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Previous article in this series: October 1 2016, p. 19.

In my last article I explained that Synod 2016 of the PRC decided to continue participating in the interdenominational project of Psalter revision. Why did it do so?

Synod adopted the four grounds that the PRC Contact Committee gave in its recommendation. In four words, I could summarize the first ground as “history,” the second as “necessity,” the third as “acceptability,” and the fourth as “opportunity.”

History

“History: the PRC has repeatedly decided in favor of revising the Psalter, and even began the work of revision, but did not carry it out for practical, not principal, reasons.”1 So begins Synod’s first ground.

A study of the Acts of Synods from 1940-1955 reveals that Psalter revision was often discussed during those years. Recognizing the need for more copies of the Psalter, Synod 1940 appointed a committee to investigate how many were needed. Apparently, the committee wondered whether Synod desired to revise the Psalter before reprinting it, for Synod 1942 instructed the committee “to consider the right to make any changes as to version and the meter of the Psalter with a view to the copyright” (Art. 49). Synod 1943 instructed the same committee to appoint “a broad committee consisting of those having musical, poetical and theological ability, to consider metrical and poetical revision of the Psalter” (Art 82). Because this second committee was never appointed, Synod 1944 itself appointed “a committee to purge the Psalter of doctrinal errors, and if possible to make recommendation for some revision” (Art. 53).

The report of this second committee to Synod 1945 is significant because it shows that our present concerns regarding the Psalter were already voiced in 1945. That committee informed Synod 1945 that it had formed two subcommittees. The first committee was tasked with the following:

a. To search out and suggest correction of doctrinal errors.

b. To determine whether or not the present versifications followed the text of Scripture and if not to suggest improvements.

c. To determine whether or not the content of each Psalm has been included in the versifications and, if not, to suggest additional verses to correct such exclusions.

d. To offer any suggestions of a general nature for the improvement of our Psalter.

The second committee was mandated:

a. To suggest new tunes as well as elimination of some tunes in the present Psalter.

b. To provide English Chorale arrangements of some Holland [Dutch] Psalms.

c. To determine to what extent the present tunes fit the words and if necessary suggest any improvement.

d. To offer any suggestions of a general nature for the improvement of our Psalter.

What came of all this effort at Psalter revision?

Something, but not much. Something: in 1947 the PRC revised its Psalter by adding the choral arrangements (Psalters 414-432) and the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer (Psalters 433-434). Thus mandate “b” of the second subcommittee of 1945 was fulfilled. The committee(s) continued to work on the other seven mandates.

Not much: the committee reported to Synods 1949 and 1952, which synods continued the committee and its mandate. But the Synod of 1955 decided “that the matter of Psalter revision be tabled indefinitely” and “that the present Committee for revision be discontinued” (Art. 112). The reason, apparently, was that our churches were recovering from the schism of 1953. We had fewer men to devote to the work of Psalter revision, and the men we did have needed to concentrate their efforts elsewhere. Synod 1955 considered the possibility that the work continue someday. To “table indefinitely” is not the same as rejecting the idea. Furthermore, Synod 1955 decided to preserve the labors of the committee “for future use in continuation of this worthy object, if and when the Lord provides the opportunity” (Art. 112).

Synod 1973 treated an overture “to appoint a new committee which will continue the work for revision of our present Psalter” (Supplement 31). Synod rejected this overture because the overture did not spell out specific areas of revision and limitations, and for financial reasons (Art. 158). (See Standard Bearer, April 1, 2014, p. 300 for more information).

Synod 1993 rejected a request from an individual to work with an interdenominational committee to publish, revise, and promote the Psalter. Synod did not see the need for an interdenominational committee to print the Psalter, and saw no advantage to “undenominationalize” the Psalter (Art. 33). The reader should note that the individual who made this request loved the Psalter and Psalm singing, but was a member neither of the PRC nor of any other denomination that used the Psalter.

Synod 2016 did not spell out all of this history to which I have alluded. Rather, it acknowledged that we did revise the Psalter once in our history, and that the earlier work of Psalter revision that we intended to do (correcting doctrinal errors, ensuring that the present versifications followed the text of Scripture and were complete renditions of the Psalms, and determining whether the present tunes fit the words) was never completed.

This reference to history is significant. For one thing, it underscores that the work of Psalter revision is not a novel concept in our history. For another, it shows that the reason the matter is faced today is not that a segment in our churches continue to agitate for revision even though previous synods have rejected the idea. No previous synod has rejected the idea. Previous synods have only found the implementing of the idea to be not feasible at that time, or in the way suggested.

Necessity

Understanding the first ground in this light, the second ground follows. Synod acknowledged that “good reasons exist to reevaluate our Psalter with a view to making beneficial revisions.” These reasons were grouped into four categories.

First, the words. Some words are archaic. When possible (it will not always be), these could profitably be updated. More importantly, portions of some Psalms are not versified in our Psalter, so that we do not sing the complete Psalter. Examples are Psalm 78:45-50 and Psalm 137:9.

We can add one matter that Synod did not address in its grounds: some words simply do not express properly the idea of the Psalm. Take Psalm 76:12: “He shall cut off the spirit of princes: he is terrible to the kings of the earth.” Now read the second half of the last stanza of Psalter 207: “Mighty kings obey and fear Him, princes bow before His throne.” Do you see that the Psalter rendition removes the idea of Christ’s judgment on unbelieving kings and turns it into the idea that the kings of the earth bow in submission to Christ? We do not sing the Psalms as they were written in the Hebrew. We do not even sing a literal translation of the Psalms (that would be stilted). We sing versifications of the Psalms, in the form of English poetry (rhyme and meter). However, we should all desire that the versifications be faithful expressions of the idea of the Psalm itself.

