My First Major Argument Against Exclusive Psalmody

by | Jul 16, 2014 | Exclusive Psalmody

What are the major arguments against it?

First, the exclusive psalmodists themselves do not actually sing inspired psalms. 

The writings of exclusive psalmodists are littered with the claim that they only sing inspired psalms.  Nevertheless, I have to begin my critique of their position by saying that they do not actually do this.  That may seem like an unbelievable or audacious thing to say.  The fact is, however, that we do not believe in the inspiration of any English translation of the Bible.  We certainly do not believe in the inspiration of any English version of the Psalms as they have been arranged for singing.

The issue here is not merely that many words have been added and phrases re-arranged in all the English metrical arrangements of the Psalms and that this raises great questions about the claim of singing inspired psalms.  That is, as far as I am concerned, a true and valid critique of the claim to sing inspired psalms.  As Gary Crampton writes (in the Trinity Review):

Fourth, another question that must be posed to the exclusive Psalmodists is this: “What constitutes a metrical Psalm?” How faithful must the Psalms sung be to the Scriptures? Some of the metrical psalms are at best rough paraphrases of the Hebrew text. Exclusive Psalmodists would not tolerate such looseness in their Bibles. Singing these psalms is far from singing “inspired Scripture.” Does the exclusive Psalmodist violate the regulative principle when he does not sing the Psalms in the exact language of the Hebrew?

Bob Morey (in An Examination of Exclusive Psalmody) notes:  “Is it not a fact that the Psalter so rearranges the words of Scripture, adds words, and subtracts words from Scripture that there is clear evidence that the Psalter is actually a product of human composition?”  Morey shows that the answer to this question is certainly yes.

But this problem is only the tip of the iceberg.  The deeper issue is that verbal plenary inspiration is only true of the Scriptures in the original languages in which they are written.  Evangelicals today only affirm that the original autographs of the Bible are inspired, infallible, and inerrant.  The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy asserts in its section on transmission and translation:

Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission. The verdict of this science, however, is that the Hebrew and Greek text appear to be amazingly well preserved, so that we are amply justified in affirming, with the Westminster Confession, a singular providence of God in this matter and in declaring that the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free.

Similarly, no translation is or can be perfect, and all translations are an additional step away from the original autographs. Yet the verdict of linguistic science is that English-speaking Christians, at least, are exceedingly well served in these days with a host of excellent translations and have no cause for hesitating to conclude that the true Word of God is within their reach. Indeed, in view of the frequent repetition in Scripture of the main matters with which it deals and also of the Holy Spirit’s constant witness to and through the Word, no serious translation of Holy Scripture will so destroy its meaning as to render it unable to make its reader “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).

That is right and true according to our confession of faith.  Chapter 1, paragraph 8, reads:

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them.

This means that all their talk of singing only inspired psalms is based on a fundamental confusion.  The English translations of the Bible and the metrical Psalms are not inspired.  Does this mean that we cannot trust our English translations of the Scriptures?  Of course not!  Does it mean that we do not have the Word of God in English?  Again, of course not!  We have the Word of God in faithful English translations.   But those English translations are not themselves inspired.

But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.

Now the exclusive psalmodist may argue that we still can and should sing the Word of God.  I completely agree and have no argument with him on this score.  But, as I said, the writings of exclusive psalmodists are littered with assertion that we must sing the inspired psalms.  Listen to Brian Schwertley in his Exclusive Psalmody: A Biblical Defense:  “The singing of divinely inspired songs in worship is not only an Old Testament worship ordinance, but also a new covenant era ordinance.  …. we must reject their attempt to circumvent God’s requirement of the singing of inspired songs in public worship.”  Unless we are willing to learn Hebrew, we cannot sing the inspired psalms.  We can only sing faithful English translations of them, but this is not the same as singing inspired psalms.

It seems to me that there is an important consequence of understanding and admitting that no one actually sings inspired psalms.  It is to suggest that the right thing to say on this matter is that our singing must be carefully scriptural and not that we must sing inspired psalms.  There are, however, many hymns that are carefully scriptural that are not verbatim English metrical psalms or even verbatim Scripture.

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