PsalmodyThe Orthodox Presbyterian Church on ‘Song in the Public Worship of God’.
Reports of the Committee on Song in Worship
[Note: General Assembly reports (whether from a committee or its minority) are thoughtful treatises but they do not have the force of constitutional documents—the Westminster Standards or the Book of Church Order. They should not be construed as the official position of the OPC.]
Contents: Report to 13th G.A. Report to 14th G.A. Minority Report.
REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE ON SONG IN THE PUBLIC WORSHIP OF GOD TO THE THIRTEENTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY
[The following partial report was submitted to the Thirteenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1946). It is taken from the Minutes, pp. 101-107, with slight corrections. Original title: “Report of the Committee on Song in Worship Presented to the Thirteenth General Assembly, on the Teaching of Our Standards Respecting the Songs That May Be Sung in the Public Worship of God.” Members of the committee included Robert S. Marsden (chairman), R. B. Kuiper, Arthur W. Kuschke, John Murray, John H. Skilton, Edward J. Young, and William Young. The GA adopted the recommendations of the Committee listed at the end of part one of the report.]
The Committee has labored diligently in carrying out the commission assigned to it. It has prepared a partial report and has gathered extensive materials to aid in the completion of its task.
A. The Teaching of the Subordinate Standards Respecting the Regulative Principle of Worship
There is a principle clearly expressed in our subordinate Standards which has frequently been called, the regulative principle of worship. There is an appropriateness in the word “regulative,” because it is the principle that deals with the question: in what way or ways are we to worship God? What are the elements which constitute the true and acceptable worship of God? How may we know that the way in which we worship God is acceptable to Him?
To be quite concrete and historical, there are at least two well-defined answers to this question in Christian churches. One of these is that of the Romish Church, followed in principle by Lutherans and Episcopalians, namely, that it is proper to worship God in ways not forbidden in the Word. In contrast with this there is another answer, namely, that God may be worshipped only in ways instituted, prescribed or commanded in the Word. The contrast is patent—the one says: what is not forbidden is permitted, the other says: what is not prescribed is forbidden.
It is in relation to this question that the regulative principle is to be understood. It will surely be conceded that it has a right to such a denomination. The following examination of our Standards will show that a regulative principle is clearly enunciated and that it is precisely formulated in answer to the questions stated above.
I. The first statement in our subordinate Standards bearing upon this question is that in the Confession of Faith, Chapter I, Section vi, namely, “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”
With respect to this statement it should be noted that it is one of two acknowledgments made with reference to the doctrine that, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.” We are now interested simply in the import of the above acknowledgment with respect to worship as it bears upon the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture just quoted. The teaching of this section as applied to worship would run as follows: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary” for the worship of God “is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” except that “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God…common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.” We may now proceed to analyze this statement.
1. The exception stated applies only to circumstances of worship. It cannot apply to any substantial part or element of the worship. It cannot apply to anything that enters into the worship itself but only to certain conditions under which the worship is given or conducted.
2. The exception stated applies only to some circumstances. The effect of this restriction is to allow that there may be circumstances of worship that are either expressly set down in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.
3. The exception stated applies only to some circumstances common to human actions and societies. They are therefore circumstances that are not peculiar to worship. Such are, for example, the circumstances of time and place. They may also include order and length of service, for since human societies are mentioned it is natural for us to think of the meetings of such societies in this connection. The obvious meaning of this section of the Confession is that all that does not fall into the category of “some circumstances…common to human actions and societies” must conform to what is “expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture,” in other words, the authority of Scripture is necessary for the whole content of worship—that for which we have Scripture authority is that which is expressly set down in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from it and vice versa.
II. The next statement in our subordinate Standards bearing upon the question is that in the Confession, Chapter XX, Section ii: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship.” This does not, of course, expressly state the principle regulative of worship, but it does teach something closely companionate with it. In matters of worship, as well as of faith, the conscience is free not only from what is contrary to the Word but also from what is beside it. That is to say, in the matter of worship the conscience is not bound by anything unless it is taught or enjoined in the Word, either by express statement or by good and necessary consequence. What is outwith [outside of] the deliverances of the Word has no authority for the conscience. The law for the conscience in worship is that which is authorized by Scripture.
This section does not reflect on the question whether the Christian is free to worship God in ways not taught in Scripture or not authorized by Scripture. It would have been outside the purpose and scope of this section to introduce this question. However, it must be noted carefully that this section does not say or imply that the Christian is free to worship in ways that are beside the teaching of Scripture. What the section says is that the conscience is free from all that is beside the Word in matters of worship; it does not say that the conscience is free to use what is beside the Word.
This section, however, does say emphatically that to include in worship anything that is beside the Word, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience. For the section proceeds: “So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience.” The only worship that can be rendered out of conscience, then, is the worship authorized by Scripture, that is to say, worship not beside the Word but worship authorized in the Word.
It should be observed, furthermore, that, in matters that are beside the Word, worship and faith are put on the same level. It is pertinent to ask if, in the teaching of the Confession, we are conceded the liberty of incorporating into our faith anything that is beside the Word. It would appear that we are not. If so, are we not justified in presuming, to say the least, that the Confession meant the same principle to apply to worship, even in the terms of this section?
III. In Chapter XXI, Section i, of the Confession the principle regulative of worship is expressly and unequivocally formulated. It says: “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.”
The following points may be made regarding this section.
1. It enunciates a principle that applies to all worship of God, a principle regulative of all worship. This principle is that God may be worshipped only in a way or in ways prescribed, instituted, or revealed in the Word.
2. That the regulative principle of worship enunciated in the Confession is that God may be worshipped only in a way prescribed in His Word is quite obvious from the following considerations:
(a) The Confessions says, “the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself.” If “instituted,” it must be positively ordained and not left to human invention or imagination.
(b) The acceptable way is “limited by His own revealed will.” True worship, therefore, is exercised within the limits of what God has revealed to be acceptable. Obviously, if we worship God in a manner or way which Scripture does not determine our worship cannot be within these limits, and is therefore, in terms of the Confession, unacceptable.
(c) The Confession is negative and exclusive as well as positive—God “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.” This defines the extent of the limitation mentioned in the preceding clause, or it may be regarded as a consequence flowing from the said limitation. It is so limited that the succeeding are excluded.
A word must be said about the construction of this latter part of the section. At the end we have the alternatives “under any visible representation” and “any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.” The immediately preceding part of the sentence, namely, “may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan,” applies to both. So the construction is to the effect that God “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.” By the former negation human imagination or device and Satanic suggestions are to be given no quarter in exercising their ingenuity in the direction of visualizing the worship of God. The Confession apparently felt the need of making special mention of this corruption. By the latter negation there is the most unequivocal statement that every way not prescribed in the holy Scripture is excluded, and this means that any particular element of worship that is not able to plead divine prescription in the Scripture is forbidden. To state it more positively, God may be worshipped only in the manner prescribed in the holy Scripture.
IV. The Larger Catechism, Questions 108 and 109, and the Shorter Catechism, Questions 50 and 51, clearly enunciate the same principle as we have already found in the Confession. It is stated both positively and negatively in both Catechisms. We shall see that it is most important to note the principle of exclusion as well as that of inclusion.
In Question 108 the Larger Catechism says: “The duties required in the second commandments are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word” and the Shorter Catechism, Question 50, says: “The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word.” It might be argued that this positive statement, though it makes mandatory the worship of God instituted in His Word, yet does not rigidly exclude the propriety of worshipping God in ways not instituted in the Word. It is here that the effect of the principle of exclusion, formulated in Question 109 and 51 of the respective Catechisms, becomes apparent. The Larger Catechism, Question 109, reads: “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counselling, commanding, using, or any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself,” and the Shorter Catechism, Question 51: “The second commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.”
Any further observation seems unnecessary other than to say that the worship authorized and enjoined is that instituted or appointed in the Word and that any religious worship or any way of worshipping God not appointed in the Word would be characterized in the language of Question 108 of the Larger Catechism as “false worship” and therefore to be disapproved, detested and opposed, and according to each one’s place and calling, removed.
