Psalmody - Musical Instruments - Presbyterians
by Frank J. Smith
The Psalms in Worship: A Series of Convention Papers Bearing Upon the Place of the Psalms in the Worship of the Church, Edited by John McNaugher
(Edmonton, Alberta: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992)
copyright 1992 Frank J. Smith
The Word of God calls upon us to "sing psalms" to the Lord, and this Biblical and Reformation practice has seen a great revival over the past few years. As one who came to the position of "exclusive psalmody" as a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in the late 1970's, this reviewer has been grateful to God for raising up numerous other voices, often quite independently, to advocate a return to the Psalter.
One of the key books in the early twentieth century was The Psalms in Worship..., originally published after two psalmody conventions in 1905, held in Pittsburgh and Chicago and sponsored by the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA). Until the 1990 Psalmody Conference at Flat Rock, North Carolina, this was the last such gathering in the world; and, until fairly recent times, this volume was the last major work to deal with the subject.
One of the noteworthy features of the book is that each of the topics is addressed by two participants, thus fulfilling the Scriptural mandate of more than one witness. The subject matter ranges from a defense of the regulative principle of worship and exclusive psalmody, to the practicality and suitability of psalm-singing, to literary and musical considerations.
The first topic is "The Idea of Worship". The authors maintain that worship is the ascribing of worth to God, and that "[t]he Psalter is a book of worship by means of which man may express in fitting terms his homage and adoration" (p. 19).
Further, "[i]t is a misconception of the praise service
to regard it chiefly for impression rather than for expression.
The praise service is not chiefly for the purpose of impressing truth upon ourselves or others, but its purpose is to express unto God the glory due to His name." It is thus inappropriate to sing the gospel, "for the gospel is addressed to man, not to God.... That which terminates on ourselves or others may be a means of grace, but only that which terminates on God is praise" (pp. 20-21).
(Note: While some of this is true, the only Biblical comments about "singing" which may be interpreted as a public worship is Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. In these passages, the purpose is to take only inspired truth or "fill up with the Words of Christ" or "fill up with spirit" (the mind of Christ in John 6:63 and 1 Corinthians 2) and speak to one another to teach and admonish with Christ-given truth. Praise is not ever considered a public ritual any more than complimenting your wife is a public ritual.)
Note: Until the liberal nineteenth century, the "law was silence" was almost universal except by Catholicism which had grasped the authority to decide what one could and could not do in worship. It is not treated as "southern, red-necked, ignorant patternism by theologians who get their theology from other theologians. Division and an assembly "doing more harm than good" as in Corinth comes from doing things for that collective hour which many cannot engage in.
The next topic is "The Scriptural Law of Worship". Here is maintained what is known as the "regulative principle of worship": whatever is commanded by God is required, whatever is not commanded is forbidden. William H. Vincent pointed out that this Reformed principle differs greatly from the Romanist view (and that of Lutheranism and Anglicanism), and he wrote that admitting songs of praise which God has not authorized will also allow "the worship of the Virgin Mary, prayers to St. Peter, confession to the priest, holy water, kissing the pope's toe, and the whole brood of pollutions and monstrosities from which the Church escaped in the tremendous revolution and reformation of the sixteenth century" (p. 28). The crucial question for Vincent was, Which book of praise has divine appointment?
"The Book of Psalms not only has the seal of inspiration, but it has also the clear and unmistakable appointment of God.
Hence it is the book of praise for the Church of God in every age and in every land" (pp. 30f). William S. McClure laid out, in logical fashion, the following syllogism:
Major Premise - "Whatsoever is not commanded is forbidden"
Minor Premise - "The Bible Psalter alone is commanded to be used in the praise service in the worship of God" The
Conclusion - "Therefore, in the praise service, in the worship of God, all matter of praise besides the Bible Psalter is forbidden by the Scriptural law of worship." He cited many of the usual texts in favor of the regulative principle, including, Genesis 4:3-5; Leviticus 10:1-3; Numbers 16 and 20; and Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32.
