Do Exclusive Psalmodists Sing Psalms?

What may seem at first glance to be a tautology is, in substance, an actual objection raised against exclusive psalmody. The objection goes as follows: the exclusive psalmodist (EP) want Christians to sing only psalms in worship but he does not follow his own creed. For what EP sings the psalms as written? Do they not use translations and paraphrases? So if they do not obey their own rules for worship, why should the rest of us?

In reply let us consider the following points:

1) Even if the objection were true, it would only prove that the EP is acting inconsistent with his own position. In other words, it fails to prove that exclusive psalmody, as a discipline or practice, is false.

2) Furthermore this argument fails to prove that hymns may be used in worship for a negative argument does not, necessarily, establish a positive one (e.g. if a snake is shown to be non-venomous this does not mean it is harmless: it may be a python). To move from an imperfect fulfillment of a biblical command to license the permission of something not found in scripture is to negate the Regulative Principle of Worship.

3) However some would argue that English renderings of psalms are not unlike an uninspired hymn and therefore this allows for the use of the latter in worship. But however similar a translation and a free association of a text may be, they are not the same thing. This is evident when one compares a word for word translation of scripture and a paraphrase version. It is rightly noted that the latter is more of an interpretation or one’s opinion of what scripture says than a translation. A hymn may be based on scripture but it is not the same thing as a psalm from scripture (as anyone comparing the two can easily identify). Furthermore many hymns are not based directly on scripture texts and many more violate scripture simply by adding to or taking away what is written (Deuteronomy 4:2).

4) Even a paraphrase of a psalm (though regrettable) is still closer to the original psalm than a hymn. A psalm may be muted in its presentation of the original but a hymn is a substitution of praise as inspired by God with praise as written by men. Furthermore, the content and theology of the Psalms (unless entirely gutted of their original purpose and wording) are vastly different from uninspired hymns.    

5) Moreover, if the original objection is correct then no one actually sings psalms. This would be true of those who sing the Psalms of scripture exclusively as well as those who sing them along with other songs. If any rendition of a Psalm falls short of the biblical command (Psalm 105:2; Colossians 3:16), then we are all guilty of failing to obey God on this point. Based on this objection to exclusive psalmody, the exclusive psalmodist does not stand alone in his failure to sing the psalms but the hymnodist also accuses himself whenever he attempts to obey the biblical command to sing God’s songs.

6) Additionally, a faithful translation of the original into the various tongues (using idioms and the native grammar) is still the Word of God.[1] For example:

“Deut 8:3, “that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.” “Word” is added to make up the sense.

Matt. 4:4, “But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” “Word” is original.

Conclusion: such additions as complete the sense of Scripture are Scripture.”[2]

7) Therefore the objection merely demonstrates that we need to take care in how we sing the psalms and that everyone who sings them should be concerned about accuracy in their rendering. The exclusive psalmodist, then, encourages those who want to sing the psalms to help him in improving their singing,  that all properly honour God in corporate worship.

8) Of course using men’s words (uninspired songs) in our sung praise will only move us further away from the objective of following scripture rule. It was Isaac Watts who wanted to sing the songs of David in a “Christian” way and thus sanitized their language to remove elements he believed contradicted a New Testament perspective as well as adding those which he thought comported more with the gospel of Christ.[3] Note then that the first one to amend the psalms for his own purposes was not a compromising exclusive psalmodist but a hymn proponent.

9) Finally, some have gone so far to assert that the EP does not sing Psalms because, to do so faithfully would require that they would sing from the original Hebrew. This argument can be answered by using the counter-argument in point 3. If it is applicable for the EP, it is applicable for all who sing psalms.

10) Additionally if singing from the Hebrew is required to sing the psalms accurately then it follows that a Bible translation should be nothing more than the original Hebrew, Aramaic & Greek. But we have already established the case that an English translation of the Bible may and should be called the Word of God. This would be no less true of English renderings of the Psalms.

-Daniel Kok © 2017

1. A similar point is made by Westminster Confession of Faith regarding translations of the original languages of scripture into “the vulgar” tongue. “because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.” (WCF 1.8) Westminster Confession of Faith. Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1997, pages 23-24.
2Winzer, Matthew. “How Much Liberty with a Translation Makes It No Longer God’s Word” (reply in thread). Puritanboard (Web forum) April 10, 2009 (7:25 PM) 
3“Ironically Watts’ hymns and Psalm paraphrases were the primary vehicle through which hymns finally were accepted into the public worship of Protestants, yet not without considerable controversy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Still it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that hymns began to overtake the Psalms in popular use.” Johnson, Terry. “The History of Psalm Singing in the Christian Church.” Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century. Edited by Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010, page 54.