Posts Tagged 'Exclusive Psalmody'

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.


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.


Exclusive or Inclusive? (Part 1)

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:

  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.

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.

The following denominations include some congregations that practice exclusive psalmody.

–from Exclusive Psalmody Churches

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” (

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.
  • — 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
  • “Exclusive Psalmody or New Covenant Hymnody?” by Lee Irons — A thorough response to the argument for exclusive psalmody, from
  • “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.


URC Psalmody on YouTube

Geneva College Benefit Concert

With this feature, just enter your email address and you'll receive notifications of new posts on URC Psalmody by email!

Join 234 other followers