The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns IV

(Reprinted from NTJ, April 1997)

From: Glenn Morangie
To:T. Glen Livet
Date: 9/4/96 10:46am
Subject: Re: Psalmody -Reply -Reply -Reply

Glen,
Wow, such a sensitive guy to issue such a long and personal response. I must have struck a nerve or you must be convicted by the power of the word. (Or could it be that I am just brilliant?)

Please be advised, however, that I did not say that you were guilty of not taking the other side seriously. I actually complimented you as one of the few hymn-singers who could make an intelligent argument and also respect the motives of the other side, while also recognizing the position psalmody has had in the tradition. But chances are you didn’t read my exemption of you because of the medium. Unless something is on the page we don’t read it as carefully. The tv screen and the never-never land of the Net must explain your taking offense. I am sorry if I gave any. But don’t be so sensitive.

Having gotten the niceties out of the way, let me take the gloves off and respond to a few of your remarks. (By the way, kudos on your using the exegesis weapon. You know historians all too well. Once Greek and Hebrew come up, our minds turn into jello.)

First, I will take a stab at the I. Cor. 14 passage. Not only did that church sing hymns, but they also spoke in tongues. Surely you wouldn’t condone the latter. Then why the former? Could it be that in that pre-canonical age they had hymns that were as specially revelatory as tongues, prophecy, et al. Just a shot. Granted this is not an argument for psalms, but it is for singing inspired revelation.

Second, one of my concerns with hymnody is the implicit notion that there is a generic Christian language of piety. So even if we are Reformed, when it comes to singing it is ok to use the words composed by a Wesleyan, Lutheran or even Roman Catholic (e.g., “Faith of Our Fathers”). This makes me very nervous. If we had explicitly Reformed hymns, like our sermons and prayers should be (which is why, again, we submit those who preach and pray in corporate worship to licensure and ordination exams), then I wouldn’t have as much a problem, I don’t think. But hymnody historically has been one of the most ecumenical forces in Protestant history at least, and therefore corrosive of the integrity of confessional traditions. And American Presbyterian practice of hymnody is precisely why we have no obviously good response to P&W. For so long we have been singing words by Wesleyans and Anglicans that we have no ready response when someone in the congregation wants to sing a song by the Pentecostal, Jack Hayford.

Again, this is not a convincing argument for psalms, and exclusive-psalmody may be an over reaction to contemporary developments. (As I used to say in our Illinois church, the psalms were a perfect compromise to the worship wars between praise songs and hymns — then, at least, no one would be happy.) But some strenuous effort needs to be made on music in worship since it is the catalyst for much of the contemporary worship phenomenon.

Finally, I am surprised that you are squeamish in admitting that the Westminster divines were exclusive psalmodists. The standards may have only a few references, but that is because it was assumed you didn’t need to exclude hymns. After all, they produced a psalter, not a hymnal, and if Bob Godfrey can read aright, the directory for public worship is explicit about psalms.

My problem is that I am increasingly persuaded by your take on the law, and therefore follow much of your biblical theology (I guess it is really Vos’ and Kline’s). And I think you make a good case for why we should not limit our praise in worship to the canonical psalter. Where I would prefer to go, then, is in the direction of singing hymns and psalms from all of the canon, including NT hymns and those in Revelation. That way we would have the fulness of God’s revelation without having to depend on the inspiration of 18th century Brits or 20th century charismatics.

One good thing did come out of my provocation — it was a glimpse into the private life of the Livet family at worship. Are you going on to Ricky Lake anytime soon?

Elevatedly yours,
Glenn
_________

From: T. Glen Livet
To: Glenn Morangie
Date: 9/5/96 10:56am
Subject: Re: Psalmody -Reply -Reply -Reply

Glenn,
Thanks for your thoughts. I think your point about 1 Cor. 14 is well taken; it is POSSIBLE, exegetically, that the song is revelatory, and that the hymns we sing should be restricted to translations or paraphrases of inspired literature.

However, the “lesson” of 1 Cor. 14 is almost certainly NOT inspired, and it is more probable, then, that the list of activities there includes (as the other Pauline lists) both inspired and non-inspired speech.

I could not agree more with your concerns about a “generic Christian language of piety.” Many of the hymns our people wish their pastor would select he does not select, for precisely this reason; they aren’t consistently Reformed. I continually evaluate and re-evaluate the hymnal, with concern for precisely this question. I hate to admit that you are right on target, but you are.

I probably should have been clearer regarding the Westminster Assembly. As far as I know, the divines were exclusive psalmists. The divines, however, were also Erastian; and the version of the Westminster Standards adopted by my church are explicitly non-Erastian. David Coffin has frequently raised the question of the propriety of our calling them the “Westminster Standards,” since they have been modified in several places. I have been influenced by David on this point, and so I believe there is a distinction between asking “What was the opinion of the Westminster divines?” and asking “What is the teaching of the PCA version of the Westminster Standards?” The first question is resolved by analysis of the 17th century sources; the second question is resolved by analysis of late-20th century sources (including, for instance, that the Directory for Worship only has constitutional authority in the chapters on sacraments, and that it is different from the Westminster directory).

I don’t hesitate to affirm, however, that our tradition, in its earlier generations, was exclusive psalmodist in practice; and, in the majority of cases, in theory (the two are not the same; many of Calvin’s statements about the Psalms promote them on prudential grounds, and I am still unsure whether Calvin was exclusive psalmodist in theory, or whether, at that early date in the reformation, there simply was nothing better).

