Where to Put What We Sing

Hymnals are something that Presbyterians take for granted. Rare is the lay person who picks up the book to examine it like any other, looking say at the table of contents, then at some of the indexes, and then at one or two hymns to see which tune the compilers used for a certain text. Instead, most church members look at the bulletin at the specific time for singing in the service, find the number in the hymnal, stand, and sing the chosen hymn.

Perhaps just as rare is a church member who reflects on a hymn in relation to what goes before and after it in the service. Does it follow a prayer, a Bible reading, the sermon? Did the pastor choose the hymn for a specific reason? Was it to reinforce the theme of the biblical passage, to resonate with the sermon topic, or as is often the case for hymns before the sermon, just a way to let people stand and stretch?

And most important, did the pastor choose the hymn to function as a prayer in response to what just transpired in divine worship?

This is the most important question if the dialogical principle guides the way that we order a service. If God speaks and we respond, then the way God speaks is through word (read and preached) and sacraments, and we respond by prayer (and offering). This means that congregational singing needs to fit the category of prayer, which is exactly what Calvin considered worship songs to be, and which is also why he only sang psalms. The psalter is the Bible’s prayer book.

So what then should we do with hymns like “How Firm a Foundation”? Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful hymn and testifies to God’s faithfulness. And as the years pass it is very hard not to be moved by the line, “And when hoary hairs shall their temple to adorn, Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.” It is a great hymn but it is not much of a prayer since almost all of the stanzas are in quotation marks, indicating that God is speaking to those who are supposed to be lifting up their voices to him. In which case, if we are responding to God in song, and if our response is actually words that God speaks to his people, then we are singing in a manner so that God is speaking to himself.

This dilemma may explain why Presbyterians are prone to regard hymns not according to their type of prayer – praise, thanksgiving, confession, petition – but according to the doctrine they teach. The Trinity Hymnal of the OPC puts “How Firm a Foundation” in the section dealing with “The Glory of God: His Faithfulness.” The old PCUS hymnal from 1955 put this hymn in the section, “Life in Christ, Faith and Assurance.” Neither are bad calls. But both hymnals are arranged, as reflected in their table of contents, according to doctrinal categories rather than forms of prayer for different parts of the service as part of the congregation’s response to God. In fact, the Trinity Hymnal goes so far in the direction of doctrine that it arranges the hymnal according to the chapters of the Westminster Confession.

This decision to arrange hymns according to doctrine makes sense if you buy the adage that more people learn their theology from hymns than from systematic theology. I for one do not buy this adage because of the way that most people use hymnals (mentioned above) they sing on command with little attention to the point of the song. I am also suspicious of the assumption contained in the adage because I am not convinced that the theology contained in hymns is all that clear. Granted, the answer from the catechism about saving faith may not rhyme, but it is clear.

But this begs the question of what songs are supposed to do in worship. If they are a form of prayer, then why do we have so many songs that are mini-sermons?


27 thoughts on “Where to Put What We Sing

  1. Darryl,

    Three things:

    Why can we only rightly respond with prayer? What is the basis for this argument? While I acknowledge the prayerful character of much of what I sing (trinity hymnal and RPCNA Psalter user) I’m not sure I can fit all of our worshipful response into the box of prayer, indeed I’m not even sure all the Psalm are intended for “prayer”.

    You write “In which case, if we are responding to God in song, and if our response is actually words that God speaks to his people, then we are singing in a manner so that God is speaking to himself” – To be consistent you have to acknowledge that this is true of all the Psalms – they are chiefly God speaking to us as they come to us as Holy Scripture. We just speak them back to him.

    Third ,the example you give of “How firm a foundation” is clearly a joyful meditation on the faithful preservation of God’s people by the Lord. Using God’s words to do thus seem eminently appropriate and guards us from sloppy sentimentality that we find in many hymns. The words elevate our Triune God before our eyes (and ears) – praising God with the language of Scripture.




