Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today, by Paul S. Jones. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006, 315 pages, $16.99, paper.
In the worship wars of the last two decades, Presbyterians who are suspicious of novel forms are prone to look for help and encouragement wherever they can find it. The trend among evangelical Protestants has been running so decisively toward music and styles designed to interest "seekers" that any defense of older forms of worship will be greeted wholeheartedly. This is especially true for congregational song where older musical tastes and musical idioms have come under assault without serious or obvious rejoinder.
In this context comes a welcome book by Paul S. Jones , the music director at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. This center-city congregation, partly through Jones' own efforts, has resisted mightily the recent innovations in worship while also maintaining a tone and order of service that characterized American Protestantism throughout most of the twentieth century until the worship wars began. Jones' book is a plausible defense of traditional Protestant song and worship music. It offers much wisdom on how to think about the selection of hymns, performance, and the function of music in worship, while also introducing readers to some of the great hymnody and worship music from the church's history. But these assets come with a cost. Jones' conservatism does not accurately reflect the convictions and teaching that informed Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity from the Reformation until the awakenings of the eighteenth century. Instead the book presents a conservative Protestant perspective rather than a Reformed one. Consequently, while those looking for arguments against the innovators will find considerable help from Singing and Making Music, readers desiring a more consistently Reformed argument will have to look elsewhere.
Jones excels on so many fronts that to fault him for not being sufficiently Reformed may seem like nit-picking. At the practical level the book brims with good advice about appropriate ways to use music in worship, from the selection of hymns to criteria for selecting an organ. Jones also provides valuable historical perspective on various hymn writers, answers misconceptions about them (such as the oft-repeated remark that Luther used bar tunes), and the origin and function of service music (e.g, the prelude, introit, offertory, and postlude). Most of Jones' instincts about church music stem from a sober understanding of worship as a time when frivolity and informality are inappropriate. For instance, in a chapter on criteria for church music, Jones writes, "Text and music should be well matched. At times one will encounter a solid, doctrinal text set to a trivial tune—this can be true of contemporary music or of a favorite hymn" (280). He adds, "worship of God should be somehow set apart from the mundane tasks of everyday life. ... music used to worship God should be meaningful and other than ordinary...." The book is especially effective in countering the standard arguments that have been used in favor of "contemporary" over "traditional" worship. Jones is convinced that the reasons for replacing hymns with praise songs originate from an approach based more on the spirit of the age than on biblical norms. "A 'me-focused' age ... is hardly one that should inform and define our approach to God," he laments, "And yet, it does." Even so, as much as the contemporary church seems to be shunning psalms and hymns, Jones argues that "both forms are biblical and necessary" (191-192).
Despite Jones' good sense on various matters related to church music and congregational song, he departs significantly from the sort of outlook that had informed Presbyterian worship up until the rise of hymns during the revivals of the eighteenth century. Granted, the case of exclusive psalmody is not going to resolve the worship wars, or if it does, its success will be to make everyone feel like the vanquished. But the bulk of Reformed theologians for close to two centuries after the Reformation believed that psalms were the only appropriate form of congregational singing. The Christian Reformed Church, for instance, only introduced hymns early in the twentieth century, and the Covenanters still sing only psalms. Unfortunately, Jones does not spend much time with the Reformed argument against hymns but instead argues, following Hughes Old, that Calvin's psalter was simply his preference for the congregations in Geneva. When Jones confronts the Westminster Standards, which also maintain exclusive psalmody, thus showing how lasting the conviction was even down to the 1640s, he accepts Robert Rayburn's argument that chapter twenty-one of the Confession also refers to hymns "in a wider sense" of psalms (101). Aside from not doing justice to the older argument against hymns, Jones' logic also belies an insufficient appreciation for the regulative principle of worship which requires the church to find a biblical warrant for the elements of worship (what should be sung) rather than simply discovering that Scripture does not prohibit a specific practice (any form of song is permitted).
Other problems attend Jones' failure to work within Reformed boundaries. One is the matter of office and whether churches should have paid musicians directing the musical component of a congregation's worship. Jones tries to justify church musicians by citing the singers and musicians who were part of Levitical worship. But such an appeal (following the regulative principle) would require all churches to have musicians, not merely provide grounds for their possibility. Perhaps even more difficult is the appeal to part of Old Testament worship that Reformed Christianity has typically regarded as being fulfilled in Christ and so no longer necessary. Aside from questions of office and redemptive history, the use of musical instruments itself was generally forbidden among Reformed Christians until the nineteenth century. Jones seems to be unaware of the objections to musical instruments that Columbia Seminary's John L. Girardeau raised forcefully at the time when congregations began to make the organ an essential piece of church furnishings and congregational singing. One last concern of note is the function of song in worship. For those like Calvin, song was a form of prayer (thus making the psalms highly pertinent for worship). But for Jones, song functions as both sermon and prayer (the subjects of his first two chapters respectively). Whether one follows Calvin on song as prayer, to consider song as a form of proclamation invites a blurring of the elements of worship as well as the differences between officers and church members that will further the confusion now surrounding Presbyterian worship.
From one angle, then, Jones' book is a valuable counterweight to the trend that flouts good taste and common sense in worship. And to his credit, he does try to ground his points in the Bible, not merely in standards of good music. Such standards, by the way, should not be discounted, since as the creator God is also the author of them. But from another angle, one that relies on the insights of historic Reformed teaching about worship and the ministry of the word, Jones' book obscures the biblical theology that gave Presbyterians a form of worship that was distinct from Lutheran, Anglican and evangelical practices. His book is a helpful reminder that conservative or traditional worship is not the same as Reformed worship. It may even have the added value of showing how biblical historic Reformed worship was. For rather than looking to Scripture alone for what it says about song, Calvin, the Westminster divines and subsequent church officers reflected theologically on the epoch-making significance of Christ's ministry and the changes necessary for Christian worship, especially for the way God's people sing.
D. G. Hart, a ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, serving at Calvary OPC, Glenside, Pennsylvania; and is the director of fellowship programs and scholar-in-residence at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Ordained Servant, February 2008.