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Psalmody and Hymnody as appropriate unifiers

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series

"Worship and Doctrinal Distinctives"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been showing how particular issues related to worship theology and practice–namely, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the regulative principle–have historically and necessarily divided Christians into various denominations. It was not core doctrines such as the sufficiency of Scripture or justification by faith alone that divided Christians; for the most part, Protestant Christians have agreed on these matters. Rather, it was “secondary” issues related to worship that created denominations. This was appropriate and necessary, and continues to be so today in my opinion.

However, some aspects of worship have historically unified across denominations lines.

2710ab729b54d11583a8b38224a96178One specific matter of worship practice that was not mentioned in the previous posts is music. On the one hand, music does present another example of an issue that historically divided denominations. For example, Luther promoted the liberal use of psalms and hymns in worship, Zwingli prohibited music altogether, and Calvin limited singing to psalms without instrumental accompaniment.

However, this division can be interpreted primarily as a result of the more significant matter of the regulative principle vs. the normative principle. All three Reformers agreed concerning good music’s spiritual benefits and cautioned against the degenerating influence of some music.1 What separated them is whether they believed they had biblical warrant for particular musical practices (or, in Luther’s case, whether biblical warrant was even necessary).

Furthermore, even though differences over the governing principle of worship did lead to distinctions in practice with worship music, groups springing from these early Reformers shared their songs across denominational lines. For example, many of Luther’s earliest German hymns were translations of Latin texts from the Roman Church.2 Lutheran chorale texts, in turn, were brought to the Anglican tradition, first through Myles Coverdale’s Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songes drawen out of the Holy Scripture (c. 1535–1536),3 and later to other denominations through the translations of those like Methodist John Wesley4 and Anglican Catherine Winkworth.5 Additionally, the Genevan Psalter arose out of the psalmody-only Calvinist tradition, but “within little more than a decade it was translated into several other European languages,”6 which at that time would imply transdenominational influence.

This transdenominational use of traditional psalms and hymns continued well into later centuries. For example, in 2002 Stephen Marini conducted a study of 200 of the most significant American evangelical hymnals from 1737 to 1969 and compiled a list of those hymns that were published in at least one third of the 86 hymnals published between 1737 and 1860. Marini comments on what he discovered:

The most popular evangelical hymns cited in this essay were transdenominational, all of them published outside their original denominational family as well as within it, and published more times than can be accounted for by that family’s hymnals alone. Their inclusion on the most popular list indicates precisely that they circulated beyond the confines of editorial opinion or denominational identity. Therefore although actual use of hymns cannot be empirically determined, transdenominational hymns with high frequency of publication can reasonably be assumed to have been genuinely popular and used more generally than any others.7

Similarly, in 2011 Robert T. Coote surveyed 4,905 hymns in the 28 hymnals of six mainline Protestant denominations from 1883 to 2006 and analyzed the 13 hymns that appeared in every hymnal, 9 that appeared in 27, and 5 that appeared in 26, observing that the hymns manifested transdenominational popularity.8

Yet, this unity across denominational lines did not blur the important theological and practical distinctions between the denominations. In other words, the use of hymns from outside a particular denomination did not cause those in the denomination to weaken their denominational loyalty. This is largely due to the fact that the psalms and hymns that crossed denominational boundaries were catholic in doctrine and thus avoided expressions that were unique to the denomination of the author. Coote in particular notes that the most used hymns “focus on such foundational themes as the enduring triumph of the Cross, assurance in the ultimate rule of Jesus, and prayer for the continuing experience of God’s love.”9

The other factor that influenced the transdenominational nature of traditional psalmody and hymnody is the fact that tunes were exchanged liberally between psalm/hymn texts and thus across denominational lines as well. For example, tunes from the Genevan Psalter made their way into the Anglican Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, primarily through the Anglo-Genevan Psalter.10 Likewise, Luther borrowed tunes from Gregorian chant and other Roman Catholic office hymns for his early German hymns,11 and many tunes originally composed for Lutherans were transplanted when their corresponding texts were translated and brought into other denominations.

This practice of borrowing traditional tunes from other denominations continues to this day. Paul Westermeyer notes this when in 2005, after surveying hymn tunes in fourteen denominational hymnals from 1978 forward, he observed that “the tunes we use cross our confessional divisions, and their number is small enough to form a common core. In spite of our fractures, we still tend to sing a common song.”12 He found 179 tunes common to nine or more of the hymnals and 147 texts common to those tunes that “come from the fourth to the twentieth centuries and from across the whole gamut of the church’s liturgical year, occasions, and themes.”13

So, traditional psalmody and hymnody has provided an appropriate way to celebrate unity across denominational lines without blurring necessary doctrinal distinctions. Next week I’ll mention another aspect of worship that has appropriately unified Christians.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. See Robert Loman Harrell, “A Comparison of Secular Elements in the Chorales of Martin Luther with Rock Elements in Church Music of the 1960’s and 1970’s” (M.A. thesis, Bob Jones University, 1975). []
  2. Examples include “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her” (Nicolaus Decius) from “Gloria in excelsis,” “Komm, Heiliger Geist” (Martin Luther) from “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” (Pope Innocent III, 13th c.) and “Christum wir sollen loben schon” (Martin Luther) from “A solis ortus cardine” (Caelius Sedulius, 5th c.). Each of these has, in turn, been translated into English, further illustrating transdenominational use. []
  3. “Of its 41 hymns, 36 were translations from German sources, one of which was the first English version of En’feste Burg” (William J Reynolds and David W. Music, A Survey of Christian Hymnody, Fifth Edition [Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 2010], 63). []
  4. An example is “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness” from “Christi Blut und Gerechtigkeit” by Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. []
  5. Examples include “Now Thank We All Our God” from “Nun Danket Alle Gott” (Martin Rinkart) and “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” from “Lobe den Herren” (Joachim Neander). []
  6. Reynolds and Music, A Survey of Christian Hymnody, 50. []
  7. Stephen Marini, “Hymnody as History: Early Evangelical Hymns and the Recovery of American Popular Religion,” Church History 71, no. 2 (June 2002): 279. []
  8. Robert T. Coote, “The Hymns That Keep on Going,” Christianity Today 55, no. 3 (March 2011): 30–32. []
  9. Ibid., 32. []
  10. The Anglo-Genevan Psalter, which contained English versifications for all the Genevan tunes, was created while English Protestants lived in exile in Geneva during the reign of Queen Mary (reigned 1553–1558). Reynolds and Music, A Survey of Christian Hymnody, 51–2. The lasting influence of Genevan psalm singing upon Anglican practice can be seen in the use of several common tunes such as OLD 100TH (originally Psalm 134 in the Genevan Psalter). []
  11. Examples include ALL HER’ UND SOLL GOTTES SEIN from Glorian tempore paschali and KYRIE, GOTT VATER IN EWIGKEIT from Kyrie fons bonitatis. []
  12. Paul Westermeyer, Let the People Sing: Hymn Tunes in Perspective (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2005), 8. []
  13. Ibid. []