Exlusive Psalmody: Is it Biblical? Is it the only Reformed Position? (Part 1)


This is the first part in a series on Exclusive Psalmody.  For those who are unaware Exclusive Psalmody (referred to as EP from here on out) is the claim that we are only to sing Psalms in corporate worship and no uninspired songs may be sung.  To understand EP one has to know a bit about the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).  The RPW says that in corporate worship we may only do those things that God has commanded.  This is in contrast to the Normative Principle of Worship (NPW) which says that anything God has not forbidden, is acceptable in worship.  So for example the Bible never says we cannot watch someone do a painting on stage during corporate worship as a form of worship.  The NPW would say that means painting on stage is an acceptable form of corporate worship.  The RPW would reject this because we have no command in Scripture to paint as a form of worship.  Examining the merits of the RPW is a worthy endeavor that I most assuredly will undertake at some point on my blog.  However we will accept it as correct for this series.  (For if it is incorrect then EP has no argument whatsoever.  However the RPW is a key part of Reformed theology and thus we are discussing an “in house” issue where both sides already accept the RPW).

Now adherents to EP will say that you cannot accept the RPW without holding to EP.  Along with that in the circles that I debate and discuss online the EP adherents like to imply that one is not truly reformed if they do not hold to EP.  They will bring up reformers who held to EP and if a person didn’t know better you would think that historically EP was the only position any of the reformers ever held to.  In this article I wish to show that EP was not the only position held by the reformers and that those who are reformed and sing hymns are in good company both historically and today.   In future parts to this series I intend to show that one may hold to the RPW and still consistently reject EP.

The natural place to start would be to consider if the New Testament church practiced singing exclusively the 150 Psalms recorded in the book of Psalms.  I of course will have to answer this more in depth in future posts because I intend to look at Scripture itself to consider if EP is what is prescribed.  However a brief look is warranted.  Starting in Acts 2:42 42 “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” if we are to agree with Calvin’s interpretation those prayers are both spoken and sung (1).  This will later play an important role as I will argue that song is not an element of worship but rather a mode of prayer, teaching, or exhortation.  .  If Calvin is correct this is a clear example of their prayers (not Psalms) being sung.

The next important place to look is 1 Cor 14:26 How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.

When we look at this list it would be poor exegesis to say that the psalm a person brings is an already used song (from the Psalter). None of the other things on the list would be something previously used. Context says that the psalm a person brings would be one he composed.   Consider from that list if another person were to bring a teaching or a revelation.  They would not be bringing something someone else has already said.  They would be bringing something they have “composed” themselves.  It is clear then that the psalm a person would bring would also be a newly composed psalm.

Finally we have Pliny the Younger when he reported about the Christians saying that they could be distinguished by their singing of hymns to Christ as unto a god.  Now some have said that just means they were singing the psalms that talk about the Messiah.  However if that was the case it would not distinguish them from the Jews whatsoever since they sang those same songs.   What makes sense here is that they were singing newly composed hymns written to Christ as God. (1)

Moving forward to the Reformation, it is well known that Luther composed and sang hymns in worship.  Of course many EP proponents will dismiss this as Luther had some Roman Catholic carryovers and they will say he wasn’t fully reformed.  Nonetheless as the first reformer it is noteworthy that Luther fully embraced singing hymns in worship.

The next example I have is a bit tongue in cheek but Zwingli was not an adherent of Exclusive Psalmody.  That is because he did not allow any singing in public worship whatsoever but still he did not practice the singing of only Psalms. I later intend to show that if we take the EP principles to their logical conclusion we would end up like Zwingli in saying that there is no place for song whatsoever in corporate worship.

Calvin is a bit hard to pin down.  Several quotes from him make it clear that he preferred the Psalms however in all his writing there is no condemnation of singing newly composed hymns.  The Genevan Psalter which Calvin oversaw contained songs that were not part of the book of Psalms (as he included a metrical version of the 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, a hymn, and the Apostle’s Creed).  Also as I have previously mentioned Calvin held that prayers were and could be sung.  Additionally Calvin on the command in Scripture to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” said this: “Moreover, under these three terms he includes all kinds of songs. They are commonly distinguished in this way: a psalm is sung to the accompaniment of some musical instrument, a hymn is properly a song of praise, whether it be sung simply with the voice or otherwise; an ode contains not merely praise, but exhortation and other matters. He wants the songs of Christians to be spiritual, and not made up of frivolities and worthless trifles.”  The last line indicates that songs of Christians may be newly composed.  If Calvin believed we must only sing from the book of Psalms he would have no need to clarify that our songs must be spiritual and not composed of frivolities.  (2)

Often overlooked is the German Reformed tradition.  Unlike some of their counterparts their psalters/hymnbooks contained uninspired hymns.   Johannes Zwick produced a hymn book that contained both Psalms and hymns (including some of Luther’s hymns).  Also the 1537 Strassborg Psalter included both Psalms and hymns. From Luther and the German reformed tradition we get a rich and beautiful church hymnody that surpasses most other reformed traditions. (3)

