Sing the Lord’s Song! Biblical Psalms in Worship
John W. Keddie
Foreword by Hugh Cartwright
Worship is the highest activity in which a human being can engage. Specific acts of worship are essential parts of the glorifying and enjoying of God into which He introduces His chosen people by the redeeming work of His Son and the regenerating work of His Spirit. The “singing of psalms with grace in the heart” (Westminster Confession XXI.v) is a constituent part of the congregational worship of the Church.
What should be sung in praise of God is determined by God Himself. “The Word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him” (Shorter Catechism 2). The Biblical principle which requires specific Biblical authority for the doctrine, worship, discipline and government imposed on the Church is the best guarantee that the Church’s practice will conform to the will of her Lord and only Head and is the surest means for preserving the purity and liberty of the Church.
The need has long been felt for a summary, produced within the Free Church, of Biblical teaching on the content of sung praise, which can be put in the hand of one enquiring into the reason for our position. In this booklet Rev. John Keddie, converted to exclusive psalmody while a member in a hymn-singing Church, approaches the subject from autobiographical, historical and Biblical angles. The most urgent question to the genuine enquirer is “What saith the Lord?” and the structure of this work is such that a reader who prefers to do so can begin with the Biblical position. There is also value, however, in the historical testimony of the Church to the Biblical position and in the personal testimony of someone converted to that position. The author has adopted his own approach to the subject. Others might present the arguments differently, but others have not presented anything and Mr. Keddie is to be commended for making this personal contribution towards confirming the Church in this aspect of her testimony to the sovereignty of God our Saviour in the life of His Church. At a time when others are recovering Biblical principles of praise it is well that we should hold them fast.
I. Setting The Scene
The singing of praise to the Lord has been prominent in the history of the Church from Old Testament times. Before even the specifications of the Tabernacle were revealed, there was an outpouring of inspired song to the Lord. The Exodus from Egypt drew out the Song of Moses (Exodus 15:1-18) and the Song of Miriam:
“Sing to the LORD,
For He has triumphed gloriously!
The horse and its rider
He has thrown into the sea!” (Exodus 15:21).
Through to the last book of the New Testament the redeemed of the Lord have a song to sing in His praise. Indeed, the song of the redeemed in glory is the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb (Revelation 15:3). In this way a link is forged between the first inspired song of Scripture and the last! It can readily be recognised that song has always played an important part in the life of the Church of the Living God.
Until relatively recently the inspired Psalms of Scripture enjoyed a position of prominence in the praises of the Church. These Songs of Zion in one form or another have encouraged, uplifted, instructed and inspired generations of Reformed Christians. The Reformation of the sixteenth century saw a renewal in congregational Psalm singing, restoring a practice which prevailed in the early Church. Subsequently, especially in Presbyterian Churches, Metrical Psalms were more or less exclusively used in services of public worship. Today the situation is very different. The Psalms of Scripture have been largely displaced in modern Church worship. Patterns of worship are changing with baffling rapidity. Songs and hymns entirely of man’s devising and composition have proliferated. It appears that anything goes in today’s worship, in which there is a constant desire for something new. Worship services and evangelistic programmes devote a significant amount of time to hymn and chorus singing. The Psalms of Holy Scripture seem to have been left well behind. Churches which have maintained Psalm singing are under pressure to change on the grounds that such praise today is regarded as a hindrance to people coming in to the Church. Perhaps such restriction of praise may even be considered by some to be not “real” worship.
In all this transformation in the area of public worship of God what men desire or demand is more discernible than any serious concern to have answers to such questions as: “What does the Lord really want of us?” “Isn’t the Bible clear on this?” “Do we really have to rely upon what is ‘modern’, however that is to be measured, or by whomever that is to be determined?” To some degree it will be unavoidable that the style of a people’s music will be moulded by cultural factors. But is that to be true of the content? Does the Lord Himself not stipulate the content? Should we not be asking if God has determined the content of His Church’s praise? It is to such considerations that this little study is devoted. The basic thesis is that reformation is needed in this area of worship and that a return needs to be made both to a responsible and God-centred “regulative principle” of worship in general, and to the use in worship of materials of God’s inspiration and appointment in particular.
The principal concern in this booklet is to establish and maintain that in the area of public worship there is warrant for the adoption and use only of materials of direct divine inspiration. By “materials of direct divine inspiration” is meant those writings which derive their content, thought, detail, truth and authority from the fact that they are the Word of God written, that is to say, part of the Holy Scripture, infallibly and inerrantly produced under the inspiration of the Spirit of God (cf. Hebrews 1:1; II Peter 1:21; II Timothy 3:16). In other words, presupposed in this study is a high doctrine of Scripture and of the canon of Holy Scripture, as expressed for example in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1. By “uninspired” is meant all writings not part of the canon of Holy Scripture, however true to the Scriptures they may claim to be.
It is therefore our conviction that there is no warrant in Scripture for the use of uninspired human compositions in the singing of God’s praise in public worship. In principle there can be no objection to the use of inspired songs found in Scripture outside the Psalter. Our concern is to use only what has divine sanction and approval. There is certainly sanction for the Book of Psalms. Such sanction is not clear in connection with other songs found in Scripture. These may have been intended for a more temporary or personal or national use, and in any case scarcely express truths not already found in the Psalms. However, it can be argued that their use does not violate the fundamental principle that only inspired songs should be used in the worship of God.
It is granted that even within the Reformed tradition Bible materials other than the 150 Psalms, such as Scripture Paraphrases, have been used occasionally in Psalm singing Churches. To this writer there are two main objections to the adoption of such materials. First of all, there is no clear warrant in Scripture for putting into verse for singing parts of the Bible not originally recorded in the form of song; and, secondly, it is rather presumptuous for any person or group of people to take upon themselves the responsibility for selecting passages to be adapted for singing. After all, if the Lord has not caused such passages to be expressed in the form of songs nor indicated which passages should be paraphrased for singing, by what authority do men take on this responsibility?
Perhaps at this point a personal comment would be in order. The writer was brought up in a mainstream Presbyterian hymn singing tradition. This might be called the “classical” hymn singing tradition. Little thought was given, as it happens, either to the content of the hymns or the principles, if any, behind their selection as materials for praise in the Church. Not that people didn’t mean what they sang or that care was not taken in their selection. But the principle of hymn singing — of the use of uninspired materials for praise — was not questioned. It was just accepted, no questions asked. Good men must have agreed this. That was good enough for me, and no doubt also for most other people. However, when I came to realise that for the greater part the Churches of the Reformation used only the Psalms of Scripture, and likewise the English Puritans and Scottish Covenanters, not to speak of most nineteenth-century Presbyterians in Britain, in the Dominions and in the United States of America, I began to question my hitherto unthinking acceptance of modern hymnals. I began to ask: “Is there not, after all, at least a good argument for using only the God-breathed songs of Holy Scripture in the formal public praises of the Lord?” The discovery and study of some expositions of this position, mostly from the nineteenth century, did nothing to quell my new-found uncertainties on this question. Indeed, in the process of time I became convinced of the “regulative principle”, that only what is sanctioned by God in His word is permissible and appropriate in the public worship of God. It was then a short step to the position adopted by almost all evangelical Christian Churches at some time in their past, that in the Psalms of Scripture there is a satisfactory and sufficient manual of praise even for the Christian Church.
As I became more familiar with the Psalms, I came to see their richness in spiritual experience; their perfect theological balance; the reality that Christ is in all the Psalms as He is in “all the Scriptures” (cf. Luke 24:44). The Psalms, I came to see, produced a particular type of piety — as, indeed, unavoidably, ancient or modern human hymn compositions also do — but in the case of the Psalms a piety thoroughly God-centred and experiential in an entirely balanced way, as one would expect from materials of divine inspiration. I was convinced. This is not to say that a Psalm singing Church is, consequently, a perfect Church. It is not to say that its performance of praise cannot be improved or, for that matter, that the translations of the Psalms sung should not be revised and modernised periodically. But at least it does mean this, that one can have perfect confidence, using only songs of divine revelation, that one is always singing in public worship songs of which the Lord wholly approves, something that cannot in point of fact be said of even the best of human compositions.
However, let us deal at this point with some possible problems or misunderstandings:
(a) Isn’t this just a minority opinion?
Someone might say: “Ah, this is a minority opinion nowadays. Surely there must therefore be a presumption against this view. The vast majority of Christians surely can’t be wrong.” What can one say to this argument? Obviously there is no special virtue in holding a minority opinion. However, by the same token minority opinion or practice is not necessarily wrong. It was majority opinion in Israel that there should be a king to rule. Yet that did not seem to be right in God’s eyes nor good for the nation in the longer term (see I Samuel 8:1-22; 10:17-27; 15:10-35)! Majority opinion in Church history has often occasioned oppression or even tyranny. Majority opinion itself, therefore, and likewise any minority view, is to be subjected to the over-riding consideration: What does God say? What is Scriptural? (cf. Romans 4:3; Galatians 4:30).
The truth is that Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles were often called to counter majority opinion or practice. Mention of the prophet Jeremiah is sufficient to prove this point. Again and again these men found themselves in a minority and frequently seemed to be standing alone for the claims of truth. Even the Lord Jesus Christ in His days on earth did not command majority support. Yet He was completely right. Too much should not be made of where the majority stand nor should a minority practice be discounted simply because it is such. At the same time it has to be said that the practice of congregational Psalm singing was itself once widespread, at least in the Reformed Churches. A review of modern hymnals reveals just how the praise materials of the modern Church largely date from the late eighteenth century. Whatever else may be said of this it is clear that by and large the praise materials of the majority of Churches today are neither apostolic in origin nor specifically commanded by God. In our estimation this is a serious problem for the modern hymn singer.
