From the very beginning of this blog, there’s been a pesky issue in the back of my mind. It’s the kind of discussion I’m reluctant to bring up, yet I couldn’t treat the topic of psalm-singing fairly without addressing it at some point. And so, beginning today, I’m going to attempt (however clumsily) to summarize a debate that has divided Reformed churches for centuries.
By far, Christians in nearly all Reformed denominations agree that the 150 biblical psalms should be sung in worship. But though there is a consensus among Reformed believers on this point, disagreement arises with respect to singing other songs. While there are many views on this issue, I can identify three general categories of beliefs:
- The 150 divinely inspired biblical psalms are the only acceptable songs for worship.
- Only biblical songs may be sung in church, but selections outside the psalms, such as the songs of Zacharias, Simeon, and Mary, may be used.
- The use of biblical psalms and songs is encouraged, but non-inspired hymns are also appropriate for worship.
The first position is commonly called “exclusive psalmody” or “EP”; the third position is unofficially known as “inclusive psalmody” or “inclusive hymnody.” As far as I know, the second position has no official designation, but it falls mostly within the lines of exclusive psalmody. Since there’s a lot to summarize, I’m going to look at each viewpoint separately. We’ll start with exclusive psalmody.
To provide some context, here is a list of denominations that adhere to exclusive psalmody, singing only the psalms in congregational worship.
- American Presbyterian Church
- Associated Presbyterian Churches
- Australian Free Church
- Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia
- Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)
- Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) (Presbytery of the United States)
- Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland
- Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia
- Presbyterian Reformed Church
- Reformed Presbyterian Church of Australia
- Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland
- Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America
- Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland
- Southern Presbyterian Church
- Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States
The following denominations include some congregations that practice exclusive psalmody.
- Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
- Church of Scotland
- Free Church of Scotland
- Orthodox Presbyterian Church
- Presbyterian Church in America
- Protestant Reformed Churches in America
- Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly
- Reformed Presbyterian Church Hanover Presbytery
So what exactly do these congregations believe? Exclusive psalmodists derive their arguments from the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4), the Westminster Confession (chapter XXI), and the biblical command to “sing Psalms” (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). From the information I’ve collected, the argument for singing only the psalms goes something like this:
God has commanded us not to worship him in any other way than he has directed in his Word. The book of Psalms is a songbook directly from God, and in Scripture we are commanded to sing from it. Therefore, the divinely inspired psalms are the only acceptable songs for congregational worship.
I say “from the information I’ve collected” because it’s hard to find a similarly clear and succinct explanation from the exclusive psalmodists themselves. (If you know of any helpful resources on exclusive psalmody, be sure to let me know.) Nevertheless, here are some excerpts from the few articles I was able to find online. Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States pastor Brian Schwertley writes:
There are a number of important doctrines in the Bible which are deduced from many parts of Scripture and cannot be conclusively proven from one or two verses. Exclusive Psalm singing is one such doctrine. Exclusive Psalmody flows directly from the overall teaching of Scripture regarding the worship of Jehovah. The Bible teaches that ‘the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in holy scripture’ [note that this quotation is actually from chapter XXI of the Westminster Confession]. When it comes to the elements of worship and the content of praise, we must have a warrant from God’s word. God sets the parameters on what is permissible in worship, not man. In other words, anything that the church does in worship must be proved from the Bible.…The biblical teaching regarding worship is crystal clear. The church’s job is not to innovate and create new worship forms or ordinances, but simply to see what God has declared in His word and obey it.…The regulative principle of worship is crucial in understanding exclusive Psalmody, for while there is abundant biblical evidence that Psalms were used for praise in both the Old and New Testament eras, there is no evidence in the Bible that God’s people ever used uninspired human compositions in public worship. Churches which use uninspired hymns in public worship must prove that such a practice has biblical warrant from either a command, historical example or by deduction.
–from “A Brief Examination of Exclusive Psalmody” (reformedonline.com)
A little more pugnaciously, an 1888 report from the Reformed Presbyterian Synod’s Committee on Psalmody presents these arguments for exclusive psalmody:
We are surrounded by those who are hostile to the exclusive use of the Book of Psalms as the praise book of the church; many temptations are thrown in the way of some members of our church to use hymns of human composition in divine service, and some say we are very narrow-minded and bigoted because we confine ourselves to the hundred and fifty Psalms of the Bible. We need as a church to explain to our members from time to time, as well as to exhibit to the churches around us, why we adhere to the exclusive use of the Psalms in the worship of God. We need to do this because of the natural inclination of man to substitute the human for the divine, and to consult his own feelings, even in matters of worship, rather than the revealed will of God. The question in all such matters is not what is most pleasing to human sense, but what does God require.…
No one will deny that there is warrant for the use of the inspired book of Psalms. It will not be denied that God gave these Psalms to the Jews as their book of praise. All scholars admit that the ‘hymn’ which Jesus sang just after the institution of the sacrament of the supper was selected from this book; and it is capable of demonstration that when Paul, by the Spirit, enjoined on the Ephesian and Colossian Churches the singing of ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,’ he meant no other than the inspired songs of the Bible. We are frequently commanded to praise God, but never to make a hymn to be sung in his praise. To use hymns of human composition in religious worship without divine warrant is daring presumption; it is to say that ‘God’s Spirit acted niggardly in doling out an insufficient supply of praise songs;’ and it is to profess that we are wiser than God. Let us beware of charging God foolishly.
Since we cannot consistently and conscientiously sing anything except the Psalms of the Bible in divine worship we ought not to seem to countenance the use of other songs in such service. It is damaging to the conscientious convictions of our members to frequent even houses of worship where such corruptions of worship prevail. To do so is to enter on a course which is almost certain to end in defection.
–from The Old Light Covenanter
Below is a collection of links I discovered while researching this topic. If you’d like to learn more about the case for exclusive psalmody, I’d especially recommend reading all of Brian Schwertley’s article quoted above.
- Exclusive Psalmody Churches — A connection point for exclusive psalmody congregations across the world.
- ExclusivePsalmody.com — A blog supporting exclusive psalmody, overseen by a church in the RPCGA (Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly).
- Sabbath & Psalms — Another blog presenting the views of an RPCGA member.
- Covenanter Psalmody — A collection of articles offered by the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Covenanted).
To be objective, I’ve also included an equal number of articles that attempt to refute the position of the exclusive psalmodists.
- “Exclusive Psalmody” by W. Gary Crampton — An article countering the exclusive-psalmody interpretation of the Westminster Confession chapter XXI, from trinityfoundation.org.
- “Exclusive Psalmody or New Covenant Hymnody?” by Lee Irons — A thorough response to the argument for exclusive psalmody, from the-highway.com.
- “The Argument against Exclusive Psalmody” (Parts 1 & 2) on the Two-Edged Sword blog — An argument against exclusive psalmody from a logical and historical perspective.
- “David Dickson and Exclusive Psalmody” by Seth Stark on The Aquila Report blog — Another response to exclusive psalmody, focusing on the music in Revelation.
I must admit that I haven’t had the time to read all of these articles thoroughly, as I hope to do someday, yet on a quick scan, all of them seemed fairly clear and well-written. Still, I can’t attest to the accuracy or soundness of the reasoning of these authors, so I’d recommend reading their opinions with a grain of salt.
Since this has been a long and rather rambling post, I won’t belabor the issue with my own viewpoint at the moment. I’d simply like to point out that whether or not you agree with the doctrine of exclusive psalmody, it’s always helpful to learn more about other perspectives on Reformed worship. And as we continue to consider this topic, let’s always remember what a blessing we enjoy: that we can sing God’s Word in worship.