by Dr. Robert Morey
The issue of church music must be approached with great carefulness and seriousness because it concerns a very personal aspect of the worship of God. Exclusive psalmody excites deep emotions in both those who favor it and those who oppose it. This is why unusual care must be taken to approach this issue with a humble heart and mind.
The past few years have witnessed a resurgence of Calvinism in America and Great Britain, due notably to the influence of the Banner of Truth Trust, which has its headquarters in Scotland. Two distinct phenomena have coincided with this resurgence to bring about a renewed interest in exclusive psalmody.
Recent republications of classic Reformed literature have led to the rediscovery of the great Scottish divines. Two distinctive elements of Scottish Theology were Sabbatarianism and exclusive psalmody. Out of appreciation for the Scottish contribution to Reformed Theology, there is a renewed interest in these distinctives.
The rise of interest in Scottish psalmody coincided with a growing dissatisfaction with fundamentalism’s exclusive hymn singing practice. Many fundamentalistic or evangelical hymns are shallow and theologically incorrect. Consequently, some Christians have been emotionally drawn to exclusive psalmody because it is “Reformed,” and because it supplies an easy remedy against shallow evangelical hymns. Since the fundamentalists sing only hymns, some have come to the position that they will sing only the Psalms.
To the majority of Reformed people, exclusive hymnody and exclusive psalmody are just two extremes which illustrate the pendulum propensity of man’s fallen nature One Christian sings only hymns and the other only the Psalms. But there is a balanced position between these two extremes. This position has been embraced by every major Reformed denomination and thus it is the majority position. This paper hopefully sets forth the majority Reformed position which states that hymns may be sung in the public worship of the church as well as the Psalms.
Our first task is to clarify the issue by asking three distinct questions.
May We Sing the Psalms in Public Worship?
As far as we know, no one denies in principle the singing of any passage of Holy Scripture in the worship service The Old Testament records the singing of the Psalms by priestly choirs in the Temple. Although the New Testament does not give us a single example of the singing of the Psalms in public worship, we can assume that Herod’s temple employed professional Psalm singers. But someone may ask, “What about the example of Christ and the apostles?” The New Testament records the example of Christ and the apostles singing the Psalms in private. Since exclusive psalmody concerns only public worship, the private use of Psalms by Christ and the apostles has no direct bearing on the issue.
The singing of hymns at the last passover celebrated by our Lord with the twelve apostles has been viewed as an example of the singing of the Psalms in public worship (Matt.26:30) But such a position fails to view this incident in our Lord’s life from a Biblical theological viewpoint.
No one can deny that at that time in redemptive history the public worship of God was restricted to the temple or the synagogues. The annual passover feast was primarily a family affair observed in the privacy of the home in accord with the Old Testament command (Exod.12). Christ did not invite all his disciples to this passover. Only the twelve were invited as they constituted his “family” and the foundation of the new church. Thus we find the Lord’s Supper celebrated in the privacy of the home at first (Acts 2:46). It was observed daily by believers It took time for it to evolve from an observance in the home to a full-blown church ordinance The exclusive psalmist’s interpretation of the Last Supper fails to do justice to its historical setting or unfolding character.
When we turn to Church history, we find the Psalms sung in public worship by every generation of Christians. All the major Reformed churches have hymnbooks which contain a substantial number of the Psalms, or they include a Psalter along with the hymnbook.
The reasons for singing the Psalms or any portion of Scripture are numerous. By singing the Psalms, we remember God’s mighty acts and words in ages long ago. We find in the Psalms the inward joys and pain found in the Christian life. Some Psalms have surpassing beauty, such as Psalm 23. There are Psalms appropriate to every experience in the Christian life. We need never worry about heretical teaching when we sing the Psalms or any other portion of the Bible. As long as God’s people exist on this earth, the Psalms will be sung or chanted.
But someone may ask, “Are you saying only that we may sing the Psalms? Aren’t we commanded to sing the Psalms? Thus, Psalm singing is not just a privilege but a necessity for public worship.” In answer to this we ask. Where in the Old and New Testaments do you find recorded an explicit command for God’s people to sing the Psalms in the public worship of God?
When we examine the Old Testament, we find the priests singing the Psalms but nowhere do we find a command for the congregation to sing the Psalms as part of public worship Thus, the Old Testament did not command the congregation to sing the Psalms in the public worship We must make the distinction between the choirs and the congregation What held for one does not necessarily hold for the other.
