The regulative principle

A Book review on Michael Bushell's "Songs of Zion" by Adam Brink

Songs of Zion by Michael Bushell: A Book Review

Songs of Zion

by Michael Bushell:

A Book Review

Reformed Orthobilly

For Christian Life (TH466), Master of Divinity Program

The North American Reformed Seminary

August 21st in the Year of Our Lord 2012

Michael Bushell’s work Songs of Zion1 defends the exclusive use of the 150 canonical Psalms for use in worship song. In this defense, Mr. Bushell uses several lines of argumentation, including the sufficiency and superiority of the Psalter, the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), the Psalms in Scripture, and the Psalms in history. In this powerful tour de force of the various aspects of the Psalter, Songs makes a convincing case for the Exclusive Psalmody (EP) position.

First, Bushell argues that the Psalms are sufficient for worship song. Not only are the Psalms the very Word of God, commanded to be sung, but, with Luther, we confess that “In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.2 Whether we consider the original creation, Abraham’s call, Noah’s flood, Joseph’s descent into Egypt, the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Law, the exaltation of David, the apostasy of the Jews, the captivity or the return from captivity, the incarnation of Messiah, His crucifixion, resurrection, Godhead, ascension into heaven, reign over the nations, or any other topic which concerns the Christian, they are all to be sung from the Psalter.3

Bushell also powerfully explains Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord, we are told, is perfect. It is sure. It is right. It is pure. It is true. It is sweeter than honey and more to be desired than gold. When we read this magnificent Psalm we should do so with the understanding that the Psalter is in these words praising itself. The Psalter itself is a repository, in lyrical form, of the law, the testimony, the precepts, the commandments and the judgments of the Lord. The Psalter is perfect, sure, right, pure and true. Ask yourself if it would ever be appropriate to heap such praise on the words of an uninspired man.4

That such a book of praise could be considered as insufficient for worship song is hard to comprehend.

Second, Bushell argues that the Psalms are superior to all other forms of worship song. Particularly, the inspired Psalms, commanded to be sung, are superior to man-made competitors.

The Psalms are the best because they come from the LORD. No single hymn or collection of hymns can say that. God has given them to us to sing so that we can have worship songs that are worthy of Him, songs that are the breath of the Holy Spirit, songs that burst open the doors of heaven as no human hymns can ever do. When we sing the Psalms we are only returning them to God who gave them.5

The origin, content and context of the Psalms guarantee their superior status.

In origin, the Highest Authority has given the Psalms His imprimatur. The Psalms are God-breathed. The content not only includes the doctrine and history cited earlier, but also entails the entire range of Christian experience:

I believe that a man can find nothing more glorious than these Psalms; for they embrace the whole life of man, the affections of his mind, and the motions of his soul. To praise and glorify God, he can select a psalm suited to every occasion, and thus will find that they were written for him.6

Moreover, the Psalms are superior set in their context. The 150 canonical Psalms are set among Scripture as a book of Scriptures to be sung. Bushell argues:

The inclusion of a collection of songs in the Canon of Scripture, without any demonstrable limits to its use, constitutes a divine command to use the whole of that book in services of worship. If the Lord hands us a book of Psalms, as He has in fact done, and commands us to sing Psalms, we have no right, without further instruction, to exclude certain Psalms from those that are made available to the Church.7

The place of the Psalter in Christian worship is derived from its place in Scripture, as a collection of divinely inspired songs.

The context of the Psalms also consists in the New Testament’s use of them as authoritative doctrinal gold-mines to be used in the worship of God. When one turns to Romans 3, the proof of total depravity is derived mainly from the Psalms (14:1, 5:9, 140:3, 10:7, and 36:1). Romans 4 proves justification by imputed righteousness from Psalm 32:1-2. Christ demonstrates His Godhead from Psalm 110:1 (cf. Mt. 22:44 et al.), and the Apostle His reign, session at God’s right hand and final victory from the same verse (Heb. 10:13). The incarnation is demonstrated from Psalm 40:6 (cf. Heb. 10:5). The list could be expanded to fill pages.

