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Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Psalm-singing and Reformation

Whenever God brought reformation to the church of Jesus Christ, a return to Psalm singing was a part of it. This ought not to surprise us. It lies in the nature of reformation.

True reformation in the church always has certain distinguishing characteristics, one of which is a return to what Jeremiah called “the old paths.” Reformation is a return to these old paths in doctrine, church government, and liturgy. Any movement in the church which lacks this characteristic cannot properly be designated church reformation.

The singing of Psalms characterized the church’s worship in its early new dispensational history. This is not surprising, for the Psalms were God’s gift to the church precisely for singing, and the Psalm bundle was all the church had. Two things are important here: thechurchsang; and the church sang Psalms

Gradually the Roman Catholic church drifted away from congregational singing and from Psalm singing. Congregational singing was replaced by choirs. Again, that such a thing should happen is not surprising, for the Roman Catholic Church denied the priesthood of all believers. That is, the church denied that the people of God possessed the Spirit, and Paul makes it clear that one must be filled with the Spirit to sing: “Be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms…” (Eph. 19:18, 19). It is not even so surprising that the Romish Church lost the Psalms, for the Psalms, if sung in the church, will keep the church on the path of the truth. The Psalms no longer expressed Romish theology, and so songs were invented to express erroneous doctrines. 

There is a reciprocal relation between heresy in the church and a drift from Psalm singing. I am not contending that no other factors enter when a church loses the truth. But surely one factor is the loss of Psalm singing. It is a fact that in post-reformation times heresy was sung into the church. But, as I say, the relation is reciprocal. A church which drifts from the truth finds the Psalms an inadequate vehicle to express her lust for wrong decisions.

The Reformation was a return to the old paths: the old paths of the doctrines of free and sovereign grace; the old paths of biblical church government; the old paths of worship in which the congregation sang Psalms. Calvin, almost from the outset of his work in Geneva, insisted on congregational singing of Psalms. One author goes so far as to say that congregational singing was “one of the four foundations for the reform of the church.” He goes on to say: “Calvin placed singing at the heart of his theology of the Church. The reason is not far to seek. To put it with the utmost simplicity: The Church is the place where the Gospel is preached; Gospel is good news; good news makes people happy; happy people sing.” 

So it has been throughout post-reformation history. In the decline of the State Church in the Netherlands, choirs were introduced and hymns were sung. In De Afscheiding, led by Henry DeCock in 1834, the church returned to congregational singing of Psalms. In the years prior to 1857 the Reformed Church of America let choirs do part of the singing and all sang hymns. When the Christian Reformed Church began, the saints in Holland returned to Psalm singing. In the course of time the Christian Reformed Church drifted from her Psalm-singing heritage and thought choirs would be nice. In 1924 our churches returned to congregational singing of Psalms. In every case it was a part of church reformation. And church reformation always included a return to Psalm singing. 

Those who agitate for the introduction of hymns and choirs in the church or tolerate such innovations ought to remember that such innovations always have been a part of departure from the faith.

Psalms and Worship

It is not our purpose to argue in detail the biblical grounds for congregational singing of Psalms. A great deal of literature has been written on the subject, and the interested reader can study the arguments for himself.

A few aspects to this question are, however, worth our while to consider.

It is a distinctive and emphatic teaching of the Scriptures that the congregation worships. This is what the most important part of keeping the Sabbath Day is all about. The congregation of Jesus Christ comes together to worship God. They are, on the wings of worship, transported into God’s dwelling place in the heavens. In God’s presence they worship God. There are different aspects of that worship. In some parts of the worship the minister leads the congregation in its speech to God—as in the public prayers. In some parts of worship the congregation listens attentively in worship as God speaks to the saints—as in the preaching. In some parts of the worship the congregation itself actively and on its own engages in worship—as happens in the singing. Suddenly the minister is only a part of the congregation. Overwhelmed by the wonder of being in God’s presence, the congregation joins in speaking to God—in singing. It is the only opportunity for the congregation so to speak. 

his must not be taken from her. Choirs take it away. Choirs are for show, for entertainment, even for edifying. But this may be done in programs. Choirs may not steal from the congregation what is her own. A congregation ought to be jealous of this part of her worship and refuse to allow any choir or soloist to steal her own worship.

That the congregation sings is so crucial because the congregation worships in the office of believers. Are only soloists able to worship? Are only choirs able to worship? Cannot God’s people worship? Rome denied that God’s people were themselves the prophets, priests, and kings who know the Lord, can speak to Him, and can rule in His name. The people of God function in the office of believers because they have the Spirit. “Be filled with the Spirit . . . singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:18, 19).

Many powerful arguments have been set forward by others in defense of exclusive Psalmody. Psalm singing is biblical. Psalm singing is the heritage of the Reformation. Psalm singing is done by the church which is determined to remain faithful to the Reformation. And saints in apostatizing churches, eager to return to the heritage of the Reformation and walk again in the old paths, throw out the hymns and return to the Psalms. 

