Category Archives: Reformed Worship

The Reformation and Psalm-Singing

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  Worship was one of the key issues that led to the break with Rome.  The Reformation was not only about theology, but also about doxology — about the proper way of giving all glory to God.  When I speak about worship here, let me clarify that I’m referring to the corporate worship of the church.  This is about what happens when the church gathers together for public worship.

When it comes to the Reformation of worship in the 1500s, there are several directions we could go.  A fruitful area of consideration for our day would be the singing of Psalms.  This is because of the fact that so much Protestant worship today either totally ignores the Psalms, or reduces them to the occasional singing of something like “Create in Me a Clean Heart.”  As in the medieval church prior to the Reformation, the Psalms have fallen on hard times.

In the early church, the Psalms were highly valued and extensively used in worship.  In his dissertation, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, Hughes Oliphant Old notes that Augustine indicates several times in his sermons that his church in Hippo customarily sang the Psalms.  Basil the Great also spoke in a similar vein, as did John Chrysostom.  Old concludes, “The early Christians sang psalms in the celebration of the Eucharist [the Lord’s Supper] and in the daily morning and evening prayers during the week.  Psalms were sung at meal time as a table blessing, they were sung at work and during the quiet times of meditation at midday and evening” (258).  While the Psalms were not used exclusively, they were given preference and formed the primary song material of the Church.

This pattern continued into the medieval period.  For most of the Middle Ages, the Psalter was the primary material for the singing and chanting of the Church.  This singing and chanting were done by the clergy and in Latin, and thus disconnected from the congregation.  Yet the primary material remained the Psalter.  This began to change in the early 1300s.  During that time, we see the introduction of numerous Latin hymns and the primary place of the Psalter begins to slip.  When there was singing or chanting of the Psalms, often this was reduced to one or two verses.

During the 1500s, God brought about the Reformation of the Church and this included changes in how God was worshipped in song.  I’ll mention five specific changes.

First, the Psalms were translated into the common language of the people and then set to metrical tunes.  In Geneva, under Calvin’s leadership, the Psalms were translated and versified by Clement Marot and others.  Musicians such as Louis Bourgeois composed the tunes — they were custom-made for each of the psalms.

Second, the Psalms were to be sung by the entire congregation.  Since they were in the common language, and since they were set to tunes that were (relatively) easy to sing, this was now feasible.  You did not need to be a professional musician to sing in church.  That said, in places like Geneva, the Reformation did introduce an emphasis on music education.  Why?  Because church leaders wanted congregational singing to be as beautiful as possible to give the maximum glory to God!

Third, there was a movement back towards the priority that the early church gave to the Psalter.  Says Old, “It was simply a matter of preferring to sing the hymns that had been inspired by the Holy Spirit” (259).

Fourth, the Reformation brought back the singing of all the Psalms.  When the Genevan Psalter first appeared in 1542, it only contained 30 psalms.  However, the goal was always to include all 150 Psalms, and by 1562 that goal had been accomplished.  Not only were all the Psalms included, but the intention was to sing all of them.  The 1562 Genevan Psalter included a type of schedule by which the church would sing each of the Psalms in the course of six months (see here for more details).

Finally, the Reformation reintroduced the singing of whole Psalms.  While it was not always possible, the preference was to sing the entire Psalm from beginning to end.  That this was the preferred practice is clear from the source mentioned above in my fourth point.  This was possible because the Genevan tunes were originally composed to be sung briskly, not at a funereal pace.  How and why they came to be sung otherwise is another story, but for now let’s just note that the singing of whole Psalms was the ideal which the Reformation restored.

This history is relevant at several levels.  In much of evangelical worship today, it’s almost like we’re back to the worst of the medieval period.  Instead of congregational singing, there are worship leaders doing the singing for the church.  Oftentimes the music is so technical and the material so unfamiliar, that congregational singing in worship is virtually impossible (see Tim Challies’ reflections on this here).  It’s like the Reformation and its return to congregational singing never happened!

That particular trend has been resisted in many confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  Yet we still have our problems.  Think of the primacy of the Psalter.  In churches that practice exclusive psalmody, it’s not an issue.  The Psalms are their only song material.  But for those of us who see the Scriptures as commending or even commanding hymnody alongside the Psalter, the challenge is there to keep the Psalter in the highest place.  Especially when we don’t understand what we’re singing, the tendency is going to be to drift towards more uninspired hymnody.  Pastors especially have a calling to make sure that our churches understand the Psalter, especially in how it speaks of Christ.

Another problem faced by Reformed and Presbyterian churches is the singing of only some Psalms, and then also the singing only of partial Psalms.  I am as much a part of this problem as anyone else.  There are Psalms that I have never chosen for singing in public worship in my nearly 18 years of preaching.  There are reasons for this (difficulty of the tune, not relevant to the sermon for the day or the occasion, etc.).  That can be overcome by revisiting the idea of a psalm-singing lectionary (see here again).  The other problem is easier to overcome.  If a metrical Psalm only has three or four stanzas (or less), why not sing the whole thing?  Especially if our accompaniment keeps the tempo brisk (as intended!), I can hardly think of a reason not to.

