In the last post I quoted John Calvin favorably and said that in large part we have him to thank that we sing in the Reformed churches. And yet we do not unreservedly agree with him when it comes to the church’s song for he held to what is nowadays called “exclusive Psalmody.”
In fairness to Calvin I should quote more of what he says on the topic. In the preface to the Genevan Psalter he wrote:
Now, what Augustine says is true, namely that no one can sing anything worthy of God which he has not received from him. Therefore, even after we have carefully searched everywhere, we shall not find better or more appropriate songs to this end than the Psalms of David, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And for this reason, when we sing them, we are assured that God puts the words in our mouth, as if he himself were singing through us to exalt his glory.
Surely Calvin was correct when he said that there is nothing better to sing than the Psalms of David. He published the 150 Psalms in French set to what has come to be called the Genevan tunes. To that collection he added the canticles (“scripture songs”), the Songs of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon, and the Ten Commandments. He did not want any hymns that were not based closely on the literal text of scripture.
I do not mind saying that I love the Genevan Psalter. It courses through my veins. With thanks to God I note that we have recently published New Genevan Psalter which is a contemporary English version of the Genevan Psalms and the four canticles.
I also love canticles, defined as songs based on scripture passages other than Psalms. I have tried my hand at writing some, pairing them mostly to tunes that are in the public domain. I have a website dedicated to them.
But what about hymns? Psalms and canticles—of course! But what about hymns?
The Canadian Reformed Churches allow hymns. The Book of Praise, our songbook, consists of the 150 Psalms and 85 hymns, of which about two dozen could be classified as canticles. But what about the hymns that are not closely based upon the literal text of scripture but work with themes, ideas, and images found in scripture? Are such hymns appropriate for God’s people to sing in the official worship service?
Without wanting to get embroiled in a worship war I hope to address that next.