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A Psalmody Debate

Category Articles
Date August 12, 2003

After the debate, President Joseph Pipa asked the audience how many there who had come to the debate wondering about the issue, had been swayed to lean in one direction or another as a result of the debate. Several dozen hands went up. When he asked how many had been absolutely persuaded as a result of the debate, evidently no hands went up.

In Taylors, South Carolina, on March 13, 2003 on the final morning of the Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Conference on Worship a debate took place on the doctrine known as "exclusive psalmody", that is, the question of whether the church should sing the 150 psalms in public worship to the exclusion of all other songs, especially uninspired compositions.

Throughout the Presbyterian and Reformed community, in relatively recent history, the question of the content of worship music has become a vibrant issue only over the past decade or so. For example, when the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was founded in 1973, the issue within PCA circles, was almost totally unknown. However, through a variety of means, the question has, as it has done in centuries past, generated extensive discussion in the Reformed world.

One of the factors which impacted the discussion was the 1990 International Psalmody Conference, held at Bonclarken, Flat Rock, North Carolina, a conference which was commended or endorsed by several denominations, including the PCA. Two years later, the PCA General Assembly answered in the affirmative an overture from Central Georgia Presbytery which advocated the singing of psalms (though not necessarily exclusive psalmody). The next year (1993), the PCA Assembly voted to "reaffirm that Psalm-singing in the worship of God is a Gospel ordinance, is commended by the Westminster Confession; and is an historic practice of Reformed churches"; to "give thanks to God for the revival in the use Psalms and Psalm portions in contemporary worship settings"; "[t]hat congregations be encouraged to sing at least one Psalm at each of their services"; and "[t]hat congregations be encouraged to identify Psalm-settings as Psalms, when they are sung." The same Assembly approved the publishing of the Trinity Psalter, in conjunction with the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA).

Designed as a supplemental manual of praise for congregations which use a hymnal, the Trinity Psalter is printed as a words only book. It made its debut at the 1994 PCA General Assembly; after 1000 copies were donated for perpetual use by the Assembly. The denominational bookstore sold out of its 1000 copies of the Psalter which were available at the Assembly, and took 800 back orders. Sales since that time have been in the tens of thousands.

In recognition of the growing practice of psalm-singing among its constituency, as well as the growing acceptance of the proposition that only the psalms should be sung in public worship, Greenville Seminary sponsored today’s debate. Unlike debates at Greenville theology conferences in previous years, this discussion was conducted in accordance with formal rules of debate. For example, each speaker was given twenty minutes for an opening presentation, with ten minutes each of rebuttal. After about a half-hour break, during which time each speaker consulted with an advisor (his "second"), the debate resumed with each speaker being able to pose questions to the other. The debate concluded with fifteen minutes of summation from each party.

The question for the debate was the following: "Do the Scriptures require the exclusive use of psalms for the content of our singing in public worship?"

Speaking for the affirmative was the Rev. Brian Schwertley, pastor of Chalcedon Presbyterian Church in Michigan. Opposing him was the Rev. Ben Shaw, a professor of Old Testament at Greenville.


Mr. Schwertley began by noting that Scripture allows us to use our words for prayer and preaching. However, the same is not true for the content of our sung praise.

The case for exclusive psalmody, according to Mr. Schwertley, is rooted in a strict application of the regulative principle of worship, as well as the sufficiency of the Psalter. With regard to the regulative principle, he noted that in order for a worship practice to be acceptable to God, it must be derived either from a direct command, or approved historical example, or logical deduction.

There is, he stated, a positive warrant for psalmody, but no positive warrant for uninspired hymns. Why sing psalms? he rhetorically asked." Because there is an inspired hymnbook right in the middle of the Bible. You’re obligated to sing all 150 psalms; it’s a moral obligation." Furthermore, only psalms are used in the worship of Jehovah in Scripture. In accord with this point, the Michigan pastor stated that the New Testament repeatedly refers to David as a prophet, highlighting the inspired character of what he penned.

Mr. Schwertley said that a common objection to exclusive psalmody is that the term to "sing psalms" does not in Scripture contain the noun ("psalms"), but simply means to "sing praise." He countered that Scripture defines what it means to sing praise, and that inspiration was necessary for the writing of worship song.

