Singing and the Perspicuity of Scripture (II)

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?'”

(The first two quotes – Bavinck and Chrysostom – are taken from Dogmatics I.477-78; the Willimon quote is taken from A Guide to Preaching and Leading Worship, 98.)

shane lems

7 thoughts on “Singing and the Perspicuity of Scripture (II)”

  1. I fully agree with your emphasis, but you may want to rethink some of the song selections you mentioned. Paul prays that the “eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you” in Eph 1:17-19. So yes, our hearts have eyes.

    We also like to throw around the song “Shine, Jesus, Shine” as being a hallmark of banality in these sort of conversations, but again in Ephesians 5 Paul quotes what was probably an early hymn which speaks of Christ’s shining.

    Just to reiterate, I stand with you on this issue, but I would tweak your argument just a bit. It’s not so much that CCM is unbiblical or contain egregious theological errors (some do- especially pelagianism, but most don’t), it’s just that the doctrine and theology they contain are so nuanced and buried in emotional mumbo jumbo that it becomes indecipherable or meaningless at best, and misleading at worst.


    1. Good point, I threw it out (though in that song I do think the phrase is terribly ambiguous whereas in Paul it is not).

      As you hinted at, my point still stands because these types of examples could be multiplied many times over. Probably what happens most of the time is a chorus has some biblical phrase in it, but the phrase is surrounded by other non-scriptural & ambiguous phrases, which makes everything unclear (like the Shine song). Still, the “perspicuity” argument applies.

      Thanks for the comment.


  2. Hear! Hear! Psalms and biblical texts like my Great Granddad’s Bible, in the family tradition, which hails from Glasgow, Church of Scotland. They sang not only the Psalms in paraphrase, but vast sections of the canonical text, e.g. Genesis, Isaiah, etc.

    Highly committed here to singing the Psalms here, privately. But nowhere in my town is there anyone singing Psalms or canonical texts. Am using the 1662 BCP Psalter with St. Paul’s (London) CD-set of Psalms. What is one to do in the absence of clerical leadership and clerical silence–at a national level?



  3. Warning: Rant Ahead!

    You have hit the nail on the head. Many of the songs that song leaders make the church sing are not worth singing. Period. I have seen this first hand over the last two years as I have visited congregation after congregation of various backgrounds. If you are part of a strong congregation that “gets it” you only witness this kind of thing from afar. I can testify it is worse than you know.

    Sometimes I have actually diagramed the song in my head while it is being sung. you would be surprised how many songs have Me as the subject as well myself as the object. If we are the subject and object of our signing, something is wrong.

    Most song leaders, it appears, have little theoloical training, and are more concerened with a good groove. It is sad really. It is also dangerous. Some untrained worship leaders are writing songs that border on heresy. Others are just trying to sell records (CD’s for you younger folks), others are just trying to make the end of each line rhyme.
    If we are going to sing, please let us sing about God. Let us sing clearly about the great truths of our faith, and not waste time singing about things that don’t even matter.


    1. Thanks for the comments, guys.

      NFIE – good idea on diagramming these songs. I have a friend who isn’t into this kind of music at all – she’s never heard any of these songs. When I showed her the lyrics to a modern P&W song, she thought I made it up trying to be sarcastic. It took awhile to convince her that people really sing it in corporate worship.

      DPV – I jest here (sort of!) – you could put that Psalm CD on your Mp3 player and sit in the back row at church. Then when the fluffy me-music starts playing, you could be listening to a Psalm instead.



  4. Good points Shane! I think one of the reasons I bristle when singing some of the modern choruses out there is that they seem to be a lot more about creating a certain kind of “feeling” than they are about saying specific things about our faith. It seems like in some kinds of evangelical worship, it’s all about the feelings more than it is about anything concrete.


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