Restoring Psalms to Worship

Although Psalm-singing has long been one of the identifying characteristics of the Reformed tradition, the singing of psalms in worship is by no means a Reformed innovation. We share the riches of the biblical psalter with the whole Christian church, as well as with the Jewish synagogue.

Until the eighteenth century, the singing of psalms was nearly universal among Christian churches. Gradually, however, many Protestant churches began replacing psalms with hymns. Soon the psalms were neglected and nearly forgotten. Today the typical Methodist, United, Baptist, or independent congregation does not sing or read psalms in worship—except as part of an occasional responsive reading. Even many Reformed and Presbyterian congregations have ignored the psalms in their liturgies. Where liberalism, pietism, revivalism or rationalism have come to hold sway, the psalms are frequently seen as archaic, irrelevant, or even unchristian.

However, during the past few years many of these churches have begun to follow a common ecumenical lectionary. As a result, their attitude toward psalms is changing.

After the Reformation

Both Luther and Calvin reacted against the Roman derealization of the liturgy. They noted that in the Roman church priest, cantor, and/or choir chanted the psalms. The Reformers placed the psalms back on the lips of the people by translating them into a form that the whole congregation could easily master. In this way the metrical psalm came into general usage.

In the Reformed churches of that era, especially those at Strassburg and Geneva, congregational song was for all practical purposes limited to the biblical psalter. Calvin employed the poetic skills of Clement Marot and Theodore de Beze to translate all the psalms into metrical form for the Genevan Psalter.

Luther also produced metrical versions of some psalms, but these were actually hymns loosely based on the psalms rather than strict versifications. The best known of these hymns is "Ein' feste Burg" ("A Mighty Fortress"), which is based on Psalm 46. Luther never intended that these free interpretations be substituted for the psalms themselves, which in the Lutheran liturgy were still chanted straight from Scripture.

As the liturgical use of metrical psalmody spread throughout those churches influenced by the Reformation, many groups began developing their own psalters. Although often these psalters shared tunes and texts, use of meter varied dramatically.

Churches on the European continent, including the Dutch church, favored using many different meters, producing psalters such as the Genevan Psalter in which the poetic meters varied greatly, requiring tunes that were highly irregular and idiosyncratic. In contrast, churches in England and Scotland tended to sing almost all psalms in the same common meter (8686 iambic).

In this century several North American Reformed denominations collaborated in the production of the 1912 Psalter. Unlike the Genevan Psalter, the 1912 Psalter employed texts set largely to regular meter and thus resembling those psalters originating in the British Isles.

Many psalms in the 1912 Psalter were found in later Reformed hymnals, including the 1955 Hymnbook, the Trinity Hymnal, and the Psalter Hymnal. Through the influence of the 1912 Psalter, even the churches of Dutch origin (e.g., the CRC and the RCA) have inherited the Anglo-Celtic tradition of regular metered psalmody.

However, over the years, through the several revisions of its Psalter Hymnal, the Christian Reformed Church has gradually reintroduced more of its Genevan heritage into the psalter section. In the new Psalter Hymnal forty psalms are set to Genevan melodies. The new Reformed Church in America hymnal, Rejoice in the Lord, has also recovered several Genevan tunes. Other hymnals,such as the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 and the forthcoming Presbyterians (U.S.A.) hymnal, include Genevan tunes as well.

The Place of Psalms in the Liturgy

The psalms have been used in numerous ways in Christian liturgy, at least three of which are familiar to congregations in the Reformed tradition. First, and perhaps most familiar to most of us, is the use of psalms as expressions of the congregation's successive acts of praise, penitence, dedication, and thankfulness. For example, a congregation might begin a service by reciting the votum ("our help is in the name of the LORD") from Psalm 124:8. The minister continues with the greeting and blessing, and the congregation responds by singing a psalm of praise, perhaps Psalm 95 or 150. The service of penitence includes a general confession of sin and/or a penitential psalm, possibly Psalm 51 or 130. Following the declaration of pardon comes the reading of the Law, which may be followed by a sung selection from Psalm 119. And soon throughout the service.

A second way of using the psalms—linking psalms to Scripture text and sermon—is also familiar to Reformed Christians. Though not every text and sermon can be matched precisely with an appropriate psalm, often a minister can find a few verses that will echo something in the text. For example, a congregation might sing Psalm 82 in conjunction with a reading from Amos, where the common emphasis is on doing justice to the poor and weak. Or, thirdly, both psalm and text might be chosen to reflect a particular season or feast of the church year (e.g., Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, etc.) This third way of using the psalms is closely related to the second and is frequently practiced in our churches. Both of these can be grouped under the broad heading of a "psalm-of-the-day" approach.

A variation of this third way comes with the use of a lectionary oriented to the church year. In recent years many denominations have begun to use the three-year Common Lectionary or some variation thereof. This practice has had the effect not only of increasing the amount of Scripture heard and preached in such churches but also of reviving the liturgical use of psalmody.

Those churches who follow the lectionary read three biblical passages each Sunday, one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament epistles (including the Acts or the Revelation), and one from the Gospels. In between the reading of the Old and New Testament lessons a Psalm is appointed to be said or sung, one that generally relates in some way to one or more of the lectionary texts. For example, on Christmas Day the appointed Psalm will be either 96, 97 or 98 depending on whether it falls in year A, B, or C in the three-year cycle. On Ash Wednesday Psalm 51 is read every year, as is Psalm 22 on Good Friday. On the first Sunday in Lent Psalms 130, 6, and 91 are read during years A, B and C respectively.

In adopting the new lectionary many churches that have historically been weak in the singing of psalms have now made the psalter an integral part of their liturgies. The lectionary has transformed Roman, Anglican, Lutheran, and other churches into psalm-singing churches. It is becoming increasing less probable that one can attend the liturgy of these churches without hearing at least one psalm. The lectionary is not, of course, the only way to revive the liturgical use of psalmody, but it is a significant means to this end. Moreover, unlike the first way of using the psalms, the "psalm-of-the-day" approach ensures a place for at least one psalm in the liturgy. Those congregations that are weak in psalm-singing would do well to consider the use of some variety of the three-year lectionary.

Which of these ways of using the psalms is the best or the "most Reformed"? The "psalm-of-the-day" approach? Or the approach whereby several psalms are used in the course of the liturgy? I would suggest that neither of these is any more Reformed than the other and that, furthermore, both are mutually compatible and ought to be put to use. One can easily envision an Faster communion liturgy in which Psalm 118 is sung as the appointed psalm in accordance with the lectionary and Psalm 103 is sung after the reception of the elements. Both of these ways of using the psalms work well together and have a long tradition within the Christian church as a whole.

In the next Issue of RW, David Koyzis will compare metrical psalmody with chanted psalmody and explore new ways of singing the psalms.

David T. Koyzis is a professor of political science at Redeemer College, Ancaster, Ontario.


Reformed Worship 10 © December 1988, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.