/ Athanasius / Barry York

A Psalm Singer's Sigh

Singing the psalms can make you sigh for a number of reasons. The psalms actually encourage us to do so at times. "O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you" (Ps. 38:9). On a humorous note (pun intended), hitting or hearing off-notes in the sanctuary as a congregation struggles to sing them acapella can create some sighing. Another reason for sighing is when I hear well-meaning brothers, zealous for singing David's songs, try to convert others to their cause with bad manners, jabby comments, and red faces.

And one other reason I sigh - and the point of this particular article - is when men feel inclined to disparage exclusive psalm singing. For I have sighed a time or two as of late in seeing articles such as Lane Keister's "An Argument Against Exclusive Psalmody."

After all, it's not like those singing psalms in the worship of God should present much of a danger. Praise choruses rule the day. Most people these days who walk into a sanctuary expect something more akin to a rock band up front rather than a lone precentor with a pitch pipe. We are few in number. Our congregations are typically small. We're just committed to singing the songs God put in the middle of the Bible. Surely the loudmouth, legalistic ones in our midst are best ignored. Sigh...so why pick on us?

Did not Carl Trueman, in an article that should be deemed a modern classic, entitled "The Marcions Have Landed!", encourage the church just to leave psalm singers alone? In part he said:

Moreover, often nothing seems to earn the scorn and derision of others more than the suggestion that more psalms should be sung in worship. Indeed, the last few years have seen a number of writers strike out against exclusive psalmody. Given that life is too short to engage in pointless polemics, I am left wondering which parallel universe these guys come from, where the most pressing and dangerous worship issue is clearly that people sing too much of the Bible in their services. How terrifying a prospect that would be.

Imagine: people actually singing songs that express the full range of human emotion in their worship using words of which God has explicitly said, 'These are mine.' Back here on Planet Earth, however, there is generally precious little chance of overloading on sound theology in song in most evangelical churches as the Marcion invasion is pretty much total and unopposed in the sphere of worship. Yet I for one prefer Athanasius to Marcion as a patristic thinker and, in his letter to Marcellinus, he gives one of the most beautiful and moving arguments for psalms in worship ever penned (available at www.athanasius.com/psalms/aletterm.htm). It is a pity more have not taken his words to heart."
Sigh. Yes, indeed.

In many ways I do not want to answer Pastor Keister. He says he loves the psalms, and I believe him. As I have pointed out before, nothing like a dour psalm singer to ruin the joy. Yet, and here I sigh again, I feel I must. For he employs logic in his two arguments against psalm singing, and the old math teacher in me does not think his logic computes very well.  If I understand him properly, he believes exclusive psalm-singing commits the first fallacy in an argument that runs like this:

  • Psalm singers say we can only sing divinely inspired songs in worship.

  • They say that the Psalms are the only songs the Bible commands us to sing.

  • But if we can only sing inspired words, we cannot sing in English because the translation is not inspired.

  • If we say the English translation is inspired, then we the deny verbal plenary inspiration of the original text.

  • So we must say the translation is not inspired, especially being commonly in a metric form, and so we are not singing inspired Scripture in worship.
    I do not think this is a sound argument. For if you simply replace the idea of psalm singing with Bible reading, you would end up with the following argument.

  • Bible readers say we can only read divinely inspired texts in worship.

  • They say that the texts of the Bible are the only texts the Bible commands us to read.

  • But if we can only read inspired words, we cannot read in English because the translation is not inspired.

  • If we say the English translation is inspired, then we the deny verbal plenary inspiration of the original text.

  • So we must say the translation is not inspired, especially being commonly in a readable form, and so we are not reading inspired Scripture in worship.
    The second argument against singing psalms is related to the first. The article claims that its proponents commit the "word-concept fallacy." This fallacy occurs when someone believes a concept can be stated in one and only one way. In other words, it says that words and ideas are the same, and you can never communicate the same idea with different words or different ideas with the same words. According to Pastor Keister, psalm singers do this when they insist on singing the ideas of the Psalms by singing the exact words. However, as he goes on, because the Psalms are in English translations from the Hebrew and in metrical form to boot, we never sing those exact words so we are inconsistent. We would have to sing them in Hebrew to be truly consistent. So a hymn that reflects Biblical truth is just as good as a Psalm translation.

Again, there may be good arguments against psalm singing, but is this one of them? The parallel with reading the Bible above continues. For I would be willing to bet (if I didn't stand against it) that if I went to Pastor Keister's congregation and listened to him read from the Bible, he would probably use a a version somewhere in the range of something like the English Standard to the King James versions. Certainly I would not hear during the reading of God's Word _The Message _or _The New International Version Inclusive Language Edition. _Nor would he be reading from the Hebrew or the Greek. I am sure he is committed to reading from an English text that most accurately reflects the original languages. If we believe in verbal plenary inspiration, and we both do, then we should want Bible versions and Bible songs that are as close as they can be to being, as he says at the end of his article, biblical in content.

For he says the following. "We need to sing the content of Scripture. There is a continuum, therefore, of 'biblicalness' when it comes to what we sing." Here I sigh one last time, because I do not want to be snarky. But what logically follows along that very continuum? For what could have more biblicalness in its content than the Bible? What could be more biblical in content in song than the psalms?

Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. President of RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness. Author - Hitting the Marks.

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