One of the more popular notions in contemporary evangelical Presbyterianism, as championed by Westminster Theological Seminary professors such as John Frame and Vern Poythress, is that singing is merely one mode (and not a Biblically necessary one) by which worship comes to expression. In contrast to that, two essays correctly maintained that "The Singing of Praise is a Duty".
Having established that singing praise is indeed an "element" (distinguishable part, practice) of worship, the attention turned to proving that the Psalter is the "Divinely Authorized and Exclusive Manual of Praise". W. I. Wishart argued that:
1. it is a priori probable that God furnished a manual of praise fitting for His worship;
2. the Psalter seems to fit this natural expectation;
3. the content of the Psalms "are especially adapted for use in the praise of God in all ages"
4. the titles of the Psalms show that they were designed to be used in praise;
5. they were commanded to be used in the worship of the Old Testament (I Chron. 16:4, 7; II Chron. 29:30; Ps. 95:1, 2; Neh. 12:24);
6. only the Psalms were used in the worship of the Old Testament Church (pp. 50-52).
In contrast to the contention of Isaac Watts, that there are many sentiments in the Psalms that are sub-Christian, Wishart noted that Jesus Himself sang these inspired songs (p. 54).
The author demonstrated from Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 that, generically, inspired compositions are in view, and that, specifically, "all the terms used in these passages have been applied to the songs contained in the Book of Psalms" (p. 55).
One of the last points of his conclusion was that "[t]he Psalter is the true union hymn-book" (p. 58):
James A. Kennedy maintained that the Psalter is actually more appropriate for the New Testament Church than for that of the Old, since Christ is portrayed more as the historic, rather than the prophesied, Messiah (p. 64). He also pointed out that hymnody is dangerous because of the many errors contained therein (pp. 68-70).
Several essays dealt with the Psalms in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Post-Apostolic Church, and the exegesis of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.
In discussing "The Suitableness and Sufficiency of the Psalter for Christian Worship", J. A. Thompson maintained, properly, the fixed nature of praise: in contrast to prayer, for example, where the content ("matter") of necessity changes, the content of praise is fixed because rooted in the eternal character of God (pp. 178-79). He summed up his argument by saying that "the worship of the true God is essentially the same in all ages. Christian worship does not differ in its essential from the worship offered by Abraham" (p. 186).
John A. Henderson pointed out that the same Jesus Who performed miracles and could have inspired psalmists of the new Israel to compose new worship, found the Psalms of David to be sufficient for His praise (p. 192).
The next two sections are on the theocentric and Christocentric nature of the Psalms. Regarding the latter, Robert McWatty Russell stated that the failure on the part of some to find Christ in the Psalms was because of blindness. This President of Westminster (Pa.) College dealt with Psalms that are subjectively, objectively, and ideally Messianic (p. 221). E. S. McKitrick used two categories: Psalms that directly and those that typically point to the Christ (p. 230).
The devotional value of the Psalter was not overlooked. Joseph Kyle averred that, in light of the judgments about which the psalmist sings, man dares not on his own to try to make a complete manual of praise (pp. 243f). W. C. Williamson stated that no other Biblical book can equal the Psalter as a devotional book; and he noted the following: 1. the personal pronouns ("I", "My", and "Me"); 2. that there is much in it to sing about; 3. the true nature of the wicked and of the righteous are set forth; 4. there is much in it to inspire to better things and to live for God; 5. God breathed so much of Himself into the Psalter (pp. 256-63).
In arguing for the doctrinal completeness of the Psalter, E. B. Stewart urged that psalmody has produced sturdy Christians: therefore, why ridicule it (pp. 268-69)? Furthermore, hymns are defective doctrinally - a fact which even most hymn-singers are willing to concede - and the original hymns were designed to convey heresy (p. 269).
A. C. Douglas maintained that "[t]he ethical teaching of the Psalms is positive in character and free from frothy and sickly sentimentalism" (p. 281). William J. Martin showed the superiority of the Psalter's ethics, and that the Psalms claim that their ethics are scientific, universal, and of supreme importance (pp. 294-96).
