Does the regulative principle demand exclusive psalmody?
I’d argue that the Psalms should be the backbone of the sung element of the church’s worship.
The Psalms are the word of God to man and the word of man in response. Fulfilled in Christ, Christ himself bases his message of grace upon them (Lk. 24:44-9). The Psalms are wide-ranging in content and immensely powerful. I almost always choose at least one Psalm for every service I plan.
But what about the argument that the sung element of church worship should consist exclusively of psalms?
This argument is based on a certain application of the regulative principle of Scripture, in which the principle is taken to mean that only what is explicitly commanded in Scripture is permitted. Since there is no explicit command to sing uninspired songs, the thinking goes, church worship must not include them. How does this position address the distinction between psalms and two other forms of music in Paul’s command to “address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18)? These three words are understood either as a reference to three parts of the Psalter, or as a hendiadys, where two or more expressions are used to mean one thing.
However, where in Scripture do we find an explicit requirement that churches must only do what is explicitly commanded? If Scripture requires explicit support for worship practices, we must assume it propounds the principle explicitly. Where in Scripture is the church explicitly commanded to sing from the book of Psalms and only the Psalms? What about hymnic passages in both the Old Testament and the New? Why are doxologies and other expressions of praise to be found in Scripture apart from the book of Psalms?
I’d argue that this Psalms-only principle simply isn’t found in Scripture, and that the argument in its favour also rests on a misguided interpretation of the regulative principle. Let’s examine that second point first.
CLARIFYING THE REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE
In order to clarify what the regulative principle does and doesn’t mean, let’s consider the Westminster Assembly’s classical statement of it, as well as the historical context of that statement.
The Westminster Assembly’s View of the Regulative Principle.
The regulative principle of worship is found in WCF 21:1. The relevant portion reads:
But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped 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.
This must be assessed in terms of the Assembly’s doctrine of Scripture. In 1:6, the Confession states that the whole counsel of God is either set down explicitly in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence can be deduced from Scripture. The regulative principle, as expressed by the Assembly, does not reduce the Bible to a command manual whereby worship is to be shaped exclusively by explicit commands.
Historical Context of the Regulative Principle
The historical background in England significantly impacted the Assembly and its grasp of the regulative principle. Draconian regulations governed worship in the Church of England. Parliamentary legislation specified that all ministers were bound to use the services as written in The Book of Common Prayer. If a minister was convicted of willful disobedience by a court of law, he would forfeit all spiritual benefices and be imprisoned for six months. On a second offence, one year’s imprisonment was the penalty. For a third offence, he would suffer life imprisonment. If any person wrote or spoke against the Book, on a third offence he was to forfeit all goods and suffer life imprisonment.
Viewed in this context, WCF 21:1 is more liberating than restricting. Bound in its worship to the direction of the Word of God alone, the church is freed from the dictates of man, whether these are contrary to the Word or simply additional to it. The yoke of imposition is lifted!
Practice of the Reformed Churches to 1643
While the Confession refers to the singing of Psalms in 21:5, is this prescriptive of what is required or descriptive of what was currently practised? If the former, how are we to understand what the Assembly meant by “Psalms”?
Nick Needham has shown that the Assembly’s understanding of “psalms” was wider than the Psalms of David. Other songs were commonly accepted in Reformed church worship, although the Psalms were the main diet. He finds support from Richard Baxter, Zwingli and Bullinger, Calvin, and the French, German, and Dutch Reformed churches. The English Protestants in Geneva were not opposed to singing other Scriptural passages in worship, while the standard English Psalter by Sternhold and Hopkins contained a considerably greater number of non-Davidic songs and was definitive until 1696. While in Scotland, exclusive psalm singing was the rule, before the Assembly the Scots used the Gloria patri.
The upshot of all this is that the classical statement of the regulative principle in the Westminster Confession does not restrict corporate singing to the Psalms. Nor was exclusive psalmody the practice of Reformed churches across Europe at that time.
BIBLICAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST EXCLUSIVE PSALMNODY
So that’s some historical perspective. Here now are two more direct biblical and theological arguments against exclusive psalmody.
The Scope of Revelation
First, the Psalms do not explicitly reflect the full range of trinitarian revelation: neither the incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session of Christ, nor the gift of the Spirit to the church. It is strange that a principle requiring explicit biblical support for worship practices should require those practices to refer to the central truths of biblical revelation only implicitly. For this reason, if no other, the Psalms cannot be the sole diet of the church. If they were, that would truncate its worship and producing an imbalance in its theology.
What Exclusive Psalmody Forbids and Requires
Further, if you’ll allow me a reductio ad absurdum, consider what exclusive psalmody forbids and requires. Exclusive psalmody forbids the church to sing “Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts,” “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” However, it is explicitly commanded to sing “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” and Psalm 109:6-20 with its outpouring of curses and vituperation.
STILL, BETTER ALL PSALMS THAN ALL CHORUSES
So, in sum, I would argue that churches are not required to sing Psalms exclusively. However, if it’s a choice between exclusive psalmody and contemporary worship choruses, exclusive psalmody is a far better option.
Recent worship trends have given evangelical churches unbalanced content, appalling music, and often erroneous sentiments. The linear nature of Judaeo-Christian psalmody and hymnody has been replaced by cyclical repetition. In comparison, despite its untenable claims, I would far rather have exclusive psalmody.
Robert Letham (PhD University of Aberdeen), a Presbyterian minister of 25 years pastoral experience, is Director of Research and Senior Lecturer in Systematic and Historical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology.