Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 29:2).
When it comes to giving the Lord His due in corporate worship, Presbyterians have recognized historically that God cannot be worshipped in any way we choose. There must be scriptural warrant for every element of our worship. This “regulative principle” of worship has been a part of our Presbyterian heritage for several generations and is stated very clearly in The Westminster Confession of Faith ch. 21 section 1: “…But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped 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 regulative principle is plainly stated in this section of the Confession and is grounded in the second commandment which forbids idolatry (Exodus 20:4-6). The application of the principle, however, has given rise to controversy particularly in the area of what Christians are allowed to sing in corporate worship. There are some in Reformed circles that are convinced that nothing but paraphrases of the Psalms of David should be sung and that hymnody of human composure should be disallowed. There can be no doubt that the singing of such paraphrases exclusively was the practice of Reformed Churches in general for many generations. Whether or not this was a matter of principle or preference is a matter of debate. In his book that defends the exclusive use of Psalm paraphrases, Michael Bushell states in a footnote: “No reputable historian denies that the Reformed churches were all originally Psalm-singing in practice. Whether they were such in principle is still debated.”
At least one Puritan, Thomas Manton, the author of the “Epistle to the Reader” which precedes the content of the Westminster Confession, makes it clear in his comment on James 5:13 (…is any merry, let him sing psalms) that he understood Psalm-singing to be a matter of preference rather than principle. A cursory reading of his treatment of the matter shows that Psalm-singing had evidently fallen on hard times in his day and so he sets out to defend the practice of singing Psalms. But in the beginning of his treatment of the matter he states:
“I confess we do not forbid other songs; if grave and pious, after good advice they may be received into the Church. Tertullian, in his Apology showeth that in the primitive times they used this liberty, either to sing scripture psalms or such as were of a private composure.”
In his excellent treatment of this topic, “The Psalter – The Only Hymnal?” Iain Murray cites a number of men that would be in agreement with the sentiment expressed by Thomas Manton. This list would include such men as the Scots Puritan leader, David Dickson, John Flavel, and later Free Church of Scotland men including the historian William Cunningham, John Duncan, Thomas Guthrie, and Robert Candlish. Murray also cites Spurgeon, who devoted more than twenty years in expounding the Psalms, the fruit of his labors being evident in his multi-volume set, “The Treasury of David.” Spurgeon’s love for the Psalms at no time ever led him to conclude that as a matter of principle congregational singing should be restricted to the Psalms. In a footnote, Murray cites a source from Spurgeon’s magazine “The Sword and the Trowel,” in which Spurgeon critically reviews a book that defends the exclusive use of Psalm paraphrases.
During the Great Awakening, one of the hallmarks of that revival was the use of hymns in public worship. This phenomenon brought criticism from those who were against the singing of hymns. In his work “Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England,” Jonathan Edwards answered his critics:
“But what is more especially found fault with, in the singing that is now practiced, is making use of hymns of human composure. I am far from thinking that the book of Psalms should be thrown by in our public worship, but that it should always be used in the Christian church to the end of the world: But I know of no obligation we are under to confine ourselves to it. I can find no command or rule of God’s word, that does any more confine us to the words of the scripture in our singing, than it does in our praying; we speak to God in both. …. And it is really needful that we should have some other songs besides the Psalms of David. It is unreasonable to suppose that the Christian church should for ever, and even in times of her greatest light, in her praises of God and the Lamb, be confined only to the words of the Old Testament, wherein all the greatest and most glorious things of the gospel, that are infinitely the greatest subject of her praise, are spoken of under a vail, and not so much as the name of our glorious Redeemer ever mentioned, but in some dark figure, or as hid under the name of some type.”
Believing as we do that there must be scriptural warrant for every element of worship in the church, we recognize that the form of that scriptural warrant can come to us in one of three ways: there must be either an express command from Scripture, a positive example from Scripture or there must arise from good and necessary consequences a conclusion drawn from Scripture. When it comes to the use of hymns in public worship, the Christian can find scriptural warrant under all three of these headings.
1. An Express Command
Two commands are found in the New Testament when it comes to the use of hymns. The first is in Ephesians 5:19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord. The second is found in Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
Those that oppose the use of hymns of human composure are aware, of course, of these verses and they interpret them to mean that Paul is only referring to the Psalms of David, since in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament the titles of some of the Psalms are given as hymns or songs. In his work “Singing to the Lord” D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones notes: “But it is generally agreed by well-known writers on Ephesians, including scholars such as Charles Hodge and Eadie, and indeed by practically all the great commentators of the last two hundred years, that the words have different meanings…the apostle mentions the three terms quite deliberately in order to give a general description of the wide variety of ways in which people filled with the Spirit give expression to their joy and happiness.”
2. The Example of the Early Church
In 1 Corinthians 14:26 Paul writes: How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. Opponents of hymn singing are quick to point out that the context of this verse has to do with charismatic gifts so that those that were gifted with “psalms” were gifted in similar fashion as those that could speak in tongues. And since such spiritual gifts have ceased, the example of the early church at Corinth has no bearing on the argument of using hymns today. But were psalms given in a special and temporal way the way the gift of tongues was given? It makes more sense to say that those that possess the ability to compose hymns have been God’s gift to the Church down through the ages, including such composers as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. But even if “the gift of psalms” is viewed as a kind of special and temporary gift, the very least that must be conceded is that in the mind of the Holy Spirit the Old Testament psalter was insufficient for the early church and hence the need would arise for hymns based on the fuller revelation of the gospel.
3. Conclusions Reached By Good and Necessary Consequences from the Scripture
In every other element of worship, whether it be praying, or reading the Scripture or preaching, the Christian is allowed the full scope of God’s revelation from Genesis to Revelation. This truth in and of itself may not settle the issue of what the Christian is allowed to sing. After all, God is sovereign over His worship and He does have the prerogative to direct how He is to be worshiped. And if for some reason God sees fit to restrict the use of the full scope of revelation when it comes to singing in our worship that is His right. But while the use of the full scope of revelation doesn’t in itself determine the issue, it does create an expectation. Since the believer is allowed the full scope of revelation in every other element of worship it becomes very natural for the believer to expect to find scriptural warrant for the use of hymns. And when he finds that warrant through express commands and by the example of the early church, he is not surprised. Instead of searching for ways to explain away those commands and that early church example, he instead devotes himself to giving the Lord His due.
Add to this argument the fact that the Psalms themselves anticipate the use of future songs no less than six times by calling for new songs (see for example Psalm 96:1; 149:1) and the conclusion as to what we’re to sing in our public worship becomes all the more strengthened.
While those that are devoted to singing the Psalms exclusively may be so set in their practice as to not find the arguments presented in this article compelling, the Christian may in simple faith and with a joyful heart give unto the Lord His due through his use of hymns that are in keeping with the truth of the gospel. May God help us, therefore, to sing with confidence as we come before His presence with singing (Psalm 100:2).