The (so-called) Imprecatory Psalms have often been troubling to Christians, who wonder how they can take words of vengeance upon their lips. J. H. Webster (pp. 306-09) and James A. Reed (pp. 311-12) both related these songs of imprecation to the Lord Jesus Christ as their author and as the One Who takes revenge on His enemies. Reed also applied these odes to post-Biblical enemies, including, the French Revolution, and bloody tyrants who have persecuted the Church (p. 316).
One of the major battlegrounds in the contemporary Reformed Church is over the "church growth movement" and making worship acceptable to modern-day yuppies. This sort of problem is nothing new, as seen by the fact that William J. Reid and W. H. Patterson both addressed the appropriateness of the Psalter for evangelistic work. Patterson discussed the attraction that music has, but pointed out that there was no necessary evidence that "gospel music" itself, rather than the preaching, saved anyone (pp. 332-33). Further, the assertion that the Psalms are inappropriate for evangelistic work shows an ignorance of the Psalms (p. 339), since they contain so much of the doctrines of salvation.
Similarly, Alexander Gilchrist and Charles R. Watson set forth the suitability of psalm singing for missions. The former demonstrated the missionary spirit of various of the Psalms, while the latter also showed that that vision of the conquest of the nations by the gospel is rooted in the Psalter in an understanding of God's rule over all creation as Creator and Moral Governor.
These matters led to a consideration of "The Psalms and the Young". A. R. Paul contended that the material is unsurpassable with regard to youth, and that it appeals to all ages; while also conceding that the tunes can always be improved (pp. 356ff). W. W. Lawrence pled for people not to "[d]eprive youth of this divine heritage", lest they "go forth into the world poor in heavenly grace".
Give the Psalter songs a chance, and God's way will be vindicated. Present the literary merits of the Bible hymns, crystallize the Hebrew parallelism into choicest English verse, unfold the spiritual import in some systematic, sympathetic way, ingrain the moral constitution by memorization, interpret the pictures of oriental life psalmfully, wed these songs to music that is joyous, simple, stately, reverent, soulful, and the Master Builder will fashion the living stones of His palace into marvelous beauty (p. 363).
"The Literary Excellence of the Psalms" was seen in terms of both structure and content. J. D. Barr noted the simplicity of these songs of David, putting "the highest truths" and "the deepest experiences ... in language that cannot be misunderstood, and which also may be readily made our own." He added: "We are not listening to truth clothed in the language of philosophy, but in the language of everyday life. Thus we see how truly poetry may become the handmaid of theology" (p. 391).
In an age of ecumenicity, there was concern about "The Catholicity of the Psalter". The Psalms are apropos in every age, and are trans-denominational in character. In contrast to ephemeral hymnals, the Psalter has endured for 3,000 years because it is strong, sound, and adequate (pp. 392ff).
In their exaltation of God the Psalms are incomparable, and in this they are truly catholic. A self-conscious age may sing its own emotions instead of the praises of God; but the Bride of Christ cannot be held for long with her eyes upon the sheen of her own garments, and when she turns from these to gaze upon her Bridegroom's face, then will her praise burst forth again in the Songs of the Ages, and the Psalter of the Church Catholic will have come to its own (p. 403).
Exclusive psalmody was viewed as important for contemporary apologetics. Public opinion will be molded by a neglect of the Psalter in favor of uninspired hymns, for the latter will be perceived as being on a par with God's writings (p. 405). The doctrine of inspiration is crucial here, especially since some people were publishing the idea that hymn writers could be just as inspired as the Psalmists (pp. 407f). The exclusive use of the Psalms guarantees against the inculcation of error during the praise part of worship (p. 410). Even more, the Psalter opposes "the enthronement of subjectivism in the religious life" (p. 417).
For several years prior to these psalmody conferences, a joint multi-denominational committee had been working on a new psalter version. (The final result was The Psalter of 1912.) Two of the essays in this present volume deal with the problems of psalm versification. Significantly, J. C. K. Milligan stated that the product should be considered "mainly as an introduction of the Psalms to those who have long used the hymns exclusively" (p. 435).