When we turn to the New Testament, we do not find a single passage which explicitly commands the congregation to sing the Psalms in the public worship service But what about James 5:13, Eph. 5:19, and Col. 3:16? We shall see that these verses in their respective contexts do not speak directly or exclusively to the issue of congregational singing in public worship These verses primarily concern the private and personal singing of God’s people anywhere at anytime.
Since neither the Old nor New Testaments directly command the singing of the Psalms by the congregation in the public worship of God, we can see that it is a privilege more than a duty. Singing has always been a part of public worship. But what we sing is a matter of Christian liberty. Singing the Psalms is justifiable on the grounds that it is Scripture. We may sing, speak or pray any portion of God’s Word for all of Scripture is inspired and is profitable.
Should We Sing Only the Psalms in Public Worship?
Let us first of all state the position of exclusive psalmody. Only the Psalms may be sung by the congregation in the public worship of God. No songs or hymns of extra-scriptural origin are allowed.
It would be helpful to ask, What Biblical evidence is needed to establish beyond any doubt the position of exclusive psalmody?
For exclusive psalmody to be established, the following evidence is needed:
With these necessary evidences set before us, let us now examine the three verses in the New Testament to which exclusive psalmists appeal.
Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms (James 5:13)
Question 1. Does this verse speak directly concerning the public worship of God by the gathered church? From the context, this passage has relatively nothing to do with public worship. Must we wait until Sunday to sing out of a merry heart? Is prayer only allowed during the worship services? It is obvious that joyous singing can take place whenever and wherever the heart is merry.
Question 2. Does this verse refer exclusively to public worship? No, it refers to the totality of the Christian life. Whenever you are sad, pray. When you are happy, sing.
Question 3. Does this verse command the singing of the Psalms in public worship? We have already observed that this verse does not speak to the issue of public worship. And even more, there is actually no reference to the Psalms in this verse! The KJV says, “sing psalms” while the Greek simply says, “sing”. Nearly all modern versions translate the verb as “sing praises”. James was saying to sing praises to God when you are happy. Alford, Lange, Vincent, AT Robertson, The Expositors Greek New Testament, Meyer, Matthew Henry Ellicott, Poole, and Lenski all point out that any song of praise is appropriate. James did not have in mind the Psalms in particular.
Question 4. Is there any indication that the congregation’s singing in public worship should be limited to the Psalms? None whatsoever.
Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord (Eph.5 19)
Question 1. Does this verse speak directly concerning the public worship of God by the gathered church? From the context, it is absolutely clear that the apostle was not speaking concerning the public worship of the people of God.
Is the “filling” of the Spirit restricted to public worship (v. 18)? Is giving thanks (v. 20)? Is mutual submission (v. 21)? Should wives submit to their husbands only in the public worship (v. 22)? It is obvious that the “speaking” and “singing” of verse 19 is but one example of what should happen to Christians when they are filled with the Holy Spirit This filling takes place anywhere at anytime.
Question 2. Does this verse refer exclusively to public worship? Verse 19 primarily concerns personal edification just as verse 18 refers to personal filling, verse 20 to personal thanksgiving, and verse 21 to private mutual fellowship. The rest of the passage concerns personal obedience in the home (22-6:4) or at work (6:5-9).
While the exclusive psalmists allow hymns and songs to be used for personal edification, they point to Eph.5:19 as proving exclusive psalmody. If this verse actually taught exclusive psalmody, it would mean that only the Psalms are to be sung in private for personal edification. But this position is unacceptable to nearly everyone.
Question 3. Does this verse command the singing of the Psalms in public worship? We have already seen that this passage concerns the everyday life of a Spirit-filled Christian There is no way that it can be restricted to the public worship of the gathered church.
Notice also that the apostle said, “SPEAKING to yourselves in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” If this verse refers to exclusive psalmody in public worship, then not only must singing be done by the Psalms, but all speaking as well. All sermons, prayers, and lessons must be restricted to quotations from the Psalms if this verse teaches exclusive psalmody.
Someone may object, “But don’t ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ all refer to the Psalms? Haven’t we proven that ‘hymn’ and ‘song’ refer to the book of the Psalms?” Our answer is that it has never been proven that all three words refer to the book of the Psalms. The word “song” is used in such places as Rev 5:9 where it cannot refer to the Psalms. Obviously Paul would not have been so redundant to say “Speaking to yourselves in psalms, psalms, and psalms.” We have not been able to find one major Reformed commentator who takes the exclusive psalmist’s interpretation of this passage. Almost without exception, all commentators have rejected the sole psalmist’s understanding of this passage. The general agreement is that ‘psalms’ refer to the Old Testament Psalms and ‘hymns’ and ‘spiritual songs’ refer to new uninspired compositions which will bless every generation of Christians.
