Rev. K. D. Macleod, Leverburgh
WHERE does the Free Church of Scotland now stand on the matter of exclusive psalmody in public worship? The question has achieved considerable significance following a carol service in Aberdeen Free Church on December 24, where the hymns were accompanied by an organ. Two other Free Church presbyteries brought the incident to the attention of the Edinburgh and Perth Presbytery, which includes Aberdeen, but the reported outcome was a ruling that the minister concerned, Rev Iver Martin, had not breached his ordination vows because the carol service was an outreach designed to spread the gospel. But it is difficult to see any fundamental difference between a service designed to reach outsiders and one specially for the usual congregation. It seems rather that there is an unwillingness to follow the clear principles of the church’s own legislation. It remains to be seen if an appeal to General Assembly will bring a better result.
The carol service and its aftermath provoked a forceful response from the Free Church’s professor of systematic theology. Writing in the West Highland Free Press, Professor Donald Macleod argues strongly against the position that the praise of the New Testament Church should be confined to the Psalms.
What are the arguments for exclusive psalmody? First, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith: “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” (21:1).
Clearly, Holy Scripture prescribes the use of the Psalms in public worship, but the question has to be asked, Are uninspired hymns also prescribed? Professor Macleod would point to Ephesians 5:19, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord”, and the similar words in Colossians 3:16, as supporting his stance. He writes, “To any ordinary reader this plainly means that the singing of hymns and spiritual songs is fully sanctioned by the Bible. Twentieth-century advocates of exclusive psalmody have found a way round this, however. According to them, some psalms are called hymns and some are called songs; therefore, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ means Psalms Only.” One might equally well claim that any ordinary reader of the statement that the Saviour and His disciples “had sung an hymn” would plainly understand that they sang something which was not part of Scripture not a Psalm. But does any commentator make such a claim?
The fact, however, is that the interpretation of Ephesians 5:19 which understands hymns and spiritual songs also to be Psalms can be traced back well beyond the twentieth century. James Gibson, for instance, a nineteenth-century professor in the Free Church College in Glasgow, takes exactly this line in his book on The Public Worship of God. The point is that the words translated hymns and songs are also used in the titles of the Psalms. For instance, Psalm 30 is described as “a Psalm and Song at the dedication of the house of David”. And the word rendered hymn is used in the headings of at least six Psalms in the Greek translation used by the Saviour and His disciples. Where else, then, would the minds of the original Ephesian readers of the Epistle go but to the Psalms when they read of hymns and songs?
Besides, the songs, if not the psalms and hymns also, are described as spiritual. Now, Professor Macleod attributes to David Dickson certain statements about “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” in support of his assertion that the above interpretation of the expression “is a piece of nonsense which has never occurred to any professional New Testament scholar”. It is difficult to trace quotations for which no references are given, but it would seem that he is in fact referring to James Fergusson’s commentary on the Epistles of Paul (bound up with which is David Dickson’s commentary on Hebrews). But he ignores how Fergusson goes on to explain that the word spiritual, which he takes to refer to the psalms and hymns as well as to the songs, is used because they were “framed by the Spirit of God”. In other words, not only are the psalms of Ephesians 5:19 inspired, but the hymns and songs also, according to Fergusson. Quite clearly, any professional New Testament scholar who has never thought of such an interpretation has not searched very far into the writings of the past nor has he read Professor John Murray’s Minority Report of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God, presented to the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1947.
Professor Macleod refers to resolutions of the Scottish General Assemblies of 1647 and 1648 making arrangements for the preparation of “scriptural songs”. It seems strange that they would propose to introduce uninspired praise into public worship, having only in 1645 approved the Westminster Directory for Public Worship, which states that “it is the duty of Christians to praise God publicly by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family”. The answer to the difficulty is given by David Hay Fleming, the noted church historian, in his Hymnology of the Reformation: they “were to be used for private purposes”, presumably outside of worship.
It is not necessary to enter into all the details of Professor Macleod’s argument. The case for exclusive psalm singing in public worship has been made over and over again. If further quotations are needed, one can refer to two non-Scottish writers. First, Jonathan Edwards (in his History of Redemption, Works, vol 1, p 554) “God hereby gave His church a book of songs for their use in that part of their public worship, namely, singing His praises, throughout all ages to the end of the world. . . . It was used in the church of Israel by God’s appointment: this is manifest by the title of many of the Psalms, in which they are ascribed to the chief musician, i.e., to the man that was appointed to be the leader of divine songs in the temple, in the public worship of Israel. . . . They have been, and will, to the end of the world, be made use of in the church to celebrate the praises of God. The people of God were wont sometimes to worship God by singing songs to His praise before; as they did at the Red Sea . . . but now first did God commit to His church a book of divine songs for their constant use.”
Second, we turn to William Romaine (An Essay on Psalmody, Works, vol 8, p 540ff) “The Psalms are the Word of God, with which no work of man’ genius can be compared. His attributes are manifest on every page, and prove the author to be divine. His infinite wisdom shines throughout. . . . Why are the words of man’s genius preferred to the words of inspiration? Singing of Psalms is commanded by divine authority, and commanded as a part of divine worship; not left to man’s wisdom how to provide for it, but is expressly provided for in the Word of God.”
Finally, we ask, Is the Free Church going to allow her professor of systematic theology to try to persuade her people, among others, that they are losing out if they do not sing hymns in the worship of God? He uses highly inappropriate language to make his charge against the Acts of Assembly of his own Church on the subject of public worship, describing them as “rigorously puritanical”. Surely we would not go far wrong in the matter of public worship, or on any other subject, if we scrupulously followed the thinking of the Puritans?