Thursday’s first full session was presented by John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, MI. Much of what he had to say was a condensation of his book, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, published by Eerdmans. All conference attendees who pre-registered received a copy of the book.

I’ve provided some of my notes from his session below with little context.

  • The CRC tradition has largely abandoned psalm-singing – a practice which once characterized it.
  • John Calvin: When we sing the psalms, we are certain that God has put the words in our mouths.
  • 5 significant challenges to vibrant psalm singing:
    1. Operative Theology of Worship in North America that sees worship as expressive and not formative.
      • Increasingly in North America, we see worship as expressive.
      • Sometimes we need to be formed to say something we wouldn’t otherwise say.
      • The Psalms will form in us ways of relating to God that we otherwise wouldn’t express.
    2. The Connection between psalm singing, psalm teaching and psalm preaching
      • Sometimes even the most familiar psalms can become too familiar.
      • Psalms can help us accomplish the point of the sermon.
      • “What psalm would this sermon lead us to pray more intently?”
    3. How do our psalm setting do justice to the forms of the Psalms themselves?
      • Much Praise and Worship music strips verses out of their contexts.
      • Exclusive Psalmodists do this as well, however, by eliminating verses or sticking to the same melody for singing when the emotion radically changes.
      • For example, the meaning of Psalm 22 comes from the movement of one section to another.
    4. The Untidy parts of the Psalter
      • The parts of the Psalter we don’t know how to sing, i.e. the imprecatory Psalms: Psalm 25 – the judgment of the treacherous, Psalm 137 – the destruction of infants of the enemies of the people of God.
      • We should sing every verse of the Psalter but we should not do so on auto-pilot.
      • Some psalms we pray in solidarity with other Christians.
    5. Appreciate the work of other Christians in apprehending the Psalms
  • Modal and sacred harp tunes have an ambiguity that can express a wide range of emotions and are wonderful for psalm singing.

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