“But what about the word ‘spiritual’? Doesn’t it prove that only inspired songs can be sung?” Again, the word “spiritual” is used in the New Testament in several different ways. Such Reformed commentators as John Calvin and Charles Hodge understand the word ‘spiritual’ in the context of being Spirit-filled (v. 18). Does the word ‘spiritual’ mean inspired in Eph.6:12 or 1:3? Does it mean inspired in Gal.6:1 or in 1Cor 2:15? We are to sing songs which are not carnal but spiritual just as we are to avoid carnal thoughts and to seek to be spiritually-minded.
Question 4. Is there any indication that congregational singing should be limited to the Psalms? None whatsoever.
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 heart. (Col. 3:16).
Question 1. Does this verse speak directly concerning the public worship of the gathered church? There is no indication in the context that public worship is being discussed. As in Eph 5, the totality of the Christian life is in view. We are told to exercise mutual love and forgiveness (vv. 12-14); to let God’s peace rule in our hearts (v. 15); to let the Word of Christ dwell richly in us (v. 16); to do all in the name of the Lord (v. 17). Then there follows instructions for family living and Christian slaves and masters (vv. 18-4:2)
Even the words ‘to one another’ cannot be interpreted as referring exclusively to public worship. The focus of the passage clearly concerns private Christian fellowship at home or at work. And, indeed, in the worship services of Reformed churches, “teaching” and “admonishing” is the stated work of the elders or pastors and is not a congregational function. We do not know of a single Reformed church where the members of the congregation turn around and teach and admonish their neighbors during the worship service. Pandemonium would surely break out as it does in some Pentecostal churches. But to see two or more Christians gathered for private fellowship and each of them teaching and admonishing one another fits the passage without hesitation. The words “one to another” in this verse do not point us to the public worship service.
Question 2. Does this verse refer exclusively to public worship? No, this passage reveals the life-style of a Christian in whom the Word of Christ dwells richly.
Question 3. Does this verse command the singing of the Psalms in public worship? The passages does not make direct reference to public worship.
Question 4. Is there any indication that congregational singing is to be limited to the Psalms in public worship? It is obvious that Paul is not giving an exhaustive or complete list of the ways in which we glorify God. The mention of “hymns” and “songs” clearly reveals that we can sing other material than the Psalms.
Calvin commented on this verse as follows:
In conclusion, exclusive psalmody has failed to survive the rigors of detailed exegesis. It is noteworthy that the Reformers, the English Puritans, and the best modern Reformed commentators such as Hodge and Hendriksen all reject the exclusive psalmists’ interpretation of James 5:13, Eph.5:19 and Col. 3:16.
Some scholarly exclusive psalmists are aware of the lack of any good exegetical proof for their position. Thus they seek to establish exclusive psalmody on other grounds. These other grounds are: (1) the regulative principle in worship and (2) church history. We will now examine these two arguments to see if they can establish exclusive psalmody.
The Regulative Principle of Public Worship
At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers established the basic principle that so far as the public worship of God is concerned, whatever is not commanded by Scripture is forbidden.
This principle was necessary in order to give a clear reason for the exclusion of the mass, prayers for the dead, prayers to the saints, rosary services, etc. The Reformers wanted to re-establish the pure worship of the apostolic church. The regulative principle was their main instrument by which they sought to do this.
Since nearly all Reformed Christians accept this principle, it is surprising that exclusive psalmists claim that the regulative principle of worship forbids the introduction of uninspired hymns in New Testament church services. “If it is not commanded, it is forbidden” is thought by them to be the main argument for exclusive psalm singing in the church. But this principle in no way gives support to the sole psalmists’ argument, as will be seen by the three following reasons.
A. The Reformers and the Puritans who established this principle and fought for it, never understood it to mean the exclusion of uninspired hymns from church worship.
If the very framers and the greatest expounders of the regulative principle never derived exclusive psalmody from the regulative principle, this casts suspicion that the present use of the principle for exclusive psalmody is based upon a misunderstanding of the principle itself.
B. This misunderstanding arises out of a confusion between the essence of the act of worship and the circumstances attending worship. Dr. J.I. Packer has pointed out this distinction as being fundamental to the Puritan concept of the regulative principle of worship.