V. It remains to deal with The Directory for the Public Worship of God, adopted by the Sixth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
There is an obvious distinction between the Confession, Larger and Shorter Catechisms on the one hand, and the Standards of Government, Discipline and Worship, on the other. The former are accorded a higher place in the constitution than the latter, inasmuch as the former are expressly mentioned in the formulae of subscription, whereas the latter are not thus mentioned, even though the approval of the government and discipline of the Church is required in some of the formulae.
It should be observed that the “Directory” is “The Directory for the Public Worship of God” and is more limited in its scope than the statements from the Confession and Catechisms dealt with already.
The relevant sections of the Directory may, however, be discussed briefly.
In Chapter II, Section 1, the Directory says: “Since the holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice, the principles of public worship must be derived from the Bible, and from no other source.” In the succeeding sections some of these principles are formulated. The principle regulative of worship, found in the Confession and Catechisms, is not formulated, and there is no unequivocal statement affirming or denying it.
There are some remarks, however, that may be made.
1. Chapter II, Section 1, quoted above, says, “the principles of public worship must be derived from the Bible, and from no other source.” Since the principle regulative of worship applies to public worship and since such a principle is enunciated in the Confession and Catechisms, this must be one of the principles the Directory says must be derived from the Bible, and from no other source. This means that, according to the Directory, the regulative principle must be that taught in the Word of God. What this teaching is the Directory itself does not say.
2. In Chapter II, Section 7, the Directory says, “The Lord Jesus Christ has prescribed no fixed forms for public worship but, in the interest of life and power in worship, has given his church a large measure of liberty in this matter. It may not be forgotten, however, that there is true liberty only where the rules of God’s Word are observed and the Spirit of the Lord is, that all things must be done decently and in order, and that God’s people should serve him with reverence and in the beauty of holiness.” It is possible that the phrase “a large measure of liberty” might be appealed to as expressing a different principle from that already dealt with as taught in the Confession and Catechisms. Furthermore, it is possible that it may have been intended in this way by the framers of the Directory. With respect to any such contention or intention two things must be said.
(a) The phrase “a large measure of liberty” refers to “forms for public worship.” It is entirely reasonable to assume that “forms” refer to something different from that which comes within the scope of the regulative principle enunciated in the Confession and Catechisms. Surely this section should be interpreted as referring to the kind of fixed liturgical forms to which the framers of the Westminster Standards were consistently opposed. It can at least be said that the regulative principle of the Confession and Catechisms is not in the least inconsistent with such denial of fixed forms as is expressed in this section.
(b) The large measure of liberty must be exercised, according to this section, within “the rules of God’s Word.” It is not, therefore, unrestricted liberty, and so, if the regulative principle be a principle of God’s Word, the liberty must be exercised within, and compatibly with, that principle or rule.
(c) Even supposing that the phrase “a large measure of liberty” was intended to express a different principle from that enunciated in the Confession and Catechisms, the occurrence of this phrase could not have the effect of abrogating the plain and unequivocal statements of the other Standards.
B. The Teaching of our Subordinate Standards Respecting the Songs That May Be Sung in the Public Worship of God
So far as we have been able to find, the only place where there is express reference in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms to the materials of song to be used in the worship of God is in Chapter XXI, Section V of the Confession. This chapter deals with “Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day.” Its teaching is not limited to public worship, though it includes public worship. As found already in the other study, this chapter enunciates in Section I the regulative principle of all worship. In Section II as well as in the first part of Section I some other principles of worship are formulated. In Sections III, IV and V the parts of worship are enumerated. It is in connection with these that “singing of psalms with grace in the heart” is stated to be one part of “the ordinary religious worship of God.” It is coordinated with “prayer, with thanksgiving,” “the reading of the Scriptures with godly fear,” “the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word,” and “the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ.” The ordinary religious worship of God is distinguished from the worship rendered upon “special occasions” such as “religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings.”
So far as the Confession is concerned, then, singing is one part of the ordinary religious worship of God. By obvious implication it is part of the ordinary public worship of God. The material to be used in such singing is “psalms.” In other words, in that part of worship that consists in singing, it is the “singing of psalms” that defines that in which it consists, not simply singing, not simply singing of God’s praises, and not simply singing with grace in the heart, but “singing of psalms.” The song-part of worship is the “singing of psalms.” Hence the Confession does not provide for the use of any materials of song other than “psalms” in the worship of God.
The proof texts given in the Westminster Confession are Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19; James 5:13. The proof texts given in the Confession of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. are these three with Acts 16:25 added.
“The Directory for the Public Worship of God” of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church deals with this question in Chapter III which bears the heading, “Of the Usual Parts of Public Worship.” Section 6 deals with “congregational singing.” It is implied that it is a part of public worship, coordinate with the other parts mentioned in other sections. In this section there occurs the following: “Since the metrical versions of the Psalms are based upon the Word of God, they ought to be used frequently in public worship. Great care must be taken that all the materials of song are in perfect accord with the teaching of holy Scripture.”
There can be no doubt but “the Psalms” mentioned in the Directory are the book of Psalms. With respect to such it is said that the metrical versions, being based upon the Word of God, should be used frequently in public worship. The context makes it plain that what is meant is that they are to be used frequently as the materials of congregational singing. A few observations regarding this statement of the Directory are in order.
(1) The metrical versions are not called the Word of God. Rather are they said to be based upon it.
(2) These metrical versions, the Directory says, ought to be used “frequently.” It does not say expressly that the “congregational singing” consists in the singing of these metrical versions of the Psalms. The omission of any such identification, together with the use of the word “frequently” might be said to concede the propriety, so far as the Directory is concerned, of singing materials other than the metrical versions of the Psalms. This interpretation could plead support from the sentence that follows, namely, “Great care must be taken that all the materials of song are in perfect accord with the teaching of holy Scripture.” It could be argued that the phrase “all the materials of song” makes allowance for materials other than the metrical versions of the Psalms and that the latter are only part of the materials of song. Further support for this interpretation might be drawn from the phrase, “in perfect accord with the teaching of holy Scripture.” It would hardly seem necessary to issue this warning with respect to the metrical versions of the Psalms since these Psalms are the Word of God and the metrical versions are directly based upon it.
(3) It should be noted, however, that this section of the Directory does not expressly endorse the use in congregational singing of any other materials than what is called “the metrical versions of the Psalms” but would seem to allow for them.
(4) In Chapter IV, C, Section 3 the Directory for the Public Worship of God says, “A psalm or hymn should then be sung, and the congregation dismissed with the following or some other benediction.” This has to do with the conclusion of the communion service.
Since in the language of Scripture the words “psalm” and “hymn” may be used synonymously it cannot be affirmed dogmatically that this statement endorses the use of sacred songs other than psalms in the public worship of God.
However, even though in the language of Scripture the word “hymn” may be used with reference to a psalm, yet in this statement the word “hymn” probably has to be taken as referring to a sacred song that is not a psalm. Here therefore the Directory may provide for the singing of sacred songs other than psalms in the public worship of God. In this place the provision is restricted to the conclusion of the communion service. But since the conclusion of the communion service is as integral a part of the public worship of God as any other part, it can be said that, on this interpretation, the Directory does here in principle make provision for, and states the propriety of, the singing of materials other than psalms in the public worship of God.
C. The Teaching of the Word of God Concerning the Regulative Principle of Worship
The Scriptures are the authoritative and sufficient rule for us in all of faith and practice. In worship we are bound to observe the principles, regulations, and ordinances which they enjoin upon us—and those principles, regulations, and ordinances alone; what they do not prescribe we are not to observe. The second commandment (Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 5:8-10) emphatically enunciates this principle. This commandment is rightly interpreted in the Larger Catechism, Q. 108, as requiring among other duties “the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath established in his word….” It is also rightly held, in the Larger Catechism, Q. 109, to forbid, along with other sins “all devising, counselling, condoning, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself…all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever.” Of relevance to worship is Moses’ commandment: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminishought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you” (Deut. 4:2; see also Deut. 12:32). Obviously relevant is our Lord’s condemnation of the Pharisees (Mark 7:5-8). See also Col. 2:20-23.
