“The issue of church music must be approached with great carefulness and seriousness because it concerns a very personal aspect of the worship of God.” – An Examination of Exclusive Psalmody, Robert Morey
"Exclusive Psalmody" is an expression you may not hear much in Baptist churches – maybe not much discussion on "Psalmody" at all. Most often this is a debate within the "Presbyterian and Reformed" branch of churches.* On the Exclusive Psalmody blog, Mark Koller asked, "Why do so few Baptists practice exclusive Psalmody?" Some suggested answers were that Baptists have a "looser view of the regulative principle of worship" than those who adopt exclusive psalmody, that most Baptists practice what has been passed down to them (which is hymn singing, and that most Baptists don't believe the church began with Adam as many of the Reformed do). English Baptists for the most part may have sat out the psalmody versus hymnody debate. Why? Because many of the 17th English Baptists didn't believe in congregational singing of any kind -- so whether psalms or hymns didn't matter.
According to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, acceptable corporate worship is (1) instituted by [God] Himself, (2) limited by His own revealed will, and (3) not accomplished by (a) the imagination and devices of men, (b) the suggestions of Satan, (c) made under any visible representations, and (d) under any...way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures. This is, in so many words, the regulative principle.**
Just because Baptists haven't talked much about it doesn't mean we shouldn't. The house of God must be ordered by the rules of God who owns the house. What is exclusive psalmody and what is exclusive hymnody? What are other options? What are the biblical principles for corporate worship of God in song?
On his blog, Michael Kearney identified three general categories of beliefs:
• The 150 divinely inspired biblical psalms are the only acceptable songs for worship.
• Only biblical songs may be sung in church, but selections outside the psalms, such as the songs of Zacharias, Simeon, and Mary, may be used.
• The use of biblical psalms and songs is encouraged, but non-inspired hymns are also appropriate for worship.I have expanded the options, laying them out in four categories:
1. "Exclusive Psalmody" -- only the 150 Old Testament Psalms may be sung in corporate worship
2. "Permissive Psalmody" -- the 150 Old Testament Psalms and other portions of Scripture may be sung in corporate worship***
3. "Inclusive Hymnody" -- the 150 Old Testament Psalms and "hymns of human composure" may be sung in corporate worship
4. "Exclusive Hymnody" -- only hymns are sung in corporate worship. This is not a theology but a practice. That is, those exclusively using hymns would not advocate against the use of Psalms. It is just that they do not use them, and have no concern that they do not.Exclusive Psalmody
"God has commanded us not to worship him in any other way than he has directed in his Word. The book of Psalms is a songbook directly from God, and in Scripture we are commanded to sing from it. Therefore, the divinely inspired psalms are the only acceptable songs for congregational worship." – Michael R. Kearney
Exclusive Psalmody rises from a strong base, since almost every Christian believes it is scriptural to sing the Psalms. Nevertheless, the weight of this practice hangs massively on one assumption, that we are commanded to sing only from the book of Psalms in the Old Testament. The issue will to a large degree, at least from the Exclusivist standpoint, rise or fall with the interpretation of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3.
Exclusive Psalmody endeavors to follow the regulative principle of worship. Unfortunately, many EP’ers accuse those who reject exclusive psalmody of also abandoning the regulative principle. This is not necessarily so.
Permissive Psalmody allows only Scripture to be sung, but does not limit that singing of Scripture to the 150 songs in the Old Testament book of Psalms. If it is found in the Scriptures, it can be taken as a text for singing. The Exclusive Psalmodist rejects this, saying, for example, "...it is not that other songs in the Scriptures are no less inspired or important (like the song of Moses in Exodus 15), they have simply not been deemed as part of the accepted praise of God’s church in corporate worship by being excluded from the Book of Praise." (from God and Song: An Inquiry Into the Eternity of God in relation to Church Worship by C. Matthew McMahon) H. M. Cartwright writes in Psalms or Hymns in Public Worship, "God did not include all the inspired songs of Scripture in the Book He provided, and so we have no authority to add even other portions of Scripture to what God has given as a complete book of praises. It was not supplanted or supplemented in New Testament times by divine appointment or inspiration."
We can take the New Testament as the basis for our scripture readings, the texts for our sermons and the rule for our faith and practice – yet can't sing it in our assemblies? The simple believer will recoil at such a suggestion, be it urged upon them by the most sophisticated arguments by the most argumentative scholars. We who are under the New Testament cannot sing the New Testament? Ha! That's ludicrous on its very face. Who could believe it, had we no sophisticated scholars to assure us it is so with their subtle sophistries? God…hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son!
