God’s Hymnbook for the Christian Church, by Malcolm H Watts, published by the James Begg Society, booklet, 64 pages, £3.00, obtainable from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom.
This is a fairly detailed response to Iain Murray’s booklet, The Psalter – The Only Hymnal? (which was reviewed in The Free Presbyterian Magazine for March 2002). Mr Murray’s thesis is that “Scripture does not command any one manual of praise for the exclusive use of the Church. The regulative principle controls what shall or shall not be parts of worship: it is sung praise that is authorised as a part, not the very words of which that part has to be made up”. Mr Watts analyses Mr Murray’s booklet section by section and propounds and defends the Biblical position that “since we are bound to worship God in the way prescribed in Holy Scripture, our congregational singing should be limited to the inspired and canonical Psalms”.
On the whole, Mr Watts’ criticisms and arguments are fair. To some extent the booklet labours under disadvantages almost inevitable in any writing intended to present a positive statement in the form of a critical response to a work which many readers may not have seen. These do not detract from its usefulness as an introduction to the reasons for which we differ from the vast majority in the professing Church today on the materials to be used in worship.
Mr Watts underlines the lack of biblical argument characterising Mr Murray’s booklet and endeavours to show how the arguments for the use of psalms alone in the worship of the Church are derived from Scripture. As Mr Murray claims that basing the use of psalms alone on the regulative principle is a relatively modern position, Mr Watts draws on the literature of the past to demonstrate that this was indeed the basis on which the Reformers and their successors justified the exclusion of human compositions from the worship of the Church.
The arguments put forward against exclusive psalmody are engaged with, but the main answer to them all is found in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture for the regulation of the Church’s worship. Mr Murray takes only one paragraph to state the case for psalms alone, which he was controverting. Throughout his booklet Mr Watts seeks to show that the position he advocates is not only required by the Word of God but is consistent with the nature of God and of His revelation.
William Cunningham points out in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (pages 31-32) that, contrary to the views of Lutherans and Anglicans, “there are sufficiently plain indications in Scripture itself that it was Christ’s mind and will that nothing should be introduced into the government and worship of the Church, unless a positive warrant for it could be found in Scripture. . . . The principle is in a sense a very wide and sweeping one. But it is purely prohibitory or exclusive; and the practical effect of it, if it were fully carried out, would just be to leave the Church in the condition in which it was left by the apostles, in so far as we have any means of information – a result, surely, which need not be very alarming, except to those who think that they themselves have very superior powers for improving and adorning the Church by their inventions. . . . The truth of this principle, as a general rule for the guidance of the Church, is plainly enough involved in what Scripture teaches concerning its own sufficiency and perfection as a rule of faith and practice, concerning God’s exclusive right to determine in what way He ought to be worshipped, concerning Christ’s exclusive right to settle the constitution, laws and arrangements of His kingdom, concerning the unlawfulness of will-worship, and concerning the utter unfitness of men for the function which they have so often and so boldly usurped in the matter.”
We hope that this booklet will assist those who seek confirmation in their practice of Biblical principles of worship and will prompt others to follow Mr Watts and his congregation in discovering the benefits of following the Lord fully in this matter.
Rev H M Cartwright