The Question of Psalter Revision: An Update

Last year’s Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches instructed the Contact Committee to come to Synod 2016 with a detailed and grounded recommendation about revision of the Psalter. Synod did not express herself on whether the Psalter should be revised, but asked the Contact Committee to submit a proposal which could be considered at Synod 2016.

The subject of Psalter revision arose about five years ago when the Free Reformed Churches (FRC) approached the PRC asking whether our churches would be interested in joining them, along with other denominations who use the Psalter, in updating the Psalter. At that time synod instructed the Contact Committee to communicate with the FRC about our shared history of using the Psalter produced in 1912 by the United Presbyterian Church. In the few years that passed, the Contact Committee met with representatives from the Free Reformed Churches (FRC) and the Heritage Reformed Congregations (HRC), and found that the intent of these churches was an update that would improve the Psalter, but leave it as much as possible the Psalter we have always known. These two denominations have officially decided to revise the Psalter for their use in worship.

Our Synod 2015 mandated the Contact Committee to do two things: First, to bring a detailed and grounded proposal to Synod 2016 so that synod could make a good decision whether or not to participate in this work; that is, whether or not the PRC is in favor of and thus desires to be on board with the project. Second, Synod 2015 instructed the Contact Committee to appoint three men to serve on an interim committee with these other churches so that synod can be well-informed about the intentions, principles involved, and the process of updating the Psalter.

The Contact Committee appointed three men—two ministers and one layman. The layman, Mr. Joshua Hoekstra, has devoted his adult life to promoting Psalm singing, has conducted a PR Psalm choir for many years, and has studied the Psalter and its history at some length. Rev. D. Kuiper and Prof. B. Gritters have over 50 years combined in leading worship with the Psalter, and both have shown special interest in the Psalter in various ways. To all of them, our Psalter is a precious possession.

The other denominations have appointed men with similar commitments and interests. Some are both theologians and musicians; others have more expertise in music; but all of them have spent their life using and loving the Psalter. Because of their love for the Psalter, these denominations are committed to preserving it as much as possible in its present form. If any who read this are hoping for a very different Psalter as a result of this undertaking (whether or not the PRC participate to the end of the project), they will be disappointed.

The broader committee hopes to have initial work done on a sample portion of the Psalter for their respective synods to approve or disapprove. The FRC—who initiated the project—recommended the work begin with Book III of the Psalms, that is, Psalms 73-89, or Psalter numbers 201 to 243 (plus the numbers in the chorale section corresponding to these Psalms). In November, the committee of nine met in person (they come from different US states and Canadian provinces) to make plans for their work. The committee apportioned its work by dividing into three groups, with each denomination represented in each group. Communicating through a specially-arranged Internet program, each group of three will make initial recommendations on one-third of this small section, pass their recommendations on to the next group, and then finally to the third group. In this way, each group’s recommendations will be judged again by the two other groups. When the committee of nine meets in person again in April, the hope is to finalize recommendations that can be included in a synodical agenda.

PRC History of Psalter Revision

The history of Psalter revision in the PRC dates back to Synod 1940 and the appointment of a special committee to consider Psalter revision.1 Synod judged that “much can be done to enhance the beauty of our Psalter.” Two sub-committees were to deal with both the versifications and the musical arrangements, but the members were to have theological, poetic, and musical abilities so that any proposals would be well-founded. Throughout the 1940s Synod repeated its desire for the work to be completed, at times urging the committees to work with more energy. During this time the “Chorale Section” was added, as were Rev. Heys’ two arrangements of the Lord’s Prayer. Also during this time, Classis East was involved in its own study and recommendations—much of which work is lost.

The mandate of this early synod was to determine whether or not the versifications followed Scripture and, if not, to suggest improvements; to add stanzas for parts of Psalms that were excluded in the Psalter; to suggest elimination of some tunes and determine whether others truly “fit” the words; and to offer any other suggestions of a general nature for improvement of our Psalter. This particular report was signed by M. Schipper, D. Jonker, G.M. Ophoff, and H. Hoeksema.

But all that momentum of the 1940s was lost in the exhausting theological battle that ended in the schism of 1953. Thus, Synod 1955 took a decision to discontinue the project, although to retain in the archives the work already done for possible further use.

