Keith Getty’s Critique Of Contemporary Worship Music Is A Step In The Right Direction

In 2008, Mike Horton called attention to the phenomenon of a radically subjective turn in American evangelicalism, in Christless Christianity. Unfortunately, a single book diagnosing the deep sickness of American evangelical Christianity was not enough to turn the tide. In that volume Mike was building on the work Christian Smith and company, who had discovered that underneath the surface, the heartbeat of much of what passes for evangelical Christianity in America is really moralistic, therapeutic deism. In a recent interview in the Christian Post (HT: Presbycast) Keith Getty, author of the widely sung contemporary hymn, “In Christ Alone,” lamented that, in its quest for “cultural relevance,” modern worship music is “de-Christianizing people.” He said, “Over 75 percent of what are called the great hymns of the faith talk about eternity, Heaven, Hell, and the fact that we have peace with God. Yet, less than 5 percent of modern worship songs talk about eternity.” To address the problem he has founded a worship conference which has become among the largest of its kind. He wants to draw the church back to the great hymns of the faith and to modern hymnody which are artistically and theologically sound. This is a step in the right direction but, from a the perspective of the sixteenth century, it is only a half-step.

Getty’s critique is undoubtedly correct. Much contemporary worship music is both aesthetically and biblically vacuous. He is right to call Christians to seek to create art with theological depth and lasting artistic value. After observing evangelical worship for 45 years and after talking with my students, in both broadly evangelical and in Reformed schools, about their experience of contemporary worship music, I am confident that the principal function of most contemporary worship music is to produce a mild euphoria. It puts the T back in therapeutic. It makes people feel good but Getty is quite right to observe “[m]any worship songs are focused on this Earth.” More specifically, they are focused on the feelings and experience of the believer. They are crafted, if that is indeed the right verb to use here, with the intent of producing in the singer a certain emotional reaction. Further, I think they are addictive. In my experience, it takes people as long as six months to withdraw from their addiction to the weekly dose of euphoria they receive from contemporary worship music. Most contemporary worship music is not focused on the great acts of redemption nor upon God’s promises to his people, or upon his attributes. They are focused upon us. Typically they are followed by a message—increasingly delivered not by a pastor with a theological education but by an entrepreneur with a business degree—that also focuses upon us and our experience.

Nevertheless, as important as Getty’s warning is, there is a very important missing word in the interview: psalm. As I tell my students every year in our Ancient Church course, we are living in the most psalm-less age in the history of the church. I regularly encounter young people who have never sung a Psalm in their lives—not Psalm 23 or even Psalm 100. I suppose this should not surprise me. When I became a Christian in a broadly evangelical setting the Psalms were entirely absent. I learned about Larry Norman’s music before I learned about King David’s music. The Psalms were, after all, part of the Old Testament and we were, as we said, “New Testament Christians.” I remember seeing occasionally a New Testament with the Psalms attached to them. The first thing I remember reading about the Psalms was Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23 (1970). It would be more than a decade, however, before I began to discover the Psalms. One of the elders (Ed Wierenga) in my first congregation, in Kansas City, had grown up singing the Psalms in the blue Christian Reformed Psalter-Hymnal (1959). He arranged to get a set of re-bound Psalter-Hymnals for our, hitherto, mostly hymn-singing congregation and we began to sing some Psalms. It was a revelation. Here was a depth of piety and theology that I had not seen or experienced before. In them I found the objective truths of the faith, Christ, and the Christian experience fully described.

So, we should appreciate Keith Getty for sounding the alarm about the state of contemporary worship music. What Getty may not appreciate, however, is that it was the introduction of hymns—some of which were quite beautiful—that helped to lead us to where we are. It seems fairly clear that the Christians in the New Testament period sang two kinds of songs: 1) Psalms (“psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” are categories of the Psalter in the LXX). God’s Word in 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “each one has a Psalm;” 2) Spirit-inspired songs. We have some of those recorded or at least portions of them in Luke 1 and 2 (e.g., the Magnificat; the Nunc Dimittis), in the Revelation, and perhaps in the Pauline epistles (e.g., Phil 2:5–11). With the completion of the great acts of redemption, until the return of Christ, the canonical revelation closed with the completion of the Revelation c. A.D. 93.

There is little evidence that the earliest post-apostolic Christians sang non-canonical hymns. Historians of worship speak rather loosely about “ancient” Christian hymns. There are some third century hymns and many more in the fourth century A.D. The growth of the number of non-canonical songs used in worship in the fourth century was controversial and was addressed by at least two regional synods with one ruling against them and then for them. In the seventh century, under the influence of Gregory I, the number and use of non-canonical hymns exploded. Still, however, the Psalms retained a unique and central place in Christian worship for the millennium. In the eighteenth century, under the influence of the Pietists and revivalists, the Psalter began to be displaced. That trend continued through the 19th century. The Christian Reformed Church introduced its first Psalter-Hymnal in 1931. To that point they sang the Psalms or at least paraphrases of the Psalms. Did you know that there are five doxologies in the Psalter? For the longest time I did not. When I entered the Reformed churches I was under the impression that “the doxology” with which we closed our services was an ancient Christian song. It is not. Ken’s “doxology” dates to 1673. It was written by the Anglican bishop Thomas Ken. According to one writer, Ken produced it in order to replace the psalms.

