Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Instruments In The Latin Bibles

We Reformed folk like to think that what we do now in public worship is what we have always done. This is especially easy to do when we are cut off from or unaware of the original sources and practices of our tradition or when our practice has been changed and we are unaware of the changes that have been made. The history of the Reformed practice of worship is not well known nor is it easy to discover. Frequently, those who write about it do so either with an interest in defending our modern practice. Sometimes histories are written by those who do not sympathize with the original Reformed understanding of and approach to worship—now known as the regulative principle of worship.

There are, however, significant differences between the way we tend to think about Reformed worship and the way they did. We know this because our practice tends to vary, in some ways, considerably from the original Reformed practice. For example, today, virtually all Reformed congregations use musical instruments in public worship. In the Reformation, however, virtually none of our congregations used musical instruments in public worship. Instruments were banished from Reformed congregations in Zürich, Geneva, Heidelberg, the Netherlands, France, Scotland, and England. Instruments were absent from Christian worship for the first six centuries of church history and did not become widely used until the high middle ages. They were a relative novelty when the Reformed cast them out in the 16th century. They did not return widely until the 18th and 19th centuries. In some quarters they were still controversial in the early 20th century. For more on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession. What we sing in public worship also varies considerably from what we sang in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Geneva, in the Netherlands, in France, and in the British Isles Reformed congregations sang God’s Word in worship. They did not sing non-canonical hymns.1

Most of the time the shift from the original Reformed practice to our practice is either accepted without question or ignored. Sometimes we assume (as I did for a number of years) that our current practice is the historic practice. Sometimes, however, the original Reformed understanding of worship is ridiculed. One sees this in the discussion of the proper interpretation of the expression in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18: “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The older Reformed writers tended to interpret this phrase as a reference to the 150 Psalms. More than once, however, I have heard contemporary interpreters appeal to this expression as a grounds for an “inclusive” position whereby a Reformed congregation would sing Psalms, extra-canonical hymns, and contemporary songs. This interpretation, however, is not probable. Most likely the phrase “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” refers to three parts of the Psalter in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint and symbolized with the Roman numerals LXX). When the Apostle Paul used the expression “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” he was using an expression with a history, which readers would have understood in context.

When our Reformed forefathers interpreted this phrase they were influenced by their experience with the Latin Bible. This is not something that most Reformed Christians in North America (or anywhere else) experience today, at least not directly. Most of us read Scripture in our own language (e.g., English) and then there those who read the original languages but relatively few of us read Latin any more but our Reformed theologians did. Indeed, when they were not reading Scripture in the original languages they were typically reading Scripture in Latin. Most of the time, when they quote Scripture in their Latin writings, it is in Latin. Sometimes they quote existing translations and sometimes they made their own translation. The Latin Bible that most influenced the Western church was the Biblia Vulgata, the Vulgate. It became the standard text of the Latin Bible through the middle ages and through much of the 16th century. The text was revised and republished by Rome as part of the Counter-Reformation response to the Protestants in 1590. That edition is referred to as the Clementine Vulgate. The Reformed were so familiar with and committed to reading Scripture in Latin that they even created their own Latin translation. Immanuel Tremellius (1510–80) and Franciscus Junius (1545–1602) translated the entire Old Testament and Theodore Beza (1519–1605) translated the New Testament. As Todd Rester explains, this translation became the “standard Latin biblical text of the scholarly Reformed world from 1579 through 1764.” It was widely published and widely used.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs in the Vulgate

In the Vulgate (abbreviated Vg) the terms psalmus (psalm), hymnus (hymn), and canticum (song) appear in the superscriptions to the Psalms. The stem psal– occurs 153 times in the Vg, mostly, of course, in the Psalms. This would include the noun Psalmus (e.g., Ps 2:1 “Psalmus David“) and  also the verb Psallo, to sing (a psalm) as in 1 Cor 14:15. It also is Isaiah 38:20; Lamentations 3:63; Habbakuk 3:19 and in the NT. We can’t survey all of these uses in a blog post but it is instructive to notice how the terms “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” and related words were used in these two Latin Bibles and how that might have influenced the way the Reformed understood them. Of course the noun “Psalm” occurs in the superscriptions of a many of the Psalms, e.g., 4:1, 6:1, 29:1, 32:2 but the terms canticum and hymnus also occur apparently following the pattern of the LXX. Sometimes the terms occur together as in Ps 47:1 (the superscription to Ps 48 in English): Canticum Psalmi… (a song of a Psalm…). See also Ps 65:1 (superscription to 66 in English).

The noun hymnus occurs only twice in the Psalms, in Ps 118:171 (English 119:171) and in the superscription to Psalm 144:1 (145:1 in English), which is a “Hymn of David.” It only occurs 21 times in the whole of Scripture in the Vulgate. In 1 Kings 8:28 hymnus is used as a synonym for oratio (prayer). In 1 Chron 16:36 the congregation says an “amen” and a hymn to the Lord. 2 Chronicles 7:6 says:

The priests stood at their posts; the Levites also, with the instruments (organis carminum) for music to the Dominus that King David had made for giving thanks to the Dominus—for his eternal mercy—whenever David sang his hymnby their hands; then the priests sounded trumpets, and all Israel stood.

Here we see that, in the Vulgate, hymns, the levitical ministry, and musical instruments are quite interconnected. Hymns are also sung in Ezra 3:1, Nehemiah 12:8. Hymnusoccurs several times in the Apocryphal books (Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, 2 Esdras). It is used in the NT in Matthew 26:30, “and when they sang a hymn…” This is undoubtedly the source of the misleading English translation with which the reader is familiar. The Greek text, of course, uses a participle which simply means “having sung” and transliterating it thus, in English, gives the false impression that our Lord and the disciples sang the same sort of extra-canonical song that congregations sing today. As we have seen, however, It is a type of Psalm or other song sung in the canonical period, by canonical actors in the history of redemption.

The typical English translation of Acts 16:25 is also a little misleading. E.g., ESV has Paul and the others “singing hymns” about midnight. The Greek text uses the noun transliterated as “hymn” (ὕμνουν) but, again, the transliteration creates a misleading impression in the modern ear that Paul and company were doing just what we do today. The translation of “psalm” (ψαλμὸν) in 1 Corinthians 14:26 as “hymn” is even more misleading. Why transliterate “hymnos” in one place but not transliterate psalmos in another?

It is quite interesting also to note how the noun canticum (song) appears in the Psalter. Sometimes it appears in conjunction with psalmus, as we have observed, but sometimes it is used to characterize the entire Psalm as in Ps 3:1 (= superscription to Ps 3 in English). The Vulgate says, “A canticle of David when he fled from the face of Absalom (Abesselon) his son.” Psalms 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21,22, 23, 28, 30, are all a canticles. The noun canticum occurs 88 times in the Psalms and most of them in the superscription. As I mentioned, some of them are used together with Psalmus. By contrast, the noun psalmus occurs only 18 times in the Vulgate and usually in the superscription. This ratio suggests that, for readers of the Vulgate, the Psalms were more a collection of songs (canticles) than “Psalms” and that the two words were virtually identical in their sense.

