What Did the Divines Mean By “Psalms”?

The question has been raised as to just what the divines might have meant by the noun “psalms” in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648).1 WCF 21.5 says,

5. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.

It has been suggested that psalms here might include something other than the 150 canonical psalms, that it might include extra canonical songs. This is an interesting question worthy of investigation and a an interesting exercise in confessional hermeneutics. How should we seek to interpret our confessional documents?

As we interpret all other documents, Scripture included, we begin by trying to ascertain what the word psalm meant in context. The most obvious sense would seem to be a reference to the 150 canonical psalms in Holy Scripture. The church had sung the Psalms since the earliest post-apostolic days. Though the psalms are not often sung today and in some cases they are not easy to find in some song books, prior to the second half of the 20th century the psalms were widely sung. The patristic church sang the psalms. The medieval church sang the psalms, even if that singing was largely sequestered to monks and monastic choirs, and the Reformers sang the 150 canonical psalms.

Is there any evidence that Reformed writers prior to the Westminster Assembly used the word psalm in the broader sense? If we judge by his use of the word “psalm” in his 1557 commentary on the Book of Psalms, Calvin used the word to refer to canonical psalms. The “psalmist” is a person who composed a canonical psalm. In his treatises, including his 1559 Institutes, where the word psalm occurs about 500 times, the word psalm seems to refer almost invariably to a canonical psalm. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:26 he did not comment on the Latin noun canticum (the Greek NT has ψαλμὸν). The closest thing we get to a definition is found in his 1548 commentary on Colossians 3:16:

…that a psalm is that, in the singing of which some musical instrument besides the tongue is made use of: a hymn is properly a song of praise, whether it be sung simply with the voice or otherwise; while an ode contains not merely praises, but exhortations and other matters. He would have the songs of Christians, however, to be spiritual, not made up of frivolities and worthless trifles. For this has a connection with his argument.

These characterizations leave some questions unanswered but we can fill in some of the blanks for Calvin’s own practice. We know that he translated some of the Psalms for singing and adopted the French Psalter of Clement Marot (1496–1544) for use in public worship in Geneva. In the Genevan liturgy the congregation sang nothing in public worship except Scripture (mostly Psalms) and the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the Word.

Ursinus’ use of the word psalm, in his 1585 Corpus Doctrinae (his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism), referred to the canonical songs. I suspect that an investigation William Ames (1576–1633) 1627 Marrow of Divinity and in his (untranslated) 1628 Bellarminus Enervatus (1629) used psalm only to refer to canonical psalms. These writers and texts are typical of that which influenced the Westminster Divines. Certainly they were well read in Calvin, Ursinus, and Ames. It is possible that, in early orthodox usage, leading up to the Westminster Assembly, psalm might have been used to include non-canonical songs but that usage does not seem to be prominent.<sup>2</sup>

There is a document proximate to the Westminster Confession that might help us understand what the divines meant by psalm in WCF 21.5. Particularly, we should look at the Westminster Directory of Publick Worship (1644). The last chapter of the Directory was titled, “Of Singing Of Psalms.” Under that heading the divines declared:

It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family.

In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.

That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book; and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.

When we consider that, as Chad van Dixhoorn’s recent commentary reminds us, the divines worked diligently to compose a Psalter that contained only the 150 canonical songs.

It may be that the word psalm was used in the 16th and 17th centuries to refer to non-canonical songs. It is true that there were synonyms for the canonical psalms (e.g., canticum, hymnus, ode, oratio) but the preponderance of evidence leads us to think that we should interpret the word psalm in WCF 21.5 to refer to a canonical psalm.


1. The edition linked here is that adopted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

2. I searched about 114 orthodox Reformed texts (from Junius, Perkins, Bucanus, Cartwright, Twisse, Gilespie, Diodati, Paraeus) from 1600 to 1640 and found no obvious evidence of psalm used to include an extra-canonical song.

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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. Dr. Clark,

    I laud your efforts to help others on the psalms/A cappella question, but I still have trouble understanding how a second, third, and ninth commandment violations aren’t being made by ministers in the PCA and OPC whom (?) subscribe to the Westminster Standards. I get animus imponentis, but no one is surveying their Presbyteries or denomination (given no formal ecclesiastical ruling) and determining their understandings, which would be almost willful ignorance at this point, and then admitting a scruple or exception.