I love the Psalms.  I love the way this inspired songbook honestly acknowledges the whole range of human emotions.  We are led to praise God with explosive joy, but also to lament with flowing tears.  We see Christ the Redeemer prophetically represented, but we also encounter our sin which put Christ on the cross.  We’re taught to pray and give thanks.  We’re taught to confess and repent.  I can’t imagine worship without the Psalms.  Let’s be thankful to God that the Reformation restored their rightful place in our worship!


Absurdity

Can we pray to Jesus?  This is a question that I’ve answered countless times, both in sermons and here on Yinkahdinay.  It’s a question that I have to keep coming back to, because the answer sometimes given to that question is not only wrong, but harmful.  Some say that since Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer for us to pray to the Father, we must therefore only pray to the first Person of the Trinity.  The Lord’s Prayer says “Our Father,” and therefore we may not pray to Jesus.  Case closed.

However, if such voices are wrong, they fly against what we confess in article 32 of the Belgic Confession.  There we confess that we must not deviate from what Christ has commanded for worship.  Then read this carefully: “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  So, if someone says that we must not pray to Jesus, and Scripture says that we are allowed to pray to Jesus, that person is introducing a human law which illicitly binds and compels our consciences.  There is a lot at stake here.

There are several ways I could address this question.  I could point out the proper explanation of “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer (see here).  I could mention the explicit biblical passages where prayer to Jesus is not only observed, but even invited (John 14:14, Acts 7:59, 1 Cor. 16:22, Rev. 22:20).  I could discuss again how the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, answered this question using an essential theological distinction.  I could point out the practice of the early church with church fathers such as Augustine, the practice of the medieval church with Anselm of Canterbury, the practice of the Reformation church with William Farel, or the post-Reformation church with Thomas Watson.  We could note that the Athanasian Creed speaks of worshipping the Trinity in unity, and unity in Trinity, noting how this has been understood throughout the history of the church.  We could note the prayer-like hymns we sing which address Jesus — and to which most people don’t give a second thought.  There are all these different ways of going at this issue.

However, today I want to take an approach I haven’t taken before.  It came to me while I was recently teaching a marriage preparation class for a couple in my church.  We were discussing healthy communication in marriage.  I pointed out what Scripture says in Ephesians 5, where the Holy Spirit draws a parallel between human marriage and the relationship between Christ and his church.  The thing that stood out to me is that Christ is clearly said to have a relationship with his church.  That relationship is spoken of in marital terms.  How absurd it would be for a human marriage to see one spouse being forbidden to speak with the other!  Imagine a human marriage where the husband can speak to the wife, but the wife is not allowed to answer and communicate with her husband.  Yet that’s what we’re left with when we’re told that the church of Jesus Christ may not pray to him.  We have a relationship where the communication can only go one way.  What healthy relationship only has one-way communication?  We realize that healthy relationships see communication going both ways.  If the church really does have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and if that relationship parallels human marriage, shouldn’t it be expected that the church would pray to Jesus?

As mentioned above, it is not only wrong to conclude otherwise, it is also harmful.  Think about it.  If we cannot communicate with him, how can we really have a relationship with him?  How can we live in union with someone with whom we’re not even allowed to speak?  How can we avoid the danger of turning the person of our beloved Saviour into a theological concept to be analyzed or argued rather than someone to be loved and cherished?  I posit that the challenge of real spiritual vitality goes up exponentially in Reformed communities where they are taught (and then believe) that they may not pray to Jesus.

So, yes, I do pray to my Lord Jesus from time to time.  I don’t pray to him all the time.  Most of the time I pray to the Triune God as my Father.  But I’m taught in Scripture that prayer to my Saviour is also appropriate at times.  I may pray to him in my personal prayers.  I may sometimes also address him when I lead congregational prayer — this is especially if a sermon has been on a text explicitly unfolding some aspect of his person or work (as an example, see the prayer at the end of this sermon).  Through the Word of God, the Holy Spirit allows me this privilege of being in a relationship with the Son of God where I may freely speak with him.  He allows you that privilege too and don’t let anyone take that away from you.  Don’t let your conscience be bound by human laws.


How to Do Family Worship

family-worship_300_178_90

It’s one of the most basic things that a Christian family does — or should do.  And yet there are many Christian parents who’ve just never been taught.  They might be new Christians, or perhaps they grew up in a church-going family that was just not very serious about following the Lord.  For them especially, I’ve been meaning to write this practical post about how to do family worship.  This is about the practical side of it.  I’m not going to explain the biblical rationale for it today.  Instead, I’ll just assume that we agree that Christian families should worship God together.  Moreover, I’m not presenting this as the definitive way to do family worship. Rather, this is the way our family does it.  There are other ways to do it.  There’s freedom for that.  In fact, I’m going to leave the comments open on this post so that other people can share their ideas.  Please do share!  If you have questions, also please feel free.

