I have always been a part of churches that have sung the rich hymnody of Christendom in the worship services (specifically those hymns that were the fruit of the theology of the Reformation). I have only been in one church that regularly sang Psalms. I am not an exclusive Psalmists, but believe that we should all be inclusive Psalm singers (i.e. include them in our public and private worship). I rejoice in the fact that we have clear commands to sing Psalms: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col. 3:16); “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:19-20). Lee Irons has an outstanding article on New Covenant hymnody, in which he provides some of the best arguments against exclusive psalmody in light of Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19-20. You can read it here. While it is abundantly clear that the Scriptures do not teach “exclusive Psalmody,” an argument against “exclusive psalmody” must never degenerate into an argument against “inclusive psalmody.”
We are currently in the process of introducing one Psalm, every other week, into the mix of songs we sing in our worship services at New Covenant Presbyterian Church. It seems to me, however, that there are several hindrances to the introduction of Psalms in an “exclusive hymnody” or “exclusive spiritual song singing” congregation.
The first challenge is that many of the Psalters paraphrase the Psalms in such a way that they loose their richness. The language may be antiquated and, therefore, lacking in linguistic relevance. The Reformers zealously fought to have the Bible in the vernacular, the common language of the people. This principle should be applied to the Psalms, no less than any other portion of Scripture. Having searched out the various options for Psalters, we finally went with the digital version of Crown and Covenant’s Book of Psalms for Worship. This PDF package comes with the following:
Familiar Tunes Index (This links many of the Psalms up with familiar hymn tunes)
Digital Psalter (This gives you the option of printing off the music with the words)
Text Only (This allows you to easily cut and paste the text into a bulletin insert or use it on a screen. This is what we do since we are often changing the tunes to which the hymnal sets many of the Psalms).
The second difficulty has to do with the tunes we sing the Psalms to. It was this very reason that led the editors of the Trinity Psalter to produce a new Psalter in 1994. Learning to use the tune system in the back of the Trinity Hymnal allows you to set the Psalms to different meters. Terry Johnson has also written a helpful post on learning the tunes of the Trinity Psalter in order to help introduce them to your congregation. You can read it here. Thinking through the tune association is also an important factor. I love singing the Psalms–including the imprecatory Psalms–but singing an imprecatory Psalm to “Amazing Grace” just doesn’t work. It doesn’t feel right asking God to pour out His justice and wrath to the tune of a song in which we praise God for His mercy and grace in Christ. I wholeheartedly understand that salvation comes through judgment, and that judgment and mercy meet together at the cross (see my February 2011 Tabletalk article), but most of the people in our congregations will not be able to make theological connections as quickly. They will sense a tension in singing about God judging others to a tune about God’s mercy to me. James E. Adams War Psalms of the Prince of Peace is a good treatment of the imprecatory Psalms. It would be good to read through it prior to incorporating Psalm singing to the congregation.
The third challenge that needs to be addressed is the accompaniment of the Psalms in worship. Knowing the challenges produced by the CCM culture, and the fact that most contemporary churches have rock bands (making old school “piano-only” accompaniment in worship seem out of date), it seems imperative for us to think through what instrumentation we use as accompaniment. Mant Old School Reformed churches are fine being exclusive-piano when it comes to accompaniment. Based on a strict understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), one cannot be dogmatic about this position. The RPW breaks everything we do in worship down to Elements, Forms and Circumstances. Instrumental accompaniment falls squarely and exclusively in the realm of circumstances. Circumstances are indifferent things (adiaphora) that aid the people of God in carrying out the elements of worship. For instance, the building, lighting, hymn book, screens, mics, chairs, pews, etc. are all circumstantial things. Musical accompaniment is merely circumstantial. For someone to oppose the use of a certain instrument principally in the name of the RPW is to deny the principle itself. It may not be best to use a certain instrument on a certain score (merely because of a subjective musical appropriateness), but one cannot be dogmatic on which instruments can and cannot be used. For this reason I suggest that churches wishing to incorporate Psalms into their services use a diversity of instruments for accompaniment. We have seen how this helps the congregation sing out more freely to something that is already foreign to them. It can help make the Psalms seem less antiquated too. The Psalms are the living and abiding word of God. This means we should be able to sing them in the vernacular, and with freshness. Musical accompaniment can be a great aid to the incorporation of the Psalms in worship. For an outstanding, brief treatment of the RPW, see Derek Thomas’ July 2010 Tabletalk article.
The final difficulty with which we are faced is in helping the people of God understand the Christological (i.e. “Messianic”) nature of the Psalms. The Psalms are some of the most quoted portions of Scripture in the New Testament. The apostles saw in them a Christological focus that manifested itself most fully in the specific acts in the outworking of the redemption we have in Jesus. It has been all too common for exclusive Psalm singers to say it is sufficient to sing the Psalms without explanation to the Person and work of Christ. One of the principle arguments against exclusive Psalmody comes from Col. 3:16-17 and Eph. 5:19-20 (see above), where Paul follows his instructions to teach one another in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with an exhortation to do everything “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is part of the Messianic Glory of Jesus for Him to receive praise from His people in His Messianic name. This is certainly a reason for Christians to produce new, theologically sound hymns in which Christ is praised for the salvation He has provided, but it is also grounds for us to consider how we might teach our congregations about the Christological focus of the Psalms. We ought to take a moment, as we do in our Lectio Continua readings of the OT and NT, to make some short, Christological annotations on the Psalms prior to singing them. Thankfully there are some very helpful books written to help guide the reader to better grasp the biblical theology of the Psalms. They include: Richard Belcher’s The Messiah and the Psalms, William Binnie’s A Pathway into the Psalter, Geoffrey W. Grogan’s Psalms, C.H. Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, Wilhelm Hensgstenberg’s Commentary on the Psalms (vol. 1), (vol. 2), and (vol. 3), and O. Palmer Robertson’s Psalms in Congregational Celebration.
Jim Cassidy also provides some very good thoughts on the biblical theology of the Psalms here.
*This post was originally posted in 2010. I has been updated quite a bit.