This first article was written by the Rev. Professor R.J. George in 1947.
Why Psalms Only
Rev Professor R J George, DD, Alleghany, Pa, USA
“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” – Col. 3 : 16.
When there are differences in belief among Christians on any subject, it is always helpful to inquire how far they agree, and thus ascertain the exact point at which opinions begin to diverge. In regard to the songs to be employed in the praise of God, there are several points of general agreement.
- It is agreed that the Psalms were given by divine inspiration, and are the very word of God. “David, the son of Jesse, said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel said, the spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue” (2 Sam 23:1-2) “Men and brethren, this Scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas which was guide to them that took Jesus” (Acts 1:16) (See also Acts 4:25; Heb 3: 7 etc). Men should be careful how they speak against the Book of Psalms. The Holy Ghost is its author. This is the first point of agreement.
- It is agreed that these inspired Psalms were appointed by God to be used in His worship. “Sing unto Him; sing Psalms unto Him” (1 Chron. 16:9). “Moreover Hezekiah the king, and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer” (2 Chron. 29:30). “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto Him with Psalms” (Ps. 95:2). Bible expositors and Church historians alike agree that the inspired psalms were exclusively used in the worship of the Old Testament. God appointed them to be used and no one but God can change the appointment. This is the second point of agreement.
- It is agreed that so far as the record goes our Lord Jesus Christ used the Psalms exclusively in worship. Only on one occasion is our Lord referred to as singing. This was in Connection with the observance of the Passover. It is said, “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives” (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). Biblical scholars are not misled by the use of the word “hymn” in our translation of this verse. The original simply states the fact that they sang the praises to God. In the margin it reads, “When they had sung a psalm.” It is a well-known fact that the Jews were accustomed to sing at the Passover the great Hallel which consisted of Psalm 113 to 118 inclusive. Certainly our Lord and His apostles did not depart from this usage. Strange indeed it would have been if the Lord Jesus, who always exalted and honoured the Holy Spirit, had put aside the sacred songs which He had indited for this very purpose. But He did not. Those who would follow closely in the footsteps of Jesus should sing Psalms. Jesus did. This is the third point of agreement.
- It is agreed that we have express authority for the use of the Old Testament Psalms in the New Testament Church. “Let the word of God 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 unto the Lord” (Col. 3:16). Whatever differences of view there may be as to the “hymns and spiritual songs,” all agree that the psalms here spoken of are the inspired Psalms of scripture. The passage therefore contains an express warrant for the continued use of the Psalter in the New Testament church. This is not denied by any one. This is the fourth point of agreement.
It is not affirmed that there are no opinions contrary to one or another of these four points, held by individuals, but that there is a general agreement among all classes of evangelical Christians on these points.
We have now reached the exact point of divergence. While all agree that the psalms referred to in Col. 3: 16. are the Bible Psalms, there are many who maintain that the “hymns and spiritual songs” are mere human compositions; and that the new Testament Church is hereby authorized and instructed to add to her book of praises the writings of uninspired men. This is the crucial text on this subject. If this text contains a clear warrant for the use of uninspired hymns, other passages may lend it support; but if that warrant is not found here, it is not found anywhere. The advocates of hymn-singing will admit the truth of this statement.
It is now undertaken to show that not only does this passage not authorize the use of uninspired songs in worship, but that it enjoins the exclusive use of the Psalms of the Bible.
First. No warrant can be found for the use of uninspired songs, in the words, “hymns and spiritual songs.” At first view these words seem to be conclusive in favour of the advocate of hymn-singing. In the Greek text it is “psalmois, humnois, odais pneumatikais,” “psalms, hymns, songs spiritual.” Now these three Greek names are all found in the titles to the psalms in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which was in use among the people to whom Paul wrote this epistle. They occur many times in the titles to the various psalms. The word ”psalmois,” about sixty-nine times, the word “humois” six times, and another word “alleluia,” which has precisely the same import, about twenty times, and the word “odais,” mostly in the singular form, “ode,” thirty-four times. With the fact before us that these three words are all actually found many times in the titles to the inspired Psalms – and when we all agree that the word “psalmois” does refer to inspired songs – is it not most unreasonable to insist that “humnois and odais” mean uninspired songs. As if to remove all possible doubt the word “spiritual” is used to qualify the words. Thayer in his Lexicon of the New Testament, referring to this passage and the similar one, Ephesians 5:19 defines the word spiritual” as divinely inspired and so redolent of the Holy Spirit.”
Albert Barnes in his commentary on 1 Cor. 10:3, “And did all eat of the same spiritual meat, and drink of the same spiritual drink,” says, “The word spiritual is evidently used to denote that which is given by the Spirit, by God; that which was the result of His miraculous gift; that which was not produced in the ordinary way,” Again, “The word “spiritual” must be used in the sense of super-natural or that which is immediately given by God.” Hence “spiritual songs” are songs produced in a supernatural manner, those given immediately by the Spirit of God. It is just as if it read, “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and songs given by the Holy Spirit.” What songs are these? The sweet psalmist of Israel answers, “The Spirit of the Lord spake by me and his word was in my tongue.” These very names, therefore, which have been relied upon as furnishing a warrant for the use of uninspired, we find to be well known titles for Psalms of the Bible, and that as qualified by the word “spiritual” they cannot be used to designate uninspired songs, but furnish a warrant for the exclusive use of the songs of the Spirit.
Second. The Psalms are in an eminent sense “the word of Christ.” “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom. This is the condition of being able to “teach and admonish.” How are the psalms “The Word of Christ?”
- Christ by His Spirit is the author of them. This has been fully shown above.
- Christ is the speaker in many of them. For instance, “I will declare the decree, the Lord said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee” (Psalm 2:7). “Then said I, Lo, I come, in the volume of the book it is written of me” (Psalm 40:7). “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). Such Psalms as these are the word of Christ in the same sense that the Sermon on the Mount is His word. He and no one else is the speaker in them.
- Christ alone is the subject of many of them. The most ignorant and senseless objection ever made to the Psalms is the charge that they are “Christless.” The truth is that no book in the bible reveals Christ with such fullness as is done in the book of Psalms, not excepting the gospel by John or the Epistle to the Hebrews.
- His divinity. Psalm 45:6, “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever.” In Heb. 1:8, this is quoted as the address of the Father to the Son, “But unto the Son He saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever.” Psalm 110:1, “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool,” In Matt. 22:42-45, this is quoted by our Lord to prove His divinity.
- His eternal Sonship. Psalm 2:7, “I will declare the decree, the Lord said into me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.” In Heb. 1:5, this is quoted as the address of the Father to the Christ. See also Psalm 2:7 compared with Acts 13:33.
- His incarnation. Psalm 8:5, “For thou hast made Him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned Him with glory and honour.” In Heb. 2:7 this is quoted and in verse 9 is applied to the incarnation. “But we see Jesus who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honour; that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man.” Psalm 40:7, “Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me.” In Heb 10:7, we read “The said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God.” And in Heb 10: 5, “Wherefore when he cometh into the world, He saith Sacrifice and offering thou woudest not, but a body hast thou prepared me:” The incarnation and its purpose, being introduced by the words, “Wherefore when he cometh into the world, He saith.”
