"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Friday, August 07, 2009

Singing Psalms, and only Psalms, on Sunday

I had a unique experience recently. I attended my first Psalms-only service in Scotland. The church was a Free Church of Scotland that has been exclusive in singing Psalms without instruments and no hymns for nearly a hundred years. I had set a post on Luther to hit that commented that I could never be a Psalms-only puritan. However, the experience was unique and enlightening.

Our choir came to the Free Church early, leaving behind their hymns and songs that they often sing by themselves to adopt Psalms sung by the whole congregation. Then, they practiced in a small building that was very unforgiving to those that sang off key. Then, as the practice wrapped up, a few early congregants filtered in. Mostly the older crowd getting their usual seats. But I watched the members as the choir finished preparing. As the choir sang, I saw an elderly woman singing along, knowing every word to Psalm 127. I knew none of the words. But this woman heard the first few lines and could join right in. The next Psalm they sang, she joined in again. The fact hit me: This lady probably knows all 150 Psalms from singing them every Sunday! I know Psalm 1, 8, 23 and parts of 51. My opposition to Psalms-only missed an important virtue of Psalms-only singing: The congregation begins to memorize the book of the Bible that Calvin called “an anatomy of the soul.” Laments, praises, confession, all in this rich book.

Such a fact does not change my mind that there are good reasons not to be Psalms-only. First, one must feel hypocritical every time you sing Psalm 150, that commands instruments to be used in the worship of God. Second, one has to be stricter than Paul who quotes from early new hymns in his epistles (Phil 2:5-11, Col 1:15-20). Finally, one must do interpretive gymnastics to get around the command to “sing a new song.”

Yet, the choice today seems to be between singing Psalms-only and singing no Psalms. We may sing a song that lifts a few lines from a Psalm, but never the whole thing. We sing the line “Your love endures forever,” in tons of songs, but barely touch the parts that show specific instances of God's love. Though I think being Psalms exclusive is not warranted by Scripture, I do think they have a richer experience and diet of worship than we Christians who rarely, if ever, sing Psalms at all. Somehow, I don't think God will chide the Psalms-only people in heaven as much as the no-Psalms Christians. Our music director at PCPC has a vision for a new Psalter with new music and updated metric words, to re-introduce the Psalms to a Church that has forgotten them. Few things, in my opinion, could be better for the diet of the Church in worship in America.

An example of Scottish Psalms singing: Psalm 23 sung by the congregation mp3.


M. Jay Bennett said...

Good stuff. I am convinced by your second point (that Paul quoted early church hymns and instructed that hymns be sung). But I don't think points one or three are strong. Point one doesn't distinguish between propriety in private and public worship. For instance, in Psalm 149:5-6 we read:

"Let the godly exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their beds. Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands."

If we say that all worship practices described in the psalms are prescriptive for public worship, then according to the psalm above we should bring our beds and swords to public worship services! That would be a hoot.

I think it is better to understand that the Psalms sometimes describe behavior that is fitting for private worship, which is fitting to be sung about in public worship, but not actually done. That is how I take the call to "praise his name with dancing" in Ps. 149:3. So, given this argument, I can see how someone could sing about praising God with music in public worship, unaccompanied by music, without contradiction. (I'm not actually convinced, however, that musical accompaniment is a bad thing. But I have other reasons.).

On point three, one might point to the use of the word "new" in Scripture. Do we believe that the "new" covenant is new in the sense that it is essentially different from the Old? Not if we are confessing Westminster. :-) So, one might understand the call to sing a new song to be referring to a re-newed song, an old song with new meaning and energy (i.e. in light of the unfolded mystery of the gospel of Christ).

Jared Nelson said...

Could you help me understand how you are differentiating private and public worship? I understand what you mean by "private" as being done when not in the congregation, but help me on the principles governing each. In public worship, we are careful to say we do nothing that God has not ordained and commanded. Therefore in worship we will not require something that is questionable and we disallow those things that are banned.

Your example of 149:5-6 seems to speaking of the occasion of worship (at all times, in bed and in battle) not the requirements (to bring a bed and sword to public worship). But can we say that there are things allowed in God's mandating of worship that at times He forbids strongly, and other times he allows? In public worship is it unacceptable to pray to an image and in private worship it is acceptable? Or to put it in less stark of a contrast, are there things perscribed for one worship that are banned for another?

I guess my question is: Does Scripture make this distinction? If God is concerned that we worship Him in a particular manner, why is He so concerned with His worship in one context and not another? If worship is spiritually forming, can being of two minds in worship be confusing and disfunctional in spiritual formation?

M. Jay Bennett said...

Good questions. I would say it is important to remember that when we speak of "propriety" of our worship practice in any given sphere (i.e. public or private) we are discussing the realm of circumstances (not elements or forms). We are discussing things like proper dress, proper hygiene, proper posture, proper interaction, proper decorum, proper timing, etc. I can worship God in private while dressed in my underwear and a t-shirt. There's nothing improper about that, because it is private worship. But if I were to show up on Sunday morning in my underwear and t-shirt, I would be escorted to a private room to receive some instruction on propriety in public worship.

This is my basic thought with respect to what we read about in the Psalms. Sometimes we read of circumstances of worship which are proper for the private sphere but not the public sphere. Again, I would point to Ps. 149:5-6 as an example of this. Does the text mean that the ideal is that we should be praising God all the time? Yes. It does. But do the circumstances in which that praise occurs automatically transfer over into the public sphere? Some may, some may not. How do we know which is which? I think we should begin with clear prescriptive texts in order to first get a sense of the elements, means, and manner of public worship. The Bible is full of examples of this. Then we should simply use "common" sense, so to speak, in order to discern general propriety with respect to the public and private spheres of life.

Can you think of any other ways we might be discerning in this respect?

Jared Nelson said...

Your distinction may be valid, but unregulated. It allows commands that may normally be taken for public worship to be disregarded. When, then, has preference become the deciding factor? Then arbitary decisions are raised to the level of Biblical faithfulness.

Let us take here "sing a new song" or Psalm 150's instruments. A Psalms-only, accapella congregation can then believe it is being more faithful in its worship by placing such things in private worship. Then, also, a church with an organ, choir, and a hymnbook feels morally superior for observing those descriptions as pertaining to public worship. Who determines which congregation is being more faithful? I find this public/private distinction to be practically helpful but not exegetically helpful.

The text from Psalm 149:5-6 does not particularly address this, I think, because some Christians have historically come to public worship with swords on and some may even have been brought to worship in their beds. These allowances are not the same as a ban, such as Psalms-only, engages in.

M. Jay Bennett said...

The distinction between propriety (which is within the sphere of circumstance) in public verses private worship is regulated by the general teaching of Scripture, which should be interpreted according to the analogy of faith.

The issue for the Psalms-only folks has to do with the category of form in worship, not circumstance. Those who are Psalms-only believe the form is prescribed. Those who are not Psalms-only believe the form is not prescribed, though it is acceptable. But again, when dealing with worship forms, we have left the category of circumstance, which is where issues of propriety are situated.