Tag Archives: Psalm-singing

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!


The Liberation of 26 Hungarian Reformed Ministers

I’m currently reading Spiritual Desertion by Gisbertus Voetius and Johannes Hoornbeeck.  This seventeenth-century work  includes a helpful historical introduction by M. Eugene Oosterhaven.  In this introduction is a fascinating story that I’ve never heard of before, related to the picture above.  To set the context, Oosterhaven has another picture that includes this caption:

Among the theological students of Voetius and Hoornbeeck were scores of Hungarians who pondered the possibility of their kin and country being abandoned by God.  Muslim Turks had occupied Hungary since 1526.  Their cruelty and exploitation of the people shocked all of Europe.  However, Jesuits and Hapsburg rulers, in the service of Rome, were the cause of even greater suffering.

Then this is the caption that goes with the picture I’ve included above:

The liberation of Hungarian ministers at Naples by Admiral de Ruyter, 1676.  The men pictured had been sold to a Spanish fleet to serve as galley slaves.  Chained to oars day and night for nine months, some had struggled with the fear of abandonment by God as well as their fellow believers.  The twenty-six survivors sang Psalms 46, 114, and 125 as they were being transferred to a Dutch ship on February 11, 1676.  When the transfer was complete, they knelt on the deck in their rags and emaciated condition and sang Psalm 116.  The Dutch seamen, who seldom shed tears, wept openly.

How did the Dutch know that the Hungarians (who spoke no Dutch) were singing Psalms 46, 114, 125 and 116?  Because they were singing them in Hungarian on the Genevan tunes.  The Psalms are still being sung in Hungary in this fashion.


Genevan Psalm-Singing “Lectionary”

I’ve been reading John Witvliet’s The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources.  Witvliet suggests that there is value to singing through all the Psalms on a regular basis.  He also remarks that has a historical basis:  “In Calvin’s Geneva, despite the rejection of the Roman lectionary for Scripture readings and sermon texts, the Psalms were sung in public worship according to a regular regimen that was printed in the back of published Psalters (indeed, it was a lectionary for singing)”  (51).  I had a look at a couple of old Genevan Psalters (1565 and 1674), but I didn’t find any such “lectionary.”  However, with some help from one of my colleagues (thanks, George!), I found the original source which Witvliet references, Pierre Pidoux’s Le Psautier Huguenot du XVIe siecle.  Pidoux reproduces a chart that is apparently found at the back of a 1562 Genevan Psalter.  You can find it here.

There are a few interesting features on this chart.  The entire Psalter is sung through in a half-year.  However, this involves a Wednesday service (Jour des Prieres), as well as the use of pre-service songs before the morning and evening Sunday services.  It also sometimes involves determining the song before and after the sermon, thus taking this song selection out of the hands of the minister.  Also, the singing of whole Psalms is the norm, although where the Psalm is long, it will be split up over two or more services.

I think something like this could be used in twenty-first century Reformed worship services as well.  I’m going to tinker with it and see what I can come up with.  I agree with Witvliet that there is value in singing all the Psalms on a regular basis.


Singing Psalms — Why Not the Whole Enchilada?

Frank Ezinga has another interesting post over here about the singing of Psalms. Specifically, he’s interested in tracing the history of why so many Reformed churches only sing very select parts of the psalms, rather than whole Psalms.  He believes there’s a historical reason for this and he provides a musical sample to prove his point.  If you’re familiar at all with the Genevan tunes as sung in Canadian Reformed Churches, this sample will probably be unrecognizable.

I’ve always agreed with Frank:  we ought to strive for singing whole Psalms.  I know that sometimes it’s impractical — Psalm 119 being the classic example.  My personal guideline is that if it has five stanzas or less, we normally sing the whole thing.  I don’t think that’s unreasonable.  By that guideline, with the latest revision of the Book of Praise there are some 72 Psalms that can easily be sung in their entirety.  There are quite a few more that have six or seven short stanzas that could also be sung whole.  Psalms of eight or nine stanzas can be split and the whole psalm can still be sung in the worship service, even if not all at once.

I know that if I’m sitting in church and the minister selects, say stanzas 1 and 5 of Psalm 146, I always feel cheated.  It’s only five stanzas — why not sing the whole thing?  It’s a beautiful Psalm.  Sometimes, however, even ministers get squeamish about some of the content of the Psalms.  A classic example is Psalm 95 and its last two stanzas.  The Psalm starts off encouraging praise for God and then stanza 4:

Today, would you but hear His voice:

Do not repeat your father’s choice

who stubbornly with Me contended;

at Massah’s rock and Meribah

they tested me although they saw

how they by Me had been defended.