In our family, we normally do family worship after our evening meal.  At the beginning of the meal, I normally lead in prayer and give thanks for the food.  During that prayer, I’ll also ask for God’s blessing on our family worship later.

After the meal is over, we’ll begin by reading Scripture.  Throughout our married life, my wife and I have just constantly read straight through the Bible in our family worship.  For many years, I would just read and everyone else would listen.  But in the last few months, everyone has a Bible and everyone takes a turn reading a verse or two from the chapter.  Most times we read an entire chapter, but if the chapter is long we might split it up over a couple of days or more.  The hard part for a father is trying to make some intelligent comments about what is read, comments that draw out the meaning of the passage, how it points to Christ, and how it applies to our lives.  That can even be hard for a father who’s a pastor!  This is where you can really benefit from the Reformation Heritage Study Bible (see my review here).  Every chapter includes “Thoughts for Personal and Family Worship.”  Sometimes there are just comments, other times questions to ponder or discuss.  It’s really enriched our Bible reading time!

After Scripture, we do a short time of catechism instruction.  For this, we use a book by Starr Meade based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  The book is entitled Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.  I highly recommend it.  She also has a book based on the Heidelberg Catechism, Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds You can find my review of that here, but in brief, I still prefer her previous book.  Whatever is done, it is important for parents to catechize their children with Christian doctrine.  It’s not first of all the job of the church, but of the youth pastors, i.e. the parents.

Next, we sing a psalm or hymn.  There are different ways of doing this.  Our children go to a Christian school and have memory work from our church’s songbook (the Book of Praise).  We’ve sometimes sung their memory work.  At other times (like at present), we just sing our way through the psalms. God loves to hear his people sing!  And don’t worry if you’re singing is not that great — neither is mine.  God just loves to hear you and your family sing.  It is, after all, family worship.

Finally, we end with a brief time of prayer.  Each day, a different member of the family takes a turn in leading this closing prayer.  It’s important for our children to learn how to lead in prayer.  Especially when they’re younger, the prayers might not be that deep or elaborate, but it doesn’t matter.  Family worship is about training and discipleship.  They will grow into it.  There can be an opportunity for prayer requests.  You can also make a prayer calendar where you pray for some particular things each day of the week.  On some occasions, Christian families can also take turns praying around the table.  We did this recently with our church’s Day of Prayer.  I know of families that do that once a week or more.

All up, our family worship usually takes about 15-20 minutes, depending on how much discussion we have.

Like I said, our way of doing it is not the only way.  There is lots of room for flexibility with family worship.  It doesn’t have to be complicated.  Above all, my one word of advice is:  just do it!  Your family will be blessed for it.


Synod Dunnville 2016 (4)

George Van Popta

The Acts of day 5 of the Synod have just been published — but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to review them.  In the meantime, a related video has been posted online.  In this video, Rev. George van Popta makes a presentation of the 2014 Book of Praise on behalf of the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise.  He explains the history of the Book of Praise, including the reasons why the CanRCs didn’t go with an “eclectic Psalter,” but rather chose to use Genevan melodies exclusively for the Psalms.  After the presentation to Rev. Richard Aasman (the chairman of Synod Dunnville), you can also hear the singing of two stanzas of Psalm 22.

 


Reconciling the Regulative Principle with “Feast Days”/”Days of Commemoration”

In its basic form, the regulative principle of worship states that we are only to worship God as he has commanded, not adding or taking away from Scripture. It was some years ago, while I was still in university, that I became convinced that this regulative principle of worship is the Reformed, confessional, position on worship.  It was not difficult to see that the teaching of Heidelberg Catechism QA 96 (we are not to worship God “in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word”) is biblical and exactly in line with other Reformed confessions like the Westminster Standards.  I also came to see that this Reformed principle of worship was not only in the Belgic Confession in article 32, but also in article 7.  I wrote a paper on that, demonstrating that the regulative principle, according to our confession, is simply the liturgical outworking of Sola ScripturaI have also argued that denying the regulative principle of worship has serious consequences and leads to bizarre liturgical innovations.

The principle itself is straightforward.  Application of the principle is where we often encounter differences.  It took some time for me to work through some of these issues too.  For example, there was a time when I struggled with understanding how one could celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25 and still hold to the regulative principle.  However, through further research and conversations with others, I came to peace with that.  I still hold to the regulative principle, but I can also in good conscience join with God’s people in commemorating the birth of our Saviour on December 25.  Rather than have me explain in detail how I have reconciled these things, I highly recommend this article by my colleague Daniel Hyde.  This article is being published in the 2015 issue of the Mid-America Journal of Theology.  It helpfully explains how one can both hold to the regulative principle and worship on the “feast days” or “days of commemoration.”