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Question and Answer

Psalmody

Question:

In light of the OPC's decision in 1947 to allow hymns in song worship, and the subsequent production of a hymnal, can you tell me what approximate percentage of OPC churches today use the Psalms exclusively in their worship?

Answer:

Your question does not state the case correctly as to when a General Assembly allowed hymns to be sung in worship. It never disallowed the practice. And I cannot precisely answer the last part of your question. There have, in times past, been some churches that opted to use only metrical versions of the Psalms in worship. I can think of at least one that holds that practice at present, and there may be others. A generous guess would be between 1 and 5 percent. But I will try to give some background on the question.

The issue of singing only inspired songs in worship came up in the 1940s. It was championed by Prof. John Murray, a Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and an exclusive psalmodist. His position was a minority position and was not accepted by the General Assembly where the majority of ministers believed that both the Psalms and hymns should be used in worship.

The first edition of the Trinity Hymnal was published in 1961 by a Committee appointed by the General Assembly. A revised edition came out in the early 1990s. The OPC followed the tradition of the Presbyterian Church in the USA on using both psalm and hymn versions. In the church where I worship, a Sunday does not go by that we don't sing psalm versions. I am not sure of the reason for your question. I am ready to defend the prevailing OPC practice of freely using both psalms and hymns in worship. But you'll have to get back to me if you want to hear our reasons. So please feel free to bring further questions if you are interested in a defense of our practice.

Followup Question:

Thank you for your response. I was not aware that the OPC never practiced exclusive psalmody. While I am an exclusive psalmodist, I do appreciate many hymns, and, as hymnals go, the 1990 Trinity Hymnal is great. What frustrates me most is the lack of singing psalms in most Reformed denominations. I commend the OPC for not letting the Psalms be eliminated.

Answer:

The OPC may vary from other Reformed denominations in their attitude toward the use of metrical versions of the Psalms in worship, though you might run into some OPCs who do not value the singing of the Psalms.

You may not know that the first edition of Trinity Hymnal was the exclusive product of the OPC. The revised edition is jointly owned by the OPC and PCA because Great Commissions Publications is now a joint project of the two denominations.

In 1975 the PCA joined with the OPC in Great Commission Publications for the mutual benefit of both denominations, and Trinity Hymnal became the property of Great Commission Publications through that process.

I would like to give you my own reasons for not being an exclusive psalmodist.

I might say that, in a sense, John Murray (with whom I experienced a real closeness during my seminary years and afterward) in private conversations with me disagreed with the Covenanter position that only the inspired psalms (of the book of Psalms) were proper for public worship. There are New Testament psalms as well, such as those in the nativity account in Luke 1 & 2 as well as such as are found in Revelation 4 & 5 and subsequent chapters. He felt that they were equally acceptable and had the advantage of inspired song from the New Covenant perspective.

There is another argument: We are commanded to preach the Word. It is essentially part of the Regulative Principle. Yet my sermons, quoting from the inspired Word, are not inspired. Why, then, must that heightened expression of worship—singing the praises of God—be limited to the Old Covenant Psalter?

I know the answer given by the exclusivists—Ephesians 5:19 and its parallel in Colossians 3:16. Covenanters argue that those three words, "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs," are all used in the Septuagint with reference to inspired writings. Is argumentation from this translation of the O.T. valid? The New Testament writers knew this translation and quoted from it. But in its translating it was far from faithful to the Masoretic text. Furthermore, as in English, so in Hebrew, words often change in meaning through usage over time.

I have an old commentary on Colossians by Bishop J. B. Lightfoot, dated 1879, which deals with Col. 3:16 at some length. Let me quote him on those three words. He quotes from some ancient writers and concludes:

In other words, while the leading idea of 'psalmos' is a musical accompaniment and that of 'umnos' praise to God, 'ode' is a general word for a song, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, whether of praise or of another subject. Thus it was quite possible for the same song to be at once 'psalmos,' 'umnos' and 'ode'. In the text the reference in 'psalmois' (plural of 'psalmos'), we may suppose, is specially, though not exclusively (1 Cor. 14:26), to the Psalms of David, which early would form part of the religious worship of the Christian brotherhood. On the other hand, 'umnos would more appropriately designate those hymns of praise that were composed by the Christians themselves on distinctly Christian themes, being either set forms of words or spontaneous effusions of the moment. The third word 'odais' gathers up the other two, and extends the precept to all forms of song, with the limitation however that they must be spiritual ('pneumatikai').

I've used English letters to convey the Greek words. I've put them originally and finally in quotes since e-mail does not allow italics). I think, from Lightfoot's scholarly comments, that using these three Greek words to prove exclusive psalmody on the basis of their use in the Septuagint is rushing to a questionable conclusion.

On the other hand, this does not in any way denigrate the use of Psalms (which were written to be sung) in worship. In the church in which I worship, we make use of the Psalm versions. But we also use Scripture songs when occasion warrants. We have our own Praise Book, selected and approved by the Session. They are exclusively used in our Sunday school and selectively used in worship. I hope this contributes a little to your research on the subject.


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