(b) Were the hymn writers all wrong?
This question may then be raised: “Are you saying that all these hymn writers, whose hymns have been so signally blessed, were wrong and out of step with the Lord?” The answer to this is, no! The argument is not about whether it was right or wrong for this or that person to compose hymns and religious songs. It is not disputed that there are many hymns of quite exceptional quality, soundness and real devotional flavour. It is not disputed that hymns have been greatly blessed to many souls over the years. What is questioned is the warrant to use such hymns and songs of merely human composition in the formal and public worship of the Church. Although such compositions may contain excellent sentiments even the best of them fall short of being immediately inspired by God. In this connection “inspired” refers specifically to what is canonical Scripture. It is true that some people will say that this or that hymn writer has surely been “inspired” and has produced inspiring song. In a sense that may be correct, but not in the sense that there has been divine inspiration, an inspiration attributable only to the Holy Scriptures. This is a far more significant point than is usually admitted.
(c) What about the question of blessing?
“If Psalm singing is so right, why aren’t Churches maintaining that position more obviously blessed?” Of course the matter of the praise materials of a Church is one aspect of that Church’s responsiveness to the Lord. There are many other important aspects of a Church’s life and witness in which there must be obedience to the word and will of the Lord. Blessing will certainly be hindered where people or a Church fail to obey the Lord. Care has to be taken in claiming a particular cause and effect in the matter of blessing enjoyed within a Church or denomination. What can be said is that there is a relationship between the Lord’s blessing and a people’s faithfulness. We see this reflected, for example, in the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), when the Lord tells him to move to another land and adds a promise of blessing for himself and for the world as he responds to this call. But we have to be cautious here. For it may be that whilst a remnant is faithful, the Lord’s displeasure against a generation is such that He refuses to bless, despite the presence of a Noah or a Daniel or a Job (cf. Ezekiel 14:12ff).
It can be maintained that the Church has enjoyed blessing and revival in periods when only Biblical Psalms were used in praise. A Psalm singing Church will not lack the blessing of the Lord because it confines its praise materials to the Biblical Psalms. Lack of blessing in any Church will arise from disobedience somewhere in the work and outlook of that Church, perhaps even on account of a doctrinally diffuse and devotionally unbalanced hymnody.
(d) Isn’t this an unnecessarily divisive issue?
This naturally takes us on to another question: “Aren’t there far more important issues to be concerned about than arguing about psalms and hymns?” There is, of course, no doubt that there are other matters of serious and far-reaching importance confronting the Church. It is undeniably a priority within the Church to present the gospel to sinners that they might be saved and avoid a lost eternity. Mission must be in the forefront of the Church’s task in the world: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). But, of course, there is more. The Great Commission itself does not end there. Jesus goes on to say: “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (v. 20). The Church is charged not only to evangelise, but also to instruct; to keep the word of Christ; to conform to His teaching and not, knowingly and willingly, to step beyond it, however much people may consider themselves competent to add to or improve upon what is there.
(e) Surely this is a relatively unimportant matter?
Whenever the question of the content of the Church’s praise is raised it is not uncommon for people to suggest that this is a subordinate matter. But is this right? Is it not true rather that the priority of the Christian Church is in the broadest sense the worship of God? What could be more important? Is it not the case that the order of the Church’s priorities is this: first of all, the worship of God, secondly, the building up of the body of Christ, and thirdly, the proclamation of the gospel to those outside? Is it not the case that if the first two priorities mentioned are not right then there will be little effectiveness in the third? Is it not the case that besides calling sinners to faith in Jesus Christ, the gospel also calls people back to the true worship of God? In view of this is it not a serious mistake to push this matter of the nature and content of praise down the order of priorities for the confessing Church?
It is common for people to maintain that there is a hierarchy of priorities in the Scriptures. It is true that there are some matters relatively more important than others. But it is a serious mistake to think that there are things in the word of God so unimportant that we can dispense with them, as if we can put aside certain things simply because we perceive them to he peripheral. It is not for us to determine which parts of Scripture are necessary and sufficient, and which we can safely ignore. It is for us to come under the teaching of Scripture as fully sufficient in all matters of faith and practice (cf. II Timothy 3:14-17). As the Westminster Larger Catechism puts it, in answer to the question, What is the word of God?: “The holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.” (Answer to question 3.) The Confession of Faith is explicit on this: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.” (Chapter I, section VI.)
Perhaps it is all too easy to say that this matter of praise materials is not central. And yet the Holy Scriptures do contain a book of 150 Psalms, clearly intended for praise. Ironically, in modern patterns of worship the praise element tends to loom large as a matter of considerable significance. Worship services are increasingly taken up with praise and singing, and decreasingly with the proclamation of God’s word. In all this people are being asked to engage in the worship of God! Words are being taken on people’s lips which hopefully will be pleasing to the Most High God. Will that not be a central concern? Surely it is extremely important that serious enquiry be made about the sufficiency of Scripture in this matter. Did Jesus not put our task in perspective when He said in the parable of the unjust steward that “he who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least, is unjust also in much”? (Luke 16:10).
(f) Surely this is a matter of the heart?
Someone may object: “Does it matter so much what we’re singing as long as it is not positively unsound? Isn’t it the spirit that is important and not the letter?” Admittedly there is some strength in this argument. Dead formalism in singing even the best materials is arguably inferior to singing with spiritual fervour songs not drawn from the Scriptures. A right attitude of worship cannot be automatically assumed simply because Bible songs are used. Clearly the Lord desires the spiritual attitude expressed by the writer to the Hebrews: “Therefore by him (i.e. by Jesus) let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name” (Hebrews 13:15).
However, the issue is not the attitude of the worshipper’s heart. It is not doubted that people singing hymns of merely human composition may have a good spirit of worship and a real earnestness. The issue is this: What materials for praise does the Lord desire His Church to use? What songs unquestionably have His sanction? An example from the Bible illustrates the point, that the spirit or heart of the thing is not the only, or even the primary consideration. When Aquila and Priscilla encountered Apollos at Ephesus they found him to be a man instructed in the way of the Lord and “fervent in spirit”. He even taught accurately the things of the Lord, though, we are told, “he knew only the baptism of John”. So what did Aquila and Priscilla do after they heard him preaching? “They took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” They did not question his sincerity or fervency or even his general soundness. But they did make good his deficiencies in Christian ordinances (Acts 18:24-28; see also Acts 19:1-7 for a similar incident involving the Apostle Paul).
(g) Surely the New Testament gives us greater liberties in the elements of worship?
It is true that there is relatively little said in the New Testament of the precise patterns of worship. It is also true that there is a certain continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments which is not easy to define exactly. However, are there grounds for maintaining that differences between the Old and New Testaments might allow for the adopting of elements into our worship which the Lord has not prescribed in Scripture? There are two passages of Jesus’ teaching that bear powerfully on this question.
First of all, in Mark 7 there is recorded a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. At issue are laws which the Pharisees superimposed upon the Biblical commandments, laws which they laid down for the faithful on their own initiative and authority. In response Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13: “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (vv. 6-7). In countering the attitudes and actions of the Pharisees, Jesus goes on to state that they were “making the word of God of no effect” through their tradition which they had handed down – their tradition which had no warrant from the word of God! (v.13). “In vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”. This shows rather clearly that (a) Jesus was aware of a continuity in this respect at least with the Old Testament; and (b) for the elements of the worship of God sanction is required from the word of God. There is no scope, according to the principle stated by the Lord here, for the introduction of elements of worship simply on the initiative and authority of men.
The second passage in question is in John 4 in which there is recorded a conversation between the Lord Jesus Christ and an unnamed woman at the well of Sychar in Samaria. Verses 23 and 24, together with Jesus’ general discussion with the woman, stress the need for inwardness in worship. However, in the terms Jesus states here, such worship is to be consonant with the nature of God: “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship him”. It must be inward, spiritual worship — from the heart; but it must also be according to truth: “God is a Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth”. It must be consistent with His revealed will rather than according to the judgments of men, points powerfully made also in Colossians 2:18-23 and Romans 1:21-25. In this discussion at Sychar, incidentally, Jesus is clearly aware of discontinuity with the Old Testament, as he implies the disappearance or abrogation of the Temple and its services, including, of course, the sacrifices, the priesthood, and the musical instrumentation associated with the Temple and its worship.
From this it can be maintained that in passing from the Old Testament to the New Testament, whatever discontinuity was involved, there is no evidence whatsoever that God has surrendered the right to determine acceptable worship. For the New Testament Church, too, the concern must be: what is sanctioned in the word of God?
The burden of this booklet is quite simply to put a case. We shall look in the first place at Biblical material in any way bearing on the content of praise for the New Testament Church. We shall then consider historical matters, including the question of a Biblical regulative principle governing the worship of God. It is hoped that this will neither be seen as majoring on minors nor as casting any doubt on the sincerity or piety of those who by choice or simply default, sing songs other than those provided in the Holy Scriptures. It is our conviction, however, that a reformation is needed in this area of public worship through a return to the use of inspired Biblical song. No doubt there are many fine hymns, ancient and modern, and perhaps there is a place for these in the lives of the people of God. But in the place of worship nothing should supplant what God has inspired and provided for use in His Church. It might even be said to be a scandal in the modern Church that the Psalms of Scripture have been so largely, and in some places completely, displaced by the compositions of mere men.