- His mediatorial offices.
- His prophetical office. Psalm 40:9,10, “ I have preached righteousness in the great congregation; lo, I have not refrained my lips, O Lord, thou knowest. I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation; I have not concealed thy loving kindness and thy truth from the great congregation.” What a matchless description of the prophetical office! Heb. 10: 5-7, shows conclusively the speaker as Christ. See also Psalms 22:22 compared with Heb. 2:12.
- His priestly office. Psalm 110:4, “The Lord has sworn and will not repent. Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” In Heb. 7:17-21, this is quoted to prove the superiority of the priesthood of Christ, as it is said, “By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament.”
- His kingly office. Psalm 45:6, Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever; the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre.” In Heb. 1:8 this is quoted as the address of the Father to the Son. Psalm 110:1, The Lord said unto my Lord, sit thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” In Matt. 22:44, 45, our Lord referred this directly to Himself, and in Hebrews 1:13, it is quoted to prove the exaltation of Jesus above the angels. See also Psalms 2 and 72 throughout and Psalm 22:28.
- His prophetical office. Psalm 40:9,10, “ I have preached righteousness in the great congregation; lo, I have not refrained my lips, O Lord, thou knowest. I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation; I have not concealed thy loving kindness and thy truth from the great congregation.” What a matchless description of the prophetical office! Heb. 10: 5-7, shows conclusively the speaker as Christ. See also Psalms 22:22 compared with Heb. 2:12.
- His betrayal. Psalm 41:9, “Yea, mine own familiar friend in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.” In John 13:18, Jesus says, “But that the scripture may be fulfilled. He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heal against me.”
- His agony in the garden. Psalm 22:2, “O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not and in the night season and am not silent. But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.” Also verses 11 and 19, compare with these Matt. 26:36-44, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:41-44, and Heb. 5: 7.
- His trial. Psalm 35:11, “False witnesses did rise up; they laid to my charge things that I knew not.” In Matt. 26: 59-60, we read, “Now the chief priests and elders and all the council sought false witness against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none; yea though many false witnesses came yet found they none. At the last came two false witness.”
- His rejection. Psalm 22:6, “but I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men and despised by the people “; compare with this Matt 27: 21-23 and Luke 23:18-23. “ And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this man and release unto us Barabbas: (who for a certain sedition made in the city, and for murder, was cast into prison.) Pilate therefore, willing to release Jesus, spake again to them. But they cried, saying, Crucify Him, crucify Him.” Psalm 118:22, “ The stone which the builders refused is become the headstone of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” In Matt. 21:42, our Lord quotes these very words against the Jews for their rejection of Him. And the Apostle Peter in Acts 4:11, says, “This is the stone which is set at nought of you builders which is become the head of the corner.”
- His crucifixion. Psalms 22 and 69 describe the scenes of the crucifixion with a minuteness almost equal to that of the four gospels. The mockery, the shaking of the head and parting the garments, the casting lots on the vesture, the thirst, the vinegar and the gall, the pierced hands and feet, the cry of the forsaken, the committing of His Spirit to God. Psalm 22 opens with the cry, “ My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” and the closing words have been rendered, “ It is finished.”
- His burial and resurrection. Psalm 16:9-11, Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoiceth; my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life; in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” Peter, the apostle, after quoting these words, says: “Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we are witnesses” (Acts 2:29-32)
- His ascension. Psalm 47:5, “God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.” In Acts 1:11, it is said, “This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” And in 1 Thes. 4:16, the manner of his second coming is thus described: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God.” This is the very terms of the Psalm. Psalm 68:18: “Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive; thou hast received gifts for men, yea for the rebellious also that the Lord God might dwell among them.” In Eph. 4:8-10, the Apostle Paul quotes these verses to prove the ascension of our Lord, and his ascension gifts to his church. “Wherefore, he saith, When he ascended up on high he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.” And he gave some apostles and some prophets,” etc. See also Psalm 24:7-10 as compared with Rev. 5:6-14.
- His second coming. Psalm 1:3-6, “Our God shall come and shall not keep silence. A fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him. He shall call to the heavens from above and to the earth that he may judge his people. Gather my saints together unto me, those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice. And the heavens shall declare his righteousness, for God is judge himself.”
Concerning the same even Christ says: “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angles with a great sound of a trumpet and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt. 24:30, 31)
Well said Jesus, “It is written in the Psalms concerning me.” “The sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow,” are here unfolded, and these Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are replete with Christ. If any one will examine and compare these passages he will readily believe that when Paul wrote, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom,” it was as if He said, “Memorize the Psalms.”
Third. Uninspired songs cannot be placed on a level with the songs of inspiration as the rule for “teaching and admonishing.” All agree that the “Psalms” of the text are the inspired Psalms, the very word of God. “Teaching” refers to doctrine, what we are to believe. “Admonishing” refers to practice, how we are to live. It is not conceivable that Paul would place the writings of uninspired men on a level with the Psalms of the Bible as a standard of doctrine and practice. “The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God, the only rule of faith and manners.”
Uninspired hymns abound in errors. Dr. Cook of Belfast, says, “ I never yet found a compilation of hymns that I could pronounce free from serious errors. In 1838 the Presbyterian General assembly, appointed a committee to revise their hymnbook. In their report they say, “On a critical examination we found many hymns deficient in literary merit, some incorrect in doctrine, and many altogether unsuitable for the sanctuary.” What an indictment to bring against the book which their own church had substituted for God’s book of praises! Does anyone suppose that Paul referred to such “hymns and spiritual songs” as these, and places them on a level with the Psalms of the Bible for teaching and admonition?
Fourth. The inspired Psalms alone are adapted to be the vehicles of grace to the heart and of the praise to the Lord. “Singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Here are two things: the awakening of gracious affections in the heart, and the uplifting of the soul to God. Two characteristics of the inspired Psalms mark their adaptation to this two-fold purpose, viz.: their devotional spirit, and their objective nature.
- The psalms are devotional. The Psalter is in a pre-eminent sense the devotional book of the bible. All Christians recognize this in their personal devotional reading. It occupies a large place in the services of liturgical churches. Ambrose says: “Although all divine scripture breathes the grace of God, yet sweet beyond all others is the book of Psalms.” It is sometimes objected that the psalms are not adapted to awaken gracious affections in revivals. Such a view is entirely mistaken.
Think for a moment of the contents of the book: its views of God: its views of man; its views of law; its views of sin; its views of Christ; its views of repentance; its view of pardon; its views of covenant relationship; its view of the new live; its views of judgement; its views of heaven; its views of hell. What is there that is needed for revival that it does not contain? And what book is more likely to be honoured by the Holy Spirit than his own Book? As Dr. J.W. Bain has said, “They will be found suitable for any revival that comes down; those revivals that are ‘gotten up’ may need something less divine.”
