It's Not Too Late

To begin singing God’s Word again. That’s what Kevin says. As thankful as I am for his encouragement on this front his post raises  some questions.

First, let me express how thankful I am for this post. The re-introduction of psalmody to Christian worship has been a concern of mine (and of Bob Godfrey’s long before I caught on) for some time. I’ve written here about how to re-introduce the singing of Psalms to our worship. I’ve argued that, in order to facilitate such a re-introduction, we need new tunes for the psalms and I’ve talked about how to pick a psalm for worship. God bless Kevin for taking a positive step here and I look forward to his new series.

Nevertheless, as much as I appreciate his taking on of our “high places,” one cannot help but notice that even as Kevin gently encourages us to re-consider our “avoidance of the Psalms” in worship he has to proactively defend himself from criticism by pointing out that he’s not a “Psalms only” guy. He writes:

…I love old hymns, new hymns, Sovereign Grace music, Townend and Getty, even a good Spanish chorus or two. We have drums and guitars (and an organ) in our church. I’m not pining away for a straight-up Genevan liturgy with robes, an unchangeable order of worship, and unsingable metrical tunes.

I love old hymns too. I love Luther’s paraphrase of Ps 46 (A Mighty Fortress) but that’s beside the point isn’t it? Isn’t the very point of the Reformed Principle of Worship to free us all from what I love or what Kevin loves or what the music director loves?  One of the great benefits of the RPW was to give us an objective standard by which to measure what we do in worship.

Heidelberg Catechism Q. 96, to which Kevin and I both subscribe says:

96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.

When that language was adopted by the Palatinate Church in 1563 and by the Dutch Reformed Churches (in which family of churches Kevin and I both minister) HC 96 was understood to restrict congregational singing in divine services only to God’s Word. Further, it was understood to mean that God’s Word was sung without musical accompaniment. One of the first things the Reformed did was to remove musical instruments from the churches.

Since the 18th century, however, Reformed worship has become increasingly unfaithful to the old understanding of God’s Word as expressed in the HC. On this see RRC.

Thus, it’s very encouraging to see Kevin challenging us all to re-consider our practice of worship. In light of the original understanding of HC 96, one wonders why the RPW (and implicitly HC 96) should be reduced to a caricature (“straight-up Genevan liturgy….”)? Maybe he’s read some of the responses to this post?

As has been shown in this very space, however, the RPW isn’t necessarily stiff or stuffy. Perhaps it might seem that way if one has never seen it in action. I don’t know what Kevin’s experience is but is are today a vast army of Christians who’ve never seen a historic Reformed service. We use Genevan robes in Oceanside not as a matter of principle but because we minister in a truly casual culture. We minister on the beach and we needed a strong visual signal that OURC is not Calvary Chapel, it’s not playtime, that we’re engaged in a most serious business: worship of the Almighty God. What is interesting is that those response to our approach to worship has broken down along generational lines. The boomers don’t like it but those who are older than the boomers and those who are younger than the boomers mostly do like it. My theory is that the boomers who don’t like, reject it because it’s not narcissistic. If you’re looking for an endorphin high in worship, you won’t find it at OURC. Those young people, however, who’ve grown tired of “Shine Jesus Shine” and happy-clappy worship have found a refuge with us.

We try to conduct worship with joy in the knowledge that God is pleased to accommodate himself to our weakness, to meet with us, to speak to us in his law and gospel, to hear our prayers, and to receive our praise and thanksgiving for the sake of Christ. We love to come to the table every Lord’s Day, we love to hear the gospel preached, we love to sing God’s Word. We hope our worship is marked by joyful solemnity.

It is interesting, however, that, in order to even suggest the possibility that we should sing re-introduce the singing of Psalms in Reformed worship, Kevin has to protect himself rhetorically from the wrath to come from those who will brook no challenges to the modern revisions of Reformed worship. He has to set fire rhetorically to the RPW by letting folk know that he has no intention of fundamentally challenging the modern revisions.

In the spirit of taking down the “high places,” may I say that the effect of his language to say, “You’re autonomy is safe here.” Isn’t the point of taking down high places to say, “You’re autonomy is not safe. God’s honor and glory comes first, even if it proves uncomfortable for us”?

As much as I appreciate Kevin’s positive step, the fact that he has to protect himself rhetorically, to anticipate the wrath of hymn singers, thus suggests another, unspoken “high place” that needs to be taken down.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Here’s the thing. The songs in the Psalter aren’t the Psalms. They’re someone’s riff on the Psalms just like Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for singing the Psalms in a singable manner and our church has an emphasis on singing from the Psalms but is not restricted from singing all other hymns.

