As products of an orthodox denomination, we pride ourselves that our doctrines and beliefs are logical, well thought-out, and free of emotional influences.
These qualifications are lacking, however, in our approach to church music. A quick check will show that while we may preach about the song of the angels to the shepherds, we may not sing about it, even though the words be a direct quotation from Scripture; the Lord’s prayer may not be sung over our radio broadcast unless it is sung to an approved tune; the qualification of an anthem varies according to the time of the year.
In this investigation we will find that we may sing the Psalter numbers that predict the birth of Christ, but not songs based on the New Testament fulfillment of this prediction. We will find that according to our present system of judging church music, thirty-eight of the thirty-nine books of the Bible are judged as unworthy to be used as basis for church-approved music.
These confusing, illogical regulations stem from Article 69 in our Church Order. This article states that only the 150 Psalms of David and a few other “songs” (such as the Song of Mary) may be sung in the churches. The latter not in common use, and also seem to follow the rule that only that which was sung in Scripture, is fit to be sung today: a rule which has no sound basis for existence.
If the Psalter followed the original phrasing and rhythm of the Psalms, we might have some basis for promoting them above the other thirty-eight books of Scripture. But the Psalter we use in our churches was made by paraphrasing the Psalms, many in such a manner they only vaguely resemble the original Psalm.
This illogical, distorted veneration of the “Psalter only” philosophy says in reality, “The Psalms are more desirable than any other book of Scripture; that’s the book we want imbedded in the mind of the church more than any other part of Scripture.” Granted, this is never even implied, why the elevation of the Psalms to a position higher than all others? Since the Almighty God inspired the whole of Scripture, may we imply (not in so many words but in actual practice) that all but one book is unfit to be sung in our churches?
The Psalter should never be replaced but augmented. For where within it can we find, for example, songs that clearly tell of the rising of Christ from the grave, or of the actual descension of the Holy Spirit? Granted, these doctrines are embodied within the Psalter, but generally their presence is so obscured by the muted tones of the Old Testament that they can only be detected by a complicated series of associated doctrines.
Two incidents which clearly demonstrate the weakness of this “Psalter only” rule took place recently in conjunction with the Reformed Witness Hour. In the first instance, Rev. Heys’ fine version of the Lord’s Prayer was sung as part of the program. As soon as the person in charge of music for that particular broadcast returned home from the broadcasting studio, an irate brother called him on the telephone and began to berate him for allowing the Lord’s prayer to be sung over the air.
As soon as possible, the committeeman reminded his caller of the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer included in the Psalter. Hearing this, the brother was soothed. Nonetheless, the Lord’s Prayer required the sanction of appearing in the Psalter before it was acceptable to him.
Another incident concerns the music to be sung by the Radio Choir. In its recent revision of the choir’s constitution, they were instructed to delete the provision that one high-grade anthem could be sung with each broadcast, and to substitute the provision that approved anthems may be sung only during the Christmas and Easter seasons. While this indicated a healthy recognition of the fact that although the Psalter is the ideal basis for a strong, orthodox church library, it is incomplete in itself. However, this provision forced the musical renditions of the Christmas and Easter stories, as told in the New Testament, to derive their sanctity from the calendar!
Just as the Old Testament contains the entire gospel, yet is only the basis for the New Testament, so also the Psalter, while it points towards the full gospel, still lacks the luster of joyful radiance that is found only in the New Testament.
This is not being written to discourage the use of the Psalter, but to urge that we look on it as the basis for a more complete selection of songs that may be sung with full approval in any of our church functions. Our selection should not depend on the time of the year or a possible appearance in the Psalter, but on the contents of the song and its conformity to Scripture and our Reformed heritage.