1. Scripture alone tells what make up the essence of worship. God has revealed to his people that there is to be (1) a gathering together for (2) the preaching and teaching of the Word, (3) the administration of the sacraments, (4) church discipline, (5) prayers, (6) singing. (7) fellowship, and (8) collection of offerings. The Romanists sought to add the Veneration of the Saints worship of Mary, masses for dead, adoration of images, auricular confession, penance, candles, rosaries, etc. The Reformers and Puritans refused to add any of these things to the essence of worship. Nothing is to be added except it be a rule of Scripture. This is the clear teaching of Chapter XXI in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
2. On the other hand, the circumstances of worship are a matter of Christian liberty and practicality. The early churches met in the temple and in synagogues until driven out by the Jews. Then the home was the place of the churches until the congregations grew too large, then they had to go into the fields to worship. When Christianity was legalized, believers built places of worship. The design of the building, the presence of pews and organs, even the clothing of the minister belongs to the ‘circumstances of worship. The vestment controversy of Owen’s day was not over the issue of whether or not a minister could wear vestments but whether or not the minister must wear vestments as part of the essence of worship.
Whether or not you have musical instruments accompanying your singing, or whether you sing the Psalms or uninspired hymns are issues belonging to the circumstances of worship.
C. Even if we were to grant that regulative principle of worship will dictate the material to be sung in the worship service, where do we find in Scripture any explicit commands concerning congregational singing? Even if we were willing to grant that Eph 5:19 and Col 316 did directly and exclusively refer to public worship, these passages clearly include hymns and songs as well as the Psalms.
D. We must agree with the Reformers, the Puritans, and the best Reformed commentators in their understanding of the regulative principle of worship, i.e. that the regulative principle cannot be used to establish exclusive psalmody.
Some exclusive psalmists have claimed that their position was held by the early church, the best fathers, the Reformers, the Puritans, and the leaders of the Evangelical Awakening. Some have even claimed Charles Spurgeon! But an examination of Spurgeon s “Our Hymnal” forever removes this claim.
We are warranted to ask, What is needed as evidence to demonstrate that someone in the past embraced and practiced exclusive psalmody?
1. There must be existing literature in which the person states that he believes that only the Psalms may be sung in public worship and thus he is opposed in principle to the introduction of any uninspired hymns
2. Thus evidence for exclusive psalmody cannot be drawn from:
a. Those whose practice it was to sing only the Psalms but who stated that they were not opposed in principle to the use of uninspired hymns in the worship service. (William Romaine and others like him practiced exclusive psalmody but declared that they were not opposed in principle to the use of uninspired hymns in the worship service.)
b. Those who included uninspired hymns in their psalters which were used in public worship. It is not enough to say that Calvin “virtually’’ or “practically” included only Psalms in the Geneva Psalter. Neither the Synod of Dort nor the Westminster Confession can be used as evidence for exclusive psalmody. The Synod of Dort and the framers of the W.C.F. knew that the psalters of the Reformed churches in Holland, France, Switzerland, England, Scotland all included uninspired hymns to be used in the worship service. To find just one uninspired hymn included in a psalter is enough evidence to demonstrate that the framers of that psalter were not exclusive psalmists.
With these things in mind, let us give a brief survey of church history in order to see the historical evidence.
The Early Church
All the well-known church historians which we have examined agree that the early Christians composed distinctively Christian hymns to be sung in public worship. Latourette points out that some of these early hymns are found in the New Testament’s text itself. The hymn of Clement of Alexandria (200 AD.) can be found in several modern hymnals. (We have placed it at the end of this monograph.)
When we turn to the New Testament, we find that there are a number of Christian hymns quoted by the apostles. (see 1Cor. 13; Eph. 5:14; Col. 1-15-20; 1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:11-14, James 1:17; Rev. 1:5, 6; 15:3; etc.)
All the following commentators clearly find sufficient evidence in church history and in the New Testament text itself that the early Christians sang hymns as well as the Psalms in public worship: Lange, Lenski, Hendriksen, Eadie, Manton, Matthew Henry, Lightfoot, A.T. Robertson, Vincent, Expositors Greek New Testament, Ellicott, Hodge, Alford, and Trench. Since they list the evidence in great detail, we will not duplicate it here.