God who is a most pure Spirit and absolute Sovereign is the sole object of worship. Nothing that has not come from Him as its source is fit to be returned to Him as its end. Autonomous human reason and will, sense, emotion and imagination are not competent to originate acts or methods of worship. God as the supreme Law-giver claims for Himself the prerogative of appointing the ordinances of His worship. How then can it be anything other than presumption in a subject of this absolute Sovereign to offer as worship anything which He has not prescribed? That God allows worship that He has not prescribed is contrary to the Scripture. The attitude of God to the worshipper is expressed in such a passage as: “When ye come before me, who hath required this at your hand?” (Isa. 1:12), and the religious attitude of the worshipper who is keenly conscious of God’s sovereignty is expressed in such a passage as: “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God?” (Micah 6:6). The connection between the spirituality and sovereignty of God is also evident in the second commandment. The express prohibition of image-worship in this commandment is seen to rest upon the fact that false worship consists in the invention of modes of worshipping God inconsistent with His spirituality. “Making to oneself” is opposed to the regulative principle as it expresses the divine sovereignty, and likenesses of sensible things are opposed to the pure spirituality of the Deity. Proper regard for God’s prerogative of sovereignty in worship is the supreme safeguard against the adulterations of the spirituality of worship; disregard of God’s prerogative of sovereignty in worship definitely tends toward the adulteration of the spirituality of worship.
The necessity of observing this principle is accentuated by the fallen state of man. The total corruption and deceitfulness of the unregenerate human heart disqualify men from judging as to what may be admitted into the content of worship. The necessity of external revelation as an unerring and sufficient guide for worship is evident. The repeated admonitions of Scripture in both Testaments (Deut. 4:9, 15, 23; 12:13, 19, 30; Num. 15:39, 40; I Cor. 11:17, 20, 28, 29) show the vanity and folly of looking to the consciousness even of the regenerate man for the rule or source of the content of worship.
Many direct and specific commandments regarding worship are given to us in the Bible. But it is not only by express commands that the Bible gives warrant for certain practices of worship and renders them obligatory. What is to be derived by good and necessary consequence from the express statements of Scripture is to be regarded as taught, sanctioned, or warranted by Scripture. We have, for example, no express command to baptize infants, but we believe that we have divine warrant and authorization for the practice. To refuse to baptize infants is a serious violation of divine ordinance. Authorization may also be given in Scripture by approved example. If God has authorized a certain element of worship by some other method than that of express command, it is still a revelation to us of what is acceptable to Him.
In submitting a partial report, the Committee recommends that the General Assembly call the attention of the presbyteries and sessions to the report, and urge the presbyteries and sessions to give earnest study to it with a view to careful consideration of the report at the Fourteenth General Assembly.
The Committee further recommends that it be continued.
Robert S. Marsden, Chairman
REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE ON SONG IN THE PUBLIC WORSHIP OF GOD TO THE FOURTEENTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY
[The following majority and minority reports were presented to the Fourteenth General Assembly (1947). They are taken from the Minutes, pp. 51-66, with slight corrections (including a missing line of type). The GA voted to refer both reports, along with the report submitted to the Thirteenth General Assembly, to the Fifteenth General Assembly. They were also submitted to the presbyteries and sessions for study during the ensuring year. However, the Fifteenth General Assembly does not seem to have dealt with the reports. But the Sixteenth General Assembly did set up a committee to prepare a hymnal along the lines of the majority report, rejecting the exclusive psalmody position of the minority report.]
The Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God presented a partial report to the Thirteenth General Assembly (see Minutes, p. 100 ff.), and it hereby completes its report. The Committee would remind the General Assembly that these two parts constitute one report, and should be treated as such.
C. The Teaching of the Word of God Concerning the Regulative Principle of Worship (Concluded)
Although it is true that the Scripture teaches that God is to be worshipped only in ways prescribed, approved, instituted, revealed, or commanded in His Word, it is also true that the Scripture does not prescribe every circumstance concerning worship. This applies both to the Old Testament and the New; but in the New, because of the greater liberty bestowed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, fewer circumstances of worship are prescribed than in the Old. It is to be remarked, for example, that no precise time is set in the Scripture for such an important matter as the baptizing of infants, although circumcision was administered in the Old Testament period on the eighth day after birth, according to specific command.
It is further to be observed that the Word of God makes provision for the exercise of a measure of liberty as regards the content of worship. Here, too, there is a difference of degree between Israel of the old dispensation, which was under the law, and the New Testament Church, which is delivered from the law. Nevertheless in both dispensations the Scripture grants to the people of God a measure of liberty in the content of worship. An obvious example is afforded by prayer. Although the Bible gives us much instruction and direction in the matter of prayer, indeed even though the whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer and even though our Lord gave us a special rule of direction in prayer, we are not required to use any set form of words exclusively and invariably in our prayers. We are not limited in our prayers, for example, to the words of the prayer of Hannah, to the words of the prayers of David, as given in the Book of Psalms, or to the words of any other prayer given in the Scriptures—even to the words of the special rule which our Lord has provided for us. Prayer has been ordained by Scripture to reflect not only God’s revelation in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament period, in relation to the developing particular circumstances in the lives of God’s people in all ages. This freedom in relation to prayer is not regarded by the Scripture as incompatible with the regulative principle which the Second Commandment and other declarations of Scripture establish for our worship.
It may be asked whether the freedom granted in prayer is granted also in song. It is true that the freedom is clearly or expressly granted in the case of prayer. Will not the regulative principle for worship taught by Scripture require us to take such freedom in the case only of those forms or elements of worship for which the Scripture specifically authorizes such freedom? It might possibly be maintained in answer to this question that if the Scripture makes it clear that freedom is permissible in connection with one element of worship—and to no prejudice of the regulative principle—it is a warrantable inference that freedom of the same sort is permissible in connection with other elements of worship, if the Scripture does not clearly and specifically prohibit our taking that freedom in connection with those other elements. But even if this position is not taken, it might well be maintained that in the absence of any specific statement in the Bible to the contrary, the freedom granted in the case of prayer is certainly to be regarded as obtaining also in the case of songs used in worship, even if no statement can be found in Scripture expressly granting it in the case of songs. The resemblance in content between prayers and songs might be maintained to be so close and important as to lead us to infer that the liberty granted in the case of prayer is quite legitimately to be taken in the case of song. If the Scripture itself calls psalms prayers, may we not regard it as reasonable to think that the freedom of content granted in the one case is to be taken in the other also, and not to be denied because of certain external or secondary points of difference? More will be said about this matter later in this report.
D. The Scriptural Teaching Concerning the Songs That May Be Sung in Worship
1. The Old Testament
The first recorded instance in the Old Testament of the use of song in the public worship of God is the song of praise and thanksgiving sung by Moses and the children of Israel after the deliverance from Egypt (Ex. 15:l ff.). If singing was employed in public worship during the pre-Mosaic period or in connection with the service of the tabernacle, there is no record of the fact.
It was David who laid the foundations for musical service at the sanctuary of the Lord. David was the first good king of the theocracy, and his task consisted largely in building up and making secure the foundations of that theocracy. He instructed the Levites to appoint their brethren as singers, i.e., those who were to sing songs which could be accompanied on a musical instrument (I Chr. 15:16). These were to sing with uplifted voice and joyfully. The singers were divided into three companies according to the type of instrument which they played. Some musicians were to sound with cymbals of brass, some were to employ psalteries on Alamoth (I Chr. 15:20), whereas others were to play harps on the Sheminith (v. 21) and Chenaniah was leader in song (massa’). The musical terms herein employed may refer to different types of tunes, although this is by no means certain. Some of the terms are used as headings of the Psalms. Thus “Alamoth” occurs in the heading of Psalm 46, and “Sheminith” in the headings of Psalms 6 and 12, and these terms may refer to these specific Psalms. None of the Psalms bears the heading massa’, and if any compositions did bear this heading these compositions are now lost. David further had constructed musical instruments (kelim) for the purpose of praise (I Chr. 23:5), and certain men were separated for the purpose of prophesying upon harps and other musical instruments (I Chr. 25:l ff.). In all, four thousand singers were employed, and of these, 288 were skilled (I Chr. 23:5 with 25:1-7).