It is hoped that this will inspire people to turn to the Psalms themselves as a source of a wonderfully balanced Biblical piety and spirituality, and to use them increasingly in devotions, both in private and in corporate worship. Then it will surely be found that the Lord God who inspired these wonderful compositions and the Christ who is to be found spoken of throughout them and who speaks throughout them, will become a more powerful reality in the life of God’s Church.
II. The Biblical Position
1. Psalm Singing Commanded
Singing praise to the Lord is a distinct element in the worship of God. Naturally the question has to be asked: What does the Lord require of His Church in this regard? What has He commanded? What has He provided? Does this matter? At least in one respect there does not seem to be any doubt about what the Lord has provided and commanded in the matter of His praise. The Psalms of Scripture are to be sung by His people. There is ample evidence for this in the Psalms themselves, but also and not least, in the New Testament. Let us briefly review the evidence here:
(1) There is the evidence from the Psalm titles. There is no reason to believe that these titles are not of considerable antiquity and perfectly authentic. It appears that they would have been included with the Psalms during the time the Old Testament was in the making.(1) Thirty-four Psalms in the Hebrew text do not have a title, though in the Septuagint or LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament which was completed about 180 B.C., only two lack titles. Whether or not these titles are to be considered part of the original inspired text is a matter of dispute, but as Edward Young points out, they “are to be regarded as trustworthy and of great value in determining the Psalm in question”.(2) The New Testament writers would certainly have been familiar with the various Psalm titles. The fact that no fewer than 55 Psalms are addressed “to the Chief Musician” points eloquently to the purpose of the Psalms.
(2) There is the evidence from the poetic form of the Psalms. For the greater part the poetry of the Psalms is characterised by a parallelism and rhythm of sense, rather than by the type of rhyming metres distinctive of Western poetry. However, the rhythmical structure of the Psalms was no doubt designed to be consistent with an underlying musical form. As Derek Kidner puts it so effectively: “. . . the poetry of the Psalms has a broad simplicity of rhythm and imagery which survives transplanting into almost any soil. Above all, the fact that its parallelisms are those of sense rather than of sound allows it to reproduce its chief effects with very little loss of either force or beauty. It is well fitted by God’s providence to invite ‘all the earth’ to ‘sing the glory of his name’.”(3) This is a point, incidentally, which answers the problem some people have with the translation of the Psalms into a metrical form for singing within our Western musical tradition.
(3) There is the evidence from direct statements in the Psalms, and also elsewhere in Scripture. In Psalm 95: “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; let us shout joyfully to him with psalms” (v. 2). In Psalm 105: “Sing to him, sing psalms to him; talk of all his wondrous works” (v. 2). Besides this, in many Psalms there is encouragement to sing to the Lord with the words of the Psalms. Such encouragement is to be found in at least 37 Psalms.(4)
But even outside the Psalter there are clear enough indicators. In I Chronicles 16 we find Psalms being sung when David placed the Ark of God in the Tabernacle. In Nehemiah 12 Psalms of thanksgiving are sung after the restoration and rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. These Psalms are led by appointed singers (see vv. 8 and 27). In the New Testament, too, there are clear encouragements to sing Psalms (cf. Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
(4) There is the evidence from New Testament Theology. The book of Psalms is frequently cited in the New Testament. To a significant degree New Testament theology and experience are derived from the Psalms. Jesus himself claimed this. He said when He appeared to His disciples after His resurrection: “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me” (Luke 24:44). This is how it can be said with truth and conviction that Christ is in all the Scriptures. Of course Christ Himself did not just begin to exist at His conception in the womb of the virgin. He said of Himself: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58; Colossians 1:16-18). Now, it is true that some Psalms more directly and explicitly point forward to the Messiah or are more specifically applicable to Him.(5) However, as Professor Edmund Clowney, formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary, reminds us: “In their theological depth the psalms are songs of God’s covenant and of the hope of the covenant. Since God’s great work of salvation will be accomplished by the Son of David, the psalms are explicitly messianic.”(6)
There is no reasonable doubt that the Psalms are themselves essential Biblical praise — the song book of the Church, provided and inspired for that purpose. They were of course rich in their contemporary significance to Israel, as songs of inspiration and hope. But they are in a real sense even richer in Christological significance for the New Testament Church, which is, indeed, why they are so often quoted. They are songs to be sung by God’s people in every age and it must be counted an unhappy situation that so many Christian Churches today fail to use these songs of Scripture in the worship of God.
2. Textual Evidence.
By textual evidence we mean those texts or verses of Scripture which have a bearing on this issue of Biblical praise. In looking at this evidence we have to enquire into which texts or verses are perceived to be relevant here, and why.
It must surely be agreed that the Lord has provided in the book of Psalms a song book, at the very least for the Church of the Old Testament, and that there is a command to sing Psalms. But then the question arises: Is there a command to sing songs of merely human composition? Is there divine authority to sing the hymns of Isaac Watts and John Newton and Horatius Bonar and Charles Wesley and so on?
Hopefully all advocates of non-canonical song will at least seek to find warrant for their songs somewhere in Scripture. Sure enough a number of passages are appealed to in support of the contention that it is fine for the Church to sing materials other than those of divine inspiration. In addition passages claimed as hymn fragments in the New Testament are cited. We shall look at the passages of Scripture considered to be directly significant in this matter of praise materials. Our chief concern will be to ask whether the passages claimed as warrant for the expansion of praise beyond the confines of the Holy Scriptures really do support that contention.
A word of caution before we start. There are several words in the Greek New Testament, the English translations of which can give rise to certain misunderstandings. Where a word is translated “hymn”, for example, it must not be assumed that what is meant in the New Testament context is the same as what the word now conveys in terms of modern hymnody. The words in the Greek New Testament which have a bearing on the question of singing praises are the nouns psalmos, hymnos and ode, and the verbs hymneo and psallo. We proceed to look at the New Testament references in which these words or their derivatives appear.(7)
(i) Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26
The disciples are gathered with Jesus for the Last Supper in the Upper Room. It is the Jewish Passover. We read that when they had sung a hymn (hymnesantes) they went out to the Mount of Olives. Now, what was this “hymn”? Commentators agree that this would have been one of the Hallel Psalms, from that group of Psalms, 113 to 118, commonly sung at the Passover.(8) Hymnesantes is an aorist active participle here indicating simply an action in the past. In this case the meaning is, roughly, “having hymned”. It is from the verb hymneo, which means simply “to sing a hymn” or “to sing praises”. In this instance, how appropriate any of these Hallel Psalms would have been to Jesus on the threshold of His crucifixion. It is as if Jesus takes these words as His own prayer in the gathering storm of His final days and hours on earth. He pledges to keep His vows in the presence of all the people (Psalm 116:12-19); He calls upon the Gentiles to join in God’s praises (Psalm 117); and He concludes with a song of triumph: “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the LORD” (Psalm 118:17). As William Lane comments: “When Jesus arose to go to Gethsemane, Ps. 118 was upon his lips. It provided an appropriate description of how God would guide his Messiah through distress and suffering to glory.”(9) So here at least, this reference to “hymn”, rather than pointing to any uninspired song of praise, points to the Psalter.
(ii) Acts 16:25; Hebrews 2:12
Paul and Silas have taken the gospel to Europe. There is encouragement (Acts 16:11-15). But there is also opposition. They are imprisoned in Philippi (vv. 16-24). Are they downcast? Not a bit of it! Didn’t Jesus encourage rejoicing in just such situations? (Matthew 5:12). At midnight, their feet in the stocks in an inner prison, Paul and Silas are heard “praying and singing hymns (hymnoun) to God” (v.25). This word hymnoun is an imperfect of the verb, hymneo; indicating continuing action. What were they singing? We don’t know for sure, of course. But the suggestion of Addison Alexander commends itself: “Praying, hymned (or sang to) God, seems to express, not two distinct acts . . . but the single act of lyrical worship, or praying . . . by singing or chanting, perhaps one or more of the passages in the Book of Psalms peculiarly adapted and intended for the use of prisoners and others under persecution.”(10) Clearly whatever Paul and Silas sang that night was something they knew by heart. “The explanation doubtless is” says Professor William Binnie, “that they had been taught to say and sing the Psalms in their childhood; and that their habitual attendance in the Synagogue and participation in its services had prevented the early familiarity with ‘the praises of Israel’ from being lost or impaired.”(11)
This understanding of hymnoun here is strengthened by the reference in Hebrews 2. This is the only other place in the New Testament where this verb is found. In Hebrews 2:12 it is in fact found in a quotation from a Psalm! Speaking of Jesus’ brotherly relations with believers the writer quotes Psalm 22, verse 22: “I will declare your name to my brethren; In the midst of the congregation I will sing praise (hymneso) to you.”
(iii) Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16
We come now to the two passages most commonly used in support of a warrant for the adoption of uninspired hymnody. “Look,” someone will say, “surely these verses indicate that we can use other than Old Testament Psalms!” The nouns, psalmos, hymnos and ode are found together in both these passages. In an article written some years ago, Robert A. Morey claimed that: “the mention of ‘hymns’ and ‘songs’ clearly reveals that we can sing other materials than the Psalms.”(12) This is a common view. But is it sustainable? Let us see.