Christ likewise used the Psalms as significant strengths and supports for His ministry among men. He sang the “Hillel” or Psalms 113-118 after the Lord’s Table was instituted.8 On the cross, our Lord spoke the Psalms as the perfect depiction of His work for us (Ps. 22:1 with Mt. 27:46; Ps. 31:5 with Lk. 23:46). The Psalms, in the context of the New Testament, are thus seen as our Book for singing, not theirs.

In the theological context of covenant theology, this makes even more sense:

Theology books talk abstractly about the unity of the covenant but the Psalter is the best possible practical expression of that doctrine. If we can get out heads around the fact that when we take up the Psalter we sing the same songs that David sang, the same songs that the apostles sang, and the same songs that Jesus sang, we can begin to comprehend the importance of psalmody. It unites us to the church of all ages in a way that hymns cannot. We can also begin to understand why attacks on psalmody are so insidious. They are not just attempts to drive a wedge between the Psalter and the New Testament, though they are that. They are attempts to fragment the church.

These contextual considerations lend strength to the Psalmody position. The coming of the Christ did not abolish the use of the Psalter, it rather made the Psalter relevant as it never was before.9

Bushell also spends some time dwelling on the RPW as a proof of EP. Sadly, rather than a point of confessional “lowest common denominator” that can be taken for granted, the RPW has come under attack by men who profess to be Reformed. Thus, some amount of space is taken up refuting attacks by modern men, such as Doug Wilson and John Frame. Wilson, for example, argues that “the Lord Jesus… is our regulative Principal. [sic]”10 That Wilson’s argument sounds cool is without doubt; that it lacks in substance is equally certain.

The RPW, however, as derived from Scripture simply demonstrates for us that God has a natural and inalienable right to dictate the terms of the creature’s worship. God is God, and we are forbidden to engage in will-worship, or worship devised by human choosing, and not God’s choice. Whatever is not commanded is forbidden. That this is the historic Reformed position is beyond dispute, as Bushell cites:

God requires in the Second Commandment ‘that we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word.’

But 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 the Holy Scripture.11

Thus the burden for determining what matter we ought to use in worship is entirely contingent on the command of God, whether explicit, or as may be determined by good and necessary consequence. The EP position simply boils down to this: 1. God has commanded us to sing Psalms in worship; 2. God has not commanded us to sing anything else in worship; therefore, 3. we may only sing Psalms in worship.

This brings us to the next point Bushell considers: the Psalms in Scripture. As alluded to above, the Psalms are a tie between the Old and New Covenants, between Moses, David, Christ, and the New Covenant saint. Yet a common objection to their use by Christians is that their spirit reflects something less than Christian. For example, David calls upon God to avenge him against his enemies (e.g. Pss. 69 and 109). However, in Scripture, the justice of God, even against our enemies, is never excluded by the mercy of God toward us. Moreover, the expressions of divine wrath through David are set in the backdrop of the glory of God and the praise of His Name, not in mere human feeling.

For example, Psalm 139, a famous Psalm in many ways, details the glory of God’s omniscience, providence, omnipotence, and omnipresence in verses 1-18. These verses (along with perhaps verses 23-24) of the Psalm are very familiar and beloved among professed Christians. However, this context couches one of the most profound and beautiful imprecations in all of Scripture:

Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men. For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain. Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies, (Ps. 139:19-22).

God is so glorious and holy, as revealed in the earlier part of this Psalm, that any who would oppose such a God are worthy to be punished with the worst sorts of punishment! Such people are not fit to live, and should be reckoned as our enemies.12

That this is not a lost concept in the New Testament is demonstrated by the incentives Paul gives to the Romans, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head,” (Rom. 12:19-20). God’s vengeance is increased by our acts of kindness, and this is to incentivize us to do good to our enemies.

Paul likewise cites the imprecation from Psalm 69 against the Jews in writing to the Romans:

David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumblingblock, and a recompence unto them: Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back always, (11:9-10 with Ps. 69:22-23).13

Thus, the suitable and just calling down of God’s wrath against His enemies, or the incitement of further vengeance against ours and God’s enemies is not contrary to the sweet spirit of the gospel. God’s mercy and justice are companion not competing virtues.

