Book Review: Sing a New Song by Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio
Westminster Seminary’s beloved professor and president, Dr. Godfrey, convinced me to recover psalm singing in worship. He took his argument (I know now thanks to Sing a New Song) from Calvin’s Preface to the Psalter (1543). Calvin argued that we should sing psalms because “we shall not find better…nor more fitting” songs for worship. Dr. Godfrey wittily echoed Calvin saying in class that he would prefer a hymn to an inspired psalm, once man could match the grandeur of the Holy Spirit. Calvin also goes on to say that in psalm singing God Himself is “singing in us to exalt His glory.” Dr. Godfrey converted me to psalm singing, and Sing a New Song has strengthened that conviction.
Unfortunately, Calvin's and Dr. Godfrey's call to psalmody has fallen on deaf ears, for psalm singing is scarcely heard in modern worship. Like a three-part harmony, this book’s three sections can help the church rediscover “God’s hymnbook.” Part One examines the history of psalm singing in the church. Part Two presents the biblical reasons. Part Three shows how the church in the twenty-first century can use psalms in worship.
This book would be a good primer for those interested in the “worship wars” as they relate to psalmody. The book is not limited to exclusive psalmody per se, as it is more an argument for using inspired text in worship. The majority of the writers do not come out expressively either way. For example, Rowland Ward argues for psalms but also hymns that faithfully express biblical truths (88). Malcolm Watts, however, presents a strong case for exclusive psalmody. Watts states, “The church has divine and scriptural warrant, then, to sing the inspired psalms in her worship. What she does not have is warrant to sing uninspired hymns” (131). The other authors are not as clear either way. However, reading between the lines, I believe they would come down on Watts’ side.
Watts uses the Creator-creature distinction to argue for inspired psalms. If creation depends on its Creator for everything, how much more fallen man depends on the Creator to express with words the glory of God. Therefore, the Holy Spirit inspired Old Testament writers to pen the “Songs of the Lord” for the church in worship (1Chron 25:7; Ps 137:4; 22:25). He then called them to sing the “songs of Zion” (Ps 137:3) with the voice of the psalms (1Chron 16:9; Ps 81:2; 95:2: 98:5; 105:2). Asaph directs the preservation and transmission of the psalms “to the generation[s] to come” that they may sing “the praises of the Lord” (Ps 78:4).
Watts argues that the New Testament commands the singing of inspired texts only (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). The triad “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” all refer to psalms. Ward agrees that the adjective “spiritual” modifies the entire triad demonstrating that Paul is authorizing inspired songs for worship. Watts believes this makes the most sense given Paul’s reason to sing, for the “teaching and admonishing [of] one another” (Col 3:16), which is the function of Scripture (Rom 15:3-4; 2 Tim 3:16-17).
The historians only seem to back up Watts as they demonstrate church history’s love of the psalms in her worship. From the early days of the Reformation, the Reformers, and especially the Reformed predominantly practiced exclusive inspired singing. Thanks to a “Puritan-minded Baptist preacher Benjamin Keach (1640–1707),” and a subsequent Presbyterian, Isaac Watts (1674–1748), the practice eroded from the halls of the Protestant church. I for one hope for a modern reformation in worship and would highly recommend this book.
Jared Beaird is a recent graduate of WSC.