In these verses Paul is certainly concerned with worship. In addition, he is speaking of the believer’s inward life. He exhorts the Ephesian Christians to be “filled with the Spirit” (5:18). To the Colossian believers he says: “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom” (3:16). The infilling of the Spirit, of course, brings the word of Christ to the heart, for it is the Holy Spirit’s task to “take the things of Christ” and declare them to the disciples (John 16:15). Paul puts this so tellingly to the Romans: “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). A consequence of the indwelling Spirit is praise. So, Paul enjoins the Ephesian and Colossian Christians to “speak” or “teach and admonish” each other through the medium of “psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs”, singing and making melody to the Lord with grace in their hearts (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
The question is: what exactly are these “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”? It goes without saying that every Christian will be happy to sing the songs Paul is referring to here. Presumably these were already existing compositions, otherwise his Ephesian and Colossian readers would simply be puzzled by the reference. But what is he referring to? It is gratuitous to maintain that they were non-inspired materials or that he was giving a free hand to post-Apostolic writers to go ahead and compose their own hymns for use in worship. To the end of his ministry Paul had a high view of Scripture (cf II Timothy 3:14-17). Would such compositions not immediately inspired by the Spirit of God qualify as the “word of Christ” with which the believers were to be filled?
We cannot of course be certain about how Paul’s hearers would have understood him. Commentators are by and large agreed that there is no general agreement about the meaning of this threefold description! Nor is there general agreement as to whether the adjective pneumatikais (“spiritual”) qualifies only ode (“song”), or all three terms.(13) F. F. Bruce’s comment is representative: “It is unlikely that any sharply demarcated division is intended, although the “psalms” might be drawn from the OT Psalter (which has supplied the chief vehicle for Christian praise from primitive times), the “hymns” might be Christian canticles, and the “spiritual songs” might be unpremeditated words sung “in the Spirit”, voicing holy aspirations.”(14)
Notice how this paragraph of Bruce’s is full of vague suggestions. But there is no evidence here even to warrant the conclusion that Paul in these verses was referring to three distinct groups or types of compositions, although no doubt the words had their distinctive meanings indicating the variety and richness of the songs Paul has in mind. There is simply no warrant for taking these verses as justification for the adoption of uninspired hymnody in the worship of God. That would have these verses prove far too much.
It seems perfectly reasonable, however, to take the references to psalms, hymns and spiritual songs as referring to the Psalter. These Greek words would be familiar to the New Testament Church as being found in the Old Testament Greek translation (the Septuagint or LXX) which they commonly used. In the Septuagint the Psalm titles frequently contained these terms, in some cases all three terms in the same title! Psalmos occurs 87 times in the Greek Old Testament, 67 times in the Psalm titles. In the New Testament this word occurs seven times: in each of the verses presently being considered, four times with reference to the book of Psalms (Luke 20:42, 24:44 and Acts 1:20, 13:33) and once in I Corinthians 14 (verse 26) where the reference is either to the Biblical Psalms or perhaps to a charismatic utterance, in which case the song would be individual and Spirit-inspired.(15) Hymnos occurs 17 times, 13 times in the Psalms, six of which are in the titles. In the New Testament this word only occurs in the verses under examination. Ode occurs 80 times, 36 in Psalm titles and many other times within the Psalms themselves.(16) As we have seen, the word hymneo certainly is also used of the Book of Psalms (cf. Hebrews 2:12). Ode can also be used of the Psalms, although in the New Testament, apart from the texts in Ephesians and Colossians, the word is only found in the Book of Revelation (5:9; 14:3; 15:3), where, however, the “new song” refers neither to modern hymns nor any uninspired compositions.
In connection with the passages in Ephesians and Colossians, H. Schlier comments: “It is ‘spiritual’, i.e., has a measure of inspiration (Eph. 5:19). Hence it is not an expression of personal feeling or experience but a “word of Christ” (Col. 3:16).”(17)
There is strength, therefore, in the interpretation that sees in this Pauline use of these three terms, psalmos, hymnos and ode a reference to the Book of Psalms, corresponding broadly to the Hebrew terms mizmorim, tehillim and shirim, the types of composition found in the Old Testament Psalter. No doubt the terms do reflect different types of Psalms and Paul would be implying, what we know to be the case, that there are Psalms for all our spiritual needs. It is interesting that in other places in the Old and New Testaments threefold descriptions of similar things are given. For example, in Exodus 34:7 we find “iniquity and transgression and sin”; in Deuteronomy 5:31 and 6:1 we find “commandments and statutes and judgments”; and in Acts 2:22 we find the phrase, “miracles, wonders, and signs”. This general interpretation finds support in some older commentators like Paul Bayne, Jean Daille and William Binnie, and in more recent years has been ably expounded by Professor John Murray and William Young in a Report they produced for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1947.(18)
Someone might still object that this interpretation is speculative. But even if there is no absolute certainty about what Paul means here, the case seems to be much stronger for the view which sees exclusive reference to the Psalter in these verses. At any rate, it can readily be understood that these texts provide not one shred of warrant for the adoption of non-inspired materials of praise in worship. The fact is that any decision to admit uninspired human hymns can neither find support from such texts nor from any passage of the New Testament. The truth is that no Christian can be bound to sing any songs which the Lord, in His wisdom, has not commanded us to sing or provided for our singing, however good such songs may appear to be on a human level.
(iv) James 5:13; Romans 15:9
The last word we shall look at is the verb psallo, “to sing psalms, or praises”. James encourages those who are suffering to pray. He encourages those who are cheerful to “sing psalms” (psalleto). What has James in mind here? Well, this word, psallo, appears 56 times in the Septuagint, predominantly in the Psalms. It came to mean, generally, a song of praise. Now, of course this cannot be shown conclusively to refer to Biblical Psalms. However, as the Puritan writer, Thomas Manton, suggests: “In the original there is but one word, psalleto, let him sing; but because the apostle is pressing them to religious use of every condition, and because this is the usual acception of the word psalleto in the church, it is well rendered ‘let him sing psalms’.”(19)
The use of psallo in another New Testament context indicates that Manton’s interpretation is a sound one. In Romans 15:9, the only other place in the New Testament where this word appears, Paul finds Biblical support for the Gentiles to praise God. Where? Well, in the Psalms of course! “. . . that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: ‘For this reason I will confess to you among the Gentiles, And sing (psalo) to your name’ ” (Psalm 18:49).
It will surely be recognised, therefore, that in these references no support is to be found for any advocacy of the use of uninspired songs of praise in public worship.
(v) New Testament “Christian Hymns”
Undeniably there are songs in the New Testament. In Luke’s gospel, for instance, there are the songs of Mary (1:46-55), Zacharias (1:68-79) and Simeon (2:29-32). These are certainly Spirit-inspired songs, and whilst there does not seem to be any objection in principle to their use in public worship, it is not altogether clear that even these songs were intended by the Lord for such a purpose.
However, there are other passages which some have suggested are fragments of hymn-type compositions. These “fragments”, it is maintained, bear witness to a developing liturgical tradition in the early Church. Ephesians 5:14, Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20, and I Timothy 3:16 are all commonly appealed to as illustrating this point. What are we to make of such claims?
(1) The procedure is speculative. However confidently claims may be made that there are hymn-citations in the New Testament, there is no uncontradicted proof that this is the case. Professor Binnie rightly called such claims “precarious”.(20) Much ingenious and careful research has been done. Despite this there is still a lack of universal agreement amongst scholars on the precise nature of these verses. It cannot be proved that they were ever sung and it seems that no two New Testament writers quote from the same “hymn” fragment and no one writer quotes from the same “hymn” fragment twice!(21) Commenting on the subject, the “songs of Primitive Christianity”, G. Delling makes a significant point: “Attempts have been made to distinguish Christian hymns in the NT but these are hypothetical in the absence of discernible laws.”(22) He also makes the obvious point that “. . . the mere presence of lofty speech or integrated structure does not have to denote a hymn”. Quite so.
(2) The procedure is inconclusive. Even supposing that it could be proved conclusively that hymn fragments were to be found in the New Testament, that would still not prove that these items were part of a developing liturgical tradition. For one thing, the providence of God is against it. In this way: none of the items of which the various verses in the New Testament are taken to be fragments has come down to us. The writers may indeed have gleaned these “fragments” from contemporary songs, but why then did these songs not come down in their entirety if they were to be used or if they were to be part of a liturgical tradition? What sort of tradition is it that fails to retain such items? If the Holy Spirit had meant the Church to use them, then it is scarcely likely that He would simply have left fragments here and there, and not ensured that the compositions, if they were such, were preserved in their entirety.
There is simply no evidence that these passages were either songs or part of a developing liturgical tradition. But even supposing these passages were found to be songs or parts of songs, it does not follow that this provides some sort of warrant for the use of uninspired hymns in worship or demonstrable proof that they were ever used in worship services. This whole area of New Testament studies is marvellously imaginative, but entirely inconclusive as far as the question of New Testament praise is concerned.
Notes to The Biblical Position
(1) D. Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (Leicester, England: 1973), pp. 32-33.
(2) E. J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: 1964), p. 307.
(3) Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 4.
(4) See, for example, Psalms 9, 30, 47, 68, 75, 81, 96, 104, 108, 138, 147, i.e., all sections of the Psalter are represented.
(5) W. Binnie, The Psalms: Their History, Teachings, and Use (London: 1886), pp. 176ff., for a helpful discussion of the classification of the Messianic Psalms.
(6) E. P. Clowney, ”Preaching Christ from all the Scriptures”, in S. T. Logan Jr., ed., Preaching (1986), pp. 188-89.
