Exclusive Psalmody Examined

psalmsArticle by Brandon Craig: Exclusive Psalmody: is it Biblical? Is it the only Reformed position? (Part 1) (Original source and in prayers” if we are to agree with Calvin’s interpretation those prayers are both spoken and sung (1). This will later play an important role as I will argue that song is not an element of worship but rather a mode of prayer, teaching, or exhortation. . If Calvin is correct this is a clear example of their prayers (not Psalms) being sung.

The next important place to look is 1 Cor 14:26 How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.

When we look at this list it would be poor exegesis to say that the psalm a person brings is an already used song (from the Psalter). None of the other things on the list would be something previously used. Context says that the psalm a person brings would be one he composed. Consider from that list if another person were to bring a teaching or a revelation. They would not be bringing something someone else has already said. They would be bringing something they have “composed” themselves. It is clear then that the psalm a person would bring would also be a newly composed psalm.

Finally we have Pliny the Younger when he reported about the Christians saying that they could be distinguished by their singing of hymns to Christ as unto a god. Now some have said that just means they were singing the psalms that talk about the Messiah. However if that was the case it would not distinguish them from the Jews whatsoever since they sang those same songs. What makes sense here is that they were singing newly composed hymns written to Christ as God. (1)

Moving forward to the Reformation, it is well known that Luther composed and sang hymns in worship. Of course many EP proponents will dismiss this as Luther had some Roman Catholic carryovers and they will say he wasn’t fully reformed. Nonetheless as the first reformer it is noteworthy that Luther fully embraced singing hymns in worship.

The next example I have is a bit tongue in cheek but Zwingli was not an adherent of Exclusive Psalmody. That is because he did not allow any singing in public worship whatsoever but still he did not practice the singing of only Psalms. I later intend to show that if we take the EP principles to their logical conclusion we would end up like Zwingli in saying that there is no place for song whatsoever in corporate worship.

Calvin is a bit hard to pin down. Several quotes from him make it clear that he preferred the Psalms however in all his writing there is no condemnation of singing newly composed hymns. The Genevan Psalter which Calvin oversaw contained songs that were not part of the book of Psalms (as he included a metrical version of the 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, a hymn, and the Apostle’s Creed). Also as I have previously mentioned Calvin held that prayers were and could be sung. Additionally Calvin on the command in Scripture to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” said this: “Moreover, under these three terms he includes all kinds of songs. They are commonly distinguished in this way: a psalm is sung to the accompaniment of some musical instrument, a hymn is properly a song of praise, whether it be sung simply with the voice or otherwise; an ode contains not merely praise, but exhortation and other matters. He wants the songs of Christians to be spiritual, and not made up of frivolities and worthless trifles.” The last line indicates that songs of Christians may be newly composed. If Calvin believed we must only sing from the book of Psalms he would have no need to clarify that our songs must be spiritual and not composed of frivolities. (2)

Often overlooked is the German Reformed tradition. Unlike some of their counterparts their psalters/hymnbooks contained uninspired hymns. Johannes Zwick produced a hymn book that contained both Psalms and hymns (including some of Luther’s hymns). Also the 1537 Strassborg Psalter included both Psalms and hymns. From Luther and the German reformed tradition we get a rich and beautiful church hymnody that surpasses most other reformed traditions. (3)

The next important question is of the Westminster Confession and the Synod of Dort. Neither of these explicitly rejected the singing of newly composed hymns. Proponents of EP will tell you to look at the Westminster Divine’s own writings to see that they held to EP. While this may be the case both the Westminster Confession and the Synod of Dort knew there were Reformed churches in Holland, England, France, and Switzerland with Psalters that contained man written hymns and yet they refused to include any explicit command forbidding the use of hymns. If they were fully unified on EP it is extremely odd that they made no mention of it in the WCF. If they no longer wished the practice to be done they could have easily included in the confession a direct forbidding of it. Also this being the case one cannot accurately say that you are rejecting the Westminster Confession if you sing hymns. So while many of them held to EP they did not see fit to make it an issue that one was required to hold to in order to affirm the confession. (4)

Benjamin Keach was a Particular Baptist in the second half of the 17th century. Keach’s Catechism what he is most known for and is one of the most well known Baptist catechisms. He also published a hymn book along with writing many hymns rich in theological truths. His church sang these hymns in corporate worship. (A small side note, the London Baptist Confession of 1689 also gives no prohibition of singing hymns nor does it give any endorsement to singing only the Psalms.)

