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Psalm Singing in Scripture and History by Dr. Reg Barrow


This newsletter will be concerned with establishing that the only legitimate historical, confessional and most importantly, Biblical means of addressing God in public worship-song is via the Psalms.

1. I will grant at the outset that this is a tall order for one short newsletter. But if all I accomplish here is to encourage some to delve further into this important issue, a measure of success will have already been attained. Having observed that much of the Reformed community is not even acquainted with their own heritage of exclusive Psalmody, much less the unassailable exegetical strength of this position, I hope that this encouragement to search the Scriptures and heed the wisdom of our forefathers will not fall upon deaf ears. For great stress is laid upon the importance of discussions concerning worship throughout the works of all the major Reformers. John Calvin's reply to the Romanist Sadoleto, in 1539, is a case in point, when he writes, "I have no difficulty in conceding to you that there is nothing more dangerous to our salvation than a twisted and perverse worship of God."

2. And John Knox, forceful as usual, sets forth the end of all those who love the lie of man-made worship, when he states that for the "avoiding of idolatry you may perchance be compelled to leave your native country and realm; but obeyers of idolatry, without end, shall be compelled, body and soul, to burn in hell."

3. These discussions were for the Reformers, and are for us, much more than just academic wrangling; in them are contained the very issues of eternal life and death. The Lord, in Scripture, constantly warns against man-made devices in worship, and His most severe judgments are brought upon individuals and nations for sins which involve the very principles herein discussed (cf. Rev. 21:8, 2 Chr. 24:18, Gal. 5:19-21). On the other hand Psalm singing is one of the great joys of the Christian life. Returning the praises of God to the Almighty in a manner which He has instituted (and with which He is pleased) can and has lead to great blessing upon all those who practice it... The historical testimony reveals to us a most intriguing picture.

4. In it our Lord shows us that at the times in which He has been pleased to visit this Earth with great light, He also has given His human light-bearers the grace to practice exclusive Psalmody in public worship. In fact this testimony is so clear that it is rarely contested and is often readily conceded even by those opposed to exclusive Psalmody. Gary Crampton, in a recent article, is one example of this when he stated that "there is little question that through the centuries of church history exclusive Psalmody has been heavily endorsed by those within the Reformed community."... Concerning the early Church, Bushell notes that, "The introduction of uninspired hymns into the worship of the Church was a gradual process, and it was not until the fourth century that the practice became widespread."


6. G.I. Williamson further points out that a "second noteworthy fact is that when uninspired hymns first made their appearance, it was not among the orthodox Churches but rather the heretical groups... If the Church from the beginning had received authority from the Apostles to make and use uninspired hymns, it would be expected that it would have done so. But it did not. Rather it was among those who departed from the faith that they first appeared."

7. This historical testimony raises a number of interesting questions for those who claim to adhere to the regulative principle of worship and yet maintain the use of uninspired hymns in public worship. First, if the Psalter had been insufficient, why was there no command to produce new songs for worship, only commands to sing that which was already in existence? Second, if a new manual of praise was necessary, why was it that the Apostles did not write any new songs under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Third, why is it that we do not find even one "hymn" fragment among all the early church writings that have survived to this day. Moreover, there is not even one mention of the use of uninspired "hymns" among orthodox Christians until they began to be written in reply to the heretical "hymns," which had not surfaced until late in the second century?

8. Fourth, why was there still strong opposition to the introduction of uninspired hymns well into the fifth century? The Synod of Laodicea (A.D. 343) and the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) both opposed the introduction of uninspired "hymns." In addition to this Bushell states that "as late as the ninth century we find appeals to the earlier Councils in support of a pure psalmody."... As we reach the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century we find that "the same clericalism which denied the Bible to the common people eventually denied them the Psalter as well and replaced congregational singing with choral productions in a tongue unknown to the vast majority of the worshippers."

10 As the Reformation progressed we encounter an almost complete return to exclusive Psalmody (excluding the Lutherans, who had not extended the principle of sola Scriptura to their worship)... Psalm singing has been called the "signature of Puritanism."


16 "The English Puritans, being Calvinists and not Lutherans, held to the view that the only proper worship-song was that provided by God once and for all in the Book of Psalms... (t)his was Calvin's conviction, and a metrical Psalm before and after the sermon was the usual practice at Geneva."


17. "[O]ur Calvinistic heritage, then, is a Psalm-singing heritage, and our Reformed churches, to the extent that they have chosen to forsake that heritage, are no longer Calvinistic in their patterns of worship. The Westminster Confession of Faith. A Survey of English and Scottish Psalmody would not be complete without a reference to the work of the Westminster Assembly. Since the Westminster standards still have creedal authority in some of the smaller Presbyterian bodies which, however, are no longer committed to exclusive Psalmody, it is worth pointing out here that the Westminster Divines sanctioned nothing but the use of Psalms in the religious worship of God. It is at this point that major contradictions appear for those attempting to uphold the Westminster Confession along with the use of uninspired "hymns" in worship. The writers of the Confession were well aware of the fact that the regulative principle of Scriptural worship demands divine institution for all elements in the public worship service. Thus, to suppose that the writers of the Confession would sanction that which they could not find divine institution in scripture for and also did not include in the Confession under this section, belies a misunderstanding of the regulative principle itself. It imports the Lutheran idea that that which is not forbidden is permissible in public worship, rather than the Calvinistic conviction that that which is instituted or prescribed by Scripture is required. This is a common error today, even among Presbyterians—who, of all people, should know better. In fact, according to all the written records, the idea that uninspired "hymns" were suitable worship-songs was not even discussed at the Westminster Assembly, "the only disputes of any magnitude being over the practice of 'lining out' the Psalms and over whether to use the Psalter version of Rous or the 'Metaphrase' of Barton."


