Trinity Hymnal, or the Content of the Book of Praise in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

G.I. Williamson


The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was organized, under a different name, in 1936. It marked the end of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the U S.A.

When the new church began it was already evident that it carried with it many problems because of the condition of the Presbyterian Church. Thus we find, in the early assemblies, heated controversies over such things as premillennialism, dispensationalism, Christian liberty, and the Independent Board for Presbyterian Missions.

It is not surprising, then, that it took some years for the church to come to a consideration of the content of the book of praise that it had inherited from the Presbyterian Church. So it was not until the tenth General Assembly, in 1943, that we find mention of this subject in the minutes. By motion from the floor it was simply decided to erect a committee to “present to the eleventh General Assembly a preliminary plan for a hymnal of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.”

When this report came before the eleventh Assembly, it was already evident that there was a division in the committee. The majority recommended “the publication of two hymnals, one a larger hymnal and the other a shorter hymnal for more general use.” In the larger hymnal it was recommended that there “be eighty-five percent hymns and fifteen percent Psalms.” But the minority report, signed by Professor Murray, drew attention to the fact that the position of the majority raised important questions “respecting the songs that may be sung in the worship of the sanctuary.” “There has been a division of judgment within the committee,” he noted, “as to whether uninspired compositions may legitimately be sung.” He went on, in this minority report, therefore, to request the General Assembly to elect a committee of seven “to make a diligent study of the teaching of the Word of God and of our subordinate standards regarding the question of the songs that may be sung in the public worship of God and to report its findings to the twelfth General Assembly.” In the meantime, Professor Murray asked the presbyteries and sessions “to give earnest consideration to this question,” and asked “that the General Assembly take no further steps toward the preparation of a hymnal for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.”

The minority report was adopted, and so it came to pass that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church — virtually alone among modern churches, so far as we can discover — gave itself to a diligent study of the question.

The Report

The first section of the new committee’s report was presented to the thirteenth General Assembly, meeting at Westminster Seminary in 1946. And the striking thing is that all members of the Committee were evidently agreed on this part of the report. It is divided into three parts: I. The Teaching of the Subordinate Standards respecting the Regulative Principle of Worship, II. The Teaching of the Subordinate Standards Respecting the Songs that may be Sung in the Public Worship of God, and III. The Teaching of the Word of God concerning the Regulative Principle of Worship.

I. The Regulative Principle.

1) The regulative principle is clearly set forth in distinction from the Romish, Lutheran, and Episcopalian view.

2) The meaning of “some circumstances concerning the Worship of God . . . 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,” is explained. a) By circumstances cannot be meant “any substantial part or element of the worship.” b) By some we are to understand that there may even be other circumstances of worship that are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture. c) And by common to human actions and societies we are to understand that the only circumstances that are left to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence are those that are not peculiar to worship. Such are, for example, the circumstances of time and place.

3) Chapter XX, section ii, is the next section of the Confession of Faith that is considered. Here we learn that “in matters of worship, as well as of faith, the conscience is free not only from what is contrary to the Word, but also from what is beside it.” “The law for the conscience in worship is that which is authorized by Scripture.” This section does not say that the conscience is free to use what is beside the Word.

4) In Chapter XXI, section i, the principle regulative of worship is expressly and unequivocally formulated. Here the following points are made: a. This principle “applies to all worship.” b. The principle is emphasized in the following ways: 1) True worship is instituted worship. What is instituted cannot be left to human imagination and invention. 2) True worship is limited. We do not observe this limit if we worship God in a manner or way which Scripture does not determine. 3) The Confession is negative and exclusive as well as positive. God “may not be worshipped according to imaginations and devices of men . . . or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scriptures.” Thus “every way not prescribed in the holy Scripture is excluded, and this means that any particular element of worship that is not able to plead divine prescription in the Scripture is forbidden.”

5) Larger Catechism questions 108 and 109 and Shorter Catechism questions 50 and 51 “clearly enunciate the same principle.” It need not be summarized again.

6) The Directory for the Public Worship of God, adopted by the sixth General Assembly “is more limited in its scope than the statements from the Confession and Catechisms.” It also speaks of “a large measure of liberty” with regard to the “forms for public worship.” Yet it cannot be shown that this is intended to express a different principle from the Confession and Catechisms.

