Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

Exclusive Psalmody?

by Daniel Chew

There has been always people advocating the exclusive singing of Psalms within Christian circles, especially within Reformed circles. Exclusive Psalmody was promoted mainly by the English Puritans and became a part of that Tradition. However, is the exclusive singing of Psalms really biblical, or is it just something which was an overreaction to the many errors within Roman Catholicism. It is my contention that exclusive Psalmody is not biblical, and I will show this to be the case.

First of all, I would like to summarize the arguments used to promote the practice of exclusive psalmody, especially as found within the pamphlet entitled The Church's Perfect Hymnbook — Why we sing the Psalms of the Bible exclusively in public worship (© 1996 Douglas W. Comin, Crown & Covenant Publications), among other sources.


From the pamphlet, the case could be build up as follows:

1) The Regulative Principle of Worship

Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it (Deut. 12:32)

The Regulative Principle of Worship can be seen explicitly in this verse and in various passages in the Bible, with the narrative of Lev. 10:1-3 showing the death of Abihu and Nadab, the 2 sons of Aaron who died because they offered strange or unauthorized fire in worship before God, as the best illustration of the practice of the Regulative Principle of Worship. Israel was to worship God according to His stated ways; no more and no less. We are therefore not to worship God contrary to the ways He has prescribed to us in the Scriptures. According to the Exclusive Psalmodists therefore: "God has commanded His people to sing the Psalms of the Bible when they gather together for worship. He has not commanded them to sing songs of their own composition. The consistent application of the Regulative Principle of Worship, then, excludes the use of songs which God has not commanded to be used in worship." (Comin)

2) Sufficiency of Scripture

"The Psalms of the Bible are God's Word. They lack nothing that is needed by the people of God in their expression of praise and adoration to Him when they gather for worship.

The necessary implication of the use of man-written hymns in the worship of God is that the Psalms alone are somehow not a sufficient volume of praise for God's people. We reject this notion and we believe that the 150 Psalms of the Bible are a perfectly sufficient hymnbook for the church of God throughout the ages." (Comin)

3) The Continuity of the Covenant

"The Psalms of the Bible were written for the very purpose of proclaiming the New Covenant promises which were fulfilled in Christ. In fact, Jesus Himself claimed that the Psalms were about Him (see Luke 24:44). Would it not seem strange if the people of God were commanded to sing the Psalms only until the time of Christ's appearing, and the to put them aside once they were able to fully appreciate their true meaning?

We do not believe that the Old Testament is outdated. ... By anchoring the church's praise in the prophecies of the Old Testament through the book of Psalms, God's people are continually reminded of their heritage among the chosen people of God throughout all ages" (Comin)

4) The Purpose of Worship

"We believe that worship is to be God-centered. ... When God's people approach His worship in this way, they will inevitably be blessed. When they approach Him according to their own ideas of what is acceptable to Him, they may experience some emotional uplifting, but God has not been honored through the keeping of Hid Word. (Comin)

5) They are without error/ Praise songs must be inspired

We should be concerned that what we offer to God in praise is perfect and without blemish. "When we sing to God the songs which He Himself has written, we can be assured that what we are offering to God in praise is not tainted with error" (Comin)

"A careful examination of the Scripture passages which discuss the songs used in worship and how worship songs were composed reveals that God only authorizes and accepts divinely inspired songs for the praise of Himself." [1]

6) They promote memorization

"Another great benefit to singing the Psalms is the memorization of the Scriptures." (Comin)

7) They carry the power of the Spirit

"We have no promise from God that the words of men, no matter how well-intentioned, will pierce the heart and administer grace to His people. But we have such a promise with regard to God's own Word" (Heb. 4:12) (Comin)

8) They perfectly balance themes

"There are some themes in the Bible in which we tend to take special delight. There are others which seem more difficult to swallow, but which are just as necessary for our growth in grace and in the knowledge of the whole counsel of God ... [The book of Psalms] is, therefore, a book of praise which keeps us anchored in the whole counsel of God, feeding our souls with both the "sweet" and the "sour" meat of God's Word"

9) They provide a basis for unity

"There are certain hymns ... containing doctrinal statements with which Christians from another denominational background might disagree. But there is no such difficulty with the Psalms. They are the very Word of God.

