The Psalms in Present-Day Apologetics

Jesse Johnson

From The Psalms in Worship, edited by John McNaugher, Pittsburgh 1907.

Apologetics concerns itself “with the grounds and defense of Christian belief and hope.” At any particular time its duty is, besides exhibiting the abiding basis and the time-tested defenses of our faith, to meet and repel the special attack that is on.

The present-day assault is upon the inspiration of the Scriptures. Various in source and aspect as the attacks are, their united impact is felt where our wall of defense bears the inscription, “Holy men of God spake borne along by the Holy Ghost.” It is therefore the special duty of present-day apologetics to maintain and promote belief in a Bible fully reliable and authoritative because wholly and uniquely “God-breathed.” It is believed that this is central and vital; that such a persuasion, if it prevailed, would check the hurtful forces that are operating today in the realm of religious thought. The Christian consciousness, as it is called, could no longer be lawgiver and judge, and spin its own web of subjective “Christianity.” It would be recognized that Christianity is what true religion must be — a religion of authority, and that the authority of the Highest. Men would listen to God, as is meet.

The urgent need for such a prevailing conviction concerning the Scriptures should weigh upon the heart of the whole church. For it is not merely the few whose special work is apologetics who constitute “the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15). It is to the church that this most honorable title is applied. Upon the church as a whole is laid this momentous duty of supporting the truth of God among men, and holding it firm and high in their regard. Every member is under grave obligation to magnify this the church’s high office with reference to the truth. Every member shares the responsibility, and participates in the honor, attaching to the office. No question can appear significant that bears upon the establishment of God’s truth among men. All proper efforts made to this noble end, whether they receive present public favor or not, are dignified and glorified by this charge entrusted to the church by her King.

If, then, it is the church’s high duty to promote belief in an inspired and authoritative Bible, the question may well be asked whether the choice and use of a manual of praise do not have much to do with shaping the public attitude toward the Scriptures. It may well be so. Rightly the church gives a prominent place to the singing of praise. In most churches this is the only part of the service in which all are expected to join with their voices. It is an exercise, moreover, which God has made delightful to nearly everybody, particularly during that period of life when opinions and attitudes are being permanently shaped. The power to mold the public thought exerted by the people’s familiar songs is proverbial. It results, therefore, that if there be involved in the choice and use of a manual of praise any neglect of God’s Word, any implication of the parity of uninspired writings with the oracles of God, or, on the other hand, any exaltation of the sacred Scriptures as divine and superior to all else, public opinion will be influenced accordingly.

Now the exclusive use of the Psalter is important in present-day defense because it bears impressive public testimony to the Bible as God’s own Word, and therefore as superior to every other writing and absolutely authoritative for faith and life. That such testimony is involved in the Psalm-singer’s position and practice, let it be our present care to show. Apart from the principle that “positive divine prescription is requisite to warrant any form of worship,” and the doctrine that God has appointed the Psalter for use in the New Testament church, and has not appointed anything else (which are the Psalm-singer’s fundamental reasons for his position) — apart from these, what is the situation when a church approaches the question of selecting a manual of praise? The very existence of a separate book of praise-songs in the Bible makes it, to say the very least, a candidate. No church can address itself to the selection of a praise-manual with an open field for its own nominations. At the very start it finds a candidate standing before it, so distinguished in origin, position, character, and long acceptance as to challenge attention and more than suggest the question whether further nominations are needed or in place. What shall we do with the confessedly noble Manual put before us by it very existence and its place in the inspired Word? If there were no such distinct Book of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in the Bible, and no appointment of anything else, the church could make her own collection and use it without uneasiness as to any attitude she would thereby be taking toward God’s Word. But there the Book stands, a completed collection of praise-songs, inspired and written for the precise purpose for which the church is seeking a manual, used for that purpose for millenniums, an integral part of the inspired Word. Under these circumstances choice and use of any manual necessarily involve taking an attitude toward the Bible, which attitude is part of the church’s public testimony concerning the Scriptures.

Of such a deliberation we believe there is but one outcome that gives clear and unmistakable testimony to the Bible as God’s own Word, and that is to choose the Psalter only. Of the reasons for dealing with the Psalter in any other way we have not seen any statement that does not wrong the Scriptures. If the Psalter fails of selection it stands before the world as a nominated and defeated candidate. It must be thought unfit in some way for present-day use, or not so suitable as something else. If it is unfit, then God has either left the New Testament church an unfit manual or none at all, and in the latter case the confessed ill-success of the churches in providing manuals is proof that it was a serious omission. If the decision is to adopt it and adapt it, or to adopt it and supplement it, it must be because of defectiveness or deficiency found in it. What believer in the Bible as the very Word of the Most High will care to attempt the recasting of any part of it? If twenty-five Psalms are culled from the Psalter and distributed through a volume with a thousand uninspired compositions, it must be because every one of the thousand is deemed more worthy a place in our praise than any one of the one hundred and twenty-five Songs of the Spirit that are left out; for surely the most worthy are wanted. Can such mingling of the two kinds of songs leave the Psalms, in the public mind, on their proper place of high superiority as the Songs of the Spirit? Can the choice of a multitude of hymns in preference to most of the Psalms be so explained as not to disparage inspiration by exalting pious thought to the dignity of inspiration?