In short, when the Reformed thought about “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in Colossians and Ephesians, given their background in the Latin Bible, they would not have interpreted that phrase as “the canonical psalms, a type of non-canonical song, and another type of non-canonical song.” The evidence from the Latin Bible simply will not allow such an interpretation. When they read those nouns, they understood them against the background of their use in the Latin Bible. When they read “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in Colossians and Ephesians they read them as types of Psalms or as synonyms for Psalms or other typological forms of praise.

Singing And Instruments

We have already noted that there is a connection between the stems psal–, hymn–, and cant– and the use of instruments by the Levitical priests. When the Reformed thought about the use of musical instruments in Scripture they thought of the typological period of redemption or the Old Testament in the broad sense. The first use of the verb Psallooccurs in Judges 5:3:

Domino canam psallam Domino Deo Israhel (I will play an instrument, I will sing [a psalm] to the Lord, to the Lord God of Israel))

In 1 Sam 10:5 the “harp” is a psalterium (psalterium et tympanum et tibiam et citharam) and in 16:16 a man who knows how to play (psallere) the cithara is sought. Similar uses occur in 1 Sam 18:10; 19:9; 2 Kings 3:15. They associated the use of musical instruments particularly with the Levitical, priestly ministry as in Nehemiah 12:27:

And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres (ESV).

In the Vulgate the Levites are praising God “in cantico in cymbalis psalteriis et citharis” (in song with cymbals, stringed instruments, and lyres).

We see this pattern also in 1 Chronicles 15;16 where the leaders (chiefs) of the Levites are to appoint some of their brothers to play on “organs musicorum” (on the instruments of music). We see the same connection in 2 Chronicles 29:26 where the Levites are standing with the instruments (organa) of David and the levitical priests are playing trumpets (tubas). Again in 2 Chronicles 20:31 the Levites and the priests are playing musical instruments (organa) as in 2 Chronicles 34:12.

It is often asked (as I myself asked Bob Godfrey 23 years ago), “Why do you want us to sing Psalms but you won’t let us do what they say?” (i.e., play instruments). After all, Psalm 150 lists a number of instruments. The Vulgate, in Psalm 151:2 (English 150:4) even lists the “organ” as one of them. The difficulty that the Reformed saw with this line of reasoning is that it proves too much. They were convinced that the period of types and shadows had been fulfilled in Christ. This is why, in the new covenant, the church did not seek to kill the Canaanites. That commission ended with the death of Christ. In the “once for all” (Heb 7:27) death of Christ the bloody sacrificial ministry of the Levitical priesthood ended. Jesus’ priesthood was greater than Aaron’s and Levi’s. Those priests had to sacrifice for themselves. Jesus did not. His sacrifice was for us.

The Reformers knew their history, that the early church accepted these principles and worshipped without musical instruments for the first 7 centuries—8 if we count the Apostolic church. They knew that the reintroduction of musical instruments mean the return to types and shadows, to the priesthood and that is exactly what happened. By the 9th century medieval theologians were theorizing about the transformation of the elements of the Supper into the body and blood of Christ. After that, increasingly ministers became regarded as priests who were making offerings. Indeed, by the 9th century the Holy Roman Emperor is increasingly being seen as a new Davidic king. What had expired on the cross was being resurrected and the church was returned to types and shadows. The Reformers rejected the new priesthood, the new (memorial, propitiatory) sacrifices just as they rejected the medieval neo-levitical reintroduction of instruments.

As we wrestle with the interpretation of the expression “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” we should try to understand sympathetically the traditional Reformed reading and we can do that if we account for the influence of the Latin Bible on their interpretation.

The Latin Bible was a major formative influence on the way the Reformed theologians interpreted Scripture. The King James Version/Authorized Version (1611) particularly reflects the influence of the Latin Bible but its influence reverberates in many English translations. It influenced their word choice in translation. Since our theologians in the 16th and 17th centuries used a Latin Bible for their personal study, it also influenced their understanding of the meaning of Scripture.

In the first post in this series we looked at how the Psalms are categorized in the superscriptions of the Psalms in the Vulgate. We also considered the way those words are used in the NT.

From 1579, however, the Reformed orthodox had a new study tool. It didn’t have a clever title e.g., The New International Reformed Study Bible but that is what it was. When the Reformed orthodox writers used a Latin Bible they tended to use the edition produced by Franciscus Junius, Immanuel Tremellius, and Theodore Beza. It was titled Biblia sacra sive testamentum vetus et testamentum novum (Sacred Bible: Old Testament and New Testament).

Recently I have worked through the Biblia sacra to see how the psalms were classified in the superscriptions and the results are enlightening.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

The question before us is this: Against what background did the orthodox Reformed understand the expression in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18, “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”?

In Beza’s Latin NT the expression reads:

psalmis, hymnes, et cantionibus spiritualibus

The only the difference between the Vulgate and Beza’s text is Beza’s choice of cantio in place of canticum for “songs.” Cantio is a relatively rare word, a late, post-classical word. It does not occur in the pre-Clementine Vulgate but and occurs only once (Ps 136:3) in the Clementine Vulgate (1592). That it occurs in Beza’s 1556 Latin New Testament suggests the word had found favor in the second half of the 16th century. Perhaps this noun was favored by the humanists for some reason? Calvin used it 4 times in the 1559 Institutes (3.8.11, 4.13.19, 4.19.22, 4.19.24). Was he influenced by Beza’s 1556 translation or were they both influenced by a broader trend?

How did Junius and Tremellius translate the superscriptions to the Psalms and how might that have influenced the Reformed understanding of the Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16? The other question we pursued was how the Vulgate translated the terms for musical instruments and how that influenced the Reformers. We will ask the same question of Tremellius/Junius.

This work was more difficult because there is no digitized version of Junius’ and Tremellius’ (hereafter Junius/Tremellius) translation but I went through the text carefully by hand.

41 of the Psalms in have no superscription and thus no classification for the psalm. 44 of the Psalms were classified as a Psalm (psalmus) of David or of Asaph et al. 19 of the psalms were classified as a canticum (song). 26 were classified as an ode, which is a transliteration of the Greek term used in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. 4 psalms were classified as an oratio (prayer), 6 as a canticum et pslamus (song and psalm) and 1 as a carmen Davidis (a song of David).