During the reign of Solomon this service was continued and probably developed (cf. I Kings 10:12, II Chr. 7:6, 9:11). The same was true of the revivals under Jehoiada, Hezekiah and Josiah (II Chr. 23:18, 20:20 ff., 35:15).
When the foundations of the Second Temple were laid, the musical service was in accord with the command of David (Ezra 3:10). At the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem the musical instruments employed were those of David the man of God (Neh. 12:36).
While these arrangements for musical service in the sanctuary were explicit as to the number of singers and the variety of instruments used in accompaniment, little is given us as to the content of song. The words Alamoth and Sheminith, as already mentioned, may possibly refer to specific Psalms. Neh. 12:46 mentions the songs which were in use at the time of David and Asaph as being “songs of praise and of thanksgiving unto God.” The word for “praise” occurs in the titles of some Psalms, but the word “thanksgiving” does not. We know definitely from I Chr. 16 that the content of some of our present Psalms was used in worship. In this chapter it is recorded that a service of worship was held in the tabernacle on the removal of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, and that a psalm was given by David to Asaph and his brethren wherewith to thank the Lord. This psalm, as sung on that occasion, is recorded in vv. 8-36. But this psalm is also reproduced in various parts of the book of Psalms: Ps. 105:1-15, Ps. 96:1-13, probably Ps. 106:1, 47, and perhaps Ps. 72:18. It is obvious from other psalms that they were intended for use in the public worship of God (see Ps. 95:2, 27:6, and 100:4). Another reference which clearly gives an indication as to the content of song is II Chr. 29:30, where Hezekiah expressly commanded the use of the words of David and Asaph the seer for a certain occasion of worship. Embraced in this description may be those Psalms of David and of Asaph which are now preserved in the Scriptures. However, for another special occasion Hezekiah did not make use of the psalms already in existence but composed a new psalm suitable to the circumstances, which is not included in our present Psalter; and provided for its use in the house of the Lord (Isa. 38:10-20).
There is not to be found in the Old Testament any explicit command which would require the Israelites to employ the entire Psalter which is now preserved, and only the Psalter, as the exclusive manual of praise in worship. Neither does it appear that the Talmud, which is the main source of information concerning worship during the inter-testamental period, makes any reference to the entire Psalter as the exclusive manual of praise, although it does require the use of certain Psalms on set occasions. Thus after the completion of the canon, or after the Psalter had become fixed as containing the present 150 Psalms, there is no evidence (or at least no remaining evidence) that the entire Psalter was used as the exclusive book of praise in worship. This lack of evidence obtains not only with reference to the inter-testamental period but also to the time of Christ.
2. The New Testament
The teaching of the New Testament concerning the content of the songs that are to be sung in the worship of God very largely depends on the usage of the words psalm, hymn, and song. Although in classical Greek song is the generic word for song,hymn signifies a song of praise, and psalm appears in the Rhesus (of the time of Euripides) for love song, yet these words as used in the New Testament clearly mean songs of praise to God. More exactly the decisive question is whether they refer in the New Testament only to the Old Testament Psalms.
The word psalm is used in I Cor. 14:26, where Paul says, “How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” The particular question confronting us here is the exact nature of the songs that were sung. Were they Old Testament Psalms, or charismatic psalms, or impromptu songs uninspired in their content? The impression given by the entire context is that the songs were charismatic. From the beginning of Chapter 12 to the end of Chapter 14 the special gifts of the Spirit are under consideration. Even the excellence and necessity of love (as set forth in Chapter 13) is shown as the best way to obtain and use these gifts. The Corinthian Christians were especially zealous of the Spiritual gifts (14:12). It is to be assumed that all men and perhaps the women mistakenly also (vs. 34) endeavored to obtain them. Perhaps some who thought they had these gifts really did not, and as a consequence their utterances were unedifying; but because of the difficulty of separating the true gift of tongues, for example, from a kind of empty babbling, it was hard to keep order in the meetings. Whether or not there were counterfeit charisms, there was evidently too much emphasis on the gift of tongues at Corinth, for Paul urges the superiority of the gift of prophesy (vs. 1-25). It would be strange to find a sudden transition in vs. 26 to that which is not charismatic. “Every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation.” This is a list of some of the special gifts of the Spirit. As the last four are charismatic, it is to be presumed that the psalm also is charismatic. Since the Holy Spirit blessed the infant Church with apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healings, helps, governments, and tongues (12:28) in order to establish it in sound doctrine, and thus provided so fully for its organization and worship, we might expect that special provision was made also for song.
Three arguments, however, may be employed to the effect that psalmos in vs. 26 means a Psalm of the Old Testament. The first is that the Psalms may have been the actual content of charismatic song. But there is then no reason why the songs should have been given in a special manner by the Spirit. Second, the use of the Greek word. But in this context there seems ample justification to translate it as “song,” or to regard it as designating song similar in certain respects to the Psalms. Third, the use of the word echei, each hath a psalm, might suggest a song already composed and at hand rather than the special inspiration of the moment. But echei is used also in the case of the other four gifts: viz., doctrine, revelation, tongue, and interpretation. We conclude then that the Greek word psalmos in the New Testament appears to have a generic sense wider than that of Old Testament Psalm.
The word to hymn occurs in Matt. 26:30 and Mk. 14:26, with probable although not certain reference to certain Old Testament Psalms. As for the word song, the book of Revelation refers to the singing of new songs which are not quotations of Old Testament Psalms but which praise God in terms characteristic of the new dispensation (Rev. 5:9-10, 7:10; cf. also 14:3 and 15:3).
In Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 Paul enjoins the use of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. The phrase “psalms, hymns and songs” is not known to have been a technical designation of the Old Testament Psalms as a body. Moreover, the word psalms alone, or the word hymns, or songs, cannot be clearly demonstrated to mean specifically the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament. It is possible that each of these terms may refer to such Psalms, since each is used in the LXX in the titles of the Psalms. However, the usage in the LXX merely shows the possibility that in the New Testament the words may refer to the Old Testament Psalms; a possibility which is not denied. On the other hand they could refer to New Testament productions as well. Indeed, the word psalm is used in I Cor. 14:26 to mean a charismatic song, or a song given in the early church as a special gift of the Spirit. The word song also is not confined in New Testament usage to the meaning Old Testament Psalm. In Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16, therefore, we cannot be sure whether Paul had in mind the use of Old Testament Psalms alone, or New Testament productions alone, or both.
Moreover in Col. 3:16 there is a presumption against the exclusion of New Testament songs from the songs there mentioned. Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs….” To the Colossians, who had lately been brought from darkness into light through the gospel message, the phrase “the word of Christ” would probably mean the gospel message about Christ. And, as the word of Christ dwells in them richly, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs will flow forth in consequence; these songs will reflect the content of the word of Christ; and by means of these songs believers are urged to teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. Thus at least some of these songs would be newly composed, either extemporaneously or as the result of some thought. It is well to consider in this connection that music in the time of the early church was rudimentary in comparison with the highly developed music of modern times. Authorities seem to be in general agreement that early Christian music was without harmony or elaborate melody, and consisted mainly in chanting. “The old Hebrew music was played thoroughly in unison…. In the place of harmony, rhythm plays a leading part, even at the expense of melody…. The singing was mainly a sort of rhythmic declamation” (The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, article “Sacred Music”). While the writer quoted speaks of the music of the Old Testament, it may be inferred that vocal music had changed little by New Testament times. The early Christians, with their background in the synagogue, probably chanted their songs. Moreover the ancient Greeks presumably attained as high a development of music as the Hebrews, but even they adhered to the simplest melodies. Evidence of this is found in the fact that although they had a rude system of writing down music by using the letters of the alphabet to indicate degrees of the scale, between 200 and 500 A.D. this system dropped out of use and was lost; so that even Boethius (480-525), who in many ways was the connecting link between the wisdom of the ancient world and that of the middle ages, knew of no means of writing music (see Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, article, “Notation”). If the Greek notation died out it may be inferred that their music was of so undeveloped and impromptu a nature as not to be worth preserving. The early Christians could not have known this Greek method of notation or they, in a developing and expanding movement, would have preserved it if their music had been elaborate enough to keep. But it was not until about 680 that a new system of notation, by accents, was devised to preserve the melodies of the Christian Church. In all this there seems a good argument that the early Christians had very simple music and probably chanted. And it is suggested that the mode of rendering the biblical lyrics in the early Church was as follows: “They were recited by a single person, while the congregation, or, as representing it, the choir, simply responded at the end of each verse with a short refrain” (Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, article, “Hymns, Greek Christian,” by Baumstark). “The Psalms were chanted, antiphonally or as a solo with a limited congregational refrain” (idem., article, “Music, Christian,” by Westerby). Chanting may be defined as monotonic recitation with cadences, with occasional rise or fall in pitch. Since there was no repetition of a specific melody, there was no need or desire for rhymed metric stanzas. Instead, simple lyrical utterance, freely chanted, was the custom of the time. These circumstances show how relatively simple was the composition of songs at the time of the early Church, and go far to explain how Paul could urge the Colossians to compose songs, either extemporaneously or after some meditation, for the general use of the Christian community. Such songs, flowing forth out of the rich indwelling store of gospel truth, would have that truth as their content. Thus, while the Old Testament Psalms were probably used by the New Testament Church, they were not exclusively used and they were not commanded in the New Testament to be the specific and exclusive manual of praise.
