The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns III

(From NTJ Jan 1997 and April 1997)

From: Glenn Morangie
To: T. Glen Livet
Date: 9/3/96 3:21pm
Subject: Psalmody -Reply -Reply


Are you a ninny or what? How can you say that Reformed worship is not centered on the Word and then in the next sentence write, “God speaks to us and we speak to him.” That sounds to me like words are pretty central, and that it is God’s word at the center, both in calling us to his presence, and in guiding what words we say to him. Just a nitpick.

The example of preaching does not entirely settle the issue of non-inspired words in worship. If the Second Helvetic confession is right and the sermon, even from an unregenerate man, is the word of God, then there is something going on in preaching that is different from the words that non-ordained people speak. It certainly is not inspired in the sense of canonical revelation. But it is more on that order than the poem some proto-Unitarian wrote in the 18th century. Preaching and praying, then, are of a different order than poetry. Granted they are all words. But preaching and praying done by one of God’s appointed undershepherds causes something different to happen. God has promised to bless them in a way that he has also promised to bless his inspired word. But I don’t see any promise attached to the hymns the church may produce.

I also think that you are too hard on the psalms and much too literalistic, but then you were a charismatic once, weren’t you? (Sorry, that’s a cheap shot.) As one seminary president likes to say, the praise we see in Revelation is not that much more Christo-centric than the psalms. In the quick scan I just made of the book, I only see Christ referred to explicitly in ch. 12. Otherwise the praise is indirect, just like the Psalms. Which may mean that the reason we don’t sing the psalms is part of a vicious circle. We don’t sing them because we don’t see Christ in them and we don’t see Christ in them because we don’t sing them, i.e., we don’t know them.

I concede you are interesting to talk to about this because it does seem that you are open. A lot of people who argue against psalmody seem unwilling to take the other side seriously, their minds being made up and looking for any way to justify their position. Still, I do think your judgments against the Psalms are too harsh, especially when compared to the praise we see in Revelation.

But there is still one question you haven’t answered. Aren’t our standards exclusive-psalmodist? And shouldn’t we amend them if we think the Westminster divines were wrong? And if we don’t how can we seriously argue against the New Lifers out there who are also selective (to be sure, more so) about the Standards?

You know Glen, this is scary. I think this is the heaviest discussion we have ever had and it is all taking place in this virtually unreal world of the Internet. What does that say about us as human beings? (Actually, I know what it says about you. I was wondering more about me.)



From: T. Glen Livet
To: Glenn Morangie
Date: 9/4/96 8:25am
Subject: Re: Psalmody -Reply -Reply


We agree that the Word is central to worship in the sense that God’s revelation directs both parts of the dialogue. My point is that it directs neither part of the dialogue by providing the precise words to be employed; the preacher selects the actual words of the sermon, and, presumably, those who pray and praise select the actual words of those devotional acts.

The evidence of Revelation is actually two-fold: Part of it is explicitly Christo-centric (as we would expect, on the redemptive-historical grounds I mentioned earlier), and, manifestly, not any of it is derived from the canonical psalms.

I don’t think my mind is made up; I just think I have a different biblical theology than that of some in the Reformed camp. The Vosian program of biblical theology influences me more than it did Murray; there are significant differences (in my opinion) between the Sinai covenant and the New covenant (though, for Murray, I’m not sure this is so), and, correspondingly, the devotional materials of each is different. Beyond Vos, I’m Kline-ian (is that a word?), amplifying that difference even more so. Almost all of the theonomists are exclusive psalmodist, because they cannot distinguish what it is to be under the Sinai covenant and what it is to be under the New Covenant; for those of us who are sufficiently Vosian and Kline-ian to spot the error in theonomy, we see the same error here. The very fact that the Westminster Assembly was predominantly Erastian proves that their biblical theology was different from that of the American church; and, while the American church changed the chapter on the civil magistrate, it never did go back and make the other changes that would have been consistent with this change (e.g., the Larger Catechism’s direction that we pray that the civil magistrate would “countenance and maintain” true religion).

