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Psalms, Hymns & Spiritual Songs | Theology Matters

  • November 2008 Issue
Practical Theology

The church inherited its first song book from God’s people in the Old Testament. Like Jesus and the disciples, early Christians used the Psalms in worship. Paul refers to the church’s practice when he commands the Ephesians: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:19–20).

Interestingly, the theological context of this statement does not have to do with worship style but with the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The expression of worship results from having been filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). Although some make a distinction between psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, Paul’s use of these three terms is probably a way of emphasizing the importance of public worship rather than a subtle differentiation between musical genres.

In addition to the Hebrew Psalter, New Testament believers composed their own songs of worship. The word that is translated “hymn” in Paul’s description of Corinthian worship practices in 1 Corinthians 14:26 is actually the Greek word for “psalm.” The context suggests that these songs were either improvised on the spot or personally composed by the worshiper. Some of Paul’s epistles preserve fragments of what most scholars believe were early Christian hymns used by the church for worship and instruction (see Phil. 2:6–11; Col. 1:15–20; 1 Tim. 3:16).

One important conclusion that we can draw from these biblical snapshots is that words were the most important element of worship in the New Testament church. It seems likely that the church used instruments and may even have employed a variety of musical styles. Yet unlike the church in our age, which tends to focus primarily on differences in musical styles, New Testament statements regarding worship emphasize the message. The psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs of the early church were used to proclaim the gospel and to teach theology. Worship was viewed as a means of congregational instruction (Col. 3:16). The church needs a theology of worship. But it must also have worship that is theological in nature. The first step to finding a biblical solution to our conflicts over worship style may be to follow the example of the New Testament church. Perhaps we should focus more on what the music says and less on how it sounds. 

For Further Reading

To learn more about what the Bible says about music, read Resounding Truth by Jeremy S. Begbie (Baker). 

BY Dr. John Koessler

Dr. John Koessler, who retired as professor emeritus from Moody Bible Institute, formerly served in the division of applied theology and church ministry. John and his wife Jane enjoy living in a lakeside town in Michigan. A prolific writer, John’s books include Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good (Moody Publishers), The Radical Pursuit of Rest (InterVarsity), The Surprising Grace of Disappointment (Moody), and True Discipleship (Moody). John is a contributing editor and columnist for Today in the Word.

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