The fact is that the greatest revivals of religion the world has ever seen have been connected with the exclusive use of the Psalms. They were used exclusively in the great revivals in the days of Hezekiah, Josiah, Ezra and Nehemiah. The same was true in the revival at Pentecost when three thousand were converted in one day. The period of the Reformation was a grand revival period, and it was a glorious revival of psalm-singing.
The Calvinistic Reformers used them exclusively. All France was thrilled with their music in the days of the Huguenots. They, alone, were used in the Scottish church on that wonderful day at the Kirk of Shotts when under Livingstone, five hundred were converted by one sermon. In the times of Robert McCheyne, when they continued their meetings until near midnight, they made the seasons of the night glad singing the songs of Zion.
President Edwards bears this testimony as to their use in the great Northhampton revival in New England in his days. “One of the most observable features of the work was the singular delight which all the awakened appeared to take in singing psalms. In houses, in the fields, in the woods, alone and together, they spake forth the praises of their King; and even little children and aged persons who had never before learned to sing, came to sing praises with solemnity and sweetness.”
- The Psalms are objective. In this regard the inspired songs are in striking contrast with human compositions. Hymns are Subjective. Men write about themselves, their states and experiences their high resolves. They are introspective. They are self-centred. But the Psalms are objective. They are God-centred. The soul looks outward and upward. They lead the soul reverently to adore God in the beauty of holiness and devoutly to bow before His throne as the hearer of prayer. This is true devotion. “Worship God.” It appears that the Psalms of the Bible are eminently adapted to be the vehicles of grace to the heart, and praise to the Lord. “Singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”
We conclude, therefore, that this passage which has always been relied upon by the advocates of hymn-singing as containing a warrant for their practices has no such meaning. The titles ”Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,“ belong to the inspired Psalms, and as qualified by the word “spiritual” are not true of any other. The Psalms are “the word of Christ”; uninspired songs are not His word; the Psalms are a true standard for “teaching and admonishing”; uninspired songs are not; the Psalms are adapted to be the vehicles of grace to the heart and of praise to the Lord; uninspired songs are not. The passage furnishes no warrant for the use of uninspired songs in worship, but is an explicit apostolic injunction that in the praise service of the New Testament church the divinely authorized Psalmody should be continued.
We cannot close without an earnest appeal to the Christian heart on behalf of two things.
- The restoration of God’s own Psalter to a place in the hymnals of all the Churches. A movement in this direction should have the hearty co-operation of every Christian. Its rejection has been in disregard of the divine appointment, and of the example of our blessed Lord, and of the apostolic authority contained in this passage. It should be restored to its place by the united voice of all Christendom and the joyous acclaim of all Christians. It would be the bringing back of the ark of God.
- When the Psalter is restored to its place in the hymnals of the Churches it should be used exclusively in the worship of God. A place may be found for the use of uninspired songs, but not in worship. God must be served with His own. “But cursed be the deceiver, which hath in his flock a male, and voweth and sacrificeth unto the Lord a corrupt thing; for I am a great king, said the Lord of Hosts, and my name is dreadful among the heathen” (Mal. 1:14).
Rev. W.D. Ralston in his “Talks on Psalmody,” related the following story; “As I trudged homeward I stopped at an uncle’s and spent the night there. In the evening I brought out my hymnbook and had some singing with my cousins. After I laid it down, my uncle took it up, put on his glasses, and spent some time in looking through it. He was a firm believer in the exclusive use of the Psalms, and my book was the hymnbook of another denomination. It gave the hymns, and the music, with the names of the composers of each as far as known. Uncle read a hymn and naming the author, said, ‘I know nothing of him.’ He read another, and said, ‘I have read about the author of this one. He was a Roman Catholic priest,’ he read another and said, ‘I have often read of this author. He was a good man and an earnest Christian minister.’ He then said: ‘Now, John, if I were going to use one of these hymns in the worship of God to-night, which do you think I had best choose, the one about whose author I know nothing, the one by the Roman Catholic priest, or the one by the earnest Christian minister.’ I replied, ‘ The one by the minister.’ ‘True,’ said he, ‘we should select the one written by the best man; and I see by looking through your book that it contains many hymns written by good men; but if I should find in it one composed by God Himself, would it not be better to sing that one than one composed by any good man?” I replied, ‘It surely would.’ After a little, he said, ‘I have now carefully looked through your book, and I do not find one hymn in it marked ‘composed by God’; but I have here a little hymnbook and God by His Holy Spirit has composed every hymn in it; for Peter says, ‘Holy men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.’ As he spoke he handed me one of our psalm books and the manner in which he presented his argument made an impression upon my mind that I never forgot.”
How conclusive the argument is. We ought to serve God with the best. God’s own book is the best. When Ingersoll (an American agnostic) said that he” could write a better book than the Bible,” Christians were shocked and denounced him as an “infidel blasphemer.” How then can we say that we can write a better book of praises than God’s Psalter? If it be true that hymn books are better than the Psalm book, it marks the highest achievement of the race; for then man has transcended God in His own field. If it be not true, then the displacing of God-made Psalter, by the man-made hymn books, in God’s worship, is an act of most daring presumption.
At a meeting of minister of various denominations in an eastern city had been read on church Hymnology. General discussion followed the reading. An advocate of the exclusive use of the inspired Psalms employed the following illustration with great effect. “ If I had an important message to send to one living in the upper districts of the city I might summon a messenger boy and say to him: ‘Can you carry this message for me to such a person living in such a part of the city?’ And the boy would answer doubtfully: ‘I think I can. It is true that I have never been in that part of the city, I was born near here. I have heard of the person to whom you wish to send the message, but I am not acquainted with him; but I think I can find him. I am willing to try.’ My message is a very important one, and while satisfied of the good intentions of this boy, I am not quite assured of his ability to fulfil the trust. So I call up another boy and ask him the same question. At once his face glows with intelligence as he answers, ‘Oh yes, I can carry your message directly to his home. I know all about that part of the city. I was born there. I came from there. In fact your friend sent me down here to find you and bear up any message you might desire to send to him.’ It would not be difficult to decide which of these messengers I should employ. This is an allegory. If I had a message of praise to send up to God and I employed a hymn to carry it, I would feel uncertain about it; it might reach Him and it might not. But if I employed a Psalm to carry it, I know that it would ascend to heaven. The Psalm was born there. It came from God to me; and indeed God sent it to me to bear any message of praise I might wish to send up to him.”
Here is the article refuting Exclusive Psalmody by Rev. Lee Irons an Ordained Minister in the OPC:
New Covenant Hymnody?
One of the most important aspects of Reformed worship is its insistence that whatever God has not commanded to be done in worship is forbidden. This is known as the regulative principle of worship, a principle that is warranted by the second commandment.1 On the surface, the second commandment seems only to forbid the use of images to worship God, yet the Reformed have correctly seen that it also contains a broader principle: God is the one who must dictate how he wishes to be worshipped. Worship is primarily the sacrificial offering of praise unto God (Heb. 13:15). But if worship is ascribing glory and honor unto our Creator and Redeemer (Ps. 29:1-2; Rev. 4:11; 5:12-13), then it is unthinkable that we would want to bring him any other sacrifice than that which he has revealed is pleasing to him. To take any other approach is to deny the fundamental nature of what it is that we are doing in worship. Therefore, the regulative principle correctly lays down the first rule of worship: we have no right to worship God in any other way than he has commanded in Scripture. Practices which may have "an appearance of wisdom" but which are not in fact prescribed by God must be rejected as "will-worship," for they are based on the commandments of men and are not based upon Christ (Col. 2:8, 22-23).