And stanza 5:

For forty years they wearied Me,

I said, “They show no loyalty.”

Their hardened hearts resist My favour;

My ways they foolishly ignore.”

And so I in my anger swore:

“Into my rest they’ll enter never.”

I can remember attending a Psalm-sing at a Free Church of Scotland congregation some years ago.  I requested Psalm 95 (from the RPCNA Book of Psalms for Singing).  The minister presiding asked the congregation to sing it, but left off the last part because he thought it was awkward for us to sing that.  I’ve seen many CanRC ministers do that too and I’m just as guilty as anyone.  Why are we so squeamish?  We have no problem reading the whole of Psalm 95, why such a problem with singing it?  Are we afraid that someone might be offended?  Then we may just as well drop the reading of the Law.  It makes no sense.  Let’s sing whole Psalms as much as possible.


Being Subversive

Over the weekend, I finished reading Charlie R. Steen’s A Chronicle of Conflict: Tournai, 1559-1567.  Tournai was the city where the Belgic Confession was penned and where it first became public in 1561.  This book covers the years before and after, though the Belgic Confession is never actually mentioned.  This book is a disappointment in some respects.  The author portrays the Reformed churches and their pastors as revolutionaries.  He seems to adopt the view of the government of this period that Guy de Bres and the other Reformed believers were actually seditious people intent on overthrowing civil order.  In that regard, Steen also makes several crucial errors in fact.  For instance, he argues that de Bres was involved with leading nocturnal psalm-singing in the streets of Tournai (30).  In point of fact, de Bres warned the Reformed believers not to do this.  Moreover, Steen often confuses the rabble that used the Calvinistic label  as a pre-text for their civil disorder with devout Reformed believers who opposed it.  In short, this account of this period in Tournai’s history is not sympathetic to the Reformed churches, nor does it even really present a balanced view of things.  Instead, in some places it seems like Steen has an axe to grind with the Calvinists.  Finally, even though it is a scholarly work, many of the author’s statements are unsubstantiated.  There are end notes, but there could have been many more.

Nevertheless, it is an engaging read and there are some interesting and helpful points to take away from it.  One thing that I was reminded of was that there were at least three main things that the Reformed held to which were considered subversive and seditious by the government in Brussels:

1)  Psalm-singing.  This was mostly because of the obnoxious chanteries, or public psalm-singings that always took place at night in Tournai.  Margaret of Parma eventually made psalm-singing a capital crime.  The psalms (the Word of God!) were considered to be seditious words — it became treasonous to read or sing them.

2)  The deaconate.  When the time seemed right, the consistory of the Reformed church in Tournai began taking collections for the care of the poor.  A deaconate ministry was established.  Margaret of Parma regarded this as a “obvious and pernicious conspiracy.”  The Reformed were seizing privileges and prerogatives that belonged only to the civil magistrates.  Welfare belonged to the state and the church was out of bounds to try and work in this area.

3)  Christian education.  The consistory in Tournai wanted to establish Christian schools for the children of the Reformed church.  This was also regarded as seditious since education belonged to the realm of government.  After Philip II regained control of Tournai in 1567, a law was made which stated that Reformed children had to be sent to Roman Catholic schools.  If they were not, they could be taken away from their parents.

One item that Steen doesn’t mention is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  This was actually the reason why de Bres was hung on May 31, 1567.  He was hung for celebrating the Lord’s Supper against the orders of the civil magistrate.  In fact, the celebration of both sacraments by the Reformed was regarded as seditious.  Babies who were baptized in the Reformed church during its brief time of relative freedom later had to be rebaptized in the Roman Catholic Church.

The three main items mentioned above could still be regarded as subversive, even if they are no longer regarded as seditious.  They are counter-cultural.  The singing of psalms is virtually unheard of in churches today.  Ironically, some of our own Reformed people would be happy to get rid of most of them too.  The deaconate too is a rare institution in Christian churches, though I don’t think the government would complain if our deacons were to do more.  As for Christian education, it is also a niche endeavour for the most part.  As for the civil government, in most Canadian jurisdictions Christian schools are just barely tolerated.