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What About Hymns?

What About “Hymns”?

John Calvin (1509-1564) French Reformer:  “For what St. Augustine said is true, that one can sing nothing worthy of God save what one has received from Him. Wherefore though we look far and wide we will find no better songs nor songs more suitable to that purpose than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit made and imparted to him. Thus, singing them we may be sure that our words come from God just as if He were to sing in us for His own exaltation. Wherefore, Chrysostom exhorts men, women, and children alike to get used to singing them, so as through this act of meditation to become as one with the choir of angels.”

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William Romaine (1714-1795) Church of England: “In the third century we hear much of psalm-singing.  Arius was complained of as a perverter of this ordinance.  St. Augustine makes it a high crime in certain heretics that they sung hymns composed by human wit.

The sense in which the Church of Christ understood this subject has been till late years always one and uniform: now we leave the ancient beaten path.  But why?—have we found a better?  How came we to be wiser than the prophets? than Christ? than His apostles? than the whole Church of God?  They, with one consent, have sung psalms in every age.  Here I leave the reader to his own reflections.  There is one plain inference to be made from hence, none can easily mistake it.  May he see it in his judgment, and follow it in his practice!

‘What!’ say some, ‘it is unlawful to sing human compositions in the Church?  How can that be? Why, they sing them at such a place, and such a place; great men and good men, aye, and lively ministers, too, sing them. Will you set up your judgment against theirs?’ It is an odious thing to speak of one’s self, except it be to magnify the grace of God. What is my private judgment? I set it up against nobody in indifferent things. I wish to yield to every man’s infirmity, for I want the same indulgence myself. But in the present case, the Scripture, which is the only rule of judgment, has not left the matter indifferent. God has given us a large collection of hymns, and has commanded them to be sung in the Church, and has promised His blessing to the singing of them. No respect here must be paid to names or authorities, though they be the greatest on earth, because no one can dispense with the command of God, and no one, by his wit, can compose hymns to be compared to the Psalms of God. I want a name for that man who should pretend that he could make better hymns than the Holy Ghost. His collection is large enough; it wants no addition.  It is as perfect as its Author, and not capable of any improvement. Why, in such a case, would any man in the world take it into his head to sit down and write hymns for the use of the Church? It is just the same as if he were to write a new Bible, not only better than the old, but so much better that the old may be thrown aside. What a blasphemous attempt! And yet our hymn-mongers, inadvertently I hope, have come very near to this blasphemy; for they shut out the Psalms, introduce their own verses into the Church, sing them with great delight, and, as they fancy with great profit; although the practice be in direct opposition to the command of God, and, therefore, cannot possibly be accompanied with the blessing of God.”

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William Romaine (1714-1795): “We know from very clear testimony that the psalms were sung in the temple until its final destruction. We are certain that Christ made use of the psalms. His apostles followed his example. The churches of Corinth, and Ephesus, and Colosse, made the singing of psalms part of their public worship. Such of the twelve tribes as were scattered abroad, being persecuted for Christ’s sake, did sing psalms when they were in a happy frame; for they were commanded to do it by the apostle James. The church history affords abundant evidence of the use of psalms in every country converted to the faith, and of their being sung in the church as a part of public worship. This has been the case in every age, without any interruption. The primitive Christians sung in all their church meetings. Eusebius says, in the second century, they sung psalms in praise of Christ and his deity. In the time of Justin Martyr, instrumental music being now abolished, he highly commends singing with the voice, ‘because,’ says he, ‘psalms, with organs and cymbals, are fitter to please children than to instruct the Church.’ In the third century we hear much of psalm-singing. Arius was complained of as a perverter of this ordinance. St. Augustine makes it a high crime in certain heretics that they sung hymns composed by human wit.

The sense in which the Church of Christ understood this subject has been till late years always one and uniform: now we leave the ancient beaten path. But why?–have we found a better? How came we to be wiser than the prophets? than Christ? than His apostles? then the whole Church of God? They, with one consent, have sung psalms in every age. Here I leave the reader to his own reflections. There is one plain inference to be made from hence, none can easily mistake it. May he see it in his judgment, and follow it in his practice!

