Posts Tagged 'OPC'



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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Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 1)

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.

1930HymnReportCoverThe 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.

–MRK

Take Two on the Hymn Proposal

On May 15, the joint OPC and URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committees released the sheet music for the proposed hymn section of the new songbook online at www.psalterhymnal.org. The collection replaces the first hymn proposal prepared by the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee in 2010.

Added to the approximately 270 psalm settings approved by both denominations last year, the new Hymn Proposal’s 428 selections would yield a songbook significantly larger than the current Psalter Hymnal used in the URCNA, but comparable in size to the OPC’s red Trinity Hymnal.

With titles like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “Abide with Me,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “It Is Well,” a large portion of the Hymn Proposal will be familiar to the average hymn-singing church member. Several psalm paraphrases from the blue Psalter Hymnal that were omitted from the Psalm Proposal also appear here in the hymn section, including familiar titles like “Christ Shall Have Dominion,” “In Doubt and Temptation,” and “On the Good and Faithful.” Many selections were scanned directly from the pages of the blue Psalter Hymnal and red Trinity Hymnal, appearing with little or no textual or musical alterations.

The Hymn Proposal makes use of more recent collections of church music as well, including five songs from James Montgomery Boice and Paul Jones’ “Hymns for a Modern Reformation” (2000) and a select few songs in a more contemporary style from sources like Keith Getty, Stuart Townend, and Vikki Cook. Current members of both denominations have also contributed to the collection with new hymns like Harry Zekveld’s “Behold, My Servant” and Elisabeth Shafer’s “O Spirit, Fill Our Hearts.”

Consistent with the Reformed tradition in the heritage of the Synod of Dort, the Hymn Proposal includes settings of the New Testament songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon. Other notable selections include a musical version of the Ten Commandments, two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, two hymns based on the Apostles’ Creed, and a musical setting of the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism.

The Psalter Hymnal committees will receive feedback on the contents of the hymn section of the new songbook via email at comments@psalterhymnal.org until December 31, 2015. The finished collection will be presented for approval to the OPC’s General Assembly and the URCNA’s Synod in 2016, Lord willing, with publication to follow.

–MRK

Called to Sing (Part 2)

(The following is continued from an adaptation of a Sunday school class I led at the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Franklin Square, NY, on May 24, 2015.)

We’ve already worked through the question of why Christians should sing. If we view congregational singing as the grateful offering of redeemed sinners before a holy God, we should also carefully consider what to sing. Simply put, we should strive to make sure we worship God the way he desires to be worshiped.

In preparation for this class I took a peek inside the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Directory for Public Worship to learn how your church regulates its worship services. There I found these guidelines: songs should be “for the praise and glory of God and the building up of the saints,” they should “befit the nature of God and the purpose of worship,” and they should be “fully in accord with the Scriptures.”

Now while most Reformed Christians (and, indeed, Christians in general) would agree that these are good requirements, they have long disagreed about which songs best fit them. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) encourages the use of both psalms and hymns (that is, any songs from outside or from other portions of Scripture) in worship services. However, with the decision to produce a complete Psalter Hymnal in collaboration with the United Reformed Churches in North America, the OPC took one step further. In so doing it affirmed that all of the psalms (not just some of the psalms) are appropriate for Christians to sing, and that their nature and purpose are distinct from those of uninspired hymns.

I heartily agree with this position. And while I’m not here to argue that the psalms should be sung exclusively, I do want to spend the rest of this class outlining how the Book of Psalms is supremely suitable and helpful for Christian worship. In particular, there are three primary ways in which psalm-singing offers a fuller and richer experience than hymn-singing.

First, when we sing psalms we sing the inspired Word of God itself (though usually adapted to fit a rhymed metrical pattern). You can’t get more “in accord with the Scriptures” than the Scriptures themselves! As long as the translators and versifiers have done their job well, we never have to worry about singing psalms that promote false doctrine. Psalm-singing immerses us in the Word of God to an extent that hymns do not.

Second, when we sing psalms we sing in unison with the church of all ages. As we saw earlier, Christian worship participates in the one cosmic song of redemption, “the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.” In Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms, Andrew Bonar writes, “The Psalms are for all ages alike—not more for David than for us. Even as the cry, ‘It is finished!’ though first heard by the ear of John and the women from Galilee, who stood at the cross, was not meant for them more truly than for us; so with the Psalms.”

Even though the psalms were written thousands of years ago, through the Holy Spirit they speak to believers today just as powerfully as they did then. In fact, aspects of some psalms still remain unfulfilled—for instance, the prophecies about the blessings of the Messiah’s reign over all the earth in Psalm 72. We find that we must sing the psalms with the same eyes of faith as our forefathers did.

Third, when we sing psalms we sing not just to Jesus and about Jesus, as we do with hymns, we also sing with Jesus (a distinction helpfully brought out in David Murray’s book Jesus on Every Page). Opponents of psalm-singing often argue that as part of the Old Testament, the psalms fail to incorporate the revelation of the person and work of Jesus. But while there are two testaments, there is only one redemptive story, and Christ is at its center. Murray and others have made a convincing case for reading the psalms as they would have been sung by Jesus himself.