II. What then is to be sung in the Worship of God, according to the subordinate standards?

1) Chapter XXI of the Confession speaks of singing as an element of the ordinary worship of God. 2) It further specifies the singing of Psalms as the singing that is authorized. Or in other words, “the confession does not provide for the use of any materials of song other than ‘psalms’ in the worship of God.”

3) The Directory for Public Worship says that “since the metrical versions of the Psalms are based upon the Word of God, they ought to be used frequently in public worship.” Here it is noted: a. That these metrical versions are not called the Word of God. They are only said to be based upon it. b. The directory does not say that they must be used exclusively, but only “frequently.” In view of the warning, further, that “great care should be taken that all materials of song are in perfect accord with the teaching of holy Scripture,” it might be concluded that allowance is thus made for materials other than the metrical Psalms. For obviously no such warning would be needed if metrical versions of the Psalms are based directly on the Word of God. c. Yet it is to be noted that the Directory does not expressly endorse the use of anything other than the metrical Psalms. Even though the Directory does refer to the use of a ‘hymn’ at the conclusion of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, this does not of itself constitute such an endorsement. In the language of Scripture itself the word ‘hymn’ may be used with reference to a Psalm.

III. The Teaching of the Word of God concerning the Regulative Principle of Worship.

1) Such Scripture passages as the following clearly teach the regulative principle: Exod. 20:4-6, Deut. 4:2, 12:32, Mark. 7:5-8, Col. 2:20-23.

2) The conclusion is therefore plain: “God who is a most pure Spirit and absolute Sovereign is the sole object of worship. Nothing that has not come from Him as its source is fit to be returned to Him as its end. Autonomous human reason and will, sense, emotion and imagination are not competent to originate acts or methods of worship.” “How then can it be anything other than presumption in a subject of this absolute Sovereign to offer as worship anything which He has not prescribed? That God allows worship that He has not prescribed is contrary to the Scripture.”

“The necessity of observing this principle is accentuated by the fallen state of man. The total corruption and deceitfulness of the unregenerate human heart disqualify men from judging as to what may be admitted into the content of worship.”

3) It is to be noted, however, that “What is . . . derived by good and necessary consequence from the express statements of Scripture is to be regarded as taught, sanctioned, or warranted by Scripture. We have, for example, no express command to baptize infants, but we believe that we have divine warrant and authorization for the practice.” “If God has authorized a certain element of worship by some other method than that of express command, it is still a revelation to us of what is acceptable to Him.”


It is clear that this committee took its mandate seriously. It is also clear that it tried to do justice to the subordinate standards of the church. The result is a statement of the regulative principle of divine worship that leaves little to be desired. Difficult as it is for us to understand it, then, it would appear from this report that there are those who fully understand the regulative principle of divine worship — and sincerely subscribe to it — who yet believe that the use of uninspired hymns is authorized by God.

At this point the committee diverged. And so a majority report and a minority report came before the fourteenth Assembly.

The Majority Report

The majority report continues under the heading, “The Teaching of the Word of God concerning the Regulative Principle of Worship.” Here two significant points are made:

I. There is a greater liberty bestowed upon the church because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so that “fewer circumstances of worship are prescribed” now than was true under the Old Testament. In proof of this it is stated that infants had to be circumcised on the eighth day under the Old Testament administration, but no set time is required under the New Testament for the baptism of infants.

II. It is further noted that “we are not limited in our prayers . . . to the words of the prayers” of Scripture. It may therefore be asked “whether the freedom granted in prayer is granted also in song.” This question can be further underlined, says the majority, by the fact that “Scripture itself calls Psalms prayers.”

We only pause here to note that it apparently escaped the majority that there is no evidence in the Bible that God’s people were ever limited in this respect. So far as we can determine God never gave His church — under either the Old or New Testament — a manual of written prayers. Had this been the case, and had God then granted the church under the New Covenant a liberty that was not granted to the church under the Old Covenant, then the argument would surely have force. But since this is not the case, we cannot but feel that the majority is here looking for an argument to support its case, which argument is really a begging of the question.

In the next section of the majority report we find “The Scriptural Teaching concerning the songs that may be sung in Worship.”

