Awhile back I argued that we need to update the vocab, syntax, and grammar of our church songs. We should want our church songs to clearly reflect the teaching of Scripture; keeping the language understandable will help in that endeavor.
The basis of these statements is what we in the Reformation tradition call the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture (cf. Ps. 19.8-9; 119.105, 130; 2 Tim. 3:16, 1 John 1:1ff, etc. See also WCF I.7). Here’s how Herman Bavinck describes it – and I also found a great quote from Chrysostom which I’ll put right after Bavinck’s.
“The way of salvation…has been clearly set down there [in Scripture] for the reader desirous of salvation” (Bavinck). “All things are clear and open that are in the divine Scriptures; the necessary things are plain” (Chrysostom).
One reason, among many, why I do not believe many modern praise songs/choruses are fit to be sung in corporate worship is because many of them are ambiguous and unclear. Here are a few examples from a praise and worship CD I saw online.
“This is the air I breathe (2x)
Your holy presence living in me.”
What does this mean? What clear Scripture texts are behind these phrases? How can we breathe air that is inside us, even if it is in a ‘spiritual’ way? The rest of this song does not clarify these phrases. Here’s another one.
“I lay it all down again
To hear you say that I’m your friend”
What are we laying down to hear (presumably) God say that we’re his friends? Why are we laying it down again, and how often do we need to lay it down? Why don’t we just leave it down so we don’t have to keep laying it down again and again? As with the earlier songs, this one gives no reason why we want to be close to (presumably) God or how we draw near. It is totally unclear; it is reader-response hymnody (you inject your own meaning into the hymn).
If we want biblical teaching and truth to echo loudly in our church singing, it should also echo clearly in our church singing. Perhaps I’m being simplistic here, but is it too hard to critically engage these choruses based on Scripture, and just avoid them or toss them out if they aren’t clearly biblical? Wouldn’t the “Berean” principle (Acts 17:11) apply to the words of our church songs? I like how Methodist Bishop William Willimon puts it:
“The question…is, ‘How can we be more faithful in our worship?'”
“The first question is not, ‘Would our people enjoy singing this hymn?’ but rather the questions raised should be: ‘Is this hymn a valid expression of our faith? Is it biblical? Does it employ theologically sound images?'”