Actually, in my own personal history, I was once a psalm-singer (there was even a group of us who met one afternoon a week at WTS with Norman Shepherd to sing psalms). My wife and I still have two copies of the RPCNA psalter from which we sang back when we were dating, and in the early years of our marriage, and we once worshiped at a church that used this as their hymnbook. So, it is not something I haven’t considered. However, as the Vos/Clowney/Kline biblical theology has influenced me increasingly, and as my exegesis of the relevant biblical passages (1 Cor. 14, Eph. 5, Col. 3, and Revelation) has suggested that the apostolic church did NOT restrict its corporate praise to the canonical psalter, I have simply surrendered a position I once held.

I think it is the Scotophiliacs and bad-hymn-reactionaries who won’t examine the matter fairly. The position of EXCLUSIVE psalmody is easy to refute, logically. If there is a single biblical example of something other than a canonical psalm being approved for the praise of NT saints, then the position must fall; and it does. The question is: Why would anyone hold to a position which so manifestly contradicts the evidence of 1 Cor. 14 and the book of Revelation? In Murray’s case, it was because his biblical theology was still vacillating between whether he was a Jew or a Christian (a position common to many “Crown and Covenant” Scots). In most people’s case, it is their understandable disappointment with the poor quality of so much hymnody. But, the quality of most preaching is poor also, and this remains no argument against preaching. Again, the quality of most public prayer is poor, but this is no argument against public prayer.

Personally, I don’t think the Greek word (psalmos) MEANS “canonical psalms,” and I therefore don’t think the ET of the word necessarily means it either.

If one summarizes the biblical evidence, one finds 4 lines of evidence, historically:

1) The Israelites celebrated God’s acts in corporate song long before there was a psalter from which they could exclusively sing.

2) Once there was a psalter, they added to it, as new acts were done by God. Thus, they never sang exclusively those songs in the canonical psalter at any given moment, but added to its collection.

3) The NT evidence suggests that the apostolic church continued to produce new songs of praise, not exclusively the canonical psalter.

4) The evidence of the triumphant saints is that they do not sing exclusively the canonical psalter.

That is, exclusive psalmody is a Puritan invention; it is not a biblical invention. No one, in any era within biblical times, sang exclusively the canonical psalter.

As to the standards, there is some evidence that they are exclusive-psalmist in their orientation, but the evidence is not as good as one would like. Had they wished to exclude non-canonical psalms, they could have added such an expression, e.g., “the singing of canonical psalms with grace in the heart.” It is possible that, by the seventeenth century, the word “psalms” was virtually synonymous with religious devotional music. I agree, however, that the standards should be changed, so as to remove precisely the ambiguity that is now present in them.

I might recommend that you be a little more cautious about suggesting that those who disagree with you haven’t taken “the other side seriously.” I’ve taught worship for a number of years here, providing our students with the arguments and bibliographies for both positions. I’ve also taken some difficult and unpopular stands here in our church that have cost us members and money (no-choir, weekly communion), simply because I’ve studied the issues of worship fairly carefully, and come to non-popular conclusions. And I think the OPC Majority Report took John Murray very seriously (how else could you take Murray?). I also encourage psalm-singing, corporately, familially, and privately; I just don’t believe that such must exclude the singing of other devotional pieces.



9 thoughts on “The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns III

  1. “Are you a ninny or what?”
    Obviously the author has not understood how we are to win friends and influence people. Nevertheless he made some good points.

    The counter argument is more repetitive of the usual.
    That there are differences between the Sinai and New covenant is one thing. That there are differences between their devotional material is another/unproven. Rather perhaps we come to a better understanding of what the Psalms speak of literally and substantively.
    That the members of the West. Assembly were “predominantly Erastian” is yet another canard. While most were members of the Anglican church and the Assembly was called by the magistrate in a time of great civil and ecclesiastical disorder, the crown rights of Christ were explicitly declared in the Form of Church Government, so much so that Parliament refused to approve of it.
    If 1 Cor., 14 is one of the “relevant biblical passages” were not the same prophecies and psalms, before the close of canon, inspired?
    In short is there a single biblical example of undeniably uninspired song in the NT?