As to the direction we take from the canon; I still believe that many of the psalms are literary productions that arise from the narratives contained in the historical books; and that, therefore, the canonical psalms can provide direction for similar literary productions based upon the historical books of the NT. Presumably, for instance, someone could take the temptation narrative of Matthew 4; correctly perceive its obvious Second-Adam Christology, and compose a hymn of praise to Christ for his faithful warfare with our enemy, celebrating his triumph that assures our deliverance from the enemy, and that there is true righteousness for him to impute to us. That is, the psalter distinguishes itself from much hymnody by its celebration of the OBJECTIVE and historical acts of God, not our/my individual SUBJECTIVE experience thereof. “Amazing Grace” is privatized and romanticized, compared to the biblical examples of praise and adoration. I would therefore like to see a return to the psalms as examples of appropriate praise and thanks for that era in the history of redemption, yet also appropriate as models for later eras, provided the data of later eras is added.

We will be on Rikki Lake next Tuesday night, but not for family worship. They’re doing a special on “Cigar-Smoking, Beer-Drinking, Weapon-Carrying, Orthodox Clergymen,” and I am their exclusive guest.

Yours,
Glen

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12 thoughts on “The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns IV

  1. Glen: My problem is that I am increasingly persuaded by your take on the law, and therefore follow much of your biblical theology (I guess it is really Vos’ and Kline’s). And I think you make a good case for why we should not limit our praise in worship to the canonical psalter. Where I would prefer to go, then, is in the direction of singing hymns and psalms from all of the canon, including NT hymns and those in Revelation. That way we would have the fulness of God’s revelation…

    Precisely so. And if we extend it just a bit to hymns that exposit Scripture, then we are at a pretty good via media.

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  2. Oh, well, then I should never preach on the Psalms then, ’cause that’s what singing is for … and I should never preach trinitarian doctrine, ’cause that’s what the creeds are for … and I shouldn’t read Scripture during the sermon, ’cause that’s what the readings are for.

    And I shouldn’t preach about the work of Christ, ’cause that’s what communion is for.

    Nah. Like a well-written piece of music, a worship service should be mutually reinforcing parts. Songs that repeat Scripture or exposit Scripture related to the sermon thereby contribute to the whole. IMO.

    JRC

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  3. Or juggling hymnbooks during worship shouldn’t be done because that’s what real juggling is for.

    Come on, how about a few distinctions. Preaching is an element of worship. Singing a homiletical song about a text is not an element. Singing praise is an element. Psalms are a form of praise. The Supper is an element of worship. It is not a song, it is not a sermons.

    Your Framean thinking is showing. Because a sermon may have dramatic aspects, then liturgical skits are parts of worship.

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  4. Singing a homiletical song about a text is probably bizarre, among other things.

    “Everybody, last verse: ‘In the third chap-ter of E-phee-sians, yes, the third chap-ter of Epheeeeesians…'”

    But singing a song that paraphrases Scripture or expresses Scriptural doctrine, say, might not be:

    “Come ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore; Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love, and pow’r.”

    As a means of reinforcing the sermon, this song or indeed certain Psalms would be ideal.

    DGH: Your Framean thinking is showing. Because a sermon may have dramatic aspects, then liturgical skits are parts of worship.

    I want the worship service to be an integrated whole, so I must want liturgical skits? Nah. That’s a leap too far. 🙂

    JRC

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  5. On a more serious note: you allow that a sermon may have dramatic aspects. Why then can songs not have didactic aspects? I’m having trouble reading out your theory of worship from the objection that you raise.

    It seems like, on your account, that each element of worship should have its own domain, so to speak, with functions that are unique to that element. What functions would you then assign to each element, and why?

    JRC

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  6. Jeff, would you not agree that a sermon is not a sacrament, and that the Lord’s Supper is not baptism? Or is prayer the collection of tithes. I don’t see what is so hard about keeping straight what each element is and does. The point that brought this up was your regarding a hymn as a homily. I believe song is a form of prayer. Now, I know pastors sometimes pray as if their prayer is a sermon — the Second Helvetic Confession actually warns against this — but a prayer is addressed to God, a sermon is not.

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  7. ‘Reformed’ hymns can be every bit as subjectified as charismatic, My Jesus/My Boyfriend songs. It seems almost blasphemous to say it, but Bob Murray McCheyne’s Jehova Tsidkenu is rubbish. As a boy I always used to sing, “I wept as the waters rolled over his soul” and think “I didn’t weep. Why am I singing this?”

    Having been an exclusive hymnodist for 33 years, I’m gasping for some Psalms.

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  8. Jeff:

    Q. 89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
    A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

    Q. 94. What is baptism?
    A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

    Q. 96. What is the Lord’s supper?
    A. The Lord’s supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

    Q. 98. What is prayer?
    A. Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.

    I didn’t make it up. Right from my church’s catechism.

    And then there’s the offering. That’s for paying the pastor and roof repairs. Singing and or juggling may not be substituted for a check or bill from a high denomination.

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  9. “Having been an exclusive hymnodist . . . .” does that mean that in your neck of the woods, Psalm singing was out-lawed?

    If avoiding prevarication while singing in worship is what one is looking for, then there are plenty of Psalms I personally can’t sing. This desert wandering pilgrim just can’t run through any troops or leap over any walls. It’s all I can do to drag my sorry butt along the way.

    YMMV.

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  10. “..does that mean that in your neck of the woods, Psalm singing was out-lawed?”

    In principle no, in practise yes.

    “This desert wandering pilgrim just can’t run through any troops or leap over any walls. It’s all I can do to drag my sorry butt along the way”

    At least I can sing these Psalms knowing that they are breathed out by God and that they speak of Christ. I don’t want to sing a song that speaks of Murray McCheynes emotional state.

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