The Question of Exclusive Psalmody

I post this here for my own future reference.  This is a comment that I left in repsonse to a question asked about Exclusive Psalmody (EP), which is the position that the New Testament church in its worship should sing only the inspired psalms of the book of Psalms in the Bible.  They argue that we must do in worship only what Scripture explicitly tells us to do, a view known as the “regulative principle”, and that we are commanded to sing psalms, we have a book of inspired psalms to sing, and therefore we should only sing psalms.  There are other aspects to the argument as well, but this is the heart of it.

My view is that Paul clearly provides warrant for the
singing of uninspired hymns in Colossians 3:16. I know the EP proponent will
howl with outrage at this assertion. I have no problem with the idea that
psalms, hymns and odes all refer to different names or kinds of songs in the
book of Psalms, and yet even granting that, nowhere does Paul say to sing
_only_ those songs in the book of Psalms. Even if he had said “sing
psalms”, that would not have limited us to the book of Psalms, since a “psalm”
is just a song meant to be sung to musical accompaniment, like to a psaltery.

Further, Paul says to “teach” one another in this
manner. In no other avenue does the church accept the bare reading of the words
of Scripture as teaching. The word is to be exposited, explained. This is even
more the case with the Psalms, which come to us in the Old Testament, before
the revelation of Christ, and are full of references that must be
contextualized for a NT audience. They speak of bloody sacrifices, of killing
all God’s enemies, and the use of musical instruments. Now these things must
all be explained. But if you have to explain what the Psalms actually mean,
then you have to recognize that if you merely use the bare words of the Psalms,
you have not taught the people.
In particular, I think the Psalms present to us an
incomplete theology of suffering, something that is a major problem I believe
among western Christians. When suffering happens to David, it is always as a
punishment for sin, or else something to simply be endured and not
comprehended. “How long, O Lord?” the psalmist always cries. On the
other side of the cross, suffering takes on an entirely different role, as the
Christian enters into the suffering of Christ. Our suffering is not necessarily
punishment for our sin and neither is it something just to be stoically
endured. The New Testament calls on us to rejoice in suffering. Peter and John
rejoiced that they were found worthy to suffer for the sake of Christ. Paul
says he “fills up what is lacking” in the suffering of Christ through
his own suffering- Col. 1:24. It is very difficult to imagine anything similar
coming from the mouth of David.
I believe that the EP argument fails to recognize the degree
of change that came with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that the
least in the kingdom of heaven would be greater than John the Baptist, who was
the greatest prophet that ever lived. Joel said that the Spirit of God would be
poured out on all flesh, so that their sons and daughters, their old men and
maidens, would prophesy. I think that points us in the direction of a far
higher level of understanding and expression of the truth of the gospel in the
New Testament. Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you
richly”, the word of Christ. Yet to the EP, I cannot sing the name of
Christ and I cannot explicitly sing about anything that was revealed only in
the NT. And it is not clearly revealed in the OT. This is taught clearly in
many passages including Hebrews 1 and others- that many things were concealed
or understood only in shadows in the OT period. The theology of suffering is
just one example.
We also have, I believe, examples of such use in the NT. 2
Timothy 2:11ff. I know the EP proponent doesn’t accept that example, but I find
the argument persuasive, that it is an example of poetry that Paul quotes, and
that if it is poetry, quoted with the expectation that the people would know
what he was quoting, then the most logical supposition is that it was a hymn
that the people sang. 1 Timothy 3:16
is another example. Given that there is no clear prohibition of such hymns in
the NT, then it is most logical to accept that what they appear to be is what
they are.
So we have warrant by example, by direct command and by
implication. The Psalms are not adequate for NT worship. They were given in a
time of the childhood of the church, do not fully express the theology that
would be revealed later, and must themselves be explained constantly to a NT
audience. Therefore they do not “teach” by themselves, as Paul
commands us to do. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the NT, the
command of Paul that the “word of Christ” would dwell in us richly by
congregational singing, and the example of such extrabiblical hymns actually
receiving the sanction of the Apostle, our way is clear.
And what is gained by singing only the inspired words of
Scripture? What possible purpose could it have? God never gives us commands for
no reason. There must be a purpose. And yet what purpose could it have? We have
uninspired words in the prayers and in the sermon. So it’s not like we are successfully
excluding the untrustworthy words of man. A song does not differ intrinsically
at all from a prayer; only the form is different. Indeed, many of the Psalms
are called prayers- 17, 86, for example. So in principle there is no difference
at all between a prayer or a song- only the accidents are different. If there
were something intrinsically problematic about singing uninspired songs, if
that were inherently offensive to God, then you would have to say the same
about prayers, and only pray the prayers we find in Scripture.
So it accomplishes nothing theologically or liturgically, it
denies the church the opportunity to sing about Christ explicitly and clearly
for no good reason at all, it presents the church with an incomplete theology
as if it were sufficient, it ignores the actual contrary examples we see in the
New Testament, fails to accomplish what Paul told us to do in Colossians 3:16,
and unacceptably flattens out God’s redemptive history, failing to see the real
distinctions between Old and New Testament and the import of the outpouring of
the Holy Spirit. And it has the added effect of cutting its proponents off from
unity and fellowship with the great majority of the rest of the world,
including the Reformed world.

9 thoughts on “The Question of Exclusive Psalmody

  1. Jeremy says:

    I think Joey Pipa discusses the issue fairly at

    I recall him comparing it more to being what might be thought of as a "Book of Common Prayer" rather than necessarily/explicitly an inspired hymn book – though it certainly contains songs that certainly can be sung.

    There are lots of pragmatic reasons to sing Scripture however. One being that it is a great method for memorization, one might use the same argument for singing the Heidelberg Catechism as well. Second, that it is "safer" than singing the lyrics from men who would not be allowed to preach in the same pulpits where their songs are being sung (if they were still alive).

    I speak only for the inclusion of Psalms, which I think is certainly consistent with the RCUS Directory of Worship.

  2. Jeremy, I am very much in favor of the inclusion of Psalms, and think that's very wise. I just don't think that should be our whole diet. But thanks for your comments- I agree with all of them.

  3. Let me just ask you this, do you think that singing is a separate element in worship, or is it under the heading of teaching and/or prayer?

  4. Jeremy, I think that we have a definite obligation to singing in the worship service. I think it's separate from prayer in one respect, that simply praying extemporaneously and individually does not satisfy the obligation to sing the word of Christ. On the other hand, the church in history has often sung prayers, and I see no problem with that. My point is only that I see no basis to separate prayer and singing to such a degree that completely different rules govern each.

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