I’ve just begun some work on the Psalms, preparing to teach on them in the New Year. There are few things more staggering to me as I study church history than the way that the Psalms have been, essentially, abandoned as a normal part of worship within my evangelical tradition. My fellow Ad Fontes blogger John Ahern wrote something along these lines this week:
The vast majority of the singing in religious and secular Catholic services has, until recently, been the psalms, canticles, Scriptural antiphons, and so forth; hymns have been a beloved but lesser category. Early Lutheran hymnals were tiny, often containing only 20 or 30 hymns. This continued to be the norm throughout Protestantism until much later. It was in the mid-nineteenth century that hymnals were fattened with countless mediocrities. Our hymnals now are good for stopping knives and bullets, and boxes of them can be used for toning muscles or feeding bonfires. What they are not good for, however, is putting us alongside the church past.
Given that evangelicals are, generally, sticklers for obeying the plain meaning of biblical commands, it’s even more baffling. Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 both command the singing of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” in the Church.
I know I’ve wriggled off the hook of these verses before by claiming that they’re surely encouraging a mixture. Aside from the fact that that mixture is at best usually heavily lopsided in favour of hymns and worship songs, the three words Paul uses in these verses (psalmos, hymnos, and ōdē) probably actually refer to three different kinds of psalms, rather than a mixture of psalms and non-psalms. Christopher Ash makes a fantastic case for this in a 2019 article for Tyndale House – something I’m very glad to see, since he is from the same psalm-averse British conservative evangelical constituency as me!
The indispensable nature of the psalms is startlingly uniform across church history. The Psalter was the backbone of worship in medieval monasteries. Most monks would get through the entire thing in a week or a month… and then start again. So there were countless long-forgotten clerics in medieval England, labouring in obscurity in Backwater-upon-Thames or Dunny-on-the-Wold, who probably forgot more of the psalms than I will ever know. That’s quite something, given that a knowledge and love of Scripture is something which, as a modern evangelical Protestant, I tend to imagine defines me against medieval (or even contemporary) Roman Catholics.
Heretics and the Psalms
This was really brought home to me this week, when I was reading up on the Cathars (sometimes known as the Albigensians, named for the city of Albi in France). The Cathars were a heretical sect active in Europe from around the 1100s to the 1300s. Their name means “The Pure Ones”, devised from the Greek katharoi. They were one of a surprising number of Gnostic groups which sprung up in Europe at the time. Ian Shaw sums up their beliefs:
“[T]heir worldview was dualist, seeing two principles in the universe, one being Good and the other Evil. The Evil One had fashioned the present world, and imprisoned souls in the bodies of men, women, birds, and animals. Souls could be released and returned to the other world God had created through celibacy, avoiding killing, and refraining from eating goods that came from sexual reproduction. Because of the view that the flesh was a bad thing, Cathar theology rejected the humanity of Christ, as well as Catholic teaching on purgatory.”
The Cathar contempt for created things is somewhat understandable, given the gulf between an impoverished laity and a wealthy, corrupt clergy at the time. However, they were straight up heretics. The Church had encountered much the same thing in Gnosticism for centuries. Unsurprisingly, the Cathars rejected the authority of the Church.
Their opposition was bolstered by translating the Bible into their own French dialect (well, parts of it – like most dualist heretics, they reject a lot of the Bible as Satanic, especially the Old Testament). In the end, the Church’s response was the most severe imaginable: a twenty year military campaign from 1209-1229 to exterminate Catharism outright, known now as the Albigensian Crusade. It involved hundreds of thousands of deaths, and the public burning of the Cathars’ vernacular Bible translations. With no end in sight, a peace treaty was signed and a local church council was held, the Council of Toulouse (1229). Canon XIV of the Council decreed the following:
We prohibit the permission of the books of the Old and New Testament to laymen, except perhaps they might desire to have the Psalter, or some Breviary for the divine service, or the Hours of the blessed Virgin Mary, for devotion; expressly forbidding their having the other parts of the Bible translated into the vulgar tongue.
Now, even if we modern Protestants would still regard the Cathars as heretics, it seems perverse to us that the Church should have ever forbid laypeople – heretical or not – access to the Scriptures like this.
It is worth saying here: it’s a myth that the medieval Church had a blanket ban on non-Latin Bible translations. Vernacular translations were long-standing and widespread. This was especially the case in England (partly because, prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066, the British Isles were always somewhat out of step with Rome). Alfred the Great had the Bible translated and distributed around England in the 900s. But England wasn’t alone in this – vernacular translations were common, and accessible to learned people, throughout Europe. Oppression of vernacular translations was always local and occasional, and often related specifically to new, unauthorised translations, or laypeople’s ownership of those translations, rather than vernacular translations per se.
Anyway, you may have noticed what caught my eye in Canon XIV, quoted above: “We prohibit the permission of the books of the Old and New Testament to laymen, except perhaps they might desire to have the Psalter.”
So even the medieval Catholic church, when it was cracking down on heresy, and preventing laypeople from owning and translating the Bible, still let people have the Psalms!
Now, I’m sure there are probably some shady reasons for this. The Psalms were to be permitted alongside the breviary (the book of church service liturgies), and the Hours of the Virgin (another service book, specifically related to Mary). I suspect this is because, in order to counter the heretical influence of the Cathars, Rome wanted to press uniformity of worship on the people. This probably also reflects a medieval Roman attitude which places greater emphasis on performing worship services and offering the Mass, rather than on teaching and preaching, to transform people (although it was the Cathar heresy, and similar events, which (surprisingly) precipitated the rise of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, with their wandering friars encouraged by the Pope to preach in the vernacular so as to combat heresy on the ground).
This exception for the Psalms probably also reflects a low view of the instructive, doctrinal nature of the Psalter. Presumably, Pope Gregory IX thought that access to the Psalms wouldn’t lead to any dangerous heresies like those of the Cathars, or of the nearby Waldensians (who were thoroughly orthodox forerunners of the Reformation). This grossly underestimates the Psalms. Luther said the Psalms “might well be called a little Bible. It puts everything that is in all the Bible most beautifully and briefly.” And the Apostle Paul clearly felt he could expound justification by faith alone in Romans 4 just from Psalm 32:1-2.
So I don’t think this allowance for the Psalms came from an unalloyed love of the Scriptures.
The medieval Roman church establishment, as much of a theological and ecclesiastical dumpster fire as it was, didn’t think you could take the Psalms away – even from the heretics. They were too basic to piety and worship. How could you ever hope to draw people back into orthodoxy without them? What kind of uproar would there be? After all, they are for admonishing one another, and for causing the word of Christ to dwell richly in us.
This willingness (perhaps even compulsion) to let even the heretics keep the psalms should tell us something, something that we’ve lost: the Psalms are indispensable for the daily life of the Church and the Christian. Yet they are absent from so much of our worship and personal devotion. How can we keep the Psalms from the Church, when even the Pope did no such thing in 1229?
To end on a positive note: there are encouraging signs of psalm recovery among evangelical Protestants. The Corner Room records verbatim versions of the ESV psalm translations for listening and meditation. Theopolis is continually rolling out new psalm chants in their own translation (and my three and nearly-one year old kids love them). And I’d especially like to highlight a new project: Canticlear, set up by Brittany Petruzzi, a friend of The Davenant Institute. She’s aiming to provide accessible and beautiful sung versions of the psalms on YouTube – and to do so ad free. If you want to see the revival of psalm singing, you can support her on Patreon.
If even medieval heretics were encouraged to sing these things, why would we not do it? Let’s sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Or, as Christopher Ash paraphrases it: “lots of psalms and then more psalms and then some more psalms!”
Ian Shaw, Christianity: The Biography (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2016), 132. ↑
Harry Freedman, The Murderous History of Bible Translations: Power, Conflict, and the Quest for Meaning (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2016), 75. ↑
Freedman, Murderous History, 76. Freedman notes here that, even after the treaty in 1229, persecution and skirmishes continued for another fifteen years. ↑
You can find a succinct summary of early and medieval church practice here in the Catholic Encyclopedia on New Advent, under the heading “Attitude of the Church towards the reading of the Bible in the vernacular.”↑