Sing Psalms or Hymns

Rev. Jeffrey A. Stivason

The following article is being published as part of a series in this centenary year to mark the stand taken by the Constitutionalists in 1900 to preserve the testimony of the Free Church of Scotland. The Church has understood the Regulative Principle of worship to mean that only the inspired hymnody of the Book of Psalms is authorised in public worship.

This is a position we share with our brethren in the Reformed Presbyterian Church. This article appeared first in the Covenanter Witness, the magazine of the RP Church of North America.

It is reprinted with kind permission.

I vividly remember my first encounter with an exclusive psalmodist. I was a hymn singer by tacit emotional consent, rather than by conviction or sound reasoning.

The conflict that ensued was not pretty. I was taken off guard and fighting from a corner. I was grabbing for any argument I could muster to protect my precious hymns.

Finally, I found relief; I had the solution. There was light at the end of the tunnel. I simply said, “The burden of proof is on you to show me that I must sing the Psalms exclusively”. I had put my attacker at bay, but I knew I was being intellectually dishonest. I knew I had barely escaped with my hymn-singing life. Nevertheless, the battles were not over, not by a long shot.

The more I studied psalmody, the more convinced I became as to the exclusivity of their use in worship. Finally, under the conviction of prayer and study, I became an exclusive psalm-singer.

Since that joyous time, I have engaged in many a strenuous debate advancing the exclusive use of Psalms in worship. What is interesting about all my opponents is the commonality of their defence: “The burden of proof is on you to show me that I must sing the psalms exclusively”. Every time I hear those words, I cringe, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end and my opponent believes he/she is off the hook! That is my motivation for writing this paper.

There are several matters that must be defined before we begin. First, it is important that we define who bears the responsibility of proving in any intellectual contest. The participant in a persuasion dialogue with an obligation to prove has the burden (or obligation) to carry out his task. Simply, he who asserts must prove.

Second, a persuasion dialogue, often called a critical discussion, can be of two basic types. In an asymmetrical persuasion dialogue, the type of obligation of one participant is different from that of the other. In the symmetrical persuasion dialogue, both participants have the same types of obligation. Let us look at examples of both types.

Asymmetrical dialogue

Tom is committed to the pro-choice abortion position and is trying to convince Bob about the validity of his position. Bob is not convinced by Tom’s arguments and raises many doubts, although Bob is not committed to either pro-choice or pro-life.

Here, it is Tom who is asserting; therefore, it is Tom who who has the burden of proof. Bob is a doubter. He is not trying to prove one position or the other. His only obligation is to raise questions that reflect his doubts about the acceptability of Tom’s arguments.

Symmetrical dialogue

Tom is committed to the pro-choice position and, again, is arguing for the validity of his position. Joe is committed to the pro-life position and is arguing for the validity of his position. Each person is trying to refute the thesis of the other.

Not only Tom is assserting, but Joe is asserting as well. Therefore, both have an obligation to prove their respective positions. Both have a burden to prove.

Psalms and Hymns - who proves?

It is often thought in the debate between the exclusive psalmodist and the uninspired hymnist that the dialogue is a symmetrical persuasion dialogue: in other words, both participants have the same type of obligation. This is not the case. The dialogue is really an asymmetrical persuasion dialogue.

How can this be so? Both sides must appeal to a heritage born out of Scripture as a standard for faith and practice. What was the practice of the apostles and the early Church?

Now, someone will say that the exegesis of Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 is unclear, therefore we cannot know the practice of the Apostles and the early Church, regarding the singing of Psalms in worship. It is not my task to develop an exegesis of these two passages here. Nevertheless, if it can be shown that the practice of the early Church was to sing the Psalms exclusively, then the heritage of the Apostles born out of Scripture is established. In other words, if it can be shown that the early Church from the time of the Apostles exclusively sang the Psalms in worship, then the burden of proof is on the hymnodist.

How can this be so? Because if we can show that we are simply coming from a heritage established by the Apostles, then we are asserting nothing. However, the hymnodist is asserting that he may sing uninspired hymns in opposition to the established heritage. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the hymnodist as the one who asserts.

The evidence

Men more able than I have established this heritage born out of Scripture, but I will give a brief smattering of the evidence.

First, usually all parties will concede that the Psalms, as well as other Scriptures, were an essential part of the religious worship of the early Church. Note Eric Werner’s comment: “The paramount importance of the Psalter for the evolution and structure of Christian as well as Jewish liturgy is too well known to warrant elaboration. Private devotions, monastic rituals, special religious occasions, such as consecrations, dedications, exorcisms, etc., were no less replete with Psalmody than the regular worship of the synagogue and church”.