    If you can find someone to produce the Psalms in a more singable form than the ancient Psalter and a more reverent mode than the modern happy clappy choruses I’d be all for it.

  2. There is something deeply satisfying, trans-cultural and other-worldly about this approach to worship. Surely such an approach should help christians of different cultures, races, classes and places to worship together?

  3. I don’t think singing the paraphrases in the Psalter to new tunes gets you where you want to go. Who decides what paraphrase of a Psalm to use? Who decides what tune it will be sung to? I may find a certain paraphrase’s rhyme scheme poetic and pleasing while you may find it trite and annoying. You may enjoy a certain tune setting while I may find it unbearable. Here we are again, just like the issue of choosing musical accompaniments, subjecting worshipers to the whims of individual aesthetic taste. If we are to be truly consistent in our adherence to the RPW, our only option is, it seems to me, the removal of singing altogether from the worship service and its replacement with mono-tonal recitation of the Psalms, verbatim, by the congregation.

    • “Who decides what paraphrase of a Psalm to use? Who decides what tune it will be sung to?”

      Short answer: The Reformed tradition has always recognized the church’s power to legislate the circumstances of worship, e.g., WCF 1.6:

      “[T]here are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence …”

  4. My latest little interest is with an Australian group called the Sons of Korah.
    They focus on contemporary renditions of the psalms.
    The website is

    I’m esp. enjoying their treatment of Psalm 125 [but then I always was partial to the resonator guitar]:

    I would be interested in hearing what the commenters here think of this group and their music–their treatment of, or faithfulness to, the original text.

    • Hey Wayne,

      Great contribution as always. I didn’t know about this group. Very interesting. Great stuff for Fri night/Sat night. I’ll leave it to others to comment on the original text.

    • Wayne,

      In my humble opinion, their singing resembles too much the music of the CCM movement. Me no likey.

      This is more right up my alley:


  5. I will refine my interest, and say that there is a big difference between what can be performed and what can be readily sung by a congregation.

    Some (much?) of what this group has composed would be difficult for most congregations. In my estimation.

  6. Trivia question: Did the CRC ever sing acapella? I thought the Dutch added organs long, long ago. I thought the original True Dutch Reformed Church was Pslams (in Dutch) plus organ.

  7. Dr. Clark,

    I’m still not fully on board with the psalms-only-no-instruments idea (as I promised, I’ll be reading RRC this summer). But I am definitely struck by the inconsistency and flat out arbitrary nature of the alternative positions. When reading Kevin’s article I found myself wondering, how many psalms would be sufficient to fully remove the high place? Is a ratio of 1 hymn to 1 psalm good? Should there be more psalms than hymns? Etc. And of course, no matter what answer you give to questions of that sort, there’s no good reason to support the answer. WHY should there be more psalms than hymns, or vice-versa? It seems to me that once you get to that point, the question “why should we sing non-inspired songs at all?” arises quite logically and naturally, and doesn’t need to be forced into the discussion by some “fundamentalist” psalms-only agenda.

    How detrimental do you think this really is to our churches? In the URC, for example, would you say that some serious spiritual harm is being done because of the use of the blue psalter? Should there be some urgency in the “crusade” to return to psalm singing? Or is not as important as all that?

  8. I’ve been following this “debate” for a couple of years or so and have gradually been moving towards assent (99%) with the Psalm only position for worship. My impression is that many/most/all(?) of those who argue for the inclusion of uninspired hymn singing appear to assume that the burden of proof of argument for excluding hymns lays with the Psalm only camp. Does this not seem a bit presumptuous on their part? Presumably they do so because theirs is the currently adopted position; but, does current practice simply equate to correct belief and practice? I’m sure we all agree that this is not so. Yet, many of their arguments do not have the Scripture or Confessions as their starting point and they query, “why can’t we sing hymns” instead of “can we properly justify singing hymns in church”.

    (Interestingly, this discussion has (to my knowledge) not even been started in my church; but then, we’re about ten years behind the coasts. Furthermore, perhaps (conjecture) if time needs to be conserved or if a hymn is seen to be more appropriate (topically) the Psalm is sacrificed. Recently, prayer time has also been drastically reduced…)

    I have for a while wondered, (1) “what do hymns add to what is already in the Psalms”? Too often, I have sadly concluded, what is added is error, distraction/detraction from God and his redemptive plan (e.g., (non-exhaustively) pietism, upbeat-emotion-inducing songs (reminds me of the old tent meetings of my youth), four or five verses of nearly meaningless repetition — these in the red Trinity Hymnal which we in the PCA use. The latter two descriptors applied to “hymns” sung in our church during the past two weeks; the first is probably more common in our church, though, and is reminiscent (to me) of “all these things we will do”; reminds me of a quotation from “Augustine’s Laws” (Norman — not Saint) by the author’s son at age 15: “We’re really gonna get ’em this season. Last year we were too overconfident.” Maybe we missed something at Sinai.). I would sincerely appreciate a response to my question from someone who advocates hymn singing in church.