According to the Westminster Standards we may not incorporate into the worship of God any element which is neither expressly set down in Scripture nor by good and necessary consequence to be deduced from Scripture. The New Testament definitely provides for the element of song in public worship in I Cor. 14:15 and 26, and probably also in Acts 4:23-31. However, the content of song is not expressly limited in the New Testament, and accordingly we deduce it from the New Testament by good and necessary consequence.
In this respect song is like prayer, which although expressly given as a part of worship is not confined in Scripture to a set form of words. Indeed there is a very close connection between song and prayer. In Psalm 72:20, Psalms in the preceding subdivision are characterized as “prayers”: “the prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.” Paul and Silas in prison engaged in both song and prayer at the same time, by one act: “praying, they were singing hymns” (Acts 16:25). There is also good reason to believe that the prayer of the early church in Acts 4:24-31 was chanted. The majority of the commentators say that the prayer was spoken aloud by Peter alone and silently assented to by the rest. Thus they explain “they lifted up their voice to God with one accord.” To be sure the words “with one accord” may mean no more than they joined silently and unanimously in the prayer. But the words “they lifted up (their) voice” are hard to reconcile with the interpretation that the voice of Peter only was heard. In Acts 14:11 and 22:22 many voices are meant by the words, “lifted up their voices.” If Peter only had spoken, he would presumably have been mentioned as the speaker. The impression given by the Greek is that all joined aloud in the utterance. Perhaps, as has been conjectured, the second Psalm, or the part of it given here, was sung by all; and then Peter alone prayed aloud. But this is contrary to the apparent unity of the whole utterance as a prayer. Ellicott suggests that this whole phrase (“they lifted up their voice with one accord”) “seems to imply an intonation, or chant, different from that of common speech. The joint utterance described may be conceived of as the result either (1) of a direct inspiration, suggesting the same words to all who were present; (2) of the people following St. Peter, clause by clause; (3) of the hymn being already familiar to the disciples. On the whole, (2) seems the most probable, the special fitness of the hymn for the occasion being against (3), and (1) involving a miracle of so startling a nature that we can hardly take it for granted without a more definite statement.” In support of Ellicott’s view may be urged the fact already mentioned, that the early Christians most probably chanted their songs of praise, thus enabling them to improvise their songs to suit the occasion. To be sure, much of the prayer is not poetry; but even prose may be chanted. Moreover it was suggested in the discussion of chanting earlier in this report that songs may have been chanted as a solo with a limited congregational refrain. Thus, if Peter (or another leader of the Church) chanted the words given here, the rest may have joined in by the repetition of certain words according to the probable custom of the synagogue, thus explaining “they lifted up their voice.”
In studying the New Testament teaching concerning the content of songs, a problem of terminology arises. In our investigation we prefer to use the distinction “psalms” and “hymns” rather than “inspired” and “uninspired” song. Argument based upon the latter distinction sometimes fails to take due account of the fact that the New Testament deals with conditions in the early church which have not been continued and which cannot be our present norm. Any singing by the apostles could be considered “inspired”; and charismatic song, also “inspired,” was then prevalent. But the apostles had no successors and the charismata have ceased. To adopt the distinction “inspired” and “uninspired” may thus introduce the fallacy of arguing from the temporary practice of the early church to our permanent duty. It is better to use a distinction which can be employed without this confusion in a statement of the permanent requirements of Scripture for the Christian church. “Psalms” may be used to specify the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament, “hymns” to specify other songs of praise which may or may not be confined to the very words of Scripture.
Moreover, argument based on the distinction between “inspired” and “uninspired” song may fail to take into consideration all the Biblical evidence. Thus, to describe all Biblical songs as “inspired” is not a full description for the purpose of argument; it does not lead to the conclusion that we should sing only “inspired” songs. For certain inspired songs in the New Testament may also exemplify the very principles that sanction our use of at least some songs which are not confined to the very words of Scripture, and which are thus “uninspired.” Such a principle is the principle to be discussed below, i.e., that our song should embrace the whole extent of God’s revelation in Scripture.
The New Testament clearly represents itself not only as a fulfillment of the Old Testament but also as a fuller and more particular revelation. Thus, the Old Testament Psalms, inasmuch as they are a part of the Old Testament, are admittedly an incomplete revelation. Their expression of praise as to God’s glory in creation and providence, and his covenant mercy and faithfulness to his people, for example, are enduringly suited for the use of God’s people in both dispensations. Nevertheless in certain other respects, as they concern the great events of the gospel and the gospel teachings that are recorded in the New Testament, they represent only a preliminary stage in the growth of Biblical revelation. On the other hand there is in the New Testament an expansion of song in adjustment to the wider limits of revelation. New songs were used in praise, songs fitted for the new dispensation, and not confined to the words of the Old Testament. Such was the hymn of Mary, recorded in Luke 1:46-55, and known as “the magnificat.” Although based upon the song of Hannah in I Sam. 2:1-10 and in conformity to Old Testament teaching, it is not merely a verbal repetition. The songs of Zacharias (Luke 1:67-79) and Simeon (Luke 2:29-32) introduce New Testament elements; Zacharias expressly refers to John, while Simeon, having looked on the infant Jesus, says, “for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” Thus at the first dawning of the new dispensation the content of song expanded as revelation recommenced. There is a probability that in Acts 4:23-31 the early church continued the expansion of song in a chanted prayer shortly after the Day of Pentecost, that is, at another particularly significant point in the gradual change from the old economy to the new: “for of a truth in this city against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done. And now, Lord, behold their threatenings….” A further example of a song containing New Testament elements may occur in I Tim. 3:16. “And confessedly great is the mystery of godliness:
This literal translation is given by Lenski and is quoted here to show that the Greek in this verse actually does present the appearance of poetry. The Greek read aloud is striking in its “rhythmical movement and the parallelism of the six balanced clauses” (Plummer). Lock, in The International Critical Commentary, suggests that “this represents two stanzas of three lines each, which balance each other, contrasting the Incarnate Lord with the Ascended Lord.” Olshausen quotes Mack to the effect that “the short unconnected sentences in which the words are similarly arranged, and the number of syllables almost equal, while the ideas are antithetically related, are so suitable to religious hymns that we find all these characteristics in a series of later hymns used by the Greek and Latin Church.” Besides the four commentators already mentioned, Meyer, Ellicott, Scott, Falconer, de Wette, van Oosterzee, and A. T. Robertson consider this passage a hymn or a fragment of a hymn. Westcott and Hort, Nestle, and the American Standard Version print it as poetry. The short lines would be especially well adapted to chanted music. Lock cites three reasons why it is at least a quotation: the rhythmical form, the use of words not found elsewhere in Paul (“manifested,” “believed,” “received”), and the statement of ideas which go beyond the requirements of the text. Another reason is “confessedly,” in the clause introductory to the six balanced lines, implying that these words were a customary and familiar embodiment of gospel truth. Thus while there cannot be dogmatic certainty there is at least strong assurance that the best of all suggested interpretations is that which regards this passage as a hymn of praise, customarily employed in early Christian worship. If so, it is again an example of song, the materials of which are derived explicitly from the New Testament revelation.
