Exclusive or Inclusive? (Part 3)

Over the past week or so, we’ve looked at the notion of “exclusive psalmody” and how it relates to the more familiar view of “inclusive hymnody.”  Don’t worry if you missed the first and second installments in this series; they’re easily accessible at any time in the blog archives.  My purpose today is to offer a personal response to the exclusive-inclusive debate.

First, let me say that I am not a proponent of exclusive psalmody.  At least, not yet.  Since I’m still researching and learning, it is entirely possible that I’ll eventually become convinced of the necessity of singing only the psalms.  Until then, however, I’m going to share these thoughts from the perspective of an inclusive-hymnist URCNA member.

How can exclusive psalmody be advantageous to a congregation?  Two main reasons come to mind.

  • As so many theologians have noted, the psalms are unquestionably the best songbook the Christian could ever have at his disposal.  Singing the psalms is a great privilege and a definite requirement for worship.
  • Amidst a Christian culture so illiterate with the singing of God’s Word, it is hard to overdo the psalms.  For that reason, exclusive-psalmody churches are radically and refreshingly different from the seeker-sensitive Christian worship atmosphere so prevalent today.

Yet the doctrine of exclusive psalmody also has its pitfalls and drawbacks, including the following:

  • Are we to believe that Paul was simply being redundant (or triply emphatic) in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians when he speaks of singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”—that is, “psalms, psalms, and psalms”?  Although non-inspired songs were probably just as common then as they are now, Paul makes no special effort to distinguish the psalms from any other Christian songs.  If he had exclusive psalmody in mind, I find it surprising that he would use these three distinct terms.
  • This position presents some inconsistencies when applied to other elements of Christian worship, such as preaching.  If the regulative principle of worship were applied to a sermon in the same way as the exclusive psalmists apply it to singing, I have to conclude that anything beyond the unembellished reading of God’s Word would be forbidden.
  • Often, exclusive psalmody denominations insist upon using one particular Psalter and reject all others.  As one example, the Presbyterian Reformed Church sings only from the Scottish Metrical Psalter of the 1600’s.  Some other denominations hold exclusively to the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter.  As reassuring as it may be to sing from a centuries-old songbook, the advocates of exclusive psalmody must acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that these songs are not divinely inspired either.  Yes, they are originally based on God’s Word, but in order for us to sing them, they have been translated into English by uninspired men, and have additionally been rendered into poetic verse.  It’s also evident that the meaning of many of these psalm settings has been modified.  A study of some of the selections in the 1912 Psalter, for instance, reveals that a large number of songs have been interpreted to include themes from the New Testament—exactly the fault propounded against the use of hymns.  Thus, while the exclusive psalmists insist upon singing only the inspired Word of God, the very psalm settings in use often contradict this stipulation.

Which view is more Biblically accurate?  At this point, I can’t really say.  Dozens, probably even hundreds, of essays have been written on both sides of the debate (and many are available online if you’d like to do some extra reading).  Both sides can find Scriptures to support their claims.  But regardless of your view on exclusive psalmody, there are a few important points that we would all do well to keep in mind.

  • If your church is confidently and consistently singing the Psalms in worship, whether or not hymns are also in use, the best course of action is probably to leave the matter alone.  If it’s obvious that the worship of the congregation is sincere and God-glorifying, promoting change may do more harm than good.
  • If the leadership of your church strongly feels that a move should be made in either direction (towards exclusive psalmody or inclusive hymnody), consider making the change gradually.  Putting an announcement in the bulletin one Sunday morning that reads “The elders have determined that from now on we will sing only the psalms in worship” will certainly create more strife than a slow, well-planned transition.
  • In general, it’s safe to say that we can always sing more of the psalms.  Whatever your denomination’s views on psalmody may be, never forsake the psalms.  If necessary, introduce more recent arrangements or get a new songbook.  But remember that singing the psalms is not an optional activity for God’s people.  It is a command.

Joel Pearce, a musician and member of the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee, shared his reaction to exclusive psalmody on his own blog a few years ago:

I continue to wonder why the Psalms are not used more often in corporate worship. They cover the entire spectrum of human emotion in worship; they rehearse Christ’s saving work, death, resurrection, and glorification; they contain themes of repentance, forgiveness, joy, praise, and awe; and they are songs which are inspired by God written for our use! Why wouldn’t we want to sing them more often?…

I’m not an exclusive psalmist (yet?), but when we have 150 Holy Spirit-inspired texts to use in worship, why wouldn’t the church at least sing mostly Psalms? Instead of singing man-written hymns and songs with an occasional Psalm thrown in, I think a more biblical ratio should be mostly Psalms with an occasional man-written hymn or song thrown in. When I hear/sing many of the “positive, encouraging” contemporary praise choruses or even some of the overly-individual/emotional/experiential revival hymns of the 1800s, they just seem so radically inferior to the Psalms. This isn’t snobbery, because shouldn’t the inspired Scripture trump man-written texts? When we’ve been given a rich hymnbook in the book of Psalms and are commanded to sing them, why settle for less?

