Praises to Jesus Christ or Biblical Hymns: Which Should Christians Primarily Sing?

By COGwriter

This article was originally published as a letter to the editor in The Journal: News of the Churches of God in 2003, titled 1974 Hymnal Did Not Doom WWCG. It was expanded slightly in 2005/6 and in 2013 a copy of a related book was made available.

The January 31, 2003, issue of The Journal, on page 22, contained a paid advertisement titled What Can We Learn From a Church Group's Selection of Hymns? The ad glosses over certain key points that I would like to address.

After being critical of the Church of God practice to attempt to distance itself from the Protestant practice of having a significant portion of songs addressed to Jesus, the ad states:

Of the 114 special songs by Dwight Armstrong appearing in the 1974 Hymnal, how many do you think contain the name Christ or Jesus? Do you think most of them, say, about 100? Surely at least half, say 57? Would you be surprised to learn that of all 114 songs, not one contains the name of our Savior.

There are two points glossed over here. The first is that in the entire Bible there are no songs/hymns/psalms that mention the name Jesus--thus I wonder if this ad intended as a criticism of the Bible (it is clearly intended as a criticism of the Church of God practice of singing Bible-based songs). The second is that three of the songs Dwight Armstrong wrote, that are in the 1974 edition of The Bible Hymnal (otherwise referred to as the hymnal), do contain the term 'Christ' (see page numbers 54,120,121). Furthermore, terms such as "Lord" and specific teachings of Christ are included in many of the hymns. Additionally, the hymnal contained songs written by others that do mention the name Jesus.

The ad asks:

How can a church be doing the work of God (according to John 6:29) if its very own 114 specially written hymns, hymns which are supposedly 'more scriptural' than the ones used by others, do not even contain the name Jesus Christ?

The author may wish to ask God why none of the psalmists, who wrote 150 psalms, were inspired to use the term 'Jesus Christ'. Until that happens, I would suggest that the fact that 'Jesus Christ' is a Greek name and the psalms were written in Hebrew would be one factor. Another fact is that the songs in the old WCG hymnal (which we in the Continuing Church of God sang from each week until getting a slightly updated/expanded replacement in late 2013) are more directly biblical than any hymnal from any non-Church of God group that I have ever seen.

The ad asks the question:

What should be the focus and center of a Bible-led, Christian church?

The obvious answer is that the Bible, the word of God, should. So (as suggested by my son Michael) let's look at all the scriptures in the New Testament (NKJ) that use the term 'sing':

"And that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as it is written: For this reason I will confess to You among the Gentiles, And sing to Your name' " (Romans 15:9).

This is a quote from Paul based on II Samuel 22:50; note that Paul is stating that Gentiles are to sing to God--Jesus' name is not mentioned.

"What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding" (I Corinthians 14:15).

Again no mention of Jesus. The latter half of this scripture is a quote from Psalm 47:7.

"Saying: 'I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You' " (Hebrews 2:12).

This is a quote from Paul of Psalm 22:22; it also does not mention Jesus' name.

"Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms" (James 5:13).

Psalms are what approximately 90% of the songs the 1974 WWCG hymnal are based on.

"They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying: 'Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints! Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. For all nations shall come and worship before You, For Your judgments have been manifested' " (Revelation 15:3-4).

Note that the term 'Jesus Christ' is not mentioned in this particular song and the 'song of Moses' is believed to be from Exodus 15. Also, note that one song from D. Armstrong (on page 116 in the 1974 hymnal) is based on Exodus 15.

The Apostle Paul noted:

Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Now who did Paul and Silas sing to? Acts 16:25 states,

"Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God."

Colossians 3:16 does mention the term 'Christ' and singing in the same verse (and is the only place in the Bible where that occurs) as it states,

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."

Note that this verse does not indicate that it is necessary to sing the term 'Christ'.

Acts 13:33 is the only verse in the Bible that mentions the term 'Jesus' and 'Psalm'--but they are two separate statements, neither of which suggest using the term 'Jesus' in any psalm.

There are also several other New Testament scriptures that mention songs, psalms, and/or hymns (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26; Luke 20:42;24:44; Acts 13:35; Ephesians 5:19; Revelation 5:9;14:3;15:3), but none of them mention the term 'Jesus' or 'Christ' or 'Jesus Christ' in any of them.

The Ad Speculates and Concludes

After complaining none of the hymns in the 1974 edition contain the term 'Jesus Christ', the ad speculates:

Do we dare speculate? Could Herbert Armstrong's WWCG have been doomed from the beginning?

The ad implies WWCG was doomed from the beginning because of its hymnal not using the term 'Jesus Christ' in any of the songs. The answer to that speculation is, no this did not doom WWCG. For if that speculation were true, then the Bible would also have been doomed from the beginning since it does not use the term 'Jesus Christ' in any song.

The ad concludes with:

Give the only name under heaven whereby we must be saved more focus in worship services by singing most, not necessarily all, of the hymns about our Rock and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

The unnamed author of this ad is entitled to an opinion. But it is an opinion, and not a particularly biblically defendable one (perhaps it should be added that the term 'Rock' is applied to God or the Lord in the hymnal on pages 24,49,50,53,72,&117; and that "Lord" or "God" is used in almost every song).

Early Christianity

But what about early Church history? Is there are evidence outside the Bible that the early church primarily sung psalms?

The noted historian K.S. Latourette observed:

From a very early date, perhaps from the beginning, Christians employed in their services the psalms found in the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. Since the first Christians were predominantly Greek-speaking, these psalms were in a Greek translation. We hear of at least one form of service in which, after the reading from the Old Testament, the "hymns of David" were sung...Until the end of the fourth century, in the services of the Catholic Church only the Old Testament Psalms and the hymns or canticles from the New Testament were sung...Gradually there were prepared versical paraphrases (Latourette K.S. A History of Christianity, Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500. Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1975, pp. 206,207).

Because of fears of gnostic influence, Christians did not add outside poetic phrases or non-biblical lyrics until well after the second century (Ibid).

On the Roman date of 7 March 203, Tertullian records that while being prepared for martyrdom:

Perpetua sang psalms (Tertullian. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).

Here is a quote from a fourth century publication known as the Apostolic Constitutions :

Be not careless of yourselves, neither deprive your Saviour of His own members, neither divide His body nor disperse His members, neither prefer the occasions of this life to the word of God; but assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord's house: in the morning saying the sixty-second Psalm, and in the evening the hundred and fortieth, but principally on the Sabbath-day.  And on the day of our Lord's resurrection, which is the Lord's day, meet more diligently, sending praise to God that made the universe by Jesus, and sent Him to us, and condescended to let Him suffer, and raised Him from the dead (Apostolic Constitutions (Book II, Chapter LIX).  Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 7. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1886. Online Edition Copyright © 2005 by K. Knight).

Isn't this astounding? Even in the Church that was ruled by Rome, psalms were mainly sang on the Sabbath. This is most likely due to the continuance of the practice that the early (before Rome increased its influence) church.

It appears likely that the Sunday practice of singing songs of praise to God ultimately led to the practice of shifting the primacy of psalm singing to praises towards Jesus in what we now consider to be the Protestant world (as they got Sunday from the Romans).

A recent book on early biblical and church practices states:

Modern New Testament scholarship is studying extensively the early church in its relationship to Judaism.  It is certainly without question that Judaism is Christianity's mother religion...

The Book of Psalms, as the temple hymnbook, continued to be used in Jewish congregations as well as Christian congregations (Roberts T.  From Sacral Kingship to Sacred Marriage: A Theological Analysis of Literary Borrowing.  Vantage Press.  New York, 2003, pp.138-139).

Hence evidence does support the idea that psalms were the main types of hymns that the early Christians sang on the Sabbath (as that is when the early Christians, did in fact meet--Sunday worship is not alluded to in any historical literature prior to the 2nd Century--and the first clear mention of Sunday worship was by Justin Martyr: A Saint, Heretic or Apostate?).

Singing is Also Part of God's Feasts

1 Sing aloud to God our strength; Make a joyful shout to the God of Jacob. 2 Raise a song and strike the timbrel, The pleasant harp with the lute. 3 Blow the trumpet at the time of the New Moon, At the full moon, on our solemn feast day. (Psalms 81:1-3)

4 When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, With the voice of joy and praise, With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast. (Psalms 42:4)

The Festival of Tabernacles is a 'pilgrim feast' (see also Christians are to Be Strangers and Pilgrims?) and singing pslams should be done then as well as on other Sabbaths and Holy Days.

Conclusion

In this article I believe I have directly quoted or referred to every scripture in the NKJ New Testament that mentions the term sing, singing, song, songs, psalm, psalms, hymn, or hymns--none use the term 'Jesus Christ.' Hopefully those citations will make this letter of assistance to the author of that ad.

Also, I have brought in some historical evidence that the early church did, in fact, primarily sing psalms on the Sabbath.

While it is also true that the Bible does not prohibit the use of the terms 'Jesus,' 'Christ,' or 'Jesus Christ' in songs, these terms are clearly not the emphasis of any songs in the Bible.

Perhaps God did not inspire songs to be written to or about the name of Jesus Christ because He wanted the focus of the true Church of God to be on the main messages of the Bible (such as Christ's Gospel of the Kingdom, love towards God and man, God's ways, etc.) and not just the person of Jesus Christ. That is what the true Church of God tries to do.

Some items of possibly related interest may include:

The Bible Hymnal via Amazon.   This is the paperback edition of the hymnal used by the Continuing Church of God. It consists of all the songs that were part of the 1974 edition of 'The Bible Hymnal' used by the old Worldwide Church of God, plus ten other hymns that Herbert Armstrong approved that were written by Ross Jutsum. The songs in this book are essentially the Psalms and other passages in the Bible set to music. Amazon sells The Bible Hymnal for $8.99. 
Giving Thanks Are Christians supposed to give thanks? Why? Is unthankfulness warned against? Here is a link to a related sermon titled: Ingratitude and Giving Thanks.

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Thiel B. Praises to Jesus Christ or Biblical Hymns: Which Should Christians Primarily Sing? www.cogwriter.com (c) 2003/2006/2008/2013/2015/2017 0506