‘What!’ say some, ‘it is unlawful to sing human compositions in the Church? How can that be? Why, they sing them at such a place, and such a place; great men and good men, aye, and lively ministers, too, sing them. Will you set up your judgment against theirs?’ It is an odious thing to speak of one’s self, except it be to magnify the grace of God. What is my private judgment? I set it up against nobody in indifferent things. I wish to yield to every man’s infirmity, for I want the same indulgence myself. But in the present case, the Scripture, which is the only rule of judgment, has not left the matter indifferent. God has given us a large collection of hymns, and has commanded them to be sung in the Church, and has promised His blessing to the singing of them. No respect here must be paid to names or authorities, though they be the greatest of earth, because no one can dispense with the command of God, and no one, by his wit, can compose hymns to be compared to the Psalms of God. I want a name for that man who should pretend he could make better hymns that the Holy Ghost. His collection is large enough, it wants no addition. It is perfect as its Author, and not capable of any improvement. Why, in such a case, would any man in the world take it into his head to sit down and write hymns for the use of the Church? Is it not the same as if he were to write a new Bible, not only better than the old, but so much better that the old may be thrown aside? What a blasphemous attempt! and yet our hymn-mongers, inadvertently, I hope, have come very near to this blasphemy, for they shut out the Psalms, introduce their own verses into the Church, sing them great delight, and, as they fancy, with great profit, although the whole practice be in direct opposition to the command of God, and therefore cannot possibly be accompanied with the blessing of God.”

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Henry Cooke (1788-1868) Irish Presbyterian, champion of Trinitarianism against Unitarianism:  “The most celebrated hymns of uninspired men are like Job’s friends, “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2), when compared with the experience of Christ in the day of humiliation, of which the Book of Psalms is the true prophetic picture. While I set not up my convictions as a rule or measure of the conscience of others, I cannot fail to pity those who can find, as they assert, so little of Christ in the inspired psalmody of the Bible that they must seek and employ an uninspired psalmody as exhibiting Him more fully. Our Lord Himself found Himself in the Psalms, and thereby “opened the understanding of His disciples that they should understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:45) Surely what was the clearest light to their eyes ought to be light to ours. And truly I believe there is one view of Christ–and that not the least important to the tried and troubled believer–that can be discovered only in the Book of Psalms–I mean His inward life. No eye-witness of the outward man, though an inspired evangelist, could penetrate the heart. But the Spirit who searcheth the deep things of God has in the Psalms laid open the inmost thoughts, sorrows, and conflicts of our Lord. The Evangelists faithfully and intelligently depict the sinless man; the Psalms alone lay open the heart of the “man of sorrows.” (Isa. 53:3) The most pious productions of uninspired men are a shallow stream; the Psalms are unfathomable and shoreless ocean. I was long in favour of paraphrases and hymns of human composure in the worship of God; but now I have learnt that nothing will do for a sinking soul in a dying hour but the Psalms of David.”

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Albert Barnes (1798-1870) Presbyterian minister, Bible commentator: “… nor will there ever be in the world such an advance in religious light, experience, and knowledge, that [the Psalms] will lose their relative place as connected with the exercises of practical piety … Their [the Hebrews’] poetry of the religious kind … is all of a high order. There is none that can be placed on the same low level with much that is found in the hymn-books of most denominations of Christians—very good; very pious; very sentimental; very much adapted, as is supposed, to excite the feelings of devotion; but withal so flat, so weak, so unpoetic, that it would not, in a volume of mere poetry, be admitted to a third or fourth rank, if, indeed, it would find a place at all.”

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Professor William Binnie (1823-1886) Scottish Presbyterian: “The tide of Christian hymnology that has been running with ever-increasing volume and strength in the Reformed Churches during the past century, threatens in many quarters to displace the Psalms (though it can only be for a season) from their place of unrivalled prominence and authority in public worship. This I cannot help regarding as a great evil.  Wherever the prayers are few, it is of incalculable importance that the other half of the devotional service should be moulded in forms of ancient authority; and surely the best possible mould is that which the Holy Spirit Himself gave by the Psalmists, and which has left its divinely-traced lines on the Jewish Church for these three thousand years.”

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Dr. John James Stewart Perowne (1823-1904) professor at Cambridge, author of a commentary on the Psalms: “The Psalter is the only entire book in the Bible which God has given expressly to aid and guide the worship of man; and while adapted to every capacity in its range of experience, it includes every case, from the depth of penitential remorse, to the fullest and most exalting realization of God’s friendship.”

