4 Mar 2014

Selected Psalms or all 150?

Two of the smaller Reformed denominations are collaborating on producing a psalter hymnal: the United Reformed Churches (URC), which originated in a split from the Christian Reformed Church two decades ago, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), which broke in 1936 with the former Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, now part of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Because both are highly confessional denominations, it is not unusual that they would work together on this project.

However, I am somewhat surprised to read this from the Rev. Donald M. Poundstone, a retired OPC minister: Do We Really Need a Psalter-Hymnal? Defending the OPC's Trinity Hymnal (I myself grew up with the first 1961 edition), he writes:

Trinity Hymnal contains a marvelous, albeit imperfect, collection of hymns and psalms. . . . What precious, enduring truth revealed in the Old Testament is missing from this catalog and thus absent from our current hymnal? . . .

One member of the Psalter-Hymnal Composition Committee wrote of his conviction that God nowhere directs his people—either in the Old or the New Testament—to sing all the biblical psalms in worship. This view has been the overwhelming consensus within the OPC since her founding, and I concur in it. But a few years ago, without concerted or church-wide discussion, the General Assembly suddenly decided to abandon this consensus. This is what I mean by speaking of the Psalter-Hymnal project as a radical one. A founding member of our church recently called it “revolutionary”!

Rather than embracing the “total psalmody” view of a Psalter-Hymnal, I’m convinced we ought to continue our venerable practice of using carefully selected metrical psalms, psalm versions, and paraphrases for sung praise and prayer in our corporate worship, along with scripturally faithful hymns.

Why? Briefly—and maybe too bluntly—not all the psalms as originally written are suitable for corporate Christian praise and prayer. . . .

The Old Testament points us to Christ. But the Psalms, and the rest of the Old Testament, were written before the incarnation of the uncreated Son of God, prior to his earthly life and ministry of humble obedience and love, and before his death on the cross as an atoning sacrifice, his glorious resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. Our Lord Jesus, both in his teaching and in his way of life, revealed the fullness of God’s will for us.

The Rev. Peter J. Wallace, another OPC minister, quite adequately responds to Poundstone here: Why Should We Sing All 150 Psalms? Here's Wallace:

It is true that the Psalms are the songbook of an obsolete covenant—in the same sense that the Ten Commandments are the law of an obsolete covenant—and the whole Old Testament itself is an obsolete covenant! And yet, Paul writes that “all Scripture [the whole obsolete testament] is breathed-out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Furthermore, there is not a single sentiment in the Psalms that is not echoed in the New Testament as well. . . .

Why should we sing all 150 psalms? Because it is right and proper to sing God’s word back to him. This is why our congregation sings versions of Deuteronomy 6, Habakkuk 3, Jonah 2, Joel 2, Zephaniah 3, Zechariah 9, Micah 7, and the songs of Daniel, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, Hannah, Deborah, and Moses (Ex. 15). Too often we assume that the songs of the church are “prayers,” but in fact, the songs of the church may also be where the church takes up the Word of God on our lips and sings it back to him. After all, many psalms are not “prayers,” but recitations of the mighty deeds of God. Singing is not just the “prayers of the people,” but also the admonition of the Word of God!

I would add two historical reasons to the biblical ones adduced by Wallace.

First, there is evidence that the early church followed the synagogue in singing through the biblical Psalms on a regular basis, although the practice would come eventually to be limited to the monasteries. The Rule of St. Benedict prescribes the singing of all 150 Psalms each week for the members of the monastic community: "Let him take care, however, above all that each week the entire Psalter of one hundred fifty psalms be recited and be always begun anew at the Night Office on Sunday." St. John Chrysostom similarly enjoins the singing of the Psalms:

If we keep vigil in church, David [the author of the psalms] comes first, last and central. If early in the morning we want songs and hymns, first, last and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, or if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last and central. O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the Psalter by heart. Nor is it only in cities and churches that David is famous; in the village market, in the desert, and in uninhabitable land, he excites the praise of God. In monasteries, among those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, last and central. In the convents of virgins, where are the communities of those who imitate Mary; in the deserts where there are men crucified to the world, who live their life in heaven with God, David is first, last and central. All other men at night are overcome by sleep. David alone is active, and gathering the servants of God into seraphic bands, he turns earth into heaven, and converts men into angels.

Both Sts. John Chrysostom and Benedict are obviously heirs of the new covenant, yet they continued the historic pattern of singing through the entire psalter on a regular basis and urged others to do so as well.

Second, during the 16th century the Reformers in Geneva, Strasbourg, Scotland and England undertook to render all 150 Psalms in singable form. By 1562 Christians in continental Europe and England had complete psalters in the Genevan and the Sternhold & Hopkins collections respectively. Not only is there no indication that Calvin, Bucer and others were content with limited Psalter selections in their liturgies; they expended a great deal of effort in producing a complete sung psalter — one that would be translated into German, Hungarian, Czech and other languages before long. When Sternhold & Hopkins was supplanted by Tate & Brady's New Version Psalter at the end of the 17th century, it was replaced, not by selected favourites, but by a complete metrical psalter containing, yes, all 150! No one would have thought to question this. From the outset, moreover, the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer divided the entire Psalter so that it could be sung at morning and evening prayer over a 30-day period.

Anyone arguing for "our venerable practice of using carefully selected metrical psalms, psalm versions, and paraphrases for sung praise and prayer in our corporate worship" does so against the weight of considerable historical evidence to the contrary.


Bob MacDonald said...

David, I am glad to see your post and will be including it in the coming March Biblical Studies carnival which I want to organize around the theme of music.

I have recently composed a program to transcribe from the online Leningrad Codex all the psalms one at a time into Music XML - these are all available in their current draft form as described here.

Of course we should sing all the psalms. I reviewed NT Wright's case for the psalms here and I think the case is stronger than he makes out - but he's more polite than I am.

Please point me to any other posts this month that you see that would be related to Biblical Studies (academic and I stretch) and Music. I can be reached at stenagmois on gmail dot com.


David Koyzis said...

Good to hear from you again, Bob. Thanks for your comment.