Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Instruments In The Latin Bibles

Recovering the Reformed ConfessionWe Reformed folk like to think that what we do now in public worship is what we have always done. This is especially easy to do when we are cut off from or unaware of the original sources and practices of our tradition or when our practice has been changed and we are unaware of the changes that have been made. The history of the Reformed practice of worship is not well known nor is it easy to discover. Frequently, those who write about it do so either with an interest in defending our modern practice. Sometimes histories are written by those who do not sympathize with the original Reformed understanding of and approach to worship—now known as the regulative principle of worship.

There are, however, significant differences between the way we tend to think about Reformed worship and the way they did. We know this because our practice tends to vary, in some ways, considerably from the original Reformed practice. For example, today, virtually all Reformed congregations use musical instruments in public worship. In the Reformation, however, virtually none of our congregations used musical instruments in public worship. Instruments were banished from Reformed congregations in Zürich, Geneva, Heidelberg, the Netherlands, France, Scotland, and England. Instruments were absent from Christian worship for the first six centuries of church history and did not become widely used until the high middle ages. They were a relative novelty when the Reformed cast them out in the 16th century. They did not return widely until the 18th and 19th centuries. In some quarters they were still controversial in the early 20th century. For more on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession. What we sing in public worship also varies considerably from what we sang in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Geneva, in the Netherlands, in France, and in the British Isles Reformed congregations sang God’s Word in worship. They did not sing non-canonical hymns.1

Most of the time the shift from the original Reformed practice to our practice is either accepted without question or ignored. Sometimes we assume (as I did for a number of years) that our current practice is the historic practice. Sometimes, however, the original Reformed understanding of worship is ridiculed. One sees this in the discussion of the proper interpretation of the expression in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18: “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The older Reformed writers tended to interpret this phrase as a reference to the 150 Psalms. More than once, however, I have heard contemporary interpreters appeal to this expression as a grounds for an “inclusive” position whereby a Reformed congregation would sing Psalms, extra-canonical hymns, and contemporary songs. This interpretation, however, is not probable. Most likely the phrase “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” refers to three parts of the Psalter in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint and symbolized with the Roman numerals LXX). When the Apostle Paul used the expression “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” he was using an expression with a history, which readers would have understood in context.

When our Reformed forefathers interpreted this phrase they were influenced by their experience with the Latin Bible. This is not something that most Reformed Christians in North America (or anywhere else) experience today, at least not directly. Most of us read Scripture in our own language (e.g., English) and then there those who read the original languages but relatively few of us read Latin any more but our Reformed theologians did. Indeed, when they were not reading Scripture in the original languages they were typically reading Scripture in Latin. Most of the time, when they quote Scripture in their Latin writings, it is in Latin. Sometimes they quote existing translations and sometimes they made their own translation. The Latin Bible that most influenced the Western church was the Biblia Vulgata, the Vulgate. It became the standard text of the Latin Bible through the middle ages and through much of the 16th century. The text was revised and republished by Rome as part of the Counter-Reformation response to the Protestants in 1590. That edition is referred to as the Clementine Vulgate. The Reformed were so familiar with and committed to reading Scripture in Latin that they even created their own Latin translation. Immanuel Tremellius (1510–80) and Franciscus Junius (1545–1602) translated the entire Old Testament and Theodore Beza (1519–1605) translated the New Testament. As Todd Rester explains, this translation became the “standard Latin biblical text of the scholarly Reformed world from 1579 through 1764.” It was widely published and widely used.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs in the Vulgate

In the Vulgate (abbreviated Vg) the terms psalmus (psalm), hymnus (hymn), and canticum (song) appear in the superscriptions to the Psalms. The stem psal– occurs 153 times in the Vg, mostly, of course, in the Psalms. This would include the noun Psalmus (e.g., Ps 2:1 “Psalmus David“) and  also the verb Psallo, to sing (a psalm) as in 1 Cor 14:15. It also is Isaiah 38:20; Lamentations 3:63; Habbakuk 3:19 and in the NT. We can’t survey all of these uses in a blog post but it is instructive to notice how the terms “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” and related words were used in these two Latin Bibles and how that might have influenced the way the Reformed understood them. Of course the noun “Psalm” occurs in the superscriptions of a many of the Psalms, e.g., 4:1, 6:1, 29:1, 32:2 but the terms canticum and hymnus also occur apparently following the pattern of the LXX. Sometimes the terms occur together as in Ps 47:1 (the superscription to Ps 48 in English): Canticum Psalmi… (a song of a Psalm…). See also Ps 65:1 (superscription to 66 in English).