(7) Cf. G. W. Bromiley, trans.,Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Exeter, England: 1985), pp. 1225ff.
(8) Cf. R. V. G. Tasker, Matthew (London: 1961), p. 252; R. A. Cole, Mark (London: 1961), p. 216; R. T. France, Matthew (Leicester, England: 1985), p. 370; D. Hill, The Gospel of Matthew (London: 1972), p. 340; W. L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (London: 1974), p. 509.
(9) Lane, Gospel of Mark, p. 509.
(10) J. A. Alexander, The Acts of the Apostles (London: 1963), 2:121.
(11) Binnie, Psalms, p. 372.
(12) R. A. Morey, “Reformation in our Singing”, Reformation Today, March/April 1977,p 9.
(13) Cf. E. K. Simpson and F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians (Grand Rapids: 1957), pp. 125, 284-85; W. Hendriksen, Ephesians (Edinburgh: 1974), pp. 161-63; W. Hendriksen, Colossians (Edinburgh: 1976), pp. 240-41; R. P. Martin, Colossians and Philemon (London: 1973), pp. 115-16; C. L. Mitton, Ephesians (London: 1973), p. 191.
(14) Simpson and Bruce, Commentary on Ephesians and Colossians, pp. 284-85.
15 Psalmos is found in I Corinthians 14:26: “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm (psalmon). . . .” C. K. Barrett suggests that this may be “a fresh, perhaps spontaneous, composition, not an Old Testament psalm”. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (London: 1971), p. 327. However, it would most likely be a “charismatic” utterance — the question of the “charismata” is the context of that chapter. Besides, Paul is speaking of the utterances of individuals. In the nature of the case this would not be congregational song and the utterance would be inspired. In any case, as R. P. Martin has observed, “nothing. . . is known of the content or form of such spontaneous creations” (Martin, Colossians and Philemon, p. 115), assuming of course that they were not Bible Psalms, which they may well have been.
(16) For the information in this paragraph the writer is indebted to John Murray and William Young, “Minority Report of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God,” (Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1947), p. 16.
(17) Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 24.
(18) P. Bayne, An Exposition of Ephesians, (1959), pp. 484ff; J. Daille, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Colossians, (NFCE), pp. 573ff; T. Manton, An Exposition of the Epistle of James (London: 1968), p. 443; W. Binnie, The Psalms, p. 377.
(19) Manton, James, p. 439.
(20) Binnie, Psalms, p. 377.
(21) Cf. G. B. Caird, “Hymns in the New Testament”, Expository Times 83, no. 5(Feb. 1972):153.
(22) Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 1227.
III. The Historical Position
1. Regulative Principle
All Christian Churches would presumably claim to be regulated in one way or another. The best of them would claim to be regulated by the Scriptures. In practice this is only partly the case. Throughout the history of the Church this has become a particular focus of discussion and difference. What requires to be examined is how Churches have developed and applied a “regulative principle”, especially on the question of worship.
Most Churches would affirm some sort of Biblical authority behind their government and practice. However, under various pressures the application of Biblical authority in Church life has diminished or been modified in most “main-line” Churches. The higher critical movement, which arose in the mid-nineteenth century, produced considerable pressure for a change in the Church’s view of Biblical authority, a pressure continued in the twentieth century through much New Testament criticism. Gradually the Bible was reckoned to be insufficient to provide an exclusive source for doctrine and government in the Church. If a Church does not accept the full inspiration and sufficiency of the Bible as God’s word, this will clearly have a profound effect on how it will regulate its affairs. The regulative principle thus adopted will be influenced by man-centred considerations and perhaps even by purely social or political concerns.
At the same time there are some who do accept the inspiration and authority of the Bible in an orthodox sense and yet who do not consider that the Bible provides sufficient materials for the regulation of worship and government in the Church. Even some of a conservative evangelical standpoint assert that the Church is largely to be left to its own discretion in these areas of Church practice. They may even point to a part of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I, section 6: “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.” What is referred to here, however, are circumstances common to human actions and societies. The worship of God, and most specifically its content, the form of Church Government, and the offices and sacraments of the Church, are, however, the distinctives of the Church and scarcely “common to human actions and societies”! The Confession at that point simply refers to some outward circumstances, such as times and places of services, Church records and buildings, Church investments and the like. So the question of a Church’s stated, or implicit, regulative principle is all important, not least in the matter of content of praise, an area in which denominational peculiarities, distinctives or prejudices will find expression.(1)
The question, therefore, needs to be asked: What is the Church’s regulative principle? Is it sound? Is it Biblical? What are the practical implications for the Church’s government and worship? The Churches of the Old and New Testaments were regulated in their government and worship, as well as their doctrine. What were they regulated by? They were regulated by God’s express will. To go beyond the revealed will of God was found to be perilous, as Nadab and Abihu found (Leviticus 10:1-3); as King Saul found (I Samuel 13:13-14); as King Solomon found (I Kings 11:9-11); as Israel found (Ezekiel 5:5-8; Malachi 2:1-17); as the Pharisees in Jesus’ day found (Mark 7:6-13); as Dives found (Luke 16:19-31, especially verses 29 to 31); and as so many of the Churches spoken of in the Book of Revelation found (Revelation 2 and 3).
The particular law in focus, expressive of the word and will of God, was the decalogue. The common factor was the violation of the will of God in connection with His worship. It was violation, essentially, of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-6). Worship was not to be organised or performed according to man’s desires, but according to the commandments of God. That this is not a strange principle in the New Testament context is sufficiently shown in a passage such as Matthew chapter 15, verse 9, in which Jesus draws on the prophet Isaiah in castigating the hypocrites who subverted the commandments of God, expressed in the decalogue, through their additions. Paul, similarly, in his letter to the Colossians, contrasts the commandments of God and the commandments of men in relation to the devotional life (cf. Colossians 2:20-23).
The word and will of God, then, are to be paramount! That is the uniform message of Old and New Testaments. In the older covenant the principle was “keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6). “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32). There were blessings attaching to obedience: as Moses found (Deuteronomy 4:1-2; 39-40); as Noah found (Genesis 6:22; 7:5-7; cf. Hebrews 11:7); as the Children of Israel found (Jeremiah 7:23-24). The last chapter of the book of Exodus is a model of the Old Testament regulative principle.
In the New Testament, too, we find a similar attitude. As Jesus gives commission to His disciples to go into the world with the gospel message, He spells out their task: “teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). He says, “if you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15; cf John 15:14; I John 5:3). In other words the regulative principle of the New Testament Church is basically of the same type as that of the Old Testament. The New Testament Church is to comply with the Saviour’s stated wishes. To help in this, of course, the Holy Spirit was sent to the Church, to represent Christ, to extend the Kingdom (John 3:3, 5), to ensure the completion of the Scriptures, and to enable subsequent generations to understand and comply with them (cf. John 14:26; 16:7-8; Acts 2:33). It is not insignificant that at the close of the canon of Holy Scripture there is a warning, a regulative principle (Revelation 22:18-19; cf. Deuteronomy 4:2). The New Testament contains clear principles and regulations governing the life of the Christian Church. There are principles and regulations, for example, in connection with office bearers (Acts 6:1-7; I Timothy 3:1-13 (cf. 4:11 and 5:21); Titus 1:5-9 &c.); in connection with the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-30; I Corinthians 11:23); in connection with Paul’s teaching (cf. I Corinthians 2:12-16; Galatians 1:12). The concern is quite simply to know and do the will of the Lord.
This, then, must be the burden of the Christian Church today, no less than in the first century of the Christian era, based as it is — at least as it is supposed to be — upon “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20).
Now, it is true that the Bible requires to be properly interpreted and that differences can arise in that connection. It is necessary that the principles of the Scriptures be grasped as clearly as possible, with sincerity and a good conscience. Ultimately a Church’s regulative principle in Christian faith and life will be determined by a combination of the following factors: (a) the perceived authority of the Bible; and (b) the acceptance of the sufficiency of Scripture.
A Church or body of professing Christians with a weak view of the authority of the Bible and its sufficiency will very likely have a different pattern of doctrine and worship from a Church or body of professing Christians which has a high view of Scripture and its sufficiency. What interests us here is how such views have affected the development of the praise materials adopted within Churches.
Two main views have arisen, at least within evangelical Protestantism. The first, which it is suggested is the more Biblical of the two, basically states that only what is prescribed in the word of God is warranted. This was the approach of the Reformed Churches. It maintains that the Church is bound by what God has been pleased to reveal in the Holy Scriptures. Needless to say this implies a high view of Scripture and its sufficiency in all matters of faith and worship. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) expresses this well: “. . . it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased” (I:1).
The implication of this, as it applied to worship, was seen to be this: “. . . the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture” (XXI:1). This is in perfect agreement with the regulative principle evident in the Scriptures themselves and outlined above.
The principle is well stated by the outstanding Scottish Reformed theologian, William Cunningham: “The Calvinistic section of the Reformers . . . were of the opinion that there are sufficiently plain indications in Scripture itself, that it was Christ’s mind and will, that nothing should be introduced into the government and worship of the church, unless a positive warrant for it could be found in Scripture. This principle was adopted and acted upon by the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians; and we are persuaded that it is the only true and safe principle applicable to this matter.” As far as the implications of this principle are concerned, Cunningham goes on to point out that “. . . if it were fully carried out, [it] would just be to leave the church in the condition in which it was left by the apostles, in so far as we have any means of information; a result, surely, which need not be very alarming, except to those who think that they themselves have very superior powers for improving and adorning the church by their inventions.”(2)
The other main view of the regulative principle is more closely associated with the Lutheran or Anglican outlook. This is an altogether looser view, as the XXth article of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (1571) indicates: “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s word written.”
