Early Church

“During the first two centuries A.D. the Psalter retained its position of honor and sanctity. Early Christians were essentially “children of the Psalms,” and the Psalms, the Sabbath, and the inflexible confession of Christ were the Biblical chief badges of Christian loyalty. A marked change came, however, with the Gnostic Bardesanes (q.v.), who composed a psalter of 150 Psalms modelled on the Old-Testament collection. Aided by his son Harmonius, he set the standard of Syrian music and hymnody. A century later Ephraem Syrus (q.v.), though inferior in originality to Bardesanes, sought to copy and Christianize his hymns, and to reclaim the ground for Christianity. He at least succeeded in securing a large following of admirers, who named him “Prophet of the Syrians” and “Harp of the Spirit,” read his writings as Scripture, and welcomed him as the first Christian hymnologist, although, like Bardesanes, he sacrificed the Psalter. The hymn of Clement of Alexandria, “Bridle of colts untamed,” ends with the exhortation, “let us praise with Psalms (Psalomen) the God of peace.” Through succeeding centuries of persecution the Psalms continued to hold their place, with but trifling exceptions, as the Church’s hymnology among the people and the most earnest preachers, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine. Except for the sequences and a few very short hymns, some of them centos of Psalms, these were the universal hymns of the Church. Many refused to sing the hymns and sequences, and the fifty ninth canon of the Synod of Laodicea (360) accordingly enjoined that “no psalms composed by private individuals nor any uncanonical books may be read in the church, but only. the Canonical Books of the Old and New Testaments” (NPNF, 2 ser., xiv. 158). In the West the Psalms were sung in responses in choir long after Latin had ceased to be vernacular. The eighth canon of the Council of Toledo (653; as given in Labbe, Concilia, vii. 421) ordered that “none henceforth shall be promoted to any ecclesiastical dignity who does not perfectly know the whole Psalter or the usual canticles and hymns and service of baptism” (ef. Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, iii. 99, Fr. transl. iii. 1, p. 291, Eng. transl. iv. 471).”[1]

“Athanasius (c 295 – 373), the great defender of Christ’s deity against the Arian heresy, wrote a letter to Marcellinus in which he encouraged the young pastor to use the Psalms. In that letter, he uses the terms ‘psalms,’ ‘hymns,’ and ‘songs’ or ‘odes’ interchangeably, as Paul does in Colossians 3.16 and Ephesians 5.19, when he refers to the compositions in the Psalter; and as the Greek Septuagint Psalter itself does. For example, Athanasius says, “Psalms 47 and 64 voice the phrases of a hymn”; “For each advance you may recite the fifteen odes among the gradual psalms”; in contrasting the Psalter with the Law, Prophets, and histories, “On the other hand, things are expressed more broadly; of this kind are the phrases of the psalms, odes, and songs.”[2]

“as late as A. D. 561, 563, the council of Braga forbid “the introduction of other poetry into the Psalmody of the church, beyond the songs of canonical scripture.” Dr. McMaster says, “The collection of regulations, known under the name of the ‘Apostolical Constitutions,’ made its appearance in the fourth century. Though we may justly dispute its apostolical origin, it may be admitted of sufficient authority, as far as it indicates the customs of the third and following century. We see its testimony respecting the use of the Book of Psalms.”[3]

“Historically the making of hymn-books had its inception in the desire of Bardesanes[4] and his gifted son Harmonius, of the second century, to popularize false doctrine, and they have ever been one of its most copious and dangerous channels.”[5]

“In the early Christian church, similarly, the three terms [ed. of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs] were used interchangeably to describe the book of Psalms. Justin Martyr was referred to before as endorsing the LXX translation of “hymns” in Ps. 72:20. Clement of Alexandria must have been contemplating either Eph. 5:19 or Col. 3:16 when he said: “The apostle calls the psalms ‘a spiritual song.'”[6] Lactantius called David, “the writer of divine hymns;”[7] and the apostolic constitutions could not be any clearer: ‘sing the hymns of David.’”[8] [9]

“Over against this devotion to singing psalms, there was a growing skepticism about hymns “of human composition” throughout this period because of the use to which they were put by heretics. For this reason the Council of Braga (AD 350) ruled, “Except the Psalms and hymns of the Old and New Testaments, nothing of a poetical nature is to be sung in the church.” The important Council of Laodicea, which met about AD 360, forbade “the singing of uninspired hymns in the church, and the reading of uncanonical books of Scripture” (canon 59).[10] While these were not the decisions of ecumenical councils, nearly one hundred years later, the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the largest of all the general councils, confirmed the Laodicean canons.”[11]

1Kostlin, H.A. “Psalmody” in the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. IX. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Calvin College. Web. January 16, 2016. 
2Hughes, James R. In Spirit and Truth: Worship as God Requires (Understanding and Applying the Regulative Principle of Worship), 2009, page 59. PDF e-book.
3Cooke. H., John Edgar & Thomas Houston. The True Psalmody or, the Bible Psalms the Church’s Only Manual of Praise. Belfast: James. Johnston, 1861, page 95.
4The author’s footnote: J. Quasten writes (Patrology, vol. 1, pp. 263-264): “According to Ephrem the Syrian Bardesanes is the creator of Syrian hymnody, because he composed one hundred and fifty hymns in order to spread his doctrine. His success was so tremendous that Ephrem in the second half of the fourth century had to combat this sect of Bardesanes by composing hymns himself.” 
5Kyle, M.G. “The Importance of an Exclusive Use of the Psalms in Present-Day Apologetics” in The Psalms in Worship (1907), Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992., page 416.
6The author’s footnote: Clement of Alexandria, ‘The instructor,’ in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993 rpt.), 249.
7The author’s footnote: Lactantius, ‘The epitome of the divine institutes,’ in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 7 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993 rpt.), 238.
8The author’s footnote: Constitutions of the holy apostles,’ in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 7 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993 rpt.), 393.
9Winzer, Matthew. “Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land. Puritanboard. (Web forum). August 15, 2007 (6:45 a,m.).
10The author’s footnote: Ibid., 167 [McNaughter, The Psalms in Christian Worship]; cf. Stapert, A New Song, 159.
11Johnson, 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 46.