Second, the tunes. Some tunes could profitably be pitched lower. Others need to be fixed, probably because the original typesetter made a mistake when setting the type. For example, the last chord of Psalter 286 should be two notes lower in the tenor and bass.2 Yet other tunes are difficult to sing (Psalter 180) or do not fit the words to which they are set (Psalter 136). Addressing these issues will be beneficial for worship.

Third, 38 Psalms have only one Psalter rendition. (Interestingly, Psalm 117, the shortest Psalm, has three renditions!) In itself, one rendition per Psalm is not bad, especially if the Psalm is brief. Yet, not all of the 38 Psalms are brief. A second rendition could help us sing the Psalm with fuller understanding, or more often. As an example, look up Psalm 58 and compare it with Psalter 156. The 11 verses of Psalm 58, none of them overly short, are versified in 4 stanzas of common meter. The effect is that much of the Psalm does not appear in the Psalter versification. Now compare Psalm 59 (17 verses) with Psalter 157 (9 stanzas). Perhaps it is an improvement over Psalm 58/Psalter 156, but we can do better yet.

Finally, the formatting could be improved. Fermatas, as well as musical notations such as “rit.” and “slowly,” have limited value. And, to strengthen our knowledge of the Psalms, the Psalter selections could be renumbered so that, instead of singing Psalter 1 or Psalter 2, we sing Psalm 1A (currently Psalter 1) and Psalm 1B (currently Psalter 2).

This ground (necessity) is weighty. If no concrete matters needed fixing, or if the mandate of the Psalter revision committee was simply to investigate whether any stanzas or tunes needed addressing, the need for Psalter revision would not be stated, and the efforts of Psalter revision could be viewed as an attempt to fix what needs no fixing, and therefore, under the guise of Psalter revision, to change our worship. If this necessity for revision had not been stated, the argument could be made that the matter was “vague,” as Synod 1973 said. But this ground focuses on weaknesses that have been identified in our Psalter, and that could profitably be fixed. Our Psalter is used in divine worship; it should be accurate. It is used for congregational singing; all of its selections should be singable and usable.

Acceptability

The third ground is that Synod 2016 declared three things that the committee presented to be acceptable: the guidelines that govern the work, the principles that the Psalter revision committee submitted to Synod 2016, and the preliminary work of the committee (suggested changes that are proposed for Psalms 73-89, Psalters 201-243). Synod said, “The preliminary work of the committee is evidence that the Psalter will be improved where improvements are necessary, and yet be essentially the Psalter the PRC has used for all its history.”

This ground is important because Synod 2015 approved the PRC beginning the work on an interim basis. Synod 2016 could have ceased our involvement in the work because it found the guidelines, principles, or preliminary work unacceptable.

That synod declared this preliminary work acceptable does not mean that Synod adopted the proposed changes. A future synod, not sooner than Synod 2018, will face this question. But at this point, Synod commits to the work with a good idea of what the proposed outcome will be like.

Opportunity

Synod’s final ground was “Opportunity: Other denominations joining together make the project reasonable, feasible, both as to manpower and expense.” Synod noted in this ground that these other denominations, the Free Reformed Churches and the Heritage Reformed Churches, “have the same love for the Psalter as does the PRC.”

The significance of this ground is not so much that it adds weight to the necessity of the project. The second ground did that. Rather, this ground explains why now is a good time in the history of the PRC to proceed. Could the PRC revise the Psalter without the help of the FRC and HRC? Probably it could. But that would have required the PRC to initiate the effort to revise the Psalter. Fact is that the PRC did not initiate these recent efforts; rather, the FRC did, and appeared ready to tackle and finish the project with the HRC, even if the PRC did not join efforts. Because the ball is rolling, our working with them is reasonable.

Conclusion

Not every decision that synod makes has grounds. Of those that do have grounds, some are stated briefly in one or two lines. By contrast, the four grounds that serve as the basis for this decision take up almost two pages. That is to say, they are carefully spelled out.

These grounds were taken verbatim from the proposal of the Contact Committee. The committee of pre-advice that treated this matter at Synod 2016 was free to modify, add, or remove the proposed grounds in its recommendations, but it did not do so. Again, the Synod as a body was free to modify, add, or remove grounds, but it did not do so. The committee of pre-advice and the Synod saw the value of the grounds.

To the member of the PRC and the reader of the Standard Bearer, these grounds should give evidence that the decision to work on Psalter revision was made not in haste, not without adequate forethought, and not without recognizing the great value our Psalter has even in its current form, but after careful consideration of why we have a Psalter at all, and what we want to do with it.

With our Psalter we desire to teach and admonish each other, and sing with grace in our hearts to the Lord (Col. 3:16). But then, we must be certain that we are singing the word of Christ that dwells in us.

With it we desire to “sing praises with understanding,” that is, with insight and comprehension (Ps. 47:7). That requires us to attend to matters of accuracy.


1 Acts of Synod 2016, Art. 49, 61.

2 The interested reader could go to the website www.hymnary. org, search for the tune “Stanley” which was composed by John Stanley (other tunes have the same name but were composed by different men), and view scanned images of how the tune appears in other music books. By doing so one could conclude that our Psalter’s typesetting of the last chord is incorrect.