In other words, anything may be admitted provided it is not prohibited. It may be recognised how far-reaching this principle could be. For example, as Professor Petticrew put it in 1902, accepting this idea could allow such things as: “the sign of the cross in Baptism . . . bowing to the East, the wearing of symbolical vestments, the lighting of wax candles in churches in the daytime, the ceremonial use of incense, holy water . . . the elevation of the host, &c, &c, for none of these things is expressly forbidden in Scripture.”(3)
One can see how this broad principle could be the occasion, not only of the addition of all sorts of things not commanded in the Bible, but also of a serious imposition on people’s consciences. No one can be bound by anything which is not entirely Biblical. This principle really states that what the Church says, either as a denomination, or for that matter as a local congregation, goes. It is hard to see how this does not amount to the imposition of commandments of men (cf. Matthew 15:6, 9; Mark 7:6-13; Colossians 2:18-23).
In the New Testament there are clearly some freedoms allowed, such as “free” preaching and prayer. In the matter of song, however, no doubt because it involves a corporate participation, a Book of Praises is to be found. But, then, some people will say that the expansion of revelation in the New Testament surely justifies the extension of praise beyond what we have in the Old Testament. However, as John Murray points out: “We have no evidence either from the Old Testament or from the New that the expansion of revelation received expression in the devotional exercises of the church through the singing of uninspired songs of praise. This is a fact that cannot be discounted.”(4)
It is maintained, therefore, that Churches holding to the authority and sufficiency of the Bible as God’s word written, would be most consistent in operating from the principle “what Scripture does not prescribe, it forbids”. This in turn would cause the Church to look for warrant and provision in the matter of the content of its praises and to be circumspect concerning anything that derived from merely human invention and imposition. If the Church confined itself to what derives from Scripture precept or example it would have a perfectly adequate directory for worship and government. That is the sphere of its discretion. It is the consistent application of this principle which is the basis of our appeal for the use as song in public worship only of the songs of praise found in Holy Scripture.
2. Early Church
Evidence for exclusive Psalm singing in the early post-Apostolic Church is strong. One historian has concluded that, “those who contend for the exclusive use of the Scripture Psalter, in the direct and formal praise of God, find in the history of the early Church signal confirmation of their position.”(5)
A more recent hymnologist agrees: “In the Western Church, the hymn was slower in winning its way largely because of the prejudice against non-Scriptural praise, and not until nearly the end of the fourth century was hymn-singing beginning to be practiced in the churches.”(6)
To some degree this attitude in the early church arose out of a concern to establish the New Testament canon. The churches were aware of the distinctiveness of canonical literature. Cecil Northcott, in the quotation just given, is unfair to use the term “prejudice” as he does. After all, he might just as easily have commended the early church for the concern evident for exclusively Biblical praise. The prejudice seems to be on Northcott’s part.
There is confirmation of this early church practice from the negative side. It is clear that Psalm singing was widespread. But as Phillip Schaff reminds us: “We have no complete religious song remaining from the period of persecution (i.e. the first three centuries) except the song of Clement of Alexandria to the divine Logos — which, however, cannot be called a hymn.”(7)
Whilst there is abundant evidence of the use of Bible Psalms in the worship of the early post-Apostolic Church, there is an absence of evidence for the use of anything but the Psalms in the direct and formal praise of the Churches.
3. Reformation Church
The Reformation movement was not a unified one. There were different strands within what is broadly called the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther and John Calvin were both concerned for reformation in the Church, but they differed in their convictions on the regulative principle, as indicated above. However, the supporters of the Calvinistic Reformation movement emphasised that specific warrant or “express commandment”, as the Scottish Reformer John Knox put it, was necessary for every aspect of the divine service. John Calvin expressed it this way: “. . . all the parts of divine worship . . . the Lord has faithfully comprehended, and clearly unfolded, in his sacred oracles.”(8)
The 1563 Heidelberg Catechism answers the question, “What doth God require in the second commandment?” by saying: “That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word.” The Reformation period saw a revival of congregational singing and specifically of the singing of Biblical Psalms. The Psalms were the “Hymn Book” of the Reformation Churches, by and large. As Millar Patrick observed: “. . . at a stroke the Reformed Church cut itself loose from the entire mass of Latin hymns and from the use of hymnody in general, and adopted the Psalms of the Old Testament as the sole medium of Church praise.”(9)
It is true that some of the Reformers, such as John Calvin, attached the Canticles (i.e., Scripture songs other than the Psalms), the ten commandments in metre, the Lord’s prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed, to their Psalters. This, however, is scarcely an advocacy of uninspired hymnody. Calvin himself maintained that “We cannot find better songs than David’s Psalms: which the Holy Spirit has spoken and created.”(10)
It should be understood that for the Reformers the use of Bible Psalms was a very positive thing. This is scarcely better stated than by Calvin in the “Introduction” to his Commentary on the Psalms: “There is no other book in which there is to be found more express and magnificent commendations, both of the unparalleled liberality of God towards his Church, and of all his works; there is no other book in which there is recorded so many deliverances, nor one in which the evidences and experiences of the fatherly providence and solicitude which God exercises towards us, are celebrated with such splendour of diction, and yet with the strictest adherence to truth; in short, there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise.”(11)
It is clear that the Reformers’ adoption of the Psalms arose both from a profound respect for their nature as utterances and compositions immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit, and from a positive awareness of their inherent beauty and truth in spiritual terms. It did not seem to be any disadvantage in the development of their Christian piety that they used only these materials in praise drawn exclusively from God’s inspired book.
4. English Puritans
The attitude and approach of the seventeenth-century English Puritans is well expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), arguably the high water mark of the Confessions of the Reformed Churches in the English-speaking world. The Confession, besides being clear on the regulative principle governing worship and practice within the Church, also specifically enjoins “the singing of psalms with grace in the heart”.(12) If any proof of the Westminster Assembly’s concern for Psalm singing is needed, then surely it is well established by the fact that it sponsored a metrical translation of the 150 Psalms of Scripture.(13) There is no doubt that the Puritan Churches were Psalm singing Churches. D. H. Hislop was surely correct when he observed that, “The exclusive use of the Psalter is derived from its [i.e., Reformed or Calvinistic] conception of revelation.”(14)
The Puritans basically operated from the same principles as the Reformation Churches. The prince of Puritan theologians, John Owen, for example, spoke with no uncertain sound: “A principal part of the duty of the church in this matter [i.e., of worship] is, to take care that nothing be admitted or practiced in the worship of God, or as belonging thereunto, which is not instituted and appointed by the Lord Christ.”(15)
Owen was unhappy about the persuasion of some that the Lord had not prescribed every element of His worship and describes this as a case of “negligence in enquiring after what he hath so prescribed”. The following century saw the beginnings of the introduction of non-inspired materials for praise into the worship services of the Churches. This was promoted most notably by a Baptist, Benjamin Keach, and the Independent, Isaac Watts, perhaps the founding father of English hymnody. Watts produced what he considered “Christianized” versions of the Psalms. Did he feel that the Lord Himself had overlooked doing this in the New Testament era? But these were men of their times. It was the time, supposedly, of “Enlightenment”. As a result of the intellectual and philosophical movements of this time, the Churches came under pressure to modify previously held positions on the nature and sufficiency of divine revelation. Human reason was seen to be perfectly adequate in connection with the affairs of this world. People apparently no longer needed to be constrained by the earlier ideas of Scriptural authority.
In the matter of the content of praise in the Church, one can see how there would be pressure to extend the praise items used by the addition of materials of merely human composition, however much it meant an implication that this was something the Lord had omitted from the writings which became part of the New Testament. Amongst those who raised their voices against this tendency was William Romaine, an Anglican minister who wrote in 1775 that, “. . . our hymn-mongers . . . shut out the Psalms, to introduce their own verses into the Church, sing them with great delight, and, as they fancy, with great profit, although the practice be in direct opposition to the command of God, and, therefore, cannot possibly be accompanied with the divine blessing.”(16)
The situation has advanced apace since then. Today it seems that there is, as Owen put it in his day, a “negligence in enquiring” after what God has prescribed (or proscribed!) in this matter of worship. There is a continuous flow of hymns and verses produced for Christian worship, largely satisfying the demands of passing trends, and many Churches seem to be more and more detached from praise and practice actually drawn from the Scriptures. Are we to look back with pity that these Puritans “only” praised the Lord with the Psalms and did not have the benefit of the hymnody of later years; or will we not rather have to lament the fact that the Church today in general does not have such a firm grasp of the glorious truths and experiential realities of the word of God that they so clearly enjoyed?