Charles F. Wishart gave three principles for psalm tunes: the musical settings must be "singable", "suitable", and "strong" (P. 439-41). William H. Fulton pointed out that singing the Psalms is the best argument in favor of psalmody (pp. 445f). He stated that structure as well as sentiment must fit the music, and argued that there are some tunes so wedded to certain Psalms that to tear them apart would be "heartless" (pp. 447-48, 450).
James A. Grier and J. Knox Montgomery handled "Objections to the Exclusive Use of the Psalms in Worship". Their arguments are sound, and deal with such matters as whether Psalms are confined to the Old Covenant, the fixed nature of praise (in contrast to the free nature of the content of prayer), the difficulty of psalm singing, and the feelings of the hymn singer (pp. 452-80).
Eulogies on the Psalms were followed by articles on "The Psalms in History". The Psalms spread everywhere with Christianity (p. 503), and they especially helped the Protestant Reformation (p. 511). They were particularly present when Protestants went to battle: examples given include Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years' War; the Waldenses; the Huguenots; the Covenanters; and the Pilgrims to the New World (pp. 514, 518-21). One essayist wrote that the Psalms were used exclusively in early America, and that they dominated the sung praise of the various Presbyterian bodies in this country until fairly recent times (p. 516).
What were the "status and outlook" for psalmody? The two essayists expressed cautious optimism. S. E. Martin noted that there had been a mixed bag throughout history, including some who had fallen away from psalmody. Nevertheless, he was hopeful that psalm singing would make good headway. He stated that the "Psalm-singing Churches now have an influence for good in the world out of all proportion to their numbers, and if they should desert position on Psalmody there is reason to believe that the old sad story of Samson's strength and weakness would be repeated." He prophetically warned:
Our position on Psalmody is the first line of defense, and a strong line of defense, for the fundamentals of our religion. If we should desert this first position under the assaults that are made upon it, we would find that the roar of battle would be heard about some other position in a short time, and it might be that the point of the next attack would be the inspiration of the Bible, or the Atonement, or the divinity of Christ (p. 541).
Coming after the Index and Scriptural Index is a final essay, given at the Psalm-Singers Conference in Belfast in 1902, which told of how to secure a return to psalmody. It is a militant call to arms and to consistency of practice.
There are many strengths and good points to this book, and Still Waters is to be commended for issuing this reprint. However, there are some weaknesses - a few of which the publisher notes in order to take exception to them.
"Still Waters Revival Books reprobates any statements contained herein which speak favorably of the Crusades, Romanism, Church choirs, emotionalism, neutrality in worship, and the use of instrumental music (or any implied endorsement for the use of "hymns" of human composition) in public worship. Also, as the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) clearly states in chapter 19:4, the general equity of the sundry judicial laws of the Jews is still binding today, contrary to the comment on page 452.
Beyond those mentioned by the publisher, one of the most obvious errors is the confusion of prayer and praise. Although several essays make the proper distinction, there are several that do not (pp. 82-83, 89, 108, 120, 498).
But there were other chinks in the United Presbyterian armor. There are several dubious references to the Psalms as giving evidence of "the survival of the fittest" (e.g., p. 445). Although this term may have been used in an ironic sense, its use probably was reflective of the inroads made by Darwinism into the Calvinistic community in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
More serious is the error of sanitizing the Psalms by removing them from their historical context. One author believed that we should strive for the "real spiritual sense of the text", and that "the attempt to be rigidly literal has often resulted in the sacrifice of literary form and the introduction of words and phrases which jar upon the modern sensibility." Arguing for "a larger freedom in translation", he eschewed the use of particular names, such as "Tyre", "Philistia", and "Cush", in favor of "Gentile nations"; and stated that the lines from Psalm 60,
In Moab I will wash; My shoe
I will to Edom throw
"could surely be toned down and softened into such form of expression as would preserve both sense and dignity" (p. 426; see also p. 202). But it was precisely this type of tampering with the text that led the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America to reject the 1912 Psalter. As Johannes Vos would later write, we should not be "ashamed of the tents of Shem" - that is, we should not be afraid to affirm that God's revelation came in a particular context, to a particular covenant people. The United Presbyterian Church essentially rationalized away some of the meat of the Psalter by means of this attempt to be modern and relevant.