I. The first portion of this section deals with the teaching of the Old Testament. It attempts to prove that “there is not to be found in the Old Testament any explicit command which would require the Israelites to employ the entire Psalter which is now preserved, and only the Psalter, as the exclusive manual of praise in worship.” Here mention is made of Hezekiah (Isa. 38:10-20) — who “did not make use of the psalm already in existence but composed a new psalm suitable to the circumstances, which is not included in our present psalter, and provided for its use in the house of the Lord.” It is further argued that “after the completion of the canon , or after the Psalter had become fixed as containing the present one hundred fifty Psalms, there is no evidence, or at least no remaining evidence, that the entire Psalter was used as the exclusive book of praise in worship.” And here we cannot but observe that the argument is really negative, and from silence. Even the committee does not say that it has proof — certainly not from the Scripture itself — that other than the inspired Psalms were authorized for worship.

II. The second section deals with the teaching of the New Testament. And here the discussion centers around the usage of the words psalms, hymns, and songs.

Regarding I Cor. 14:26 we have this question: “Were they Old Testament Psalms, or charismatic psalms, or impromptu songs uninspired in their content? The impression given by the entire context is that the songs were charismatic.” Of the terms psalm, hymn, and song the committee admits that “it is possible that each of these terms may refer to such Psalms [as are found in the Psalter], since each is used in the LXX [Septuagint Greek Version] in the titles of the Psalms.” However, “they could refer to New Testament productions as well. Indeed, the word psalm is used in I Cor. 14:26 to mean a charismatic song, or a song given in the early church as a special gift of the Spirit.” Therefore, “we cannot be sure whether Paul had in mind the use of Old Testament Psalms alone, or New Testament productions alone, or both.”

“Moreover, in Col. 3:16 there is a presumption against the exclusion of New Testament songs from the songs there mentioned.” “To the Colossians, who had lately been brought from darkness into light through the gospel message, the phrase the word of Christ would probably mean the gospel message about Christ. And, as the word of Christ dwells in them richly, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs will flow forth in consequence; these songs will reflect the content of the word of Christ; and by means of these songs, believers are urged to teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. Thus at least some of these songs would be newly composed, either extemporaneously or as a result of some thought.”

We interrupt the argument at this point to make one important comment. There is a difference between that which is plausible and that which is proven. The majority speaks of presumption. Presumption is not proof. The majority says probably. And this again is not proof. And if “we cannot be sure” that Paul is speaking of New Testament productions, then we have not done justice to the regulative principle when we treat this presumption as established.

Evidently the committee itself felt this difficulty. For it goes on to say that it prefers to use “the distinction psalms and hymns rather than inspired and uninspired.” “After all,” they continue, “any singing by the apostles could be considered inspired, and charismatic song, also inspired, was then prevalent. But the apostles had no successors and the charismata have ceased. To adopt the distinction inspired and uninspired may thus introduce the fallacy of arguing from the temporary practice of the early church to our permanent duty.”

If we once do away with this distinction — inspired and uninspired — then we are able to take the next step. “New songs were used in praise,” says the majority, “songs fitted for the new dispensation, and not confined to the words of the Old Testament.” The committee at this point cites the so-called “songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon” in the book of Luke as examples of new praise called forth in song as a result of new revelation from God. And if we grant the unproved point that these are songs, rather than statement, and if we ignore the fact that these were inspired statements, we then can argue that we too should bring forth new songs as a result of the New Testament revelation, and in view of new situations that confront us.


The Committee majority therefore concluded that the use of the Psalms — while not expressly commanded under the New Testament — are, by good and necessary inference from Scripture, to be sung in the worship of the church today. But new songs are also quite proper. Since “God’s Word warrants the exercise of liberty in the content of prayer,” it also, by analogy, warrants the same with regard to the content of song. “The content of song, then, like the content of our prayer, need not be restricted to the very words of the Scripture, although it must assuredly be Scriptural in teaching.”

The Minority Report

In the minority report, Professor John Murray takes up the two leading arguments of the majority.

