Singing in the OPC
Danny E. Olinger
Since 1961, congregations in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have sung praise to God out of Trinity Hymnal (original and revised editions). Before Trinity Hymnal was issued, Orthodox Presbyterian congregations sang primarily out of the 1911 Presbyterian hymnal.
This was in contrast to the vast majority of Presbyterians, who had replaced the 1911 Presbyterian hymnal with the 1933 Presbyterian hymnal. Orthodox Presbyterians refused to switch to the 1933 hymnal because of its liberal tendencies.
J. Gresham Machen had alerted the church in his review, “The New Presbyterian Hymnal,” that the 1933 edition had been deliberately created to match the broadening theology of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. One church leader had been quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “If you want to know the trends of religion, listen to the way religion sings. About 400 hymns were dropped. The doctrine note in hymns is almost missing. In place of doctrine, brotherhood, international fellowship, and sound service are stressed.” Machen noted that the leader in view challenged the accuracy of the Chicago Tribune account, but what was not in dispute for Machen was the fact that the theology of the church had been altered. Machen said, “The ‘doctrine note in hymns’ is indeed ‘almost missing’ in many of the hymns added in the new book; and that means, of course, that the Christian note is almost missing, since the Christian religion is doctrinal to the very heart and core.”
In making his case in the review that the theology had been altered, Machen observed that among the 400 hymns cut from the 1911 edition were such gospel favorites as “I Lay My Sins on Jesus, the Spotless Lamb of God,” “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less Than Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness,” and “No, Not Despairingly Come I to Thee.”
Perhaps even more revealing than the omission of hymns, said Machen, were the changes to the hymns that had been retained. Many hymns had stanzas deleted, while others had words replaced that changed the overall meaning. As prominent examples of this corruption of hymn texts, Machen cited “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne,” and “Who Is on the Lord’s Side?”
In “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” three stanzas were deleted, including one that mentioned the fall of man and the grace of God:
Ye seed of Israel’s chosen race,
Ye ransomed of the fall,
Hail him who saves you by his grace,
And crown him Lord of all.
“Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne,” which Machen described as a “beautiful hymn,” no longer had the refrain at the end of the fourth stanza that deals with Calvary:
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
Thy cross is my only plea.
The hymn “Who Is on the Lord’s Side?” no longer contained the words,
Jesus, thou hast bought us,
Not with gold or gem,
But with thine own life-blood,
For thy diadem.
In examining these changes and many others, Machen saw a clear and undeniable pattern. The shed blood of Jesus Christ for sinners was at the center of the majority of the hymns removed, stanzas omitted, and lines changed. Machen concluded, “Many are the places in this new book where mention of the cross of Christ, in its true Christian meaning, is removed.”
While old hymns were excluded or amended for theological reasons, the new hymns were characterized by a deadly vagueness. Machen commented, “This vagueness is altogether attractive to the non-doctrinal Modernism that now dominates the visible church, but to the Christian heart it is almost as depressing as definitely and clearly unscriptural teaching would be.”
As the supreme example of the modernist theology purposefully carried into the hymnal, Machen pointed to Merrill’s “Not Alone for Mighty Empire.” Its closing stanza read:
God of justice, save the people
From the clash of race and creed,
From the strife of class and faction:
Make our nation free indeed.
Keep her faith in simple mankind
Strong as when her life began,
Till it find its full fruition
In the brotherhood of man.
Machen understood the implications of singing such a hymn. He argued, “If it is true that ‘faith in simple mankind’ will find ‘its full fruition in the brotherhood of man,’ then the Bible is false from beginning to end; all its solemn warnings, all its rebukes to human pride, all its promises of the sovereign grace of God are but idle words, and we have been utterly mistaken in our reliance for salvation simply and solely upon the atoning blood of Jesus.” He then finished with the challenge, “Which shall it be—‘faith in simple mankind’ or faith in Christ crucified? The time has come in the Presbyterian Church and in other churches when we must choose.”
Three years later on June 11, 1936, a stand for faith in Christ crucified was taken in the formation of what is now the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. About fifty congregations with four thousand members came together to form a Presbyterian church that rejected the broadening theology found in the PCUSA, including its 1933 hymnal. Orthodox Presbyterian congregations simply were not going to endorse that hymnal. They understood that the character of the church’s song, almost equal with the character of its preaching, influences the theology of a church.
The Committee on Song
This caused the Church to ask, What does the Bible teach about singing in corporate worship? A Committee on Song was erected in 1944 to study the question.
In the exegetical section of its report, the Committee on Song stated that the first recorded instance of song in the Old Testament in the public worship of God is found in Exodus 15, the song of praise and thanksgiving sung by Moses and the Israelites after the Lord’s mighty work of deliverance from bondage in Egypt.
Knowing that the Lord is one who acts on its behalf, Israel sings throughout its history. Among the more familiar songs in the Old Testament, in addition to the Song of Moses, are the Second Song of Moses (Deut. 32), the Song of the Well (Num. 21), the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5), the Song of Hannah (1 Sam. 2), and the Song of David (2 Sam. 22).
And, of course, there is the singing of the Psalter. The Psalms are Israel’s covenantal response to who God is and what he has done in history. Each psalm stands alone individually, but at the same time the Psalms collectively testify about the coming Messiah and the dawning of the new day he brings. As they speak of Christ and his work (Luke 24:44), the Psalms move forward with the goal of the last psalm in the Psalter ever in view. The glorious hope of all singing that the promised Messiah will bring about for his chosen people is being in the presence of God, where everything that has breath will praise the Lord (Ps. 150:6).