Imagine what strides would be made towards unifying the church if all of God's people made His songs the theme of their praise whenever they came together for corporate worship" (Comin)

10) Singing is a separate element of worship, not a circumstance of worship

This was written to counter critics of Exclusive Psalmody, of which Brian Schwertley[1] targets Greg Bahnsen who is quoted as saying that singing is a circumstance of worship, or in other words that although praising God is commanded, the mode is a mere circumstance not strictly regulated by God's Word.


As we have seen the arguments propped up for the promotion of exclusive Psalmody, let us look and logically apply the text of Scripture to evaluate their arguments.

1) The regulative principle of worship

As a Reformed Christian, I most definitely hold to the Regulative Principle of worship. Certainly, it is very clear in Scripture that we are to worship God in the way He has prescribed for us, and that is why I am against any form of mood enhancement used within charismatic circles (ie usage of different lightings in worship, changing of background pictures in worship song powerpoint slides, endless repetition of choruses etc.), and also against any form of drama and dancing in the corporate worship of God's people. That said, I disagree that the Regulative Principle reduces the songs to be sung to only the Psalms.

More will be said about the relation of Psalms with Hymns and Spiritual songs later, but for now it will be said that the premise that God has not commanded His people to sing Psalms only is false. The much debated phrase in Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 of 'psalms, hymns and spiritual songs' does seem to state that God's people are to sing songs other than psalms. Of course, the exclusive Psalmodists will interpret the phrase to actually mean 'psalm, psalm and psalm', which is just ridiculous. Yes, the Bible does use such triadic forms of expression[1], but such forms do not mean the same thing! They are variations of the point being driven at, but nevertheless they are different. For example, in Ex. 34:7, the term 'Iniquity', 'transgression' and 'sin' are not the same. Definitely, all iniquity and transgression is sin, but iniquity (injustice) is not exactly the same as transgression (to violate a law), nor is sin consisting of iniquity and transgression and nothing more than that (it also includes for example Original Sin). Similarly, commandments, statutes and rules (Deut. 6:1) while having the same meaning do not have the same focus or connotations. Commandments focuses on the fact that God is making the keeping of them obligatory. Statutes focuses on the fact of the established nature of it, while rules focuses on the people who are to obey them. In another example, works (miracles), wonders and signs (Acts 2:22) are not exactly the same, as all miracles are wonders and signs, but not all signs are miracles (Nebuchadnezzar's dream depicting the rise of the Persian, Greek and Roman empires as interpreted by Daniel the prophet in Dan. 2:31-45 for example, or the fulfillment of most of the prophecies about Jesus which are pretty mundane - involving the sovereign working of God through Providence but not exactly miraculous). Thus, we can see from all this that triadic expressions do not at all prove that the phrase 'psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs' mean 'psalms, psalms and psalms', even if that phrase is a triadic expression in the first place, which is strongly disputed.

2) Sufficiency of Scripture

This charge would only hold true if the songs that we sing are not derived from Scripture. Just because the exclusive Psalmodists do not like them does not mean that they are not derived from Scripture.

3) The Continuity of the Covenant

This supports the singing of the Psalms, but it has no weight in arguing for Exclusive Psalmody.

4) The Purpose of Worship

This argument presupposes that exclusive Psalmody is God's way. In other words, such an argument commits the logical fallacy of Petitio Principii or begging the question. Basically, what this is reduced to is that exclusive Psalmody is correct because it is God-centered, and the reason why it is God-centered is because exclusive Psalmody is correct.

5) They are without error/ Praise songs must be inspired

For the first argument, the fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as singing something without interpretation. All other biblical hymns and songs which could be sung are derived from Scripture, and as such have the additional interpretative grid of the songwriter and the person who sings it to God. Psalms are inspired and are thus without any error (assuming they are not a paraphrase of the Psalms), but there is still the need for the worshipper singing it to interpret the words of Scripture and direct it towards God in a heart of worship to Him. Since that is the case, it is entirely possible that error may creep in to the singing of Psalms through the improper attitude of the worshipper or the misinterpretation of the words of Scripture sung, especially if the words are difficult to understand or the true meaning rendered obsolete due to it being archaic (ie. singing the Psalms in the KJV). I have personally took part in Psalm singing word for word from the KJV metrical Psalter before, and it might as well have been in another language due my inability to understand the archaic words fast enough to offer them up as a sacrifice to God. So much for perfection!

