If We May Pray Uninspired Words, Why May We Not Sing Them?

What the Fathers called the “rule of faith” (which included both doctrine and practice) and what Calvin called the “rule of worship” Christians in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition have called the “regulative principle of worship” since the mid-20th century. That rule, deduced from Scripture, says that we do in public, corporate worship only what God has commanded. This is the interpretation of Scripture confessed by the Reformed churches in Heidelberg Catechism 96: “What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no way make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.” This principle, that we may worship him in no other way than he has commanded, is what Calvin called “the rule of worship.” This principle was adopted and articulated in the confessions of the Reformed churches throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. E.g., the preface of the French Confession (1559) articles 24, 29, 33; Belgic Confession articles 7, 32; Second Helvetic Confession (1566), chapters 4, 5, 14, 16; and Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 21:

…But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

The same assembly that produced the Westminster Confession also produced The Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1644). In the preface of the same, as the divines explained why they were setting aside the Book of Common Prayer, which had been imposed upon the British churches by the crown and by the state. After expressing appreciation for the pious intent of the first Reformers (e.g., Cranmer et al) and after contending that, were those first Reformers alive today they would agree with the divines, they argued that the BCP must be set aside in the interest of fidelity to God’s Word, as part of a “further Reformation” of the church, because the ceremonies and prayers contained therein have been imposed by God himself.

Wherein our care hath been to hold forth such things as are of divine institution in every ordinance; and other things we have endeavoured to set forth according to the rules of Christian prudence, agreeable to the general rules of the word of God; our meaning therein being only, that the general heads, the sense and scope of the prayers, and other parts of publick worship, being known to all, there may be a consent of all the churches in those things that contain the substance of the service and worship of God….

The further Reformation the divines were seeking was to overturn the principle held by many in the English church, namely the principle that the church may do in public worship whatever is not forbidden. They called those things (whether liturgical actions, words, or dress) adiaphora, or things in different. The great problem is that they were not truly treated as indifferent. When those who had been influenced by the rule of worship objected on the basis that their conscience was bound by Scripture and that they were unwilling to perform or submit to such adiaphora, the Anglican establishment insisted that the dissenters conform. “But wait,” the dissenters argued, “you said that these things are indifferent. If they indifferent we are free to omit them.” What the establishment meant by adiaphora is that these things were not forbidden by the Word, therefore the church had authority to impose them. Thus, the rule of worship as articulated by the divines was radically different: the church has authority only to administer that which God has already imposed.

In place of the category adiaphora the Reformed have tended to speak of circumstances, which refers to things imposed by nature: time, language, tune, and place. Every congregation must worship in some language (so 1 Cor 14). By nature, every congregation must meet in some place, and they must meet at some time. These things are, according to the divines, determined by the light of nature. The elements, however, are revealed in special revelation (Scripture).

God’s Word is the rule of Christian worship. The question that the Reformed (both in Britain and, as the divines noted explicitly, in the churches abroad) ask and answer from God’s Word is this: what has God ordained?

In obedience to this rule, the Reformed churches in the British Isles and across Europe rid their churches of all the medieval accretions that had accumulated since the late Patristic period, e.g., the 5 false sacraments, certain ceremonies, and musical instruments among other things. They replaced the non-canonical hymns, most of which only developed from the 4th century and later, with the Psalms (and sometimes songs from other portions of Scripture, e.g., the Decalogue). The only non-canonical song  sung in Geneva during Calvin’s ministry was a setting of the Apostles’ Creed, the function of which will be explained below.

The Reformed churches recognized essentially two elements of worship: Word and prayer. The Word was administered in three ways: It was read, preached, and made visible in the sacraments. Prayer took two forms: said and sung. The minister read the Word, preached, the Word, and administered the sacraments. He also said the prayers on behalf of the congregation. The congregation is authorized to respond to God’s Word with God’s Word and since God has given us a songbook, they reasoned, those are the songs with which God’s people should respond to the Word. The Reformed labored diligently to get the psalms into the language of the people and set them to meter for use in public worship.

Our context, however, is rather different from that of the Reformers. We live after the French Revolution, after Andrew Jackson, and after the Second Great Awakening. These were all egalitarian movements that brought about what we might call The Great Leveling not only in secular society but also in the church. In contrast, the Westminster Divines held that prayer is an element of worship and they defended the right of the minister to pray extemporaneously on the basis that God commands pastors to pray (e.g., 1 Tim 2:1–2) and that Scripture gives us no set prayers (other than the Lord’s Prayer, which they took as a model but not a form to prayed necessarily). The context of 1 Timothy 2 is evidently public worship. The people are not commanded to lead prayer in public worship. It is not the office of the laity to conduct public worship. It is the office of the pastor and he is authorized explicitly by Scripture to do so.