These categories were not isolated or sealed from one another. Some psalms were classified as psalms and as something else, e.g., a canticum. No Psalms were classified as a hymnus but none are classified as a cantio, Beza’s word for canticum. The fact that ode was used suggests the retrospective influence of Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 on Junius/Tremellius. Their choices also suggest that the line between “psalm” and other forms of song is blurry, if it existed at all. The noun psalm occurs more frequently in Junius/Tremellius than in the Vulgate psalter.

They did not seem to have followed the LXX pattern exactly but there are some patterns. Psalmus tends to occur earlier in the psalter (books 1 and 2) and canticumoccurs with more frequency later in the psalter (book 5). Ode occurs throughout the psalter but occurs in most often in books 1 (1-41), 2 (42-72), and 3 (73-89) of the psalter.

Following the humanist pattern they used a greater diversity of terms (oratio, carmen, ode) than the Vulgate.

2 of the 3 terms used in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 were used interchangeably in the Junius/Tremellius translation of the superscriptions of the psalter and they used Paul’s word ode, which seems to connect their understanding of Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 directly to their understanding of the Psalter. Arguably, canticum stands for hymnus

Outside the psalter, e.g., in Matthew 26:30 Beza translated ὕμνουν as “hymn” and in Acts 16:25, Paul and Silas were “singing (canebant) hymns to God.” Like the Vulgate, Beza used the transliterated (Latinized) the Greek except that he turned the singular (in both the Majority Text and the NA 28) to a plural. That choice raises its own questions that we cannot pursue here. The caveats from last time still apply. We cannot anachronistically re-interpret “hymn” in light of our modern (largely psalm-less) experience. The question is how it was understood in the 16th and 17th centuries.

We get greater clarity about how Junius/Tremellius and Beza understood Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 in Beza’s translation of 1 Corinthians 14:26 where the Vulgate transliterated ψαλμὸν (psalm) Beza chose canticum. This is illuminating. He did not choose to transliterate psalm, which is the noun that Paul used, but instead chose to translate it with a different noun. Why? Because, in his understanding, and arguably that of the rest of the Reformed orthodox, there was no substantive difference between a psalm and a canticum (song) and, we should add, an ode nor was there any discernible difference between a canticum (Vulgate) and cantio (Beza). They signify the same thing.

In short, the Reformed orthodox would not have understood the objection against interpreting Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 against the background of the Psalter. In their minds, the two were bound together. For them, when Paul said “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” he was referring to the superscriptions of the psalms. Nor would they have sympathized with the argument that “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” must refer to distinct types of songs and certainly they had no sympathy for the notion that “psalm” refer to a canonical psalm, a hymn to a type of non-canonnical song, and “spiritual song” to another type of non-canonical song.

Musical Instruments

One of the more interesting facets the Junius/Tremellius psalter is their translation of the directions to the musician. In 55 psalms, in all five books of the psalter, this superscription appears:

To the master of the symphonia (magistro symphoniae).

Typically in our English Bibles, e.g., in the ASV and ESV, the superscription over Psalm 4 reads, “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” The 1559 Geneva bible has “To him that excelleth on Neginoth.” Thus, they left the Hebrew untranslated—though we have already observed how the editors/translators addressed the use of musical instruments in the new covenant, in the note on Psalm 150:3. KJV/AV revised the Geneva Bible slightly: “To the chief musician on Neginoth….” The Geneva/KJV tells the English reader less than the ASV/ESV but none of them has quite the same effect of the Junius/Tremellius translation. Symphonia was a transliteration of the Greek term (συμφωνία). According to Liddell and Scott (the precursor to Liddell, Scott, and Jones), a Symphonia, in this context, is a band or an orchestra. It features percussive instruments (drums, cymbals) but apparently included wind instruments since the superscriptions to Psalms 53 and 75 include instructions to the “master of the symphonia” regarding the use of a “pneumatic instrument.”

Outside the psalter, terms for musical instruments occur most frequently in 1-2 Chronicles, in conjunction with the Levitical, priestly ministry (and often in the context of burnt offerings and sacrifices). In 1 Chronicles 15:16, the Levites were playing “with instruments of music, psalteries, cithara, and cymbals. In 16:42 it is “trumpets and cymbals for resonating and musical instruments….” In 2 Chronicles 29 the Levites were using “musical instruments” including various horns. This fits the evidence we saw in the superscriptions to 2 psalms regarding the use of particular instruments.

What does the Junius/Tremellius translation tell us about how they saw musical instruments in the psalter and redemptive history? First, whereas the terms for a symphonia and musical instruments generally and certain instruments particularly occurred with regularity in the Psalter and in 1-2 Chronicles, they occur, of course, not at all in Beza’s NT. Second, it would have been very difficult for the Reformed orthodox, for whom the Junius/Tremellius/Beza Latin Bible became the study Bible (apart from the original text), not to think of musical instruments as inextricably tied to the typological period of redemptive history and to the sacrificial ministry of the Levites. Where our translations sometimes encourage us to thing of a vocal choir, their translation encouraged them to think of the use of musical instruments in the psalms. In that respect, our experience of the psalter is quite different from theirs. The use of “choir” or “choirmaster” anachronistically tends to create the impression that the Israelites did just as many modern congregations do but for the Reformed orthodox, who composed our confessions, when they thought of the psalter and Old Testament worship generally, they thought of musical instruments, sacrifices, and even holy war (Psalm 149) against the enemies of God’s national people.

This helps explain why the churches in Geneva, Heidelberg, the Netherlands, France, and the British Isles removed or sought to remove musical instruments from Reformed churches. They were relics of the era of types and shadows, intimately, inextricably bound up with the Levitical sacrifices.

Obviously, the predominant contemporary understanding of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” varies rather sharply from that reflected in the standard Latin study Bible used by our orthodox Reformed forefathers. Further, their is considerable discontinuity between the way modern Reformed folk tend to think about musical instruments and the way the Reformed theologians and churches thought of them in the formative, classical period (16th and 17th centuries) of Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

It is useful to know that most (but not all!) of us no longer agree with our Reformed sources. We need to wrestle honestly with the facts. It is simply not satisfactory to say, “Well they were wrong.” That might be the case but we cannot simply assert that. We must show why they were wrong. Why were they wrong to read “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in light of the superscriptions in the psalter? Why were they wrong to see the cultic (i.e., the use in public worship as distinct from the general, cultural) use of musical instruments as inextricably bound up with the types and shadows of the temporary, Israelite, national cultus and polity? It is an a fact of redemptive history that Levites played musical instruments so long as the burnt offerings were being made (2 Chron 29). They stopped with the sacrifices stopped. It is a fact of redemptive history that the same psalms that exhort us to dance and play musical instruments also exhort us to holy war against God’s national enemies.

When our theologies were being written and when our confessions were being framed, this was the understanding that informed them as they confessed that we may do in worship only that which God has commanded. In light of their understanding of redemptive history they removed instruments from the churches and sang only God’s Word (usually psalms) in response to God’s Word. They did not see musical instruments as circumstances. They saw them as elements just as the sacrifices were elements.


