The confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) churches […] begin with the assumption that it is not the function of singing in worship for us to say whatever we want to God but to repeat God’s Word after him. The role of a song in worship is not for us to say to God what is on our hearts but for the congregation to say to God what is on his heart. This is how the classical Reformed churches understood the function of singing.
They understood worship to be a dialogue in which God speaks and his people respond, but the Reformed all understood that God’s people are to respond with his Word. This is part of what they understood sola Scriptura to mean: God’s Word is sufficient for the Christian faith, the Christian life and public worship.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as religious subjectivism swept through the modern church, first under the influence of Pietism, and then under the influence of the liberal children and grandchildren of the Pietists, God’s Word was gradually marginalized in favour of Watts’ paraphrases of the Psalms and then, finally, hymns. Eventually, in virtually every quarter of the church (and even in most P&R churches) the hymnal completely routed the Psalter.
The new Trinity Psalter-Hymnal is a promising but rearguard action that seems to be largely unknown beyond the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the United Reformed Churches that produced it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Psalms have become completely unknown in most P&R churches.
But it was not so for most of the history of the church. From the early second century until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Psalms were universally the songbook of the church. The early Christians sang them. The medieval monks memorized and chanted them. The Reformation translated them and set them to meter for use in public worship. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to find a Reformed church on the Christian Sabbath, all one had to do was listen for the congregation that was singing the Psalms.
God’s Word is a bulwark, a stout defence against trendiness. Were the P&R churches devoted to learning and singing God’s Word, how much better off would we be and how much less susceptible to the sort of decline that leads to a gay-affirming hymnal?
If the rule of worship is that we do (including singing) in worship only what God has commanded, where has he commanded us to sing anything other than his Word? Before you answer, check your sources carefully. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says “each one has a psalm”. Read in context, Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 are most certainly not referring to the 150 Psalms, nineteenth-century hymns and contemporary praise music (as I heard one preacher argue). They are referring to different kinds of psalms. Indeed, when the use of non-canonical songs began to grow in the fourth century AD, it became controversial. Synodical opinions were divided, but the psalms remained the principal source of songs for public worship even after Gregory’s chants (seventh century) mounted an onslaught against the Psalter.
Were we to sing only God’s Word (the Psalms and other portions) in response to God’s Word, we might have other worries, but we will not find ourselves singing songs affirming lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer, intersex, two-spirit identities. The others are flatly contrary to God’s Word, but the last, “two-spirit”, is flat paganism.
Instead, we will find ourselves singing about God’s good creation, his marvelous and gracious redemption of his people, his covenant faithfulness to us, his constant and gracious provision, and his care for his church in all ages. In other words, the centre of our singing would not be ourselves but our Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit and particularly God’s grace to us sinners in Christ.