And in point of fact not a few have so felt the logic of their position as to frankly erase the line of distinction between the inspiration of the Bible writers and the spiritual illumination enjoyed by true disciples. These men tell us plainly that writers of hymns are inspired as well as the Psalmists. As representative of this type of teaching we may mention the late Rev. Dr. R. McCheyne Edgar, of the Irish Presbyterian Church. In his book entitled Progressive Presbyterianism (pp. 144, 145), he says in so many words that God’s “inspirations were not exhausted when the Canon was complete,” and asks, “Is it not reasonable to suppose that He has inspired the poets who have devoted themselves to sacred song?” He mentions eighteen of these poets, from Ambrose down to Frances Havergal, and says, “We cannot in fairness fancy that such hymn-writers did their work without the inspiration of the divine Spirit.” This idea, moreover, is among the people, and no wonder. Some such equalizing of the inspiration of David and the muse of Watts, who proposed to “make David talk like a Christian,” seems necessarily involved in any combination of hymns with Psalms in the church’s praise-manual.

But between inspiration and spiritual illumination there is a distinction with a difference. Inspiration was a special gift bestowed upon chosen teachers that men might have an entirely reliable statement of whatever God saw fit to communicate. It therefore secured to those teachers adequate apprehension of what was to be communicated and correct expression of it. It is thus not a favor bestowed on the teachers for their own spiritual benefit, but is rather intellectual equipment and guidance for the benefit of others. For this gift, moreover, there was no more use when the divine communication of which it was the means was completed.

That communication once made, how shall it be rendered available to men for quickening, cleansing, and upbuilding? For the moral condition of men is such that the mere presentation of truth to the mind and the intellectual apprehension of it are not enough. The Spirit must “enlighten” the taught, as before He inspired the teachers. Spiritual illumination, then, is a grace. Primarily it is a personal spiritual blessing, and is enjoyed by every true child of God. It is designed to secure the proper effect upon the heart of truth already given by God. By it we behold the beauty and feel the power of that truth. For this, its own purpose, it is to be desired and used. But that purpose is not the communication of new truth. Spiritual illumination does not guarantee that error will not be taught along with truth, or that truth known will not be faultily expressed.

The importance of this distinction for defense of God’s Word will be evident on a moment’s reflection. If the hymn-writers are inspired with the inspiration of the Bible writers, or the Bible writers with only that of the hymn-writers, then we must either accept the hymns as divine, and therefore wholly true and above censure — which no one does, or consent to place the Scriptures on a plane where we may subject them to our judgment — approve some parts and reject others, just as all claim the right to do with the hymns. And evidently, as this sentiment, identifying the so-called inspiration of Christian poets with the inspiration of the sacred penmen, makes headway, the Scriptures must decline in the estimation of men.

Now, limiting ourselves to the Songs of the Spirit not only puts us on the safe ground of obedience to what we think is the divine appointment, though that is the Psalm-singer’s first consideration, but it puts us on firm ground and in strategic position for defense of the whole Bible as uniquely inspired, absolutely authoritative, and valuable beyond comparison. We bear solemn testimony to the faith in God’s Word which is in us, and meet the responsibility involved in our “pillar and ground” commission. And let none deem such testimony a little thing — a thing of none effect. It is witness borne by deed, and that is the kind that arrests attention, and impresses, and provokes thought. It lends solid backing to every utterance intended to exalt the Word of God in the regard of men. We ask men to prefer the Bible, to revere it, and obey it, and our appeal comes with the momentum of our solemn witness to our deep preference of it to all else for the worship of God. In so far as such testimony is borne faithfully, yet in the spirit of meekness, it will command respect. No doubt there is much ignorance of the reasons for the exclusive use of the Psalms, for which Psalm-singers will admit that they themselves are in part responsible. It may be admitted, too, that there is inconsistency in the practice of some professing Psalm-singers. These facts do indeed limit the apologetic value of our position. But when all proper allowances are made, it still remains true that our position is being more widely understood and respected and pondered, and its value as testimony to the unique character and position of the Bible correspondingly enhanced.

In concluding, brief mention will be made of but two further considerations showing the apologetic value of the exclusive use of the Psalter. Religious interests are surely conserved when the people are built up in divine truth and protected from error; and the church that uses only the Psalms is making the best provision for the defense of the people in both these ways. Doctrinally the Psalter is complete, divinely proportioned. Moreover, its truth is constructive, formative. It shapes the fabric of the thought and life of its users. Errors do not fit into the definitely built and articulated structure. For just on instance, no low view of the atonement can be held consistently with the Psalter’s view of God and of sin. We do not forget that the chief purpose of the Psalms is praise to God. He who sings them will not be allowed to forget that. Indeed, in no one item is the present apologetic value of Psalm-singing more strikingly apparent than just in this, that it calls men’s thoughts out of themselves and sets them upon the living God. Yet it is true that God has attached to the pleasant duty of praising Him the great blessing of a thorough training in the very truth of God. The value for defense against error of singing such truth till mind and heart are shaped by it can hardly be overestimated.

Finally, the exclusive use of the Psalms insures that the church shall not be the unwitting or unwilling agent, in her service of praise to God, of the incursion of error into the church and its dissemination among the people. Error is more dangerous even than we know. If truth unalloyed can be found, it ought to be used in a service that reaches the people so powerfully.

The church cannot be indifferent to even the danger of error. As a defensive measure, it must be guarded against with great care. This is admitted by the church when she provides against the perversion of the pulpit and the professor’s chair to the purposes of error. Nor would any church willingly admit a song that carries error. But that the church of God has suffered with error carried along in her hymnology is but too well known. People can sing error into themselves, and the history of the church is not without instances. We make no charge that the hymns are a tissue of falsehood. We need go no further than the censures of hymn-users themselves to show that the danger is no product of the Psalm-singer’s fancy. Now, there is a Manual of Praise that is free from error because it is “God-breathed.” The church that adopts it and it alone, because it bears the stamp of God, may rest in the assurance that she is not even in danger of putting her own seal on error and setting it before the people to sing to God and into themselves.