EP Objections Answered: Brandon Craig
This article will be a response to the critique of exclusive psalmody offered by my friend Brandon Craig, which can be read here.
I should begin by saying that I love my brother Brandon (even if he is congregational), and that I by no means reject his status as “reformed.” In his opening point, he mentions that there are some who imply that one cannot be reformed if one does not hold to exclusive psalmody. I don’t think I have ever seen someone say this, but even if they did, they would be in disagreement with many of the reformers and puritans who disagreed to some extent on this subject. While the method of worship is extremely important, I think the adherence to the regulative principle is a better indicator of whether or not someone is reformed in their worship practice as a whole.
That being said, I do think that one is quite inconsistent to adhere to the regulative principle if one is not an exclusive psalmist, and that one is in disagreement with a number of our reformed confessions as well as with the Scriptures. That will be one point I can hopefully demonstrate in this article. For now we will turn to answering some arguments that Mr. Craig brings.
“And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
— Acts 2:42 (KJV)
Mr. Craig argues that “prayers” here means both spoken and sung prayers. He cites Calvin for this opinion. However, his citation is from an article by T David Gordon, who in turn cites James Hastings Nichols’ commentary on Calvin in a footnote. This citation does not provide any source material for something Calvin wrote.
From what I’ve found, this Calvin reference appears to be from his preface to the Genevan Psalter.
“As for public prayers, there are two kinds. The ones with the word alone: the others with singing. And this is not something invented a little time ago. For from the first origin of the Church, this has been so, as appears from the histories. And even St. Paul speaks not only of praying by mouth: but also of singing. And in truth we know by experience that singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal. Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty (as St. Augustine says), and also, there is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels. But when anyone wishes to judge correctly of the form which is here presented, we hope that it will be found holy and pure, seeing that it is simply directed to the edification of which we have spoken.”
— John Calvin, Preface to the Genevan Psalter
We must admit that it is difficult to determine what Calvin means here. What we do know is that the psalms are referred to as prayers in the psalter itself. Psalms that are titled as a prayer are Psalm 17, Psalm 86, Psalm 90, Psalm 102, and Psalm 142. The psalms are also referred to as prayers many times within the psalter text. One such example is from Psalm 72:20, “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.”
The Psalms are songs that were meant to be sung, but they were also prayers crying out to God in praise or supplication. We can rightly say that they are both. From Calvin’s quote, I see no reason to deduce anything other than this. Christians have always prayed and sung psalms together in the corporate assembly. Calvin states later in the preface, “What is there now to do? It is to have songs not only honest, but also holy, which will be like spurs to incite us to pray to and praise God, and to meditate upon his works in order to love, fear, honor and glorify him.
Moreover, that which St. Augustine has said is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from him. Therefore, when we have looked thoroughly, and searched here and there, we shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory.”
We should surely have a reverent attitude toward our singing in the worship service. We should not sing in a light manner, but maintain awareness of the weight and glory of the holy songs we are singing. In the broader context of Calvin’s preface, these statements are merely part of his major point that the psalms are superior to anything composed by a human for the praise of God
On a quick perusal through some commentaries, I don’t see any mention of any other opinion along these lines relating to the Acts 2 passage. Calvin only states in his commentary on the passage, “It is certain that he speaketh of public prayer. And for this cause it is not sufficient for men to make their prayers at home by themselves, unless they meet altogether to pray; wherein consisteth also the profession of faith.”
John Gill, Matthew Henry, and Matthew Poole are all in agreement with Calvin’s statements, only referencing the use of public prayers during fellowship with the brethren. There is no mention of a distinction between spoken prayers and sung prayers, nor does it appear to be an appropriate deduction from this particular passage, unless we consider it in light of my earlier point.
1 Corinthians 14:26
“How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.”