    (A couple of years ago, I heard an elder assert (in essence) that the Psalms simple don’t cover all the truths of all of Scripture (NT for example), and so hymns are needed. I’ve recently wondered how this elder might interpret Luke 24:27 (road to Emmaus) and Acts 17:11 (“[Certain Jews were] examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”). At the words of Acts 17:11 I’ve really begun to marvel. Most of us (self included) are all too ill-equipped to go to the OT to verify all of Paul’s teachings! Somehow I don’t think that those Jews would have made the argument that this elder made.)

    I am neither theologian nor elder, but I must question (2) how “The Word of Christ [can] dwell in you richly” if we are not singing “The Word”, but rather man’s words?

    I heartily agree that our preferences must not be the issue. Here in the midwest (and probably everywhere else), the worship wars debate is generally framed within “contemporary v. traditional” parameters; too often this results in us v. them and my preferences are shown to be the real issue with truth being “indeterminable” or “left up to man”.

    (I have begun to read RRC.)

    • Greg,

      I normally don’t post on blogs, but since you asked for a response, I thought I would write one. First off, let me say that you are right: the burden of proof is on those who want to sing uninspired songs. Now, I would like to respond to your questions in reverse order:

      (2) Colossians 3:16 is certainly key. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom…” How is the word of Christ used in teaching and admonishment? Sometimes it is enough to merely quote it verbatim, however, teaching and admonishment often involve exposition of the text. The text must be compared with other passages of scripture, and applied to the lives of the listeners. I don’t think we would forbid those charged with teaching the Bible in our congregations from using their own words! Yet this does not mean that their teaching is not regulated by scripture. A sermon can be either faithful or unfaithful to scripture. In fact, some sermons might have very little to do with scripture at all! This would certainly be a failure to let the word of Christ richly dwell in our teaching and admonishment.

      Paul is not talking about preaching here, though. We are to teach and admonish one another “in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” If we see congregational singing as a form of teaching and admonishment, then it becomes clear how scripture regulates it: its subject should be biblical, and the doctrine it teaches must be biblical. However, singing does not always have to be taken from scripture verbatim (though this should not be excluded).

      (1) So what do hymns add? Here are some ideas:
      – They allow us to be *explicitly* Trinitarian in our worship
      – They can teach systematic theology. Some hymns draw together and synthesize different biblical passages with a common theme.
      – They can allow us to use the whole counsel of God in our singing. I am firmly convinced that the Psalms are ultimately about Christ and him crucified. Nevertheless, the whole Bible was given us for teaching, so we should use all of it in our congregational singing. Our worship should reflect our position in redemptive history.

      We should let the Psalms show us how to write our hymns. It is clear that Mary and Zechariah have allowed the Psalms to inform the new songs they compose. This might actually challenge some of our usual objections to CCM music. After all, some of the Psalms are pretty upbeat, and they have even induced emotions in me before. And as much as I dislike endless repetition, some Psalm do use repetition. This is not to say that such devices are not somewhat overused in CCM, just that we should not reject them entirely.

      Anyway, these are some of my thoughts as a hymn-singer. I would be interested to hear what you think.

      • Jamie,

        Thank you for kindly taking the time to respond to my post. I’m a rather infrequent contributor to blogs, but this topic has been weighing heavily on my mind as I’ve seen our church move slowly away from confessional reformed worship. Forgive any thoughts that seem petty; I’m simply trying to state/understand things clearly…I’m the analytical type!

        (2) Re: Col. 3:16 — You wrote:

        “If we see [Scripture as teaching] congregational singing as a form of teaching and admonishment, then it becomes clear how scripture regulates it: its subject should be biblical, and the doctrine it teaches must be biblical. However, singing does not always have to be taken from scripture verbatim (though this should not be excluded).” (My insert to clarify)

        An observation: Preachers are charged with faithfully preaching the Word — not just reading it publicly. As noted, congregations have been charged with singing the Word. Is it assumed that someone is charged (or is a charge unnecessary?) with composing hymns for corporate worship beyond what God provides? Where do we go in Scripture to find instruction in this matter? I am fairly new to this (less than five years), but doesn’t this contradict the RPW?

