Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Old Wine in New Wineskins: Giving Traditional Hymns Modern Tunes

In the previous post, I talked about the value and necessity of the Church in utilizing Reformed hymnody and psalmody in worship and pointed out the danger of the recent trend to leave them behind. But, some of you may be thinking, what about giving the old traditional hymns and psalms new modern tunes and arrangements? Isn't that the best of both worlds?

Well, let me direct your attention to Psalm 96.6-9:
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts!
Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;
o tremble before him, all the earth!
As we read in Psalm 96.6-9, we find that the worship that the church is commanded to offer God ("ascribe" is a command), is to be reflective of the splendor, majesty and glory that is due to God because he is a God of splendor, majesty and glory. Our worship is to be biblical. The words can be scriptural (psalmody) or interpretations of scripture (hymnody), but they should never be unbiblical or false interpretations of scripture. But beyond that, biblical worship is concerned with more than just the words, but also the mode by which those words are sung. This means that sound words can be sung and offered to God in an unbiblical way--esepcially, if the worship offered does not reflect his splendor, majesty and glory.

Paul Jones comments that there is a problem today with the influence of the music of pop culture in the Church. The result is that it is leading the Church to become dominated by the spirit of the age rather than the spirit of Christ. The way I would put it is that it is leading the church to offer up worship that has biblical content in a worldly wrapper. The result is that the worldly wrapper colors the biblical content so that the worship is no longer biblical. In other words, as Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, et. al., have taught, you cannot separate the message from the medium. One of the problems with trying to breathe new life into the old hymns with modern tunes and arrangements is that it tends to borrow from the world in order to engage in an other worldly activity. The end result is that old hymns with new tunes often end up being no better than jettisoning the old hymns to begin with, for the mode changes the meaning, which means the hymns get jettisoned anyway.

Let me offer up an example. Below you will find two video presentations of the song "Arise, My Soul, Arise," which was originally penned by Charles Wesley in the 18th century. Both are using the same basic lyrics, though the second does add its own chorus. The lyrics are:
Arise, my soul, arise,
Shake off thy guilty fears:
The bleeding Sacrifice
In my behalf appears:
Before the Throne my Surety stands,
My name is written on his hands.

He ever lives above,
For me to intercede,
His all-redeeming love,
His precious blood to plead;
His blood atoned for ev'ry race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.

Five bleeding wounds he bears,
Received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers,
They strongly plead for me;
Forgive him, O forgive, they cry,
Nor let that ransomed sinner die!

My God is reconciled;
His pard'ning voice I hear;
He owns me for his child,
I can no longer fear;
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And "Father, Abba, Father!" cry.
Listen to both and see which one you think better reflects the splendor, majesty, and glory of God as commanded in Psalm 96. Which seems more fitting to be sung to and before the face of a heavenly, divine, Lord?


  1. In this instance I do like the more traditional version. However, wasn't this tune "modern" in 1782, and perhaps seen by the people of that age as too worldly? Hard to say.

  2. You wrote a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, David. I'm not a musician, but I don't believe the issue is primarily modern vs. traditional (as anonymous points out, the traditional was contemporary at some point in the past). And I've worshipped enough with African Christians to come to realize that my own traditions and preferences in style are not identical with the regulative principle of worship. Nor is the issue the use of certain musical instruments.

    The point you make in your previous post about congregational involvment in singing applies to this one as well. As I listened to the second YouTube I realized that few in the congregation were singing, probably because few could sing along with that kind of music. The congregation has been shifted from the body offering corporate praise to an audience before whom a piece is being sung and played. Members of the congregation may be stirred individually, but the element of corporate worship is diminished.


  3. Thanks for the great comments. As usual, I think I wrote without being as clear as I wanted. By "modern" I do not mean "now versus then." I am using the dichotomy that has been put forth by those advocating the use traditional hymns but with new tunes. What they propose is that they want to return to the older texts, but "definitely not the sounds of traditional hymns." They promote that the old hymn texts are "finding new life in contemporary music settings," that are "in keeping with the musical cultures of emerging generations." And, in doing this, they want to say that they are continuing in the "Reformed" tradition. So, this is what I am wanting to "redress" (sorry couldn't resist!).

    My point in this post is basically two-fold. First, our tunes should be chosen not based on when they were written, but how they were written. There are new, contemporary hymns being written that would not meet the criteria of the "old hymn, new tune" crowd, because the tunes sound like the "traditional" tunes. They want tunes that fit with the "emerging generation." When we seek to write tunes to go along with hymns, it is the scripture that should guide, the trans-generational standard of passages like Psalm 96.

    Second, you can't separate the message from the medium. You cannot communicate the splendor, grandeur, majesty and glory of a transcendent God with light trivial sounding tunes, or the incredible depth of love and holiness and the seriousness of sin while rocking out solos that make one want to bounce up and down, rather than fall on their face in joyful repentance and faith before the holy God that humiliated himself to live under the law, endure God's wrath, the cursed death of the cross, being buried and continuing under the power of death for a time. When we use tunes that communicate light, common, everyday trivialities that sounds like our entertainment, then we miss the depth and richness of the words in the old hymns. The message and media cannot be separated.

    If persons back in the late 18th century thought "Lenox" was too worldly, then I would want to know how they reached that conclusion. Is it based upon reflecting on the scripture, or because it was "new" or "different" from their tradition? If it was the latter, then I would disagree with them. The appropriateness of a tune should be decided using the scripture as the standard--not culture--whether that culture is from the 16th century, the 3rd or the 21st.


  4. I did it again! I just looked at the beginning of my last response and I still not being clear. Let's try again. The dichotomy between old and new, traditional and modern is not my dichotomy. I would not use this dichotomy. This dichotomy belongs to and is promoted by the "old hymns with new tunes" crowd. I'm just using their language.

    Hope that is more clear.