Moreover, the Psalms in Scripture reveal themselves to be “psalms, hymns and spiritual odes, or songs.” For instance, the Psalm titles in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Psalms use these and other terms to describe the Psalms.14 That this is the version of the Old Testament that the Greek-speaking Christians of Colossae and Ephesus would have used is hard to doubt. Likewise, as noted above, Christ’s singing of what was most likely Psalms 118 is referred to as “singing a hymn.” Thus, what we think of as “Psalms” are in fact “hymns.” And what we think of as “hymns” are in fact uninspired compositions not included in the list of commanded song; and therefore on the list of forbidden song.

Finally, Bushell makes a very powerful case from the use of Psalms in the true worship of God throughout history. As is clear from the inspired record, the Psalms were given by God to inspired prophets to be sung in the temple, and among the covenant people.15

Yet, as we saw above, the Psalms became even more relevant to God’s people with the coming of Christ, His work on earth for us, and His resurrection. This manifested itself in the almost exclusive use of Psalms in both the eastern and western churches for almost 400 years, and their recovery by the Reformed church for another 200 years. To avoid prolixity, I will cite a few of the choicest quotations from the fathers and the Reformed:

The Law instructs, history informs, prophecy predicts, correction censures, and morals exhort. In the Book of Psalms you find all of these, as well as a remedy for the salvation of the soul. The Psalter deserves to be called, the praise of God, the glory of man, the voice of the church, and the most beneficial Confession of Faith.16

The women, the children, and the humblest mechanics, could repeat all the Psalms of David; they chanted them at home and abroad: they made them the exercises of their piety and the refreshment of their minds. Thus they had answers ready to oppose temptation, and were always prepared to pray to God, and to praise him, in any circumstance, in a form of his own inditing.17

The Donatists reproach us with our grave chanting of the divine songs of the prophets in our churches, while they inflame their passions in their revels by the singing of psalms of human composition, which rouse them like the stirring notes of the trumpet of the battlefield. But when brethren are assembled in the church, why should not the time be devoted to singing of sacred songs, excepting of course while reading or preaching is going on, or while the presiding minister prays aloud, or the united prayer of the congregation is led by the deacon’s voice? At the other intervals not thus occupied, I do not see what could be a more excellent, useful and holy exercise for a Christian congregation.18

But what then ought to be done? Let us have songs that are not only decent but holy. These will incite us to pray and praise God, to meditate on his works, in order to love, fear, honour and glorify him. But what Augustine says is true, that no one can sing things worthy of God, unless he has received them from Himself. Therefore, after we have sought on every side, searching here and there, we shall find no songs better and more suitable for our purpose than the Psalms of David, dictated to him and made for him by the Holy Spirit. But singing them ourselves we feel as certain that God put the words into our mouths as if He Himself were singing within us to exalt His glory. Hence Chrysostom exhorts men, women and little children alike to become accustomed to sing them, in order that their practice might be as a meditation to associate themselves with the company of angels… only let the world be well advised, that instead of the songs partly vain and frivolous, partly dull and foolish, partly filthy and vile, and consequently wicked and hurtful, which it has hitherto used, it should accustom itself hereafter to sing these divine and heavenly songs with good King David.19

IT is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family.

In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.

That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book; and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.20

Citations could be multiplied from such sources, as well as from historians who have studied such matters, such as Philip Schaff, who asserts that the eastern church had a decided aversion to anything but Psalms and long adhered to the Psalms as “first, middle and last in the assemblies of Christians.”21

Thus, in conclusion, Bushell makes a very convincing case for EP from the sufficiency and superiority of the 150 canonical Psalms, the RPW, the Psalms in Scripture, and the Psalms in history. As a personal note, I was, at one time, an opponent of EP on grounds that I now consider to be specious, at best. Yet through the singing of Psalms in worship as well as in private, and by contemplation of this topic through Mr. Bushell’s book, Songs of Zion, I have been convinced of the EP position, and delight in singing God’s law and gospel in the Psalms.