One of the most well-known phrases in the New Testament about music is that we should sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” which is found in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. We need to know what this little phrase means to properly understand these scriptures and so we can properly live them out today. So what are psalms, hymns and spiritual songs?
First of all, what Paul and the early believers understood as music was obviously conditioned by their time. Music varies from culture to culture and from era to era so for instance, when the New Testament talks about hymns it clearly does not mean what we call hymns today. Therefore, we need to understand it in historical context what they meant by music.
Like many people who come across it, 1New Testament scholars in the past tried to tease out the meanings of each term. Scholars right now think understanding the precise technical distinctions between each term is really besides the point. The reasons why they came to that conclusion are because psalms, hymns and songs i.e. psalmos, hymnos and ode in Greek, are all synonyms of one another. The author does not supply any further information to help make a clear technical distinction between the terms. Moreover, the exact phrasing is repeated in two different places which indicates it is probably akin to a figure of speech known as a tricolon. An example of a tricolon in English is the phrase “every Tom, Dick and Harry” which means everybody. Similarly, what Paul was really trying to say with “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” is that the church should sing all kinds of songs in their worship.
Even though we cannot make definite categorical distinctions, knowing what each term generally referred to is helpful in understanding what kinds of songs they sang back then, which should then inform the kinds of songs we ought to sing today in the Church. On the meaning of the terms, New Testament scholar Francis Foulkes writes,
2The psalmos was originally that which was sung to the harp, and here perhaps includes not only the psalms of the Old Testament, but those (like Luke 1:46–55, 68–79 and 2:29–32) which were songs of the new, but in the spirit and manner of the old psalms. The hymnos in classical Greek was a festive lyric in praise of a god or hero.
As Foulkes said, the psalms definitely included the biblical Book of Psalms. As he pointed out, they made songs in the spirit of the Psalms but since they lived in the Greco-Roman world as well, they also made songs in the style of Greek hymns. New Testament scholar Matthew Gordley therefore says,
3The end result is that the New Testament christological hymns present us with a unique fusion of Jewish and Greco-Roman literary conventions and styles.
(Gordley goes into much detail about the precise features of these hymns in his very insightful latest book, of which you can read a comprehensive summary here.)
4Finally, religious songs and poetry more broadly were often thought to be divinely inspired in the ancient world. Therefore, Craig Keener also adds:
5“Spiritual songs” may refer to Spirit-inspired songs (cf. 1 Chron 25:1-6; Eph 5:18), possibly spontaneous, which would clearly distinguish Christian worship from nearly all worship in antiquity (cf. 1 Cor 14:15).
Knowing what psalms, hymns and spiritual songs each generally meant, we can now understand the scope of religious music that together they covered. Knowing this, among other things, provides an outline for the music that we should make today. I say this because each term represents an aspect and approach to Christian music that should be our standard today.
The first category is psalms which represent our Jewish heritage, the root of Christianity. The Gospel is that Jesus the Jewish Messiah is the world’s Lord. Truly Christian music, as we see in the New Testament, is informed and inspired by Israel’s scriptures which Jesus fulfils through his death, resurrection and exaltation. (In another post I explore this point in more detail.)
The next category is hymns which represent cultural standards of music. Just as New Testament songs were shaped by contemporary Greco-Roman musical standards so should Christian music today be shaped by modern musical standards. It is pretty obvious that cultural context frames artistic expression. Christianity has always been a missional faith, moving from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, so in that regard contextualisation is expected. When it comes to the modern context, I am not only referring to contemporary trends in Christian music but the modern era of music which includes “hymns” and older traditional religious music.
Of course our music is already highly contextualised. The problem is that we have compromised the content in the process. While form is important we consistently make the mistake of prioritising it over substance. Our content should first and foremost be thoroughly biblical, that is rooted in our Jewish heritage and christological beliefs, as exemplified by New Testament hymns. Once we have a good grasp on that we can then pursue setting this content to the best of modern musical styles and conventions. If psalms represent the biblical tradition, hymns represent contextualising that tradition to express the best of modern artistic expression. Our music has to be theologically sound but good art as well.
Finally, spiritual songs represent the charismatic dimension of Christian music. By charismatic I am not referring to the 20th century global movement, its associated beliefs and the baggage that comes along with it. I rather have the basic biblical meaning of the word in mind, which is something given by the Spirit that empowers believers to speak and act in ways that benefit the Church during gatherings. In the New Testament the Spirit is present in and energizes the gathering of believers. This includes Spirit inspired music. The Spirit is free and cannot be humanly controlled but that does not mean his activity is chaotic and therefore unprincipled. Many people have misunderstood this which has led to the excesses of the Charismatic tradition.
In the New Testament the Spirit always acts in accordance with the Scriptures being fulfilled in Jesus. It is not a tenuous connection to the Bible using random proof texts. It is a coherent theological narrative in which Israel’s scripture reach their climax in the exalted Messiah Jesus. So the way to correctly discern and interpret the Spirit’s activity is through the lens of the Scriptures, which we believe he inspired and is suffused with his life-giving presence (2 Timothy 3:16). If we are to make truly spiritual music then it has to be rooted in the Spirit-inspired Scriptures.
Now the live, charismatic element to Christian music cannot be forced. However, I think we can position ourselves for truly charismatic experiences if we are prayerfully immersed in the Scriptures just like the disciples in the upper room. The Spirit does spontaneously (not chaotically) inspire new music, whether privately or publicly, but it is always for the benefit of the Church. We cannot predetermine how the Spirit will act but we can be ready and willing vessels for him to fill.
In summary, I think psalms, hymns and spiritual songs among other things broadly represent the biblical tradition, musical standards within a cultural context and charismatic worship respectively. These things must be taken together to fully encompass what Christian religious music ought to be. Our music should be grounded in Scripture, shaped by the best of modern music, and be inspired by the Spirit of Jesus for the benefit of his Church.
1N.T. Wright, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon, pp. 301-302 (e-book), Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.
2F. Foulkes, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – Ephesians, p. 108 (e-book), Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.
3M. Gordley, New Testament Christological Hymns: Texts, Contexts, and Significance, p. 223, IVP Academic, 2018.
4C. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary – New Testament (2nd Edition), p. 552, IVP Academic, 2014.