    1. The songs the Israelites sung before the psalter largely were incorporated in it.
    2. The only additions to the psalter were inspired. David, Asaph and the sons of Korah were prophets.
    3. It begs belief that while in the darker OT God clearly set forth a Book of Praises, but now in the clearer era of the NT, we must resort to biblical scholars and experts in order to find songs hidden in the NT text.
    4. If the glorified saints of Revelation neither marry nor are given in marriage, the Shakers have died out and the Heaven’s Gate sect has suicided out, (while the Anabaptists merely have all women in common), which does our Revelation hymnsinger prefer?

    As regards the West. Standards, the Confession, Dir. Public Worship and Form of Ch. Govt. all refer repeatedly to psalms. One of the primary sources, as in the Minutes of the Assembly , indicates that the question is not whether inspired or uninspired songs should be sung, but rather which psalter, Rouse’s or Barton’s? Not only did Rouse’s get the nod (pp.221,2), in this day of the “virtually unreal Internet” to deny this is simply unexcusable. (Put “Rouse” in the search box and hit the 8th yellow box that comes up.)


  2. “In Murray’s case, it was because his biblical theology was still vacillating between whether he was a Jew or a Christian (a position common to many “Crown and Covenant” Scots).”

    I realize this is a rhetorical exaggeration, but as an argument to disparage his position on song in worship, it is a ridiculous stretch. I strongly disagree with Murray’s understanding of the relationship between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, but in his minority report on song in worship, all his argumentation comes from the explicit teaching of the New Testament; not once does he ever infer that OT devotional practice is paradigmatic for Christians, nor to my knowledge does he even cite the OT.


  3. P.S. I doubt there are more advocates for psalm singing among “Murrayites” than there are among “Klinians.” Just compare WSC with WTS.


  4. I’m a student at WSC. I haven’t met one student yet in three years that’s Exclusive Psalmody. Many have sympathy, but none hold it. There are two professors that hold it; both are historians.

    I think a more important problem is that most churches sing NO psalms. The OPC is putting out a new psalter-hymnal soon, which will have all the psalms right up front. This will surely make it easier for at least OPC’s to sing more psalms. Perhaps the other denominations will follow suit…like they tend to do.


  5. It’s funny. I’m a member of an OP church. My pastor tries to persuade me that we have the freedom to sing psalms as well as hymns in worship. But all I keep noticing is that we don’t even have a psalter available in the pews, and even when we do sing psalms (the fragmented ones in the Trinity Hymnal), they are not announced from the pulpit as psalms, but rather as “hymn # xxx.” Whether or not his arguments for hymn singing have any plausibility, one thing I am *certain* about is that a theory that results in the eclipse of the psalter in Reformed worship may need to be reexamined!


  6. Sorry! My third sentence should read: “My pastor tries to persuade me that we have the freedom to sing hymns as well as psalms in worship.”


  7. The new psalter-hymnal will have all 150 psalms in their entirety up in the front. There will be some hymns behind them towards the back. So it’ll be really obvious that it’s a psalm.

    You’re right, the eclipse of the psalter is a bad thing. It’s people reacting against exclusive psalm legalism. It’s sort of like how a teetotaler becomes reformed and finds out alcohol isn’t evil, so go gets drunk. If we have the freedom to sing hymns, let’s sing ONLY hymns.


  8. I really doubt that the eclipse of psalm singing is a reaction to legalism, I think it’s much more likely the prevailing influence of non-Reformed presuppositions about worship. After all, most of us are converts to the Reformed faith. For many Reformed converts, the sufficiency of scripture for doctrine is more compelling than the sufficiency of scripture for worship. Of course I am writing as one who finds the biblical warrant for uninspired songs in worship to be pretty slim, or even non-existent! I do agree that it’s funny that many who argue for hymns *in addition to* psalms really ought to be defending their actual practice of hymns *instead of* psalms.

    I don’t doubt that most WSC faculty sing hymns. I suppose my point was that I doubt that folks who follow Murray in his view of the Mosaic covenant are any *more* likely to be advocates for psalm singing than those who don’t.

    I agree that the production of the psalter-hymnal is a very encouraging sign!


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