Tertullian, in the second century, and Jerome in the fourth, both testify that “reading the Scriptures and singing the Psalms” were essential features of religious worship. Because of their universal use in the early Church, there was also a universal love for the Psalms, as noted by Robinson: “Wherever the Psalms came to be known at all, they were sung at all times; not only in Christian assemblies, but by people generally; not only as acts of worship, but as men laboured at their tasks, in hours of pleasant recreation and aon festal and funeral occasions alike”.

Referring to the Psalms in the daily life of the people, Jerome writes: “The Psalms were continually to be heard in the fields and vineyards of Palestine. The plowman, as he held the plow, chanted the Hallelujah, and the reaper, the vinedresser, and the shepherd sang something from the Psalms of David. Where the meadows were coloured with flowers, and the singing birds made their plants, the Psalms sounded even more sweetly. These psalms are our love songs, these instruments of our agriculture”.

So loved were the inspired songs of the sweet Psalmist that in the morning, throughout the day, and in the evening, they were sought after. The early Church not only used the Psalms, but delighted in them!

The songs of Zion were also upon the lips of those who suffered violent deaths for their faith. At Soissons, for instance, in the Diocletian persecution of 288, two brothers, Crispin and Crispinian, suffered torture and death. In their prolonged torments, they were sustained by the words of Psalm 79:9-10: “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name ...Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is their God?’”’ How different is this picture from that of today, when men ridicule the Psalms and persecute the singer of these treasures?

Not only were the Psalms used and loved universally, but, more importantly for our case, there is ample evidence to prove that they were used in both the Temple and the synagogue. “The church was cradled in Judaism, and borrowed many of its forms of worship from the temple and synagogue ... Christianity entered into the inheritance of an already existing pattern of worship, provided by the temple ritual and synagogue liturgy.’’ This already-existing pattern of worship did not consist of singing uninspired hymns. In fact, a close examination will show that the early Church took over from the synagogue the custom of chanting Psalms. Consequently, this “already existing pattern of worship” establishes the bridge between the Old Testament Church, the apostolic Church and the early Church in the 1st Century.

It is apparent from the above quotations that the Psalms were universally used and loved in public, as well as in private devotions; however, it remains to be shown that the Psalms were used exclusively. Were the Psalms sung exclusively in the worship of the universal Church? Let us permit the able scholar, Phillip Schaff, to answer that question: “So far as we are able to gather from our sources, nothing, except the Psalms and the New Testament hymns (such as the “Gloria in Excelsis,” the “Magnificat,” the “Nunc Dimittis,” etc.), was as a rule sung in public worship before the fourth century.”

As able and as scholarly as Schaff is, he has overlooked something integral to the argument. Schaff points to a few poetic fragments of the early Church as compositions that possibly could be early hymns. However, there are two serious problems with that assumption. First, after giving a very hesitant assent to these poetic pieces being hymnic in nature, Schaff then says that the early Church had “a decided aversion to the public use of uninspired songs.” There are four possibilities: 1) Schaff has contradicted himself; 2) he means that the poetic fragments were only used in private; 3) these fragments found were not intended to be hymns used in public; or 4) these were written by folks on the fringe. Consequently, it seems that if the Church had “a decided aversion” toward the use of uninspired songs, it would not use them.

Second, Schaff did not mention that, because the Church had such an aversion ‘‘to the use of uninspired songs”, several church councils anathematized their use. The Council of Laodicea (c.381) prohibited the use of uninspired songs. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 affirmed this earlier decision. In 561, the Council of Braga, and the Synod of Toledo in the 7th Century, upheld these resolutions. Therefore, because of this aversion to the use of uninspired hymns, it seems clear that these poetic fragments were just that - poetic fragments, not early hymns.

It must be remembered that our task here is not exegetical, but to demonstrate that exclusive psalmody is from the heritage of the Apostles, born out of Scripture. We have indeed shown that the Apostles, as well as the early Church, started out singing the Psalms of David exclusively. Interestingly, Werner writes, “Usually heretics composed new hymns, spurning the traditional Psalter. Hence heresy was often eager to replace the Psalms by new hymns.”

To summarize, as we said early on, the burden of proof rests on the one who asserts. The exclusive psalmodist is asserting nothing. He is merely following the Apostles and the early Church, since they sang the Psalms of David in public, as well as in private. It is the hymnodist who asserts. He, contrary to the evidence, asserts that the Church may indeed sing uninspired compositions. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the uninspired hymnodist to prove that he may sing his cherished man-made hymns.


Michael Bushell The Songs of Zion, (1993)

John McNaugher The Psalms in Worship (1992)

Eric Werner The Sacred Bridge (1959)

Roland Prothero The Psalms in Human Life (1905)

Rev. Jeffrey A. Stivason is a pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.

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