As an example of singing the psalms with Jesus, look at Psalm 22. The opening words of this psalm should be familiar to all of us: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They were, of course, spoken by Jesus as he hung on the cross. But look at the last verse of this psalm: “They shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.” Some theologians have suggested that this last phrase could also be translated, “It is finished.” From beginning to end, Psalm 22 reflects the thoughts and words of Jesus as he suffered for our sins. In that sense, we see this psalm as being sung by him! This becomes even more awe-inspiring when we see Jesus singing about us in the second half of this psalm: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you” (v. 27). With this perspective, isn’t it an incredibly rich and rewarding experience to study and sing this psalm?

As we close, I’d simply like to ask you to learn to love the psalms God has provided for us in his Word. Learn to love reading them, studying them, seeing Christ in them, and singing them. Learn to let this book shape your expressions of praise and gratitude to God. Individually and as a church body, you will find that the psalms nourish and strengthen your spiritual walk as a result.

–MRK

Called to Sing (Part 1)

PewRack

(The following is adapted from a Sunday school class I led at the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Franklin Square, NY, on May 24, 2015.)

The thoughts I’d like to share with you today don’t arise from academic degrees or decades of experience in church music. They merely arise from watching, listening to, and participating in Reformed worship over the past several years. I’d simply like to encourage you through this class to think more deeply about why the church sings and how it can sing better.

Right from the beginning I want to encourage you not to raise the objection, “We’re just not a musical church.” True, many factors may help one church sing much better than another—a big congregation, good acoustics, a large number of musicians, and so on. My home church doesn’t enjoy many of these blessings; maybe yours doesn’t either. But that’s okay.

As an example, I want to point you to the congregational singing of churches in the Reformed Presbyterian denomination, one of which I attend at college. Every Sunday these Christians gather together and sing psalms a cappella as a congregation, and the heartiness and quality of their singing would put most of our churches to shame. Yet they probably have no more musicians in their congregation than we do. The difference is that they have developed a church culture that fosters a love for strong congregational singing: they teach their children psalm-singing from their youngest Sunday school classes, they encourage even non-musical people to learn to sing in four-part harmony, and they let the words of the psalms they sing penetrate their lives outside of worship as well. The results are truly impressive, and I believe denominations like ours can strive for that goal as well—but we need to start now. While I don’t know of many churches that can sing like this, I know of no reason why any church can’t sing like this.

That’s my encouragement for you. Of course, there is a challenge as well: to think about why you sing in the first place. As a little diagnostic, ask yourself what you think about while you’re singing on a typical Sunday morning. I know I’m often disgustingly distracted: the pastor’s tie is crooked, the pianist is playing too slow or too fast, or some other thought is floating through my head preventing me from honestly engaging in worship. Occasionally this distraction is caused by circumstances outside our control. But more often, our attitude towards corporate singing reveals a deeper apathy in our hearts.

To correct this perspective we need to return to Paul’s command to the churches in Ephesus and Colossi to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Yet for the Christian, singing is more fundamental than a command. Throughout Scripture, we see singing as a natural reaction of gratitude in response to God’s work of deliverance. One of the earliest examples of this pattern is found in Exodus 15, where Moses composes a song for the people of Israel to sing after the Lord brings them through the Red Sea. We see numerous other songs of deliverance throughout the Old Testament, sung by Miriam, Deborah, Barak, Hannah, David, Hezekiah, and others.

In the New Testament, the pattern continues with the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon. And in Revelation 15 we are told that the multitude standing by the sea of glass “sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (v. 4). I’ve often wondered what it means that these saints sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb. I’m no theologian, but I’m starting to wonder if the point of this verse is that the two songs are one and the same. The story of salvation sung about by Moses at the beginning of Scripture is the same theme taken up by the glorified believers around the throne of God in Revelation!

As those who have been redeemed by Jesus from sin and death, we too have a part in this eternal song. Singing is a natural reaction to God’s work, and if “we are his workmanship” singing should be fundamental to the Christian’s identity as well. If this is the case, how dare I stand there on a Sunday morning before the living God who has redeemed me from my misery and called me into his presence to receive my worship—and I’m thinking about the pastor’s tie?! Such hardheartedness is ludicrous, and yet I have to be reminded of it daily. Christians, we should need no command to sing. It should already be on the tips of our tongues!

Incidentally, not only is singing fundamental to the Christian’s identity, I want to suggest to you that it also distinguishes the church from the world. What other institution exists whose members (musical and non-musical alike) sing regularly and heartily? Maybe two or three generations ago, this would not have been such an uncommon spectacle. But today, as the church becomes more and more countercultural (or as the culture becomes more and more counter-church), its singing becomes more remarkable as well. We sing in response to the work of God in a way that the world cannot. That realization should be awe-inspiring!

(To be continued.)

–MRK


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