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J OHN Calvin has written: "Christ leads our songs, and is the chief composer of our hymns."1 This, surely, sums up the matter of the content of sung praise. Christ by his Spirit inspired the ancient authors of the Psalms and as we sing their compositions, we are singing Christ's words after him.
For all that the debate still rages. Are we free to write our own uninspired hymns in these gospel times? Does Scripture give us clear warrant so to do? If you have been reading the Presbyterian Standard of late, you will be aware of the current controversy amongst believers. There are those who will sing nothing else but uninspired hymns, believing that the Psalms are types and shadows and have no relevance to Christians. Others are happy to sing a mixture of Scripture Songs plus human compositions convinced that the Bible permits their actions. The singing of Psalms plus human hymns can be tolerated by a number, but woe betide any one who searches God's Word and soon comes to the conclusion that exclusive psalmody is the divine intention for worship. The writer came to this conclusion several years ago and it may be helpful to some to know something of his pilgrimage in this matter.
He firstly acknowledges that it was the leading and teaching of the Holy Spirit coupled with divine Providence. The God who controls the spirits of men, is also the one who directs all their footsteps, including what they read. God in his wisdom put an old book in the way of Thomas Boston and under his editing and additional notation it became a popular volume amongst God's saints. Its influence is still felt today.2
Not long after arriving at his pastoral charge in Winchester, England, he gave himself to the reformation of the church, especially public worship. Every aspect was reviewed over a period of time and he came, ultimately, to adopt a more godly order. The Directory of Public Worship, which might be described as a companion document to the Westminster Confession of Faith, was influential in all of this. Other books were also helpful, but obviously the Scriptures were paramount in settling the matter of Psalm singing.3
In those early years, he became acquainted with other Christians who believed in and practised Psalm singing.4 Their biblical approach impressed him and spurred him on to investigate the matter more fully. Having read some articles and leaflets on Psalmody, he obtained a copy of Michael Bushell's The Songs of Zion and from then on realised that the Psalms were intended to be the only manual of sung praise for today's church. He quickly set about to implement Psalm singing in his own congregation. There was considerable opposition, but despite this, the main body of believers were happy to sing two Psalms out of the four praises normally offered. From then on, it became very irksome for him to sing human hymns.
The writer is fully aware that the above texts are not crucial in proving exclusive Psalmody. Recourse can be made to other parts of Scripture.5 Even so, he has found that those who sing uninspired hymns look very much to these verses to support their practice,6 although not exclusively. Being aware of all this, he gave himself to a careful investigation of these words. An exposition of these passages is beyond the scope of this article and needs to be looked for elsewhere.7 To summarise: the author discovered that the Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs were all descriptions of the same thing. The Apostle Paul was in fact speaking of the Psalter and that alone and used corresponding Greek terms that appear in the Septuagint. Psalmos, humnos and ode are the Greek forms of the Hebrew mizmore, neginoth and shir.
With this settled in his mind, the author then turned to the matter of church history. He found that it was not until later centuries (and often amongst those who were far from orthodox in theology) that uninspired praise was written and employed in public worship. Generally speaking it was not until the time of Benjamin Keach (late 17th century) that serious attempts were made to introduce human hymns in Protestant public worship. At that time, such things were comparatively rare. Today, the rarity is to see the Songs of Zion used at all!
There were some emotional problems concerning uninspired hymns. Some the writer loved well and had a sentimental attachment to them. This was especially true of those that had become entwined in the experiences of his wife and himself. They had proved to be a help over the years. As he prayed and meditated upon the matter, he came to see that the question must ever be: What does the Head of the Church require and command in public worship? Once he surrendered to Him, the issue ceased to be a problem. In fact, today, the Psalms have become a greater blessing than any human hymn. Indeed, they mean more than can be fully described, for they have proved a strength and help through the difficulties of the Christian and Pastoral life.8
As if further to underline the rightness of singing Psalms only, differences between Zion's Songs and human ones became quite dramatic. Although many of them may be fine as Christian poetry, they are often subjective and cannot always be relied upon theologically. The Psalms, however, are exalted in their language, point us God-ward and ever direct us away from ourselves to Christ. Regular singing of the Psalter will soon reveal how much the spirit of Christ is found throughout. The author was planning to introduce the exclusive use of the Psalms at Winchester, until ill-health cut short his ministry there. Today, he has the incomparable joy of worshipping in a congregation that sings only Psalms.
He heard of another book in more recent years and bought it. Reading it through twice, he was confirmed more than ever in the practice of exclusive Psalmody. The book is: The Psalms in Worship, edited by Prof. J.M. McNaugher. Various writers have dealt with nearly every possible aspect of Psalm singing and the writer defies anyone to seriously read the book without being convinced of the rightness of the Church confining herself to the use of the Psalms alone.
In many respects, we are what we sing. At the very least our sung praises help to mould our thinking and Christian lives. How important it is, that we let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly with all wisdom.
[l.] As quoted in Calvin's Wisdom by Graham Miller, p.244.
[2.] The Marrow of Modern Divinity. First published 1645. Reprinted in 1718.
[3.] See for example, The Worship of the English Puritans by Horton Davies (although the author had little sympathy with the Puritans, his book is well worth the reading); An Outline of Christian Worship and The Liturgical Portions of the Genevan Service Book, both by W.D. Maxwell; and a new book, Worship in the Presence of God, edited by Smith and Lachman.
[4.] Notably, the Rev'd M.H. Watts (Salisbury) and correspondence with the late Mrs Kathleen Wright of Northern Ireland. She was a great authority on Psalm singing and led a choir that has sung on Radio Four.
[5.] A modern example is Roy Mohon's Make His Praise Glorious.
[6.] A recent example is Dr. Kenneth Dix's The Praise of God in Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.
[7.] Useful volumes, amongst others, are: Sing the Lord's Song by J.W. Keddie; The Singing of Psalms in the Worship of God, by G.I. Williamson; Psalms in Christian Worship, by R.S. Ward; as well as the other books mentioned in the main text above.
[8.] John Ker's The Psalms in History and Biography is very heart-warming and worth looking out for secondhand.