Saturday, March 26, 2011

What must be the subject matter of the Church's praise?

Of course "glory to God in the highest" must ever form its all-pervading and most distinguishing element. Praise is the celebration of God's majesty and supremacy—of the glory of his works, and the sublimity of his purposes—the absolute perfection of his dominion over the universe, and the concentrated splendour of his moral attributes, softened into grace, as it shines upon our sinful world in the Person and work of his eternal son. Any serious error or defect here must be fatal to the Psalmody of the Church.

The grace and truth which emanate from God, and are wrought up into the subjective and devotional life of the Church, form an essential part of the matter of her praise. In all their original parity and completeness, these should be reflected in our songs of worship. Besides, the matter of the Church's praise must include and duly celebrate the great deliverances, spiritual and providential, which are all summarily represented in those wonders of old which God wrought for his chosen people, as recorded in his Word, but which he is perpetually renewing to the end of time. The answer of every believing prayer, the issue of every spiritual conflict, the agonising consciousness of impending danger, the piercing cry for immediate help, the joyous confidence of approaching victory, and the irrepressible shout of a realised deliverance—all must find full, poetic expression in the songs of the Church.

These songs, moreover by their prophetic expansiveness, must embrace the gradual enlargement and final triumphs of God's cause on earth—until "men shall be blessed in him, and all nations shall call him blessed." Praise exults in anticipation of the future, as well as in remembrance of the past. Thus exuberant gratitude and rejoicing hope mingle together their joyous strains as the Church advances in her career of conquest, or as individuals gradually advance towards, and are at length permitted to take part in, the ecstatic praises of eternity.

Assuredly not by the Church. She is incompetent to the task. And even if competent, she is not warranted to undertake it. When did God devolve on any man, or body of men, the right to determine what should be offered to him in praise? We naturally look to One higher than a worshipper for songs of worship. We instinctively ask for One far removed above the level of sinful, erring, wayward humanity, to teach us to praise, and supply us with its matter. Our songs must be known to have come from the very midst of the throne and of the excellent glory, that we may be confident of their acceptance there, when they return glowing with the enkindled emotions, and fragrant with the bursting gratitude, of the church. Divine matter alone can be employed, or accepted, in the exercise of praise. And even were that matter furnished to their
hand, men would prove utterly incompetent to prepare it aright for the ordinance of worship.
The matter of praise must be distributed in brief, poetic, and exulting odes of universal adaptation. The highest and most elevating style of thought and of utterance alone is befitting such a service. Each song must be framed so as to express the emotions, not of one, or of a few, but of all. The completed collection must embrace in its various songs—each differing from the rest in length, or style, or substance—the entire matter of the Church's praise for all time. Yet this collection, as a whole, must be so brief, simple, and easy of entire appropriation, that when associated with suitable music, it may be readily grafted upon the memory of childhood, and so familiarised as to become the living embodiment and efflorescence of the devotion and piety of the people from generation to generation. An immature, ever-changing, multitudinous, uncertain psalmody mocks, but cannot satisfy, the deep and abiding necessities of the Church of God. This is no proper field for the display of conceited gifts, or the trial of empirical effusions. When the rage of hymn-making seizes upon men, countless rhapsodies will be amassed together and offered as suitable vehicles of the Church's praise. Must they all be accepted and sung, that a full tribute of worship may be presented to Jehovah? If not, who is authorised to make the final selection? And when it is made, who can give confidence to the anxious worshipper, that all the matter of praise is embraced in it, clothed in language
fitted to the ear of God, untainted with error, and purged from such spurious and self-pleasing emotions as are so apt to beguile us even in the divine presence? The Church never has undertaken a work so superhuman and responsible as this. Nor has God given the slightest hint that such a work was ever expected at her hands. We are shut up to the conclusion, that God himself must be the author and finisher of the praises of the Church.

In singing the book of Psalms, we may pass at once, and with boldness, into the holiest of all, confident that we are offering praise, that we are giving to the great God the glory due unto his name, that we are stirring up within ourselves and presenting unto him only such emotions as are well-pleasing in his sight, and such as will be beneficial to ourselves and others—in short, that we are doing true homage before the Jealous One, by worshipping him only in the way which he has appointed, and which he has pledged himself to accept at our hands.

On the other hand, if we take up one of the almost countless collections of hymns recently offered to the Church, what a Herculean and superhuman task is required of us before we dare venture to use any part of it in the solemn exercise of worship! Does it contain the true matter of the Church's praise without the fatal admixture of error or defect? Is each separate ode expressive of the sentiments of scriptural worship in language of celestial purity and poetic fire? Does the entire collection contain no misrepresentation of the divine character and purposes—no biased statement of Christian truth or experience—nothing that fosters sinful prejudice, ministers to self-deception, or panders to a domineering sensationalism—thus tending to make self, and not God, the centre and the end of all our worship? These questions require to be settled by each worshipper before he opens his lips in the use of such hymns. He cannot depute the task to another.

Nor is any council or synod competent to decide for him what he should offer in praise to God. He must decide for himself. To his own Master he standeth or falleth. And, when he has done so, may he not still be arrested and silenced by the challenge, "Who hath required this at your hands?" Is it not a daring impertinence, a solemn affront offered in the very exercise of worship, to come before God with the singing of human hymns, when he himself has furnished us with psalms which he has commanded us to sing?

Men must know beforehand what they are to sing, and be well assured that it is in accordance with God's will, before they can praise with the spirit and with the understanding also. How can they know this of hymns that bear no stamp whatever of divine approval? And even if an infallible test could be devised, how is it to be applied to the hundreds of hymns in different collections, that are so hastily adopted, and then so speedily subjected to change, revision, and alteration.

Josias A. Chancellor ("One of the ablest scholars and preachers that the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland has produced")