This month we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Among the choicest fruits of this Reformation is a custom now so normal in our worship experience that we can hardly imagine a Lord’s Day without it. I’m referring to our habit of praising the Lord together in song.
Congregational singing is such an important part of worship today that the terms “worship” and “singing” are practically synonymous. But this was not always the case. In the era preceding the Reformation, the average congregant was no more trusted with singing God’s praises than he was with drinking the wine of Communion. In both events, whether through unholiness or clumsiness, it was feared the laity (non-ordained Christians) would defile what was sacred. Only the ordained and the specially trained were allowed to participate. The rest—the common people—were there to absorb by osmosis what was performed on their behalf.
The Protestant Reformation radically changed all this. With sound Biblical reasoning, the reformers demystified the sacraments, translated the Latin liturgy into the vernacular languages, and restored the laity to their proper Biblical status as true saints of God, fit to participate in all aspects of the service as any so-called priest.
As people began to hear God’s Word proclaimed again in their native tongues, so too were they encouraged to return to Him the sacrifice of praise in modes of expression familiar to them. Thus, was born (perhaps reborn) a new and fundamentally different tradition of sacred music, rooted no longer in the esoteric chanting of the monasteries, but in the common folk idioms of the day.
This new Protestant music was truly “of the people.” It was simple, practical, and though care was taken to ensure reverence and sobriety, refreshingly telluric (earthly). In this, Protestantism self-consciously departed from the elitism and other-worldliness of late-Medieval chant. Its simple, pedestrian, and familiar quality was intended to assure Christian people that God was with them and for them. Theirs was no distant or unreachable Deity, but a near and sympathetic Father, equally accessible to all His children. Protestant Christians could now own Him as such in song.
Thankfully, this Reformational heritage of participatory praise is with us still today. That is, the simple act of singing together remains something to which the church is firmly committed. Even still, it must be acknowledged that the content of our songs has changed dramatically from the days of the Reformation until now, and not for the better. Our worship today bears little resemblance in either substance or tone to that of our Protestant fathers.
At the height of the Reformation, the inspired Scriptures, and especially the 150 Psalms, formed the bulk (in some cases the whole) of what Protestants sang together in worship for more than two centuries following the Reformation. This meant that these early Protestants not only knew, but internalized and owned as their own, the whole counsel of God (Martin Luther called the Psalms a “little Bible” containing all that’s to be found in the whole Bible). As such, their experiential knowledge of God ran deep as the Word. Generations grew up in the black soil of the Scriptures, learning to pray and to praise from the Master of prayer Himself—the Holy Spirit who inspired that great and valorous man, King David (and also Moses, Asaph, and Solomon) to write the Psalms.
It’s no surprise then that these centuries produced scores and scores of faithful men who could well be described as having “conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:33-34). The Reformation consistently produced men of zeal, men of action, and men of seriousness and depth, the likes of which we now only read about in books and look for in vain in the figures of our leaders. And they did it, not just through the preaching, but also the habitual singing of God’s Word.
Today, the church has grown tepid and effeminate, even as our enemy has intensified and multiplied his attacks on God’s truth and our own liberty of conscience. Where will we find the faith and fortitude to counter Satan’s advances? Part of the answer, I believe, is in returning to the Book of Psalms as the standard for what is sung in worship.
The past several centuries have seen a broad decline in this use of the Psalter by the Protestant church. The bedrock texts upon which the tradition of congregational singing was built have been largely forsaken in favor of the poems of un-inspired writers. Not that there isn’t plenty of room alongside the Psalms for sung meditations and prayers of our own. The hymn tradition sparked by 18th century poets like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley has been of tremendous value to the church, and we should hope that God will one day again bless us with men of such depth and talent to guide our devotions.
But great devotional writers, like great men of any kind, are not born in a vacuum. Watts and Wesley and others of their tribe were formed intellectually and devotionally on the anvil of the Book of Psalms. Psalm singing was the tradition of their youth, and like the Apostles Peter and John who were recognized in their teaching as “having been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13), Watt’s and Wesley’s contributions to prayer and praise reveal hearts and minds forged in the fire of the Psalms.
That over the centuries we have taken their poetic contributions and run with them to the exclusion of the Psalter is our own fault. What we have given up in the process is worship and devotion tethered to the never-changing Word of God. Ever since we cut ourselves loose from the Psalter we’ve been adrift on the sea of slowly changing cultural prejudices and tastes, to the point that now most Christians find little commonality with the thoughts, yearnings, and experiences of King David, the man after God’s own heart. At certain points, we’re even ready, as C. S. Lewis did in his Reflections on the Psalms, to accuse David of evil.
But who is out of conformity with the mind of God—David or us? The Psalter, with its frequent challenges to our notions of God and godliness, constantly confronts us with this important diagnostic question. Or it will if we’ll humble ourselves to look into its mirror.
We’re a weak church made up of weak men, women and children. In every age the church has been this way. The difference, though, between us and the 16th Genevans, between us and the Huguenot, between us and the Scottish Covenanters or the English Puritans—between us and the Reformers—is this: we don’t plug ourselves in to the outlet of the Psalms.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.”