5. Scottish Presbyterians
The Presbyterian Churches in Scotland from the time of the Reformation through the seventeenth-century Covenanting period and up to the latter part of the nineteenth century were basically Psalm singing Churches. The Scottish Psalmody produced in 1650 took a significant place and wielded an important influence in the life and culture of the nation throughout that period. The Psalter was the only authorised manual of praise, in that metrical form, right down to the late nineteenth century. In the previous century there had been a move to adopt in addition some Scripture Paraphrases, and many Psalters were produced with these Paraphrases, and five other “hymns”, bound in with the Psalms. This gave the impression of ecclesiastical sanction which did not actually exist. It is true that in 1781 the Scottish Paraphrases were given an approval for experimental use by the Church of Scotland. Legislation was never passed, however, giving explicit authorisation for these songs.(17)
It was not until 1861 that the Church of Scotland first formally authorised hymns of merely human composition. The Free Church of Scotland followed Suit in 1872, but not without controversy. James Macgregor, the Professor of Systematic Theology at New College Edinburgh, for one, was unhappy with this movement. He expressed his reservations in no uncertain terms in a “Memorial” to the Free Church Assembly of 1869. Among other things he was to say this: “Our Church, for many generations, has not, in her congregational praise, made use of any materials of merely human inspiration, and that, with reference even to materials of divine inspiration, the ambiguous quasi-sanction attained by the ‘paraphrases’ dates only from a very recent period of her history, derives its origin from the deepest darkness of her ‘dark age’ of moderatism.”(18)
As to the five “hymns” often printed in the back of the Psalters, it was Macgregor’s judgment that these were “partly Socinian, mainly deistical, wholly unevangelical at heart”, and had been “dragged in from the fly-leaf for the purpose of giving to the impression some colour of foundation in fact”, namely, that they had some ecclesiastical sanction, which in fact they did not possess. But this was a common approach of those who wished to introduce non-inspired materials for praise, thus cloaking a shift in attitude both as to the nature of revelation and the sufficiency of Scripture in matters of faith and practice.
Predictably there has been a gradual displacement of the Psalms from Presbyterian worship and along with this a growing discontent about the content of praise on the grounds that it apparently always needs to be contemporary. On reflection it may be observed that Jesus did not sing the hymns of the modern era; the Apostles in the New Testament times did not sing the songs of the modern era; and neither did the Reformers and Puritans. Were they inferior Christians? Does that not demonstrate that it is not necessary to sing hymns or songs of merely human composition to have real, authentic, spiritual Christian worship? This is not to say that the Church need be tied to a metrical translation of a previous age, however much it may be venerated. It is often used against Metrical Psalms that they are themselves paraphrases, after a fashion. A primary consideration must be to have Psalms for singing which reflect accurately the underlying Hebrew, with help from the Septuagint and New Testament quotations in Greek. At the same time it is important that the translation is suited to congregational singing and easy to understand. This was certainly the concern of the Reformers, and those involved in the development of Psalmody in the Scottish Reformed Churches.
It would probably be considered unimaginable today that there could be revival in a Church which uses only Bible Psalms. However, from all that has already been outlined in this section the influence of the Psalms in the development and spread of Christianity in the world may be well appreciated.(19) The fact is that the Psalms have been significant at times of revival in Church history. This should not surprise us as the Psalms, in John Calvin’s words, are “an anatomy of all parts of the soul”.
In a book entitled The True Psalmody, first produced in 1861, the observation is made that, “The Waldenses sang the Psalms and nothing else in their Alpine valleys; . . . The French Church, and the Churches of Switzerland, used nothing else in song, during the palmiest days of their religious life; while these sacred songs contributed not a little to the spread of the gospel. These Psalms constituted the only psalmody of the Scottish Church in her first and second Reformations. . . . These Psalms were the sacred songs of the revived church in Ireland . . . .”(20)
Of the effect of the metrical Psalter in connection with the eighteenth-century revivals in Scotland, Arthur Fawcett has suggested that: “It is not possible to evaluate the tremendous significance of the metrical psalter; almost all the subjects of the revival — at least those whose stories we have — quoted from it. Again and again, it is from the remembered lines of its pages that light flashed into gloomy darkness.”(21)
When one thinks that the piety of a people is in no small measure moulded by the praise they sing, the importance and significance of the Psalms becomes evident.
That in Thee may Thy people joy,
Wilt Thou not us revive?
Shew us Thy mercy, Lord, to us
Do Thy salvation give.
(Metrical Psalm 85, verses 6 and 7)
Notes to The Historical Position
(1) Cf. the variety of Hymn Books produced reflecting denominational distinctives.
(2) W. Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (London: 1967), pp. 31-32.
(3) Professor Petticrew, Psalm-Singers’ Conference (Belfast: 1903), p. 68.
(4) J. Murray and W. Young, “Minority Report of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God” (Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1947), p. 19.
(5) J. Harper, The Psalter in the Early Church (Pittsburgh: 1891), p. 24.
(6) C. Northcott, Hymns in Christian Worship (London: 1964), p. 19.
(7) P. Schaff, “Greek and Latin Hymnology”, British and Foreign Evangelical Review (1866), pp. 860ff.
(8) J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. H. Beveridge (London: 1962), 2:436.
(9) Millar Patrick, Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody (London: 1949), p. 9.
(10) J. Calvin, “Epistle to the Reader,” at the head of the Psalter, dated 10th June 1543. On Calvin’s use of the Canticles, &c., see J. M. Barkley, The Worship of the Reformed Church (London: 1966), pp. 16ff. Cf. R. Peter, “Calvin and Louis Bude’s Translation of the Psalms”, in G. E. Duffield, ed., John Calvin (Abingdon, England: 1966), pp. 190ff.
(11) J. Calvin, Psalms (Grand Rapids: 1949), 1:xxxviii-xxxix.
(12) Chapter XXI, section v; cf. “Of Singing of Psalms”, in the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645).
(13) Cf. Millar Patrick, Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody, pp. 94-96, 102, for detail on the origin and influence of the “Westminster Version” of the Psalms. See also J. L. Clugston, Making and Marring of the Scottish Psalter (Sydney: 1974), pp. 22ff.
(14) D. H. Hislop, Our Heritage in Public Worship (Edinburgh: 1935), p. 189.
(15) John Owen, Works (London: 1965-68), 15:465.
(16) W. Romaine, Essay on Psalmody (1775).
(17) Cf. J. W. Keddie, “The Paraphrases — An Historical Perspective,” The Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland, September 1983, pp. 198-99.
(18) See Free Church of Scotland Assembly Papers, May 1869, pp. 152-61. The post-1900 Free Church reverted to the purity of worship affirmed by the Disruption Church, adopting only inspired materials of praise, sung without the accompaniment of instrumental music. From the practice of a few congregations in the Free Church after 1900 in occasionally using some of the Scottish Paraphrases, some maintain that there is an ambiguity in the Church on that question. It is true that Paraphrases had occasionally been used in some congregations before and after the Disruption of 1843. On the other hand there was no clear sanction for them. The Formula subscribed by all Office-bearers of the Church includes an affirmation that the subscriber owns “the purity of worship presently authorised and practiced in the Free Church of Scotland”. As the Church has never formally authorised the Paraphrases and has only ever since 1900 produced copies of the Metrical Psalms, “by authority of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland”, the conclusion seems inescapable that no authorisation exists for any material other than the Psalms.
(19) See Rowland E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life (London: 1903), for a fine description of the influence of the Psalms in the history of the post-Apostolic Church up to the end of the nineteenth century.
(20)The True Psalmody (Edinburgh: 1888), pp. 177-78. This was the work of a committee comprising ministers and elders from the Reformed and United Presbyterian Churches of Philadelphia.
(21) A. Fawcett, The Cambuslang Revival (London: 1971), p. 83.
IV. Sing the Lord’s Song — Conclusions
No Christian can possibly deny that the worship of God is an extremely important matter. How are we to worship the Lord? Sings David, the “sweet psalmist of Israel” (II Samuel 23:1):
Give unto the LORD,
O you mighty ones,
Give unto the LORD
glory and strength.
Give unto the LORD
the glory due to His name;
Worship the LORD
in the beauty of holiness.
The Old Testament Church asked the question: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” What was the answer? “He has shown you, O man, what is good . . .” (Micah 6:7-8). Yes, the Lord has shown us! But are we content with that? With what He has appointed in His word? Or will we need to add something; to put in what He has left out?
It has been the burden of this booklet to suggest that in the matter of worship, the Lord has shown us what is good; that He has provided materials in the Psalms sufficient for worship; and that the adoption of merely human compositions, however nice their sentiments or spirituality and however well-intentioned, is basically an act of human presumption. We believe the arguments in this connection are both sound and scriptural. They are summarised here.
(1) The Psalms are the fruit of divine inspiration. The Psalms are both intended and provided for singing in the Church. The fact is that only the Book of Psalms can be used with the certainty that these songs have been divinely appointed for the purpose. Even the best of Hymn books do not have that assurance. The adoption of other, non-inspired materials of praise carries with it the implication that somehow something is “missing” from the Biblical provision in the matter of New Testament praise. William Romaine’s words are challenging, as they are forthright: “I want a name for a man who should pretend that he could make better hymns than the Holy Ghost . . . why . . . would any man in the world take it into his head to sit down and write hymns for the use of the Church? It is lust the same as if he were to write a new Bible.”(1)
(2) The Psalms are sufficient for New Testament praise. Someone might say: “Isn’t the Book of Psalms unnecessarily restrictive? Surely we should use the name of Jesus in song?” This is a fair point. But Christ is in the Psalms. As O. Palmer Robertson, formerly Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary, has reminded us: “In some ways, all the psalms refer to Christ, for each relates to the redemption he has accomplished for his people. . . . All the psalms relate to Jesus Christ and his redeeming work.”(2)
Besides this, think of the impact of the Psalms themselves in the New Testament. There are at least 150 Psalm citations in the New Testament. The argument of the Letter to the Hebrews is to a considerable degree tied in with the Psalms. Jesus Himself stated that the Psalms spoke of Him (Luke 24:44~47). They speak of His person, as a prophet (Psalm 2:7), as a priest (110:4; cf. Hebrews 5:6) and as a king (2:6; 45:6). They speak of His eternal sonship (2:7; cf. Hebrews 5:5); His advent (96:11-13) and His humanity (22, passim). They speak of His work (118:22; cf. Acts 4:11), in His sufferings and death (40:6-8; 21 passim; 22:1; 69:9; cf. Matthew 27:46), in His resurrection (16:8-11; cf. Acts 2:25-31), in His ascension (68:18; cf. Hebrews 10:12-13) and in His Second Coming (50:1-6; cf. I Thessalonians 4:16; II Peter 3:10). He is the shepherd of His people (23; 80:1; cf. John 10:11), the Son of David (78:68-72; cf. Matthew 22:41-46; Psalm 132:11; cf. Matthew 1:1), the Son of Man (8:4; cf. Hebrews 2:6; Matthew 8:20) and the redeemer of God’s elect (25:22; 26:11; 130:7-8).
