On exclusive psalmody in worship

I am currently working my way through Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. The book details the thought process and feelings of a liberal, lesbian English Professor coming to the conviction that Jesus Christ is real, the Christian faith true and the realisation that she had been called into relationship with him. The book is upfront and honest as well as searingly clear in its understanding of how Christians are perceived by both the gay community and non-Christian liberals. It is a must-read for anybody who recognises that homosexuality is a live issue that will not go away and who acknowledges that God’s plan of salvation is for gay people too.

The denomination in which Prof Butterfield found herself was the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. She spends some time explaining how it was she found herself in Presbyterian circles and also writes about how she came to embrace the particular standards of her church, despite some of them coming under criticism from outside. One of the most criticised points of practice within the RPCNA is their adherence to exclusive psalmody in the formal worship service.

Two arguments are advanced for the exclusive singing of psalmody. First, she argues that exclusive psalmody is follows from the doctrine of sola scriptura and the regulative principle of worship (which she considers a logical extension of sola scriptura). She particularly noted that the Regulative Principle is undergirded by the concept of canon. Given that the Bible is canonised, ‘God gave us a book of praise songs, who are we to add to them?’ she avers. She goes on to state that exclusive psalmody is the logical extension of sola scriptura.

Of particular note, is the following argument:

The Psalms are the words of Christ. Christ is the word (logos) made flesh. Because Jesus calls himself the word made flesh (and not the “theme” made flesh or the “paraphrase” made flesh), we take him at his word. We do not rewrite or revise God’s word.

What are we to make of these arguments? Ought we to sing exclusive psalmody?

First, even if we concede all other arguments, it is disingenuous to suggest that exclusive psalmody is taking scripture at its word. My experience of churches that sing exclusive psalmody, all use the metrical psalter. These metric psalms are translations and alterations of the Biblical psalms to turn them into singable stanzas for church worship. If the purity of the wording is the issue – even allowing for translation from the Hebrew – the psalms should be sung as presented in a formally equivalent translation such as the ESV or NKJV. To change them to metric psalms undercuts the very argument being made.

Second, if we are saying exclusive psalmody is an extension of sola scriptura (or, negatively, that ordinary hymns and songs undercut sola scriptura), does this not cause us a problem in respect to preaching? Exclusive psalmody advocates argue to sing any other songs would be to alter the words of scripture itself. The argument is that to maintain the integrity of scripture, we oughtn’t to add to its words in worship nor sing paraphrases of the text (which we have already seen exclusive psalmody advocates do) nor songs that reflect upon a key theme of scripture. If this is true in our singing, we are led into choppy waters when we approach the preaching of the word in the formal worship service. This argument logically binds us to the view that we should do no more than read the words of scripture together and then sit down. There should be no exposition, application or preaching at all. If God has given us lessons in his word, who are we to add to them?

If exposition and application of a passage of the Bible does not undercut sola scriptura, why does singing lessons drawn from that same book? If preaching the meaning of a passage in words other than those in the text – and applying those same truths to our own contexts using different words again – doesn’t undercut sola scriptura, why does singing about the truths of scripture and reflecting upon them in song do so? It would seem if exclusive psalmody is demanded by sola scriptura because to paraphrase, dwell upon key themes, or offer reflection upon them undercuts this doctrine, the same must be true of all preaching that typically does the same.

We are also faced with something of a problem in the text of scripture itself. Eph 5:19 makes clear we are to sing ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’. How do we account for the hymns and spiritual songs if scripture demands exclusive psalmody? Are these just three ways of referring to the same thing? It would appear, at least on the face of it, we are being encouraged to sing more than just the psalms.

Even if we want to suggest Eph 5:19 is unclear in it’s meaning, we do have obvious examples in scripture of people singing things that are not psalms. What do we make of, for example, Mary’s Magnificat? This was clearly an response of worship that was then canonised.

The Bible doesn’t seem to demand the exclusive singing of psalms. It recognises the worth of singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. If we don’t consider the preaching of the word as a danger to sola scriptura nor should we find songs that accord with scriptural truth as any more a danger either.

As Paul said, ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.’ (Col 3:16). It seems Paul saw other forms of music as a means of letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Let us sing as the Bible commands and let God’s word dwell in our hearts through the range of scripturally sound songs we might sing.

3 comments

  1. You quote RCB’s ‘God gave us a book of praise songs, who are we to add to them?’, and then well refute the EP case, but I personally feel what the Evangelical should more appositely be asking is ‘God gave us a book of praise songs, who are we to detract from them?’. As you say, the full range of Scripturely inspired songs are beneficial, but in the English Evangelical churches, the Psalter has all too often been sadly neglected. Whilst it is surely good to sing more than the Psalms, they are the first thing Paul mentions in Ephesians 5:19, and we ignore them to our own great loss. I’ve been singing through them for the last couple of years and find them profoundly moving, and would want to encourage others to look into them.
    Just my two cents…
    Every blessing.

    Like

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