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No. 16: A Review of the New Trinity Hymnal, Part 1

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 16
August 1991
Copyright (c) 1991 by Biblical Horizons

(Louis Schuler has a Ph.D. in Historical Music Performance Practice from Washington University in St. Louis. His performing specialty was wind instruments of the Renaissance and Baroque. His dissertation dealt with the music of early German hymnody. He is completing an M.A. in Exegetical Theology from Covenant Theological Seminary. Dr. Schuler is Director of Music at Tri-City Covenant Church and teaches at Tri-City Christian Academy in Somersworth, New Hampshire. Mrs. [Kimberly] Schuler has done extensive work in music history, earned an M.Mus. in Piano Performance from Wichita State University, and is completing a Ph.D. at Washington University in the same field.)

Johann Heermann, 1585-1647

Tr. by Catherine Winkworth, 1863

New Trinity Hymnal, #602, v. 3

This has been a difficult review to write. The most difficult thing for the reviewer of a new hymnal is not to allow his great expectations of the perfect hymnal to make his judgment of the product in hand too harsh. Compiling a hymnal for two denominations with as much diversity in their worship as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) would be a nightmarish task. Just looking over the hymnal has taken us many months; the work of the committee–all busy people–took much longer.

Trying to accomplish anything by committee can be very frustrating, and we are aware that some of our criticisms of the new hymnal will be shared by some members of the committee. A look at the preliminary reports for the revision shows hymns disappearing and reappearing. We can imagine some of the comments that were made by people like us who anticipated being separated from one of their favorite hymns. Our sympathies go to all who participated in the revision process. Because of the great number of hymns in the new hymnal, we are sure that we have not noticed many improvements, some of which may have been hard-won and required a lot of work. We apologize in advance for this.

The committee desired to maintain "the distinctives of the original volume." This they have done. The hymns are still organized in categories that follow the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Westminster Confession and the Shorter Catechism still appear in the back. The Preface puts the proper focus on the whole purpose of a hymnal. Larry Roff’s Introduction, which contains specific instructions to the pastor, the accompanist, and the congregation, is excellent. If we all prepared ourselves for worship following his recommendations, we would see a vital change in our worship. The Indexes are very complete, and the Topics section is particularly good. We were greatly relieved to see that the avoidance of "sexist language" was not an issue as it has been in almost every recent hymnal we have seen. Be glad at Christmas that we can still sing "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," instead of "Good Christian Friends," and that the earth can still take the feminine possessive in "Joy to the world, the Lord is come; let earth receive her King."

The old Trinity Hymnal needed revision. The typesetting was not the best (too small; often too many lines of text between staves); many hymn texts were not coupled with their most complementary tunes; there was an overabundance of 19th century hymn tunes; there were not enough 20th century hymns, Genevan Psalm tunes, and Scottish Psalter tunes and texts; some beautiful chorales were missing; the early hymn tunes were not freed from their Pietistic simplifications of rhythm; not all of the Psalms were represented, even in part, in musical settings; and the Psalter readings were not complete and were not divided according to the structure of the Hebrew text. The new Trinity Hymnal takes care of some of these problems, as we shall see, but not all, and creates others along the way. The improvements unfortunately are balanced (and perhaps overbalanced) by many unworthy additions and unjustified deletions. (For an extended analysis of the old Trinity Hymnal, see James B. Jordan, "Church Music in Chaos," available for $4.00 from Biblical Horizons .)

Before we get on with a detailed analysis of the changes made, we need to step back and look at the presuppositions that go into creating a hymnal and evaluating it. There are six major areas that need to be considered:

1. A definition of the type of music that is suitable for congregational singing.

2. A theology of worship.

3. A Biblical model for man’s creative activity.

4. A brief explanation of the raw materials of music.

5. An even briefer discussion of the historical periods of hymnology.

6. The Kingdom model and the work of the priest as servant-guard for the Sanctuary.

Too often in the discussion of church music, we make categorical statements that have no foundation in truth but only in our own personal preferences (however vaguely held):

"Traditional hymns are dirges. They’re boring."

"If the music has a beat, you can tell it’s alive."

"This was my Mom’s favorite hymn, and she was a wonderful Christian woman. How can you say the theology is all wrong?"

"The young people in the church need to hear their music to feel they are a part of the church."

"The new believers and the unconverted need to hear their music to feel they are a part of the church."

"Cultural minorities need to hear their music to feel they are a part of the church."

"But we have always sung this piece on Palm Sunday."

"I sang this when I was first converted. If it was good enough then, it’s good enough now."

"I’m too old to learn any new songs."

"Chanting Psalms is for monks, especially dead ones."

We hope to show that we should try to the best of our ability and understanding to base our beliefs about church music on Biblical principles, not on what my mother thinks, what I sang when I first became a Christian or as a folk guitarist in high school, or what has always been sung in my church. The Bible can free us to enjoy the richness of our heritage, the music of the church through the ages, not just what our denomination or cultural group has done. We need not be bound by tradition or pressured by special interest groups if we turn to God for our direction.