The second argument is another Petitio Principii. God only accepted inspired songs as stated in the Bible because any song which was said to be acceptable unto God in the Bible must be written down and therefore they became inspired. If God has accepted any other worship song which is not stated in the Scriptures, how will we know that there is such a song? This is such a ridiculous argument on the part of the Exclusive Psalmodists!

6) They promote memorization

In other words, without singing Psalms, people will not memorize them? So if hymns and praise songs were organized around a particular verse or passage of Scripture, Exclusive Psalmodists would not be promoting memorization of that particular text or passage of Scripture since they prohibit people from singing them? This argument of theirs cuts both ways and is as such useless.

7) They carry the power of the Spirit

This is just another variation of the argument from the sufficiency of Scripture, and would be given the same response. Since the hymns and songs which we use are and will be derived from Scripture, they similarly carry the power of the Spirit with them. Furthermore, whatever happened to preaching if only the singing of Psalms would ensure that people's hearts would be touched by the Word?

8) They perfectly balance themes

And so do hymns and songs which give heed to the full counsel of God. Furthermore, if Christians have matured in their walk with Christ, there is NO thing which they would fell repugnant about God. They would accept and glorify God even in the manner of the imprecatory Psalms, so this argument is invalid.

9) They provide a basis for unity

Of all the arguments stated, this is the most ridiculous. The 'worship wars' have been one of the factors which are responsible for splitting churches. Rightly or wrongly, the fact of the matter is that instead of promoting unity, they promote disunity, especially when the Exclusive Psalmodists attempt to impose Psalms-only worship, creating a third group in the 'worship wars'. And the battle for bible versions could very well spill over into the singing of Psalms even if everybody consents to singing only Psalms. In such a hypothetical situation, would there be the 'KJV-Psalms-only group' verses the 'NIV-Psalms-only' group, or even the 'metrical Psalms' group verses the 'non-metrical Psalms' group? It is laughable and extremely naive that agreeing to singing the Psalms only would immediately resolve all conflict in matters of worship.

10) Singing is a separate element of worship, not a circumstance of worship

The concept of separating worship into various "elements", each of which is to be governed by the regulative principle, is unbiblical. So instead of saying singing being a circumstance of worship, like Greg Bahnsen, it is instead maintained that the classic separation into "elements" is unbiblical in the first place. But even if it is conceded that such a separation is stated in Scripture, and even if singing is indeed a separate element of worship, the Exclusive Psalmodist point is also not proved. What it proves instead is that the lyrics of worship songs must be taken from Scripture en toto, not that only Psalms are allowed.

It has been seen that the Exclusive Psalmodists love to posit sharp demarcations between the category of psalms, that of hymns and that of spiritual songs "as defined in modern times ". However, where did such a categorization came from? Definitely, all are songs of praise expressing devotion and worship unto God. If we would to use the so called triadic phrasing on Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16, then these terms would be variations of the same main commonality, or songs offered as worship to God. Generally, Psalms are differentiated from Hymns by the fact that one is explicitly inspired and placed within a book of its own (Psalms), and the fact that they as such employ Hebrew poetic forms. What we class as 'spiritual songs' today (ie CCM - Contemporary Christian Music) are distinguished from hymns due to the fact that they abandon the musical metrical form of hymns (ie and they are generally not so rich in doctrine, more focused on the expression of worship through more detailed reflection on a few truths of Scripture rather than on the singing of various truths as in hymns. As such, they are more of a difference in literary and musical styles which differentiate them. Therefore, since all are derived from Scripture, I would suggest that unless the Exclusive Psalmodists would like to go into literary and musical styles, such sharp demarcation of theirs do not hold water. After all, the only reason why Psalms are known as Psalms and nothing else is is more because they are found in the book of Psalms rather than anything else.

