In Case You’ve Never Heard

One of the reasons why people resist the call to return to historic Reformed (and catholic) worship practices, e.g., singing God’s Word without musical instruments is because it is completely unfamiliar and thus seems implausible or entirely theoretical. It isn’t. Thanks to the wonders of technology, we need no longer to be strangers to the way Christians sang God’s Word before AD 650 (and well after) and during the Reformation. There are websites that have posted recordings of the Psalms sung a cappella. Here’s a site that posts recordings of congregations singing God’s Word a cappella. Enjoy!

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  1. Thank you Dr. Clark for this post!! I used to attend an exclusive psalm singing church and held in-home psalm sings but alas! I had to move out of state and have not found much fellowship around the psalms (though we sing them in the AM in our church), but this truly blessed me and reminded me of the GREAT works of the Lord! thank you ! Listening is like being in a psalm sing: praising God, hearing of His grace and love and feeling a lot less lonely!

  2. One thing I don’t understand is how does anyone know what the musical notation of the psalms are? The song above sounds like it’s from the Anglo-Saxon tradition (not that I have a problem with that, most of the hymns our church sings come from the Trinity hymnal); however, the Israelites had the Psalms prior to the Anglo-Saxon’s and I’d imagine the musical notations would be different right? Am I missing something?

    • Gus,

      Are you suggesting that because we don’t have the Israelite tunes/notation that we cannot sing God’s holy Word in public worship, that the Word is insufficient for public worship because we do not have the original tunes/notation?

      The tunes and notation, like language, and place are, by definition, a circumstance. Circumstances are matter of nature. They are necessary but they are not prescribed in Scripture. Tunes/notation, so long as they are appropriate, are morally indifferent (adiaphora). If someone wants to put the Psalm to a different or better tune, great! Here’s a post on that from 2008. Since that time there have been some positive developments and there are some new tunes being written and used for the psalms.

      The point of the post is to demonstrate to those who’ve never heard the Word of God sung a cappella that it is possible it happens and it’s not the aesthetic disaster they imagine. I’m replying to the oft-cited objection, “Oh, we could never do that. It would never work. People would get lost, the song would drag etc.” Well, these recordings demonstrate that it is possible to sing the way the church did for centuries and nothing bad happens.

      So, the musical notation/tunes are indifferent. God did not preserve the tunes/notation. He did preserve his Word. We can sing his Word. He gave us his Word to be used in public worship.

  3. Thanks Dr. Clark. I need to read on the “no instruments” perspective in order to get an understanding why a prohibition on no instruments would not limit musical notation. Do you have any article here or elsewhere I could read? No I am not suggesting that the Psalms should not be sung because we don’t have the musical notation, the word is sufficient enough- if churches truly applied this principle, many of the things we do would cease (and that’s not a bad thing to pursue, mainly the purity of the churches). But as I said above (and I’m ignorant of the arguments for no instruments) I don’t see why someone would advocate a ban on one without noticing that the tunes sung A Capella are written in a style that is founded on instruments which are banned. Again, I’m not informed, that’s why I’m more confused about this subject, some articles would help, maybe even a book.

    • Hi Gus,

      As to limiting musical notation, I’m not sure that I understand the question fully but if your question is really about aesthetics, then below as I deal with this extensively in resource #1. Ditto for singing tunes based on instruments. That’s aesthetics and we’re talking morality. These are two different categories. Folk are entitled to their aesthetic preferences but those do not trump what God has said and what the churches confess God’s Word to teach. We must prioritize. To be blunt and a little provocative (please bear with me for the purpose of making a point pointedly), I’m sure the golden calves at Bethel and Dan were gorgeous but, obviously the Lord was not pleased with them. I’m not comparing instruments to golden calves but I am saying that aesthetics is one thing and the Word of God another. We start with the Word, we subordinate our aesthetics, which are culturally conditioned and subjective, to the objective, clear teaching of the Word. This is a general principle that applies to other areas. We always start with the Word. That’s what we mean by sola scriptura.

      Here are some resources:

      1) Is the Organ God’s Gift To Worship? There are a lot of links embedded there to other posts. The categories at the end of post will also lead you to other resources.

      2) Recovering the Reformed Confession has a chapter on this and related topics. Here’s the Kindle version. There are lots of footnotes to follow there.

      3) “Calvin’s Principle of Worship,” in ed. David Hall, Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of his Quincentenary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 247–69. Kindle here.

      These will get you started.

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