Music for Congregational Singing

In the Old and the New Testaments God tells His people to sing to Him. Why would He ask us to sing? Some of us do not sing very well and would probably just as soon wait out the hymns. We believe that God asks us to sing because He requires our praises to be heartfelt, and music has the power to uplift our emotions and stir our hearts (Ephesians 5:19). When Saul was afflicted by a tormenting spirit, David played the harp for him. "Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him" (1 Samuel 16:23). Music, even when not associated with words, has affective power. (We are mystified why this is a debatable point today. A few hours ago we heard a well-known Christian scholar state that music without words has no power of its own. Why do Sousa marches make us feel light and optimistic and Purcell’s funeral march for Queen Mary makes us feel solemn and thoughtful? It is not just association, as our two-year old daughter has shown by her response.) When we come to worship God, the act of singing and of hearing others who are singing helps to focus our attention on the meaning of the words and moves our emotions in a way that words alone may not accomplish.

God despises empty praise. As He said in Isaiah 29:13-14, "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish." This is serious. If we are not singing from our hearts, it would be better not to be singing at all. Therefore we need music that will enable us to worship from our hearts.

Does this mean that whatever music stirs my heart is the music I should use to worship God? Some people think so. But unless you are a congregation of one, there is someone besides yourself to consider. Leaving aside for the moment the question of what God may require from us in our creative endeavors, let’s consider some of the expediencies of congregational singing.

First, the music must be accessible to everyone who is able to participate. Music that is too difficult for an untrained ear will not aid worship but will bring about confusion and frustration. Second, if the music is too simple, the person may feel that he is not giving his best to God. Third, we must also be able to understand the words we sing and agree with the theology expressed. Thus, musical offerings must be intelligible and accessible.

We believe that two aesthetic extremes must be avoided in congregational hymn singing: high art and popular culture. The first, high art, may be the perfect vehicle to express God’s praise for those who by God’s grace have had the opportunity to become culturally enlightened, but may be unintelligible to most of the congregation without special study. The second may seem good to those who are involved with popular secular culture on a daily basis through radio and television, but will leave other people who are offended by popular culture with the feeling that the sanctity of worship has been violated. To dismiss this group with the epithet "snobs" and appeal to the lowest common denominator is as unkind as to call the other group "slobs" and force the unintelligible on everyone. Neither attitude is glorifying to God and neither is necessary.

When we present ourselves before important people, we try to look our best and speak our best. How much more should we come before God with offerings that are fitting to His glory, to the best of our collective ability? In order for congregations everywhere to praise God together they look to their poets and musicians to provide songs for them. This is a trust that must be taken seriously by any artist seeking to glorify God. The praises of God have inspired many of the greatest musicians and poets in every generation to write simply and sincerely for God’s people. The problem in compiling a hymnal is to decide what to exclude from the multitude of magnificent possibilities.

A Theology of Worship

Our assumption is that a hymnal is to be created primarily with the public worship of God in mind, with a supplemental use for private and family devotional time. Secondly, because most ministers of the Gospel are admittedly ignorant about music, everything in the hymnal should be usable for morning worship unless noted otherwise (this was the value of the "Hymns for Informal Occasions" of the old Trinity Hymnal). The new Trinity Hymnal (henceforth, NTH) mixes together some of the most sublime hymns of the centuries with hymns that frankly are an embarrassment. (In this essay, we are using the term `hymn’ to mean the combined text and music, rather than using `hymn’ for the text and `hymn tune’ for the melody of the hymn.)

A committee can only decide what hymns to include in a worship book when they have a clear view of what worship is. At least some members of the committee for the NTH must have had the presupposition that worship is primarily evangelistic. Hymns that are appropriate as milk for a very young Christian sound a little silly when sung by the mature. Charles Cleall writes in the Preface to his Sixty Songs from Sankey that these songs are "the nursery songs of the Gospel. . . . Spiritual growth requires a music heard with voluntary rather than involuntary attention; so unmistakably `peculiar to the Lord’ that it is useless for any secular purpose; and it is the duty of the church to provide it. . . To seek milk, when we ought to be digesting stronger meat is the mark of carnality; of self gratification; of a determination, like that of Peter Pan, not to grow up." (Quoted by Erik Routley in Twentieth Century Church Music [New York, Oxford University Press, 1964], pp. 203-205.) Presumably the spiritual infancy of the newly-converted will not last long in a healthy church. Why subject the entire congregation to pablum when they could be having steak?

The focus of many "dynamic" churches seems to be on the individual believer, not the worship of God. Witness this advertisement in the St. Louis Yellow Pages:

BABY BOOMERS–LOOK

"A CHURCH DESIGNED FOR YOU"

CONTEMPORARY MUSIC–CASUAL DRESS

NO HYPE NO MANIPULATION

CHILDREN’S CHURCH AND NURSERY PROVIDED

In other words, "Drop off your children. You don’t need to dress up. We have your music. We’re cool, like you–no hype. Come and relax. We want you to be as comfortable here as you are in front of your television." What is the incentive to leave the easy chair in front of the television set? Why not stay home and watch church on TV?

