Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Music in the Wee Free

In Scotland I was a member of a lovely Free Church of Scotland congregation in Dingwall. Friendly people, good preaching, mission focused, genuine care for the community, and very austere worship. One of the distinctive elements of the Free Church of Scotland is that they mandate the exclusive use of unaccompanied psalmody in worship. Singing the Psalms acapella can be very lovely, moving, serene, and stirring; but it can also be dull, painful, and leave you positively catatonic. There is a move afoot in the FCS to allow congregations to use musical instruments and to sing hymns and choruses in their public worship. There is an interesting article about the debate going on in the FCS available here. Donald MacLeod of the Free Church College is pushing for this change (note that every third man in Scotland is called either Donald MacLeod or Donald MacDonald) and he's right. So with a mix of seriousness and comedy, I have to make several criticisms of my former denomination:

1. It is a very strange feeling of acute irony to sing psalms about worshipping God with a tambourine, a harp, and a lyre (e.g., Psa 33.2-3; 57.8; 71.22; 81.2; 92.3; 108.2; 144.9; 150.3-5) in a denomination that would efficiently excommunicate you if you ever did attempt to worship God with a tambourine, harp, or lyre.

2. In my Colossians commentary, I offered an alternative translation of Col. 3.16 for the benefit of the die hard traditionalists in the FCS which runs: "singing psalms, unmusical psalms, and even more psalms". Afterall, why let a biblical text get in the way of a bad theology of worship?

3. Worshipping God like it's 1843 is great if you are actually living in the year 1843, but probably not so great for those of us living in 2010.

4. Singing the songs of Israel's experience keeps us deeply rooted in the historical worship experience of God's people and even the kind of worship that Jesus celebrated. However, it would also be nice to sing songs, hymns, and choruses as a New Testament believer once in a while.

5. The Rev. Jock McPlop of Falkirk FC in Ayershire has just announced that his congregation will be boycotting the Wedding Supper of the Lamb on the grounds that new age songs will be used in the ceremony (Rev 15.3).

6. Probably the biggest problem is that the FCS has been dominated by a Hebridean Church culture which has been confused with Christianity itself. The Hebridean way of "being church" is assumed to be canonical, authoritative, normative, and binding on all Christians in all times and in all places (even in Africa where the same worship principles are imposed by FCS churches planted there).

7. In the aforementioned article, the author laments that he'll be very disappointed if the psalm singing disappears since it'll be a cultural loss to Scotland and Britain. The problem is that no-one will be forced to do away with psalm singing and other denominations like the Free Presbyterians (very serious people) and the Associated Presbyterians (slightly serious people) will no doubt keep it too. I'm not concerned about psalm singing disappearing as much as I'm concerned with the FCS disappearing unless they make headway among young people in Scotland. Stephen Holmes, a theology lecturer at St. Andrews University, once noted that Scotland is filled with churches that are theologically orthodox but spiritually lifeless. I've spoken to FC ministers in university cities who have huge problems attracting Christians who come to Scotland for study because the worship is just so different or even archaic compared to what they are used to. So unless the FCS broadens it's acceptable practices of worship, I'm afraid that there won't be a FCS in 30 years time.


Marty Foord said...

Hey Mike,

Great post--totally agree.

One thing I've noticed though, is how singing Psalms has been eclipsed in evangelicalism. It's a pity.

Cheers bro,


Bruce J. Russell, Sr. said...

Which came first, bad theology or bad music?

Sherwood Forest said...

Thanks for this entertaining (yet informative in its own way) post, Mike! LOL! I will have to use this and the link you provided in my course on the history of biblical interpretation; all the issues are here: the relationship between the OT and NT, the old community and the new, the ad hoc ranking of texts (absolutizing some and ignoring others in the same context), atomistic reading, and the restrictive application strategy of the more radical wing of the Reformation. In answer to Bruce, I'm not sure which came first--bad theology or bad music--but perhaps bad hermeneutics precedes both of them!