The Plausibility of Exclusive Psalmody
But does the regulative principle of worship demand that we sing only those hymns which God has authored and recorded for us in Scripture (viz., the Psalter)? It might seem that it does. If God has taken the care to preserve for us 150 inspired songs and collected them into a single book, which in the Hebrew Bible is called "Songs of Praise,"2 would it not seem reasonable that these are the hymns God wants us to use in his worship and none other? Given this fact, why would we want to sing hymns authored by mere men, when we have ready-made a hymn book authored entirely by God himself?
I feel the force of this argument. It is an argument that we must not dismiss too quickly. Those who dismiss this argument out of hand do so usually for one of two reasons. First, it is dismissed by those whose dispensational hermeneutic has ingrained within their consciousness a deep-seated distrust of any appeal to the OT to find moral standards governing the NT believer. Since the Psalter belongs to the OT canon, it is assumed without argument that it cannot be binding on the NT church.
Second, others dismiss the argument for exclusive psalmody because they have little or no appreciation for the regulative principle we have briefly defined above. If there is nothing blatantly immoral or unorthodox in any given worship practice — whether it be the use of skits in worship or uninspired hymns - then any argument that these practices must be rejected will often be viewed as a personal attack by such people. The cry is that we have liberty and freedom to do anything that seems right to us, or that meets our particular felt-needs as a congregation, or that will help to make the service more effective for reaching the lost. To limit ourselves so precisely only to practices positively commanded in Scripture is too narrow and legalistic — "nit-picky" is the word often heard in such discussions.
Both of these attitudes ought to be totally alien to the Reformed mind. Our immediate impulse upon hearing the argument for exclusive psalmody for the first time ought to be, "This makes sense; it's worth investigating." Reformed folk have a high regard for the fundamental continuity between the OT and NT: many of our practices are defended by appealing to the context of the OT and assuming a high degree of continuity in the New (e.g., infant baptism, the Sabbath, and presbyterian church government). So the suggestion that the church should only sing the Psalms would sound plausible to us rather than outrageous.
Furthermore, the regulative principle is not a limiting, "nit-picky" practice but a glorious protection of our freedom from human traditions imposed upon the church. It is a direct inference from one of the Reformation's most important achievements, namely, the recovery of sola Scriptura. It was through much struggle and, in many cases, martyrdom that the sixteenth-century reformers bequeathed to us the principle that only Scripture can bind the conscience, not the traditions of men, no matter how ancient or how well-intentioned they may be. We would not consider fighting for the regulative principle to be legalistic or limiting, but a most necessary battle in order to make sure that the church is not only Reformed but constantly being reformed according to Scripture (reformata et semper reformanda).
So, since we are not dispensationalists with a knee-jerk revulsion to any appeal to the OT for grounding our New Covenant practice, and since we eagerly desire to constantly evaluate our current forms of worship against the touchstone of sola Scriptura, and are always willing to throw out anything not able to stand that test, we Reformed people should take the argument for exclusive psalmody seriously and not dismiss it out of hand.
Where the Debate Really Lies
Plausible though exclusive psalmody may be, I remain unconvinced. Before I explain my reasons, however, we need to make sure we understand where the debate really lies. Often in the literature defending exclusive psalmody one will find a distressingly common theme: only those who hold to exclusive psalmody really believe in the regulative principle, and the only way you can reject exclusive psalmody is by abandoning the regulative principle in the process.
I want to object vigorously to this line of reasoning. The issue is not whether the regulative principle is true. Both sides agree that it is. The issue is how Scripture regulates song in worship. Does it regulate song in the same way that it regulates the reading of Scripture - that is, are we limited to singing only canonical, inspired texts? Certainly the public reading of Scripture in worship is limited in this way. Even Biblically-sound and orthodox writings are excluded from this element of worship (e.g., we can't replace the Scripture reading with a selection from Calvin's Institutes). On the other hand, might it not be possible that the Scripture regulates song more like it regulates preaching? That is, are we limited to hymns that are Biblically sound and orthodox in their content but not necessarily inspired in their very words? If God does not require preachers to recite the canonical text, but gives them freedom to use their own words and sentences, as long as the content is an accurate and faithful exposition of Scripture, maybe the same goes for our hymns.
This point must be underscored. Both sides demand that anything not warranted by Scripture is excluded. They simply disagree on what kind of warrant is demanded for the element of song. The question is, What is the nature of song as an element of worship? Is it more like the reading of Scripture, or is it more like preaching and prayer? The fact that both positions are within the bounds of the regulative principle is indicated by the fact that even exclusive psalmodists agree that content of preaching and prayer must be Biblical but need not necessarily be the mere reading of canonical texts. To determine this question we cannot simply appeal to the regulative principle, because both sides agree that some elements of worship may be regulated by Scripture in a manner that allows uninspired language to be used in worship.
So if the real issue is not who holds to the regulative principle most consistently, but which position most faithfully reflects the Biblical teaching regarding the nature of song in worship, then we must examine that Biblical teaching. Scripture is not silent about this issue. It gives us infallible instructions about the nature of song as an element of worship and authoritatively dictates what the content of our songs of praise should be if they are to be acceptable to God. The question is, What are those instructions regarding the content of song?
I do not believe that those instructions include the limitation that we may only sing the 150 Psalms. My reasons are three-fold:
(1) The Presence of Other Hymns in the Canon
My first argument is that the presence of other hymns in Scripture, besides the Psalter, indicates that the church has never been restricted to the Psalter alone. Those in the exclusive psalmody camp place a great deal of weight on the existence of a "Book of Praises" in the canon. They argue, "There it is: the hymn book God has given to the church. If you don't stick exclusively to the 150 hymns in the inspired hymn book, then you are violating the regulative principle."
But the existence of the book of Psalms is not as significant as the exclusive psalmody position seems to think, because there are many other hymns included in the canon of Scripture that, for whatever reason, were not added to the book of Psalms. It is profitable to make this clear by giving some examples:
The Song of Moses and Miriam (Exod. 15)
Spring up, O well! (Num. 21:17-18)
The Mosaic Song of Witness (Deut. 31:19-32:44)
The Song of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5)
The statutes of the Law were sung (Ps. 119:54)3
The Song of the Vineyard (Isa. 5:1-7)
An Eschatological Song (Isa. 26-27)
The Prayer of Habakkuk "on shigionoth" (Hab. 3)
These hymns scattered throughout the OT are just as inspired and just as suitable for public worship as those in the Psalter. Would it have been wrong, for example, for the synagogue in the days of the exile to sing other canonical hymns not found in the Psalter (e.g., the Song of Moses)? To answer Yes seems absurd and arbitrary, especially since we have evidence that the Song of Moses was sung in the Temple.4 And it certainly would not have been wrong for the people of God to sing the Mosaic Song of Witness, since Moses explicitly commands Israel to memorize it and sing it (Deut. 31:19, 22). Yet it is not included in the Psalter. Likewise with Isaiah's Eschatological Song, which the prophet says will be sung in the future by God's renewed and reconstituted Israel in the post-exilic period, and ultimately in the New Covenant era (Isa. 26:1).
