The Problems with Paraphrases and Continuing Revelation

split-leafpsalterMy interest here is not so much paraphrastic Bible translations. Though these may not be good for ecclesiastical use (e.g. worship) or close study, like a commentary a paraphrase can put light on a passage or otherwise edify. Rather, my concern here is the use of paraphrases of Scripture and especially the psalms in worship. What are the problems? They are two: paraphrases both add and take away from God’s Word. In years past I’ve sung a particularly popular paraphrase of psalm 42. It begins with a reference to first verse of Ps 42, but quickly abandons the psalm. The paraphrase is much more interested in the religious experience of the singer/writer than it is in the historical, personal, existential reality of the psalmist or in the truth of he Psalm. Ps 42 is the record of the longing of the psalmist not for the subjective experience of the divine presence in quiet time but to be in the public worship of God.  This much is plain from verse 4.

Further, psalm 42 is a lament that one has been excluded from divine worship. It is a bitter lament. The paraphrase has no time for sorrow because the sorrow, anguish, and grief will never produce the religious ecstasy of the paraphrase. The psalm is rooted in this world. The psalmist is a needy sinner. The paraphrasist (if you will) needs another injection of caffeine or whatever.

For the psalmist, public worship and salvation are intimately connected. Not so for the paraphrase. The give away is the pietist/second blessing/higher life piety of the line, “To you alone may my spirit yield.” This is the not the piety of psalm 42. The singer of the psalm is a needy sinner longing to be with God’s people, to hear the law, to hear the gospel. The psalmist is in conflict with God’s enemies. Not so in the paraphrase. The singer of the paraphrase is a spiritual junkie.

I saw this same pattern with another alleged “paraphrase” of another psalm in another service. There was one line from a psalm and, as in the case of psalm 42, thence the two diverged dramatically. I know because I was reading the canonical psalm as it is found in Scripture as the congregation was singing the paraphrase. The song and the psalm had only a little in common. Where the psalm invoked judgment upon God’s enemies the paraphrase ignored it and pressed on to the nice bits about joy and blessing and happiness.

In both cases the paraphrases add and take away from God’s Word. Scripture takes a dim view of this business (see Deuteronomy and the end of the Revelation). Scripture is a divinely-given (inspired) canon, a rule. As the visible church, the covenant community, we are under the canon. It is the limit of what God says to us, i.e. he says nothing to us outside of the canon and we may say nothing to one another or to God that is not canonical. I realize that this is heresy in our subjectivist squishy time but, in the immortal words of Steve Martin, “Excuuusee me!” Or don’t. I don’t care. That’s the beauty of the regulative principle (the 2nd commandment). In corporate worship, I don’t get to impose my preferences and opinions on you and I am free from your opinions and preferences.

This is what we mean by sola Scriptura. This is also what we mean by the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible doesn’t mean to tell us how to fix tractors. That’s was my grandfather’s job. It teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery, how we are redeemed from our sins and misery, and how we ought to be thankful for such redemption. It doesn’t teach me how to file my income taxes. It teaches me that I should file my 1040 but not how or what schedule to attach.

Sola scriptura also means that I can, blessedly a priori, ignore claims to ongoing revelation whether one regards it as canonical or not. I have no idea what it means to speak of a non-canonical revelation. Does God make jokes? “Hey, I’m only kidding! I know I just revealed something, but its not binding. It might happen, it might not. You can do it or not. It’s all good.”

Right! That’s the God I see all through the typological revelation. So much for the analogy of Scripture and the analogy of the faith.

No claims of ongoing canonical revelation have anything to do with Scripture. Jesus has risen, he has ascended, and he hasn’t returned yet (contra hyper-preterism) so there are no grounds for claiming continuing canonical revelation. In either case, to talk about continuing revelation is a massive confusion of categories.

Canon means we only speak as and how and when we should. We see this in earthly kingdoms. If we found ourselves before the presence of earthly majesty and power, we wouldn’t hesitate to observe the rules. We would speak when spoken to. We would speak only what was appropriate. Why? Our of righteous respect for the dignity of the office.  Why is it then, that we treat public worship so casually? If public worship is the reciprocal speaking of the canonical, authorized, revealed Word by God to us, through the minister, and from us in response to God then we ought to be very careful with that sacred Word! The very idea of having a Word from God ought to fill us with wonder and dread.