With that said, let us go on the offensive.

The most devastating critique against exclusive Psalmody is the absence of the name Jesus, our most precious Savior, Redeemer and Lord. Yes, Jesus is prophesied throughout even the book of Psalms, but still His name is not mentioned. Substituting the name Jesus into the Psalms could well do the trick, but then it is no more exactly a Psalm rather than something akin to a paraphrase already, which is no different from what biblical hymn and song writers have been doing in putting biblical truths and verses into song.

Even worse for the Exclusive Psalmodists is that there is no biblical command for anyone to practice exclusive Psalmody. As I have shown previously, the Regulative Principle of worship does not prove exclusive Psalmody. Neither does it prove exclusive anything, neither psalms nor hymns nor CCM. All songs which are glorifying to God in their content and their musical style are permitted for God's people to be utilized for worship. The main thing that is most important is that the people must be able to understand the words and express their praise, thanksgiving and worship to our God, which using a KJV word-for-word metrical Psalter certainly didn't help in my case. As a side note, I really think that the Reformed churches should modernize their Psalms and Hymns, for example in replacing the 'thees' and 'thous'. For those who are not born in such an environment, it is a perpetual irritant which make people like me disconnected from the worship of a church (among other factors of course).

Other problems, some of them serious, can be seen in this push for Exclusive Psalmody. As stated by W. Gary Crampton,

Third, for their argument to be valid, the exclusive Psalmodists must distinguish between teaching, preaching, singing, and reciting Biblical truth. In Ephesians 5:19 we are told to “speak” (laleo) to one another, and in Colossians 3: l6 to “teach” (didasko) one another, “by means of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Yet, Paul also instructed Timothy to “teach” (didasko) (1 Timothy 4:11; 6:2) and to “preach” (kerusso) (2 Timothy 4:2) to his congregation in public worship. Now is it rational to suppose that it is Biblically proper to preach the truths found in the Apostles’ Creed and not be able to sing or recite the same truths because they are nowhere found in the Psalms? This is far from likely; indeed, it is nonsensical. The church has every Biblical warrant to formulate Scripturally based uninspired hymns, songs, creedal statements, and so forth, and incorporate them into the public worship of God as a means of praising him and teaching one another.

Fourth, another question that must be posed to the exclusive Psalmodists is this: “What constitutes a metrical Psalm?” How faithful must the Psalms sung be to the Scriptures? Some of the metrical psalms are at best rough paraphrases of the Hebrew text. Exclusive Psalmodists would not tolerate such looseness in their Bibles. Singing these psalms is far from singing “inspired Scripture.” Does the exclusive Psalmodist violate the regulative principle when he does not sing the Psalms in the exact language of the Hebrew?[2]

The argument for Exclusive Psalmody, or Exclusive anything, therefore collapses. Perhaps the Exclusive Psalmodists will wish to learn Hebrew and then sing the Psalms according to the wordings of the Masoretic Text?

Lastly, as for the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter XI, Paragraph V), it is stated that the religious worship of God ought to consists of the singing of psalms. Yet, here psalms most probably do not refer to the Psalms (capital 'P')[2] but is a generic term referring to songs offered as worship unto God.

As such, it can be seen that there is no biblical and exegetical grounds for Exclusive Psalmody. May we in the Reformed churches stop adding to Scripture and impose such an unbiblical tradition on ourselves and others. Just because the Puritans and Presbyterians were right about many things does not make them infallible. We are to be always reforming (semper reformanda) according to the light of Scripture, not just copy wholesale the entirety of the doctrines and practices of spiritual giants, no matter how godly they were; they are not the standard - Norma normans non normata - Scripture is.


[1] Exclusive Psalmody: A biblical defense by Brian Schwertley (http://reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/psalm.htm)

[2] Exclusive Psalmody by W. Gary Crampton (http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=63).

Daniel Chew is the author of the book Driven Away by Purpose, and a member of the Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church (CERC). He holds a BSc (Hon) in Life Sciences from the National University of Singapore and is currently working in a biological research lab.

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