1. There are two possible exceptions to this rule. The Strasbourg Psalter of 1545 seems to have included some non-canonical songs. The songbook used in Heidelberg in 1563 and 1573 seems to have contained non-canonical hymns. I am investigating whether non-canonical songs were sung in public worship. The Apostles’ Creed was the only non-canonical song sung in the Genevan liturgy but it was sung in place of the reading of the Word or as a summary of the Word. When the conjugation responded to the Word they also prayed or sang the Word. The Church Order of Dort (1619) provided for the singing of a song that may have been a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer or it may have been a non-canonical song. It is lost.

If Believers Are Playing Instruments In Heaven, Why May We Not?

Whenever a defense is advanced for something like the historic Reformed understanding of the rule of worship one of the objections that regularly arises is this: if musical instruments are being used in Scripture, we may we not use them now in our worship? This question is a species of the broader question, “if x is done in Scripture (e.g., holy war, dancing in worship, or use of musical instruments), why may we not do x?” Let us consider the broader question first and then this particular question.

The (usually) unstated assumption behind the broader question is this: we are in the same place in redemptive history as the canonical actors. This is an unsustainable assumption. To put it directly: we are not Noah, Moses, David, or Elijah. Yes, Yahweh spoke quietly to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) but you and I are not Elijah. You and I are not the typological Old Covenant mediator (Moses) with whom Yahweh met face to face. In some ways you and I, as New Covenant Christians, have a more glorious position, since we have that for which they longed: the clear revelation of God the Son incarnate. You and I, however, are not actors in the canonical drama. We are recipients of the story and we participate in it, in Christ, by identity but God is not giving new revelation nor is he accomplishing new acts of redemption. There is only one outstanding act of redemption to come that is the glorious, visible, bodily return of Christ.

Yes, David danced before the ark but as Calvin reminded us centuries ago (CO, 7.609) but he did not do so as an example for us to imitate any more than the Israelite holy wars are to be imitated today. The Lord clearly commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20. The Lord commanded “when Yahweh your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword” (v. 13). If we are to be consistent in the way we are reading Scripture, any argument to take the Old Testament musical instruments must also take up the Old Testament command to conduct holy war. Yet, one does not see such an argument. Why not? We know that the Old Testament holy wars were typological (illustrative of heavenly and future realities) and completed with the death of Christ but we are reluctant to apply that logic to the use of musical instruments. Why not? The answer is fairly straightforward, if difficult to read: musical instruments are familiar and pleasant but holy war is unfamiliar and unpleasant.

2 Chronicles 29:25–28 connects inextricably the religious use of musical instruments to the Old Covenant ceremonies that we know to have been fulfilled by the life and death of Jesus:

And he stationed the Levites in the house of Yahweh with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from Yahweh through his prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to Yahweh began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished (ESV).

Yahweh commanded the very priests who were shedding the blood of animals also to play musical instruments in religious worship. Those instruments were splattered figuratively (and perhaps literally) with the blood of bulls and goats.  Christians regularly appeal to the use of musical instruments under the Old Covenant as grounds for using them today but they recoil when it suggested that we follow the pattern to its logical end.

The book of Hebrews is clear that the Old Covenant worship (cultus) was typological, that it has been fulfilled by Christ and that any return to it is an insult to the finished work of Christ. This argument was at the heart of the Protestant response to the thirteenth-century doctrine of the memorial, propitiatory (satisfying and wrath-turning), memorial, figurative re-sacrificing of Christ in the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). Trent’s ratification of the 4th Lateran Council was in direct contradiction to the virtually the entire book of Hebrews.

Yet, when it began to suit us in the 17th century (in the Netherlands) and later in the 18th and 19th centuries in the British Isles and in USA, we began to do the very thing for which we had criticized the Romanists in the 16th century. We had begun to clean off the blood, as it were, from the types and shadows and to restore them to Christian worship. To be sure, it had been done in the 16th century by the Lutherans but even Thomas Aquinas ridiculed the use of musical instruments by Christians as “judaizing.” Everyone knew that the early church had unequivocally and strongly rejected the use of musical instruments on the same grounds and that, though the organ had been introduced into Christian worship in the 7th century in Spain (in one place), they were hardly used even in the middle ages. They were forbidden from Papal masses as inappropriate for such a solemn occasion.

These examples illustrate the grave biblical, theological, logical, and historical problems with the broader argument: if believers did x in Scripture we may we not do it now? We may not do it now because those actions were peculiar to that period of redemptive history. This is why the apostles did not take the sword against pagans. This is why they preached Christ and called pagans to repentance and faith. This is why they sang God’s Word in worship without the ceremonies of the typological period of redemptive history. They knew where they were in redemptive history.

So too, we need to realize where we are. We are not in the canon. We are recipients of the canon. We are not actors in the story except by identification. We are recipients of the story. This basic principles will help us understand how to approach the Revelation.

The question before concerns what the church ought to do in public worship. Christians often ask, “If they did x in Scripture, why may we not do them now?” In part 1 we considered the problems associated with this approach to Scripture, which blurs the line between the canonical history of redemption and us, who are recipients of the benefits of those acts of redemption. We also noted that this approach is almost always employed selectively, even arbitrarily. We are tempted to cherry pick those things that we might like to do, e.g., dance before the ark like David or play the harp in worship like the Levitical priests. Few Christians, however, want to identify the Canaanites in their region, let alone go to war against them nor do they wish to carry a lamb to the front of church and slit its throat. So, in this approach, we may have liturgical dancing and literal harps (or their equivalent) but we may not literally go to war with pagans. This, however is to re-institute, in the New Covenant, Old Covenant types and shadows (Heb 8:5; 10:1; Col 2:17).

A species of the general argument addressed in part 1 is the argument from the Revelation. The question is this: since, in the Revelation, we see instruments being used in heaven, why may we not use them now? There might be a certain prima facie attraction to this argument if we think of the history of redemption. After all, the Revelation was given in the New Covenant, after the fulfillment of types and shadows. Further, we do legitimately appeal to the Revelation 1:10 as evidence for the existence and practice of the Christian’s Lord’s Day.

Despite its attraction of there are insurmountable problems to this approach to the Revelation.  First, we must recognize that most of the first three chapters of the Revelation are rather different from the succeeding chapters. We know a fair bit about the actual (not symbolic) churches in Asia Minor to which the Revelation was sent and when (c. 93 AD). On this see e.g., Colin Hemer, Letters to the Seven Churches (1986). So, it is one thing to appeal to Rev 1:10 and another to appeal to chapter 5 as grounds for our practice.

