Presbyterian

The Psalter and its Counterparts in our Culture

Writing in the New Yorker, James Wood offers us an interesting take on the contemporary place that the Book of Common Prayer has in our society.

The words persist, but the belief they vouchsafe has long gone. A loss, one supposes—and yet, paradoxically, the words are, in the absence of belief, as richly usable as they were three hundred and fifty years ago. All at once, it seems, they are full and empty. They comfort, disappoint, haunt, irritate, disappear, linger.

The whole piece is worth a read here but it got me thinking about the ways that the Psalter (the 150 Psalms) are similarly looked upon in our contemporary culture. Certain phrases and snippets are printed onto mugs or used in funerals or on condolence cards but our neighbours (Canadian society more broadly) have largely left behind the beliefs which undergird and enliven the Psalms.

As with the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, the Psalter in particular has had a profound impact on the literary and artistic culture that we have inherited. Nevertheless, it is increasingly a foreign and off-putting text which is, in the memorable phrase of James Wood, “full and empty”.

When we faith-full-y sing the Psalms in public worship and read the Psalms together, we are brought into a liturgy of sanctification that transforms us.

While our congregation has never made use of the Book of Common Prayer in a formal manner - and many would be quite unfamiliar with it - the theological content and the manner of expressing our heartfelt repentance for sin, our profound awareness of God’s glory and majesty, and our faithful reception of the mercies of God shown to us in Jesus Christ all find beautiful expression in the phrases and responses of the Book of Common Prayer. And the BCP derives much of its scriptural basis from the 150 Psalms. And where the Word is present, the Lord’s work is continued in us!

Thanks to Denisse Leon for the cover photo on Unsplash

How should the majesty and ancient authority of the Psalter shape our services?

Bradley Johnston, in his book "150 Questions about the Psalter", quotes from William Binnie to answer the question posed in our title. 

Question 140:

How should the majesty and ancient authority of the Psalter mold worship services?

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Answer 140:

"In the Church of Jesus Christ, where the prayers are free, it is of utmost importance that services of worship should be molded in the forms of ancient authority; and surely the best possible mold is that which the Holy Spirit Himself gave by the Psalmists, which has left its divinely guided lines on the Church for these three thousand years."

I'm struck by that phrase, "divinely guided lines", and the compelling suggestion that this is the mold that we are to see impressed upon our services of divine worship. As I continue to grow in my understanding of and appreciation for the Psalms, I'm amazed at the ways in which the indelible mark of the Holy Spirit's inspiration becomes more and more evident in these sacred compositions. 

What do we currently have in our repertoire that bears the majesty and ancient authority of Holy Scripture? 

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What this means for us is that we are persuaded that the Word of God describes a doctrinal stance and a practical stance that we are compelled to uphold in all we do! We believe that the church is to be led by elders and preachers with connection to other churches who can hold us accountable and bring encouragement to us in our labours. We believe that the church is to be fed by the Word of God and that this is our sole authoritative standard for faith and practice in our church. We won't be carried away by the whims or fads of any given decade. We believe that the Westminster Standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith together with the Westminster Shorter & Larger Catechisms) are true and excellent summaries of the doctrine of Scripture. We are therefore confessional in our understanding of scripture because we confess (believe) in common ways of articulating the glorious truths of God's Word!

The rich history of the Protestant Reformation has especially deep roots in the Scottish Presbyterian churches that flourished in previous centuries. We are striving, in dependence upon the Lord, to maintain this rich heritage with its immense treasuries of devotional writings, doctrinal teaching, and scriptural study! We want our lives to be impacted by the lives of godly believers from the past and therefore our Sunday services are places where you'll hear voices from the past and our Wednesday night study is a place where we are very carefully studying church history!

Are you looking for a Presbyterian church or want to know more about Presbyterianism? We'd love to talk with you about it!

(Thanks for the photo, Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

"Fresh Reasons for Doxology" in the "Details of His Saving Plan"

In his recent book on the Westminster Confession of Faith, Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn writes,

"Many of the topics raised in this confession of faith have deterred the faint-hearted, such as the problem of evil, the divine decrees, and the freedom or bondage of the will. The [Westminster] assembly offers careful sketches on each subject as well as clear counterpoints to associated errors; both new initiates to Christianity and seasoned theologians will find these outlines helpful."

"Why is it not enough to speak simply about being 'saved' or being 'in Christ'? Why must the confession also define 'justification' and 'imputation' and 'forgiveness'? If I am to be candid, it seems to me that one reason for the specificity of the confession has to do with the simple pleasure of its authors. Thoughtful Christians sometimes develop an appetite for God that can become an insatiable desire to discover fresh reasons for doxology.... We are told to rejoice in the details of his saving plan and in the distinct blessings we receive from God and his gospel. Serious students in Christ's school become instinctively equipped to enjoy every brush stroke on the canvas of God's revelation of redemption, and not simply the final effect that the Master has produced."

"The other reason why we see a careful attention to precise terminology in this confession is that labelling can promote learning. We see this in chemistry or grammar. We see this in theology too. Take the doctrine of justification as an example. The Scriptures tell us about a true righteousness being credited to those who do not deserve it and a free gift of forgiveness purchased for sinners. Sometimes the Scriptures tether this credited righteousness to justification, sometimes they tie forgiveness to justification. The authors of this confession, like many Bible readers before and after them, noted these frequent associations of words and ideas and, in this case, concluded that 'justification' must be the Bible's umbrella term for credited righteousness and divine forgiveness, two distinct but united aspects of the one doctrine of justification."

(Quotes from Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2014) Available online here: https://banneroftruth.org/us/store/theology/confessing-the-faith/

Van Dixhoorn's argument that "labelling promotes learning" and that there is a simple pleasure to be found in the careful study of God's Word really resonates, doesn't it?! Do you rejoice in the "details of his saving plan"? Do you enjoy seeing the various brush strokes being laid down in Scripture to describe the ministry and work of our Saviour? Do you find something deeper than curiosity and stronger than wonder at work in your heart as you see the previews of our Saviour's work in the shadows of the Old Testament people, events, and places? 

Let me (Pastor Norm) be one of the many who recommends this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the Westminster Confession of Faith and the background to each of the articles of the Confession! It's a great resource and tool for growing in your understanding of sound biblical teaching. Highly recommended!