The Rev. William Balfour, of Holyrood Free Church, Edinburgh, speaking in 1880, was surely correct when he said, with reference to Christian truths in the Psalms: “The question is, Are they there? If we are sure of that, as we certainly are, then it must be our own fault if we do not find them. We must have failed to get into the spirit of the Psalm; and if so, the remedy is not to be found in providing a hymn or hymns in which mention is made of these truths, in so many words, but rather in seeking the Spirit of adoption, without whom the most evangelical hymns ever written will not enable us to praise God aright, and with whom, the Psalms will furnish the richest and most inexhaustible material for praising God.”(3)
All this could be enlarged.(4) The fact is, however, that there is no evidence that references to song in the New Testament refer to anything but to the Psalms of Scripture. No warrant can possibly be taken from these for the adoption of non-inspired compositions. As Professor Macgregor put it so effectively: “There is no visible case in which with the sanction of God any congregation ever sang a song of merely human inspiration.”(5)
(3) The Psalms are productive of Biblical piety. It has already been mentioned that a Church’s song will one way or another influence the piety of the worshippers. The singing of hymns of merely human composition — uninspired hymns — with the best will in the world will tend to produce a piety no deeper than that of the human author. The piety will reflect his grasp of the truth. However Biblical it may be, it will fall short of the piety and devotion reflected in the Psalms. For the Psalmists experienced the direct and powerful intervention of God’s Spirit in their lives. This ensured that they were the possessors of the reality and power of God’s truth in the fullest sense. As a result, the type of piety flowing from a use of the Psalms in worship will be a devotion based entirely on the knowledge and faith, and the reality and power, of the truth of God.
Is it not an evidence of a prevailing shallowness in modern Christianity that the Psalms have largely gone out of use in the devotions of the Church in general? Whatever experience is being promoted through the hymns, this will not compare with the devotional experience based on the praise materials of divine inspiration. However “attractive” songs are on a human level, they are not thus rendered more palatable to the unsaved person, who in Biblical terms is dead to spiritual realities (cf. I Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:1-6). It is when the Spirit of God, who inspired the Psalms, regenerates a person, and makes that person a new creation in Christ (II Corinthians 5:17), that he or she begins to understand the Psalms in deeply personal terms, not least as songs which speak of Christ, and begins to reflect the experiences of men in whom the Spirit worked directly and powerfully. Whilst this might be equally argued about hymns, the point is that the Psalms, being the fruit of divine inspiration, must in the nature of the case tend to produce a Biblical piety in a way uninspired materials never can.
(4) The Psalms can be sung without reservation. What makes Psalm singing different from praying and preaching? Well, each must have its separate Biblical warrant of course. But if you allow “freedom” in praying and preaching, why not also in singing? For this reason: “This is one part of the service for which a prescribed form is necessary as more than one person joins in utterance at once, and so it must be a form in which all can be expected to join without reservation.”(6)
This is an important point. By providing the Church with the Book of Psalms, the Lord has thereby prevented one man or body of men from coming between a man’s conscience and his God in the matter of what he sings, so that his conscience takes the word only as its rule. Because the best of men are but sinful men at best, it is only Biblical materials of praise which may be sung without any reservation in a gathered congregation.
(5) The Psalms should not be left out of Christian worship. This amounts to a plea to the Christian Church at large. In his admirable brief work, The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had this to say: “A Christian community without the Psalter has lost an incomparable treasure, and by taking it back into use will recover resources it never dreamed it had.”(7)
Resources. Spiritual resources. Materials that moulded the Christian piety of generations — on Biblical lines. In the more recent development of the Church over the past one hundred years or so the Psalms of Scripture have all but disappeared from the formal worship of God in so many Churches.
It is our conviction that there needs to be a return to the Psalms of Scripture in the praises of God. Not only is the Psalter a divinely inspired and appointed collection of Psalms, but it is also expressive of every aspect of Christian experience and is perfectly balanced theologically. Of course such a return will mean an adjustment of attitudes: a reformation of our singing. But the return will be worthwhile and joyous.
Last century Dr. Henry Cooke of Belfast made this moving plea, a plea, we would suggest, with continuing relevance in the area of worship: “While I set not up my own convictions as a rule or measure of the consciences of others, I cannot fail to pity those who can find, as they assert, so little of Christ in the inspired psalmody of the Bible, that they must seek and employ an uninspired psalmody as exhibiting Him more fully. Our Lord Himself found Himself in the psalms — (Luke 24:44-45) — and thereby ‘opened His disciples’ understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures’. Surely what was clearest light to their eyes, should be light to ours. And, truly, I believe, there is one view of Christ — and that not the least important to the tired and troubled believer — that can be discovered only in the Book of Psalms — I mean His inward life. . . . The most pious productions of uninspired men are a shallow stream — the Psalms are an unfathomable and shoreless ocean.”(8)
There is nothing more important than the worship of God. The continuing challenge for the Church today in this matter of how and with what we ought to worship God is simply that the truth should have its way, however much that may cause recently developed traditions and practices to be overturned and reformed. The modern Church must be willing to let the truth have its way, specifically in this matter of song and the place of the Psalms in worship. What is the Lord’s song? It is the song He has given, that He has appointed and provided in His Word.
O come, let us sing to the Lord:
come, let us every one
A joyful noise make to the Rock
of our salvation.
Let us before His presence come
with praise and thankful voice;
Let us sing psalms to Him with grace,
and make a joyful noise.
(Metrical Psalm 95:1-2)
Notes to The Conclusion
(1) Romaine, Essay on Psalmody.
(2) O. Palmer Robertson, “The Messiah Foretold,” Evangelical Times, May 1994, p. 8.
(3) W. Balfour, The Psalms versus Hymns in the Service of the Sanctuary (Edinburgh: 1881), p. 20.
(4) See, for example, Appendices “C” and “D” in the Symposium, The Biblical Doctrine of Worship (1973), pp. 374ff., produced by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.
(5) James Macgregor, “Memorial”, Free Church of Scotland Assembly Papers, May 1869, pp. 152-61. Cf. Murray and Young, “Minority Report of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God”, p. 19.
(6) Letter from the Rev. Hugh M. Cartwright, The Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland, September 1983, p. 202.
(7) D. Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible (Oxford: 1982), p. 8.
(8) The True Psalmody, pp. 16-17. Cf.: “The inner emotions captured in the poetic expressions of the Psalms may be regarded as divine revelations of the subjective struggles of the Lord Christ Himself. Obviously, not all descriptions found in the Psalms may be assigned to the experience of Christ. Confession of sin cannot be his. Yet the agony of the abandonment of the Lord actually belongs only to Jesus (Psalm 22:1; cf Matthew 27:46).” O. Palmer Robertson, “Christ’s Work in Song”, Evangelical Times, April 1994, p. 17.
Binnie, William. The Psalms: Their History,Teachings, and Use. London 1886. A book which stands alone. Not only full of excellent comment and scholarship from a conservative viewpoint, but this book also provides a fine overview of the Psalter and its Christian use.
Bushell, Michael. The Songs of Zion. Pittsburgh 1993. Originally a Master’s thesis, this is the most comprehensive and scholarly treatment of “exclusive Psalmody” in the modern era.
Church, Francis. The True Psalmody. Edinburgh 1888. A combined effort from ministers and elders of the Reformed and United Presbyterian Churches of Philadelphia.
Gibson, James. Public Worship of God: Its Authority and Modes. Glasgow 1869. Work of a Free Church Professor within the context of discussion on the issue in Scottish Presbyterianism.
Psalm-Singers’ Conference. Belfast 1903. Quite rare. Printed Conference papers covering every aspect of Psalm singing with contributors from the U.S.A. and Europe.
Ramsay, M. C. Purity of Worship. Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, 1968. Excellent forty-seven-page booklet. Concise but comprehensive.
RPCNA. The Biblical Doctrine of Worship. Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, 1973. An enormously useful Symposium. In some ways an up-dated version of the Psalm-Singers’ Conference publication.
Smith, Frank J. and Lachman, David C. Worship in the Presence of God. Greenville, South Carolina 1992. Thought-provoking and wide-ranging contemporary collection of essays on the nature, elements and historic views and practice of worship.
Ward, Rowland S. Psalms in Christian Worship. Melbourne 1972. A fifty-three-page doctrinal and historical study. Specially useful for the historical overview covering many Churches and countries.
Williamson, G. I. The Singing of Psalms in the Worship of God. Belfast 1972. A superb little booklet succinctly covering the principles involved.
John W. Keddie’s Sing the Lord’s Song! is published by Crown and Covenant Publications, and is presented here with the permission of the author.