Collections of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs give voice to the church’s core beliefs and theological convictions. Their texts are “compact theology,”1 and the selection of hymns and songs (both the themes that are emphasized and those that are overlooked), the order in which they are presented, and even the ways they are indexed shape the theological thinking and ultimately the faith and practices of the church.
Previous hymnals have responded to the needs of the church and the world by highlighting the rhythms of the church year, the centrality of the Psalms in the prayer and praise of Reformed churches, the corporate witness of the church to the world, the seeking of God’s peace and God’s justice, and the rich musical and poetic resources of world Christianity. All these motifs remain important and should be retained, in one way or another, in this collection.
The next Presbyterian collection of hymns and songs, however, will be published amid different conditions than those that molded previous ones. It will be offered in a world in which trust in human progress has been undermined and eclectic spiritualities often fail to satisfy deep spiritual hungers. It will be used by a church many of whose members have not had life-long formation by Scripture and basic Christian doctrine, much less Reformed theology. It is meant for a church marked by growing diversity in liturgical practice. Moreover, it addresses a church divided by conflicts but nonetheless, we believe, longing for healing and the peace that is beyond understanding.
To inspire and embolden a church facing these formidable challenges, the overarching theme of the collection will be God’s powerful acts of creation, redemption, and final transformation. It will also bespeak the human responses that God’s gracious acts make possible. In other words, the framework for this collection of congregational song will be the history of salvation.
This theme of salvation history answers the needs of the church and the world in the following ways:
The priority placed on God’s acts offers hope to those whose faith in human efforts has been undermined.
A focus on salvation history reminds a church and world riddled with anxiety, frustration, and conflict that love has come to earth and that the risen and ascended Christ is alive and active.
The emphasis on God’s provision for us invites our grateful response. It makes a place for expressions of corporate commitment (a special emphasis of the previous hymnal) as well as personal devotion.
The framework of salvation history is widely inclusive. It has places for existing hymns and invites the writing of new words and music to supply major omissions. It makes room for the whole of the biblical witness, not only psalms and the Gospels that are well reflected in hymn texts, but also the segments of the Scriptures that are not. It incorporates the events of the Christian year, the sacraments, and the mission of the church throughout the world as Christ’s living body.
As such, this framework both encompasses and enriches the liturgical practices that exist in the church. It includes the christological rhythm of the liturgical year, from Advent to Christ the King, but also places the liturgical year in the wider framework of God’s covenantal acts in creation and towards Israel. It challenges all users, whatever liturgical patterns they use, to shape their worship by the full extent of the biblical narrative.
The rich narrative of salvation history – with the real life stories of people like Abraham and Sarah, Eli and Samuel, Boaz and Ruth, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch – makes audible the manifold ways in which God engages people different in age, nationality, race, and gender.
The framework of the history of salvation offers a theological rationale for asking us to learn songs that come from cultures different than our own: Pentecost teaches us to speak and hear the gospel in many tongues and languages and only thus, “with all the saints,” to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ (Eph. 3:18). We do not sing hymns and songs because they were birthed in our culture; we sing them because they teach us something about the richness that is in God.
Likewise, the notion of salvation history invites us to bridge the divide between different musical styles and traditions. As scribes who have been trained for God’s reign will bring out of their treasures “what is new and what is old” (Mt. 13:52), so musicians are invited to lead us in songs both old and new, in praise of a God who is the first and the last, the ancient of everlasting days and the Lord of the new creation.
1 "Compact theology" is a phrase used by the late David Allan Hubbard, biblical scholar and president of Fuller Seminary, to describe hymn texts.
Language is close to the heart of Christian faith. As befits a faith community called into being by a God we know as the Word made flesh, we pray, proclaim, teach, comfort, admonish, serve and administer justice with words woven in and through all our actions. Language used in worship has great power. Therefore the language used in collections of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs matters a great deal. Worshipful words joined to worshipful music deeply shape the faith and practices of the church.
The church has been enriched by several decades of conversations about language used for God and for the people of God. Christians in denominations like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have become aware that our language can exclude and stereotype, but also that carefully chosen language can embrace and include people who have been separated from the centers of power. A commitment to inclusive language for the people of God reflects the consensus of the church.1 When it comes to use of language for God, however, the conversation is still ongoing. While many are deeply nurtured and comforted by traditional imagery for God, many others are concerned about associations of patriarchy and other forms of domination and are looking for other and more diverse language.
In negotiating these different convictions, the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song is guided by the theological framework of this new collection of songs: salvation history. Scripture uses an abundantly rich array of prose and poetry to tell us about God’s powerful acts of creation, redemption, and final transformation. Much biblical imagery is indeed masculine, but there is also a wide variety of other metaphors that are either feminine or gender-neutral. Most important, behind all biblical narrative lies the deep and prevailing sense that God is the one whose ways and thoughts are as beyond human speech as the heaven is higher than the earth (Isa. 55:8). Our lips need to be cleansed by a burning coal before we speak or sing any word about the holy God (Isa. 6:5).
The framework of salvation history requires a collection of songs that reflects the full extent of the biblical narrative and also the full array of biblical language used for God – even if that leads us to using words and imagery that go beyond our natural comfort.
Given these commitments, the Committee seeks a songbook that is characterized, as a church document formulates it, by “inclusive language with reference to the people of God, and expansive language with reference to God.”2 Thus the committee uses the following guidelines:
Language used for the people of God
Language used for God