Then, almost twenty years later, in 1973, First PRC (Grand Rapids) brought a grounded overture to synod, through Classis East, to “appoint a new committee which will continue the work for revision of our present Psalter.” First’s grounds were simple:

The need of revision is self-evident and has been pointed out in articles and in the earlier decision of Synod when it first decided upon a committee for revision. Some work has already been done and is on file. We have people available who are capable of doing this sort of work.

Classis East approved the overture, and added its own recommendations to synod that a separate committee be appointed “to revise the liturgical material in the Psalter.”

Synod 1973 rejected the overtures of First GR and Classis East. There were two grounds: First, the overtures were too vague. Synod wanted description of what, in particular, would be changed. What “First” said was “self-evident” was no longer so evident to them. After thirty years, the memory of the 1940’s justification had faded. Second, the project was “financially prohibitive.” Synod called attention to the new seminary building (seminary moved to its present location in 1974) and the increased missionary activity, which were “priorities of the first magnitude.” At that time, also, a third professor was being called to the seminary.

That rejected proposal was the end of the PRC’s history of considering revision of the music sections of the Psalter. But the history makes clear that the churches desired revision, officially mandated it, and began extensive labors to carry it out. When it was discontinued, it was not for principle but practical reasons: schism in the denomination that spent her energies, unspecific proposals, and finance.

The stance of the committee from the three denominations can be summarized: “Make improvements, but change only what needs to be changed.”

The guidelines adopted by the committee can be here summarized as follows:

1) Regarding the text: There is a commitment to sing accurate renditions of the Psalms. Is all of the Psalm represented in the Psalter? Is the text faithful to Scripture? Is it theologically sound? Is it the language of Scripture? Is there unnecessary poetic license taken? It is good poetry? The New Testament idiom will be retained. All this fits with the PRC’s 1949 requirement: “That the versification is as close to the language of the Psalm as possible, and that the Psalm is fully covered.” The committee is determined to retain pronouns addressing God in the form of “Thee” and “Thou.”

2) Regarding the music: The Psalter must be retained as a book for congregational singing, not changed for trained choirs. The tunes must not be too difficult, have too wide a range, or have difficult rhythms. They must not have inappropriate associations. They must be suited to the words of the Psalm. Examples of this last would be Psalter 212’s “Auld Lang Syne,” and the music of Psalter 136 (“Dust to dust…”). These guidelines fit the PRC’s 1949 requirements: “that the tune fits the words…prayerful when the psalm is a prayer, joyful when the psalm is a song of praise;” and, “that the tune is singable, especially for a congregation.”

3) Regarding the format: The book must be a usable Psalter and familiar to the members, designed to promote knowledge of the Scripture that we sing. Thus, the Psalters will be numbered 1A and 1B for Psalm 1, etc. But consideration will be given to retaining the old numbering as well. The chorale section will be merged into the main body of the Psalter. Other details regarding format include questionable musical notations, references to “stanzas 8-10” that have no correspondence to the Bible, and the indexes in the back of the Psalter.

The PRC Synod 1945 instructed her committee to “purge the Psalter of doctrinal errors.” The present committee is not on a mission to hunt for heresy, but there is great variety in the Psalter as to faithfulness to the Psalm. Most Psalter numbers are very close to the wording of the Psalm. Others, although doctrinally sound, are loose paraphrases of the Psalm. In some Psalters, the hard language of God’s judgments is muted. And a few stanzas here and there cannot be traced back to the Psalm at all. We, who have sung the Psalter all our lives, are hardly aware that there are parts of Psalms absent from the Psalter, and that some Psalter stanzas do not come from the Psalms. If they are interested in testing this, it would be worth anyone’s time to start with Psalter #205, for example, and compare it to Psalm 74; or #206, compared with Psalm 75. In the few cases where the Psalter is more “hymn” than Psalm, the committee will need to make good recommendations, faithful to Scripture, and the churches will need to judge whether they succeeded.

In the next months the Contact Committee will be hearing a report from its committee of three, and formulating (or not) a recommendation to Synod 2016 regarding revision.

1 For more of this history, see the special issue of the SB, April 1, 2014. But note well that the history we recount in the present article is not the history of whether to add hymns to the Psalter—a completely different story, one told well in that 2014 special issue.