And what about the inspired hymns recorded in the NT? Although we cannot be sure, it seems reasonable to assume that the presence of these hymns in the NT canon indicates that they were sung in the worship services of the apostolic church. Again, it will be useful simply to list some of these hymns:
Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
The Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79)
The Angelic Doxology (Luke 2:14)
Simeon's Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:28-32)
A Pauline Christological hymn (Col. 1:15-20)
The Carmen Christi (Phil. 2:5-11)
A New Song (Rev. 5:9-10; 14:3)
The Song of Moses and of the Lamb (Rev. 15:3-4)
The Hallelujah chorus (Rev. 19:5-7)
Charismatic hymnody (1 Cor. 14:15, 26)5
Exclusive psalmody assumes that the Book of Praises is the God-ordained hymnal for use by the covenant community in worship.6 Thus, the very existence of the Psalter is interpreted as an implicit command by God to sing only those hymns found therein. For God's people to go outside that hymnal — even if they restrict themselves to canonical texts beyond the Psalter — is to reject God's implicit command. But this assumption cannot be correct if God commanded his people to sing other hymns (e.g., Deut. 32), and if the apostolic church did as a matter of fact sing other hymns besides the 150 Psalms, as 1 Cor. 14:26 indicates that they did, and as the presence of new songs in the NT suggests.
(2) Paul's Command in Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19
Next, I want to argue that, according to Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19, the church is commanded to compose hymns as it is led by the Spirit into a fuller understanding of the wealth that is treasured up in Christ (Col. 2:2).
Some have attempted to make the exact opposite conclusion, for they assert that these verses contain a command to sing only the OT Psalms. But the arguments are weak:
Comparison with the Septuagint shows that the three terms psalms, hymns, and songs (or odes) are used in the superscriptions of many Psalms in the Psalter. However, this only proves that Paul may be referring to the Psalms, but it does not prove that he is. In 1 Cor. 14:26 the term psalm is used to refer to hymns other than those of the Psalter, and is accordingly translated hymn in some translations.7 This example shows that it would be unwarranted to assume without further argument that the psalms in Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19 must be the 150 Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. If Paul had wanted to make clear that he was referring to the canonical book of Psalms, he could have done so very easily by referring to "the book of Psalms" (biblion psalmon http://members.aol.com/ironslee/index.html cp. Luke 20:42; Acts 1:20).8
It has also been suggested that spiritual songs means songs inspired by the Spirit. But this is unlikely for two reasons. First, the usage of spiritual in Col. 1:9 (which is a parallel text to Col. 3:16) does not mean inspired, since it modifies wisdom, a virtue that all believers should have, not just those in the apostolic age who happened to be blessed with revelatory charismata.9 Second, the immediately preceding context of Eph. 5:19 shows that Paul isn't commanding the prophets to become inspired but he is exhorting all believers in general to be filled with the Spirit (v. 18) so they can produce songs that may be described as spiritual.
If there is no decisive proof that Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19 restrict the church to singing the Psalter, I would argue that in both passages Paul is commanding us to use our own Spirit-led wisdom to write non-canonical songs for worship.
Consider the following points:
Why would Paul say that we must "teach and admonish one another with all wisdom in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs," if he simply wanted to urge us to sing the canonical Psalms? Do we need "all wisdom" to select say, Psalm 100 this Sunday, but Psalm 72 the following Sunday? That doesn't seem to be what Paul has in view. It seems more likely that "all wisdom" is needed to choose the proper words for teaching and admonishing one another in song.10
This interpretation is further supprted by the topic sentence of the entire verse: "Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach, etc." The Word of Christ is the mystery Paul has been proclaiming in the epistle up to that point: the good news that we have been made complete in Christ by virtue of being united with him in his death/circumcision and resurrection. The book of Colossians as a whole focuses on the believers' need to be built up in this mystery and to grow into the fullness of life in Christ. Now, it is true that the Psalms speak of Christ (Luke 24:44). But surely Paul does not mean, "Let the Psalms' message about Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another by singing the Psalms." Rather, Paul is exhorting the Colossians to let the mystery, which has been kept hidden from previous generations but is now disclosed to the saints (Col. 1:26), dwell in them richly so that, through the songs that result from such reflection, they may teach and admonish one another in all the implications of that mystery. If that is Paul's intent, then the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs of Col. 3:16 cannot refer to the canonical Psalms.11
Thus, Col. 3:16 commands us to let that Word of Christ dwell in us richly, so that as we meditate upon its message, we may be able, with all wisdom, to teach and admonish one another by composing New Covenant psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.12
Another important point picks up with an earlier issue we discussed above. Is the element of song in worship to be regulated the way the reading of Scripture is regulated (only the canonical text may be used)? Or is it more like preaching, where a certain amount of freedom is given with respect to the words, as long as the thoughts are Biblical?
We may make some progress toward answering this question by comparing Col. 3:16 with 1:28 ("and we proclaim him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ"). Notice that we have the exact same terminology in both cases ("admonishing … teaching … with all wisdom"). In Col. 1:28 Paul is describing his formal preaching ministry as an apostle and herald of the gospel; whereas in 3:16 Paul exhorting the Colossians to "preach" to one another in the general office of all believers. Thus, there appears to be an analogy between Paul's preaching and the exhortation that believers are to give one another as they sing in worship (it is a corporate setting, as the phrase one another indicates). This would suggest that song is more like preaching than the reading of Scripture.13
But we can take this a step further. Elsewhere Paul describes how edification occurred in the churches through songs and hymns: inspired hymns were constantly being produced by New Covenant prophets and prophetesses to edify the body of Christ in its formal assembly (1 Cor. 14:26). Spiritual songs were produced by spiritually-discerning men and women who, filled with all wisdom, had let the Word of Christ dwell in them richly so as to admonish and edify the church through hymns they had composed.
Now how does this apply to us in the post-apostolic age, after the revelatory gifts have ceased?14 I would argue that even though the extraordinary charismata have been withdrawn from the life of the church with the close of the apostolic age, we should still continue the early church's practice of developing New Covenant hymnody. The church still has the Spirit, not to inspire new songs, but to fill us with all wisdom and insight into the mystery of Christ. Col. 3:16 applies to the church of all ages, not just the apostolic age. Many have argued that a non-inspired gift of prophecy continues in the church today in the form of preaching.15 Although the special office of prophet itself is defunct, now that the foundation of the apostles and prophets has been laid (Eph. 2:20), yet ordained ministers of the Word have a prophetic office in the sense that they are given the task of teaching and edifying the body of Christ through Spirit-filled sermons (Eph. 4:11ff).