        The question I still have is how do we move (with scriptural support/direction) from “Psalms only” to “Psalms plus man-authored songs” in corporate worship?

        (1) What do hymns add:

        You wrote: “They allow us to be *explicitly* Trinitarian in our worship”.

        I assume that you would readily agree that “worship” might be better stated “singing portion of worship” given that the entire service is intended as worship.

        Question: Is this explicitness required by Scripture in our singing? We do (or ought!) worship the Trinity explicitly in other ways.

        You wrote: “They can teach systematic theology. Some hymns draw together and synthesize different biblical passages with a common theme.”

        While I am all for (good) systematic theology, do we conclude that this is simply not possible as God prescribed it using the Psalms in singing, plus the other aspects of worship? Did God intend that singing be sufficient for teaching all the detailed aspects of Scripture’s or just as set forth in the Psalms? Are we trying to place this requirement on our singing artificially? Are we, in effect, trying to broaden the scope of our Scriptural singing beyond what God intended? (I’m thinking and contemplating as I write… I honestly don’t know, but over the past five years I’ve learned a bit of respect for that “idol factory” inside of me so as to cause me to wonder!) Or could it be that God did not intend for all Scripture to be sung per Col. 3:16? Some for singing; some for reading and preaching? (Why explicit direction do we have?)

        You wrote: “Nevertheless, the whole Bible was given us for teaching, so we should use all of it in our congregational singing.”

        Again, how do we make that jump with *explicit* scriptural direction from singing inspired Psalms to singing non-inspired songs? For purposes of discussion, I would concede that a given non-inspired song might even be doctrinally correct. But, why should it be included in corporate worship?

        Why would we look to the Psalms for direction in writing songs for congregational worship instead of simply using the Psalms? I am not arguing that there is no place for other songs. I am, however, asking for clear Scriptural direction for doing so in church worship.

        (Regarding Mary and Zechariah, and I know that you know this… obviously these are inspired parts of Scripture.)

        I could probably ramble on and on, but simple put, I’m looking for specific instruction within Scripture regarding singing in corporate worship. Are our reasons for singing uninspired hymns in worship based on scriptural direction or are they the result of what makes practical sense, i.e., it will do ‘x’, or overcome deficiency ‘y’, or …. Do we seek to justify what we think is good to do because it will achieve certain perceived results, or do we simply look for direction and obey without necessarily understanding fully? Is it that simple? I don’t know… Personally, I’d now rather error by assuming that my reasoning is faulty due to incomplete information or poor logic/understanding/etc. than to error by concluding that I can figure out what is not explicitly directed by Scripture for worship.

        • Greg,

          I am also the analytical type! You’ve raised some great questions. Here are some of my thoughts about them:

          There is some disagreement about how to formulate the RPW. One way to put it would be: “We should not do anything in our worship unless we have an explicit command to do it in Scripture.” This formulation will not work, because there is no explicit command to designate Sunday as the Christian sabbath. Some of the commands in scripture are implicit, not explicit. I would state the RPW thus: “We should not do anything in our worship unless we have biblical warrant for it.” This biblical warrant is found less often in explicit commands, and more often through the presentation of examples for us to follow. Consider Acts 2:42. This verse is in the indicative voice, not the imperative voice. Yet I think it is set forth as an example to follow. We should devote ourselves to the things to which the church in Acts 2 was devoted.

          To see how this works, lets look at preaching and prayer. You are right that the songs of Elizabeth and Zechariah are inspired. However, there is no uninspired preaching or prayer in scripture! How do we know that exhortations to preaching in the scripture are not exhortations to repeat verbatim those classic sermons recorded for us in the book of Acts? Because those sermons show us what the nature of preaching is: it is not to repeat the biblical text verbatim, but to explain and apply it. Prayer, likewise, is not repeated verbatim, but is different depending what you need to pray for in your context. Wouldn’t it be easy to take Jesus’ response to the disciple’s questions about prayer as a command to only ever pray the Lord’s prayer verbatim? Yet even the Lord’s prayer is different every time it is recorded for us in the gospels!

          So my argument with respect to singing is this: singing is teaching. Teaching does not merely repeat scripture verbatim, but explains and applies it. Scripture commands that the whole counsel of God be taught in our churches, and using uninspired songs is one part of how that is done (the psalms are great for teaching the Torah, that is what they were written for). But if we insist on being bashful about using uninspired songs in our worship, we should also be bashful about using uninspired preaching and uninspired prayer (also, uninspired confessions, though many EPers drop this component of Calvin’s liturgy from their service).