  2. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16)

    If one sees a connection between the two parts of this verse (and consideration of the parallel passage in Eph. 5:19 will push one in that direction), then singing is a form of mutual teaching and admonishment by the congregation (though this is certainly not the only aspect of singing). I think this provides some justification for thinking that part of the purpose of a hymn is to teach doctrine. However, I very much agree with your point that more thought should be given to how a hymns fits in with the other elements of the service. It is a great blessing to have a service skillfully arranged so that the hymns allow one to respond to what is going on in the rest of the service


  3. Matt, as I understand it, we have only four elements of worship, word, sacraments, prayer, and offering. It looks to me like the only time the laity gets to speak is with prayer. So song as prayer might follow. Yes, we say creeds, but I put them in the class of vows or oaths.

    The problem with your point about the psalms being God speaking to himself is that the human author of the psalms is invariably addressing the words to God, not the other way around as in “How Firm a Foundation.”

    I agree it’s valuable to praise God with the words of Scripture. That seems like an argument in favor of psalms. Plus, psalm singing is not exactly foreign to our tradition.

    Jamie, I am not convinced that Col. 3:16 is speaking about corporate worship. Plus, I’m not sure that Paul’s intention was to say teach each other by singing. Either way, if we want songs to teach, why not commission hymns from Reformed pastors — people who are called to teach the word. Why let the teaching be done by non-Reformed hymn writers (Wesley), or the non-ordained (Rosetti)? No matter what the function of hymns, Presbyterians have not been coherent either in theory or practice. We simply sing whatever is put in front of us. But we draw the line at chanting.


  4. Hmm, that’s an interesting claim. When I hear references to corporate singing of sacred music I immediately think of the corporate worship service. Why do you think that is not what Paul is talking about here?

    Nevertheless, I’m not sure that it is entirely relevant whether Paul is referring to corporate worship or not. Since we are to speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, then this music must contain an appropriate horizontal element. It’s not like the lyrics to the psalms change when we leave the service on Sunday! When writing spiritual songs, we should take into account this function Paul says they should fulfill. Of course, there need not be a dichotomy between speaking to one another and speaking to God. Just one example: Psalm 134:1-2 is addressed to the servants of the Lord, and verse 3 is addressed to the Lord.

    I would definitely be in favor of more hymn writing by Reformed ministers. Nevertheless, I see no reason why a session should not take hymns that they deem to be theologically sound and use them in corporate worship (or even edit them to make them theologically sound).


  5. Darryl

    Thanks for the reply. You’ve prompted me to research on these four elements of public worship – the Directory for Publick Worship enumerates these four elements, but also dictates that psalms are to be sung. These it seems are viewed separately from prayer. The section that begins “Of Publick Prayer Before the Sermon” reads, “After reading of the Word (and singing of the psalm) the minister who is to preach …” It seems that the singing of a psalm is viewed differently to the praying of prayer. What are you thoughts on this?

    On the subject of the direction of the psalms – not all are directed to God as you mentioned, and some are spoken by the Father of/to the Son. Do we sing those?

    I think we all resonate with your thoughts in the posting: there is much that is weak about the corpus of hymns that are used in our churches. That said, I’ve used some dreadful psalters in my time – their form and grammar are as incomprehensible as if we were singing Shakespeare (nothing against Shakespeare, there’s just a time and place for everything). Frankly, if while at Seminary, I produced Hebrew translation as bad as some of those psalter “translation” I would never have graduated.

    Is this about exclusive Psalmody or a broader issue?

    Oh, by the way, it’s nice to discuss something other than “union/justification” or “2K theology”! 😉



  6. dgh said: The problem with your point about the psalms being God speaking to himself is that the human author of the psalms is invariably addressing the words to God, not the other way around as in “How Firm a Foundation.”
    The problem is that the invariable claim regarding the Psalms is not true, e.g. Psalm 46, toward the end, just to name one off the top of my head. Psalm 133, also seems to be addressing the congregation, as mutual encouragement. The Psalms are not monolithically dialogical in nature. While your point about an over emphasis on doctrinal teaching is well taken, don’t let your pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction.:)


  7. DGH wrote:

    … [A]s I understand it, we have only four elements of worship, word, sacraments, prayer, and offering. It looks to me like the only time the laity gets to speak is with prayer.