Second, as a general rule, we ought to be careful about how we appeal to the Revelation as a justification for our practice. The Revelation was given by the Spirit, through the Apostle John, to the churches of Asia Minor (and to us) in order to help us get a broad overview of the movement of history between the ascension of our Lord and his return. Its purpose is not to provide detailed practical guidance in worship or in public works (e.g., Rev. 21:21). The Revelation was not given to guide Christians in the details of their practice. As a general rule, when we appeal to a text to answer a question which it does not intend to answer we must be sure that our inferences are legitimate. There are good reasons to doubt the legitimacy of the argument, “we see instruments used in heavenly worship, therefore we are justified in using them in Christian worship.”

Third, those places in which we see references to musical instruments being used are set solidly in the most symbolic literature in all of Holy Scripture. Just for that fact we should be very cautious. E.g., early in chapter 4 as the book shifts to the vision of heaven (this is the Ἀποκάλυψις) heaven is presented to us in symbolic terms:

Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal (Rev 4:4–6; ESV).

Are we to think that there are 24 thrones, elders, literal lightening, literal torches? Probably not. Why not? Because there are not literally “seven spirits of God.” Seven is a perfect number. To say “seven spirits” is to communicate the perfection of God the Spirit. The Apostle John is not teaching us a that God is really one God in eight persons. There is not a literal sea of glass before Christ’s throne. In Revelation 5:13 our Lord is said to be sitting but in v. 6 not only is our Lord said to be standing but he is said to be “a Lamb…”. Our Lord is “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) but he not literally a lamb. There is no literal scroll (βιβλίον). Again, this is not liberalism. This is recognizing the highly symbolic nature of the Revelation. The Belgic Confession (1561; art. 37) recognizes this when it says that the books that are to be opened is a symbolic way of talking about our consciences.

Recognizing the intent and genre of the Revelation, we are prepared to consider the specific question of the function of the instruments. Revelation 5:8 says, “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp (κιθάραν), and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (ESV). Please notice that the Revelation itself tells us that these are symbols. There is not literal incense in heaven. Scripture says, “which are the prayers of the saints.” If there is not literal incense then to say or assume that we are to imagine literal instruments is not only implausible but a failure to pay attention to the clear hermeneutical (interpretative) instructions in the text itself. The argument that the heavenly instruments are grounds for our practice now rests on the assumption that the instruments are literal but to claim that they are literal though the incense (and all of the other features of this aspect of the vision) are figurative is nothing but special pleading (cherry picking). If, however, we are concede that the instruments are figurative but they may remain a basis for our use of instruments on earth, then how can we possibly deny those who would demand that we use incense in our worship services? We cannot. On that reading and logic to refuse to use incense would be purely arbitrary.

This entire argument, of course, misses the point of the Revelation. We are arguing about something that never entered the mind of the Apostle John and that is entirely outside the purpose of the Revelation. What we have in chapter 5 is a vision of heaven. To help us think about heaven, to give us a way to understand something that quite transcends our ability to understand fully, John uses images of OT temple worship. John sees a stringed instrument (κιθάραν). In 1 Corinthians 14:7 it is usually translated as “harp.” We see this instrument frequently in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures) as in e.g., Psalm 32:2: “Give thanks to Yahweh with the lyre (ἐν κιθάρᾳ); make melody to him with the harp of ten strings (ψαλτηρίῳ δεκαχόρδῳ)! See also Psalm 42:4; 56:9; 72:22; 80:3; 91:4 etc. This is the imagery and language from 2 Chronicles 29:25: “And he stationed the Levites in the house of Yahweh with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from Yahweh through his prophets.” The terms used in the LXX vary from the terms John uses but the imagery is identical. The point of John’s vision in Revelation 5 is for beleaguered believers to lift their eyes to heaven to see something of eternity, to see something of the glory of the ascended Lord Jesus, that he lives, that he has indeed conquered, that he is sovereign, and that he is returning.

To be consistent with the logic that would have us using instruments because they are used in heaven, we should have not only to add incense to our worship services and unplug the guitars (the κιθάρα was acoustic, not electric) but a throne, and “living creatures”  to name but a few things. It does not seem too much to say that such an approach to the Revelation verges on absurdity.

We may confirm this approach to the cultic-musical imagery in the Revelation by looking at Revelation 15:2, which says “And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands” (ESV).

The beast is a figure. The sea of glass is a figure. The image and the number are figures. The harps are figures. These are not patterns for Christian worship. At the very same time this revelation was originally given to the churches in Asia Minor those congregations were singing God’s Word (in response to his Word read and preached) a cappella. We know from early second-century testimony that the early Fathers were opposed to musical instruments. Polycarp at least knew the Apostle John. There is no of any transition from instruments to a cappella singing in the early church. They early Fathers believed that they were following the Apostolic pattern. That fact is not itself definitive but lends credence to the proposed and historic interpretation of the Revelation and to the traditional understanding of the apostolic practice. It would be incongruous to say that the Revelation us instructing us to use instruments when the earliest Christians in the late 1st century and the early 2nd century knew nothing of the sort.

The temptation to find what we want in Scripture can be almost overwhelming at time. The deep emotional attachment that many of us have to musical instruments creates severe problems for the project of recovering early Reformed and early patristic worship patterns. Since, however, we confess that Scripture is the unique and final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life we must be willing to criticize even our most dearly held practices, things that we have come to love, that have deep personal significance, by Scripture read in the light of history. More fundamentally, we must adopt a more tenable and sustainable way of reading Scripture generally and the Revelation in particular.

This essay first appeared serially on the Heidelblog in June, 2017.

The 1946 OPC Minority Report On The Regulative Principle And Songs In Worship

Minority Report of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God Submitted to the Fourteenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.The above-mentioned committee presented to the Thirteenth General Assembly a report bearing upon the question of the regulative principle of worship. This principle is to the effect that divine warrant or authorization is required for every element entering into the worship of God. In the words of the Confession of Faith of this Church, “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture” (Chapt. XXI, Sect. I).

In terms of the commission given by the Eleventh General Assembly and in accordance with the regulative principle set forth in the report of the committee, presented to the Thirteenth General Assembly, the question with which this report is concerned is: What does the Scripture warrant or prescribe respecting the songs that may be sung in the public worship of God?

In dealing with this question it should be appreciated that the singing of God’s praise is a distinct act of worship. It is to be distinguished, for example, from the reading of the Scripture and from the offering of prayer to God. It is, of course, true that songs of praise often include what is of the nature of prayer to God, as it is also true that in the offering of prayer to God there is much that is of the nature of praise and thanksgiving. But it is not proper to appeal to the divine authorization or warrant we possess as to the content of prayer in order to determine the question as to the content of song. Prayer is one element of worship, singing is another. Similarity or even identity of content does not in the least obliterate the distinction between these two specific kinds of exercise in the worship of God. Because of this distinction we may not say that the offering of prayer and the singing of praise to God are the same thing and argue from the divine authorization we possess respecting the one to the authorization respecting the other. One or two examples may be given of the necessity and importance of guarding the distinctiveness of the several parts of worship and of determining from the Scripture what its prescriptions are respecting each element.

Both reports submitted by this committee are agreed that some Scripture songs may be sung in the public worship of God. But these Scripture songs may also be read as Scripture and they may be used in preaching. In such cases the actual materials are the same. But reading the Scripture is not the same exercise of worship as singing, and neither is preaching the same as singing, or reading the Scripture. The same kind of distinction applies to the exercises of praying and singing even when the content is identical.

The Lord’s Supper is an act of thanksgiving as well as one of commemoration and communion. But though the partaking of the bread and the wine includes thanksgiving, just as prayer and singing do, yet the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an act of worship distinct from both prayer and singing, and the divine prescriptions respecting the celebration of the Lord’s Supper cannot be determined by the divine prescriptions regarding prayer or singing but must rather be derived from the revelation God has given respecting the observance of that distinct element of the worship of God.

Consequently the minority contends that the argument used in the report of the committee, to wit, that, since we are not limited in our prayers to the words of Scripture or to the “prayers” given us in Scripture, therefore the same freedom is granted in song, is invalid. We may not argue thus from the divine warrant respecting one element to the divine warrant respecting another. The question of the divine prescription regarding the songs that may be sung in the public worship of God must be answered, therefore, on the basis of the teaching of Scripture with respect to that specific element of worship.

When we address ourselves to the question of the teaching of Scripture we find that the New Testament does not provide us with copious instruction on this matter. It is for that reason that we are placed under the necessity of exercising great care lest we overstep the limits of divine authorization and warrant. This report will deal with the evidence that is directly germane to the question.

The Scripture Evidence
I. Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26. Here we are told that, on the occasion of the passover, Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn before going out to the Mount of Olives. The Greek is humnesantes, which literally means “having hymned.” The evidence available to us from other sources is to the effect of indicating that the hymn sung on this occasion was what is known as the Hallel, consisting of Psalms 113–118. This instance evinces the following facts.

(1) No warrant whatsoever can be adduced for the singing of uninspired hymns. There is no evidence that an uninspired hymn was sung on this occasion.

(2) The evidence we do possess evinces that Jesus and His disciples sang a portion of the psalter.

(3) The singing took place in connection with the celebration of the Old Testament sacrament of the Passover and the New Testament sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

II. I Corinthians 14:15, 26. Paul is here dealing with the assembly of the saints for worship. He says, “I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the understanding also” (vs. 15), “Each one hath a psalm” (vs. 26). From the verb that Paul uses in verse 15 we might quite properly translate as follows: “I will sing a psalm with the spirit and I will sing a psalm with the understanding also,” just as in verse 26 he says, “Each one hath a psalm.” We must conclude, therefore, that psalms were sung in the church at Corinth and such singing has, by obvious implication, the apostle’s sanction and is confirmed by his example.

The question does arise: What were these psalms? It is possible that they were charismatic psalms. If so, one thing is certain—they were not uninspired compositions. If charismatic they were inspired or given by the Holy Spirit. If we today possessed such charismatic psalms, sung by the apostle himself in the assemblies of worship or sanctioned by him in the worship of the church, then we should have the proper authority for the use of them in the songs of the sanctuary. It so happens, however, that we do not have conclusive evidence to show that we have any of such alleged charismatic psalms. But even on the hypothesis that they were charismatic psalms and even on the hypothesis that we have examples of such in Acts 4:23-30; I Timothy 3:16, we are not thereby furnished with any authorization for the use of uninspired songs in the worship of God.

On the hypothesis that they were not charismatic psalms we have to ask, what were they? To answer this question we have simply to ask another: what songs in the usage of Scripture, fall into the category of psalms? There is one answer. The Book of Psalms is composed of psalms and, therefore, by the simplest principle of hermeneutics we can say that, in terms of Scripture language, the songs that are repeatedly called psalms perfectly satisfy the denotation and connotation of the word “psalm” as it is used here. If inspired Scripture says, “Each one hath a psalm,” and Scripture also calls the “Psalms” psalms, then surely we may also sing a Psalm to the praise of God in His worship.

So far as these two texts are concerned we can say that they provide us with no warrant whatsoever for the use of uninspired hymns. We can also say that, since the psalms we possess in the psalter are certainly psalms in the terminology of Scripture itself, we are hereby provided with divine warrant for the singing of such in the worship of God.

III. Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16. With respect to these two texts it should be noted, first of all, that Paul is not necessarily referring to the public worship of God. The context does not make clear that Paul is confining himself here to exhortation that concerns the behaviour of believers in relation to one another in the assemblies of worship. Paul may very well be giving general exhortation. Indeed, the context in both passages would appear to show that he is exhorting to a certain kind of exercise in which believers should engage in reference to one another in the discharge of that mutual instruction and edification requisite to concerted advancement of one another’s highest interests and of the glory of God.

This consideration does not, however, remove these texts from relevancy to the question of the public worship of God. For, if Paul specifies psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs as the media through which believers may mutually promote the glory of God and one another’s edification in those more generic Christian exercises, this fact has very close bearing upon the question of the apostolically sanctioned and authorized media of praise to God in the more specific worship of the sanctuary. In other words, if the apostolically enjoined media or materials of song in the more generic exercises of worship are psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs, then surely nothing inferior to psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs would be enjoined for use in the more specific exercises of worship in the assemblies of the church. If psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs are the limits of the materials of song in praise of God in less formal acts of worship, how much more are they the limits in more formal acts of worship. With respect to these two texts the following considerations are to be borne in mind.

(1) We cannot determine the denotation or connotation of psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs by any modern usage of these same words. The meaning and reference must be determined by the usage of Scripture.

(2) Some of the facts with reference to the usage of Scripture are very significant.

The word psalmos (psalm) occurs some 94 times in the Greek Scriptures, that is to say, some 87 times in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament and 7 times in the New Testament. In the Septuagint some 78 of these instances are in the Book of Psalms. In the great majority of instances in the Book of Psalms, some 67 in all, it occurs in the titles of the Psalms. In three of the seven instances in the New Testament the word is unmistakably used with reference to the Psalms, in two instances in the phrase the “Book of Psalms” (biblos psalmon) and in the other instance with reference to the second Psalm. It is surely significant, therefore, that in some 70 of the 94 instances the reference is clearly to the Book of Psalms or to Psalms in the Book of Psalms.

The word humnos (hymn) occurs some 19 times in the Greek Bible, 17 (?) times in the Old Testament and 2 times in the New (in the passages under consideration). Of the 17 Old Testament instances 13 occur in the Book of Psalms and 6 of these are in the titles. In the seven instances not occurring in the titles the reference is in each case to the praise of God, or to the songs of Sion. The other four instances in the other books of the Old Testament have likewise reference to the songs of praise to God.

The word, odee (song) occurs some 86 times in the Greek Bible, some 80 times in the Old Testament and 6 times in the New. Apart from these two passages (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), it occurs in the New Testament only in the Book of Revelation. Of the 80 occurrences in the Old Testament some 45 are in the Book of Psalms and 36 of these are in the titles of the Psalms.

It is surely apparent, therefore, how large a proportion of the occurrences of these words is in the Book of Psalms. These facts of themselves do not prove that the reference here in Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16 is to the Book of Psalms exclusively. But these facts must not be forgotten as we proceed to determine the character of the lyrical compositions mentioned in these two texts.

(3) In the New Testament the word psalmos occurs seven times, as was just stated. Two of these instances are in the texts we are considering. One of these instances is I Cor. 14:26, a text dealt with already. Two instances (Luke 20:42; Acts 1:20) refer to the Book of Psalms (biblos psalmon). Luke 24:44 clearly refers to Old Testament inspired Scripture and probably to the Book of Psalms. Acts 13:33 refers to the second Psalm. In none of these instances is there any warrant for supposing that “psalms” refer to uninspired human compositions. In the majority, without the least shadow of doubt, the reference is to inspired Scripture.

In the New Testament the word humnos occurs only in these two passages. The verb humneo (to hymn) occurs four times (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26, Acts 16:25; Heb. 2:12). As we found already, the synoptic passages most probably refer to the singing of the Hallel by our Lord and His disciples. Acts 16:25 refers to the singing of Paul and Silas in prison. Hebrews 2:12 is a quotation from the Old Testament (Ps. 22:23)—en meso ekklesias humneso se.

No evidence whatsoever can be adduced from the usage in support of the use of uninspired hymns.

Apart from these two instances the word odee occurs in the New Testament only in Rev. 5:9; 14:3 (2); 15:3.

From the New Testament, then, no evidence can be derived to show that these words may be used here (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) with reference to uninspired songs. Even though odee is used in the Book of Revelation with reference to songs other than those in the Book of Psalms it is not used there with reference to uninspired human compositions but with reference to inspired songs.

(4) We now come to the consideration of some facts which are even more significant than those already discussed. The Book of Psalms is composed of psalms, hymns and songs. We have already found that the overwhelming majority of the instances of these words in both Testaments has reference to the Book of Psalms. We now come to the discussion of the meaning of these words in the titles of the Psalms.

In the Septuagint psalmos occurs some 67 times in the titles to the Psalms. In most cases it is the translation of the Hebrew mismor, but in a few cases it translates other Hebrew words. Psalmos means simply “song of praise.” The frequency with which the word psalmos occurs in the titles is probably the reason why the Book of Psalms is called in the LXX version simply psalmoi. In the Hebrew it is called tehillim.

It is perfectly obvious, therefore, that the New Testament writers, familiar as they were with the Old Testament in Greek, would necessarily have the Book of Psalms in mind when they used this word psalmos. There is no other piece of evidence that even begins to take on the significance for the meaning of the word “psalm” in the New Testament that this simple fact takes on, namely, that the Book of Psalms was called simply “Psalms” (psalmoi). The usage of the New Testament itself puts this beyond all doubt. There the Psalms are called the Book of Psalms.

There is nothing in the context of these two passages requiring us to regard “psalms” as referring to uninspired compositions. On the other hand, there are abundant instances in the usage of Scripture elsewhere which show that the word “psalm” refers to an inspired composition. Furthermore, there is no instance in which the word “psalm,” as used with reference to a song of praise to God, can be shown to refer to an uninspired song. It is therefore quite unwarranted to regard “psalms” in these two passages as referring to uninspired songs, whereas there is abundant warrant for regarding them as denoting inspired compositions. Consequently, if we are to follow the line of the evidence provided by the Scripture, we are forced to find the “psalms” here mentioned within the limits of inspiration.

As we found, the word humnos appears some 17 times in the Septuagint version. In thirteen cases it appears in the Book of Psalms. In five or six cases it appears in the titles of the Psalms as the translation of the Hebrew neginoth or neginah. It is significant that on several occasions in the text of the Psalms humnos translates the Hebrew word tehillah, which is the word used to designate the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew. This shows that psalms may be called hymns and hymns are psalms. Psalms and hymns are not exclusive of one another. A psalm may be not only a psalm but also a hymn.

These facts show that when, in the usage of Scripture, we look for the type of composition meant by a “hymn,” we find it in the Psalms. And we have no evidence whatsoever that a hymn, in the usage of Scripture, ever designates an uninspired human composition.

The word odee occurs much more frequently in the titles of the Psalms than does the word humnos, but not as frequently as does the word psalmos. There are some 36 instances. It usually translates the Hebrew word shir but not always. Occasionally it is the translation of mismor, the word generally translated by psalmos. Odee occurs so frequently in the titles of the psalms that its meaning would be definitely influenced by that usage.

The conclusion to which we are driven then is that the frequency with which these words occur in that book of the Old Testament that is unique in this respect that it is a collection of songs composed at various times and by various inspired writers, the book that stands out distinctively and uniquely as composed of psalms, hymns and songs, would tend most definitely to fix the meaning of these words in the usage of the inspired writers. The case is simply this that beyond all dispute there is no other datum that compares with the significance of the language of the Septuagint in the resolution of this question. When taken in conjunction with the only positive evidence we have in the New Testament, the evidence leads preponderantly to the conclusion that when Paul wrote “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs” he would expect the minds of his readers to think of what were, in the terms of Scripture itself, “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs,” namely, the Book of Psalms.

(5) The evidence does not warrant the conclusion that the apostle meant by “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs” to designate three distinct groups or types of lyrical compositions. It is significant in this connection that in a few cases in the titles of the Psalms all three of these words occur. In many cases the words “psalm” and “song” occur in the same title. This shows that a lyrical composition may be a psalm, hymn and song at the same time.

The words, of course, have their own distinctive meanings, and such distinctive meanings may intimate the variety and richness of the materials of song the apostle has in mind. Paul uses three words that in the established usage of Scripture designate the rich variety of such lyrical compositions as were suited for the worship of God in the service of song.

(6) Paul specifies the character of the songs as “Spiritual”—odais pneumatikais. If anything should be obvious from the use of the word pneumatikos in the New Testament it is that it has reference to the Holy Spirit and means, in such contexts as the present, “given by the Spirit.” Its meaning is not at all, as Trench contends, “such as were composed by spiritual men, and moved in the sphere of spiritual things” (Synonyms, LXXVIII). It rather means, as Meyer points out, “proceeding from the Holy Spirit, as theopneustos” (Com. on Eph. 5:19). In this context the word would mean “indited by the Spirit,” just as in I Corinthians 2:13 logois…pneumatikois are “words inspired by the Spirit” and “taught by the Spirit” (didaktois pneumatos).