–from Token Lines

Mr. Pearce’s view is extremely similar to mine.  Even if we cannot concur on the virtue of uninspired hymns, certainly all Reformed Christians should be able to agree that the psalms must play a significant role in our worship.

To the exclusive psalmody churches, I pose this question: Do you hold to your tradition of singing only the psalms merely for the sake of tradition, or do you hold to it with firm belief that it is in accordance with God’s Word?  As is the case in many human settings, “accepted practice” can slyly sneak into a place of authority even higher than God’s Word.  No, this is not a condemnation of exclusive psalmists; rather, it is a call for them to re-examine their hearts and motives.

In conclusion, I can see truth and wisdom on both sides of the debate.  But here is my challenge to all: Whichever criterion for worship we choose—exclusive psalmody or inclusive hymnody—let us hold to it not just because we want to follow our forefathers, but because we desire to worship our God faithfully.

–MRK

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


  1. 1 kaalvenist April 24, 2012 at 11:34 am

    I. “Are we to believe that Paul was simply being redundant (or triply emphatic) in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians when he speaks of singing ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’—that is, ‘psalms, psalms, and psalms’? Although non-inspired songs were probably just as common then as they are now, Paul makes no special effort to distinguish the psalms from any other Christian songs. If he had exclusive psalmody in mind, I find it surprising that he would use these three distinct terms.”

    1. “My charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Gen. 26:5). “Iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod. 34:7). “Signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds” (2 Cor. 12:12). “Prayer and supplication” (1 Kings 8:38, 54; Acts 1:14; Eph. 6:18; Phil. 4:6). “A psalm or song for the sabbath day” (Ps. 92, title). Or perhaps more to the point, “For the end, among the Hymns, a Psalm for Asaph; a Song for the Assyrian” (Ps. 76, title [LXX]).

    2. There is no support for the idea that non-inspired Christian songs were just as common then as they are now. There was therefore no need to take special effort to distinguish the Psalms of Scripture from any other (non-existent) Christian songs.

    II. “This position presents some inconsistencies when applied to other elements of Christian worship, such as preaching. If the regulative principle of worship were applied to a sermon in the same way as the exclusive psalmists apply it to singing, I have to conclude that anything beyond the unembellished reading of God’s Word would be forbidden.”

    The singing of Psalms is a distinct element of worship from the reading of the Word, the preaching of the Word, or prayer. There is a certain “freedom” allowed to the preaching of the Word and prayer which you acknowledge (I think) would not be granted to the reading of the Word. God has “scripted” our material in the one case, which He has not done in these others. We would argue that, since specific songs were appointed by God for that purpose, the regulation of this part of worship is more like the regulation of the reading of the Word, rather than the preaching of the Word or prayer (since we do not have a Book of Homilies or a Book of Prayers).

    III. “Often, exclusive psalmody denominations insist upon using one particular Psalter and reject all others. As one example, the Presbyterian Reformed Church sings only from the Scottish Metrical Psalter of the 1600’s. Some other denominations hold exclusively to the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter. As reassuring as it may be to sing from a centuries-old songbook, the advocates of exclusive psalmody must acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that these songs are not divinely inspired either. Yes, they are originally based on God’s Word, but in order for us to sing them, they have been translated into English by uninspired men, and have additionally been rendered into poetic verse.”

    As a proponent of the Scottish Psalter of 1650, I can assure you that I know of no one who thinks that the translation is perfect, or that the translators were inspired (any more than any prose translation of the Scripture is perfect, or that the translators were inspired). But if the Apostle is able to say, in Heb. 3:7, “Wherefore, as the Holy Ghost saith…” and then proceed to quote, not the Hebrew, but the Septuagint; what is the substantive difference between saying, “The Holy Ghost said this,” and calling it the inspired Word of God? Your statements, if taken to their logical extreme, would prohibit the use of a prose translation of Scripture, as much as they would inveigh against the use of a metrical translation of the Psalms.

