What is Exclusive Psalmody and Why Should We Take the Time to Deal With It?

by | Jul 9, 2014 | Exclusive Psalmody

What is exclusive psalmody?

I have used the phrase exclusive psalmody.  Let me explain the phrase.  There are those who believe that in the worship of God we should only sing the biblical psalms.  There are two versions of this view.  The stricter version of it says that only 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms may be sung.  The less strict view allows that other portions of the Word of God may be sung, but still often and perhaps even usually concludes that to be on the safe side we should still sing only the psalms found in the biblical book called Psalms.

The last thing I want to do is caricature or misrepresent this position.  It has been held by great and good men.  It has been held by these men because of their strict regard for the regulative principle of worship.  I honor them for this.

One of these men—and a man I greatly respect—is John Murray.  With a little tongue in my cheek, I have sometimes described him as my “patron saint.”  There are few or no men to whom I owe a greater debt theologically than Professor Murray.  Here is his summary of the position. This is in Worship in the Presence of God, edited by Frank J. Smith and David C. Lachman (Fellsmere, FL: Reformation Media and Press, 2006), 192.

  1. There is no warrant in Scripture for the use of uninspired human compositions in the singing of God’s praise in the public worship.
  2. There is explicit authority for the use of inspired songs.
  3. The songs of divine worship must therefore be limited to the songs of Scripture, for they alone are inspired.
  4. The Book of Psalms does provide us with the kind of compositions for which we have the authority of Scripture.
  5. We are therefore certain of divine sanction and approval in the singing of the Psalms.
  6. We are not certain that other inspired songs were intended to be sung in the worship of God, even though the use of other inspired songs does not violate the fundamental principle on which Scripture authorization is explicit, namely, the use of inspired songs.
  7. In view of uncertainty with respect to the use of other inspired songs, we should confine ourselves to the Book of Psalms.

Several comments on this remarkable summary of Murray are appropriate.

First, Murray here manifests a move that is, I think, fairly typical for exclusive psalmodists.  On the one hand, they admit that singing “other inspired songs does not violate the fundamental principle on which Scripture authorization is explicit.”  Nevertheless, they prefer to sing only the book of Psalms because of the alleged uncertainty with respect to whether these other inspired songs are to be used.  This ends up being very similar to Brian Schwertley who  gives this definition of exclusive psalmody:  “Some churches sing ‘hymns’ of merely human composition; some churches sing uninspired hymns and inspired songs from the biblical Psalter, while some churches sing only from the 150 Psalms of the Bible. Using the book of Psalms alone as the manual of praise in the church is referred to as ‘exclusive Psalmody.’”  (This is quoted from the online publication Exclusive Psalmody: A Biblical Defense by Brian Schwertley.)  Thus, even though occasionally the singing of other parts of Scripture is theoretically entertained, practically speaking only the singing of the Book of Psalms is practiced.

Second, Murray illustrates something of what might be called from one perspective the “rigidity” or from another perspective the “carefulness” of the exclusive psalmody position in this statement.  He says, “We are not certain that other inspired songs were intended to be sung in the worship of God.”  This is, whatever else you call it, astonishing.  Murray is not certain that even some inspired songs are acceptable worship!

Third, Murray and Schwertley make clear that the issue is, then, not whether we should sometimes sing the psalms of Scripture.  I believe we should sing the from the Book of Psalms.  I will not argue against that.  I believe, rather, that there are wise and good reasons to do that and include, as we do at our own church, biblical psalms in our singing as a church.  They are full of comfort, very instructive, and present a view of Christian experience that is very much more biblical and realistic than much contemporary hymnody.  The issue is not inclusive psalmody.  The issue is exclusive psalmody. The issue is whether we should sing only biblical psalms.

Why should we take the time to deal with it?

Both in preaching on this subject in our church and in considering whether to blog about this subject, I have raised a question for myself which you may also have.  Why should I trouble the minds of God’s people with this issue?  There are thousands of theological and exegetical issues which do not and should not certainly make the cut for pulpit or perhaps not for a blog series. Here are my reasons for dealing with this issue.  First, some of those with whom we would agree most strongly about the regulative principle and in other theological respects regard most highly believe that it directly leads to exclusive psalmody.  John Murray is my case in point here.  Second, one major practical objection to the regulative principle on the part of some people is that it involves exclusive psalmody, a doctrine which many find old-fashioned and rigid.  Whether or not they are right about exclusive psalmody being old-fashioned and rigid, I think it is important to show that the regulative principle does not lead to this view in order to remove this unnecessary prejudice against the regulative principle.

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