Why do we treat it as if it were disposable or of less significance than one’s most recent alleged revelation or discovery or private religious experience? Because all we North Americans are, at heart, gnostics. We don’t like the dirty, earthy, history of redemption and we won’t be tied to it. We want secret knowledge about God, his secret ways, and extra-canonical revelation. That knowledge and those claims give us power. Being strictly tied, in worship, to the canonical Word, divests us all of power and locates it where it belongs, in God. He is the speaker, and we are the hearers. We only speak as we’re given leave to speak to the Almighty King and we only speak what we’re permitted to speak.

We North Americans and especially Yanks are rebels who will submit to no king, not even King Jesus and we will observe no rule in worship that doesn’t flow from our private religious experience, even in allegedly Reformed congregations. We not only Americans, however, we are Christians. We have been baptized and given a name. We have been entered into a transcendent kingdom. We have a dual citizenship and when we are gathered before the face of God in public worship we are exercising our heavenly citizenship not our earthly, egalitarian, democratic polity.

We were redeemed out of Egypt that we might serve God in the desert according to his canon and according to no other standard. In the act of public worship, paraphrases are problematic because they mess with the canon. We may even say that, in public worship, they are dangerous because they give the illusion of adhering to the canon when, in fact, they are leading us astray.

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  1. Where does the idea that the congregation may only speak back to God words that have been canonically revealed come from? Is this part and parcel of the RPW? If so, then is there any place for particular prayers in the service? After all, God has not canonically spoken “May Joe Jones be delivered from pain in his chemotherapy”–so are we only to pray for Joe in private prayer or Wednesday night prayer times, i.e., not “stated worship”?

  2. Also, how does this application not require us to sing the Psalms in Hebrew, since every translation is an interpretation?

  3. Whence the idea? Well, see Yahweh’s revelation to Moses! In post-canonical history, this seems to have been the praxis of the early church and it was certainly the theory and practice of the Reformed churches in the Reformation and through the 17th century. See RRC for details.

    You’re right, this puts a crimp on “prayer requests.” See the old forms for prayer. There wasn’t much of that in there.

    There is also a distinction to be made between what the minister does, who is called not only to speak God’s Word but to pray for the congregation and what the minister is called to do. The post addresses what the congregation is called to do.

    Yes, I’m talking about stated services, not private gatherings, of which Wed night would be one.

    Hebrew? I thought someone might ask this. Well, We do have the example of the NT use of the LXX. It’s true that the LXX can be a little loose in places but that’s not the same the problem observed in the text above where one part of a verse is quoted and then radically re-contextualized into my private religious ecstasy. The LXX was a translation into the language of the people. The Reformed churches have always defended translations, beginning with Tyndale and Luther. We’re in favor of translation but the use of paraphrases and worse, in public worship, is something else.

  4. That’s pretty general: where in the law of Moses does it say “the assembly shall only speak back to me the words which I have spoken”?

    If the presence of the LXX is sufficient rationale for the practice of using translations in worship, then why isn’t the presence of non-canonical responses in worship a rationale for their use? For example, when they assembled at Sinai and were presented with God’s words in Ex. 19:3-6, the people responded: “Everything that the LORD has said we will do.” That answer was not canonical to them at the time, since it had not been written down for them. When Joshua renews the covenant, the people don’t answer with “Everything that the LORD has said we will do,” which was canonical for them, since it had been written down previously. Instead, they reply with a much longer covenant statement (24:16-18). So, I’m still not seeing where the congregation is only to speak back to God the words He has already given them. In fact, I see examples of responses that were not, to the people at the time, canonically scripted.

  5. What about the Apostle’s Creed, or the Nicene Creed? Those are not canonical stricly, yet early Reformed liturgies certainly used them. Also, the Gloria Patri, per se, is not canonical, yet the Genevan Psalter included a Gloria Patri at the end of each Psalm. So, this ultra-exclusivity does not seem to be part of the Reformed tradition.