We should listen to Keith Getty. He speaks from within the contemporary Christian worship music industry—made no mistake, it is a business—and he sees what is happening. His critique may not be easily dismissed as that of a dyspeptic Reformed critic of evangelicalism. Whether we accept his prescription, however, is another matter. We would do better to reform our services more fully, to return to singing God’s Word: the Psalms, the Song of Moses (Deut 32), and other songs in and portions of Scripture. All that we need for corporate worship is in God’s Word. It is sufficient (sola scriptura). It is inspired, inerrant, and perfect in every way. This is what the Reformed churches did in the sixteenth century: they reformed the worship services of the churches to sing principally the Psalms. In some places (e.g., Geneva) the Ten Commandments were sung and other portions of Scripture were sung. The Apostles’ Creed was sung by the congregation, not as our response to God’s Word, but as a summary of the Word. Sing it lively. Sing it warmly. Sing it heartily. Sing it to Nigerian tunes or to Korean tunes but sing it. Let God’s Word do its work in our hearts and minds as the Spirit uses it to direct us to Christ and to sanctify us and to glorify God through us (soli Deo gloria).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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24 comments

  1. Does Psalmody guarantee the soundness of a church? What were they singing in Geneva when Robert Haldane arrived there?

  2. The arguments for exclusive (or even “priority’) Psalmody are compelling. So are the statistics for churches torn asunder by a Pharisaical application of the principle. Wise shepherds will lead, not drive, their flocks to those greener pastures.

  3. “Whether we accept his [Keith Getty’s] prescription, however, is another matter” – here lies the crux of the matter. Where people profess God with their lips but their hearts are far from Him they will prefer feeling good to doing what is right, cherishing poetry because of its familiarity rather than the Word which might actually sanctify them, transforming them into a new creation. People simply don’t want that, and we can’t make them want it. All we can do is pray for the Spirit’s power to work through the small portions of the Word that they are already hearing and perhaps sometimes singing.

    • Saying that Keith Getty’s heart is far from God because he doesn’t practice exclusive Psalmody is going too far.

    • Benjamin,

      I didn’t read his comment that way. Had I thought that he was making a personal indictment of Getty I would not have allowed it. I read him as characterizing a movement.

    • Neither, on balance, Dr Clark, did I – But I think it’s good that Benjamin’s comment is there for clarification of what Gerry did NOT mean.

  4. There is a complete version of the United Presbyterian Psalter 1912 on New Google Books.Besides a Scriptural Index it has a very good Subject Index at pages 450-459 using the numbers of the Psalms in the UP Psalter rather theoir canonical number. It would be a great blessing to Christ’s church if the Subject Index could be reprinted indexed to the Psalms using their canonical numbers rather than the numbers of the Psalter selections in the UP Psalter. Eeerdmans used to publish an edition of the UP Psalter with the Three Forms of Unity.

    • The 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter isn’t only available on the internet. It is still used by a number of the smaller Dutch Reformed denominations, including the Heritage Reformed Congregations of Dr. Joel Beeke. I believe Dr. Beeke’s denomination has kept the 1912 Psalter in print and you can probably order a copy through them.

      Historically, the same 1912 Psalter was also used by the Protestant Reformed Churches, the Free Reformed Churches, and the Netherlands Reformed Congregations, which “inherited” it from its pre-1934 use by the Christian Reformed Church. I’m not sure if those three denominations still use the 1912 Psalter, but they were still using it up until fairly recent years, and I’m not aware that they’ve changed to a different Psalter. If so, I’m sure others will update the information in the comments.

      The 1912 Psalter has limits. The Canadian Reformed Churches decided to create their own Book of Praise using the Genevan psalm tunes rather than using the 1912 Psalter. While some of the URC congregations were using the 1912 Psalter for a while after they left the CRC, I think the reason in every case of which I am aware was not due to preferring the 1912 Psalter but rather due to difficulty obtaining copies of the older Blue Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church. There are reasons that the URC decided to create what is now the Trinity Psalter Hymnal rather than going back to the 1912 Psalter.

    • While I agree the canonical numbering would be an improvement for the 1912, as ‘the NIV before its time’ psalter, it still hard to recognize what psalm you are singing with the 1912. It was essentially the last gasp of psalmody from the UPC, which 13 years later repudiated exclusive psalmody altogether. I think only three reformed churches, including the PRC’s, use the 1912 exclusively now. The CanRef version of the Genevan is a much better choice for a psalter.

  5. Small clarification, Dr Clark: Keith Getty is actually co-author of that song (“In Christ Alone,”), with Stuart Townend.

  6. Dunno, if P&Rs as paedo baptists can put the question to baptists as to when God waived the requirement that children should included in the NT church, turnabout is fair play. Modern P&Rs need to be asked where in the NT God waived the requirement for divine inspiration for worship songs.

    • The requirement is that the worship songs sre to be spiritual. Does that necessarily mean dirctly inspired as opposed to not directly inspired (In which case we should be singing in the original Hebrew or, in the case of what is quoted in the New Testament, in Greek)? Or can it mean siritual as opposed to carnal? I assume Confessions, Catechisms, good sermons and saints’ prayers are spiritual? or are THEY carnal?

    • More to the point, it’s going to take more than a few scattered verses in Eph. and Col. to set aside the pre eminence of the inspired Psalter similar to Hebrews vs. Leviticus. Likewise, the place of infants in the covenant of grace, i.e. the gospel , beginning with Abraham and continuing all the way through the OT. Both are watershed issues essentially and if the Baptist or modern P&R view of worship is correct, arguably the NT would speak more directly to it. Obviously I don’t think it does.

      Further while Baptists might have a reformed soteriology, in that they affirm the so called five points of Calvinism, i.e. the orthodox trinitarian gospel, they are not confessionally Reformed in the sense of Scripturally reformed in doctrine, worship and government according to the Reformation. Which is to say a Baptist theology might even get you to a place where the “new songs” in the Psalms, are understood as replacing the Psalms, not so a genuinely Reformed theology.

      John, if the uncircumcized infants are not in the covenant at seven days, then the sacrament is not a sign of, but the reality. IOW popery/FedVision.

      cordially

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