Our key text, Col. 3:16, when taken in conjunction with Col. 1:28, clearly implies that the production of hymnody is a sung form of the exposition of Scripture. "Hymnody is essentially meditation on God's Word. While a particular hymn is not always derived from a particular text of Scripture, the hymn's primary function is to reflect on what Scripture as a whole teaches. Hymnody … has a canonical orientation."16 Thus, if we acknowledge the existence of an analogy between inspired prophecy and uninspired preaching, we should also acknowledge one between inspired and uninspired hymn-writing.17
If hymnody is essentially meditation on God's Word as Col. 3:16 states http://members.aol.com/ironslee/index.html Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly http://members.aol.com/ironslee/index.html then it is not necessary to restrict ourselves to hymns that are inspired or canonical. In fact, we are being told to go beyond the text itself in a meditative and reflective way, just like the preacher goes beyond the literal text he is expounding and brings out its full implications for the edification, instruction, and admonition of the church. Of course, even this meditative "going beyond" is itself governed by Scripture and must be discerningly evaluated according to Scripture (just as with preaching/prophecy http://members.aol.com/ironslee/index.html 1 Cor. 14:29; 1 Jn. 4:1).
(3) The Progression of Redemptive History
My final argument is that every major epoch of redemptive history is marked by an outpouring of new songs, as well as the updating of old songs, to celebrate God's most recent mighty acts of redemption and deliverance for his people. Would we not expect the climactic epoch of redemptive history to which all the preceding ones had been leading to be similarly marked by new songs?
"In Scripture, new acts of God call for 'new songs' (Pss. 33:3; 40:3; 144:9; 149:1; Isa. 42:10; Rev. 5:9; 14:3). God delivers his people from Egypt, and they sing a new song (Ex. 15). He gives them water in the wilderness, and they sing (Num. 21:17). He renews the covenant and commits it to their memory with the song of Deuteronomy 32. Christ is conceived by the Spirit, and Mary responds with her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55; compare 1:67-79; 2:14, 29-32). The picture is not one of a static hymnal given by God for all time; rather, it is the dynamic picture of God continually doing wonderful deeds and his people responding to them with shouts of praise. Just as God's deliverances elicit new prayers of thanksgiving and new subject matter for preaching, so they elicit new songs. In this regard, is it even remotely possible that the greatest divine deliverance of all, the redemptive work of Christ, should not evoke new songs?"18
Impossible! And as a matter of fact the historical record of the NT is clear: such "new songs" did flow from the lips of the New Israel of God in thankful praise for the New Exodus accomplished in Christ (Rev. 7:1-17). Paul reports that songs and hymns were composed by inspired New Covenant prophets to celebrate the dawn of the eschatological age of the Spirit in the person and work of Christ (1 Cor. 14:15, 26).
Now are we to argue that these "new songs" given by special, extraordinary revelation are no longer to be sung merely because the charismatic gifts have ceased after the close of the apostolic age? Is the New Israel forced to revert back to singing the hymns of the Old Israel exclusively? This would make no sense at all. It is utterly inconceivable that this New Covenant hymnody was meant only for use by the church during the age of the apostles, but that in the post-apostolic age we forbidden by the regulative principle from taking the name of Jesus upon our lips in song! "Let no one keep defrauding you of the prize" by limiting the church to the hymns of the Old Covenant (Col. 2:16-18).
Furthermore, the New Covenant church is in a different redemptive-historical context than the Old Covenant church. The people of God are no longer slaves in their minority, for now that the fullness of time has come, we have been adopted as God's sons (Gal. 4:1-7). Thus to insist on singing only the Psalms of the OT is to risk forgetting which covenant we are in.
"Certainly we cannot criticize their theology, since [the Psalms] are divinely inspired. And the Psalms do testify of Christ, as the New Testament shows in its use of the Psalter. But the Psalms present Christ in the 'shadows' (Col. 2:17), in terms of the incomplete revelation of the Old Testament period (Heb. 1:1-3). Indeed, to limit one's praise to the Psalms is to praise God without the name of Jesus on one's lips. But the completeness of redemption in Christ requires a whole new language of praise: about Jesus the God-man, his once-for-all finished atonement, his resurrection for our justification, and our union with him by faith as the new people of God. Doubtless there are anticipations of these doctrines in the Psalter, but Christian worship demands more than the language of anticipation. It demands the language of fulfillment and completeness, for that is what is distinctive about New Testament faith. It is precisely the accomplishment of God's mighty works that evokes praise in Scripture."19
In addition to their pre-Christian stance of anticipation, the Psalms frequently reflect the struggle of faith that the OT saints had due to the seeming conflict between the promises of God and the reality of his providence. On the one hand, God had promised the nation that they would have a king and a land. Yet in reality, they often had ungodly kings and at one point were removed from the inheritance during the exile. Thus the Psalms are full of the cry, "O Lord, how long?"20 And the cry largely goes unanswered. To sing only the Psalms without updating them with the Christological solution is to say that we are still living under Old Covenant conditions.
"Our post-Resurrection position in history also makes our worship emotionally different from that of the Psalms. The longings, the laments, the questions, and the prayers for judgment in the Psalms find answers in Christ. Of course, we continue to long for the final end of sin and suffering. But the great fact of New Testament worship is the resurrection of Jesus, in which the last days have begun. We celebrate that great event … which the psalmists could only anticipate in the future. Surely there is rightly a greater dimension of joy in post-Resurrection worship, and a lesser emphasis on lament, complaint, and the delay of God's purposes."21
If we sing the OT Psalms alone, are we not putting a veil over the glory of the New Covenant rather than enjoying the liberty and boldness that is our birthright as those on this side of the resurrection (2 Cor. 3:12, 17)?22
In addition, consider the general pattern of redemptive-historical transformation that occurs in the transition from Old to New Covenant worship. Although there is fundamental continuity between the worship of the two testaments, there is also change — change that reflects the newness of the New Covenant. For example, although the fourth commandment is an abiding element of the moral law and continues in the New Covenant, there is a change as well: we no longer worship on the seventh day but on the first day, to commemorate the resurrection of Christ. Note the pattern: there is both continuity and redemptive-historical transformation. The same applies to virtually all other aspects of worship. The passover has been transformed and fulfilled by the Lord's Supper (Mark 14:12-25; 1 Cor. 5:1-8); circumcision, by baptism (Col. 2:11-13). In view of this repeated pattern, would it not be odd if Israel's songs were brought over into the New Covenant without any redemptive-historical transformation? Nothing is taken from the Old Covenant and applied directly to the church without first being passed through a Christocentric hermeneutical prism. Just as light when passed through a prism is changed from a monochromatic flatness into all the dazzling spectra of the rainbow, so the Old Covenant forms of worship, when sent through the prism of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, are "transformed from glory to glory" (2 Cor. 3:18). This is exactly what we are doing when, in obedience to the command of Col. 3:16, we let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly so as to create a New Covenant hymnody reflective of the richness of that indwelling, Incarnate Word.