Inclusive Hymnody removes one step further from Exclusive Psalmody – not only can Scriptures other than the Psalms be sung, but also hymns written by uninspired writers after the close of the canon.
The advocacy method of Inclusive Hymnody varies. Some who hold this position do not hold the regulative principle and therefore use “non-inspired hymns of human composure” because they are not forbidden. Those who hold the regulative principle often approach the issue from the “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. Since hymns and spiritual songs are commanded as well as “psalms” then it is not a violation of the regulative principle to sing hymns (and spiritual songs). Further, some would argue that the lack of specific details for hymns and spiritual songs leaves some liberty in the composition of these songs – in much the same way there is liberty in the composing the words of our prayers and sermons. Since the song of the Psalms used the available Scriptures as sources of material, they can be a guide to composing hymns and spiritual songs from available Scripture material (which now includes the New Testament).
I’ve never known anyone to advocate that only non-inspired hymns could be sung in corporate worship. No one would say, “Don’t sing the Psalms.”**** Though this is not a theology, it is the actual practice of many churches. They do not advocate using the Psalms in public worship in song. Any use of them is accidental. They have no concern or regret that they do not use the Psalms. This view seems unthinkable, but not thinking is perhaps the very malady that has led to this disease. The Lord’s churches thus infected ought to seek a remedy.
The exclusive hymn singing practice of many evangelicals and fundamentalists (as well as moderates and liberals) is both shallow and theologically incorrect. Rather than singing sentimentality and senseless fluff, hymnodists can and should look to the inspired songs of the Bible as a guide in forming any new songs so that they are God honoring and biblically & theologically sound.
The burden of proof
In Sing Psalms or Hymns, Jeffrey A. Stivason claims that the psalm versus hymn discussion is really an "asymmetrical persuasion dialogue" – that only the "uninspired hymnist" (inclusive hymnody position) is asserting a position and has the burden of proof. This is simply not so. The exclusive psalmodist is asserting a number of things which must be proven.
Exclusive psalmody is antithetical to the fact of New Testament revelation and the inspiration of the Scriptures. If we can only sing the Psalms, we cannot sing Matthew 6:9-13 or Acts 1:8 or Romans 8:28-39 or Galatians 2:20 or any other New Testament passage of scripture – all of which are the divinely inspired inerrant word of God given His churches! Exclusive psalmody is the musical equivalent of an "exclusive old-testamody" in preaching or corporate scripture reading – that is, taking texts only from the Old Testament and not any from the New. Exclusive hymnody is a mindless methodology that ought to go the way of the Dodo bird. Somewhere in between these extremes may we find the true way.
I feel the weight of the regulative principle and the "pain"***** of exclusive psalmody. Nevertheless, I am unconvinced by the arguments of Exclusive Psalmodists. The regulative principle favors at least Permissive Psalmody and possibly Inclusive Hymnody. Exclusive Hymnody is an unfortunate practice devolved into by careless thinking and lack of vision, but we must be careful to not throw the baby out with the bath water.
* The right sidebar on the Exclusive Psalmody Churches web site gives a list of denominations that adhere to exclusive psalmody and denominations that include some congregations that practice exclusive psalmody.
** The 2nd commandment forbids the use of images to worship God. It also contains a broader principle: "God is the one who dictates how He will be worshipped."
*** No. 2 is sometimes called "Inclusive Psalmody". But others use "Inclusive Psalmody" to refer to position No. 3. For example, Tim Lindsay of “Exclusive Psalmody Churches” blog writes, "By Inclusive psalmody, I mean that the practice is to sing the 150 Psalms of the Bible plus other selections such as (but not necessarily limited to) the Ten Commandments, Song of Mary, Song of Zacharias, Song of Simeon, Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed." On the other hand, Michael Kearney writes that "...the third position [use of biblical psalms and non-inspired hymns, rlv] is unofficially known as 'inclusive psalmody' or 'inclusive hymnody'." In order to avoid this overlap and confusion, I had dubbed the No. 2 position as "Permissive Psalmody". It starts from an “Exclusive Psalmody” vantage point/position, but permits the use of other scriptures. The early 20th century position of the Christian Reformed Church illustrates a view hanging between No. 2 and No. 3: "In the Churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the Sermon, shall be sung." [Article 69 of the Church Order, Christian Reformed Church, (pre-1932)]
**** Some are not in favor of singing the imprecatory Psalms. Imprecatory psalms are psalms that invoke judgment, calamity, punishment or curses upon one's enemies.
***** Pain caused the base nature of much modern worship music, with its loose theology, sentimentality and ubiquitous optimism.