— 1 Corinthians 14:26 (KJV)
Mr. Craig and Dr. Gordon both cite this verse to demonstrate that there is New Testament warrant for people in the church to compose and introduce hymns into sung worship. It must be noted, at this point, that there is a translational difference between the King James Version and the English Standard Version of this verse. While the KJV uses “psalm” here, the ESV renders the same greek word as “hymn.” I believe this may throw confusion into the argument. The underlying greek word used here is “ψαλμὸν,” which is transliterated as “psalmon.”
If we leave aside uses in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 (these are hotly debated texts), this word, or a form of it, is only used to refer to the scriptural book of Psalms. These uses can be found in Luke 20:42, Luke 24:44, Acts 1:20, and Acts 13:33. There is a word transliterated “humneo” that is used for “hymn” elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 26:30, for example) that is not used in this 1 Corinthians passage.
In his commentary on this text, Matthew Henry opines that these expressions being offered (the psalms, doctrines, tongues, revelations, and interpretations) are the exercising of spiritual gifts that were directly provoked by the Holy Spirit. If this is the case, and the passage is speaking of newly composed hymns, we must conclude that these hymns were given by the direct inspiration of the Spirit. Mr. Craig states in his article that these were, in fact, new songs being composed. This must mean that songwriting was a spiritual gift that was active in the church. If we apply this argument to the text we must take it to its conclusion.
It is apparent that Mr. Craig and others are defending songwriting for worship in our modern day. To be consistent, they must also say that these gifts of tongues and prophecy continue today, and that the church is receiving new doctrines by inspiration of the Spirit. This is problematic for many reasons and is getting into territory that is wholly rejected in the orthodox reformed tradition, as it is ultimately a departure from Sola Scriptura.
If these songs are somehow not given by inspiration of the Spirit, how can we be sure they do not contain error? In church history, one of the primary tactics of certain heretics was to introduce false doctrine into the churches by the means of new hymns. If there is an office for hymn composition, where is the office for hymn inspection? This text from 1 Corinthians says nothing to that effect. It merely states that the brought songs were to be used in an orderly fashion during the liturgy. There is no reference to their content. This creates problems for the reformed understanding of elements of worship. We understand that elements of worship have a means provided for their content.
For reading, we have the Scriptures. For preaching, we have the teaching office of elder. For praying, we have the general pattern of prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit to right our shortcomings. I have not seen a case given for some means or office in scripture for the purpose of composing and checking the content of worship songs to make sure it is in accordance with correct doctrine. As a matter of fact, the modern church makes no effort to do this at all.
Each denomination of Christians seems to have its own hymn book that contains songs that are in accordance with their doctrines. There are even some hymns written by unorthodox persons or heretics that are used in churches. This doesn’t seem to be in the pattern of unity Paul lays out in this text. Our God is not a God of confusion, but unity. No matter our theological differences, all Christians can turn to the inspired psalter to be united in our sung praise.
“Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
— Romans 15:5-6 (KJV)
Before we move on, it must also be considered that the apostle does not treat the psalm or doctrine being offered in the same as he does the prophecy, tongue, or interpretation. The chapter as a whole is a commentary on how the prophecies and tongues are to be used in a proper manner. He makes no other mention of how the psalm or doctrine should be used or what sort of psalm or doctrine should be used.
It seems to me, that if these were new things coming into the assembly, Paul would direct their use in order to avoid the same errors that were taking place with the prophecies and tongues. This text appears to assume that the psalms and doctrines being used were not new, but were, in fact, the traditional songs and teachings that were already in use in the church. This text does not support the provision of new songs and doctrines.
Pliny the Younger
Mr. Craig and Dr. Gordon both cite this quotation from Pliny the Younger as a defense of the opinion that new hymns were composed to Christ.
“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god…”
— Pliny, Letters 10.96-97
This vague quote in no way implies that new songs are being discussed. A “hymn” is simply a song of praise to a deity. I briefly mentioned earlier the citation from Matthew 26:30 which uses “hymn” to refer to a Psalm to God. We know this is the case because this “hymn” was sung at the conclusion of the Passover meal, and the Jews would historically offer one or more of the hallel psalms as sung praise to God at the close of the meal. There are also multiple texts of Scripture confirming that the Psalms are hymns to and about Christ inherently.