“But,” it might be asked, “wasn’t there an early church council which forbade the singing of any extra-scriptural hymns?” Yes, but this had to do with a ban on Arian hymns which attacked the Trinity. The council was dealing with Arianism and not with the issue of church music per se. The orthodox were encouraged to develop hymns which praised the Trinity.
Middle Ages to Reformation
Matchless hymns were written by such men as Bernard of Clairvaux. These hymns were loved and sung as well as the Psalms.
Reformation to Period before Isaac Watts
Luther wrote mighty hymns. Calvin and the Reformers placed uninspired hymns in their psalters. There are no significant sole psalmists in this period.
After Isaac Watts
Watts at first revised the Psalter. Then he wrote hymns, and some churches reacted in an extreme fashion and threw out the Psalter all together and sang only hymns and songs; (Let us again emphasize at this point that we desire that Reformed and Evangelical churches should sing the Psalms as well as hymns.)
Because of this extreme and regrettable action, a small group of men (mainly in Scotland) swung to the opposite extreme. They would sing nothing but the Psalms since others sang nothing but hymns.
The sole psalmist group tried in all the traditional Reformed denominations to restrict all singing to the Psalms and to forbid musical instruments. They lost the fight in every case and eventually decided to create their own denominations. The Free Church in Scotland, several small groups in Holland, and the Reformed Presbyterian [Church of North America], were created in part, over the issue of church music.
So far as church history is concerned, exclusive psalmody is neither apostolic nor representative of Christianity in general or Reformed theology in particular. They cannot claim the Reformers or the Puritans. Beyond the Scottish divines, there is no one else to whom they may appeal as holding their position.
Several additional criticisms of exclusive psalmody should be raised at this point.
Examine the comparisons (shown in the diagram below) between texts of Scripture and texts of the Psalter and you will see that the Psalter is really a work of human composition which is put forth as being God’s Word. Much of the Psalter is actually a collection of hymns which derive their content from the Psalms. Although we appreciate the poetry and music of the Psalter, it must be admitted that the Psalter is not a translation of the Psalms. Thus no exclusive psalmist should ever sing the Psalter.
These examples show how far removed at times the Psalter is from the Psalms. There is no way to justify the poetic license displayed in the Psalter. It is obvious that no exclusive psalmist would dare put forth the text of the Psalter as a legitimate version or translation of Holy Scripture. Therefore we must ask, If we are to sing the Psalms because they are the inspired words of God, is it not blasphemous to use poetic license on Scripture, to omit or add words whenever you please, and to rear range the verses or words to fit an uninspired tune?
3. Doesn’t the sole psalmist actually deny the right of Christian musicians and composers to worship God with all their beings and to render to God all the fruits of their talents? If we tell the musician. You cannot compose or play church music because God allowed only David to exercise musical gifts for the church, aren’t we saying that therefore everyone else is forbidden to serve God with these talents? This is the same as saying that we cannot use all of our being in the worship of God. Some feel the need to compose hymns for public worship and to play musical instruments to fully worship God with all their talents. Exclusive psalmody would have the church neglect the musical gifts given to the people of God to edify the whole body in public worship.
4. Should not we progress from the shadow to the reality which casts the shadow? Should we be content with the seed and never seek the flower? The Psalms have only the seeds and shadows of the person and work of Christ. We must now turn to the reality and fulness of the New Testament to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We need to sing in response to the work of Christ, to sing of him and His mighty deeds, to speak the matchless name of Jesus, to tell of His greatness in our day and in our personal lives. Thus, to restrict the people of God to the shadows of the Psalms is retrogressive and reactionary. The church needs to be set afire with the fullness of New Testament truth and experience.
May We Sing Hymns and Songs of Extra-scriptural Human Composition in the Public Worship of the Gathered Church?
The Biblical-Theological Approach to Hymnody
A Biblical-theological understanding of the unfolding character of the history of redemption will see new songs and hymns composed with each chapter of God’s plan. When God executes His wrath or grace, it is time to compose new songs which celebrate these covenantal acts of God This is why new songs are to be found in the historical books before the Psalms and in the prophetic books after the Psalms. The mighty acts of God in every generation were put to music and sung. The people of God had the freedom to write new songs to praise God; they were never restricted to the Psalms.
a. What did the people of God do before David was born? They composed songs as Miriam (Exod.15 20), Moses (Ps 90) and Deborah (Judg 5) did to celebrate the acts of God in their generation.