    IV. “It’s also evident that the meaning of many of these psalm settings has been modified. A study of some of the selections in the 1912 Psalter, for instance, reveals that a large number of songs have been interpreted to include themes from the New Testament—exactly the fault propounded against the use of hymns. Thus, while the exclusive psalmists insist upon singing only the inspired Word of God, the very psalm settings in use often contradict this stipulation.”

    It’s for this reason that I dislike the 1912 Psalter so thoroughly, and view its use as ultimately inconsistent with an adherence to the principle of exclusive psalmody. There is virtually no other Psalter in the English language which engages in this kind of revisionism to such an extent as the 1912 (including, of course, those Psalters, Psalter-Hymnals, or Hymnals that rely heavily upon the 1912).

    V. “I continue to wonder why the Psalms are not used more often in corporate worship. … Why wouldn’t we want to sing them more often? … I’m not an exclusive psalmist (yet?), but when we have 150 Holy Spirit-inspired texts to use in worship, why wouldn’t the church at least sing mostly Psalms?”

    I believe that the answer of history would be that hymns have a natural tendency, once admitted, to “crowd out” the Psalms. This has been the case in virtually every congregation or denomination that formerly sang the Psalms exclusively, which began to allow hymns of human composure. In North America alone, you have the examples of the UPCNA, the CRC, the ARPC, and the RPCGS. In these denominations (or in their residue, in the cases of the UPCNA and RPCGS), any singing of the Psalms is almost extinct; and out of all the congregations that were formerly singing exclusive from the Psalms, exclusive psalmody congregations can now collectively be counted on one hand.

    Practically, the reason is because Psalms and human hymns are like oil and water — they just don’t mix. Human hymns are fed by, and feed into, a different kind of piety (devotion, spirituality, whatever word you prefer) than that feeding into, and fed by, the Psalms. In denominations which have begun to allow human hymns, they are already adopting a different kind of piety, which will eventually demonstrate its variance with the Psalter by its total exclusion (as in the majority of previously Psalm-singing churches). Why sing the Psalms if they don’t speak to the things that I love — i.e., the things touched on in the back of the Psalter-Hymnal? Why bother if it takes serious work to understand what they mean (the same as the serious work it may take to understand what the Bible means), when human hymns are so easy to understand? etc. and etc.

    Just some thoughts. 🙂

    Sean

    • 2 Michael Kearney April 24, 2012 at 12:39 pm

      “There is no support for the idea that non-inspired Christian songs were just as common then as they are now. There was therefore no need to take special effort to distinguish the Psalms of Scripture from any other (non-existent) Christian songs.” This could be true. However, I’ve heard some make the case that several New Testament passages (John 1, Romans 10:9-17, Romans 11:33-36, I Corinthians 12:3, and others) are actually examples of hymn fragments, and some of these passages are structured similarly to the secular Greek music of the apostolic times. Not being a church historian or a Greek scholar myself, I can’t confirm these claims. But while I have to admit that a firm conclusion can’t be made from the command to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” this is certainly a matter for careful thought.

      “There is a certain ‘freedom’ allowed to the preaching of the Word and prayer which you acknowledge (I think) would not be granted to the reading of the Word.” Yes—there is a difference between preaching and reading; any Reformed congregation would be shocked if their minister started to insert his own words into the Scripture text without distinction. The difference between our views is that you would evaluate singing with the same guidelines as Scripture reading, whereas I would argue that it has the same freedom allowed for preaching and prayer.

      “But if the Apostle is able to say, in Heb. 3:7, ‘Wherefore, as the Holy Ghost saith…’ and then proceed to quote, not the Hebrew, but the Septuagint; what is the substantive difference between saying, ‘The Holy Ghost said this,’ and calling it the inspired Word of God? Your statements, if taken to their logical extreme, would prohibit the use of a prose translation of Scripture, as much as they would inveigh against the use of a metrical translation of the Psalms.” Good points. My intent wasn’t to condemn metrical translations of the psalms, but rather to point out possible inconsistencies in the EP viewpoint. (On a related note, what is your view of Isaac Watts’s paraphrases of the psalms? See an earlier post on this topic.)

      “Practically, the reason is because Psalms and human hymns are like oil and water — they just don’t mix. Human hymns are fed by, and feed into, a different kind of piety (devotion, spirituality, whatever word you prefer) than that feeding into, and fed by, the Psalms.” Interestingly, I have noticed this “different kind of piety” you mention, and as a result, I do tend to be skeptical of hymns that are completely extra-Biblical. I have generally found much more solid content in hymns based on Scripture passages, even if they’re not directly from the psalms.

