What about hymns? Are we allowed to sing hymns in the worship service besides Psalms and canticles?
The church does well to be cautious about which hymns are sung. Hymn singing was favoured by Gnostic sects and Arianism and so the true and catholic church has rightly been wary of hymns. Many doctrinal errors were ingrained in hearts and minds because of what was sung. Arius (c. AD 250-336), who said that Christ was a created being and denied his deity, popularized his teaching by setting it to music. Hymns have often, over the millennia, introduced all manner of error into the church. This prompted more than one assembly to warn against hymns “made by man” as opposed to songs found in Scripture, which are the work “of men as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
Hymns have also often introduced pietistic tendencies into the song of the church and the minds of the believers. Pietism places man and his religious experience in the center rather than the word and deeds of God.
And yet it is appropriate for us to sing hymns in worship. Psalms sing of our Lord Jesus Christ in prophecy whereas hymns sing about him and his work in fulfilment. In our hymns we sing not only about the suffering of our Saviour, but also about his resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is true that the Psalms as well address these redemptive facts, but in anticipation rather than in the time of fulfilment.
We can also look at the matter from a covenant perspective while bearing in mind where we are in God’s program of history. As people in covenant with God we are called to respond to God in all areas of life—activity, thought, speech, and song. God has called us to respond to him from the historical context within which we live.
The church must carefully study proposed hymns before they are sung in the public worship service. They need to be true to the teachings of scripture and in harmony with the confession of the church. Songs that meet those criteria, and others about which we will also write, can be said to be a faithful covenant response of God’s people to the words and acts of God in history.
The hymnody of the church should include songs written throughout the ages and world. The collection of the Book of Praise, although not perfect, is happily ecumenical and eclectic. It includes songs written in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 8th, 7th, 9th, 11th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries and in different parts of the world.
The calling to write hymns and the task of the church to consider them for inclusion in its repertoire will only be complete when our Lord Jesus Christ returns on the clouds of heaven.