“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16)

I was reading an article at the Lutheran Hymn Revival website entitled “Optism: A Plea to Lutheran Pastors” by Mark Amberg Preus that discusses the importance of doctrinal strength in the music of the Church. [UPDATE: As of Oct. 18, the aforementioned post seems to have been taken down from the Lutheran Hymn Revival Site.] There’s some good things to think about there, but I had a few comments and concerns. Alas, Lutheran Hymn Revival only allows comments from Google and Blogger accounts – neither of which I currently have. What follows is the comment I intended to leave on the site.

I just stumbled across your site and I thank you for your voice in the blogosphere. I’ve had a chance to glance at your hymns and am quite excited to find strong theological content blended with similarly strong literary style – a delicate balance frequently missed in the current era.

While I sympathize with much of what you say, I must admit I’m always curious as to how people interpret Colossians 3:16. Most intriguing to me is your interpretation of “songs” as a particular type of “doctrinal hymn” – a suggestion that I have never come across in my own studies.

Kretzmann’s classic Popular Commentary (published by CPH back in 1921-1924) suggests that the three genres correspond as follows: “This can be done also by the use of psalms, the incomparable poetry of Holy Writ, hymns which are intended chiefly for use in church services, and spiritual songs, such as are more popular in form and content, but also tell of the wonderful blessings of God for our salvation.”

Now I’m not suggesting Kretzmann is necessarily right. In truth, I am doubtful that Paul actually intended to distinguish three particular “genres” of worship music at all. The fact is that the words for “psalm” “hymn,” and “song” utilized here are used in Greek to refer any number of musical/poetic genres. ‘Psalmos’ merely means something like ‘a tune played on a stringed instrument’ or ‘a strain or burst of music’ (Liddell and Scott). The word is derived from ‘psallo’ Grk. for ‘to pluck/twang’ (as on a harp). ‘Hymnos’ means a ‘festive song’ typically sung ‘in honour of gods or heroes.’ And ‘hode’ (transliterated ‘ode’ in English) is used to refer to all kinds of music: songs, lays, strains, etc. In the plural (as it appears Colossians) it can even simply mean ‘lyric poetry’ (something accompanied with music, but not necessarily sung per se).

Taken together the phrase “psalms, hymns and songs” would merely imply “all kinds of music”. The addition of the word “spiritual”, as you point out, restricts the meaning to “spiritual” or “religious” meaning. So we might read “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” to mean simply “all kinds of spiritual music”. This would make sense in the larger literary context of the verse as it then balances “all wisdom.” Thus, the verse could well be understood to mean something like the following:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing all types of spiritual music, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

In any event, I agree that whatever music we sing must be doctrinally pure. The imperative to “sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” is balanced with “teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom”… and all of this in the context of letting “the Word of Christ dwell in [us] richly.” Luther in his sermon on Colossians 3:12-17 reminds us that this means that we should be grateful (v. 15) for “preachers” who “handle the Word” and deliver it us. This Gospel Word delivered to us must forever indwell all we teach and all we sing.