    Why don’t ministers take exception? Why are they allowed to advocate openly doctrines contrary to our Standards without formally declaring these matters. Of course, I think those positions are contrary to the Scriptures, but I am simply asking about church polity and confessional practice. What happens when everyone just starts preferring one understanding of republication over another? Do ordinands and licentiates simply stop clarifying their position? How are so many ministers still able to suggest that “psalms” includes uninspired compositions, according to the Westminster divines? All replies welcome.

    • Ryan,

      1. To be clear, I am not charging anyone with anything. I’m simply reporting on my historical investigations and asking people to take account of them.

      2. The historic Reformed practice, in which circumstance the standards were written and originally understood (so far as I can tell to this point), has been absent from American Presbyterian churches since the 19th century. In other words, few American Presbyterians have ever seen it. It’s been gone from the CRC (and historically related churches) since the 1920s and 30s. So, the historic practice of the church is now foreign to us. I was in the NAPARC world for a long time before I realized the discontinuity between our practice today and our original practice.

      3. Recovering our original practice will be a long, slow process. We must pray, be patient, and teach. Those are the only things I know to do.

      4. We are some distance from formal ecclesiastical action of any sort.

    • As far as ninth commandment violations, there are probably many of them that are just ignorant or forgetful of this, which wouldn’t qualify as a ninth commandment violation. Now I’d be interested to know if the divines would’ve included singing inspired Scripture texts outside of the 150 Psalms in this definition (especially since Dr. Clark has said that his own position on worship singing includes this).

      • John,

        Most of the Divines rejected my view (which is also Mr Murray’s). Mine was a minority view at the GA in the Church of Scotland in the 17th century. There was a committee (as I describe in Recovering the Reformed Confession) who proposed to sing Scripture outside of the Psalms. That case was never rejected or accepted. It was tabled and, so far as I know, never taken off the table.

        Should the churches decide to sing only Psalms I would be content with that. I have offered the broader “Scripture only” approach as a sort of compromise with those who want to “sing New Testament songs.” I hasten to point out that most of the “songs” in the NT are indistinguishable from the Psalms.

        It seems to me that the essential principle is to reply to God’s Word with his Word but, as I say, I would be content to sing only psalms.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    I acknowledge the virtue of a Cappella singing and the danger of entertainment via instruments. I also understand that singing poorly isn’t necessarily a virtue.

    Is there a role for a piano as an aid the congregation in singing, such as, accompanying on the first verse and then dropping out?

    Can piano so used be properly understood merely as a circumstance to aid in worship and not as an element of worship?

    • Doug,

      I understand the aesthetic concern but I cannot see how aesthetics, which is, after all, natural philosophy and subjective, may be allowed to trump redemptive history (i.e., the movement from types and shadows to reality and fulfillment) and sola Scriptura. When natural philosophy trumps revelation we call that rationalism. When the Apostles stopped using instruments, what were their priorities? We know that there were no instruments in the synagogue and the the apostles continued to sing God’s Word in their assemblies.


      As a matter of aesthetics, I’ve sung with several RPCNA congregations and they sing very well without instruments. We think they are necessary but they aren’t. Here’s an example of what is done regularly, every Sabbath all over the world.


      Regarding circumstances, as I argued in Recovering the Reformed Confession, the Reformed had a very limited definition. The Westminster Confession regards circumstances as a matter of natural knowledge. Consider WCF 21:

      1. The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart….


      7. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God….

      These are the sorts of things that they regarded as circumstances: things determined by nature. Time of worship, place, language, these are circumstances. There’s no principal at stake if we worship at 10AM or 11AM. The same is true for place. We may worship in a cathedral or a renovated gas station (which I’ve done). We may worship in French, German, or English—whatever the language of the people might be. There is no “sacred language.”

      The elements are determined solely, however, by God’s Word.

      On that distinction, how may we say that musical instruments—in this case a stringed instrument, the equivalent of a lyre or a harp—are a circumstance but holy war (Ps 149) or sacrifices are not circumstances? How do we selectively restore one aspect of the typological period of redemptive history without the other two? After all, it was the Levites who played the instruments in worship and they did so, if you will, with bloody hands and that blood came from two sources: animals and humans. They were bloodied, as it were, with Canaanite blood too.

      It’s very difficult for me to see how the plea to categorize instruments as circumstances is not special pleading.