    What a shame that the pesky WCF XXI:5 has it quite differently. It distinguishes the singing of psalms from the reading and the preaching of the Word, prayer, and the administration the the sacraments. If you must collapse it to four, then the singing isn’t prayer, it’s the word, since the the psalms are the word. Funny how there really aren’t a lot of “old side” hymns in the reformed tradition. It’s the revivalists that made up (or imported from other traditions) the uninspired hymns. The fact that the anti-revivalists adopted them too in order to compete meaning trying to get people back into church after the itinerants were gone, doesn’t really justify it either. Calling the congregational singing prayer in order to justify oneself in continuing in the sin of Isaac Watts that made the church to sin, is as ridiculous as Aaron saying I put the gold in the fire and the calf is what came out.


  8. Jamie, if songs must have a horizontal element, then you have the congregation addressing each other in worship. And this bears on my response to Andrew (below).

    Andrew, those pesky standards also say that the laity should not read Scripture during worship (out loud). So now your understanding of songs violates what the Divines wrote about lay reading of Scripture.

    In other words, when God speaks to his people, he does so through the word read and preached by those duly set apart for that ministry.


  9. If you will pardon a newcomer butting in:

    I find it interesting that in a tradition which claims to be built on a foundation of “sola scriptura” the “magisterium” called upon to support an argument is the WCF and DPW rather than Scripture …


  10. That is interesting. The Directory for Public Worship does forbid the laity from reading Scripture, but also has the singing of Psalms in the congregation as a duty of all Christians. Of course it could be that the Directory is just baldly contradictory, but it seems likely that the comments about the reading of the Scriptures are simply not saying anything about singing. It may be true that when we are singing, we are also actually reading, but the natural application of the term “reading” is to the non-musical speaking aloud from a book.

    Anyway, it seems a hard case to make that the singing of the Psalms is not the Word. Even if we say that we take them as a prayer, it will still remain true that the Psalms are Holy Scripture, and we are reading them from a book, and we are loudly proclaiming them in public worship. They may be prayer, but they are the proclamation of the Word also.


  11. DGH:

    That’s why I don’t go for your collapsing the elements of worship to just four. (That’s why I prefixed, “if you must collapse …”.) The WCF XXI doesn’t really permit that, since it lists all those different parts of worship distinct from one another. WCF XXI:5 requires the singing of the psalms, distinct from the reading of the Word, which is distinct from the preaching of the Word. Limiting (in worship) the reading the word to the minister doesn’t have any impact on that other distinct element of worship the singing of the psalms. So where this leaves me is being confessional, and you, not so much. 😉


  12. Typically in our worship service the hymns are either a recapitulation of Scripture just read, eg. a Psalm; a prayer in response to the preceding element in the worship; or “other” (foreshadowing of Scripture to be read? continuing theme of the service/sermon?). And this is carefully explained by the pastor so we poor sheep are not left to guess why we sing this hymn at this time. I think being this explicit (“Let’s sing this hymn as a prayer of thankfulness, and that our Lord would continue to pour His Spirit upon us…”) is quite helpful.


  13. Andrew: You’re right. But one question for all: where is the offering in the WCF. I think the Directory (the old one) talks about an offering for the poor after the Lord’s Supper (the only place I think I ever saw this done was in the old RPC,ES). The offering in some places seems to have been elevated to a sacrament–with it’s own prayer, Word, and singing to surround it. Very odd. To me.


  14. I’ve not understood how a tradition with a high view of ordination (“when God speaks to his people, he does so through the word read and preached by those duly set apart for that ministry”) compels its members to sing hymns authored by people who could not be ordained within that tradition, if at all. The creeds and responsive psalm/catechism reading are other times when the congregation responds as one. But isn’t there a difference between a creed, a psalm, the catechism, and Wesley’s or Crosby’s or Havergal’s idea of the Christian experience? Or the Westminster Divines and a GCP committee?

    Even ordination compels members only to sit under someone’s preaching, not recite the sermon back to God as their corporate response to Him.


  15. Wolf,

    Simply quoting a Confession is not Roman Catholic. We were simply answering Jamie’s question. If you want biblical rational for why the authors of the Confession believed so we can give that also, but that wasn’t the question. Basically, if the public teaching of the Word is a gift given to those called by God and approved (ordained) by the church, then reading the Word in public worship is an element of teaching the Word. Even how ones reads a passage often reflects on his understanding of the passage, so there is teaching occuring even as one reads to the church. That is the general concept at least.


