The Problems with Paraphrases and Continuing Revelation

My 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. My concern here is the use of paraphrases of Scripture, especially the psalms in worship. What are the problems? There are two: paraphrases both add and take away from God’s Word. In years past, I have sung a particularly popular paraphrase of Psalm 42. It begins with a reference to the first verse of Psalm 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 the psalm. Psalm 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 bitter lament that one has been excluded from divine worship. The paraphrase has no time for such a lament because 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.

For the psalmist, public worship and salvation are intimately connected. Not so for the paraphrase. The giveaway 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 a different 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—that is, 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 do not excuse me. I do not care. That is the beauty of the regulative principle (the second commandment). In corporate worship, I do not 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 does not tell us how to fix tractors. That 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 does not 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 it is not binding. It might happen, it might not. You can do it or not. It’s all good.”

As if that is 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 has not 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 would not hesitate to observe the rules. We would speak when spoken to. We would speak only what was appropriate. Why? Out 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 of 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 we North Americans are, at heart, all gnostics. We do not like the dirty, earthy, history of redemption, and we will not 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 are given leave to speak to the Almighty King, and we only speak what we are 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 does not flow from our private religious experience, even in allegedly Reformed congregations. We are 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.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. If I may ask then, do you subscribe to exclusive psalmody? And if so, do the words of the songs you sing match the Scripture word for word? And if so, which translation of Scripture? If you subscribe to exclusive psalmody, what about the other songs in Scripture outside the Book of Psalms?

    • Nicole,

      I explain my views on this fairly completely in Recovering the Reformed Confession, where I didn’t argue for exclusive Psalmody but I did argue that the Word of God is sufficient for Christian worship.

      Yes, it is entirely possible to sing God’s Word verbatim. The church did it for centuries. The Psalms are obviously a primary source but there are others. 1 Tim 3:15 might be a song (it’s certainly a confession) and I’m happy to sing/chant any passage.

      The translation question is a non-starter. Have you ever read the Septuagint? It’s a very loose translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and the NT writers quote it (and other translations) without any concern. We have very good translations of the Psalms and the rest of Scripture.

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