      As a practical matter we should be very careful about expanding the definition of circumstances. As a matter of history, this sort of thing has not worked out well. There were no priests in Christian churches for centuries. There were only 2 sacraments as late as the 9th century (and beyond). By the 14th century there were priests and 7 sacraments. How? Popular practices (sacramentals) were regularized and declared “sacraments.” The church did it by fiat. If we do the same thing, how will we not end up in the same place?

      On elements and circumstances see:




      • Dr. Clark,

        Thank you for your informative answer. Helpful and interesting. Not to debate or be argumentative, let me follow up with another question or so for clarification.

        Do you consider a building to be a circumstance? I would conclude no from what your reply. If a building is not a circumstance, what is it?

        I live in North Dakota where for 3-4 months a year a building of some sort is not optional for worship. Therefore, come January, our building is an aid to worship, in a manner of speaking, because of the human condition. It is certainly easier to focus on hearing the word and singing the word when on isn’t freezing.

        How is that different than singing. I’m not thinking of the aesthetic value of singing when I asked about the piano. I was thinking more in terms of help of the human condition. If people have difficulty being able to hear pitch they can end up focusing on trying to sing more than on what they are singing. If a piano helps the worshipper to focus on the words similarly to how the building also helps in winter. Thoughts?

        • Doug,

          Yes, a building is determined by “the light of nature.” A circumstance is time, place (including building), and language. A building is a place. A place isn’t an “aid to worship” it’s essential. The congregation has to be somewhere at the same time, whether in doors or out. A congregation doesn’t necessarily need musical instruments.

          How do we know from Scripture that God cares about the aesthetics of our singing? I’m serious. We assume this and it drives much of what is done in public worship but how do we know from Scripture? Why isn’t aesthetics a philosophical/rationalistic a priori (something we know before we ever begin our investigation)?

          People do sing without instruments and even without a pitch pipe. Twice a year I lead chapel and when I do we sing a psalm a cappella. We typically have 1st year students (Juniors) who have no idea what is about to transpire, who’ve never sung anything a cappella in their entire lives. Most of them have never sung a psalm before. Nevertheless, we pull it off—even though I, not a particularly good or gifted singer—lead them.

          It can be done. It probably takes practice. People might need to sing (the psalms for next Lord’s Day) together at home during the week to prepare for public worship, at least in the beginning, but it can be done. It is done all the time. I’ve sung a cappella with no aid whatever with tiny little RP congregations (10 or fewer people present) and we’ve done fine.

          The rationale you’re offering: it “helps the people to….” is exactly how we got 7 sacraments. I myself was shocked to learn how it happened. The same thing happened in the CRC in the 1920s and 30s, as I’ve documented here. Synod 1928 said explicitly, the people are already doing it. We need to bring it into order. That’s exactly what the medieval church said about the sacramentals. The process about which I’m warning isn’t a hypothetical or a speculation. It’s already under way.

          It happened in the 19th century. The German Reformed Church never had already lost the regulative principle by the time they arrived here in 1714. By the 19th century the German Reformed Church had ministers calling themselves priests and building altars. It was part of the Mercersburg Movement. There were other factors but failure to grasp and apply the RPW was a major, if neglected, factor in the rise of the Mercersburg Movement.

          It’s not as if, in our own time, we do not have ministers who have not begun dressing like Roman priests (e.g., alb, stole, Roman collar) and conducting their ministry as if they were priests (e.g., in the FV movement).

  3. One of the reasons why RPCNA churches are generally so good at acapella singing is, in my experience, they practice at it, in private, family, and public worship. Much like other worship elements, like prayer and scripture reading, if you want to be good at it and be edified by it, practice is quite necessary to doing it well.

  4. “It happened in the 19th century. The German Reformed Church never had already lost the regulative principle by the time they arrived here in 1714.”

    A lot of light bulbs just turned on for me… Thanks!

  5. Dr. Clark, I am not suggesting, to be clear, that you are charging anyone with anything. I just don’t understand how these are generally not considered to be second, third, and ninth commandment violations and why so many ministers claim the Westminster divines’ “psalms” included uninspired compositions, especially in view of CVD’s commentary making the point for the non-specialist. Having read that section of his commentary, I thought it not as clear as I would have hoped, but he certainly stated that the divines meant David’s 150.

