Q&A: Exclusive Psalmody

Exclusive Psalmody

Question

Westminster Confession of Faith 21.5 talks about singing in Psalms, and a lot of people hold to just singing psalms in worship (e.g. John Murray, G.I. Williamson). What are your views on singing the Psalms? What about using instruments? Can you give some arguments on both sides?

Answer

At Third Millennium we do not affirm exclusive psalmody, and we do affirm the use of instruments in worship. Exclusive psalmody is the traditional view of the Scottish Covenanters, represented today in denominations such as the RPCNA. As such, exclusive psalmody has a long tradition in circles with which we have great affinity. This same tradition also includes many who oppose the use of instruments in worship. There are a couple standard defenses of these positions at www.reformed.com. The footnotes of the documents on that page should give you a good bibliography of other published works defending the exclusive psalmody and non-instrumental positions.

The basic argument against instruments is outlined in the following quote from http://www.reformed.com/pub/music.htm:
The logical skeleton of the case which is raised against the practice of instrumental music can be stated briefly, as follows:

Instrumental music considered as an element in religious worship was instituted by divine commandment; practiced as a branch of Levitical service in tabernacle and temple and performed by the Levitical order exclusively. But the distinctive features of the Levitical system, the type giving place in Gospel times to the correlative anti-type, have been abolished. Instrumental music, being strictly a part of the self-same system of worship, has also, therefore, now been abolished.

No New Testament prescription, effectively restoring instrumental music again to the church's worship, can be distinguished. The practice has no legitimate place, accordingly, in the worship of the Christian Church. [Hector Cameron (minister, Free Church of Scotland), "Purity of Worship," in Hold Fast Your Confession: Studies in Church Principles (1978).]
Most of the arguments presented against the use of songs other than the Psalms, as well as against the use of instruments, are based on the "regulative principle." The basic idea is that Scripture does not command or explicitly permit the use of instruments or songs other than the Psalms. These positions also generally argue that the WCF and its catechisms affirm their positions.

Our view is that these positions: 1) construe the regulative principle too narrowly, such that it cannot be defended from Scripture; 2) misinterpret Scriptures which demonstrate the use of instruments in worship and the use of songs other than the Psalms; 3) interpret the Westminster Standards too narrowly. We have an article on the site by Richard Pratt on the Regulative Principle, as well as a Q&A on these issues. I would also recommend John Frame's books on worship (Worship in Spirit and Truth, P&R, 1996; Contemporary Worship Music, P&R, 1997) in defense of our position.

One the substantive matters of the debates, I would argue:
  1. The New Testament references to "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" do not refer exclusively to the Psalter (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
  2. The New Testament references to "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" are broad enough to be applied to public worship.
  3. The Bible does not draw a hard and fast line between public and private worship, so that arguments that require a sharp distinction between these two rely on a false premise.
  4. The Old Testament references to instruments were not part of the Law, and therefore were not part of any legal ceremony that would have been abrogated by Christ's earthly ministry.
For what it's worth, the exclusive psalmody and non-instrumental positions are small minority reports in modern Reformed thinking. It is also worth noting that Calvin's Geneva Psalter included not only the Psalms, but versions of some creeds as well.

On a final note, these are in-house debates in the Reformed community that should be discussed but which ought not to cause division. They are disagreements that generally arise over reasonable variances in interpretation. If I didn't believe the weight of the exegetical evidence favored my position, I wouldn't hold it. The same is true of those on the other side. Still, there is no reason to use these issues as a basis for division. I would mention in this regard that Dr. Richard Gamble (who has some articles on our site) is in the RPCNA. Not only is he one of the dearest men I have ever met, but he regularly attends chapel at RTS, Orlando, and these meetings consistently use instruments as well as sing songs which are not in the Psalter.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.