      An interesting related question: How do you interpret the passage in Revelation 15:3, which tells us that the redeemed will sing “the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb”—neither of which is in the book of Psalms? Are Biblical songs besides the psalms prohibited?

      Thanks for taking the time to discuss this!

      –Michael

  2. 3 kaalvenist April 24, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    1. Regarding hymn fragments, I would recommend reading Michael Bushell’s “Songs of Zion” on the subject, or Sherman Isbell’s article, “The Singing of Psalms” (http://www.westminsterconfession.org/worship/the-singing-of-psalms.php). The idea that (1) such portions of Scripture were pieces of poetry, (2) that they were lyrical poetry, i.e. songs, (3), that they were ever sung in any scope of worship in general, (4) that they were sung in corporate worship in particular, (5) that they were uninspired or non-canonical, and (6) that they constitute an argument for us to do the same today, in all of these regards, is generally not demonstrated in the claims for hymn fragments. But I would suggest that all of these points must be demonstrated, before we use this as an argument for the hymns of Watts, Cowper, Newton, Toplady, et al.

    2. My main point (which I ended up accidentally omitting) is that, because these are distinct elements of worship, one may not argue from the manner in which God has regulated one element of worship to the next. If we will not argue that only ministers and licentiates can sing (because only they can preach), or that women are particularly prohibited from singing (since they are particularly prohibited from preaching); or, on the other hand, if we will not argue that everyone can preach (since all are commanded to sing) — at the same time, no less — we must seek the manner in which God Himself has regulated this element or part of worship in His Word, without trying to argue apples to oranges.

    3. I hold Isaac Watts and his work in abhorrence. I consider him to have been a heretic (particularly because of his Anti-Trinitarianism), although he was recognized as unorthodox on a number of other points, as well. It certainly does not help his case that, if any one person can be cited as responsible for the slide from Psalm-singing to hymn-singing in Presbyterian and Congregational churches, it would be him. I find his remarks regarding the Psalter particularly blasphemous: “Some of them are almost opposite to the spirit of the gospel,” etc. (from his “Works,” Vol. 9, p. 127).

    4. I would suggest that the Revelation, in its apocalyptic and eschatological language, is not providing for us a picture of worship on earth, or in heaven — unless we ought to or will return to the abrogated ceremonies of the Old Testament (Rev. 8:3-5, etc.).

    5. I do believe that only the Psalms are to be sung, and not other songs found in or taken from the Bible; because I believe only the Psalms have been appointed for the perpetual use of God’s people.

    Hope this helps!

    • 4 Michael Kearney April 24, 2012 at 5:43 pm

      Thanks Sean, this does help me understand the exclusive psalmody position a lot better. I still do have a few questions and comments though:

      1. Agreed. Unfortunately, the argument of New Testament hymn fragments falls short in many aspects.

      2. If we hold that “we must seek the manner in which God Himself has regulated this element or part of worship in His Word, without trying to argue apples to oranges,” then we mustn’t justify EP using passages that were written with another aspect of worship, such as preaching or prayer, in mind. With this limitation, what Scriptures unequivocally support exclusive psalmody?

      3. This makes sense within the context of the exclusive psalmody perspective.

      4. I find it hard to come up with any non-literal interpretation of this passage in Revelation. If it is not referring to an actual song of worship, to what else can it be referring? (Also, I do not think this is a part of the “abrogated ceremonies” of OT worship, since neither “the song of the Lamb” nor “the prayers of the saints” are Old Testament concepts as far as I know.)

      5. I can more easily understand the viewpoint that only Scripture can be sung, but what justification is there in the Bible for singing only the 150 psalms?

      I look forward to your response,

      –Michael

  3. 5 ChristianusSum. September 6, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    Michael raised some very good points in his last comment.

    I completely agree that the Psalms are glorious and should be part of our worship. However, I do believe that the EP position is a misreading of the Greek — the argument presented by kaalvinist is far-fetched at best, not following the reformed principle of a “plain reading” of Scripture.

    On a more personal level, I’ve struggled with the EP’s claim that any musical composition for the church would be “sin”. As a classical music lover, if I held to EP, I would basically have to view the work of J.S. Bach (and other great church composers/musicians) as “sin”. One needs only to study his cantatas to find that they are immensely rich in their beauty and their theology.

    Just my .02

    • 6 Michael Kearney September 6, 2012 at 10:29 pm

      Sir, your great Latin title should earn you at least another .05 in my book! In all seriousness, thank you for commenting. Your thoughts fall right into line with mine (and, I would suspect, with most of our federation).

      –Michael


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