The debater affirmed the standard explanation that the three-fold term of" psalms, hymns, and songs" (found in the classic texts on the subject, viz., Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16) refers to the inspired psalms of the Old Testament, and that the term ‘pneumatikos’ ("spiritual"), which in this context must mean "inspired," refers to all three nouns. He also argued that "word of Christ," which is in the Colossians passage, is equivalent to "word of God." And, he stated that the term "new song" in Scripture refers only to inspired songs.


Professor Shaw argued that the mere existence of the Psalter does not form an express command to sing from it. In his view, there is no Old Testament evidence that the Psalter or parts of it were used exclusively in the temple, and no New Testament evidence that most or all of the Psalter was used in the synagogue. He also argued that the evidence that the Hallel would have been sung at the Passover meal (as in Matthew 26:30), came from the Talmud, which was written 300 years after Christ.

Mr. Shaw noted that James 5:13 ( ". . . let him sing psalms") contains only the verb, ‘psalleo’, which simply means to sing praise. Conceding that the three terms of "psalms, hymns, and songs" are found in the Psalter, he tried to downplay its significance by pointing out that those three terms are only in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), which is not as accurate as the Masoretic Text (the Hebrew). Furthermore, the terms are used outside of the book of Psalms to refer to other compositions. In his view, the term "spiritual," which does not mean" inspired," is added to the word "song" because it is the least religious of the three nouns.


Mr. Schwertley began his rebuttal by saying, "My dear brother did not demonstrate that ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,’ refers to uninspired hymns. He has not demonstrated with respect to worship where these terms refer to uninspired hymns. We let Scripture interpret Scripture." He later stated that there is not one example in Scripture of a song or hymn used in public worship that is uninspired. Noting that the Holy Spirit had organized the 150 psalms into the Psalter, and also that the Westminster Assembly and lawful Presbyterian General Assemblies of a bygone era had drawn the conclusion that therefore the church should use the Psalter only, he urged his listeners, "Let us submit to our covenanted unity and Scripture." He added that the "overhead projectors and Bobo the Clown and all that won’t fit in anymore"; and he concluded his rebuttal by noting that the Trinity Hymnal contains hymns by Unitarians and feminists and Arminians.


In his rebuttal, Mr. Shaw contended that there is a confusion in Mr. Schwertley’s writing that is endemic, viz., with respect to the meaning of" inspired." He stated that generally, "inspired" is equivalent to" inscripturated." However, Mr. Schwertley and others want to have" inspired" to refer to extra-canonical compositions.

The professor stated that although a first century Jew "might" have understood the three-fold phrase in Ephesians and Colossians to refer to the Psalter, the terms have a fairly broad meaning, and that a primarily Gentile congregation would have understood them broadly. When the apostle Paul avoided using the term "The book of psalms," he was directing us to sing the Psalter only as part of what we should sing.


After the mutual interrogation by the two participants, Professor Shaw gave his summation. He argued that we are commanded to sing a new song, and that the shadowy and typical nature of the psalms make them difficult to understand.

Pastor Schwertley began his summation by stating that the adoption of hymnody began a history of declension, into a dark, uncertain future. What is needed, then, is a strict, consistent application of the regulative principle of worship.

Given that strict approach, then, "There is no way in the world to prove uninspired hymnody." Alluding to his published writings on the subject, he declared that if anyone could show one example of an uninspired song being used in public worship in Scripture, "I will publicly recant, I will burn my books!"

Mr. Schwertley argued that the Psalter "is perfectly balanced and meets all the needs of men." He also stated that to mix the psalms and uninspired hymns together is sacrilege. "Can you imagine what God would think of adding to our Scripture readings, readings from Max Lucado, nineteenth century feminists, Unitarians?"

He concluded by saying that we are to uphold "our covenanted reformation,… our Westminster Standards."

After the debate, President Joseph Pipa asked the audience how many there who had come to the debate wondering about the issue, had been swayed to lean in one direction or another as a result of the debate. Several dozen hands went up. When he asked how many had been absolutely persuaded as a result of the debate, evidently no hands went up.

[as reported in "Presbyterian and Reformed News", January-March 2003.]

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