The United Presbyterian Church was basically sound, at least formally, with regard to theology. Nevertheless, it was given over to certain forms of egalitarianism. Although the French Revolution was perceived as the enemy of Christianity that it was, there was not as much discernment with respect to abolitionism and temperance (see, e.g., pp. 281, 284, 324). "Freedom's ferment" took its toll on the heartland of America - precisely in places where the United Presbyterians were predominantly located.
This devotion to radicalism by the Northern branches of the Covenanters and Seceders is one of those reasons why the Southern Presbyterian Church was suspicious of being fully Puritan in worship. Although the Presbyterians in the South maintained purity on the question of musical instrumentation for a longer period of time than their Northern counterparts (both in the mainline and United traditions), the main body of Calvinists in Dixie continued the practice of singing human compositions in the divine service.
But the radicalism also apparently combined with the rationalism we outlined above, to guarantee that full-blown liberalism would eventually come sweeping in. This phenomenon may help give us a clue as to why, within two decades, a church with such a noble heritage and tremendous prospects for the future, had surrendered many of its distinctives (including a rigid Calvinism and exclusive psalmody); and how, within a generation of that 1925 debacle, had practically completely apostatized via merger with the Northern Presbyterian Church in 1958.
It would appear, therefore, that mere formal allegiance to certain elements of worship is not sufficient to preserve orthodoxy. Rather, there must be a proper understanding of why one holds to a particular position, and the performance of worship practices must be governed strictly by genuine Scriptural considerations.
For example, the use of choirs in the worship service itself not only violated the principle of the priesthood of all believers, but it led, inevitably, to the singing of uninspired compositions. (See p. 62: "When United Presbyterian choirs sing anthems taken from other sources than the Psalter, it does not prove that we are not exclusively Psalm-singers.")
Going away from singing the divinely-authorized songs of David is certainly to move in the wrong direction; and churches such as the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America need to beware lest "progressives" within the Covenanter ranks try to foster hymnody. But even preserving (or re-discovering) the Psalms is no surety of faithfulness - a lesson that applies to denominations as diverse as the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) and the Christian Reformed Church.
There is a fresh breeze blowing in conservative Presbyterian circles, a moving of the Holy Spirit toward a rejuvenated piety by means of psalmody. This trend was reflected in the adoption by the 20th Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly (1992) of an overture from Central Georgia Presbytery, calling for a committee to study how to implement psalm singing in PCA and other Reformed churches.
There is an increasing body of literature that will help the Church to "sing psalms" to the Lord. This volume, with its multi-faceted and almost exhaustive approach, undoubtedly is a major part of the arsenal in this revived polemical battle. CM
1. For a treatment (by an exclusive psalmist!) of the United Presbyterian mishandling of the temperance issue, see G. I. Williamson, Wine in the Bible and the Church (Phillipsburg, N.J.: The Pilgrim Press, 1976).
2. The best treatment is Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Crown and Covenant Publications, 1980), which has been out of print but is being re-issued. See also John Murray, Minority Report: The Scriptural Warrant Respecting Song in the Public Worship of God (Vienna, Va.: Presbyterian Reformed Church, 1990), which was also reprinted in Frank J. Smith and David C. Lachman, eds., Worship in the Presence of God ... (Greenville, SC: Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Press, 1992); and The True Psalmody; or, The Bible Songs the Church's only Manual of Praise, reprinted in An Anthology of Presbyterian & Reformed Literature (Dallas, Texas: Naphtali Press, 1991), Vol. 4, pp. 247-313.
Submitted for educational purposes only. Endorsement of every word is not implied or needed.