The noun hymnus occurs only twice in the Psalms, in Ps 118:171 (English 119:171) and in the superscription to Psalm 144:1 (145:1 in English), which is a “Hymn of David.” It only occurs 21 times in the whole of Scripture in the Vulgate. In 1 Kings 8:28 hymnus is used as a synonym for oratio (prayer). In 1 Chron 16:36 the congregation says an “amen” and a hymn to the Lord. 2 Chronicles 7:6 says:

The priests stood at their posts; the Levites also, with the instruments (organis carminum) for music to the Dominus that King David had made for giving thanks to the Dominus—for his eternal mercy—whenever David sang his hymn by their hands; then the priests sounded trumpets, and all Israel stood.

Here we see that, in the Vulgate, hymns, the levitical ministry, and musical instruments are quite interconnected. Hymns are also sung in Ezra 3:1, Nehemiah 12:8. Hymnus occurs several times in the Apocryphal books (Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, 2 Esdras). It is used in the NT in Matthew 26:30, “and when they sang a hymn…” This is undoubtedly the source of the misleading English translation with which the reader is familiar. The Greek text, of course, uses a participle which simply means “having sung” and transliterating it thus, in English, gives the false impression that our Lord and the disciples sang the same sort of extra-canonical song that congregations sing today. As we have seen, however, It is a type of Psalm or other song sung in the canonical period, by canonical actors in the history of redemption.

The typical English translation of Acts 16:25 is also a little misleading. E.g., ESV has Paul and the others “singing hymns” about midnight. The Greek text uses the noun transliterated as “hymn” (ὕμνουν) but, again, the transliteration creates a misleading impression in the modern ear that Paul and company were doing just what we do today. The translation of “psalm” (ψαλμὸν) in 1 Corinthians 14:26 as “hymn” is even more misleading. Why transliterate “hymnos” in one place but not transliterate psalmos in another?

It is quite interesting also to note how the noun canticum (song) appears in the Psalter. Sometimes it appears in conjunction with psalmus, as we have observed, but sometimes it is used to characterize the entire Psalm as in Ps 3:1 (= superscription to Ps 3 in English). The Vulgate says, “A canticle of David when he fled from the face of Absalom (Abesselon) his son.” Psalms 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21,22, 23, 28, 30, are all a canticles. The noun canticum occurs 88 times in the Psalms and most of them in the superscription. As I mentioned, some of them are used together with Psalmus. By contrast, the noun psalmus occurs only 18 times in the Vulgate and usually in the superscription. This ratio suggests that, for readers of the Vulgate, the Psalms were more a collection of songs (canticles) than “Psalms” and that the two words were virtually identical in their sense.

In short, when the Reformed thought about “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in Colossians and Ephesians, given their background in the Latin Bible, they would not have interpreted that phrase as “the canonical psalms, a type of non-canonical song, and another type of non-canonical song.” The evidence from the Latin Bible simply will not allow such an interpretation. When they read those nouns, they understood them against the background of their use in the Latin Bible. When they read “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in Colossians and Ephesians they read them as types of Psalms or as synonyms for Psalms or other typological forms of praise.

Singing And Instruments

We have already noted that there is a connection between the stems psal–, hymn–, and cant– and the use of instruments by the Levitical priests. When the Reformed thought about the use of musical instruments in Scripture they thought of the typological period of redemption or the Old Testament in the broad sense. The first use of the verb Psallo occurs in Judges 5:3:

Domino canam psallam Domino Deo Israhel (I will play an instrument, I will sing [a psalm] to the Lord, to the Lord God of Israel))

In 1 Sam 10:5 the “harp” is a psalterium (psalterium et tympanum et tibiam et citharam) and in 16:16 a man who knows how to play (psallere) the cithara is sought. Similar uses occur in 1 Sam 18:10; 19:9; 2 Kings 3:15. They associated the use of musical instruments particularly with the Levitical, priestly ministry as in Nehemiah 12:27:

And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres (ESV).

In the Vulgate the Levites are praising God “in cantico in cymbalis psalteriis et citharis” (in song with cymbals, stringed instruments, and lyres).