b. How did David come to write the Psalms? There was no divine command for him to write the Psalms for worship services. Many of the Psalms were written for David’s personal edification when he was yet a shepherd boy. He had musical gifts and he had the freedom to exercise them in the public worship of God. If a sole psalmist would have been present when David introduced a few of his original songs into the worship service, he would have rejected David’s songs because Moses’s Psalm (Ps.90) was the only Psalm which could have been sung.
c. The presence of other authors included in the Psalms suggests that whoever had the gifts could exercise them for the good of God’s people. (See 1 Chron.15:22, where David hires a song writer, or 1 Chron.16, where David encouraged the priests to compose original vocal and instrumental music to praise God.)
d. After David, songs were composed to celebrate God’s mighty acts in each generation. (For example, see Isa.51; 26:1; 42:10; Lamentations, etc.) To be sure, the people of God did not forget all the acts of God in ages past; they continued to sing all the old songs and hymns and Psalms from every generation.
e. Even a careful reading of the Psalms will discover some Psalms which were written long after David. Some are even from the post-exile period. If the people of God were limited to David’s Psalms, why do we find Psalms from later periods included? The only answer is that the Psalms of David were not viewed as being the finalized hymnbook for the church.
f. Finally, where in the Old Testament do we ever find a divine command to sing only the Psalms? There are examples of psalm singing but God never said to restrict ourselves to the Psalms. We are told to remember the acts of God in past generations but also we are told by God to sing new songs to celebrate the acts of God in our own generation (Pss. 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; etc.).
The History of Redemption in the New Testament has the same unfolding character as the Old Testament.
Have we not already noted that hymns were used in public worship beginning with the time of the apostles themselves? Church fathers, Reformers, Puritans, and nearly all present saints have all sung uninspired hymns in public worship.
How many sinners have been saved through the words of a hymn? How many saints have been edified, comforted, strengthened and cheered by uninspired hymns? Only heaven could hold the tens of thousands of God’s people who received grace through hymns.
The Reformed position on church music reveals the beauty of Christian liberty A Christian may sing portions of Scripture, or ancient or modern hymns. He may even compose his own songs (as this seems to have been the practice of the Corinthians — 1 Cor.14 26). If our sole psalmist brothers want to sing only the Psalms, they have that liberty in Christ. If we wish to sing hymns as well as the Psalms, we have this liberty as well.
It was with great reluctance that we entered this controversy. If it were not for the cause of God and truth, we would have remained silent. Some of our best friends are exclusive psalmists. We esteem them as men of God and pay them the highest respect. Yet, we must differ with them over this issue. Perhaps some will feel that we dealt their position some cruel blows, but remember “faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Neither do we wish to downgrade the Psalms or any book of the Bible. We should all sing the Psalms as well as hymns. But our liberty to sing hymns must be defended.
Since we have dealt only with exclusive psalmody in general, we will turn to a detailed examination of a modern defense of this position.
An Examination of a Contemporary Exclusive Psalmodv Position
Our research into exclusive psalmody led us back to the early part of the 20th century, when various Psalm-Singer’s Conventions were held in Scotland and the U.S. Most of these works are long out of print and are extremely rare, even in second-hand book shops. At present, there is only one outstanding champion of exclusive psalmody. We refer to G.I. Williamson. He has produced a small tract and a pamphlet in which he sets forth the claims of exclusive psalmody. These works have been widely distributed and are partly responsible for the present upsurge of interest in exclusive psalmody. It is therefore imperative that we examine Williamson’s presentation in detail because of its popular appeal. All the page references are taken from his pamphlet, The Singing of the Psalms in the Worship of God, published by the Scottish Reformed Fellowship.
Williamson begins his pamphlet by carefully stating his position:
It is obvious that Williamson allows uninspired hymns for private use while restricting public worship to the singing of the Psalms.
Since Williamson clearly states his position and his intent to prove it, we are deeply surprised to discover that he spends his time proving points which are irrelevant to his position. Indeed, if all extraneous material which cannot be used in support of exclusive psalmody were removed from this pamphlet, only a few pages would remain. We wish that Williamson would have paid more attention to proving his position. We will now examine his argument section by section.
The Regulative Principle of Worship
Williamson spends seven pages proving the scripturality of the regulative principle; and he is to be commended for accepting this important principle. But proving this principle does not automatically prove exclusive- psalmody. We hoped to find Williamson demonstrating from the Old and New Testaments that the congregation is commanded to sing the Psalms in public worship. This he does not do. Thus he does not establish any link between the regulative principle and exclusive psalmody.
