymns in your church, and whether you’ve noticed similar benefits in singing them.  And next time, Lord willing, I’ll wrap up our discussion with a few practical ideas on the place of psalm-hymns in worship.

Until next time,


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