We see this pattern also in 1 Chronicles 15;16 where the leaders (chiefs) of the Levites are to appoint some of their brothers to play on “organs musicorum” (on the instruments of music). We see the same connection in 2 Chronicles 29:26 where the Levites are standing with the instruments (organa) of David and the levitical priests are playing trumpets (tubas). Again in 2 Chronicles 20:31 the Levites and the priests are playing musical instruments (organa) as in 2 Chronicles 34:12.

It is often asked (as I myself asked Bob Godfrey 23 years ago), “Why do you want us to sing Psalms but you won’t let us do what they say?” (i.e., play instruments). After all, Psalm 150 lists a number of instruments. The Vulgate, in Psalm 151:2 (English 150:4) even lists the “organ” as one of them. The difficulty that the Reformed saw with this line of reasoning is that it proves too much. They were convinced that the period of types and shadows had been fulfilled in Christ. This is why, in the new covenant, the church did not seek to kill the Canaanites. That commission ended with the death of Christ. In the “once for all” (Heb 7:27) death of Christ the bloody sacrificial ministry of the Levitical priesthood ended. Jesus’ priesthood was greater than Aaron’s and Levi’s. Those priests had to sacrifice for themselves. Jesus did not. His sacrifice was for us.

The Reformers knew their history, that the early church accepted these principles and worshipped without musical instruments for the first 7 centuries—8 if we count the Apostolic church. They knew that the reintroduction of musical instruments mean the return to types and shadows, to the priesthood and that is exactly what happened. By the 9th century medieval theologians were theorizing about the transformation of the elements of the Supper into the body and blood of Christ. After that, increasingly ministers became regarded as priests who were making offerings. Indeed, by the 9th century the Holy Roman Emperor is increasingly being seen as a new Davidic king. What had expired on the cross was being resurrected and the church was returned to types and shadows. The Reformers rejected the new priesthood, the new (memorial, propitiatory) sacrifices just as they rejected the medieval neo-levitical reintroduction of instruments.

As we wrestle with the interpretation of the expression “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” we should try to understand sympathetically the traditional Reformed reading and we can do that if we account for the influence of the Latin Bible on their interpretation.

Next time: Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Instruments The Reformed Latin Bible


1. There are two possible exceptions to this rule. The Strasbourg Psalter of 1545 seems to have included some non-canonical songs. The songbook used in Heidelberg in 1563 and 1573 seems to have contained non-canonical hymns. I am investigating whether non-canonical songs were sung in public worship. The Apostles’ Creed was the only non-canonical song sung in the Genevan liturgy but it was sung in place of the reading of the Word or as a summary of the Word. When the conjugation responded to the Word they also prayed or sang the Word. The Church Order of Dort (1619) provided for the singing of a song that may have been a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer or it may have been a non-canonical song. It is lost.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Some notes:
    1) I appreciate the article. I think I’m with you (still?) on being desirous to see the church singing Scripture alone, or reasonably close patterns, even extraneous to the canonical Psalms. Our relatively short services translate into fewer vv spoken, read, sung, etc. anyway; so let us sing it! since we maintain that habit with some tenacity.

    2) I am chafing at the bit for the new Psalter-hymnal. My problems with TH deficiencies only grow. We split our use, the old PH in the AM, TH in the PM; and so often I cannot choose a Psalm I want, or the v I want in particular is missing! I want to believe the new PH will be a huge step in the right direction (at least it has all the Psalms).

    3) ref. to 1Cor14:6 should be to v26.

    4) An point extraneous to the main one came to mind as I read the article. Your comment about the resurrection of the OT shadows made me think of the beast that took the mortal wound, and came back again, Rev.13:3. It’s a little different from the old “Rome=antiChrist” interpretation; but it makes me wonder whether John wasn’t possibly warning believers in the 1C that they would be fighting a long battle against mighty efforts to bring Judaizing tendencies back to life in the church.

    The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Gal.5:1.

  2. This was really fascinating. I was ignorant of the continued use of the Latin Bible, but having now been informed of its reality I now realize it should have been pretty obvious.

    Thanks again for your work on this subject.

  3. I WISH to know if what this PCA church I go to is doing right ???

    Get to church people are gabbing like crazy – got all week to do that. –
    what they talk about is never spiritual or about Christ etc etc.
    Service never starts on time –

    1st. They greet one another before service time and gab and chat for minutes
    wasting time for true worship. to me it gets out of hand. too long-let alone is it right?