Although it does not appear that God has expressly commanded the New Testament Church to sing the Psalms, yet it may be asserted without any hesitation, on the ground of good and necessary consequence, that the frequent use of the Psalms by the New Testament Church is highly pleasing to Him. The Psalms were divinely inspired for the very purpose of praise. They are theocentric in character, and worship is theocentric in its very essence. By the use of the Psalms in public worship the New Testament Church also gives expression to the essential unity of the body of Christ in both dispensations. To be sure, in scattered passages, the writers of the Psalms undertake vows in terms of the observance of the ceremonial law, which observance has now been abrogated. But, without pronouncing judgment on the propriety of singing such passages, we may assert that unquestionably the content of the Psalms, by and large, is highly appropriate for the worship of God’s covenant people to day. It is also fitting and honorable to God’s Word that the Psalms be available for song in versions that are not only as faithful as possible to the inspired text, but also expressed in language of beauty and clarity. In such versions the Psalms “ought to be used frequently in public worship,” as our Directory for Worship provides.
Our worship of God is nothing else than our response to divine revelation. That is the very essence of Christian worship. How clear it is that New Testament worship must be in response not only to God’s revelation in the Old Testament but also to His fuller revelation in the New Testament! The saints in the New Testament worshipped God thus—and in particular did they worship Him thus in song. They did not confine themselves in praise to a preliminary stage of revelation but adjusted the content of their songs to the full limit of completed revelation. We should do likewise.
Again it may be said that true worship is our response to divine revelation under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. Most assuredly, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is no license. True liberty is always liberty under law. Therefore we may worship only in ways prescribed by the Word of God. But God’s Word warrants the exercise of liberty in the content of prayer. Both by implication and by the approved examples of the New Testament saints it also warrants the exercise of liberty with regard to the content of song. The content of song, then, like the content of our prayer, need not be restricted to the very words of Scripture, although it must be assuredly Scriptural in teaching.
Robert S. Marsden, Chairman
MINORITY REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE ON SONG IN THE PUBLIC WORSHIP OF GOD SUBMITTED TO THE FOURTEENTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE ORTHODOX PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
The above-mentioned committee presented to the Thirteenth General Assembly a report bearing upon the question of the regulative principle of worship. This principle is to the effect that divine warrant or authorization is required for every element entering into the worship of God. In the words of the Confession of Faith of this Church, “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” (Chapt. XXI, Sect. I).
In terms of the commission given by the Eleventh General Assembly and in accordance with the regulative principle set forth in the report of the committee, presented to the Thirteenth General Assembly, the question with which this report is concerned is: What does the Scripture warrant or prescribe respecting the songs that may be sung in the public worship of God?
In dealing with this question it should be appreciated that the singing of God’s praise is a distinct act of worship. It is to be distinguished, for example, from the reading of the Scripture and from the offering of prayer to God. It is, of course, true that songs of praise often include what is of the nature of prayer to God, as it is also true that in the offering of prayer to God there is much that is of the nature of praise and thanksgiving. But it is not proper to appeal to the divine authorization or warrant we possess as to the content of prayer in order to determine the question as to the content of song. Prayer is one element of worship, singing is another. Similarity or even identity of content does not in the least obliterate the distinction between these two specific kinds of exercise in the worship of God. Because of this distinction we may not say that the offering of prayer and the singing of praise to God are the same thing and argue from the divine authorization we possess respecting the one to the authorization respecting the other. One or two examples may be given of the necessity and importance of guarding the distinctiveness of the several parts of worship and of determining from the Scripture what its prescriptions are respecting each element.
Both reports submitted by this committee are agreed that some Scripture songs may be sung in the public worship of God. But these Scripture songs may also be read as Scripture and they may be used in preaching. In such cases the actual materials are the same. But reading the Scripture is not the same exercise of worship as singing, and neither is preaching the same as singing, or reading the Scripture. The same kind of distinction applies to the exercises of praying and singing even when the content is identical.
The Lord’s Supper is an act of thanksgiving as well as one of commemoration and communion. But though the partaking of the bread and the wine includes thanksgiving, just as prayer and singing do, yet the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an act of worship distinct from both prayer and singing, and the divine prescriptions respecting the celebration of the Lord’s Supper cannot be determined by the divine prescriptions regarding prayer or singing but must rather be derived from the revelation God has given respecting the observance of that distinct element of the worship of God.
Consequently the minority contends that the argument used in the report of the committee, to wit, that, since we are not limited in our prayers to the words of Scripture or to the “prayers” given us in Scripture, therefore the same freedom is granted in song, is invalid. We may not argue thus from the divine warrant respecting one element to the divine warrant respecting another. The question of the divine prescription regarding the songs that may be sung in the public worship of God must be answered, therefore, on the basis of the teaching of Scripture with respect to that specific element of worship.
When we address ourselves to the question of the teaching of Scripture we find that the New Testament does not provide us with copious instruction on this matter. It is for that reason that we are placed under the necessity of exercising great care lest we overstep the limits of divine authorization and warrant. This report will deal with the evidence that is directly germane to the question.
The Scripture Evidence
I. Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26. Here we are told that, on the occasion of the passover, Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn before going out to the Mount of Olives. The Greek is humnesantes, which literally means “having hymned.” The evidence available to us from other sources is to the effect of indicating that the hymn sung on this occasion was what is known as the Hallel, consisting of Psalms 113-118. This instance evinces the following facts.
(1) No warrant whatsoever can be adduced for the singing of uninspired hymns. There is no evidence that an uninspired hymn was sung on this occasion.
(2) The evidence we do possess evinces that Jesus and His disciples sang a portion of the psalter.
(3) The singing took place in connection with the celebration of the Old Testament sacrament of the Passover and the New Testament sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
II. I Corinthians 14:15, 26. Paul is here dealing with the assembly of the saints for worship. He says, “I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the understanding also” (vs. 15), “Each one hath a psalm” (vs. 26). From the verb that Paul uses in verse 15 we might quite properly translate as follows: “I will sing a psalm with the spirit and I will sing a psalm with the understanding also,” just as in verse 26 he says, “Each one hath a psalm.” We must conclude, therefore, that psalms were sung in the church at Corinth and such singing has, by obvious implication, the apostle’s sanction and is confirmed by his example.
The question does arise: What were these psalms? It is possible that they were charismatic psalms. If so, one thing is certain—they were not uninspired compositions. If charismatic they were inspired or given by the Holy Spirit. If we today possessed such charismatic psalms, sung by the apostle himself in the assemblies of worship or sanctioned by him in the worship of the church, then we should have the proper authority for the use of them in the songs of the sanctuary. It so happens, however, that we do not have conclusive evidence to show that we have any of such alleged charismatic psalms. But even on the hypothesis that they were charismatic psalms and even on the hypothesis that we have examples of such in Acts 4:23-30; I Timothy 3:16, we are not thereby furnished with any authorization for the use of uninspired songs in the worship of God.
On the hypothesis that they were not charismatic psalms we have to ask, what were they? To answer this question we have simply to ask another: what songs in the usage of Scripture, fall into the category of psalms? There is one answer. The Book of Psalms is composed of psalms and, therefore, by the simplest principle of hermeneutics we can say that, in terms of Scripture language, the songs that are repeatedly called psalms perfectly satisfy the denotation and connotation of the word “psalm” as it is used here. If inspired Scripture says, “Each one hath a psalm,” and Scripture also calls the “Psalms” psalms, then surely we may also sing a Psalm to the praise of God in His worship.
So far as these two texts are concerned we can say that they provide us with no warrant whatsoever for the use of uninspired hymns. We can also say that, since the psalms we possess in the psalter are certainly psalms in the terminology of Scripture itself, we are hereby provided with divine warrant for the singing of such in the worship of God.
III. Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16. With respect to these two texts it should be noted, first of all, that Paul is not necessarily referring to the public worship of God. The context does not make clear that Paul is confining himself here to exhortation that concerns the behaviour of believers in relation to one another in the assemblies of worship. Paul may very well be giving general exhortation. Indeed, the context in both passages would appear to show that he is exhorting to a certain kind of exercise in which believers should engage in reference to one another in the discharge of that mutual instruction and edification requisite to concerted advancement of one another’s highest interests and of the glory of God.
This consideration does not, however, remove these texts from relevancy to the question of the public worship of God. For, if Paul specifies psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs as the media through which believers may mutually promote the glory of God and one another’s edification in those more generic Christian exercises, this fact has very close bearing upon the question of the apostolically sanctioned and authorized media of praise to God in the more specific worship of the sanctuary. In other words, if the apostolically enjoined media or materials of song in the more generic exercises of worship are psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs, then surely nothing inferior to psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs would be enjoined for use in the more specific exercises of worship in the assemblies of the church. If psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs are the limits of the materials of song in praise of God in less formal acts of worship, how much more are they the limits in more formal acts of worship. With respect to these two texts the following considerations are to be borne in mind.
(1) We cannot determine the denotation or connotation of psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs by any modern usage of these same words. The meaning and reference must be determined by the usage of Scripture.
(2) Some of the facts with reference to the usage of Scripture are very significant.
The word psalmos (psalm) occurs some 94 times in the Greek Scriptures, that is to say, some 87 times in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament and 7 times in the New Testament. In the Septuagint some 78 of these instances are in the Book of Psalms. In the great majority of instances in the Book of Psalms, some 67 in all, it occurs in the titles of the Psalms. In three of the seven instances in the New Testament the word is unmistakably used with reference to the Psalms, in two instances in the phrase the “Book of Psalms” (biblos psalmon) and in the other instance with reference to the second Psalm. It is surely significant, therefore, that in some 70 of the 94 instances the reference is clearly to the Book of Psalms or to Psalms in the Book of Psalms.
The word humnos (hymn) occurs some 19 times in the Greek Bible, 17 (?) times in the Old Testament and 2 times in the New (in the passages under consideration). Of the 17 Old Testament instances 13 occur in the Book of Psalms and 6 of these are in the titles. In the seven instances not occurring in the titles the reference is in each case to the praise of God, or to the songs of Sion. The other four instances in the other books of the Old Testament have likewise reference to the songs of praise to God.
The word, odee (song) occurs some 86 times in the Greek Bible, some 80 times in the Old Testament and 6 times in the New. Apart from these two passages (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), it occurs in the New Testament only in the Book of Revelation. Of the 80 occurrences in the Old Testament some 45 are in the Book of Psalms and 36 of these are in the titles of the Psalms.
It is surely apparent, therefore, how large a proportion of the occurrences of these words is in the Book of Psalms. These facts of themselves do not prove that the reference here in Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16 is to the Book of Psalms exclusively. But these facts must not be forgotten as we proceed to determine the character of the lyrical compositions mentioned in these two texts.
(3) In the New Testament the word psalmos occurs seven times, as was just stated. Two of these instances are in the texts we are considering. One of these instances is I Cor. 14:26, a text dealt with already. Two instances (Luke 20:42; Acts 1:20) refer to the Book of Psalms (biblos psalmon). Luke 24:44 clearly refers to Old Testament inspired Scripture and probably to the Book of Psalms. Acts 13:33 refers to the second Psalm. In none of these instances is there any warrant for supposing that “psalms” refer to uninspired human compositions. In the majority, without the least shadow of doubt, the reference is to inspired Scripture.
In the New Testament the word humnos occurs only in these two passages. The verb humneo (to hymn) occurs four times (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26, Acts 16:25; Heb. 2:12). As we found already, the synoptic passages most probably refer to the singing of the Hallel by our Lord and His disciples. Acts 16:25 refers to the singing of Paul and Silas in prison. Hebrews 2:12 is a quotation from the Old Testament (Ps. 22:23)—en meso ekklesias humneso se.
No evidence whatsoever can be adduced from the usage in support of the use of uninspired hymns.
Apart from these two instances the word odee occurs in the New Testament only in Rev. 5:9; 14:3 (2); 15:3.
From the New Testament, then, no evidence can be derived to show that these words may be used here (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) with reference to uninspired songs. Even though odee is used in the Book of Revelation with reference to songs other than those in the Book of Psalms it is not used there with reference to uninspired human compositions but with reference to inspired songs.
(4) We now come to the consideration of some facts which are even more significant than those already discussed. The Book of Psalms is composed of psalms, hymns and songs. We have already found that the overwhelming majority of the instances of these words in both Testaments has reference to the Book of Psalms. We now come to the discussion of the meaning of these words in the titles of the Psalms.
In the Septuagint psalmos occurs some 67 times in the titles to the Psalms. In most cases it is the translation of the Hebrew mismor, but in a few cases it translates other Hebrew words. Psalmos means simply “song of praise.” The frequency with which the word psalmos occurs in the titles is probably the reason why the Book of Psalms is called in the LXX version simply psalmoi. In the Hebrew it is called tehillim.
It is perfectly obvious, therefore, that the New Testament writers, familiar as they were with the Old Testament in Greek, would necessarily have the Book of Psalms in mind when they used this word psalmos. There is no other piece of evidence that even begins to take on the significance for the meaning of the word “psalm” in the New Testament that this simple fact takes on, namely, that the Book of Psalms was called simply “Psalms” (psalmoi). The usage of the New Testament itself puts this beyond all doubt. There the Psalms are called the Book of Psalms.
There is nothing in the context of these two passages requiring us to regard “psalms” as referring to uninspired compositions. On the other hand, there are abundant instances in the usage of Scripture elsewhere which show that the word “psalm” refers to an inspired composition. Furthermore, there is no instance in which the word “psalm,” as used with reference to a song of praise to God, can be shown to refer to an uninspired song. It is therefore quite unwarranted to regard “psalms” in these two passages as referring to uninspired songs, whereas there is abundant warrant for regarding them as denoting inspired compositions. Consequently, if we are to follow the line of the evidence provided by the Scripture, we are forced to find the “psalms” here mentioned within the limits of inspiration.
As we found, the word humnos appears some 17 times in the Septuagint version. In thirteen cases it appears in the Book of Psalms. In five or six cases it appears in the titles of the Psalms as the translation of the Hebrew neginoth or neginah. It is significant that on several occasions in the text of the Psalms humnos translates the Hebrew word tehillah, which is the word used to designate the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew. This shows that psalms may be called hymns and hymns are psalms. Psalms and hymns are not exclusive of one another. A psalm may be not only a psalm but also a hymn.
These facts show that when, in the usage of Scripture, we look for the type of composition meant by a “hymn,” we find it in the Psalms. And we have no evidence whatsoever that a hymn, in the usage of Scripture, ever designates an uninspired human composition.
The word odee occurs much more frequently in the titles of the Psalms than does the word humnos, but not as frequently as does the word psalmos. There are some 36 instances. It usually translates the Hebrew word shir but not always. Occasionally it is the translation of mismor, the word generally translated by psalmos. Odee occurs so frequently in the titles of the psalms that its meaning would be definitely influenced by that usage.
The conclusion to which we are driven then is that the frequency with which these words occur in that book of the Old Testament that is unique in this respect that it is a collection of songs composed at various times and by various inspired writers, the book that stands out distinctively and uniquely as composed of psalms, hymns and songs, would tend most definitely to fix the meaning of these words in the usage of the inspired writers. The case is simply this that beyond all dispute there is no other datum that compares with the significance of the language of the Septuagint in the resolution of this question. When taken in conjunction with the only positive evidence we have in the New Testament, the evidence leads preponderantly to the conclusion that when Paul wrote “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs” he would expect the minds of his readers to think of what were, in the terms of Scripture itself, “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs,” namely, the Book of Psalms.
(5) The evidence does not warrant the conclusion that the apostle meant by “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs” to designate three distinct groups or types of lyrical compositions. It is significant in this connection that in a few cases in the titles of the Psalms all three of these words occur. In many cases the words “psalm” and “song” occur in the same title. This shows that a lyrical composition may be a psalm, hymn and song at the same time.
