"The Songs of the Church Must Be Biblical"
In the last article we introduced the three broad principles the United Reformed and Canadian Reformed synods adopted for the Joint Songbook Committee to use in selecting songs for the future common songbook. In the following articles we will take a look at each of the eleven guidelines.
The first guideline is: The songs of the Church must be thoroughly Biblical. They are to represent the full range of the revelation of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This first and very basic guideline contains two thoughts. The first is that the songs in the songbook must the Biblical. We can refer here, again, to what Augustine said:
No one can sing anything worthy of God which he has not received from Him ... then we are assured that God puts the words in our mouth.
You know the expression: You are what you eat. It is also true that to some degree you are what you sing. These two images have more in common than one might, at first blush, think. The Word of God is like food. Peter, speaking about the Word of God, calls it "spiritual milk" (1 Peter 1:24 - 2:2). In Psalm 81:10 the LORD said to Israel: "Open wide your mouth and I will fill it." How good it is for God's people to take the very words of scripture upon their lips with which to praise God in song.
In the past, as well as today, heresy often infiltrates churches by way of their songs. Even if gospel truth is being proclaimed from the pulpits, the singing from the pews can deny that truth.
When we sing the Psalms, we are singing songs that are Biblical. Although we, as Canadian and United Reformed churches, want primarily to be Psalm-singing churches, we do not hold to the position of exclusive Psalmody as some Reformed churches do. We also sing hymns – but they must be Biblical.
What is meant by "Biblical"? That can mean two things. First, it can mean that the words of the hymn are a paraphrase of scripture. One of many possible examples is the hymn, "O Come, O come, Emmanuel" which is found in both the Psalter Hymnal and the Book of Praise. This hymn is a paraphrase of Isaiah 9:2-7.
It can also mean that the hymn derives from the teachings of scripture although it is not a paraphrase of a specific passage. An example in the Psalter Hymnal is "Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus"; "I'll thank Thee, O my God and Saviour" is an example in the Book of Praise. Other examples could be given.
Please note that the guideline says the songs must be thoroughly Biblical. Remotely Biblical is not good enough. For example, in the popular chorus-like song, "As the Deer," the songwriter refers to God as "the apple of my eye." If you check the wording in the Bible (the expression occurs four times), it is God who says that His people are the apple of His (divine) eye. That is to say, God keeps His people constantly in mind; He never forgets them. The phrase in the popular chorus completely distorts the Bible text.
Or, take the classic hymn, "Now Thank We All Our God." At the end of the second stanza in the Psalter Hymnal version we read: "And save us from all ills in this world and the next." We wonder, for the Christian, what "ills" are to be expected in the "next world"? This line is made more Biblically faithful in the 1984 Book of Praise: "And save us from all ills of this world in the next."
The guideline makes another point: The songs of the Church are to represent the full range of the revelation of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God has dearly revealed Himself to be the triune God. We also confess that in the Athanasian Creed, "...we worship one God in trinity and trinity in unity."
The Joint Songbook Committee has resolved that the basic structure of the songbook should be trinitarian. That we worship one God in trinity and trinity in unity ought to be dearly reflected in the songbook. We need to have songs that praise God the Father our Creator, God the Son our Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit our Sanctifier.
May God grant us a thoroughly Biblical songbook by which we and our children may praise and worship our triune God!