[Taken from an address given by Rev H M Cartwright to the Inverness Branch of the Scottish Reformation Society, 14 February 2000, The Regulative Principle.]
When it comes to the matter of praise the general principles brought out in the Scriptures referred to [in the first part of the original address] must be viewed in the light of facts such as these:
- sung praise is a prescribed part of the worship of God
- the only Scripturally authorised hymn book is the Book of Psalms
- this Book was not supplanted or supplemented in New Testament times by divine appointment or inspiration of another
If it had been needful to provide further material for public praise there is no reason to believe that Christ would not have provided it either through His apostles or by specially qualifying some men for the work…. He would not have left it, certainly, to this nineteenth century to do…. It is only He who is “fearful in praises” who can tell us how He should be praised in the Assembly of His saints….. As a matter of fact, God has provided… a book of praise which has been furnished for the express purpose of being used in the worship of the sanctuary…. It was… used by Christ and His apostles, and it has on this account been so used by the Church under the New Testament dispensation. It is thus allowed that it does afford suitable material for praise under the New Testament, and that it was designed to do so….. a Psalter which would give adequate expression to the public praise of His Church throughout all ages – a Psalter which would, in fact, be adapted to the clearer light of the new as well as to the light of the old dispensation….There is not one word of Christ or His apostles can be produced to show that they considered the Psalms deficient in any way as material for praise for the New Testament Church….. and if the memorial of the great sacrifice which Christ was to offer of Himself for sin, which may be said to usher in the Gospel dispensation, was suitably closed by singing from the Book of Psalms, it seems to me to declare, if the action of Christ is to have any significance for us, that the Psalms are not only not to be superseded, but that they do not require to be, and are not to be, supplemented under the New Testament dispensation”
There is no evidence in the New Testament or in early church history that there was any deviation from the custom of praising God in the psalms He had provided. Reference is often made to a letter from Pliny to the Emperor Trajan in AD112 which spoke of Christians singing praise to Christ. As The True Psalmody [Belfast 1867, Third Edition] puts it, “Are not the words of a pagan pro-consul rather a slender foundation on which to build so large an edifice of hymn-singing?”. There is no evidence of uninspired hymns in worship until near the end of the fourth century other than those allegedly introduced by heretics to propagate their views.
In the New Testament we are exhorted to sing psalms. The “hymning” of Matthew 26:30 took place in connection with Old Testament Passover and New Testament Lord’s Supper and was undoubtedly from Psalms 113-118. Paul is literally saying in 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I will sing [praise, psalm] with the spirit”, just as he says in 1 Corinthians 1:26, “every one of you hath a psalm”. “Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (Jas. 5:13). “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:18-20). “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16).
Those who recognise the regulative principle and yet claim Scriptural authority for singing uninspired hymns base much of their case upon Ephesians 5:18-20 and Colossians 3:16. We cannot just assume that “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” are to be understood according to the modern usage of these words. These terms must be understood according to their Biblical usage. It has to be said that the Greek words psalmois, humnois, odais, translate the Hebrew words mizmorim, tehillim, shirim, and that these are the terms used in the Book of Psalms and of the various contents of the Book of Psalms. Indeed, tehillim is the term used to describe the Book itself, the Book of Hymns. There is no doubt regarding the place given in Old and New Testaments to the divinely inspired Psalms and there is no one who can prove that the passages in Ephesians and Colossians refer to materials of praise outwith the Book of Psalms, and certainly not to material not inspired by the Spirit. A rather novel approach to these passages and the meaning of spiritual is adopted by a recent writer: “The limitation Paul lays down is not Psalms only but spiritual only. The singing of Christians is to be unreservedly spiritual and always in direct contrast to the bawdy songs of the world” [Kenneth Dix, p. 22]. “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” [J. Murray and W. Young, The Scriptural Warrant, p. 16].
Some object to exclusive psalmody on the ground that it keeps New Testament Christians under the Old Covenant and prevents them from singing about an accomplished salvation. Isaac Watts, one of the pioneers of hymn singing in England, was one of these. In his Preface to his Psalms and Hymns he explains his
own design, which is to accommodate the book of Psalms to Christian Worship and in order to this, it is necessary to divest David and Asaph of every other character but that of a psalmist and a saint and to make them always speak the common sense and language of a Christian. Attempting to work with this view, I have entirely omitted several whole Psalms, and large pieces of many others; and have chosen out of all of them such parts only as might easily and naturally be accommodated to the various occasions of the Christian life or at least might afford us some beautiful allusion to Christian affairs…. nor have I confined my expressions to any particular party or opinion: that in words prepared for public worship and for the lips of multitudes there might not be a syllable offensive to sincere Christians whose judgments may differ in the lesser matters of religion…. where the flights of his faith and love are sublime I have often sunk the expressions within the reach of an ordinary Christian…. Where the original runs in the form of prophecy concerning Christ and His salvation I have given an historical turn to the sense; there is no necessity that we should always sing in the obscure and doubtful style of prediction when the things foretold are brought into open light by a full accomplishment… Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God I have added the merits of a Saviour. Where he talks of sacrificing goats or bullocks I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God…. And I am fully satisfied that more honour is done to our blessed Saviour by speaking His Name, His graces and actions, in His own language, according to the brighter discoveries He has now made than by going back again to the Jewish forms of worship and the language of types and figures.
