Book Review

Trinity Psalter Hymnal

Jonathan Landry Cruse
Thursday, November 1st 2018
Nov/Dec 2018

Producing a printed worship book, including a full psalter, in an era of screens and me-centered “praise” songs could seem like a fool’s errand. Yet, in a bold effort to reclaim and even reintroduce God-centered, Bible-filled, musically excellent, and theologically robust songs to the modern church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) have joined together to create the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH). In many respects, the TPH is unlike any other songbook ever created because of its goal, scope, and overall content. But in order to truly appreciate all it has to offer, it’s important to know how best to use the book.

First, begin by reading the editorial introductions. In fact, the two articles “A Musical Introduction” and “Preparing Our Hearts” are worth the price of the book. They explain and explore the power of music, why our making melody matters to God, and how we can be better at it.

Next is the psalter, found within the first 150 songs of the TPH. That might seem obvious, but it is a new feature compared to the CRC’s (Christian Reformed Church) and URCNA’s 1976 Psalter Hymnal. For example, in this version, “O God, to Us Show Mercy” is song number 121, a setting of Psalm 67, and found on page 139. In the TPH, it is simply designated as “67A,” with the song number corresponding to its respective psalm. Letters are used to differentiate secondary tunes, partial or paraphrased versions, as well as to divide the twenty-two stanzas of Psalm 119.

A remarkable contribution to the psalter portion of the TPH is that each psalm (except Psalm 119) has at least one full metrical setting; and for those that are full psalms, the biblical verses are superscripted within the text. Having musical versions of the entire psalm will aid in biblical competency and memorization, with verse numbers making it easier to track the flow of the original psalm while singing.

The user-friendly formatting is a distinct feature. Wherever possible, the editors have spared us from reading additional stanzas grouped outside and away from the musical notation. For example, in The Psalter of 1912, “The Unfailing Faithfulness of God” (Psalm 105) has nineteen stanzas. Only five fit within the musical staves, and the remaining fourteen are stacked in two columns on the top of the next page. This makes it difficult for musicians and singers to follow both text and tune, rendering the unity of corporate worship liable to confusion and disruption.

In contrast, the TPH’s 105B has fifteen stanzas spread over three pages. Each page replicates the sheet music note for note, dividing the text up evenly for five stanzas on each page. For a project that seeks to produce entire psalm settings, entailing in some instances upward of twenty metrical stanzas, this is a crucial feature. However, since this formatting is uncommon, it is important to be aware of this before singing. While you may think you have reached the end of the psalm, it continues onto the next page or two.

The creators of the TPH should also be applauded for their extensive efforts to wed each text with an appropriate tune (which is true for the hymns as well). Take Psalm 79, for instance. In the Psalter Hymnal, this text lamenting God’s seeming absence and the triumph of Israel’s enemies is set to the infectious, cheerful tune of “Hyfrydol”—a choice that results in cognitive dissonance when singing. The TPH sets the same psalm to the German tune “O Mein Jesu, Ich Muss Sterben” (as in “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted”). This pairing allows one to grasp the meaning of the text more readily and sing with apt feeling.

It is evident that in producing the psalter, scriptural fidelity was paramount. The versions that made the cut were first and foremost faithful to the original Hebrew poetry, and matters such as familiarity or popularity were secondary if not tertiary considerations. Where there were no preexisting settings that met this standard, the committee penned their own.

Impressively, the TPH includes over 150 original metrical psalm texts. It’s hard to overstate the significance of this, and time will prove that the TPH leaves an indelible mark in the history of the church by adding these new songs to the corpus of its sung psalmody. The psalter concludes with 150C, a rousing OPC/URCNA composition set to the tune of “All Creatures of Our God and King,” and we move right on to the hymnal.

The TPH contains what the committee has deemed to be the best hymns available to the English-speaking church today (over four hundred of them), split into three categories of worship, faith and life, and service music, with useful subcategories found on the top of each page and in the index.

A concerted effort was made to include hymns that span the entire history of the Christian church. The fourth-century Te Deum is present, as well as hymn texts by the Cappadocian father Gregory of Nazianzus (also fourth century) and sixth-century Gregory the Great (father of the Gregorian chant). Both a Trinitarian hymn and a Christmas carol from Ambrose of Milan (fourth century) make the cut, as do two Easter hymns by Syrian monk John of Damascus (eighth century). New to most congregants will be Thomas Aquinas’s communion hymn “Zion, to Thy Savior Singing” (ca. 1260).

The TPH reflects the songs of today as well, boasting over thirty pieces written in the past thirty years. Modern classics such as “In Christ Alone” (2002) and “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” (1995) are included alongside lesser known (at least for now) hymns of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century church. Notably, the renowned preacher and pastor James Montgomery Boice is represented by five hymns that he penned in the last year of his life.

Overall the hymns are rich in theology, beautiful in poetry, and most importantly, saturated in Scripture. Of the more recent contributions, there are hymns based on biblical texts such as Isaiah’s servant songs (“Behold, My Servant”), Revelation 22 (“Come to the Waters”), and a prayer of illumination taken from John 6:60–70 (“O Spirit, Fill Our Hearts”). There are also settings of each of the canticles in Luke’s birth narrative.

As the editors combed through the Psalter Hymnal and both editions of the Trinity Hymnal (1961/1990), songs that were musically, poetically, or theological weak (one thinks of the Trinity Hymnal’s 1970s pop song “My Tribute”) were cut in favor of the robust settings found in this new collection. Watts, Havergal, Newton, Bonar, Wesley, and other favorite authors are safely attested. In fact, the TPH delves into the works of these luminaries to bring us songs omitted from previous books: for example, Watts’s adoption hymn (“Behold, the Amazing Gift of Love”) and Newton’s first-person poem on the pains of sanctification (“I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow”) are welcome additions to classics such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Amazing Grace.” Also recovered are additional stanzas to “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “For All the Saints,” and others; and songs such as “Be Thou My Vision” and “O God Beyond All Praising” have been reharmonized to accommodate singing in parts.

Lastly, the TPH’s contribution to the church goes beyond music, for it also provides an extensive selection of creeds, confessions, and catechisms for congregational and personal use. It is the first songbook to include the doctrinal standards from both the Presbyterian and the Reformed tradition, the Westminster Standards and Three Forms of Unity—a historical accomplishment that will be nestled together in church pews around the world for years to come.

In terms of formatting, the TPH is unquestionably the cleanest and clearest songbook available to the Presbyterian and Reformed traditions to date. The musical notation is enlarged from the Trinity Hymnal and the typeset is more readable than the thin text of the Psalter Hymnal. Measures are given room to breathe, with no more than sixteen syllables fit onto a single line. The result is a crisp and easily accessible product.

Conversely, this claims more space and will undoubtedly mean that a beloved hymn or psalm setting is absent. When first using the TPH, readers may be tempted to jump immediately to what is missing or to think of the superiority of a hymnal they have cherished for years. A new work like this will take some getting used to. But to truly appreciate it, readers must see it for what it is: an invaluable aid in letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly. Truly, here is a worship resource that will edify saints and glorify God for generations to come.

Jonathan Landry Cruse is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a hymn writer whose works can be found at

Photo of Jonathan Landry Cruse
Jonathan Landry Cruse
Jonathan Landry Cruse is the poetry editor of Modern Reformation, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of The Character of Christ and What Happens When We Worship. He is also a hymn writer whose works can be found at
Thursday, November 1st 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology