Monday 27 February 2017

Inclusive Hymnody and Psalmody: Singing Hymns and Psalms in Congregational Singing

It is important that we base our views upon sound principles of biblical interpretation. We need the whole panorama of Scripture, of the Old and New Testaments, rightly understood, to come to sound and biblical conclusions. This is why churches should sing both hymns (with correct biblical content) and psalms (ideally metrical and in modern English) for their congregational singing. We contend for both. We contend that both hymns and psalms should be sung as Ephesians 5:19-20 teaches: "Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ". These exhortations are repeated in Colossians 3:16.

Singing of hymns in Congregational Singing

We are thankful for the Book of Psalms, which I believe should be sung in metrical form by all congregations where possible, but our singing must never be restricted only to psalms. Why is that? The psalms, though they are very important as a collection of songs for singing, teaching and prayers (which are vital to the life of the church), we must not overlook that they were written in the shadow of the Old Testament revelation period.

Colossians 2:16-17 "Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ".

Hebrews 10:1 "For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near".

While as a minister, I contend for the singing of psalms, we must sing hymns also, because the church has moved forward from the Old Testament revelation to the perfection of the new. The church has moved from shadow to fulfilment, from the shadow of good things to accomplishment, to the true form of those realities and to the substance of the Lord Jesus Christ. The content of singing, praying, preaching and catechising are all to reflect that great redemptive forward movement by God Almighty. I have a topical index of the psalms in metre which I regularly use in service planning, but there are many topics missing. This is because the Book of Psalms are in shadow, instead of in New Testament fulfilment.

Here are some examples of things omitted in the Book of Psalms which need to be sung about using hymns:

The atonement accomplished by the blood of Jesus through the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The name and title of the Lord Jesus Christ
The name of the Triune God (Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and the doctrine of the Trinity
The title Holy Spirit is only found once in the Psalms (in 51:11) and yet this title is found on almost every page of the New Testament.
Baptism and the Lord's Supper are absent from the Psalms, as is understandable
Plain teaching on justification, adoption, regeneration and the new birth, heaven and the church's adversary Satan

It is true that not all hymns should be sung. They need to convey accurate doctrinal truth. But, we cannot imagine singing without including the name of Jesus, reference to the Trinity or plain truth on the atonement, the cross of Calvary and the resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Singing of Psalms in Congregational Singing

It is a poor state of affairs today, that much of evangelical Christianity have adopted an exclusive hymnody position. The church have sung the Book of Psalms for 3000 years. To neglect to sing psalms as part of the compliment of our singing is to impoverish the church, it is to disobey Scripture (Ephesians 5:19), and it reveals a lack of appreciation for divine revelation and of church history.

In conclusion, I pray for a recovery of the singing of hymns and psalms in public and private singing, to rightly obey the Lord, to convey truth to the church and the world, to enrich our public worship and to honour the Triune God through the Lord Jesus Christ. However, we need biblical balance because singing, though it is important, it is not a mark of a true church. The high point of worship is to be the preaching of sound doctrine, the right administration of the sacraments and prayer.

Finally, let us hear Jonathan Edwards who recorded some errors that occurred in the 18th Century revival (Jonathan Edwards, Works, Volume 1, Banner of Truth, p 396).

Jonathan Edwards on Including Hymns and Psalms for Congregational Singing

But what is more especially found fault with, in the singing now practised, is making use of hymns of human composure. I am far from thinking that the Book of Psalms should be thrown by in our public worship, but that it should always be used in the christian church to the end of the world: but I know of no obligation we are under to confine ourselves to it. I can find no command or rule of God's word, that does any more confine us to the Words of Scripture in our singing, than it does in our praying; we speak to God in both. And I can see no reason why we should limit ourselves to such particular forms of words, that we find in the Bible, in speaking to him by way of praise, in metre, and with music, than when we speak to him in prose, by way of prayer and supplication. And it is really needful that we should have some other songs besides the Psalms of David.

It is unreasonable to suppose that the Christian church should for ever, and even in times of her greatest light, in her praises of God and the Lamb, be confined only to the words of the Old Testament, wherein all the greatest and most glorious things of the gospel, that are infinitely the greatest subjects of her praise, are spoken of under a veil, and not so much as the name of our glorious Redeemer ever mentioned, but in some dark figure, or as hid under the name of some type. And so as to making use of the words to others and not those that are conceived by ourselves, it is no more than we do in our public prayers; the whole worshipping assembly, excepting one only, makes use of the words that are conceived by him who speaks for the rest.

Jonathan Edwards succinctly conveys the sum and substance of New Testament truth, regarding the congregational singing to be practiced by the church.


Unknown said...

Hi Kevin,

It's definitely an important question.

Just wondering how you square your view with subscription to the WCF, as its chapter on worship clearly binds subscribers to exclusive psalmody (a position also held by individual divines)? See also Directory for Public Worship.

Good to meet your in Durham last year,

Kevin Bidwell said...

Thank you for your comment. You have mentioned exclusive psalmody and for those listening in that is a position that believes that we must only use the Book of Psalms arranged in metre to be sung in public worship. My post argues that this is not a biblical position and as a minister that holds to the Westminster Standards, I do not believe that you can argue from the Westminster Confession that it teaches your position.

Can I ask you a further question? Do you believe that church's should confess their faith using creeds such as the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed? This is a question of genuine interest to tease out a little more your stance. Do you believe that the church should pray using the Lord's Prayer publicly?


Kevin B

Unknown said...

Hi Kevin,

Would be interested to hear your arguments that the WCF doesn't teach exclusive psalmody?
It states the regulative principle of worship and then exhaustively lists the parts of worship. Anything not included on that list is not considered a part of worship. (Eg they didn't condemn interpretative dance, but because it's not on the list, it's against the confession). On praise they list 'the singing of psalms with grace in the hearts' (proof texts include Col 3:16 and Eph 5:19). That they see this as referring just to the psalms of the Bible is backed up by the Directory of Publick Worship's section 'Of Singing of Psalms' - and the fact they worked on a psalter. Their views are also clear from the writings of individual divines.

To argue that the WCF doesn't teach exclusive psalmody, the following historical article would need to be refuted ( The WCF was condemned by contemporaries for not allowing uninspired hymns. Note I am not trying to make a Biblical argument for exclusive psalmody here - I'm just saying that it's a fact of history that the WCF teaches it. Your blog heading talks about recovering Confessional Presbyterianism - yet confessional Presbyterians in the 17th century were exclusive psalm-singing. The use of uninspired hymns in Presbyterianism is largely a 19th century innovation.

In response to your question I believe that churches can use the Lord's Prayer publicly as is taught in Larger Catechism #187. As I am just dealing here with the question of what the standards teach, as far as I know they are silent on churches confessing their faith (I assume you mean during worship) using creeds, so I will follow their lead!

Kevin Bidwell said...


Thank you for your comment and for your question. In a "nutshell" your question is: "what does the Westminster Confession and Standards teach regarding congregational singing?". You are contending that the Westminster Confession teaches the position of your church, one that is known as exclusive Psalmody. This developed position assumes that the only material that should be sung in public worship is the metrical Psalms and along with this assertion an argument is made that any other songs are of mere human composition and are deemed sinful and illegitimate to be sung. Therefore, did the Westminster Assembly hold to and promote this well articulated position?

As you know there is a close connection between law and theology. Our theology must be able to stand the test of scrutiny. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself (Westminster Confession 1:9). Therefore what evidence is there in the Westminster Standards (Confession, Larger and Shorter Catechism) about congregational singing?

In all the Standards (I did a search on my PDF copies) there is only one reference in the whole of the Westminster Confession and indeed the whole Standards that comments on this. It is in the Confession Chapter 21 (of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day), point 5. The whole paragraph considers the primary elements of public worship and it includes these eight words "singing of psalms with grace in the heart". Does this mean that we cannot sing anything other than the Old Testament Psalter?

Here are some considerations:
1). If exclusive psalmody is the only permissible position taught by the Confession, why is it so brief? When the Sabbath is expounded extensively, why would singing be left so little commented upon? It is because the Standards simply teach singing as a component of public worship and Psalms are to be included but not necessarily exclusively. The position of the Confession is inclusive Psalmody but it is not overly prescriptive at this point. To assert that it is, is to go beyond the evidence in the Confession in my opinion.

2). Why is singing only mentioned once in the Standards? Singing is biblical, but it is not a primary mark of the church, as is the preaching of right doctrine, the right administration of the church and church discipline. Exclusive psalmody is not a mark of a pure church. Would you agree?

3. The proof texts point to Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19 and James 5:13. This would further support an inclusive hymnody and psalmody position. It is not exegetically tenable to suggest that "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" are three different names for Psalms. As my blog post explains, I believe that Scripture demands an inclusive hymnody and Psalmody position. The Confession does not refuse this.

3). The two articles by Needham and Winzer are not the main issue. Practices over time do not establish the biblical position. Spending time refuting each others articles on a position is not our starting point.

4. I have read the whole of the Westminster Assembly Minutes by Chad van Dixhoorn and I did not find an exclusive psalmody position contended for in them.

5. We are all in danger of historical anachronism. That is reading back into history what was not primary at the time. While the Scottish Presbyterian church may have developed a Psalter and adopted it, it does not mean that they promoted an exclusive psalms position. Indeed the Westminster assembly was in England (not that means the truth depends on such) and an exclusive psalms position was not uniformly held, articulated or practiced.

We are thankful for the unity that the Westminster Standards produces. A magnificent consensus document. You may not agree, but I hope that this response gives pause for thoughtful reflection.

Warmly and in the gospel,

Kevin Bidwell

Unknown said...

Hi Kevin

I would perhaps change your statement of the question slightly. I am arguing not so much that the WCF teaches the position of my church, but that my church teaches the position of the WCF – a position largely held by the Calvinistic branch of the church for the first two and a half centuries after the Reformation.

Your statement that ‘it is not exegetically tenable to suggest that “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” are three different names for the Psalms’ is astonishing!
You have recently quoted approvingly the English Puritan George Swinnock. He wrote that these three words ‘are the titles of David’s psalms, and the known division of them’ (The Christian Man’s Calling, p. 341). Thomas Manton said that these words ‘which are the known division of David’s psalms…being so precisely used by the apostle in both places, do plainly point us to the Book of Psalms’. A preface to the Scottish Metrical Psalter which said that ‘to us David’s Psalms seem plainly intended by those terms of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” which the apostle uses’ was signed by Manton, John Owen, Thomas Watson, Matthew Poole, Thomas Vincent and many others.
You may not agree with the exegesis but to call it ‘untenable’ is to write off some of the ablest minds in the history of the church.

(Part 2 coming, the whole thing is over the character limit!)

Unknown said...


Obviously I believe that Scripture is the final authority and we can't expect everyone to agree on what it teaches - but what the Westminster Confession teaches on an issue (whether for or against) is a matter of historical fact that can be established by historical investigation.

You limit the Westminster Standards to the Confession and Catechisms, however the standards also contain other documents, which have another 16 references to the singing of a psalm or psalms. It can’t be seriously argued that these are references to anything other than the psalms of David. For example, the Directory for Public Worship says: ‘Every one that can read is to have a psalm book’. There were no books of uninspired hymns this could be a reference to – the Church of Scotland didn’t publish a hymn book until 1870. Even in the Church of England, the use of hymns wasn’t publicly sanctioned till 1820. The Assembly had in view the one psalm book which they would authorise and which would be printed by authority of the House of Commons.
If these references in the Standards refer to singing the psalms of the Bible, it follows that we should understand earlier references to singing psalms in the same way.

You state that exclusive psalmody in England was ‘neither uniformly held, articulated or practiced’ and that it was favoured more in Scotland. That is exactly the sort of reason which led to the Westminster Assembly being called! Parliament called the Assembly with the goal of bringing the Church of England into ‘nearer agreement with the Church of Scotland, and other Reformed Churches abroad’.

Furthermore, you claim that ‘the position of the confession is not overly prescriptive’. This suggests that the Westminster Divines were not overly concerned whether individual congregations were exclusive psalmist or sung hymns. Again, this ignores the goal to which the Westminster Assembly had been called. The Solemn League and Covenant (which the divines had sworn) meant it was their duty before God to bring the churches in Scotland, England and Ireland ‘to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church-government, directory for worship and catechising’.

In fact, the divines were so ‘prescriptive’ that they refused to authorise more than one psalter for use in churches, despite being asked to by the House of Lords! (CVD, v, 303).

You mention that you have read the Minutes of the Assembly and didn’t find exclusive psalmody contended for. That’s like saying that the Assembly didn’t argue that homosexuality was wrong and so they must have approved of it. In the historical context of the Assembly, arguing for uninspired hymns to be sung publicly wasn’t even on the agenda. It would be almost two centuries before Presbyterianism would begin to move in that direction.

As mentioned above, the Assembly refused to authorise more than one psalm book to be used in public worship. So rather than leaving things open, the Assembly didn’t want congregations even to sing psalms taken from more than one psalm book. This wasn’t just to avoid confusion – they stated that the book they were approving ‘is so closely framed according to the Original Text, as that we humbly conceive it will be very useful for the Edification of the Church’ (CVD, v, 262).

Although not mentioned in the minutes, Robert Baillie’s journals note that the Assembly decided not to include doxologies at the end of psalms – a practice even some of the Scots were in favour of. So the Assembly DID argue for exclusive psalmody in the sense that they decided even a Trinitarian doxology was too much because (although unquestionably a Biblical sentiment) it added to the original text of the book of Psalms.

I have many brothers and sisters who believe that the Bible doesn’t teach exclusive psalmody. That’s a whole other debate. But I think it can be demonstrated that it’s historically untenable to claim the support of the Westminster Confession of Faith for singing uninspired hymns.

Kevin Bidwell said...

A Presbyterian minister just sent me a link to an article written by Mark Jones. The link is:

After reading this well written article, this friend/minister said to me he thought that he had assumed too much that the 16th and 17th Century was exclusive psalmody. It is a balanced and well written article. May the love of Christ prevail as we all seek to learn from one another,

Kevin Bidwell