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 Bibleâ€™s prayer book.
So what then should we do with hymns like â€œHow Firm a Foundationâ€? Donâ€™t get me wrong, it is a wonderful hymn and testifies to Godâ€™s faithfulness. And as the years pass it is very hard not to be moved by the line, â€œAnd when hoary hairs shall their temple to adorn, Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.â€ 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 â€“ praise, thanksgiving, confession, petition â€“ but according to the doctrine they teach. The Trinity Hymnal of the OPC puts â€œHow Firm a Foundationâ€ in the section dealing with â€œThe Glory of God: His Faithfulness.â€ The old PCUS hymnal from 1955 put this hymn in the section, â€œLife in Christ, Faith and Assurance.â€ 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 congregationâ€™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?