The popular “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” lineup from scripture shows up in two places. The first is Ephesians 5:15-21…
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
And the second is Colossians 3:12-17…
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
It’s worth noting that in both cases they are presented in the context of Christian ethics. We are to live sober lives, Spirit-filled rather than spirits-filled. We are to give thanks to God the Father in for all things in the name of Jesus Christ the Son. We are to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us. We are to understand God’s will. And apparently, all this goes along with teaching, admonishing, and addressing one another through music. That’s a lot of ground to overlap with music. Most people agree that music is a powerful thing, but can it really do all that? If so, how, and what style of music ‘works’ the best?
The usual focus upon Church music narrows in on the specific phrase “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” I’ve noticed two major approaches to dealing with this phrase. One is to apply “the rule of three,” which involves claiming that the three words are really just different ways of naming the same thing. And since we don’t know much of anything about hymns and spiritual songs in the Apostles’ day, but we do have the Psalms in the Bible, it must be referring to the Psalms only. They are, afterall, hymns and spiritual songs. And big name Christians like St. Augustine of Hippo and Jean Calvin both pointed out that the book of Psalms is part of the word of God, and no other piece of music is, therefore why bother singing anything else in church worship?
Of course, there are long-standing musical traditions in many denominations, national churches, and so on that attest to the value of music in worship beyond psalmody, and these attest to the second perspective: that psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are each different things. They all share in one underlying commonality – namely that they’re all forms of music – but they’ve got different forms. Psalms, still, are pretty obvious. There’s a collection of 150 of them in the Bible, and there are a few other songs and bits of songs scattered throughout the Bible in various places. There are a couple songs of Moses in the Pentateuch, there’s a song of Hannah, several psalm-like passages in Isaiah’s book, in the New Testament there are songs by Zechariah and Mary and Simeon, and throughout the Bible there are snippets of heavenly songs proclaimed by angels. Many of these had been picked up and sung, and sometimes elaborated upon, by the Early Church. So in addition to the official 150 Psalms there is a host of canticles (fancy word for song) both from Scripture and based upon it. Most of these have liturgical functions or homes: the Te Deum, the Sanctus, the Sursum Corda, the Pascha Nostrum, the Gloria, and so on.
What gets tricky, however, is figuring out what to do about “hymns and spiritual songs.” I’m not sure we have any way of knowing exactly what this meant to Paul when he wrote it, or to the Ephesian and Colossian recipients. There are, however, genres of music that we know today as “hymns” and “contemporary.” Some traditions have “spirituals” too, which are arguably different branches of both hymns & contemporary songs, depending upon their age. The most common explanation I’ve come across so far is to assert that ‘hymns’ have substantial theological content and/or application in their lyrics, and ‘spiritual songs’ have less instructive lyrics in favor of a more emotional focus. In short, hymns are for the head and spiritual songs are for the heart. Of course, this quickly becomes a silly reduction, because plenty of people honestly love hymns, and there are a few contemporary songs that actually do proclaim deep theological truths.
This is when the context of the two verses come in handy. Remember that music is supposed to encourage us, exhort us, and address us, playing some sort of role that is partnered with Christian living. As already observed, this is a huge task. But as has also already been observed, music can be a very powerful thing, in its mysterious way. Some songs really tug at the heart-strings; some songs get you thinking. Different styles of music do different things. This must not be confused with genre. Although jazz, baroque, classical, romantic, rock, and hip hop do tend to have different effects on people, that’s another layer of consideration we can’t address just yet. From a mostly-lyrical perspective, some worship songs are hymn-like and some are spiritual. The practical upshot of all this is simple: spiritual songs help awaken our emotions toward God, and hymns help awaken our minds toward God. And thirdly, I tend to suspect that psalms and other liturgical songs awaken our awareness of the universal Church, giving us a sense of connectedness with God’s people throughout all ages. So here’s my oversimplification:
- “psalms” = Psalms, liturgical music = points us toward the Body of Christ
- “hymns” = theological or ethical content = points us toward the mind of Christ
- “spiritual ” = contemporary or populist = points us toward the heart of Christ
I can’t assert that this is precisely what Paul was getting at when he wrote what he did, but I am pretty confident that this is the sort of thing he’s saying to us today. I’m not the first to point this out, but there is also an ecclesiological link here. The Catholic stream of Christian tradition has best preserved the psalmody and liturgical music, the Evangelical Protestant tradition has contributed the most to congregational hymnody, and the Charismatic tradition has led the charge in embracing popular contemporary worship songs.
Any local church that wants to be well-rounded in its spiritual life (or indeed remotely healthy, I would assert) needs to at least try to embrace all three of these streams, in the same way that it needs to embrace all three music types. It’s okay if a congregation has a favorite of the three, or even prefer two over the third, but any rejection of any of them is a deficiency in the Body. Many churches think they have solved this by having different worship services for different styles. But the problem that results from this is that people only go to one worship service. Well, the clergy are stuck going to all of them, but hardly anyone else would bother, and thus getting an unbalanced diet of music. What these churches have done in doing this is make the mistake of assuming that these types of music are simply matters of style. But honestly, if the music in a given church substantially lacks any of them, spiritual deficiencies will emerge. Not enough liturgical music will make it harder for the people to feel like they’re part of the historic Church. Not enough theological music will make it harder for the people to understand their role in the theological task of the Church. Not enough emotional spiritual music will make it harder for the people to express their faith in their heart.
And because I don’t want to end on a negative note, I’ll just point out that music is a wonderful thing. I’ve treated it like some technical thing throughout this post. That’s a downside of being too liturgically sensitive, as well as having studied music composition in my undergraduate schooling. But this isn’t supposed to be a chore. It’s not like we’ve got to count up two liturgical songs, two hymns, and two contemporary worship songs per service. Music is meant to be a joyful and meaningful expression of worship that touches us on many levels, and out of love for one another we ought to open ourselves to the different functions that our music can take on.