  16. Wolf: “I find it interesting that in a tradition which claims to be built on a foundation of “sola scriptura” the “magisterium” called upon to support an argument is the WCF and DPW rather than Scripture …”

    Is it really so shocking to your sense of individual autonomy that as confessing Christians we would be interested in how the founders of our denomination understood the Bible? Do you hold other fields of knowledge to the same standard or is it just theology? For example, since the pure sciences are based on empirical observation, should we shun the teachings of earlier scientists and simply get busy with observation?

    I bet that if you took your own statement seriously and really tried to learn why it is that we so highly esteem our creeds and confessions, you would begin to reconsider your own biblicist convictions and the narcissism on which they rely.


  17. @ Wolf Paul: At times, arguments from the Confession and other historic Reformed documents are used as proxies for Scriptural arguments because these documents are taken, similar to scientific theorems, as known good representations of Scriptural truth.

    @RL: For example, since the pure sciences are based on empirical observation, should we shun the teachings of earlier scientists and simply get busy with observation?

    As a practicing teacher of the sciences, I would say that we should test the teachings of earlier scientists against observations. And in fact, this is precisely what goes on in the sciences (google for “evidence-based medicine”, for example). This testing is not the same as rejection of what has gone before, but it does take a potentially critical stance.

    Likewise, proper confessionalism must always subject itself to the direct scrutiny of Scripture. This is not the same as autonomy or rejection of what has gone before, but simply a recognition that Scripture is in fact the sole final authority. Thus WCoF 1.4, 6, 9, 10.

    Simply put, Presbyterian confessionalism requires a stance of appealing finally to the Scriptures.


  18. Jeff, the most ardent confessionalist would agree that Scipture controls over the confessions as the court of final appeal. However, it is inherent in confessionalism that the party seeking to appeal to Scripture as teaching something different from the confessions cannot pass go and fail to collect $200 and go straight to Scripture. The intermediate court of appeal is the courts of the church. If an ordained person can convince a church court that the confession should be revised based upon a closer look at Scripture, then the confession will be revised. Of course that has happened from time to time. But until the confession is duly changed by a church court, the confessionalist is bound by the confession (subject to conscience in the most limited of cases).

    To depart from the confessional standards is a serious thing not to be done lightly. As you probably know, we believe that the confessions reflect the considered jugment of the church as a whole in light of corporate prayer and the presumed influence of the Spirit’s guidance upon the larger church. There is wisdom in the confessions that is higher than the wisdom of the lone individual entreprenuer. That doesn’t make the confessions on a par with Scripture, but it does mean I depart from them only with fear and trepidation.


  19. Jeff:

    Maybe I’m just not cocky enough, but when my private study starts to blossom into theological notions, I test my thoughts against the Standards. If the ideas taking form in my mind contradict the Standards, I assume that I am mistaken, not the church. I don’t think that the Westminster Assembly was the most extraordinary collection of talent and human knowledge that has ever been gathered to study Scripture — with the possible exception of when I studied alone. John Frame, I think, holds that view, but not me. I haven’t moved beyond the Standards.


  20. Fr. Robert:

    Much like Article 8 of the Anglican Church’s 39 Articles, Article 9 of the Belgic Confession formally adopts the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. The earliest editions of the Westminster Shorter Catechism have an appendix that endorses the Apostles’ Creed as a “brief sum of the Christian Faith, agreeable to the Word of God,” and the Heidelberg Catechism devotes questions 22 to 59 to explaining the Apostles’ Creed, which it describes as the “articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian Faith.” The Definition of Chalcedon has also been confessed by Reformed churches and is considered orthodox by the majority of Reformed theologians, elders, and lay people that I read and talk with.

    As I understand it, when taken together, these creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian, and Chalcedon) contain the dogmatic findings of the first five Ecumenical Councils. Though not every Reformed denomination has formally made these creeds part of their church constitution, they (or the teachings that they contain) are embraced by most Reformed folks as part of our catholic heritage.

    The sixth and seventh “ecumenical councils” have gained less traction, and I think rightly so, especially the seventh with its approval of the use of images in worship–a decision that flew in the face of centuries of practice within the church.


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