    John Kreiner, as far as the ninth commandment is concerned, the following is what I had in mind:

    “misconstructing intentions, words, and actions”

    • Ryan,

      People can disagree about history without violating the 9th commandment. I may be wrong in my interpretation. I’m reporting what I’ve found so far. Maybe others have found something I haven’t. I don’t think anyone is claiming something that they believe to be false.

  6. My local Reformed Church in SA didn’t have a working piano one Lord’s Day morning and we did manage to sing just fine without it. Ok, ok, we did have a Frenchman leading the service who has studied music BUT… our singing was much better than before!

    I find the piano/organ, with all its ‘aesthetics’, extremely distracting and I can barely remember the words I just sang because of it. That’s the problem with instrumentation, it takes the focus off the words we are singing and their meaning and puts all the focus on the sentimental aspects of worship that are rarely driven by substance…

  7. Surely the real question is “What did the divines mean by hymns and spiritual songs?”
    Calvin must be somewhat hypothetical when he writes about the nouns psalmos, ode and hymnos – Any correlation between these Greek nouns and the Hebrew nouns they translate is hard to see. The case with the VERBS psallo, ado and hymneo is much more clearly defined. With no more than one or two exceptions, in the Septuagint, psallo translates zamar, ado translates sheer and hymneo translates halal. On the occasions on which musical instruments were definitely excluded the verb is always hymneo/halal throughout Scripture. To my mind, it is significant that it is THIS verb that is not used in the regulative passages in Ephesians and Colossians, and that psallo, which most implies the use of a musical instrument (not in every case I admit, i.e., James 5:13, where insistence on instrumental accompaniment would be clearly preposterous, but permission for or encouragement to it would not), is used in Ephesians and not in Colossians, where it (together with the accompanying conjunction) is replaced by the phrase “with grace” (en chariti).

  8. Having listened to an episode of Issues, Etc. a couple of weeks ago (Horton was the guest), I learned that Finney was mainly responsible for moving the organ, piano, whatever from the BACK of the church to the FRONT in an effort to “put on a show” and attract people to his revivals. So it’s mainly an American phenomena.

    Growing up as a Lutheran where any instrumentation and choir were always in the rear, usually in a loft, I’m uneasy in “evangelical” congregations where these things are in the front where they are viewed as a performance. The only thing worse is when the congregation claps in applause after an especially vigorous number. I once challenged someone about that and they said, “Oh, we’re not applauding the choir (orchestra, whatever); we’re thanking God for giving them the talent to praise him that way.” B-u-l-l-oney, I say.

    So, it seems like the larger issue is not whether we should have instruments or not, but separation that takes place in a congregation where the “talented few” get to hold their musical skills above everyone else’s head. 1 Corinthians 12 has some things to say about that. If they are good singers, disperse them throughout the congregation so they those of use who can’t sing can’t follow their lead.

    “… the problem with instrumentation, it takes the focus off the words we are singing and their meaning and puts all the focus on the sentimental aspects of worship that are rarely driven by substance…” Exactly!

    • George, while I disagree that the “larger issue” is anything but “does God command only inspired compositions?” and, as I’ve also added, “should this be done without machines?” your post reminded of a section in the BCO for the OPC:

      “Because musicians and musical instruments serve the part of worship that is performed by the congregation, it is fitting that they be positioned with or behind the congregation.”

  9. Dr. Clark, I agree people can be wrong about history, but if available evidence overwhelming points to the meaning of a clause in our Standards and duly called men willfully or ignorantly misconstrue their words, I would think a ninth commandment issue is at stake.

    I am not trying to throw the book at people on this point. It’s simply alarming that so many have subscribed to that clause without careful consideration to the meaning.

  10. Ryan – yes, as I grew up the idea of instruments/choir was that they be positioned in the back of the church so as to direct their playing and singing toward the object of worship, our God, not back toward the congregation as “a show” or “entertainment” as Finney corrupted it. I do not condemn those who worship in this manner (back-to-front) though in recent times I have come to view the lack of instrumentation and choir as a great benefit, bringing those who have great talent (or think they do) into the midst of the congregation so as to serve a helper for the rest of us who need help singing.

  11. To the thrust of the OP, where in the minutes of the Assembly or even the Directory of Public Worship, do the divines even mention hymns or songs? And are the psalms not copiously mentioned and always as referring to the 150 canonical or no? That is the question.

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