Singing and the Perspicuity of Scripture

In the little corner of the Reformed tradition that I’m in, the church I serve uses a hymnal sometimes called “The Blue Psalter” or “The Psalter Hymnal.”  It has hymns that are based on the psalms, hymns based on some other parts of the Bible, and it has hymns based on Christian doctrine.  Some of the hymns are outstanding, some are not so great.

In my opinion, one of the great weaknesses of this hymnal is the horribly archaic language.  Here are a few words I found just skimming some of the psalm-based hymns (note: these words would be great for Banannagram!):

Deign, fealty, inwrought, girth, ye, dost, verdant, plighted troth, nay, vaunt, maidens, endue, ere, proffers, copious, benighted, rapturous, hearken, twixt, garners, riven tide, flayed, mayst, ore, biddest, apace, quell, aye, wroth, mete, bewail, and goodly (just to name a few). 

To keep a long post short, I think we need to update this language to make the songs clearer.  There isn’t a theological or biblical reason to keep archaic language, syntax, and grammar.  It is not more reverent to sing like a 17th century Englishman.  In fact, one might make a good case based on the perspicuity of Scripture that our psalms and hymns should be clear and understandable.

The Book of Psalms for WorshipAll this to say I believe that the Book of Psalms for Worship (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2009) is a great replacement for the psalms part of the old “Blue Psalter.”  The psalms in the Book of Psalms for Worship are not hymns based on psalms (like the Blue Psalter); they are singable renditions of the psalms that are in modern language (they sort of read like the ESV).  Though I’ve only had it for a month, I have read through big parts of it and know from experience that they sing well in worship.  So far, I’m very pleased with it.  For a sample, here are the first four lines of Psalm 51(C) sung to the tune of “Rock of Ages” (Toplady 77.77.77). 

God be merciful to me;
On your love I rest my plea.
By your vast abounding grace,
My transgressions all erase.
From the stain of every sin,
Wash and make me clean within.

Now to find a theologically/biblically solid modern hymnal…..  Comments?  Suggestions? 

shane

11 comments on “Singing and the Perspicuity of Scripture

  1. CW says:

    I’ll raise my Ebeneezer to that!

    Even though I grew up with the Blue Psalter Hymnal, it wasn’t until just recently that I realized how oxy-moronic the title of this book is. The fact that it is half psalms and half hymns says much about our denominations’ heritage that many people have forgotten.

    You’re right about the archaic language. Unfortunately, this causes many to cease singing the Psalms altogether, save for a few which are incorporated into little choruses that get repeated ad infinitum. A new Psalter is definitely called for and the one you mention looks good.

    There’s an interesting item in the preface to the 1934 red edition of the Psalter Hymnal (which I think was the first combined edition?) which the editors explain the CRC’s reluctance to add hymns to it’s order of worship. After conceding that an exclusive psalmody is neither logical (given the paraphrasing and translation of the psalms) nor Biblical, they offer this warning:

    “We were aware of the unsound or unsatisfactory character of many current hymns, and we feared that in an environment where the Psalms are seldom sung, the introduction of hymns in public worship would lead to the neglect of those deeply spiritual songs of the Old Testament which the church should never fail to use in its service of praise.”

    If they only knew how things would evolve…….

    Like

  2. David says:

    Well…the one pictured isn’t the Blue Psalter Hymnal…it’s a newer book, published just last year. There aren’t ANY hymns in it at all…they’re all psalm adaptations.

    Second, my favorite is the red Trinity Hymnal. The Lutheran Service Book (published very recently) is also a very well-constructed hymnal, even though much of it is unfamiliar to me, having grown up Pentecostal/non-denominational and having familiarized myself with the PCA’s music.

    Like

    • Reformed Reader says:

      Right, David – the one pictured is the Book of Psalms for Worship by Crown and Covenant. Maybe the formatting got screwed up, but in the original post the picture was by the paragraph where I talked about the Book of Psalms for Worship. Thanks for the clarification (or help solving formatting problems!).

      I appreciate the Red Trinity as well (we use it from time to time), but some of the archaisms are in that book as well. I’ll have to check out the Lutheran Service book. If my LCMS friend who is also a pastor is reading, he’ll be tipped off that I’ll be knocking at his door soon!

      And CW – thanks for the Ebenezer. No shining…shining…shining here!

      Thanks,
      shane

      Like

  3. Brad says:

    I just purchased a copy of The Book of Psalms for Worship… long overdue purchase. Can’t wait to get it.

    As much as I like the Blue Psalter Hymnal… I’m ready for some everyday language in my psalm singing.

    Have you seen any samples from the Psalter Hymnal Committee’s work on the new Psalter Hymnal for the URCNA? I wonder what that’s going to read like…

    Like

  4. Wish we had the wealth of Psalters and Hymnals to pick and choose from that you guys have across the pond. We are in the process of piecing together our own (loose-leaf) Hymnal. We have the Geneva Psalter in German (original tunes). Language is okay, late 19th century was the latest “update”. If you know someone who can help us with arranging the Psalter to different tunes, send him/her our way please… ;-)

    Like

    • Reformed Reader says:

      Thanks for that perspective, Sebastian. Though some of our English psalters and hymnals are not so great, we can be thankful there are quite a few from which to pick. You’ll (we’ll) need to pray for solid Christians in your churches who are gifted musically to help you guys get some updated tunes and words.
      Blessings,
      Shane

      Like

  5. Andrew Myers says:

    Here is a review of the new RPCNA psalter that I posted on my blog last month, before the RP Synod decided to revise the psalter to address some of the concerns I and others have raised.

    http://virginiahuguenot.blogspot.com/2010/06/book-review-book-of-psalms-for-worship.html

    Like

    • Reformed Reader says:

      Thanks for that, Andrew. Sounds like you and I could/would have a great conversation about this! Would be fun…
      Blessings,
      shane

      Like

  6. Richard says:

    Hi Shane,

    I agree 100% that our psalms and hymns should be clear and understandable however I do think there is a place for archaic language, syntax, and grammar. I would suggest it has its place, not least because each time one reads it one finds so much more in it rather than having something given to you on a plate but so watered down that you are not filled with awe for God.

    For modern songs, Iquite like the Valley of Vision from SGM, especially “Heavenly Father, Beautiful Son”.

    Like

  7. Sean McDonald says:

    Just adding my two cents to Andrew’s review. The standard for Psalm-singing in the English language is still “The Psalms of David in Metre,” also known as the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter.

    Like

  8. […] of Scripture, Pop Music, Praise Songs, Scripture, Theology, William Willimon, worship 0 Awhile back I argued that we need to update the vocab, syntax, and grammar of our church songs.  We should […]

    Like

Comments are closed.