A psalms lover.

Nick Mackison said...

Mike, let me play devil's advocate and ask what about the argument which states that using musical instruments tamborines, etc was an Old Covenant ordinance? After all, some Psalms talk about slaying bulls and goats but we don't do that. (The older Plymouth Brethren used to hold to a similar argument regarding instrumental accompanyment).

ros said...

Now Mike, you know perfectly well that at Dingwall Free they do sing hymns and spiritual songs. I can distinctly recall singing the text of at least two NT hymns there - one from Revelation and I think maybe also Philippians 2.

I'll never forget singing a psalm to the tune of 'If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands', nor the week before 'Christmas', singing a psalm to the tune of 'While Shepherds Watched'. You've got to admit that they had a sense of humour about it!

David Meredith said...

Interesting post but not really all that helpful.

Mike, there is a legitimate debate here. Given that hymns and music in church are only fairly recent features of church life, and that Psalm singing has dominated the Church for centuries, we look to scholars like you for some illumination.

Can you give a potted apologetic for hymns and music - without sarcasm?

Did Paul mean Hillsongs in Eph 5:19?

Even in my most critical mode I cannot come close to saying that the Free Church of Scotland is 'spiritually lifeless'. What defines life?

PS - I'm not trying to be cheeky, I'm just looking for some mature debate.

Kaalvenist said...

Dr. Bird,

As an American Covenanter who was raised a hymn-singing Baptist, I would offer some remarks on the points you raise.

1. Nick Mackison already put forth our basic argument concerning musical instruments in New Testament worship. Calvin remarked on Psalm 33, "But when they frequent their sacred assemblies, musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law."

2. I hope that, since you are capable of distinguishing between the Bible's use of the terms psalm, hymn, and song (which the translators of the Septuagint apparently never learned), you could likewise instruct us in the difference between "iniquity and transgression and sin" (Exod. 34:7), or "signs and wonders and mighty deeds" (2 Cor. 12:12), etc.

3. Worshipping the eternal God, showing forth His immutable glory, does not actually require a significant change in our worship. I do not think that English has changed to such an extent since 1843 (or even 1650) to require that our songs be altered; neither do I think that the constitution of the human voice has undergone an essential alteration, so as to require the accompaniment of musical instruments which were avoided for over a thousand years in churches, and for hundreds of years after the Reformation in all Reformed, Presbyterian, Independent, and Baptist churches. (Of course, if our aim is to entertain man rather than worship God, we probably will have to change things up a bit.)

4. God, in His infinite wisdom, gave a hymn-book in the Old Testament, not in the New. We do now sing from that Old Testament hymn-book from the further light and revelation of the New Testament; but the fact that we are now in the New Testament does not warrant our adding to the Psalter. When we are commanded to sing "the word of Christ" in Col. 3:16, it is not "the word ABOUT Christ," but "the word FROM Christ" (as we likewise understand the phrase "the word of God" throughout the Scriptures). The key thing is singing the canonical Psalter, and not whatever Jesus-y effusions men may come up with.

5. Rather an insulting mock of a minister of the Word and sacraments.

6. I cannot speak of a "Hebridean Church culture." I can say that the second commandment requires that we worship God only according to His own appointment; and that Scripture reveals this to consist in singing the Scripture Psalms, unaccompanied. Africans are not required by Scripture to make up their own songs, but are required by Scripture to sing the songs given in Scripture itself.

7. In churches that have allowed the use of uninspired hymns, you can hardly find a Psalm anymore. However we disagree on the exclusivity of the Psalter, we are (I think) agreed that the Psalms are commanded to be sung in the New Testament church. The act of "broaden[ing]" one's "acceptable practices of worship" has a direct tendency away from following that command, as allowing uninspired hymns always has the tendency of displacing, eclipsing, and abolishing the Psalms in worship.

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