  6. Joshua,

    The Reformed tradition has generally been not to have the congregation recite the creeds in worship. I deal with these “problems” in RRC so I don’t want to re-hash those answers here.

    Take a look at the Directory for Public Worship.

    As to translations. There is a difference between the sorts of paraphrases — and perhaps that’s too kind to them — and anything that could be called a translation. Most folk recognize the difference.

    Yes, people within the canonical history, who were history makers, if you will in the progress of revelation and redemption, did not necessarily use only canonical words, but we’re not in that process. There’s a difference between being a recipient of canon and an actor in it.

  7. Thank you Dr. Clark for laying this out on the table. The CRC’s blue Psalter/ hymnal that we use in the URC is a deplorable representation of the 150 psalms of David. I hope the URC’s ruling elders see fit to give us the best translation of the psalms in meter for English speaking people i.e. the one you have pictured in your post, the 1650 Scottish Psalter.

  8. The other advantage to one’s faith in singing the 1650 Psalter is that the layout is such that one sees what verse in the Psalm one is singing.

    It always seems odd when a psalm paraphrase is picked from the Trinity Hymnal and a worship leader says, “Umm, let’s sing stanzas, 1, 3 and 5”, oblivious to the fact that the meaning the of Psalm has just been broken up. This doesn’t seem to matter much when we are talking about a man-made hymn, the verses of which do not always have the same coherence as God’s revealed psalms.

  9. Rick writes: “I hope the URC’s ruling elders see fit to give us the best translation of the psalms in meter for English speaking people i.e. the one you have pictured in your post, the 1650 Scottish Psalter.”

    The problem, Rick, is precisely in the word “meter.” Once you take the psalm and try to fit it to a metrical scheme, let alone a rhyme scheme, you are compelled to paraphrase the psalm.

    For example, you might have a psalm that is written in two-line verses for the most part, and so you think, “We could make this fit a four-line song, two verses per stanza.” Oh, but wait. Verse 8 has three lines, and so does verse 16. Suddenly it doesn’t fit your metrical scheme. What do metrical psalms do? Either they delete that extra line or they add something to stretch it out to fill two lines. They make it fit their scheme.

    Similarly, you get psalms with a relatively short line (“Yahweh our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth”) followed by one that is extremely long (“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings you have established strength because of your enemies”). You cannot make the lines of even the best English translation fit with a metrical scheme which has a certain number of syllables and beats per line.

    And then if you have a rhyme scheme, too, you are compelled to switch words around, as the Scottish psalter does frequently, producing some amazing clunkers, or paraphrase words, or pick words that sound weird (like the gray Psalter Hymnal, which replaced “Thee” with “You” and then had to change “see” to “view” to keep the rhyme, even though “view” sounds odd in that context).

    In short, metrical psalmody for the most part — and rhymed metrical psalmody in particular — is a large part of why the church sings paraphrases of the psalms.

    Now I happen to believe that a good paraphrase of a psalm is possible and that it’s as fine in the service as a sermon is. We’re allowed to expound the text and we’re allowed to expound it in our song, too.

    But even so, that shouldn’t replace actually singing the text in the best translation we can get. And the only ways to do that that I know of are twofold: (1) through-composed psalms like Psalm 95 in the Cantus Christi or (2) chanting. Both are worthwhile endeavors, though they sure aren’t “seeker friendly.” =)

  10. John,

    A paraphrase is a re-statement of a proposition or a narrative or perhaps poetry. Assigning semi-poetic literature to a meter is not paraphrasing it.

    We don’t know what the original meter was. It doesn’t much matter.

    There is considerable difference between singing God’s Word in a faithful translation and singing a re-statement or significant editorial revision of God’s Word, especially those revisions and re-statements which significantly re-contextualize Scripture or substantially alter the intended meaning of the text.