The Psalms speak yet today, and the church should sing them frequently and with joy, but the singing in worship does not end with the Psalter. In examining Scripture, the Committee on Song concluded that there is freedom permissible in singing that is not contrary to the regulative principle. The Old Testament itself did not command the Israelites to employ only the Psalter as the exclusive manual of praise in worship. Further, new songs are found in the New Testament that give expression to the fullness of revelation and redemption found in the coming of Christ.
This last point is of no small significance. What Israel sings in anticipation of the Savior is realized in the New Testament with his appearance. Luke’s gospel opens with Mary’s song of praise (the Magnificat) for the great new things that God is doing. Filled with the Spirit, Zechariah sings (the Benedictus) after affirming his son’s name will be John, the one who will prepare the way for Christ. Knowing that the babe he is holding in his arms is the promised Savior, Simeon sings (Nunc dimittis) entering the temple.
But singing in the New Testament is not limited to these songs. From the angels singing in Bethlehem, to Christ singing with his disciples, to Paul’s singing in prison, to the singing that takes place in heaven, the New Testament is full of song.
New Testament Instructions
In addition to these examples of song, there is the apostle Paul’s instruction in the parallel texts of Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–19. Colossians 3:16 reads, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Ephesians 5:18–19 says, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”
If you want to understand the apostle’s teaching, you need to understand the import of the respective governing clauses in the passages. In the Colossians text, the governing clause is “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” In the Ephesians text, it is “Be filled with the Spirit.” The word of Christ that dwells in us and the Spirit that fills us are New Testament realities. In view is singing that accompanies the new day of the Spirit that Christ brings.
From this new covenant grounding, the church is to continue singing the Psalms, for they testify of the coming sweet singer of Israel, Jesus Christ. The church is also to sing hymns, that is, crafted, poetic expressions that communicate the teaching of Scripture. The church is also to sing spiritual songs—not spiritual in the sense of being verbally inspired as the Word of God is inspired, but spiritual in the sense that they flow from the wisdom that God gives in the life of faith (Col. 1:9).
With psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, the church sings about Jesus Christ in the fullness of his person and work, promise and fulfillment. But, the blessed reality is that in public worship the church not only sings about Christ, but also sings with Christ. According to the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the risen Christ sings the praise of the Father in the midst of the congregation (Heb. 2:12). But he does so, having passed through the heavens in order to bring his blood-bought brethren into the presence of the Father, thus delivering to the Father all those whom he has been given (Heb. 2:13).
It is not just the writer to the Hebrews who understands that Jesus reigns as a singing Savior. The apostle Paul understands this too. He declares in Romans 15:8–9, “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.’”
Jesus brings to pass the covenant promises. Through his life, death, and resurrection, he is a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, but his work doesn’t stop there.
Ascended, he sings and gives praise among the Gentiles as his Word goes out to the nations and many are saved. Jesus is gathering unto himself a choir from every tribe and nation—a choir that he is directing to glorify God for his mercy to sinners such as you and me. The church is that choir, called out from among the nations to sing the praise of God for the gift of Jesus Christ.
The Song of Moses has become the Song of the Lamb, the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile having been torn down, for those who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:12–13).
That is why the constant removal of the mention of the atoning blood of Jesus from the songs of the 1933 Presbyterian hymnal was so offensive to J. Gresham Machen and the other founders of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It cut at the heart of the good news found in Jesus Christ, which marks the church’s praise in song. Jesus came into this world to give his life as a ransom for many, and he did so at Calvary. He has achieved a perfect salvation, and this is the basis of his song before the Father in heaven. In heaven among the festal assembly of the saints, as the firstborn of many brethren, Jesus is not limited to singing only about his work in anticipation. Risen, he sings about the mighty acts of redemption that have occurred and which have him at their center. He sings with joy over the accomplishment and application of redemption, and the church, joined to him by faith, sings the same song with joy.
By the grace of God, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has always understood this when it comes to singing in public worship. Knowing that it has fallen short of the glory of God in thought, word, and deed, it does not sing about vague generalities or the goodness of mankind. Instead, it sings with joy that Jesus died for sinners and was raised for their justification.
The church sings of the perfect redemptive work of the Savior even as it awaits his return and the consummation of all things, including singing itself. For in the new heaven and the new earth, the deaf will hear, the mute will speak, and all will sing joyously, perfectly about Jesus. The song of the redeemed in glory will be, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12). The church’s singing now is a foretaste of the worship that will occur in that great day when everything that has breath will praise the Lord.
The Committee’s report deals with a variety of topics on song in public worship, from explaining the regulative principle, to the teaching of the Westminster Standards, to examining key Old and New Testament texts. The Committee argued that although the Psalms ought to be used frequently in worship, the saints in the New Testament era “did not confine themselves in praise to a preliminary stage of revelation but adjusted the content of their songs to the full limit of completed revelation.” The Committee then urged, “We should do likewise.” A minority report from John Murray and William Young argued that there is scriptural authority only for singing inspired songs in public worship, and that the Psalms have such divine sanction and approval. For both reports, see the Minutes of the Thirteenth General Assembly (pp. 101–6) and the Minutes of the Fourteenth General Assembly (pp. 51–66). The practice of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has been to allow sessions of local congregations the authority to determine whether to sing hymns and psalms or psalms alone in public worship.
The author is general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education and a member of the Psalter-Hymnal Committee. New Horizons, June 2012.