The point that needs emphasis here is a striking difference between Psalms and most hymns. It is characteristic of most (though not all) hymns that they are either anthropocentric or wrongly Christocentric. That is, they concentrate in man, man’s experiences, man’s importance; or they concentrate in a Christ who is a friend in some sloppy sentimental way but is far from the eternal Son of God through whom God reveals Himself. 

The difference between Psalms and hymns is a crucial difference between apostasy in a church (accompanied by choirs and hymn singing) and reformation in a church (accompanied by congregational Psalm singing. 

The theocentric character of the Psalms is exactly comparable to the one crucial issue which always necessitates reformation: the issue between sovereign and particular grace and salvation by human merit and works. It is a striking fact of history that the times when the truths of sovereign and particular grace were strongly and consistently maintained were few and far between, but when these times were present, they were times of church reformation. The reformation of Calvin and Luther—over against Rome; the great Synod of Dordt—in a death struggle with Arminianism; the truths of sovereign and particular grace in DeCock—over against the humanism of the State Church; the struggle to defend particular grace over against those who were determined to make it “common.”

Hymn singing is, all too often, singing silly songs about man or sloppy songs about Christ. They go along with the constant drift in the church towards Pelagianism and its harlot sister, Arminianism. The robust, powerful, weighty, theocentric Psalms—they belong to the mighty battle in defense of sovereign and particular grace.

The Psalms and the Christian

The two crucial New Testament passages which enjoin on the congregation of Christ to sing Psalms in worship (Eph. 5:18, 19 and Col. 3:16) have some interesting things to say about these Psalms in connection with our singing. 

One of them is that singing is by being filled with the Spirit and by possessing the indwelling of the Word of Christ. Those two expressions really mean the same thing, for we have the Word of Christ by means of Christ’s Spirit. 

Christ’s Spirit inspired the Word of Christ and caused it to be written in the Scriptures. Christ’s Spirit puts that Word in our hearts, that same inspired Word of the Scriptures, so that it becomes our own confession. When Christ’s Spirit puts Christ’s Word in our hearts then, and then only, are we able to sing. 

This is a powerful and unassailable argument for exclusive Psalmody, but it is also a striking description of what singing ought to be. Some have argued that the singing itself is not important, only the words sung. One may bellow or roar, whisper or mutter, as long as he concentrates on the words. Calvin tended to be suspicious of beautiful singing lest it detract from the words.

The words are indeed the important thing. But the singing is also important. One can express things in music which can be expressed in no other way. We do not sing too well here upon earth, for our singing voices are rather poor. But in heaven the singing too will count. And the singing counts now. God has given marvelous gifts in music. The tune, the harmony, the cadence, the poetry, the rhythm, the tempo—all make singing what it truly ought to be. When words and music are perfectly fitted and when the church sings, then God’s truth is expressed in ways in which only music can do it. 

Finally, the Psalms are so crucially important because the Psalms are that unique book in Scripture which gives us God’s own biography of the Christian life. It is all there—from the hand of God. There you will find our only comfort in life and in death, for time and for eternity, for body and for soul—Whom have I, Lord, in heaven, but Thee?” There you will find that this comfort is ours by way of knowledge of misery—”Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.” There you will find all the truths of deliverance through Christ from His suffering throughout His life to His cross (Ps. 22), resurrection (Ps. 16), ascension (Ps. 68), and exaltation (Ps. 2, 72, 110). There you will find gratitude—gratitude in prayer (Ps. 5) and gratitude in an obedient walk according to God’s law (Ps. 119). It is all there—all the sufferings, the trials, the temptations, the heartaches, the agony, the pain; but, also the joy, the aching wonder of fellowship with God, the awe of a creation singing its doxologies, the quiet serenity of a soul brought in from stormy seas to the quiet calm of the harbor. 

It is God’s biography of us—a spiritual biography in which every line brings a response, every word an echo, every melody a rush of feeling. We need the Psalms. Hymns have their own experiences of life; but they are man’s interpretation and so often wrong in all sorts of ways. In the Psalms we have God’s biography. Then we understand our life as it ought to be understood. 

A Reformed church of the Reformation is a church where the congregation of Jesus Christ sings the Psalms.

That the Psalms in depth of spiritual process by far transcend that which afterwards presented itself as church song, or endeavored to place itself above the Psalms. 

That the hymns almost nowhere insinuated themselves into the churches, but they soon revealed the inclination first to replace the Psalms, and afterwards to put them aside.

That in the Psalms resounds the abiding, eternal keynote of the godly mind, while all hymns bear a temporal character, stamping the one-sided conception of the moment in the church of God. 

That the hymn almost everywhere has led to all kinds of choir-singing, while the congregation finally fell silent. 

That in the struggle between hymn and Psalm, the indifferent in the congregation all took part against the Psalm and for the hymn, while the godly more and more chose for the Psalm and against the hymn. 

Dr. Abraham Kuyper, on singing at church, in Onre Eeredienst (Our Public Worship)