After expounding the regulative principle, Williamson asserts that the “Reformed and Presbyterian churches originally used the Psalms as the praise book for divine worship” (p. 7) He refers to the Westminster assembly as authorizing the singing of “psalms”. He points out that the Synod of Dort “virtually excluded uninspired compositions of men from divine worship” (p. 7). He quotes from Dr. Robinson, who stated, “the singing of the Psalms continued to be the general practice of the Reformed churches until well on into the eighteenth century.” (p. 7).
The only problem with this line of argument is that it has no direct bearing on EXCLUSIVE psalmody. We admit that Reformed churches practiced general psalmody; but even Williamson is aware that he cannot claim that they sang ONLY the Psalms. He admits the Synod of Dort “virtually” excluded hymns because he knows as well as we do that this notable assembly did in fact authorize uninspired hymns as well as the Psalms to be sung in worship.
Even the Westminster Confession of Faith cannot be used to support exclusive psalmody. Did not some of these Puritan divines plainly state in their commentaries on Ephesians, Colossians, and James, that they accepted uninspired hymns as well as the Psalms for public worship? All the Confession states is, “singing of psalms with grace in the heart” (W.C.F. XXI-IV)
We have examined the Puritan usage of the word “psalm” and are convinced that this word was used at that time in describing any religious song, inspired or uninspired. The W.C.F. did not say “the Psalms,” or even “Psalms,” but only “psalms”. Neither did the W.C.F. say “only the psalms”.
The whole problem with Williamson’s argument is that he is proving something other than exclusive psalmody. No one contests the truth that the Psalms have been sung by Reformed churches. But, we do deny that Reformed churches sang only the Psalms and were exclusive psalmists in principle.
Again we ask, Why does he appeal to the Christian Reformed Church as singing “practically nothing but Psalms in public worship” (p. 8)? Does he not realize that “practically” is not the same as “exclusively?” Is it not true that the C.R.C. did sing some uninspired hymns as well as Psalms? Then why does he point to the C.R.C. as proof for his position?
Despite the fact that he has only demonstrated that Reformed churches originally practiced general psalmody, he turns around and gives the impression that the original position of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches was exclusive psalmody. (p. 8)
We feel that this is an improper method of argumentation, and it reflects a lack of theological precision and a confusion of general psalmody with exclusive psalmody.
The Commandment of God
We now come to the section where Williamson attempts to give Biblical evidence for exclusive psalmody.
The first thing that strikes our attention is that Williamson nowhere demonstrates from their respective contexts that James 5:13; Col. 3:16; and Eph.519 refer exclusively, or even directly, to public worship. Since he allows hymns for private fellowship, it is crucial to his argument to find a passage which speaks only to public worship; this he does not do at any point.
Williamson’s argument from James 5:13 was surprising, to say the least. He states:
In spite of Williamson’s confidence in his interpretation of James 5:13, it is apparent that he neither checked his Greek New Testament, nor examined modern versions of the Bible or Bible commentaries. The word “psalm” is not in the Greek. James simply said, “when you are happy, sing”. The vast majority of Reformed commentators see no reference to the book of the Psalms in James 5:13. He told the people of God to “sing praises” (N.A.S.) whenever and wherever they were happy. A theologian should check the Greek or Hebrew, or at least a few modern versions before he bases his argument on a text from the King James Version.
Williamson’s interpretation of Col. 3:16 and Eph 5:19 is just as unimpressive as his handling of James 5:13. He does not establish that these verses refer exclusively to public worship. His argument has only two parts.
First, he states that “psalms, hymns, and songs” refer exclusively to the Psalms. His main argument is that the Psalm titles found in the Septuagint use all three terms in reference to the Psalms. This is what he calls “scriptural” argument. (p. 12)
But we must ask, Why does he depend on uninspired titles added to the Psalms by Greek-speaking Jews instead of examining the way these words are used by the authors of Scripture? Why does he omit any study of the word “song” to see if it always refers to the Psalms? If “song” can refer to other material than the Psalms, how can he be so dogmatic that it must refer only to the Psalms?
Secondly, Williamson’s handling of the word “spiritual” again reveals a lack of carefulness and exegetical precision. He simply states that the word “spiritual” means “inspired”. (p. 12) He even quotes Warfield as if Warfield said that the word “spiritual” always in every place means “Spirit-given,” “Spirit-led,” or “Spirit-determined.” Yet, no one, not even Warfield, would say that Satan and his demons are “Spirit-given,” “Spirit-led,” or “Spirit-determined” (cf. Eph. 6:12). And certainly, songs can be “Spirit-led” without being inspired. (Col. 6:1; 1 Cor. 2:5). Warfield was not saying that the word meant “inspired,” but that it usually referred to some operation of the Holy Spirit. We are in full agreement with Warfield.
