Exclusive or Inclusive? (Part 2)

Recently I started a series on the various views regarding the psalms as worship music.  In the first installment, I divided these sets of beliefs into three general categories:

  1. The 150 divinely inspired biblical psalms are the only acceptable songs for worship.
  2. 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.
  3. The use of biblical psalms and songs is encouraged, but non-inspired hymns are also appropriate for worship.

Last week we considered the first position—that of “exclusive psalmody” or “EP.”  Today, we’ll look at the second and third positions.

Many Reformed denominations interpret the regulative principle of worship (that is, the principle that we should worship God only as he has directed in his Word) to mean that we can only use songs from the Bible in worship.  While this includes mostly the psalms, some would argue that other Biblical canticles, such as the songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon, may also be sung.  This may not seem like a familiar viewpoint to many of us with a URC/CRC background, but it’s interesting to note that even the Christian Reformed Church followed this variation on “exclusive psalmody” until about 80 years ago.  In the foreword to the 1934 Psalter Hymnal, the CRC Psalter Hymnal Committee explains the previous practice of the churches:

Up to the present time our Church has always adhered faithfully to its purpose to sing only the Old Testament Psalms in public worship, barring a few exceptions mentioned specifically in Article 69 of the Church Order. This article, until its revision in 1932, read as follows: ‘In the Churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the Sermon, shall be sung.’ In our American speaking congregations even these few hymns were not all in use since only three of their number were found in The Psalter, namely, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon. During the 77 years of its existence, the Christian Reformed Church has sung practically nothing but Psalms in public worship.

Interestingly, however, the CRC’s rationale for singing only Biblical songs was not a strict interpretation of the regulative principle of worship, but instead a practical consideration of the adverse effects of singing primarily hymns.  The foreword continues:

The reason, however, for depriving ourselves, for so many years, of such songs which reflect the light that the New Testament adds to the Old was not the theory that the Church should sing only the inspired Psalms of David. We realized full well that metrical versions of the Psalms can scarcely be called inspired, and that it is hardly consistent to forbid the use of the New Testament in song while we insist that it shall be used in preaching. Practical considerations explain our traditional policy. We were aware of the unsound or unsatisfactory character of many current hymns, and we feared that in an environment where the Psalms are seldom sung, the introduction of hymns in public worship would lead to the neglect of those deeply spiritual songs of the Old Testament which the Church should never fail to use in its service of praise.

The Psalms should be the primary source for our worship music, the CRC argues, but non-Biblical songs cannot be Biblically forbidden.  Thus, the Christian Reformed Church eventually transitioned from exclusive psalmody to inclusive hymnody—the third viewpoint under consideration.

In last month’s post on “Christianizing the Psalms,” I quoted an excerpt from Dr. Paul Jones’s book Singing and Making Music.  Not to be redundant, but since this quotation is so applicable to the discussion of inclusive hymnody, I’ll include it again here.

At the same time, psalms are not the only appropriate worship songs of the people of God.  The Westminster Confession’s ‘regulative principle’ from chapter 21 does not mention hymns and spiritual songs when it says ‘singing of psalms with grace in the heart.’  But [Robert] Rayburn rightly notes, ‘This omission does not mean that we should sing the Old Testament psalms only.  The Confession uses the word in a wider sense to refer to hymns sung to God.’  From New Testament examples, worship should also include our Christian response to the finished work of Calvary.  This response could be characterized as a ‘Christian interpretation of the psalms’ through hymns and canticles as well as biblical songs and hymns of the present day.  According to [Hughes Oliphant] Old, ‘The doxology of the earliest Christians kept psalmody and hymnody in a dynamic balance.’  Without Christian hymns, our praise of God through the psalms would still be rich, but it would be missing our acknowledgment of and gratitude for the manner in which Christ has redeemed us and fulfilled what the Old Testament promised.

–from pp. 101, 102

This excerpt offers a very accurate summary on the worship perspective of most traditional Reformed churches.  Almost all of us agree that the psalms should have a primary place in our worship, but those in favor of inclusive hymnody also believe non-inspired songs are appropriate for praising God.  If you’d like some additional references, consider some of the articles I recommended in the first part of the series.  For now, though, I leave you with these comments; next week, God willing, I’ll share a few practical thoughts on how to approach the exclusive-inclusive debate.


3 Responses to “Exclusive or Inclusive? (Part 2)”

  1. 1 kaalvenist April 24, 2012 at 11:05 am

    The CRC in 1934, and Drs. Jones and Rayburn, were engaging in historical revisionism. To even suggest that exclusive psalmody (or nearly exclusive psalmody) was not maintained out of principle by nearly all Continental and British Reformed churches is rather disingenuous of them. Read the primary sources. Note especially the decisions of the Dutch Synods leading up to 1619, as well as 1834 and 1857. Likewise, at the same time that the Westminster Standards were being penned, they were engaged in deciding upon a Psalter (NOT a Psalter-Hymnal!) for the use of all British Reformed Christians.


    • 2 Michael Kearney April 24, 2012 at 11:23 am

      Sean, thanks for these comments! Do you know if the original sources you mentioned are readily available on the internet? I’m sure the CRC wasn’t trying to generalize the motives of all EP Reformed and Presbyterian churches in this foreword. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if their own position on exclusive psalmody had gradually shifted from 1857 until the 1930s, and they failed to mention this change of principle.

      Regarding the quotes from Drs. Jones and Rayburn, I suppose the root question as it relates to the Westminster Confession is this: Was the Confession written with the intent of forbidding anything but the psalms, or merely of establishing the essential role of the psalms in worship? I look forward to doing some more research!


  1. 1 Luke’s Christmas Carols « URC Psalmody Trackback on December 21, 2012 at 11:40 am

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