The next important question is of the Westminster Confession and the Synod of Dort.  Neither of these explicitly rejected the singing of newly composed hymns.  Proponents of EP will tell you to look at the Westminster Divine’s own writings to see that they held to EP.  While this may be the case both the Westminster Confession and the Synod of Dort knew there were Reformed churches in Holland, England, France, and Switzerland with Psalters that contained man written hymns and yet they refused to include any explicit command forbidding the use of hymns.  If they were fully unified on EP it is extremely odd that they made no mention of it in the WCF.  If they no longer wished the practice to be done they could have easily included in the confession a direct forbidding of it.  Also this being the case one cannot accurately say that you are rejecting the Westminster Confession if you sing hymns.  So while many of them held to EP they did not see fit to make it an issue that one was required to hold to in order to affirm the confession. (4)

Benjamin Keach was a Particular Baptist in the second half of the 17th century.  Keach’s Catechism what he is most known for and is one of the most well known Baptist catechisms.  He also published a hymn book along with writing many hymns rich in theological truths.  His church sang these hymns in corporate worship.  (A small side note, the London Baptist Confession of 1689 also gives no prohibition of singing hymns nor does it give any endorsement to singing only the Psalms.)

The next person I want to consider is the puritan Jonathan Edwards.  Below is a quote from him making it clear that he rejected EP.  In fact he makes a great point that when we limit ourselves to the psalms we limit ourselves from ever singing the name above all other names, Jesus.  The EP adherents will tell us that Jesus is spoken of in the Psalms in the prophetic passages.  This is true but He is not mentioned by name and moreover many of His great works are left out of the Psalms.  The Psalms themselves tell us to sing of God’s great works. If we are to do that how can we leave out so many great works that are found in the New Testament?

“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 until 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 Scripture in our singing, than it does in our praying; we speak to God in both. And I can see no words, that we find in the Bible, in speaking to Him by way of praise, in metre, and with music than when we speak to Him in prose, by way of prayer and supplication. 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 forever 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 subjects of her praise, are spoken of under a veil, 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. And as to our making use of the words of others, and not those that are conceived by ourselves, it is no more than we do in all our public prayers; the whole worshipping assembly, excepting one only, makes use of the words that are conceived by him who speaks for the rest.” –Jonathan Edwards  (5)

Charles Spurgeon is interesting because he rejected the use of instruments in worship but he not only allowed new hymns but even wrote some himself.  Consider the quote from him below:

“I recollect walking out to preach nigh unto forty years ago, just when I began my witnessing for the Lord Jesus. As I trudged along with a somewhat older brother, who was going to preach at another village station, our talk was about our work, and he said to me, “Does it not strike you as a very solemn thing that we two local preachers are going to do the Lord’s work, and much may depend even upon the very hymns we give out, and the way in which we read them?” I thought of that, and I prayed — and often do pray — that I may have the right hymn and the right chapter, as well as the right sermon. Well do I remember a great sinner coming into Exeter Hall, and I read the hymn beginning, “Jesus, lover of my soul,” and that first line pierced him in the heart. He said to himself, “Does Jesus love my soul?” He wept because he had not loved the Savior in return; and he was brought to the Savior’s feet just by that one line of a hymn. It does make it the burden of the Lord when you see life, death, and Hell, and worlds to come hanging, as it were, upon the breath of a mortal man by whom God speaks to the souls of his fellows.”  (see Spurgeon Gold pg 56)

Finally I wish to look at the reformed denominations today.  The Orthodox Presbyterian church and the Presbyterian Church in America are the largest denominations that hold to the Westminster Confession and to the Regulative Principle of worship.  Neither of these churches restrict singing in worship to the Psalms.  One may read the OPC’s report here  as well as arguments for their position here and here.   I know of no modern Reformed Baptist churches (or Baptist churches that hold to the LBCF 1689) that exclusively sing psalms for worship (although there may be a rare few).  Men like Dr. RC Sproul, Dr. Ligon Duncan, and Dr. James White all affirm the singing of hymns in worship.

Of course the fact that both historically and currently many reformed authors, pastors, and churches rejected exclusive psalmody does not make them right.   In subsequent articles I intend to make a case for singing hymns in worship.  The purpose of this article is to dispel the notion that the only reformed position is (and ever was) exclusive psalm singing.   We can be confident when we affirm being both reformed and hymn and psalm proponents.

7 thoughts on “Exlusive Psalmody: Is it Biblical? Is it the only Reformed Position? (Part 1)

  1. Good read! Thanks for writing. Tertullian has a great quote that relates, he said, “When supper is ended, and we have washed our hands, and the candles are lighted up, every one is invited forth to sing praises to God, either such as he collects from the Holy Scriptures, or such as are of his own composing; and by this you may judge of the measures of drinking at a Christian feast.” (Apology 39).

    Liked by 1 person

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