7 Aug 2012

Instrumental praise . . . or the lack thereof

One of the drawbacks of versified psalmody is that it may reflect too much the prejudices of the versifier and not enough the biblical text. I came across an interesting example of this in Henry Alexander Glass's fascinating and witty book, The Story of the Psalters. Some Reformed Christians believe that liturgical song should use the human voice alone and that musical instruments do not belong in church. The 18th-century hymn writer and psalm versifier, James Maxwell, followed this belief, which he incorporated into his paraphrase of Psalm 150:

As did with instruments the Jews
His praises high proclaim,
Let us our hearts and voices use
To magnify His Name.

As they with minstrels in the dance,
And instruments well-strung,
Prais'd God, let us His praise advance
With well-tuned heart and tongue.

Like cymbals let our cheerful tongues
His praises sound on high:
And let our sweet harmonious songs
Transcend the lofty sky.

In Glass's words, "Finding it impossible to keep out the instruments in Psalm cl., [Maxwell] ingeniously lays the responsibility of his compelled references on the Jews." Although I myself do not adhere to this prohibition of musical instruments in worship, there is something to be said in its favour. But first the other side:

One can hardly get around the explicit biblical commands to praise God with musical instruments. The notion that worshipping with such instruments belongs only to the old covenant does not take seriously enough the continuities between the old and new covenants. Most significant is the lack of an explicit prohibition in the New Testament itself. As far as I can see, there is no credible biblical warrant for keeping musical instruments out of the church's liturgy.

On the other hand, there is nothing sweeter than the sound of a cappella voices joined in praise of God. In fact, the very phrase a cappella means in Italian "in the manner of the church or chapel." There is a very ancient tradition, particularly in the eastern churches, of exclusive a cappella singing in the liturgy.

Then there are the praise bands, which have become ubiquitous in protestant churches in recent years. Although in principle I have no confessional or theological difficulties with the use of drums, or even electric guitars and the like, they do have a tendency to drown out congregations and discourage their participation in the liturgy, which becomes thereby a form of what can only be called litur-tainment. Perhaps it's time to bring back a cappella worship in church, not in legalistic fashion, but in recognition that the psalms and canticles are supposed to be, well, sung. And singing requires voices intoning words, which is something no trumpet or drum can manage to do.

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