The next person I want to consider is the puritan Jonathan Edwards. Below is a quote from him making it clear that he rejected EP. In fact he makes a great point that when we limit ourselves to the psalms we limit ourselves from ever singing the name above all other names, Jesus. The EP adherents will tell us that Jesus is spoken of in the Psalms in the prophetic passages. This is true but He is not mentioned by name and moreover many of His great works are left out of the Psalms. The Psalms themselves tell us to sing of God’s great works. If we are to do that how can we leave out so many great works that are found in the New Testament?

“I am far from thinking that the book of Psalms should be thrown by in our public worship, but that it should always be used in the Christian church until the end of the world: but I know of no obligation we are under to confine ourselves to it. I can find no command or rule of God’s Word, that does any more confine us to the words of Scripture in our singing, than it does in our praying; we speak to God in both. And I can see no words, that we find in the Bible, in speaking to Him by way of praise, in metre, and with music than when we speak to Him in prose, by way of prayer and supplication. And it is really needful that we should have some other songs besides the Psalms of David. It is unreasonable to suppose that the Christian church should forever and even in times of her greatest light, in her praises of God and the Lamb, be confined only to the words of the Old Testament, wherein all the greatest and most glorious things of the gospel, that are infinitely the greatest subjects of her praise, are spoken of under a veil, and not so much as the name of our glorious Redeemer ever mentioned, but in some dark figure, or as hid under the name of some type. And as to our making use of the words of others, and not those that are conceived by ourselves, it is no more than we do in all our public prayers; the whole worshiping assembly, excepting one only, makes use of the words that are conceived by him who speaks for the rest.” –Jonathan Edwards (Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Review of Religion in New England)

Charles Spurgeon is interesting because he rejected the use of instruments in worship but he not only allowed new hymns but even wrote some himself. Consider the quote from him below:

“I recollect walking out to preach nigh unto forty years ago, just when I began my witnessing for the Lord Jesus. As I trudged along with a somewhat older brother, who was going to preach at another village station, our talk was about our work, and he said to me, “Does it not strike you as a very solemn thing that we two local preachers are going to do the Lord’s work, and much may depend even upon the very hymns we give out, and the way in which we read them?” I thought of that, and I prayed — and often do pray — that I may have the right hymn and the right chapter, as well as the right sermon. Well do I remember a great sinner coming into Exeter Hall, and I read the hymn beginning, “Jesus, lover of my soul,” and that first line pierced him in the heart. He said to himself, “Does Jesus love my soul?” He wept because he had not loved the Savior in return; and he was brought to the Savior’s feet just by that one line of a hymn. It does make it the burden of the Lord when you see life, death, and Hell, and worlds to come hanging, as it were, upon the breath of a mortal man by whom God speaks to the souls of his fellows.” (see Spurgeon Gold pg 56)

Finally I wish to look at the reformed denominations today. The Orthodox Presbyterian church and the Presbyterian Church in America are the largest denominations that hold to the Westminster Confession and to the Regulative Principle of worship. Neither of these churches restrict singing in worship to the Psalms. One may read the OPC’s report here as well as arguments for their position here and here. I know of no modern Reformed Baptist churches (or Baptist churches that hold to the LBCF 1689) that exclusively sing psalms for worship (although there may be a rare few). Men like Dr. RC Sproul, Dr. Ligon Duncan, and Dr. James White all affirm the singing of hymns in worship.

Of course the fact that both historically and currently many reformed authors, pastors, and churches rejected exclusive psalmody does not make them right. In subsequent articles I intend to make a case for singing hymns in worship. The purpose of this article is to dispel the notion that the only reformed position is (and ever was) exclusive psalm singing. We can be confident when we affirm being both reformed and hymn and psalm proponents.

***Tertullian has a great quote that relates, he said, “When supper is ended, and we have washed our hands, and the candles are lighted up, every one is invited forth to sing praises to God, either such as he collects from the Holy Scriptures, or such as are of his own composing; and by this you may judge of the measures of drinking at a Christian feast.” (Apology 39).

* Part 2: (original source here)

“If I held to the EP understanding of worship (a hypothetical)”

For the purposes of this article I will take the principles by which EP adherents come to EP and apply them strictly to our doctrine of worship. When we do we find that indeed no authorization for singing during corporate worship is ever given whatsoever under the New Covenant. For clarity, it is not my position that God has not authorized any singing whatsoever, but rather I am taking their position and showing that if consistent it should not allow any singing at all. Or said another way, there is no middle ground, either we are not to sing at all during corporate worship or else we do indeed have freedom to sing hymns.