    2nd. They have a format to go by that seems odd.
    Pastor never just prays from his heart – but from a written format. every time.
    3rd. They sing from the Trinity Psalter
    Then at prayer of adoration he raises his arms. never seen that before!
    4th. Affirmation of faith.
    5th. At the Gloria Patri pastor raises arms again. then.Scripture reading
    6th. Confession of sin/Assurance of Pardon
    7th. Tithing. They do an odd prayer holding the tithe.
    8th. Doxology. Pastor raises the arms again. – Lords Prayer
    9th. Sermon – Then Sacraments – They serve to children – 6 yrs old etc ?? even 5yr old
    they claim is saved and… not seen it happen yet.
    10th. Sing again from Psalter – benediction – congregation sings AMEN 3 times

    I was from 2 RCUS churches with very dedicated pastors – one from WTSWest
    he was very committed with the elders in doing the service as we should biblically.
    I miss it very much – I find PCA to be playing into too much people pleasing or
    doing what is not true to the word or worse – as I saw with a PCA church in MN.
    Pastor and elders were Norman Shepard cronies – terrible deal and still is. 3x’s

    Is this PCA doing right or doing what pleases men – and showing off?? .

    • Hi Mike,

      Different congregations have different personalities/characters. Some are more relational and some are more businesslike, if you will. There are costs and benefits to each. To those who are “relational” in orientation a “businesslike” attitude before worship seems “cold.” To those who are more businesslike about worship, the relational approach seems irreverent. My advice to both groups is to be patient with each other. We need each other.

      A Reformed Christian has a right to expect that a Reformed service will observe certain basic principles:

      1. Dialogical: God speaks (Word read, preached, made visible) and the people respond (with God’s Word).

      2. Only those elements (word and prayer) that God has ordained are administered.

      3. Worship is organized according to the regulative principle of worship (only that is done that God has commanded).

      Written prayers have long been a part of Reformed worship. See the Heidelberg liturgy below. Calvin used them. We’ve never mandated them but we’ve never forbidden them.

      Singing from the Trinity Psalter is a beautiful thing!

      Posture in prayer is indifferent.

      Not sure what affirmation of faith but if it’s confessing the faith, that’s biblical and Reformed.

      The confession of sin/assurance of pardon was historically done. Calvin wanted to do it and we did it Heidelberg and elsewhere.

      Circumstances (time, place, language) will vary. Those are determined, according to the WCF, “by the light of nature.”

      Only those should receive communion who have made a credible profession of faith before the consistory/session. On who should commune see:

      Here is the Heidelberg Liturgy from 1563:

  4. Thank you, Dr. Clark, for an informative essay. I’ve noticed that in the LXX, there are heading in the Psalter that say, Humnos, Psalmos, Hode, as in the Greek of Paul’s admonitions.

    To be honest, chalk this up to young years exposed to the hymnody of German and Scandinavian Lutheranism and some Jewish liturgy (the Kol Nidre prayer done by a skilled chazzan is downright haunting), so I have a soft spot for the “analogy of prayer” argument. The latter helps me understand the non-instrumental argument; the former makes me very appreciative of what the medievals, Lutherans, and Anglicans have done with instruments. However, I absolutely and categorically refuse to belittle the old Reformed position. In any case, I firmly believe that the Psalms should be used and take precedence in the church’s music, and that churches cheat themselves mightily when they do not sing the Psalms, or fail to identify the sources of Psalm-based songs sometimes used in contemporary worship.

    Further, having studied the political theories of the 16th and 17th century Reformed writers, I appreciate that the Regulative Principle is one more outworking of a view that authority (whether in home, church, or state) is a matter of stewardship rather than mastery.

    As for the Latin Bible, I recently picked up a couple of third-hand volumes of the old Eerdmans edition of Calvin’s OT Commentaries. These provided the Vulgate text next to the English; which helped shed light on Calvin’s ideas even for someone such as myself who had only a smattering of Latin.

  5. The music is so “non-regulative-principle” where I’m a member that I’d almost be willing to define as a psalm any song that isn’t by Hillsong or Integrity or Chris Tomlin.

    Would somebody please call down fire upon the CCM companies in Nashville?

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