The question, of course, arises: why does the word pneumatikos qualify odais and not psalmois and humnois? A reasonable answer to this question is that pneumatikais qualifies all three datives and that its gender (fem.) is due to attraction to the gender of the noun that is closest to it. Another distinct possibility, made particularly plausible by the omission of the copulative in Colossians 3:16, is that “Spiritual songs” are the genus of which “psalms” and “hymns” are the species. This is the view of Meyer, for example.

On either of these assumptions the psalms, hymns and songs are all “Spiritual” and therefore all inspired by the Holy Spirit. The bearing of this upon the question at issue is perfectly apparent. Uninspired hymns are immediately excluded.

But we shall have to allow for the distinct possibility that the word “Spiritual,” in the grammatical structure of the clause, is confined to the word “songs.” On this hypothesis the “songs” are characterized as “Spiritual,” and therefore characterized as inspired or indited by the Holy Spirit. This, at least, should be abundantly clear.

The question would arise then: is it merely the “songs” that need, to be inspired while the “psalms” and “hymns” may be uninspired? The asking of the question shows the unreasonableness of such an hypothesis, especially when we bear in mind all that has already been shown with reference to the use of these words. On what conceivable ground would Paul have insisted that the “songs” needed to be divinely inspired while the “psalms” and “hymns” did not need to be? In the usage of Scripture there was no hard and fast line of distinction between psalms and hymns, on the one hand, and songs on the other. It would be quite impossible to find any good ground for such discrimination in the apostolic prescription.

The unreasonableness of such a supposition appears all the more conclusive when we remember the Scripture usage with respect to the word “psalms.” There is not the least bit of evidence to suppose that in such usage on the part of the apostle “psalm” could mean an uninspired human composition. All the evidence, rather, goes to establish the opposite conclusion.

We see then that psalms are inspired. Songs are inspired because they are characterized as “Spiritual.” What then about the hymns? May they be uninspired? As already indicated, it would be an utterly unreasonable hypothesis to maintain that the apostle would require that songs be inspired while psalms and hymns might not. This becomes all the more cogent when we recognize, as we have established, that the psalms and songs were inspired. It would indeed be strange discrimination if hymns might be uninspired and psalms and songs inspired. But it would be strange to the point of absurdity if Paul should be supposed to insist that songs had to be inspired but hymns not. For what distinction can be drawn between a hymn and a song that would make it requisite for the latter to be inspired while the former might not be? We, indeed, cannot be sure that there is any distinction so far as actual denotation is concerned. Even if we do maintain the distinct colour of each word there is no discoverable reason why so radical a distinction as that between inspiration and non-inspiration could be maintained.

The only conclusion we can arrive at then is that “hymns” in Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16 must be accorded the same “Spiritual” quality as is accorded to “psalms” by obvious implication and to “songs” by express qualification and that this was taken for granted by the apostle, either because the word “Spiritual” would be regarded as qualifying all three words, or because “Spiritual songs” were the genus of which “psalms” and “hymns” were the species, or because in the usage of the church “hymns” like “psalms” would be recognized in their own right and because of the context in which they are mentioned to be in no other category, as respects their “Spiritual” quality, than the category occupied by psalms and songs.

In reference to these two passages, then, we are compelled to conclude:

(a) There is no warrant for thinking that “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs” can refer to uninspired human compositions. These texts provide us with no authorization whatsoever for the singing of uninspired songs in the worship of God.

(b) There is warrant for concluding that “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs” refer to inspired compositions. These texts provide us, therefore, with warrant for the singing of inspired songs in the worship of God.

(c) The Book of Psalms provides us with psalms, hymns and songs that are inspired and therefore with the kind of compositions referred to in Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16.

General Conclusions
This survey of the evidence derived from Scripture shows, in the judgment of the minority, that there is no evidence from Scripture that can be adduced to warrant the singing of uninspired human compositions in the public worship of God. The report of the committee maintains that we do have warrant for the use of such songs. The minority is well aware of the plausibility of the arguments of the committee, to wit, the argument drawn from the analogy of prayer and the argument drawn from the necessity of expanding the content of song to keep pace with the expansion of the revelation given in the New Testament. The former of these arguments has been dealt with in the earlier part of this report. The latter is much more cogent. There are, however, two considerations that require to be mentioned by way of answer.

(i) We have no evidence either from the Old Testament or from the New that the expansion of revelation received expression in the devotional exercises of the church through the singing of uninspired songs of praise. This is a fact that cannot be discounted. If we possessed evidence that in the Old Testament period the church gave expression to revelation as it progressed by the singing of uninspired songs in the worship of God, then the argument from analogy would be rather conclusive, especially in view of the relative silence of the New Testament. But no evidence has been produced to prove the use of uninspired songs in the worship of the Old Testament. Or, if instances of the use of uninspired songs in the worship of the New Testament could be adduced, then the argument of the committee would be established. But the very cases adduced by the committee to show that there was an expansion of song in the New Testament do not show that uninspired songs were employed. Hence we are compelled to conclude that, since there is no evidence to show the use of uninspired songs in the practice of the church in the New Testament, the argument of the committee cannot plead authorization from the Scriptures. The church of God must in this matter, as in all other matters concerned with the actual content of worship, confine itself to the limits of Scripture authorization, and it is the contention of the minority that we do not possess evidence on the basis of which to plead the use of uninspired songs in the public worship of God.

The argument of the committee that “the New Testament deals with conditions in the early church which have not been continued and which cannot be our present norm” fails to take due account of the normative character of Scripture. It is true that we today do not have the gift of inspiration and, therefore, we cannot compose inspired songs. But the Scripture does prescribe for us the way in which we are to worship God in the conditions that are permanent in the church. And since the Scripture does warrant and prescribe the use of inspired songs but does not warrant the use of uninspired songs, we are to restrict ourselves to those inspired materials made available to us by the Scripture itself. In other words, the Scripture does not provide us with any warrant for the exercising of those gifts the church now possesses in the composition of the actual content of song.

(ii) If the argument drawn from the expansion of revelation is applied within the limits of Scripture authorization, then the utmost that can be established is the use of New Testament songs or of New Testament materials adapted to singing. Principially the minority is not jealous to insist that New Testament songs may not be used in the worship of God. What we are most jealous to maintain is that Scripture does authorize the use of inspired songs, that is, Scripture songs, and that the singing of other than Scripture songs in the worship of God has no warrant from the Word of God and is therefore forbidden.

On the basis of these studies the minority respectfully submits to the Fourteenth General Assembly the following conclusions:

  1. There is no warrant in Scripture for the use of uninspired human compositions in the singing of God’s praise in 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.

Respectfully submitted,

John Murray
William Young