Exclusive psalmody does not sufficiently take these factors into account. It fails to reckon with (1) the presence of other hymns in the canon, (2) Paul's command in Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19, and (3) the progression of redemptive history. For these reasons, then, I do not consider exclusive psalmody to be a Biblically-mandated implication of the regulative principle.
The Positive Value of the Canonical Hymns
To wrap up my argument, I want to conclude by affirming the positive value of the canonical hymns http://members.aol.com/ironslee/index.html something many of my fellow hymnodists do not always insist on. Although I am opposed to the position that only canonical hymns may be sung in worship if worship is to be acceptable to God, I believe the inspired hymns found in both the OT and NT must serve an important (and essential!) function in the life of the church today.
First of all, the inspired hymnody of Scripture ought to be sung in worship. This may seem like an obvious point, but it needs to be stressed — especially today, when our tastes in the area of song in worship seem to be dictated more by popular culture and tradition than by conformity to Scripture. We need to sing the Psalms more often in worship, just to get used to the language of the Psalter, to acclimate ourselves to the flavor and spirit of songs that we know God delights in. Only when we are steeped in the hymnody of Scripture will we be in any position to begin writing new hymns that breathe the spirit of Biblical hymnody in terms of their poetic form, emotional impact, thematic patterning, and redemptive symbolism. So, let's sing the Psalms and other canonical hymns!
But we need to maintain a balance between canonical and non-canonical hymns. The church errs when it swings like a pendulum from one extreme to the other in reaction against a previous practice. In the earliest centuries of the church there is evidence that the church maintained this balance. The Psalter of course was used in corporate worship, as the example of Acts 4:24-31 demonstrates. (Whether the early church is simply praying in unison using the words of Psalm 2 or whether it was being sung, we do not know for certain.) That other non-canonical hymns were also used in conjunction with the Psalter is evident from 1 Cor. 14:26, the songs of Revelation, and so on. We see a balanced use of both Old Covenant psalms and New Covenant hymns in the apostolic church.
This balance continues into the post-apostolic age. For example, in the Septuagint there is a collection of 42 hymns added to the Psalter called the Odes of Solomon, which scholars regard as the beginnings of a New Covenant psalter. The language of the Odes is heavily reminiscent of the canonical Psalms, but they are primarily a meditation on the fulfillment of the Old Covenant through the advent of the long-awaited Messiah.23
Later in church history we find Isaac Watts continuing the tradition of the Odes. As he meditates on the Psalter from the perspective of its fulfillment in Christ, he produces New Covenant hymns which are psalm-like and psalm-based but which go beyond the original text of the Hebrew Psalter in their explicitly Christological reflection. "The hymnody springs from the psalmody; it is inspired by the psalmody. Watts' hymnody comments on, interprets, and continues the psalmody."24 For example, Watts takes Psalm 72, filters it through a Christocentric hermeneutic, and ends up with a classic New Covenant hymn:
Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
Does his successive journies run;
His Kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
But interestingly, the full impact of this hymn cannot be assessed unless the church already knows Psalm 72. It is only when we hear the echo of the Psalter in these hymns that their New Covenant hermeneutic can come home to us in its full force.
"One has to have the canonical text in mind when one hears the Christian interpretation. The beauty of this form is that in the movement from the text to the interpretation one catches sight of the movement from promise to fulfillment, which is of the essence of prayer. To glimpse this is an exciting experience … It is for this reason that psalmody should be balanced with hymnody and hymnody with psalmody. There is an important dynamic between the two … There is a sense in which Christian hymnody is the fulfillment of psalmody."25
For this reason we should not go to either extreme. We should not exclusively sing the canonical Psalms, without complementing them with hymns that reflect the fullness of praise that flows from the climactic accomplishment of redemptive history in the person and work of Christ. But neither should we only sing New Covenant hymns, lest by such neglect we forget the original text of the Psalter that these new hymns are meant to be a Christological commentary upon. We will impoverish our own understanding and enjoyment of our hymns if we abandon the Psalms altogether.
What I have said above naturally leads me to the second vital function of the canonical hymns for the church today. The inspired psalmody preserved in Scripture (OT and NT) ought to serve as our model for the writing of hymns. The few examples of NT hymns all contain echoes of the language and style of the OT prayers, hymns and psalms (the Magnificat, the Song of Zechariah, the hymns of Revelation).26 This provides us with a helpful clue: even though the hymnody of the New Covenant contains a clearer and fuller reflection upon the mighty acts of God displayed through the person and work of Christ "in these last days", and even though they contain greater insight and assurance due to progressive revelation, the poetic style still retains the stamp and flavor of the praise of the Old Covenant. I am convinced that new hymns written by non-inspired authors should seek to approximate this stamp and flavor.
As you can see, if we were to implement the standard that all hymns should be psalm-like in their character, we would probably be much more selective in our choice of hymns for use in formal worship. Many otherwise unobjectionable hymns from the standpoint of orthodox content would be unsuitable for formal, corporate worship. For example, "Dare to be a Daniel!" doesn't seem to be modeled on any Scriptural hymn that I am aware of! The Old Trinity Hymnal seems to recognize a distinction between hymns that are more suited for formal worship and those that should normally be used for other occasions. Hymns # 610 through # 662 are under the heading "Occasional Hymns" and include children's favorites. Hymns # 663 through the end are under the heading "Hymns for Informal Occasions" and include hymns that have a sort of revivalistic, "summer camp" flavor. Thus, the assumption is that Hymns # 1 through at least # 609 (and possibly even through # 662 in the editors' minds) may be used in formal worship. I am not sure I would agree with the editors' judgment in each case. However, it is valid to make some kind of distinction between hymns for formal worship (which should be psalm-based and psalm-like) and other hymns for informal gatherings such as fellowships, mid-week Bible studies, etc.
My suggestion that uninspired hymns should be psalm-like probably seems somewhat strange to a true Psalm-singer. From the perspective of an exclusive psalmodist, it seems bizarre to want to have uninspired "imitation" psalms, when you could just use "the real thing." If we are going to go to the extent of trying to write new hymns that are modeled on the canonical hymns, why even bother writing new ones. Besides, the degree of similarity or likeness to the Psalter will inevitably vary with each author's subjective tastes and opinions. One uninspired hymn-writer will approximate the Psalms more closely than another who feels free to take more liberties.
The objection would be valid if it weren't for the fact that the NT commands us to produce our own New Covenant hymnody (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). And that command is not without reason: the hymns of the church must "teach and admonish one another" in the fullness of the mystery of Christ http://members.aol.com/ironslee/index.html a job that the OT psalms cannot adequately fulfill, since, as an integral part of the Old Covenant, the OT psalms speak of the mystery of Christ only in a veiled form (2 Cor. 3:5-18). To be sure, they testify of the coming Christ (Luke 24:44), but by their very nature they cannot celebrate the fact that Christ has come. For this reason the early Church was blessed with inspired prophets and prophetesses who produced new hymns to reflect the fullness of the New Covenant (1 Cor. 14:26). And Col. 3:16 commands the church of all ages, even after the cessation of the extraordinary gifts, to continue that practice for its edification as it strives to attain to the fullness of the stature of Christ (Col. 1:28; Eph. 4:13).