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William Alexander (1824-1911) Irish Episcopalian: “Hymns cannot really and adequately replace the Psalter. To Psalms, as compared with hymns, we may apply the analogy of the inspired Apostolic writings compared with those which follow them. As we enter upon them we feel that we breathe a different air. A creative epoch has passed away. The flood-tide of Divine life has fallen. There is, indeed, sometimes a more excited and elevating air, more that is momentarily striking and impressive, in the Apostolic Fathers than in the Apostolic writings themselves. I sometimes fear that in our desire for variety and warmth in hymns, we may be piling the Church with combustibles which will explode in different directions. Hymns are heated, sensational, exciting. St. Augustine (Bishop of Hippo, 354-430) tells us that the African Donatists mocked at the Catholic Christians, because the Catholics changed nothing in their churches but the Divine songs of prophets and psalmists, whilst the Sistorians intoned, with voices that swelled and rang like trumpets, human compositions which were flushed with the strong wine of their fierce fanaticism. I believe it to be high time to face this phenomenon of contented acquiescence and the practical deposition of the Psalter from its place.”

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Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) Dutch Reformed theologian and Prime Minister of Holland:

  1. Holy Scripture presents us with a special volume of Psalms [for singing].
  2. The Psalms far exceed hymns in depth of spirituality.
  3. Hymns have rarely forced their way into the churches without soon revealing the tendency first to dominate the Psalms and then to oppose them.
  4. In the Psalms is heard the abiding, eternal keynote of the godly mind, while all hymns mostly convey a temporary theme and impress the one-sided conception of the moment upon the churches.
  5. Hymns invariably have led to choirs [or soloists etc. in public worship], by which the congregation was silenced.
  6. In the struggle between hymns and Psalms, the careless and weaker members of the congregation all sided against the Psalms and for hymns, while the godly always chose more for Psalms against hymns.

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Professor James Iverach of Aberdeen (1839-1922): “The Psalms extend into the infinities and have no shore. There is not a hymn but I can get through, they all become threadbare; the Psalms I never can fathom. They are the response of the soul to the living God.”

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Dr. Grier:  “There is no more sheer assumption in all theological controversy than that the Early Church made and sang their own hymns.”

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Rev. James Parker, Jersey City, New Jersey: “No advocate of uninspired songs can place his hand upon any hymn-book of man’s composition and say, ‘The Lord hath appointed this.’ On the other hand, the songs of the Psalter are stamped with the King’s own seal … Like that mighty rock that rears its majestic front where strive the waters of the stormy Atlantic and the blue Mediterranean, so this divine Psalter, based upon the eternal foundation of God’s will, lifted high above the strife of man’s conceptions of truth, has stood during the centuries bathed in the sunshine of the divine approval, and it will stand as a witness to every coming age that it alone contains the matter for the proper praise of every attribute of God, and the proper expression of every need and longing of man.”

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Rev. W. D. Ralston relates the following story: “As I trudged homewards, I stopped at an uncle’s, and spent the night there. In the evening I brought out my hymn book and had some singing with my cousins. After I laid it down, my uncle took it up, put on his glasses, and spent some time in looking through it. He was a firm believer in the exclusive use of the Psalms, and my book was the hymn book of another denomination. It gave the hymns, and the music, with the names of the composers of each as far as known. Uncle read a hymn, and, naming the author, said, ‘I know nothing of him.’ He read another, and said, ‘I have read about the author of this one. He was a Roman Catholic priest.’ He read another, and said, ‘I have often read of this author. He was a good man and an earnest Christian minister.’ He then said, ‘Now John, if I were going to use one of these hymns in worship of God tonight, which do you think I had best choose, the one about whose author I know nothing, the one by the Roman Catholic priest, or the one by the earnest Christian minister?’ I replied, ‘The one by the minister.’ ‘True,’ said he, ‘we should select the one written by the best man; and I see by looking through your book that it contains many hymns written by good men; but if I should find in it one composed by God Himself, would it not be better to sing that than one composed by any good man?’ I replied, ‘It surely would.’ After a little he said, ‘I have now carefully looked through your book, and I do not find one hymn in it marked—‘Composed by God:’ but I have here a little hymn-book, and God by His Holy Spirit has composed every hymn in it; for Peter says—‘Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.’ As he spoke, he handed me one of our Psalm books, and the manner in which he presented his argument made an impression upon my mind that I never forgot.”

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Rev. S. G. Kennedy, Belfast, N. Ireland: “An old elder in Scotland once remarked to me that the 89th Psalm was worth a cart load of hymns. Why should we lay on God’s altar the halt, the lame, the sick, when we can present to Him an offering that is without spot or blemish?”

