Saturday, May 09, 2009

Is Exclusive Psalmody an Option?

Any serious examination of the Biblical teaching on music must deal at the beginning with the question of exclusive Psalmody. While this question provides little insight into the issue of musical form, it is vital to answer the more central question of content. Does accepting the Bible as normative for Christian worship entail limiting the content used in worship to that found in Scriptural text itself? I would like to argue that the phenomenon of the Psalms itself nullifies the contention of those who hold to exclusive Psalmody.

Briefly stated, the Psalter of the Old Testament is a varied compilation of timely material. A casual, surface examination demonstrates the variety found in the Psalter. Aside from the collection of Psalms attributed to various authors, the Psalter appears to be composed from various earlier collections of material. Consider the note at the end of the second book of Psalms, “This concludes the prayers of David, son of Jesse” (Psalm 72:20). While Psalms attributed to David are predominant in this section, other Psalms from the sons of Korah, from Asaph, and even Solomon, to which Psalm this note is attached. Further David’s Psalms are found later in the Psalter, the most notable being the vital Christotelic Psalm 110. What this note in all probability signifies the end of a previous collection of Davidic Psalms incorporated into the larger collection by the compilers of the Psalter. A similar self-contained unit can be seen in the Psalms of Ascent found in 120-134. Perhaps also the final Hallelujah Psalms concluding the Psalter were originally an independent self-contained unit. All this points to the great variety of material the compliers of the Psalter had to select from when choosing the individual Psalms or groups of Psalms to include in their collection. We would be mistaken to conclude that they chose these 150 Psalms because they were the only songs available, or even the only ones used in worship during their time period. The differing endings between the Masoretic text of Psalms and the various other concluding Psalms in the Old Greek traditions suggest that the collection was not absolutely set even in the period directly preceding the New Testament era.

A close examination of the individual Psalms themselves explains the expansion of collections. Simply put, what the Psalms are at a basic level demanded their continued composition. Psalms are individual or corporate responses to God’s varied providence. At an individual level, the Psalms of David obviously display this pattern. The Psalms attributed to David vary from individual laments for defeat, betrayal, depression, and confession to triumphant hymns celebrating victory. The frequent connections made in the prescript to incidences in David’s life (whether these were original or added by a later redactor is an irrelevant question), give a fuller and deeper understanding of a Biblical and Divinely sanctioned and inspired response to the situations God brings his servant. The same pattern is visible on the larger, corporate level, whether of joyful corporate worship or despairing lament at the calamity of the exile. What makes the Psalms unique is that they are the response of the individual or community in covenant with YHWH. It is natural that as the covenant people’s experience with their God develops their response to that experience continually finds expression. After the collection of the Biblical Psalter was nearly set, this pattern was clearly continued. Early collections of Psalms from the Pharisees and the Qumran community remain, and it is impossible to estimate how much other material was in use, but lost to time. In many instances, the extra-canonical Psalms read so similarly to their Biblical counterparts that they are impossible to distinguish. It is also impossible to demonstrate that the extra-canonical Psalms were excluded from the formal, corporate worship of the people. A standard collection of songs for the Jewish community was not seen, even by the more conservative elements of Jewish society, as a limit to their expression of their faith and life as God’s covenant people.

Of course, it is easy to counter that the distinction lies in the inspiration of the Biblical canon opposed to the Psalms authored solely by human impulse. However, this distinction does not stand. It was not only the Pharisees or the Qumran sectarians who expressed their distinctive faith in the pattern of the Biblical Psalter, but the community formed around the confession of Jesus as the Christ that followed this same pattern. This is only natural, understanding the pattern that the Psalms set forth. The people of God, experiencing the presence, deliverance and victory of God in the person and work of Christ, express their distinctive faith in song, as they had done throughout their history. Whole songs can be found in Revelation. Fragments of the songs remain throughout the New Testament, most obviously in Colossians 1, Philippians 2. It is most reasonable to presume that Paul did not write these songs de novo, but was using songs commonly in use in the early Christian communities. Perhaps other passages, such as John 1 betray the remnant of the early church’s worship. All this evidence clearly leads Paul’s statement that the church sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” was not limited by the Hebrew Psalter. Rather, the apostolic church’s praise of God, following the trajectory of the Hebrew Psalter, was alive with their continued reflection on Christ’s finished work and present reign fueled by presence of the Spirit.

The application of this pattern is the basis for the church’s hymnody. The justification for “non-inspired” songs is not found in scattered proof-text from the New Testament, but is found in the nature and the pattern of the Psalms themselves. In this sense, the Psalter does regulate the worship of the New Testament church, not by limiting the content of the church’s expression in worship, but by guiding it in how to properly express its faith (more on this point in a later post). The Old Testament Psalms perfectly represent the breadth of experience and the depth of emotion that the New Testament community and individual experiences, as well as the tension between the reality of covenant communion and the consummation of covenant fulfillment. This pattern also demands that God’s covenant people continue to express their experience of defeat and triumph, of joy and despair in new songs, until the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, when the victory of the Lamb will inspire the saints to compose again new songs of praise to God.