20. Thus, it can be unequivocally stated that one is of necessity in violation of both the spirit and letter of the Westminster Confession of Faith outside of the practice of exclusive Psalmody (regarding public worship-song)... Since Scripture, and not history (as helpful as it is), must be our final authority, it is to the Scripture we will go. Some positions against exclusive Psalmody can be dismissed at the outset. First, unless one is ready to institute the use of literal altars, incense, etc. in public worship, the highly symbolic and figurative nature of the book of Revelation can be no safe guide for worship (here and now).22 Second, it should be noted that most (if not all) arguments against exclusive Psalmody are of a negative nature. These anti-Psalm arguments could possibly prove that the Psalm singer's position is incorrect, but for those holding to the regulative principle, you cannot prove the positive institution of uninspired hymns by a negative argument against exclusive Psalmody. I have personally requested proof for the Biblical institution of uninspired hymns from one prominent minister who says that he upholds the regulative principle (but still uses uninspired man-made compositions for public worship-song), and have yet to receive any answer. Can you provide this proof? This is really the crux of the matter for those espousing uninspired hymns: Where is the Biblical institution for uninspired songs in public (New Testament) worship?... One major practical question remains concerning exclusive Psalmody. This is where "the rubber meets the road." Can you attend worship services which practice the idolatry of "hymn" signing and be free of sin yourself. My answer would be no!


27. Hymn singing is a direct violation of the second commandment. To attend such services without at least publicly protesting (and then bringing formal charges against the public officers who promote and maintain this sin) involves one in the breach of both the second and ninth commandments. Remember, the duties required in the second commandment include "the disapproving, detesting, (and) opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one's place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.

28. Additionally, the sins forbidden in the ninth commandment include "undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others.

29. With the Act, Declaration, and Testimony, for the Whole of our Covenanted Reformation... by the Reformed Presbytery we must "testify against all those who, under pretext of superior charity or liberality, fiercely clamour for union of churches (and union within churches—RB) by a sacrifice of divine truth."

30. There is no neutrality possible where the regulative principle is concerned. True Christian love demands that we speak out on this matter. It is not loving to hold your peace, and it is not kindness or faithfulness to forbear warning a brother when you know that he is in sin.

31. Moreover, there can be no real unity while these matters are swept under the table. There can be no real and lasting reformation where the worship of God is corrupted. Exclusive Psalmody and modern "hymn" singing cannot both be commanded of God at the same time. God is not the author of confusion. Moreover, if those in "power" will not hear legitimate reproof, then we must remember that the "duty of holiness toward God, engaged to in the covenant, comprehends in it a zealous endeavor to maintain the purity of the doctrine, worship, discipline and government of his institution, in opposition to all those who would corrupt it, or decline from it... by reproving (them) for sin; or upon those rejecting reproof, by withdrawing from (them)."

32. Additionally, "[w]e shall in like manner detest, and abhor, and labour, to extirpate all kinds of superstition—all rites and ceremonies superadded by human inventions to the worship of God, not enjoined and required in his Word; together with all heresy and false doctrine, and all profaneness and immoralities of every kind, and whatsoever is contrary to sound religion... We shall upon the other hand, endeavour to keep ourselves, as far as we can, from all partakings in other men's sins, by consenting unto associations, incorporations, combinations, compliance with, or conniving at, their sins."

33. The necessity of separation from those holding to different worship practices is best illustrated as it comes to a head concerning participation in the Lord's Supper. I will end this short appeal for consistency concerning worship-song with some citations bearing on communion and exclusive Psalmody: "We think that the original Presbyterian Church of the Reformation was right, and that to abandon its position was accordingly a sin in the sight of God— a sin in fact which is serious enough to justify us in maintaining a separate existence; in order that, by that existence, we may consistently testify against sin... We all accept the Westminster Standards. These declare that the Second Commandment forbids "all devising, using and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God Himself"...Now our church holds that this interpretation of those Commandments binds people to the exclusive use of the Psalms in divine worship, and puts them under solemn obligation to sing praises, as in apostolic times, without the use of musical instruments, and requires them to renounce the system of secretism as a system of darkness altogether unworthy of such as are called of God to be "light in the world." ...If our interpretation is not right we ought to disband. If it is right, our Session ought to see that it is honored in every particular by every person who proposes to come to the Lord's table under their jurisdiction... We hold, whether rightly or wrongly, that to undertake to praise God with songs other than those which the Holy Spirit has inspired for that purpose is a sin, and such a sin as, unrepented of, should prevent a person from sitting down at the Lord's table, either in our Church or in any other... The fact is that we find ourselves under obligation, in these respects, to bear a faithful testimony not only to the world, but to such other Churches also as differ with us on these intrinsically important questions. At the communion table our testimony comes to its climax. Shall we weaken where we should be firmest? Shall we waver where we should be immovable? Shall we make it apparent on the Holy Mount that we are sincere in our conclusions and mean to maintain them to the end, or shall we choose the Holy Mount to make it apparent to other Churches and to the world, that we only half believe what we profess? Here, of all places, it would seem, we ought to aim to be perfect, even as our Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48)"

34. This final quote is from W.J. McKnight, Concerning Close Communion (SWRB, 1995). Of course we have left numerous issues regarding all of these matters untouched. Here, I have only endeavored to introduce what I consider some of the more important aspects of the debate over public worship-song. Therefore, I strongly encourage all Christians, whether Psalm singers or not, to obtain and prayerfully study the items listed throughout this newsletter, listed at "Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen" (1 John 5:21).

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