Restoring the Psalms in Worship
At the Reformation, Calvin called for a return to the ancient church’s practice of using only the words of the biblical text for singing in worship. He endorsed Augustine’s judgment that the song texts spoken by God through the prophets are those which are appropriately offered back to him in worship. “Now what Saint Augustine says is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God unless he has received them from Him. Wherefore, when we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him. And furthermore, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts the words in our mouths, as if He Himself were singing in us to exalt His glory.”
This advocacy for the church’s use of the Book of Psalms as its manual of praise may be stated in two parts.
First, in both the Old and New Testaments the text of song for the worship of God is regarded as having been given by the Holy Spirit through inspired prophecy. The words of song for worship were as much the oracles of God as were ethical codes and prophetic visions. Thus Scripture defines divine inspiration as normative for the texts to be used in this part of worship.
Second, the Lord’s placement of the Book of Psalms in the biblical canon amounts to his requirement that its texts which are overtly designated for singing in worship should be employed for their announced purpose. Neither are we at liberty to venture beyond the Bible’s prescriptions for religious observance. In other words, the canon of Scripture is sufficient for the religious functions which it claims for itself. The principle of sola Scriptura has consequences for the question of an appropriate text for singing in worship. In those parts of worship for which the canon claims to supply a text, the sufficiency and divine authority of the canon entail a restriction to that text.
In more recent times, John Murray has once more called the churches back to a recognition that the only text which the Bible recognizes for song offered to God in worship is that which comes by prophetic revelation. “1) There is no warrant in Scripture for the use of uninspired human compositions in the singing of God’s praise in public worship. 2) There is explicit authority for the use of inspired songs. 3) The songs of divine worship must therefore be limited to the songs of Scripture, for they alone are inspired. 4) The Book of Psalms does provide us with the kind of compositions for which we have the authority of Scripture. 5) We are therefore certain of divine sanction and approval in the singing of the Psalms.”