The rhythm of Scripture at the heart of musical reformation
A book review of Rob Smith's 'Come, Let Us Sing: A Call to Musical Reformation.'
Smith’s book aims to bring about a reformation of the musical life of our churches, and return us to biblical practice, and I think this book is a great tool to that end. The book is in two parts – why we gather, and why we sing.
Part One – Why We Gather
Smith takes us step by step through the New Testament’s teaching and helpfully modifies what he calls the ‘revisionist’ thesis that we gather merely to edify each other and not to worship God. Smith’s answer, brought about by careful New Testament exegesis, is that the truth is both-and.
The revisionist position is correct in that Jesus’ coming does revolutionise worship, he is the new temple, sacralises all of life, and we meet to be edified for the whole life worship of God. However, when we gather, God edifying us by his word and our hearing and responding are one act of worship. So, for Smith, we meet to worship and worship has three dimensions: God to us in his word; us to God in response with praise, request, confession, lament; and us to each other as we sing and speak. And singing in scripture can be part of all three. I personally thought that using Smith’s ‘Three dimensions’ would be a great diagnostic for any activity we do in a service.
Part Two – Why We Sing
One of the many strengths of Smith’s work is that he covers a lot of scripture and especially the Psalms and Paul’s letters. For Smith we sing to praise God, and this done corporately is a mutually edifying act. We sing to pray, and we sing to preach – as in teach and instruct.
Smith’s coverage of each theme is exhaustive, and anyone reading this will not feel short changed but that they have been given a thorough, Biblical, and deeply integrated theological treatment of each topic he deals with. Smith always takes his reader to scripture, reasons theologically, addresses objections, and engages with the Reformed tradition – especially the works of Luther, Calvin, the Book of Common Prayer and the Westminster Catechisms. Each theme is given a couple of chapters so across two chapters on the theme of singing as praise Smith deals with the nature of Biblical praise, the need for holistic praise, the importance of praise, the battle for praise – why we struggle to do it, the dangers of idolatry, quenching the Spirit, solutions for our lack of praise, and how we should praise.
Great strengths of the book are Smith’s regular italicised definitions of what he is saying and critical learning points. I particularly found helpful his insightful exegesis on many points – his handling of Acts 13, 1 Corinthians 14, the multiple references to the Psalms, his exegesis of scripture’s references to the use of the body, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, and the songs of Revelation were always on the money.
A major part of Smith’s work is to recover the use of the Psalter in congregational singing. Smith rightly works for a recovery of the Psalter and says many important and helpful things, but at the same time this section left me wanting more. Firstly, Graeme Goldsworthy asked the question ‘could this sermon be preached in a synagogue?’ forcing us to bring a biblical theological perspective explicitly in our preaching, and Smith does not answer this for our singing of the Psalms – how do we sing individual Psalms intelligently and Christologically when the language is frequently typological and in the terms of the Old Covenant? More could have been done so that people don’t just parrot scripture in song but sing unto edification. Ministers need to introduce Psalms well before they are sung; it’s not as simple as singing ‘In Christ Alone’. Secondly, very few feel able to sing imprecations especially in the ‘seeker-sensitive-outsider-friendly’ atmosphere of modern evangelicalism. Again, some pointers here would have been helpful – otherwise singing the Psalter becomes in fact ‘partially using the Psalter’ and ignoring the awkward bits.
The book is explicitly aimed at pastors and teachers and in it they will have an abundance of good material to teach their congregations on worship and music along with lots of practical applications both pastorally and for congregational practice. The section on emotions and the body will be a real challenge and corrective to anyone who seeks to allow scripture to challenge them and guide them to a reformation in their response to God without thinking one is being hoodwinked into unthinking emotionalism.
Smith’s book is a winning combination of theology and practice. It puts scripture at the heart of a musical reformation, and if followed, will do much more than reform our music, but our services and lives as well. A great resource, and in the next edition can we please have an index?
Revd Robert Brewis is a Phd candidate at Manchester University. His research is based on Handley Moule’s theology of the Christian Life .