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Rev. Joseph Corkey, Glendermot, N. Ireland: “All the songs of inspiration were written by ‘holy men of God’ who ‘spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.’ We challenge those who disparage the Psalms to find us a line in the Book which was written by an enemy of God’s truth. As to the ‘literary inferiority’ of hymns, it is admitted by hymn-singers themselves that much in their compilations is ‘mere trash.’ … Such is the stuff which self-willed men are now compelling God’s people to sing instead of His own Psalms, which are replete with spiritual truth, which inculcate no error, and which, as literary productions, are of incomparable excellence.”

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John McNaugher: “It is the oldest hymn-book in existence, having a connected record through thousands of years down to our own times, and it is consecrated forever as having been the hymnary of our Saviour and of the Apostolic Church. In the light of its age-long history, of its rich poetry, of its unsectarian, catholic character, of its freedom from error, of its well-proportioned thought, of its theological depth and spiritual quality, of its wealth of evangelical matter, of its supremacy in the utterance of devotion and religious experience, and of the unexampled strains in which it celebrates the glories of God, there is ample occasion for the plea that the Churches of Christ recognize in the Psalter their heritage of sacred song, as against a human hymnody with its necessary imperfections.”

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Rev. John M. Ross, Riverside, California: “The Psalter is a book of worship by means of which man may express in fitting terms his homage and adoration. It gives us the completest view of God which we, in our present limitations, are capable of receiving. ‘Canst thou by searching find out God?’ We can only know Him as He reveals Himself. Herein lies the weakness of an uninspired hymnology; it cannot give us a complete view of God.”

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Rev. R. J. George, D.D., Allegheny Pennsylvania, USA: “At a meeting of ministers of various denominations in an eastern city, a paper had been read on church-hymnology. General discussion followed the reading. An advocate of the exclusive use of the inspired Psalms employed the following illustration with great effect: “If I had an important message to send to one living in the upper district of the city, I might summon a messenger boy and say to him: ‘Can you carry this message for me to such a person, living in such a part of the city?’ And the boy would answer doubtfully: ‘I think I can. It is true, I have never been in that part of the city. I was born near here. I have heard of the person to whom you wish to send the message, but I am not acquainted with him; but I think I can find him. I am willing to try.’ My message is a very important one, and while satisfied of the good intentions of this boy, I am not quite assured of his ability to fulfil the trust. So I call up another boy, and ask him the same question. At once his face glows with intelligence as he answers, ‘O yes, I can carry your message directly to his home. I know all about that part of the city. I was born there. I came from there here. In fact, your friend sent me down here to find you and bear up any message you might desire to send him.’ It would not be difficult to decide which of these messengers I should employ. This is an allegory. If I had a message of praise to send to God, and I employed a hymn to carry it, I would feel uncertain about it; it might reach Him, and it might not. But if I employed a Psalm to carry it, I know that it would ascend to heaven. The Psalm was born there. It came from God to me; and indeed God sent it to me to bear any message of praise I might wish to send up to him.”

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Frank J. Smith, American Presbyterian: “In a 1948 article in the Presbyterian Guardian, Robert Marsden, who had been chairman of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly’s committee which studied the content of worship-song [and who himself voted to include uninspired songs in the church’s praise], stated, ‘it would … be impossible to prove that uninspired songs are authorized in the Scripture, and to demand such proof before one can in good conscience sing uninspired is to demand the impossible!’ With that admission, of course, the jig is up. There is certainly nothing wrong or necessarily unhealthy in debating this issue of the content of praise in worship. But during that debate, unless and until a contrary position can be shown from Scripture to be correct, then all of us who acknowledge King Jesus as the only law-giver is Zion must submit to His Word and advocate that only the 150 Psalms be sung in worship” (“The Singing of Praise,” in Frank J. Smith and David C. Lachman eds. Worship in the Presence of God [Greenville, South Carolina: Greenville Seminary Press, 1992], p. 226).

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Frank J. Smith, American Presbyterian: “No one can accuse the Psalms of unwarranted theological bias. But to use a Methodist, Roman Catholic, Baptist, or Pentecostal hymnbook would legitimize a certain sectarian spirit … Even in a Reformed church, which hymns should be imposed? Those authored by Romanists, liberals, and Unitarians? Those reflective of a deviant Christology, or a non-Reformed theology?” (“The Singing of Praise,” in Frank J. Smith and David C. Lachman eds. Worship in the Presence of God [Greenville, South Carolina: Greenville Seminary Press, 1992], p. 223).

~Taken from http://www.cprf.co.uk/quotes/whatabouthymns.htm#.U5g51pRdUtE

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