  11. Thanks for the response, Scott.

    I understand that it may be possible to fit a psalm to a meter and still maintain word-for-word correspondence with a good English translation. But it’s difficult, and most metrical psalms add words or subtract them or rearrange them or otherwise alter them to make them fit the meter

    And even more so if there’s a rhyme. The psalms don’t rhyme, and so if you want to make them rhyme, you’ll have to choose rhyming words for the end of each line. But they aren’t normally going to be the words of a good English translation. Often, they produce funny and awkward things like “Ill-doers blossom may” and “You’ve raised like ox my horn,” both of which are from a Scottish psalm if I recall correctly.

    All of that is a form of paraphrasing. I’m comfortable with that. Metrical psalms are to me as legitimate as a sermon. But they aren’t the same thing as singing a good translation of the psalm, with long lines kept long and short lines short, with the form of the psalm preserved as much as possible, and so forth.

    And therefore I submit that the Reformed churches ought to (a) work at producing a good translation of the psalms and (b) ought to recite those psalms responsively, one or more a week, until they can (c) learn to chant them vigorously to beautiful and fitting melodies. Then (d) the church ought to chant at least one psalm a week, while singing a lot of other metrical psalms.

  12. Equating sermons and the response by the congregation is confusion of categories. The minister is called by God to exposit the Word. The congregation is not. So that comparison is not helpful because it flattens out an important distinction.

    I’m not carrying water for any particular way of singing the psalms, but I’ve compared various psalters and some are more faithful to the text of Scripture than others. That’s what our understanding of the 2nd commandment requires. As far as I’m concerned we should put aesthetics second to faithfulness to Scripture.

    I found that it is possible to sing the ESV (to pick a translation) by following just about any tune. It means some odd breaks and some words fit certain meters better than others, but it’s possible.

    When people add refrains or change the text for aesthetic reasons, that may be moving toward a paraphrase. Setting a psalm or other Scripture text, faithfully to a given meter, doesn’t seem much like a paraphrase to me.

    If we need to do, we could go back to simply lining out a psalm.

    What matters to me is obedience to the 2nd commandment as we confess it.

  13. Calvin’s Genevan Liturgy included a sung Apostles Creed. So un-Reformed of him.

    The DPW says that the minister “is the voice of the congregation” in “public prayer.” So, why is the congregation bound only to use the exact words of Scripture, but the minister, the voice of the congregation, is not?

    And there is nothing in the DPW requiring the congregational responses to be only in the very words of Scripture. It does distinguish the ministerial reading from responsive reading by saying that in the latter the congregation “give expression in the words of Scripture to their contrition, adoration, gratitude and other holy sentiments,” but this is just explaining what responsive reading is, not stating that the congregation may only express their holy sentiments in the words of Scripture.

    It’s fine if you don’t want to pursue this. I’m not going to lose sleep over saying the creed on the Lord’s Day, nor over singing “Joy to the World” this Advent season. If you find it edifying to condemn those practices as violations of the RPW or the second commandment, that’s your issue.

  14. Joshua,

    Yes, they did sing the Creed at St. Pierre’s. I deal with this in the book. Why did he do it? Probably for pedagogical reasons and probably because, in the 16th century, it still carried a quasi-Apostolic authority. Calvin knew it wasn’t written by the Apostles but it’s always as if he forgot that fact. It was not infrequently treated as it were virtually canonical. Most of the Reformed, as far as I can tell, did not follow Calvin in this practice.

    The minister has a special office. He’s called to do things that the congregation is not called to do. We tend to have much more congregational participation in our services than Reformed Churches did in the 16th and 17th centuries. The minister is called by God’s Word to pray for the people in the service (1 Tim 2). The congregation doesn’t hold special office.

    I don’t want you to lose sleep! I do want people to try to re-learn the RPW and to think through what it means to worship God according to his revealed will, to do only that which he has commanded, to ask, “must we do x?” in a service, to question whether instruments are typological, to question whether sessions/consistories have a right to impose non-canonical songs/texts on God’s people in stated services, to distinguish between elements and circumstances.

    If the book and the HB can get people to do that, then they have done something. It took us about 200 years to get to this point, at least in American Presbyterian circles, and it won’t be reversed in a few years.

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