Ancient Praise -- By: W. Robert Godfrey
RAR 4:4 (Fall 1995) p. 61
“I just like to sing the old hymns of the faith.” All of us have probably heard a statement like that. Many of us have said something like it. The irony is that often the “old hymns” on close examination are actually hymns written in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What was the song of the church like long ago—say 1800 years ago? What was the ancient praise of the church?
The praise of the ancient church is not easy to reconstruct. Beyond the writings of the New Testament the evidence of the earliest centuries is scarce and ambiguous. For example, did the ancient church sing only or primarily the Psalms of David, or did it sing hymns of its own composition? The evidence to answer such a question is very limited and not really clear. If we read in an ancient writing that the church sang a Psalm or a hymn, do we know with certainty what that means?
Actually, the words psalm and hymn are used interchangeably in some ancient writings and in the New Testament. In Matthew 26:30 we read that after the Last Supper, Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn before they went out. That hymn was almost certainly Psalm 118. In 1 Corinthians 14:26 the reference to a psalm is most likely a song inspired by the Spirit in the Corinthian church.
Scholars can be very divided in evaluating the limited evidence that we do have. Ralph Martin in Worship in the Early Church stresses the role of hymns composed by early Christians in New Testament worship. Michael Bushell in Songs of Zion argues that only the Old Testament Psalms were used.
What can be said with certainty is that the early church in many ways followed the pattern of worship in the synagogue. The synagogue certainly made significant use of the Psalms of David in worship and it is clear that the early church did also.
Testimonies to the value of the Psalter are plentiful in the ancient church. Athanasius, the great champion of Christ’s eternal divinity, wrote,
RAR 4:4 (Fall 1995) p. 62
I believe that a man can find nothing more glorious than these Psalms; for they embrace the whole life of a man, the affections of his mind, and the motions of his soul. To praise and glorify God, He can select a psalm suited to every occasion, and thus will find that they were written for him. And Basil of Caesara declared, “The Book of Psalms is a compend of all divinity; a common store of medicine for the soul; a universal magazine of good doctrines, profitable to everyone in all conditions.You must have a subscription and be logged in to read the entire article.
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