Thus, we must conclude that Williamson does not give any sound contextual exegesis to establish exclusive psalmody.
The Testimony of History
The first thing which we notice about this section is that Williamson is concerned only with the early apostolic church. He is not interested in examining the following 2,000 years of church history. It is obvious that he does this because he admits the presence of hymns in public worship from the fourth century to the present. Thus we are warranted to ask, Why should the rest of church history be ignored? Does the practice of the church for nearly 2,000 years have no bearing on the issue? These questions should have been dealt with before dismissing the rest of church history.
Williamson immediately states his position: “There are no psalms, hymns or songs (other than those of the Bible) preserved from the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic period of church history. Nor is there any evidence whatsoever that such were at that time in use.” (p. 13)
We would have expected to find an exegetical examination of such passages as 1 Tim. 3:16, where modern exegetes such as Hendriksen find examples of early Christian hymns which were used in public worship. But Williamson does not deal with this extensive and very persuasive evidence.
Instead, he seeks to prove his point by quotations from Schaff and Latourette. Since Williamson quotes Latourette at great length, and Latourette is a modern historian of great repute, we will closely examine Latourette’s position. We will discover that Williamson has misunderstood Latourette at very crucial points.
First, it is Williamson’s position that there were no uninspired hymns or songs in the Apostolic or Post-Apostolic period. He quotes Latourette as his authority at this point:
Yet, when we turn to p. 206 in A History of Christianity, we find that Williamson omitted the sentence immediately preceding the portion he quoted. Latourette began by saying;
It disturbs us that while Latourette began his section on church music by pointing out his understanding of Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 as referring to hymns composed by early Christians, some of which are found in the New Testament itself, Williamson quotes him in a manner to give his readers exactly the opposite impression. Latourette goes on to say:
Williamson then makes the charge that the orthodox did not compose hymns in the early church. He quotes Latourette in such a way that his readers will get the impression that Latourette takes this position:
Yet, when we turn to p. 207 in Latourette’s work, we find Latourette saying:
Or again, the orthodox in opposition to the Arians were told by Chrysostom “to chant their own hymns in noctural processions” (Ibid. p. 207).
Williamson again misunderstood Latourette’s position. According to Latourette, the early Christians, as well as the heretics, did compose hymns. It is regrettable that Williamson should misunderstand Latourette at this crucial point.
One more example will further demonstrate Williamson’s misrepresentation of Latourette’s position. In order to prove that the early church sang only Psalms, Williamson quotes again from Latourette:
When we turn to p. 207 in Latourette’s history, we find that Williamson omitted certain words from Latourette’s sentence Here is the sentence in full:
Williamson’s position is that only the Psalms were sung by the early church. This excludes even the hymns quoted in the New Testament. Thus he omitted the words, “from the New Testament” and changed the meaning of the sentence to support exclusive psalmody which is not what Latourette intended.
Latourette clearly saw three types of material used by the early church. The early Christians sang the Psalms and hymns (some of which are quoted in the New Testament) in their public worship. Then there were other hymns which were used in private. On the basis of the historical evidence, Latourette summarizes his position on the music of the early church by saying: the early church by saying: “Gradually there appeared versical paraphrases of the Psalms, hymns with lines of equal length and hymns which were acrostics” (Ibid. p. 207). With such evidence, we must say that Williamson can not be justified in his use of Latourette for proof of exclusive psalmody. At the least, any objective reader would have to agree that Latourette was misunderstood.
Objections to the Psalms
Most of the objections which Williamson answers are straw men which no one defends. His few attempts to answer some of our pointed objections failed to convince us because nearly all of his arguments relate only to general psalmody and really have no direct bearing on exclusive psalmody.
Bibliography for Further Research
Dr. Morey is pastor of New Life Bible Church. He received his B.A. from Covenant College and his M. Div. and D. Min. from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is also the author of The Bible and Drug Abuse, The Dooyeweerdian Concept of the Word of God, The Christian’s Handbook for Defending the Faith, The Saving Work of Christ, An Examination of Sabbatarianism, and How to Witness to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This material is copyrighted© and used by permission of Dr. Robert Morey.
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