The first is what I would call the argument from analogy. Professor Murray argues: “It is not proper to appeal to the divine authorization or warrant we possess as to the content of prayer in order to determine the question as to the content of song. Prayer is one element of worship, singing is another.” And, “we may not say that the offering of prayer and the singing of praise to God are the same thing and argue from the divine authorization we possess respecting the one to the authorization respecting the other.”

The whole committee agreed “that some Scripture songs may be sung in the public worship of God. But these Scripture songs may also be read as Scripture and they may be used in preaching. In such cases the actual materials are the same. But reading the Scripture is not the same exercise of worship as singing, and neither is preaching the same as singing, or reading the Scripture. The same kind of distinction applies to the exercises of praying and singing even when the content is identical.”

To express it in our own words, would anyone argue that because everyone is commanded to sing, therefore everyone may preach? Or would anyone argue that because we may compose our own prayer, we may also compose our own text for reading?

The contention of the minority, then, is “that the argument used in the (majority) report . . . to wit, that, since we are not limited in our prayers to the words of Scripture or to the prayers given to us in Scripture, therefore the same freedom is granted in song, is invalid.” “The question of the divine prescription regarding the songs that may be sung in the public worship of God must be answered, therefore, on the basis of the teaching of Scripture with respect to that specific element of worship.”

What, then, does the Scripture teach?

I. In Matt. 26:30 (Mark 14:26) we read that Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn. But the evidence indicates that this was a portion of the Hallel, consisting of Psalms 113-118. There is no evidence to the contrary.

II. In I Cor. 14:15, 26 “it is possible that they were charismatic psalms. If so, one thing is certain — they were not uninspired compositions.” Even “on the hypothesis that they were charismatic psalms, and even on the hypothesis that we have examples of such in Acts 4:23-30, I Tim. 3:16, we are not thereby furnished with any authorization for the use of uninspired songs in the worship of God.”

III. With respect to Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 the following observations are pertinent. a) “We cannot determine the denotation or connotation of psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs by any modern usage of these same words. The meaning and reference must be determined by the usage of Scripture.” b) The use of these terms — psalm, hymn, song — in the Greek Septuagint Version, current in the apostolic church, is not to be ignored. There is no doubt that these terms were the familiar designations for various selections in the Psalter. c) There is not use of these terms in the New Testament where it can be shown that they designate other than inspired compositions. Most references are clearly to the book of Psalms. Even where it can be shown that they are not (i.e., Rev. 5:9), they are not used with reference to uninspired compositions.

d) But more important than anything else is the fact that “the book of Psalms is composed of psalms, hymns, and songs.” And when we consider this fact, along with the fact that “we have no evidence whatsoever that a hymn, in the usage of Scripture, ever designates an uninspired composition,” we are driven to the conclusion that when Paul wrote about psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs, he would expect . . . his readers to think of what were, in the terms of Scripture itself, psalms, hymns, and Spiritual songs, namely, the book of Psalms.” e) Professor Murray then deals with the word Spiritual in connection with these psalms, hymns and songs. Does this word mean “such as were composed by spiritual men,” as Trench contends, or does it mean “inspired by the Spirit,” as Meyer says? Professor Murray argues that it means “inspired by the Spirit,” just as it does in I Cor. 2:13.

But then the question arises whether this word qualifies only the songs, or all three of the designated types of praise. Professor Murray argues that the former is the more natural interpretation. But even if we opt for the latter, he insists that the conclusion will be the same. For a Psalm, by Scriptural usage, is an inspired composition. And by this interpretation so must a song be. But if the Psalms must be inspired, and the songs, then surely the hymns must be too! For “it would be strange to the point of absurdity if Paul should be supposed to insist that songs had to be inspired but hymns not. For what distinction can be drawn between a hymn and a song that would make it requisite for the latter to be inspired while the former might not be?” “The only conclusion we can arrive at then is that hymns in Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16 must be accorded the same ‘Spiritual’ quality as is accorded to Psalms by obvious implication and to songs by express qualification, and that this was taken for granted by the apostle, either because the word Spiritual would be regarded as qualifying all three words, or because Spiritual songs were the genus of which Psalms and hymns were the species, or because, in the usage of the church, hymns like Psalms would be recognized to be in no other category, as respects their Spiritual quality, than the category occupied by Psalms and songs.”