          With regard to the songs of Mary and Zechariah, I see them as like Paul’s sermon on Mars hill: inspired, to be sure, but also examples for us to follow. Mary does not sing an OT psalm (there are many that would have been appropriate for the imminent coming of the Messiah) but rather sings a new song which is influenced by OT psalms (interesting question: does Mary know her song is inspired at the time when she sings it?).

          The question of who is charged with songwriting is an interesting one. I think I would say that all believers may write hymns, in accordance with their gifting by the Spirit (though the use of these hymns in the worship of the church is, of course, subject to the elders). This is what I think is happening in 1 Co. 14:26. I also think this reflects temple practice. Although there is an office of Levitical songwriter (the families of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, 1 Ch. 25:1), it is clear from the Psalter that songwriting is not restricted to them. We also should not assume that the Psalter is a complete list of all the psalms used in the temple. Instead, it is a compilation of psalms selected by a divinely inspired editor who may have chosen to leave some out. For instance, there are non-canonical psalms in the LXX. It is also a little improbable that the 12 psalms of Asaph and one possible psalm by Heman (though it is probably not the same Heman) represent the entire body of work of the Levitical songwriters from Solomon down to Zerubabbel. Therefore, it seems that the worship in the temple was not EP!

  9. “Isn’t the very point of the Reformed Principle of Worship to free us all from what I love or what Kevin loves or what the music director loves?”


    Dr. Clark, I found the connection between the RPW and Christian Liberty you described in RRC to be very helpful and insightful. I’m a 22 year old who has been a believer for almost 3 years, and I am striving to “recover the Reformed confession”, or, in my case, embrace it for the first time. The book has chipped away barnacles of QIRC and QIRE that were clinging to me. Thank you so much.

  10. Supplementing Jamie Duguid,

    I would just mention historically that the Phil. 2 passage shows striking resemblances to a song. I believe Moises Silva, Gordon Fee, and other commentators on Philippians believe so as well. This would seem to indicate the use of extra-Biblical songs in worship within centuries of Christ’s death.

    Also, Ambrose and other orthodox Fathers developed hymns in their worship to distinguish orthodox worship from Arian/heretical worship.

    As a result, when I approach this question I tend to place more weight on the EP perspective.

    This is obviously not an argument against Psalm singing though, and Psalm singing should be an important aspect of any worship service. I know that where I worship (PCA), we sing a Psalm after the call to worship and after the Old Testament reading. We normally sing another Psalm in response to the message, but there is freedom to include the occasional hymn. I’m a little biased :), but I think this is the healthiest perspective.

  11. Kudos to those of you considering EP without being in a congregation that actually does it. It took me a year of being in such a congregation before I really considered that it wasn’t just fundamentalism. It took another year before I was fully convinced of the arguments behind it.

    I think singing the Psalms certainly has confirmed in my mind that lex orandi, lex credendi is a reality. I hope that others will find the same.

  12. With all due respect to those who are just finding out about all this, it is pretty well known/generally conceded that the “worshiping in the high places” for most reformed (and presbyterian) churches today consists of uninspired hymnody, musical instruments and ecclesiastical feastdays.

    Van Dellen and Monsma in their commentary on the Church Order re. Art. 67 & 69 document what went on at the Reformation and then afterward when these practices crept back in. For instance the civil magistrate still observed the old Romish holiday, so the church felt obliged to have a worship service so people wouldn’t be spending all their time carousing.

    As for psalmody, an issue with a long history and many posts, it at least might be said that the old blue psalter which is pretty much the 1914 presbyterian psalter with the addition of the Three Forms and the Reformed forms for the sacraments is a very loose translation of the psalms (cp. WCF1:8). It is laid out more like a hymnal than a reformed or reformation psalter. The numbers and verses do not correspond to the psalms at all with #42 being the most egregious offender. It consists of selected stanzas from Ps. 19 with “O how I love thy law(!?)” from Ps. 119 appended as a chorus. (Really, it does.)
    Further, of the six or seven psalm singing reformed bodies that originally used this psalter, only two remain, the Free Reformed and the Protestant Reformed. That might lead one to think that the 1914 is more of an encouragement to uninspired hymnody rather than psalmody, but the reader is encouraged to compare the 1914 to other psalters and judge for themselves.

  13. Bryan

    You’re right, I always get Peter O’Brien and Gordon Fee’s positions mixed up.

    Thanks for the clarification!

  14. Jamie said
    “(interesting question: does Mary know her song is inspired at the time when she sings it?)

    She didn’t sing it.

    Read your bible.

    Luke 1:46  And Mary said, ….

    Neither did Zacharia sing.

    67  ¶And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying,….

    Read your bible.

Comments are closed.