“And David himself saith in the book of Psalms, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Till I make thine enemies thy footstool. David therefore calleth him Lord, how is he then his son?”
— Luke 20:42-44 (KJV)
“And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.”
— Luke 24:44 (KJV)
“Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God.”
— Hebrews 10:7 (KJV) (quoting from Psalm 40:7)
Michael Lefevbre wrote in his book, Singing the Songs of Jesus, that, “We have to rediscover how the Apostles, the Early Church Fathers, and the Reformers saw Christ in the Psalms in such glory that they esteemed them as the ideal praise book of Christ-centered worship.” I think perhaps we might find greater edification in mutually seeking after this goal, but until that is agreed to, we will happily discuss the Scriptural basis, historic practice and many benefits of Psalm singing with our many Reformed friends who have not yet discovered their infinite worth.
TESTIMONY OF THE REFORMERS
Mr. Craig mentions several reformers and puritans who do not fit the exclusive psalmody mold. I choose to not spend much time on this because the exclusive psalmists could cite just as many quotes for the dissenting opinion. Both practices have existed in the church in some form or another for centuries. What is important is which view comports with Scripture.
I do want to make a quick reply to Mr. Craig’s statements about John Calvin. Calvin is indeed hard to pin down on this issue, but we do need to remember that Calvin was one of the earlier reformers and was still leading his congregation in the beginnings of reformed practice. This takes time. Reforming takes patience, and care for the flock must be considered when worship practices are changing. Calvin was also somewhat limited in what he could do by the council in Geneva. Mr. Craig’s statements about Calvin touch on two points.
“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.”
— John Calvin, Commentary on Colossians 3:16
Calvin is correct here to distinguish the types of songs. Exclusive psalmody proponents agree that these three terms used in Colossians do not all meant the same thing. The Psalms themselves bear different titles and were used in specific situations. There isn’t anything explicit in Calvin’s statement here that necessitates human compositions. Calvin even seems to take a slightly different approach in his comments on the parallel passage in Ephesians.
“Now St. Paul sets down here songs, psalms, and hymns, which scarcely differ at all from one another, and therefore there is no need to seek entertainment for ourselves in setting forth any subtle distinction among them.”
— John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians (5:18-21), pp. 552-553
Calvin himself was hardly a proponent for human compositions in practice. Mr. Craig mentions his Genevan Psalter, which included a metrical version of the 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, a hymn, and the Apostle’s Creed. There were actually several versions of the Genevan Psalter. The version that was in use by the time of Calvin’s death only included the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Song of Simeon, and a number of psalms. These are all taken from inspired Scripture. Calvin’s quote that we referenced earlier taken from the preface to the 1542 version of the Genevan Psalter is relevant here as well.
“After we have sought on every side, searching here and there, we shall find no songs better and more suitable for our purpose than the Psalms of David, dictated to him and made for him by the Holy Spirit.”
— John Calvin, Preface to the Genevan Psalter
It is apparent that as the reformation progressed in Geneva, human compositions were eliminated and more psalms were added. This shows a progression toward an exclusive psalmody position, not a progression toward more human compositions. This practice is continued by Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, who was an accomplished poet. He used his skills to improve upon the psalms in the Genevan Psalter, not to compose new hymns.
This was a stark contrast between the reformed tradition and the Lutheran tradition. All of the reformed churches were known to be psalm singing churches, while the Lutherans produced hymns, and throughout the reformation unto this very day, metrical psalters have been produced to enable the singing of the psalms, a practice that has fallen to the wayside in general Protestantism.
TESTIMONY OF THE CONFESSIONS
I’ll briefly respond to Mr. Craig’s statements about the Westminster Confession. The Confession opens its first chapter with what is perhaps the most exalted praise of the holy Word of God found in any Reformed document. That high praise certainly includes the inspired book of Psalms. It is that reverence for the superiority and sufficiency of Scripture that helps guide us to understand the Westminster view of sung praises in the church of God. The Confession, in the section addressing worship, mentions only the psalms when it comes to sung praise.
“The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching; and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God with understanding, faith, and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as, also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: besides religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon several occasions; which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.”
— Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 21.5
In listing what are the specific “parts,” or elements, of worship, the Confession mentions singing the psalms only. This is because the divines recognized that the element is not merely singing itself, but the particular content of the songs as well. If this statement has nothing to do with content, we fall back on our earlier critique and ask where the warrant is given for discerning appropriate content.
It is also expressly clear that psalms only is what is meant in the Westminster, because, by contrast, the 1689 London Baptist Confession changes this section to include “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” This reflects that all Baptists of that day did not necessarily accept the Westminster view of the triadic expression in use in both Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16. Both verses are cited as proof texts for the Westminster Confession’s phrasing of “singing of psalms,” showing that the divines recognized their three-fold use to refer to the Psalms of God only.
“The reading of the Scriptures, preaching, and hearing the Word of God, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord; as also the administration of baptism, and the Lord’s supper, are all parts of religious worship of God, to be performed in obedience to him, with understanding, faith, reverence, and godly fear; moreover, solemn humiliation, with fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, ought to be used in an holy and religious manner.”
— 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 22.5
While not ultimately adopted by the American Presbyterian denominations for their use, the original Westminster Standards included additional documents to the Confession and Catechisms such as the Directories for Publick and Family Worship which make it clear that there was no intention in the Assembly of introducing uninspired song into the worship of the Church. The Directory for Publick Worship contains the following.
It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family.
In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.
That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book; and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.
— The Directory for Publick Worship, Of Singing of Psalms
Let us note that the emphasis is on a capella singing of psalms. There is specific mention of “lining out the psalms” for congregations without enough psalters or members unable to read them, a practice continued in many a cappella psalm-singing churches today.
The position of the divines is also strengthened by their practice. As part of the work of the Assembly, a psalter that was in circulation was taken and revised by several committees, and was then published in 1650 as the only song book authorized for use in the reformed churches of the three kingdoms.
THE MODERN CHURCH
Mr. Craig closes with a few comments about the practice of the modern reformed churches. While it is true that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America are the largest presbyterian denominations today, that does not necessarily mean that they are the standard of reformed orthodoxy and practice.
There are congregations within both of those bodies that are exclusive psalmody in practice, such as First OPC in San Francisco, California. Let us not forget the hundreds of congregations around the world in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), the Presbyterian Reformed Church, and others who hold to an exclusive psalmody position as a denomination.
Reformed orthodoxy is not determined by majority rule, but by adherence to history and to the scriptures.
Mr. Craig mentions that he knows of no reformed baptist churches that hold an exclusive psalmody position. A few that do are the Reformed Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, the Arran Reformed Baptist Church in Dublin, Ireland, the Templepatrick Reformed Church in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, the Glyndwr Street Baptist Church in Dolgellau, Wales, and the Emmanuel Church of Salisbury, England.
I want to agree with Mr. Craig that not being exclusive psalmist is not a disqualifier for being reformed. I always appreciate someone who wishes to study the position in order to determine what the biblical practice is. I look forward to hearing more of Mr. Craig’s scriptural basis for his future articles.
Westminster and Worship Examined by Matthew Winzer
Minutes and Acts: The Westminster Assembly and Parliament on Worship by Andrew Cunningham
Review: Exclusive Psalmody or New Covenant Hymnody? By Lee Irons by Andrew Cunningham
Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, and Westminster’s View by Andrew Cunningham
Was John Calvin an Exclusive Psalmodist? by Paul Barth
Preface to the Genevan Psalter by John Calvin
Orthodox Presbyterian Church: Minority Report on Psalmody by John Murray and William Young
Songs of Zion by Michael Bushell