Undoubtedly, this position is somewhat less satisfying than the exclusive psalmody position. No subjective calls or debates need arise on that view. If it's not one of the 150, then it's not acceptable. End of story. The New Covenant hymnody position espoused here, on the other hand, allows for a lot more discussion, disagreement, and even potential abuse. Once we open the field to uninspired hymns, then we putting ourselves in a position of having to offend certain people — I'm sure there's someone out there that likes "Dare to be a Daniel!" But we must be careful not to be wiser than God. If God has commanded us to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly so that we will be able to teach and admonish one another in hymns that the Spirit has prompted, then we must trust God's judgment that the church will be edified rather than injured in the process.
That doesn't mean we can't be discerning and have high Biblical and theological standards for all uninspired hymns. On the contrary, we must always "test everything, and retain that which is good" (1 Thess. 5:21). The Lord has given the church the fullness of the Spirit — the anointing (1 Jn. 2:20, 27) http://members.aol.com/ironslee/index.html which allows us to discern what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God (Rom. 12:2). The spiritual man discerns all things because he has the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:15-16). Exclusive psalmody would be the easy way out. No discernment is necessary, just obedience. But with Paul our prayer should be that we "may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern what is best" (Phil. 1:9-10). This path is certainly more difficult, but I believe it is the one commanded by God in his Word.
- Cp. the exposition of the second commandment in the Westminster standards (WCF XXI.1; WLC # 107-110). The literature on the regulative principle is vast, but a few references will be useful. W. Robert Godfrey, "Calvin and the Worship of God" (Escondido: Westminster Theological Seminary); G. I. Williamson, "The Scriptural Regulative Principle of Worship," The Presbyterian Advocate (February 1991), pp. 8-10; (March-April 1991), pp. 17-20. The most recent book-length treatment of the subject is John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996). However, Frame departs from the historic formulation of the regulative principle in several ways. For a helpful response to an earlier article by Frame, see T. David Gordon, "Some Answers About the Regulative Principle," Westminster Theological Journal 55 (1993), pp. 321-29.
- Heb. Tehillim. Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 45.
- For more on this see Vern Poythress, "Ezra 3, Union with Christ, and Exclusive Psalmody," Westminster Theology Journal 37 (Fall 1974), pp. 74-94; (Winter 1975), pp. 218-35.
- Hughes Oliphant Old, Guides to the Reformed Tradition: Worship (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), p. 46.
- The context makes it clear that the Corinthian "singing of hymns" (psallo in v. 15; psalmos in v. 26) was spontaneous, inspired utterance. "This can hardly mean one of the Psalms of the Old Testament." Charles Hodge, A Commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974 reprint), p. 300. Cp. also Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 671.
- "But Scripture never says that that was the purpose of the Psalter, and that view has been challenged recently by some who have maintained that the Psalter was collected, not as a hymnbook, but as a book for meditation." Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth, p. 125. Frame cites J. McCann and G. Wilson.
- E.g., NIV. Psalmos has two usages in the NT. The first usage is to refer to the OT Psalms. 1 Cor. 14:26 is classified under the second usage, "of Christian songs of praise," by BAGD, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
- Stephen Pribble shows that these three terms are generic in The Presbyterian Advocate (Nov-Dec, 1993), pp. 25-30.
- In Col. 1:9 Paul is thinking "of the wisdom of the Spirit as the daily need of every Christian, not a gift of revelation to bring the Word of Christ." Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 136.
- "It is the wisdom that is the enduement of the Spirit-filled church, taught by the Word of Christ, that enables them to admonish and teach one another; they do so in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Paul's expression shows that he is thinking of the wisdom that composes psalms, and therefore not of the Psalms of David." Clowney, p. 136.
- Frame, p. 133 n3.
- For a more detailed defense of this exegesis see Clowney, "Song in Worship: the Fruit of the Richly Indwelling Word of Christ" (Escondido: Westminster Theological Seminary); Peter T. O'Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary 44 (Waco: Word Books, 1982), pp. 207-10; Poythress, "Ezra 3 … (concluded)," WTJ 37 (Winter 1975), pp. 220-24.
- "Hymns are a form of teaching in Colossians 3:16, and will thus require words different from those in Scripture." Frame, p. 127.
- I am assuming a cessationist position here. For the case against the present continuation of the extraordinary gifts, see Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979); Gaffin, "A Cessationist View," in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, ed. by Wayne A. Grudem (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996); and O. Palmer Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993).
- E.g., Calvin, in his Commentary on Romans 12:6, writes, "Prophecy at this day in the Christian Church is hardly anything else than the right understanding of the Scripture, and the peculiar faculty of explaining it." The best book on the subject of early Christian prophecy is Thomas W. Gillespie, The First Theologians: A Study in Early Christian Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). In this ground-breaking work, Gillespie demonstrates that prophecy had four elements. Prophecy was (1) an exposition of the kerygma, or the gospel, (2) under the inspiration of the Spirit within the context of the church, (3) expressed in extended discourse that included the exposition of Scripture and logical argumentation, and (4) subjected to criticism and discerning evaluation "according to the analogy of the faith." Aside from the first half of the second element (inspiration), this could function as a definition of preaching.
- Old, Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 340.
- 1 Cor. 14:26 lists five possible forms of inspired speech in the assembly: the first three (a hymn, a teaching, a revelation) are connected with prophecy, and the last two (a tongue, an interpretation) are connected with tongues. The point is that the inspired hymn is considered to be a mode of prophetic utterance. (See E. Earle Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), p. 25.) If so, then non-charismatic hymns could be considered a mode of non-charismatic teaching.
- Frame, p. 125.
- Frame, pp. 125-26. "It would be extremely odd … if, when redemptive history reaches its zenith, the covenant community's hymnody would be silent for the first time ever." Nicotene Theological Journal 1 (January 1997), p. 4.
- It is true that we still cry, "How long?" as we look forward to and hasten the second coming of Christ (Rev. 6:10), but we have greater assurance and confidence that the cry will be answered because it has already been answered in principle through the first coming.
- Frame, p. 137.
- The liberty of New Covenant believers is enlarged "in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of" (WCF XX.1).
- Scholars are not agreed on the date of the Odes. Possibilities range from the 1st century through the 3rd century. Still, despite the lack of consensus concerning their date, it is fairly certain that the Odes are Christian. James H. Charlesworth, "Solomon, Odes of," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. by David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992). "The Odes of Solomon are of the greatest possible importance in helping us understand the origins of Christian hymnody … [They] have set the pace for true Christian hymnody." Old, Leading in Prayer, pp. 322-25.
- Old, Guides to the Reformed Tradition, pp. 54-55.
- Old, Leading in Prayer, p. 324.
- This process of creating new hymns modeled on old ones occurs even within the OT itself. E.g., the song of Hannah (2 Sam. 2:1-11) is based on Psalm 113 (Longman, How to Read the Psalms, p. 48). And, of course, Mary's Magnificat is in turn based on the song of Hannah.
© 1997 Lee Irons