Church Hymnody Is Not Pauline Hymnody

It’s always surprising to read arguments for why we should do traditional hymnody that include Biblical passages that refer to the word “hymn,” as though the hymns that Paul sang were anything like (in a literary or musical sense) what a “hymn” is now. Even leaving open the possibility for someone to think that Paul’s exhortation to sing hymns is in any way directly related to traditional hymns (including both their textual and musical styles) is not a good thing.  Paul’s usage of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” do not in any way correlate to any modern (and by “modern” I mean anytime in the last 1000 years ;)) development of literary or musical style!  The words had meaning back then… and they didn’t mean what they [usually] mean today.  People had music and literary styles back then – in Greek, in Hebrew, etc. – and they aren’t English or German styles.

There are good arguments for keeping and pursuing traditional hymnody and good arguments for pursuing … non-traditional hymnody :)  And bad arguments for both, too, of course).  But there is no direct biblical argument to be made for a 16th/17th/18th literary and musical styles, nor any direct biblical argument for a 20th or 21st century style.  All of this in the context of “that I’m aware of,” of course.  I have read a variety of arguments, but they resort to, at best, logic-based appeals to biblical principles and attempts to extend them to music or appeals to music theory/history or church history.

A simple example, I think, of a good reason for keeping and pursuing (meaning extending, writing, etc.) traditional hymnody is that many like it.  The same goes for non-traditional hymnody.  Many like it, too.

In fact, I would go further than that and suggest that there is not really a good biblical argument to be made for exclusively pursuing or using  high/classical/grand/complex/whatever art or music, either.  Certainly not from the New Testament, and I think one would be pretty hard pressed to show that the Israelites used “extraordinary” or “uncommon” or “entirely different from the rest of the culture” music.  Oh, they certainly took the “worship music” seriously, of course, but I have not come across something saying that they avoided “common” music or “music that the masses used” or that they came up with their own musical style so that it would be different (and, indeed, were commanded to do so, since they were under the Old Covenant after all).  There isn’t even something about differing their worship music’s style or instrumentation from the Canaanites.  Their dress, their cultural practices, their sacrifices, their incense, their food, their offerings, even their place of particular worship were institutionally differentiated in the Mosaic law… but apparently not their music style and instruments.  With all the detail that God went into in the Mosaic law, leaving out music seems like a glaring error if He actually DID require the Israelites to do so.  And if He did not, then it seems biblically problematic to try to argue from the Old Covenant in such a way to say that it sets up a standard/model for the New Covenant with regard to being separate in music just like they were in other temple worship ways.  I am not an OT scholar, so if I’m glaringly missing something in the Mosaic law/Old Covenant, I definitely would appreciate being corrected :)

Also, another statement that I thought was … well, backwards, was that if we teach young people to value hymns, they will value good theology.  What?!  That should be entirely opposite.  If our hymns are that good – and they should be! – then if we teach young people to value biblical theology and teach them to pursue Christ, then they will value the hymns … if, indeed, the hymns reflect that.  Teaching them to value hymns before teaching them to value the theology is, I think, completely backwards … and, IMO, reflected this particular author’s bias.  The quote:

It is exceedingly important that we teach hymns and psalms to covenant children as part of their catechetical training.  If the next generation will learn to love great hymnody and psalmody, they will love sound doctrine. [emphasis mine]

On the bright side, the author did do a good job of theologically pointing out that singing with understanding is extremely important, and that singing to God without really knowing what you’re saying is … well, at best, not worship.  Congregational songs need to be understandable; if they are not, they need to be explained or not done.  

There are, of course, other things I didn’t like and other things that I did like.  I’m leaving out the name of the author/book on purpose, FYI.  I haven’t decided if it’d be good to mention it or not. :)  A book that I will mention would be John Frame’s book, Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense.  He comes from a very similar position and even comes from a very similar musical preference, but I think he comes to a much more biblical conclusion and places the emphasis on the actually important matters in a more clear way.  If you’re looking for a book on contemporary music, I recommend it!  (yes, there were things I disagreed with, too, aren’t there always? but not very many, actually).

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