Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Value of Reformed Hymnody and Psalmody

In his lecture "Music, Singing, and the Protestant Reformation," Paul Jones provides an excellent history and introduction to the importance of the Reformation and the recovery and development of congregational singing in worship. With the Reformation came the recovery of reading and studying the Bible in the original languages. From their studies, the Reformers, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, were able to see the errors propagated by the Roman Catholic Church in doctrine and worship. Their reading of scripture and recovery of the truth led them to protest those false teachings and practices, especially in worship. In the 1000 years prior to the Reformation, the congregation would not participate in worship through song. Singing was reserved for the clergy and choirs. But with the influence of Luther and Calvin, congregational singing once again became an essential element of worship.

Martin Luther did much in recovering and developing congregational hymnody. One of the problems in the Roman Catholic Church was the use of Latin in the worship services. The Bible they used was the Latin Vulgate and the entire liturgy was performed in Latin. Most of the laity did not know Latin (in fact many of the clergy didn't either), so they had very little understanding of what was taking place in the service. And if they did know Latin, they still were not able to read the Bible for themselves, for the Bible was not made available in the pew, but was reserved for the clergy and scholars alone. Luther changed all of this.

He facilitated the witting participation of the congregation in worship with three radical changes. First, he began conducting worship in the German language so the congregation could understand and participate in the worship liturgy. Second, he translated the Bible into the German language. This way the congregation could read the Bible in their own language. This translation into the common tongue, combined with the use of the Gutenberg printing press, facilitated many acquiring a Bible they could read and understand. But what about the persons who could not read and did not have anyone to read to them? Well, third, he produced hymns in German. The hymns were Luther's way to teach doctrine to his people in a way that they could easily remember, since he noted that people recall the words to songs much more readily than the words from a sermon.

John Calvin also contributed much to congregational participation in worship through singing. Though Calvin was not a musician like Luther, he nonetheless viewed music and singing as one of the most excellent gifts of the Holy Spirit. Calvin wanted the people to sing--especially the canonical psalms. So Calvin developed French psalmody by utilizing French poets and artists (like Clément Marot, Loys Bourgeois, and Guillaume Franc) to collaborate with him on the development of a Psalter. In 1562, the Genevan (or Hueguenot) Psalter was completed and published. Because Calvin understood the Bible's command that all the congregation praise God through singing, he gave the French speaking Protestants metrical psalms that they could sing in the worship God. Very quickly, the Genevan Psalter was translated into German, Dutch, English and other languages so that congregations of many different cultures, ethnicities and languages had biblical songs to sing in their own language, which they could understand.

The point here is that in recovering biblical Christian doctrine and biblical Christian worship, there was a recovery and development of public, corporate worship where all the congregation participated in praising God through singing. Luther and Calvin understanding this importance gave the Protestant Christians biblical church music for them (and us) to sing. Part of what it means to be a child of the Reformation, then, is to understand the musical heritage that we inherit in the hymnody and psalmody of the Reformers. A heritage that has been preserved and passed down to us in Hymn Books and Psalters.

Yet, there is a trend today to move away from our Protestant and Reformation heritage. In the last couple of decades, there has been a movement to replace hymnals and Psalters with movie screens and power point. Psalm singing has almost disappeared completely, while the songs that are sung in many churches are no longer the historic hymns of our faith that teach us biblical doctrine. These songs are being replaced with trite praise choruses that focus more on one's existential experience of God in order to have a spiritual experience, than in communicating the truth of God's word back to him as a reflection of his truth and glory. There is also a trend to utilize more "special music" where special choirs, worship teams, ensembles and soloists do so much of the singing that the congregation is being sung to, as much as, if not more than, it itself participates in the singing.

Are these trends a good development for the church's worship and life? Is this going to nourish us and enrich our worship of God? Jones thinks not,
There is something wrong with throwing out the hymnals and Psalters. You see, people died for our right to hold song books in our hands, and to read them, and to have them in our homes, and places of worship, to teach them to our children and to share them with each other. This move to be unencumbered by hymnals will prove to be a disastrous one for the spiritual health of the church. We think we're freeing ourselves to worship better, but what we're actually doing is impoverishing our worship now, and for our children and grandchildren in the future. It only takes one generation for a hymn to disappear from use.
Although many are making these changes with good motives and intentions, by forgetting the past and not thinking about what we are doing (why we do it, how we do it, if we should do it, etc.) in the present, we unwittingly can lead the church into repeating the errors of the past and developing our own novel traditions that distort true, biblical worship today. The answer obviously is found in scripture. We must take the time to think biblically about our worship. And according to Jones, the Reformation's teaching on music, singing and worship promotes and reinforces just that,
If the Reformers have taught us anything by their example, it is that we must take time to examine our ways and methods, that we must measure them by the principles of scripture, that we must ensure the biblical models are followed when it comes to worshiping the one who created us for that very purpose. They have taught us to go to the Bible . . . it gives us guiding principles that can be applied and are instructive for us.
Reformed hymnody and psalmody are valuable and essential for the Church today because they teach us our heritage, they help us to learn and remember scripture and doctrine, and they protect us from falling into the snare of idolatrous worship as the Church did long ago, and from which the Reformation freed us. To quote from Jones one more time,
Singing Psalms and hymns, writing new ones, holding these collections of prayers and doctrinal teaching in our hands--these privileges are our birthright as children of the Reformation. This is our music; we must value it, treasure it, teach it and share it, and above all, sing it, for God's glory and our enrichment as his children.
The Catholic leaders during the time of the Reformation claimed that they could have stopped the spread and influence of "Luther's heresy" if it wasn't for the hymnody that caused it to spread like wildfire throughout Europe. It was Reformation hymnody and psalmody that played a key role in the recovery and propagation of the light of the true gospel. If we give up our Hymnals and Psalters, we will lose our hymns and our psalms, we will give up our identities as Reformed Protestants, and we risk developing spiritual anemia--and the Protest may soon be over. For as surely as Reformation hymnody and psalmody played a role in the recovery and spread of the true Christian faith for past generations, it certainly also plays a crucial role in guarding and preserving it for future generations to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment