by John M. Frame
NOTE, 2006: In 1987, Reformed Worship published a series of articles called “We Used to Sing Only Psalms; What Happened?” I was asked to reflect on the history and practice of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America in this connection. This article appeared in the Spring, 1987 issue, pp. 32-34, and is used by permission.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) was formed in 1936 by a group that broke away from the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., the largest American Presbyterian denomination, centered in the northern states. The protesters objected to the teaching of theological liberalism among the church’s missionaries; but as
they sought (in vain) the expulsion of false doctrine, some of their own number were subjected to ecclesiastical discipline. Understandably, then, the maintenance of sound reformed doctrine has been the most notable emphasis in the history of the OPC.
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) (not to be confused with the Presbyterian Church of America, the original name of the OPC) also began as a protest against liberalism, in this case within the Presbyterian Church U. S., the “Southern Presbyterian Church.” The PCA began in 1973, but a later merger connected them with older Presbyterian groups. At that time they were joined by the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPES), which was itself the result of a merger between the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod (RPGS). A proposed union between the PCA and the OPC was rejected by the OPC General Assembly in June, 1986.
These small Presbyterian bodies share the same confessions and commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy, but they have rather different emphases in practice, including the practice of worship. As is traditional with Presbyterians, there is deep respect for the Psalm versions in both communions, though neither has ever held to the exclusive use of Psalms in worship. The RPGS, one of the denominations noted above in the PCA ancestry, antedated the American revolution and originally used the Psalms exclusively, but they had abandoned that practice long before the mergers which eventually led them into the PCA. The OPC, in the 1950s, carried out a study on exclusive psalmody at the General Assembly level, but did not accept that position (despite its vigorous defense by Prof. John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary), though a few congregations in the denomination to this day sing only Psalm versions in worship.
The Trinity Hymnal is used extensively in both groups, but its use is nearly universal in the OPC (90% of congregations), which originally produced it under the direction of its Christian Education Committee, not so in the PCA (20% of congregations). (The hymnal is now in process of revision by a committee representing both PCA and OPC.)
Trinity Hymnal has a larger proportion of Psalm texts than any other hymnal (as opposed to psalter or psalter-hymnal) in general use. Still, only 38% of the verses of the Book of Psalms are used in the book. The OPC General Assembly in 1985 requested the revision committee to include all 150 Psalms in the revised edition of Trinity Hymnal, but the committee replied in 1986 that fulfilling this request would create too drastic a change in the concept of the hymnal and that those congregations who wished could purchase psalters. The 1986 General Assembly defeated a motion to express regret for the committee’s response.
The commitment to Psalm singing evident in the 1985 request of the OPC General Assembly is, in my judgment, not as strong in the PCA as in the OPC. The PCA is somewhat more under the influence of American evangelicalism than is the OPC; and in worship that influence involves less of an emphasis on Psalms and more on gospel songs, choruses and the like. But the difference between the two denominations is only a difference in degree. Some PCA churches sing many Psalms, some OPCs only a few.
Identification of the Author
John M. Frame, 3572 Prince St., Escondido, CA 92025. Associate Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary in California. I am a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and I serve the session of New Life Presbyterian Church as director of worship, organist and choir director. I was appointed by the 1985 General Assembly as a theological advisor to the hymnal revision committee.