Of all the arguments advanced by the majority, the minority deemed most cogent that which pled the necessity for an expanding content of song to keep pace with the expansion of revelation given in the New Testament. But here again, the regulative principle is decisive.

“If we possessed evidence,” says Professor Murray, “that in the Old Testament period the church gave expression to revelation, as it progressed, by the singing of uninspired songs in the worship of God, then the analogy would be rather conclusive, especially in view of the relative silence of the New Testament. But no evidence has been produced to prove the use of uninspired songs in the worship of the Old Testament.

The conclusion, then, to which Professor Murray comes is stated as follows:

a) There is no warrant in Scripture for the use of uninspired human compositions in the singing of God’s praise in public worship. b) There is explicit authority for the use of inspired songs. c) The songs of divine worship must therefore be limited to the songs of Scripture, for they alone are inspired. d) The Book of Psalms does provide us with the kind of composition for which we have the authority of Scripture. e) We are therefore certain of divine sanction and approval in the singing of Psalms. f) We are not certain that other inspired songs were intended to be sung in the worship of God, even though the use of other inspired songs does not violate the fundamental principle on which Scripture authorization is explicit, namely, the use of inspired songs. g) In view of the uncertainty with respect to the use of other inspired songs, we should confine ourselves to the Book of Psalms.

At this point I want to make a personal reference. It was the study of this material, some years ago, that led me to believe that only the Psalms of the Psalter should be sung in the worship of God. I came to this because I was first convinced of the regulative principle. But I also came to it because I became equally convinced that the majority report, cited above, did not really do justice to that principle. It did not demonstrate that we are commanded by God to make, and use, uninspired compositions, commonly called hymns. Indeed, it would appear that even the members of the majority sometimes realized that this was so. The Rev. Robert S. Marsden, for example, wrote an article for The Presbyterian Guardian in 1948, explaining the work of the committee. In this article Rev. Marsden makes a very important statement. He says, “it would . . . be impossible to prove that uninspired songs are authorized in the Scripture, and to demand such proof before one can in good conscience sing uninspired songs is to demand the impossible!” Now it always seemed to me that the majority report reflects this admission. But it also seemed evident that the regulative principle — as set forth and defended by the whole committee — demands precisely this very proof. Therefore I can but conclude that prevailing practice at this point overpowered Scriptural exegesis. And we all know how prone the human mind is to find arguments to justify the things that we are loath to change.

I was present at the Denver Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1956, when the list of songs was presented to the Assembly for inclusion in the proposed new hymnal. I still remember the fascinating debate about the content of many of these uninspired hymns. Again and again a delegate would stand up and object to the content — and teaching — of such and such an hymn. Often the objections were formidable in my eyes. Yet over and over the objection was denied. I felt that popularity was really the overruling factor. But the thing that remains with me to this day is the fact that when men determine that content of the book of praise for the church of Jesus Christ, there can never be a book of praise against which the scruples of conscience will not remain — unless all concern for truth is dead! Many a man in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church — if the Denver Assembly is any indication — is grieved by the content of some of these hymns. And isn’t this fact alone a remarkable argument for the singing of the Psalms of God? For who could possibly be grieved with one of the inspired hymns?

Trinity Hymnal is, of course, a permanent part of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. There is little likelihood of any change in the foreseeable future. I think it should also be noted that few churches have expended the time and care that this church has to make the uninspired songs as Scriptural as they can. Certainly the witness of the minority was not in vain. At least there are many excellent versions of the Psalms in Trinity Hymnal, and there was hardly any such in the old hymnal of the Presbyterian Church in 1936.

Yet the fact remains that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church did not rise to the high standard fixed in its Confession and Catechisms. And well might we take heed to the lessons to be learned from the attempt that was made. To use only the Psalms in worship is not a popular thing. It is “too high” for many in the church today. It is too high for many who seek with all their heart to be truly Reformed. But it is the Scriptural position. And the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church shows us again how hard it is to “get back” when once we have fallen from the use of the Psalms in worship. May the Lord give us grace to continue to contend for this truth. After all, even the chairman of the O.P. majority admits that it is impossible to prove that his position is right!

This article is taken from The Biblical Doctrine of Worship, a collection published by Crown and Covenant Publications, 7408 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15208-2531. Reproduced by permission.