If instead, worship is seen as covenant renewal, coming to the holy God aware of our unworthiness, meeting with Him on His terms, confessing our sin, responding to His grace and mercy, eating with Him at His table, and being sent forth to serve, a very different idea about music must be held. We take all our cues from God Himself. As James Jordan has written concerning the responsorial reading of the Psalms:

As image bearers of the living God (Genesis 1:26), the creator of the universe, we also "ingest and digest" God’s example as creator and reflect back His image in our creative endeavors, music being no exception. How do we reflect the Creator? We attempt to follow the general principles that we derive from the Biblical account of creation.

A Biblical Method of Evaluating Music

First we must glean from the creation account a blueprint for man’s creativity. Next, those biblical principles must be applied directly to the raw materials of music and used by the composer as he writes a hymn. These principles are not so restrictive as to suppress freedom of expression. They are quite broad, but at the same time give clear direction. Third, we who sing the hymn must understand how it fits into the historical flow of song from the church. Once these three areas are understood, we have a heightened awareness of the use of the hymn in worship and are better able to use a specific hymn to worship God.

The minister uses the same process in writing a sermon–he exegetes the text; he places that information in the context of a systematic theology; it is placed in historical context; finally practical truths are derived from it. But we cannot come up with a very Biblical form of practical theology and counsel without the other three first. Likewise hymns (and therefore worship) suffer in quality when they do not fit into God’s pattern of good music.

The Model for Man’s Creativity

God could have made the world in an instant, but He did not. He took the raw materials that He had created and formed the world in a very specific and organized way. This pattern of creation then becomes the blueprint for man as he works with his raw materials to reach a finished product.

We can derive at least five principles in the creation narrative that establish guidelines for man’s creativity:

In this brief outline are all of the ideas for the construction of Western music in their original form. By contrast with non-Western music, the music produced by a Christian culture is characterized by the delineation of a period of time (the length of the piece) into a journey from its beginning to its end. Within this journey a hierarchy of pitches and harmonies produces points of tension and release that make the music "move," and the balance of repetition (unity) and contrast (diversity) create a formal design.

Just as God’s creation reflects His image, so do our creations reflect our image. A person’s most fundamental beliefs speak through his artistic creation. Although this is more evident when words are involved, it is also present in music. Too often pure music (music without the text) is thought of as having no moral basis. Yet hardly anyone will argue that music is not a communicative art form. We contend that pure music does communicate truths and lies, in some sense, just as the music of Bach reflects his Lutheran theology and the music of Beethoven his pantheism. This does not mean that Beethoven’s music is not great, but it does have serious implications for its use in the sanctuary. It is also interesting to note that the music of some composers does not reflect their own theology, but rather a theological viewpoint of the particular musical language in which they compose. Thus Vaughan Williams was not a Christian but loved the music of the church and composed in a language that expresses the theology of the church. (Ralph Vaughan Williams [1872-1958] poured his considerable creative energy into years of work and study to serve as musical editor for the English Hymnal [1906].)

Having seen a skeletal blueprint for the musician’s creative activity, we must now identify the raw materials that he uses. Just as a person working with wood must understand its properties and how to care for it before he can produce a beautiful piece of furniture, the musician must understand his raw materials thoroughly before he can use them effectively.

The Raw Materials of Music

Although their terminology will vary, music theoreticians generally agree that there are five elements to music: rhythm, pitch, harmony, timbre and form.

1. Rhythm relates to the duration of musical sounds and their relationship to each other in time. Beat–the underlying regular pulsation of the music; meter–the organization of strong and weak beats into regular groupings; and tempo–the speed of the beats, are examples of rhythmic elements.

2. The pitch of a musical sound is determined by the frequency or vibrations per second of its sound waves. Composers organize pitches in a sequence and add the element of rhythm to the pitches to make a melody. Melodic motion can be ascending, descending, or stationary, and within these categories the motion may be in wide intervals (skips) or narrow ones (steps). The possible combinations of rhythm and pitch are nearly endless.

3. Harmony is the chordal structure of a musical composition in contrast to the melodic structure. Chords consist of two or more pitches sounded at the same time. In Western music these chords have a strong functional character and lead from one to another in distinct patterns of tension and release. Even in compositions that are conceived melodically (Gregorian chant or solo instrumental compositions), harmony is often implied in the melodic motion.

4. Timbre (pronounced tamber) or tone color includes many elements of sound and is evidenced by the shape of the sound waves themselves. Tone color is that quality which distinguishes one instrument or voice from another, such as the difference in sound between a clarinet and a flute or a violin. Timbre also encompasses texture, the number and types of instruments playing, the number of notes sounding at the same time and whether they move together (homophony) or independently (polyphony), and the volume of the sound (dynamics).

5. Form is the orderly fashion in which a composition is put together. The use of repetition and contrast in melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre delineates form.

The manifold ways of putting together these raw materials of music gives us a wide variety of musical styles. Thus hymns come in many styles, depending upon how the elements of melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre, and form are handled. There are distinct melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic differences between music written in the 17th century and the 19th century. The chorale form of the Reformation is different from the chorus style of the American Evangelistic Revivals.

(continued in Rite Reasons No. 17)