In my time debating those who hold to EP, I have often brought up Psalms 150 as an argument that instruments are allowed and even commanded in worship (most who hold to EP do not believe instruments are permissible in corporate worship under the New Covenant). The answer I usually receive will inform us on some distinctions that are important for the purposes of this article. The main response to my argument from Psalm 150 that I often get is that it isn’t referring to corporate worship. The EP apologist will say that Psalm 150 is talking about feasts and national celebrations. In this way they say the command to use instruments and dance in the course of praising God is not a command we can apply to corporate worship. So on their position corporate worship is different than spontaneous praise through song and it has its own more strict guidelines. This means we cannot assume that a command to praise or worship God in a certain way is necessarily a command that applies to corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. As an example, many EP proponents would say I am free to sing a song of praise to God while painting a picture. However they would say it is unacceptable to sit up front during worship on the Lord’s Day and paint a picture during the time of song. So we see that there are things that are permissible during everyday praise that are not permissible during corporate worship.

The Regulative Principle of Worship essentially says that if God has not commanded something to be done in worship it is forbidden (I explained this more fully in my last post but it is worth looking at here. This begs the question, where in Scripture is the singing of the Psalms for corporate worship authorized? We know that God commands us to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” but don’t we need to know just like the command to dance and to play instruments if that command applies to singing psalms in corporate worship on the Lord ’s Day? Let us first look to the Old Testament to see if we can find a command for us to sing the Psalms. What we find in 1 Chronicles 15:16 and 23:5 is that the congregation was not commanded to sing in corporate worship but rather a group of Levites was chosen and appointed to sing and play instruments. So we don’t find a warrant in the Old Testament for the congregation to sing the Psalms in corporate worship and it would be quite the jump to say that a modern day choir is the equivalent of the appointed Levites (the tribe of priests whose singing and instrument playing was part of the types and shadows that has passed away).

But surely the New Testament gives us warrant, after all we just talked about the command to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. As it turns out the context of those passages is not corporate worship on the Lord’s day (keep in mind things that we may do in praise during the week on our own are not necessarily permissible during corporate worship on the Lord’s Day). In fact we don’t find one verse commanding the Psalms to be sung (or any singing whatsoever) to be done in corporate worship. Let us first examine Colossians 3

12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. 15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. 17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

Consider the context of this passage. First there is no explicit instruction that this is in the context of corporate worship. Secondly the context does not put this as a command for corporate worship but rather everyday life. Are we only to put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, etc. during corporate worship or are those things that we should be doing all the time? The answer is clearly that we are to do these things all of the time. So we cannot find a warrant for singing in corporate worship at all in this passage.

Next we go to Ephesians 5
15 See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, 16 redeeming the time, because the days are evil.

17 Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, 20 giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another in the fear of God.

Here the context is clearly not corporate worship either. Are we to redeem the time, or use wisdom, or be filled with the Holy Spirit solely during corporate worship? Obviously those are all things that we should be doing all of the time.

Surely though there is an example of singing in corporate worship in the New Testament! Alas the examples we see of singing are not examples during corporate worship. Consider Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 where it says Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn before going to the Mount of Olives. This passage is not on the Sabbath nor is it an example of corporate worship. So we cannot use this passage as a warrant for singing corporately on the Lord’s Day Sabbath.

Finally we have a command in James 5 to sing psalms. 13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Once again we do not find that this passage is in the context of corporate Lord’s Day worship.

So to be clear we have several commands of psalm singing (I will in a later post explore whether the word “psalms” must always be referring to the book of Psalms) but none that are within the context of corporate worship. This is an important distinction because if we do not clarify what commands are appropriate for corporate worship then any biblical command may be done during corporate worship. To clarify, most EP adherents that I know of do not condone the taking of an offering during public worship. The reason for this is although we are commanded to give tithes and offerings, that command is not given within the realm of corporate worship. The same could be said with feeding the poor. We are commanded to feed the poor but that is not what were are to be doing during corporate worship. Likewise although we are commanded to sing psalms, nowhere are we commanded to sing during corporate worship. We cannot look to the Old Testament as the singing was appointed to the Levites (the priests) an office which no longer exists (these were types and shadows).

Before anyone finds me to be absurd, this is the position Zwingli took on worship as he did not allow any singing whatsoever during public worship. As I said in the intro, I believe that if we use the principles of EP we actually have to end up, like Zwingli, removing all singing from corporate worship. Again there is no middle ground, either we should not be singing at all or else we have to look at singing differently than the EP position if we are to sing in public worship. Of course it is not my position that we should remove all singing from corporate worship since I do not see the Regulative Principle applying in the same way as EP adherents. The short version of my answer is that singing is not an element of worship at all but rather a mode by which we can be called to worship, by which we pray, and by which the Word may be taught and by which we are given exhortation (a position I will flesh out in a subsequent post). If my position is correct then we by all means are permitted to sing the Psalms and to sing psalms (new psalms about God’s great deeds in the New Testament and beyond). If my position is correct singing is merely a way to do the other elements and thus is regulated the same as prayer or preaching is.