William Balfour’s comment is worth noting:
It is urged against the exclusive use of the Psalms and in favour of hymns that it is desirable to have material for public praise in which the name and work of Christ and the Holy Spirit and the Christian privilege of sonship are brought more prominently and distinctly forward than, it is alleged, they are or could be in the Psalms, written as they were so long before the coming of Christ and the sending of the Spirit…. It is enough to reply to such men, the want is not in the Psalms but in themselves. If Christ and His Spirit dwelt richly in their own hearts they could not fail to find them in those Psalms which the Spirit of Christ indited and in which Christ, if we may say so, found Himself, when He expounded to His disciples the things concerning Himself in the Psalms. But there are those who allow that the name and work of Christ, the Holy Spirit and the sonship of believers are found in the Psalms; only they do not come so much to the surface, so to speak, as they do in what they term good Gospel hymns. Well, we allow there is a difference, and a very great difference, but it is altogether in favour of the Psalms. Of course it all depends upon what men are seeking after. If it is to have allusion made to those glorious truths always in so many words in the praise of the sanctuary you have this done, certainly, in a way in the hymns which you have not in the Psalms. But if what is sought is that the soul, in the faith of those truths, should ascend in praise to God, then I maintain that you are shut up to this in the Psalms in a way which you are not and cannot be in the hymns. In order to sing the Psalms intelligently and with edification you are shut up to those truths in their reality – to the personal Christ and Spirit and to the experience of sonship which is the fruit of this gracious work in a way which does not necessarily attend the singing of hymns where these truths, it may be, are expressed in so many words. Many are too apt to imagine that they have got the thing when they sing the hymn in which it is named. It is no valid objection to the Psalms, in my opinion, that these truths are not brought before us in the same way as in hymns. The question is, Are they there? If we are sure of that, as we certainly are, then it must be our own fault if we do not find them. We must have failed to get into the spirit of the Psalm; and if so, the remedy is not to be found in providing a hymn or hymns in which mention is made of these truths in so many words, but rather in seeking the Spirit of adoption without whom the most evangelical hymns ever written will not enable us to praise God aright, and with whom the Psalms will furnish the richest and most inexhaustible material for praising God, even the God and Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ…. Even when you have got the very words in the hymns you must go far deeper down to get the thing; and the danger is that you should content yourselves with the words without the thing. In the Psalms, I may say, it is not till we have got hold of the thing that we really understand the words, whereas in the hymns you may have the words and never get hold of the thing.
The idea that the obligation to praise God for Christ is one that cannot be fulfilled without adding the hymns of men to the psalms of inspiration used by our Lord and His apostles and the early Church as full of Christ, ignores the unity of Old Testament and New Testament dispensations, suggests a low view of the Psalms and casts reflection upon the goodness and wisdom of God.
Others object to exclusive psalmody on the ground that it restricts the liberty of New Testament Christians. But surely liberty and law are not exclusive. The Bible is “the perfect law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25). “I will walk at liberty; for I seek thy precepts” (Ps. 119:45). “But what is the Christian liberty of the New Testament dispensation? Most certainly it is not a liberty to form our doctrinal belief, or rules of life, or religious observances, irrespective of the Word and authority of Christ” [The True Psalmody]. We are delivered from bondage to Satan, sin, self and other men, that we might serve God. This is very important in praise for this is the part of the service in which each worshipper has to join audibly and in the use of a prescribed form. To put it no higher, he should not have to join in the use of something concerning whose correctness and orthodoxy he may have reason to doubt. God’s provision of His own word for use in praise secures freedom of conscience to all God’s people whereas the introduction of other materials of praise into congregational worship restricts their liberty. James Bannerman puts this well:
Conscience has no right, and can possess no liberties, in opposition to the ordinances of Him who is the Lord of the conscience. But the rights of conscience furnish a plea that may lawfully be urged in opposition to ordinances and ceremonies imposed by mere human authority and enforced by ecclesiastical power [The Church of Christ, vol. 1, p. 370].
If it is a Biblical principle that the church has no right to introduce into worship anything that lacks the warrant of God’s word, that the warrant of God’s Word is given for the singing of Spirit-inspired psalms, hymns and songs, and that there is no warrant for the introduction of uninspired hymns into God’s worship, then all these and any other objections fall. The regulative principle means that if there is teaching on the content of sung praise in the Bible it must be regarded as sufficient for the guidance of the Church.