The words, of course, have their own distinctive meanings, and such distinctive meanings may intimate the variety and richness of the materials of song the apostle has in mind. Paul uses three words that in the established usage of Scripture designate the rich variety of such lyrical compositions as were suited for the worship of God in the service of song.
(6) Paul specifies the character of the songs as “Spiritual”—odais pneumatikais. If anything should be obvious from the use of the word pneumatikos in the New Testament it is that it has reference to the Holy Spirit and means, in such contexts as the present, “given by the Spirit.” Its meaning is not at all, as Trench contends, “such as were composed by spiritual men, and moved in the sphere of spiritual things” (Synonyms, LXXVIII). It rather means, as Meyer points out, “proceeding from the Holy Spirit, as theopneustos” (Com. on Eph. 5:19). In this context the word would mean “indited by the Spirit,” just as in I Corinthians 2:13 logois…pneumatikois are “words inspired by the Spirit” and “taught by the Spirit” (didaktois pneumatos).
The question, of course, arises: why does the word pneumatikos qualify odais and not psalmois and humnois? A reasonable answer to this question is that pneumatikais qualifies all three datives and that its gender (fem.) is due to attraction to the gender of the noun that is closest to it. Another distinct possibility, made particularly plausible by the omission of the copulative in Colossians 3:16, is that “Spiritual songs” are the genus of which “psalms” and “hymns” are the species. This is the view of Meyer, for example.
On either of these assumptions the psalms, hymns and songs are all “Spiritual” and therefore all inspired by the Holy Spirit. The bearing of this upon the question at issue is perfectly apparent. Uninspired hymns are immediately excluded.
But we shall have to allow for the distinct possibility that the word “Spiritual,” in the grammatical structure of the clause, is confined to the word “songs.” On this hypothesis the “songs” are characterized as “Spiritual,” and therefore characterized as inspired or indited by the Holy Spirit. This, at least, should be abundantly clear.
The question would arise then: is it merely the “songs” that need, to be inspired while the “psalms” and “hymns” may be uninspired? The asking of the question shows the unreasonableness of such an hypothesis, especially when we bear in mind all that has already been shown with reference to the use of these words. On what conceivable ground would Paul have insisted that the “songs” needed to be divinely inspired while the “psalms” and “hymns” did not need to be? In the usage of Scripture there was no hard and fast line of distinction between psalms and hymns, on the one hand, and songs on the other. It would be quite impossible to find any good ground for such discrimination in the apostolic prescription.
The unreasonableness of such a supposition appears all the more conclusive when we remember the Scripture usage with respect to the word “psalms.” There is not the least bit of evidence to suppose that in such usage on the part of the apostle “psalm” could mean an uninspired human composition. All the evidence, rather, goes to establish the opposite conclusion.
We see then that psalms are inspired. Songs are inspired because they are characterized as “Spiritual.” What then about the hymns? May they be uninspired? As already indicated, it would be an utterly unreasonable hypothesis to maintain that the apostle would require that songs be inspired while psalms and hymns might not. This becomes all the more cogent when we recognize, as we have established, that the psalms and songs were inspired. It would indeed be strange discrimination if hymns might be uninspired and psalms and songs inspired. But it would be strange to the point of absurdity if Paul should be supposed to insist that songs had to be inspired but hymns not. For what distinction can be drawn between a hymn and a song that would make it requisite for the latter to be inspired while the former might not be? We, indeed, cannot be sure that there is any distinction so far as actual denotation is concerned. Even if we do maintain the distinct colour of each word there is no discoverable reason why so radical a distinction as that between inspiration and non-inspiration could be maintained.
The only conclusion we can arrive at then is that “hymns” in Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16 must be accorded the same “Spiritual” quality as is accorded to “psalms” by obvious implication and to “songs” by express qualification and that this was taken for granted by the apostle, either because the word “Spiritual” would be regarded as qualifying all three words, or because “Spiritual songs” were the genus of which “psalms” and “hymns” were the species, or because in the usage of the church “hymns” like “psalms” would be recognized in their own right and because of the context in which they are mentioned to be in no other category, as respects their “Spiritual” quality, than the category occupied by psalms and songs.
In reference to these two passages, then, we are compelled to conclude:
(a) There is no warrant for thinking that “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs” can refer to uninspired human compositions. These texts provide us with no authorization whatsoever for the singing of uninspired songs in the worship of God.
(b) There is warrant for concluding that “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs” refer to inspired compositions. These texts provide us, therefore, with warrant for the singing of inspired songs in the worship of God.
(c) The Book of Psalms provides us with psalms, hymns and songs that are inspired and therefore with the kind of compositions referred to in Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16.
This survey of the evidence derived from Scripture shows, in the judgment of the minority, that there is no evidence from Scripture that can be adduced to warrant the singing of uninspired human compositions in the public worship of God. The report of the committee maintains that we do have warrant for the use of such songs. The minority is well aware of the plausibility of the arguments of the committee, to wit, the argument drawn from the analogy of prayer and the argument drawn from the necessity of expanding the content of song to keep pace with the expansion of the revelation given in the New Testament. The former of these arguments has been dealt with in the earlier part of this report. The latter is much more cogent. There are, however, two considerations that require to be mentioned by way of answer.
(i) We have no evidence either from the Old Testament or from the New that the expansion of revelation received expression in the devotional exercises of the church through the singing of uninspired songs of praise. This is a fact that cannot be discounted. If we possessed evidence that in the Old Testament period the church gave expression to revelation as it progressed by the singing of uninspired songs in the worship of God, then the argument from analogy would be rather conclusive, especially in view of the relative silence of the New Testament. But no evidence has been produced to prove the use of uninspired songs in the worship of the Old Testament. Or, if instances of the use of uninspired songs in the worship of the New Testament could be adduced, then the argument of the committee would be established. But the very cases adduced by the committee to show that there was an expansion of song in the New Testament do not show that uninspired songs were employed. Hence we are compelled to conclude that, since there is no evidence to show the use of uninspired songs in the practice of the church in the New Testament, the argument of the committee cannot plead authorization from the Scriptures. The church of God must in this matter, as in all other matters concerned with the actual content of worship, confine itself to the limits of Scripture authorization, and it is the contention of the minority that we do not possess evidence on the basis of which to plead the use of uninspired songs in the public worship of God.
The argument of the committee that “the New Testament deals with conditions in the early church which have not been continued and which cannot be our present norm” fails to take due account of the normative character of Scripture. It is true that we today do not have the gift of inspiration and, therefore, we cannot compose inspired songs. But the Scripture does prescribe for us the way in which we are to worship God in the conditions that are permanent in the church. And since the Scripture does warrant and prescribe the use of inspired songs but does not warrant the use of uninspired songs, we are to restrict ourselves to those inspired materials made available to us by the Scripture itself. In other words, the Scripture does not provide us with any warrant for the exercising of those gifts the church now possesses in the composition of the actual content of song.
(ii) If the argument drawn from the expansion of revelation is applied within the limits of Scripture authorization, then the utmost that can be established is the use of New Testament songs or of New Testament materials adapted to singing. Principially the minority is not jealous to insist that New Testament songs may not be used in the worship of God. What we are most jealous to maintain is that Scripture does authorize the use of inspired songs, that is, Scripture songs, and that the singing of other than Scripture songs in the worship of God has no warrant from the Word of God and is therefore forbidden.
On the basis of these studies the minority respectfully submits to the Fourteenth General Assembly the following conclusions:
1. There is no warrant in Scripture for the use of uninspired human compositions in the singing of God’s praise in public worship.
2. There is explicit authority for the use of inspired songs.
3. The songs of divine worship must therefore be limited to the songs of Scripture, for they alone are inspired.
4. The Book of Psalms does provide us with the kind of compositions for which we have the authority of Scripture.
5. We are therefore certain of divine sanction and approval in the singing of the Psalms.
6. We are not certain that other inspired songs were intended to be sung in the worship of God, even though the use of other inspired songs does not violate the fundamental principle on which Scripture authorization is explicit, namely, the use of inspired songs.
7. In view of uncertainty with respect to the use of other inspired songs, we should confine ourselves to the Book of Psalms.