Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Worship and Psalmody: Some thoughts

[Previous articles: Worship and the RPW?, Exclusive Psalmody, Ipsissima Verba and singing the name of Jesus]

Biblical theology - Systematic theology - Practical theology
Psalms - Hymns - Spiritual songs

Over on Twitter, I have been engaging in some sort of dialogue with my prof Dr R.Scott Clark, on the issue of Psalmody, or the singing of psalms. The issue is not about the singing of psalms, as I am for singing psalms. Rather, what irks me is the promotion of psalm-singing by elevating it as the summit of (true) worship, and/or to the denigration of hymns and spiritual songs.

While not wanting to denigrate the Psalms, for they are indeed God's Word, I would like to put forward and clarify from my previous posts on this issue one reason why elevating psalmody above other genres of worship is not in line with biblical truth, and can be extremely unhelpful in practice.

As I have said, paraphrase of the psalms is inevitable, in order for it to be sung in worship. No Exclusive Psalmodist (EP), no matter how much of a purist, ever sang the psalms as they are, but at a minimum they are arranged in metrical form. Some sort of interpretation therefore is always necessary, no matter how minimal the EP makes it out to be. Here I would like to add to my previous argumentation. If we say that the psalms have to be interpreted and paraphrased now in light of the fuller revelation of Christ in redemptive history, that would add more layers of interpretation to the psalms, with the addition of words and phrases not originally there in the psalms if we are to expound the fuller message of the psalms.

To be able to convey the meaning, and the fuller meaning of the psalms, would require even more paraphrase and interpretation. We must not forget that the psalms are more than 2000 years old, around 3000 years old. Such a historical gap cannot be easily bridged even if we translate the Hebrew with modern English (which is not the case with many Psalters). In order to bridge the distance, so that Christians can understand the fuller meaning of what they sing, hymns and spiritual songs should be composed based upon Bible passages like the Psalms to enunciate the fuller meaning of the psalms. Can Christians come to understand the fuller meaning just from the Psalms themselves? We certainly answer yes, for the Scriptures are perspicuous. But such takes time, lots of time.

It is probably a blind spot from those promoting EP, or its cousin the Scripture-only (S) position, for certainly many Christians today will be in no position to adequately comprehend psalms if they are sung in the form they currently are. I myself sometimes struggle to understand the psalms when they are sung, not that I cannot comprehend them given enough time, but singing does not give you the time to reflect on the words and understand what they are saying. Essays and papers do that, but in singing one is supposed to get the meaning of the words and phrases straight away, so that one can move from the cognitive stage to the doxological stage. How am I supposed to worship God with the Psalms when I don't speak like this, and neither do I mention 20 or more different concepts in two sentences like the two verses of the psalm? The reader is to understand that I am considered rather theological astute (not that I wish to boast) compared to quite a few Evangelicals. How would you expect THEM to read this, understand this and immediately sing this in praise to God from the heart, if I myself struggle at times? Those growing up in Reformed circles, or some conservative circles, have the privilege of being inculcated in this manner of worship. For them, singing the psalms is second nature. I ask you however to step back and think of those of us who are not from such traditions. Will you, in your zeal for psalmody, make me mouth words I may not understand? Such happened to me in a church I visited in Singapore for a few months that used a 17th century Scottish Psalter. Of what use is the promotion of psalm-singing, when such comes at the expense of understanding and thus true worship?

Now, I am appreciative of psalm-singing, and have no problems singing a Capella psalms if I visit such a church. But the problems of relaying the meaning of the psalms is still the main problem for me. I would rather sing a "praise song" based upon two verses of any psalm, and be able to understand and praised God through it, then to sing the entire psalm with a blurred understanding of its meaning. And such is why I placed the 2 triads at the beginning of the post. Singing the psalms is not enough, for the same reason that biblical theology by itself is not enough. The truths of the psalms need to be expounded (hymns) and applied (spiritual songs). Christians need to see what the psalms teach, and praise God for that. If we can preach an entire sermon on one psalm, why do we expect believers to be able to comprehend and praise God by singing that same psalm in under 5 minutes? And how can we praise and worship God without comprehension?

I would like to put here the lyrics to a song, "A Broken Spirit," based upon Ps. 51:17. I could sing this with understanding, but it is sometimes not possible to say this for some psalms which covers all of the verses or most of them in one go. Note the application of the biblical truths of that verse to us.

A broken spirit and a contrite heart
You will not despise, You will not despise
You desire truth in the inward parts
A broken spirit and a contrite heart

Lord my heart is prone to wonder
Prone to leave the Lord I love
Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it
Seal it for Your courts of love


hanguoxiong said...

Hi Daniel,

Could the insistence of singing only psalms in some conservative Reformed/Presbyterian be based solely on 'tradition'(i.e., reasoning: it is old, from the past, therefore it is biblical)?

If you allow me to be divergent on the context, I encounter a similar problem with regard to translations of the Bible. So far, the arguments I've heard on the exclusive use of the KJV (including a church I am familiar with but shall not name) had this underlying premise: It is old, from the past, therefore is biblical. To me, this is man-made tradition.

Guo Xiong

PuritanReformed said...

Hi Guoxiong,

not really. To be sure, there are many reasons why people embrace a position, not all of it necessarily rational. The express reason however for singing only psalms by its strongest promoters is that it is a logical outworking of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), which itself is a logical outworking of the 2nd commandment. I agree that RPW is derived from the 2nd commandment, but disagree that exclusive psalmody (EP) is logical outworking of the RPW. Are there any who desire to sing psalms because of tradition? Probably, likely. But such is not the reason given by those who are the best promoters of it.

As for the usage of the KJV, the main issue is that people generally do not like change. Any other reason given, if not well thought out, is just to defend their resistance to change