Scripture also commands the minister to preach the Word (2 Tim 3:16–4:5). The divines saw in Scripture the revelation of special offices such as ministers (see 1 & 2 Timothy), elders (Acts 14:23; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1–5; 1 Tim 3:1–7; ch. 5), and deacons (Acts 6:1–6; 1 Tim 3:8–13). It is the office of the minister to administer God’s Word in public worship, the office of the elders to supervise (hence “overseer”) worship, and the deacons to receive and distribute alms.  The laity is not commanded to preach the Word, oversee worship, or administer alms.

After The Great Leveling, however, that distinction has been largely lost. We speak regularly now of “every member ministry.” Strangely, perhaps, few argue for “every member medicine” or “every member legal practice” but EMM is a widely-held modern conviction and practice. The Reformation, however, occurred before Modernity, before The Great Leveling and did not make the same egalitarian assumptions that we do.

The second premise implied in the question, namely that all of God’s people are authorized to do whatever the minister does, is not accepted by the Reformed. A minister may pray uninspired words (though he does well to model his prayers on, quote, and allude to God’s Word as Calvin his successors did) because he is commanded to pray. Indeed, there was some difference of opinion among the Reformed about the use of forms. Calvin gave forms of prayer to the Genevan church, not to bind the conscience but to aid in reformation. The minister prays extemporaneously just as he is commanded to preach and that act requires the use of uninspired words but the laity are not commanded to preach.

The laity, God’s people, are commanded and authorized to praise God in response to his Word. Historically, until the 18th century (in some places) and the 19th century (in other places) it was understood from God’s Word that God’s people are authorized to respond to his Word read, preached, and administered in the sacraments with his Word. So, traditionally, in that case the laity were not understood to have authority to use uninspired Words to respond to God’s Word. In Geneva, the Apostles’ Creed was sung as the ecclesiastically sanctioned summary or confession of the Word, not as the people’s response to the Word. Not all the P&R churches (e.g., those in the British Isles) followed this pattern.

So, if the “we” in the question stands for “the laity” then we must reject that premise in the question. The laity is not commanded to lead the congregation in prayer or to pray extemporaneously. With the failure of that premise, the conclusion that therefore the congregation is authorized to sing using uninspired words also fails.


Are there New Testament examples of a laity praying extemporaneously? That is unclear. 1 Corinthians 11:5 says  “every woman who prays or prophesies” (γυνὴ προσευχομένη ἢ προφητεύουσα). It is not clear exactly what “prophesies” means in this context especially if we let the clearer passage from 1 Timothy 2:12 where Paul says that he does not permit (ἐπιτρέπω) a woman “to teach” (διδάσκειν) or “exercise authority” (αὐθεντεῖν) over a man.” Whatever is envisioned in 1 Corinthians 11:5 cannot be contrary to 1 Timothy 2:12. Is it Spirit-inspired prophecy? Perhaps. Was it part of the public worship service? Perhaps but perhaps the prayer mentioned is simply participating in the corporate prayers led by the pastor? We are not given enough information about what Paul has in mind to draw certain conclusions. Even were we to conclude that females were prophesying and praying in public worship it does not follow that we may infer from that example a command or that we may generalize such a practice to all laity. Here we do well to follow Calvin’s approach when he wrote that David’s dancing before the ark was not given as an example for us to imitate.

Rather, whatever we may think of The Great Leveling as a cultural phenomenon, it is imperative that we not simply import those assumptions into the theology, piety, and practice of the church and particularly into her public worship.

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  1. Does “ecclesiastically sanctioned” give warrant? (as it does in using the Creed)? Seems like a different argument than extemporaneous prayer. Hymns aren’t extemporaneous, but are carefully composed, and hopefully, carefully vetted by ecclesiastical authorities.

    • Hi Terry,

      The creeds, the confession, the catechism, and the canons (in the case of the URCs) are the church’s confession of the Word. “How Great Thou Art” is not. They are not comparable. As the ecclesiastically adopted confession of the Word, the standards have an authority that no hymn can have.

      Further, there are positive commands in God’s Word and clear evidence that the church in the canonical period confessed the faith as part of public worship. The same cannot he said for a non-canonical hymn.

  2. Terry,
    That is just the problem. The songs the church sings become not only engrained emotionally in the congregation, they also get sanctified. Think of Scofield’s notes to the Bible, although granted, the Geneva notes were the reason King James mandated that the AV was to be ‘without note or comment’. (Obviously the Synod of Dordt had different ideas with the States General translation.) People get more emotionally attached to the songs which are not seen as something on the level of the confession, but yet operate at a still deeper level.
    But that is the affective nature of music and also why musical instruments are so hard to remove from the worship service.

    Thanks for the timely post on arguably the most common objection to the historic reformed position. While we are somewhat competent in regard to our needs in prayer, IMO and I think also the divines, it is not so when it comes to the praise of God in song, which is of course why we have an inspired hymnbook, but no inspired prayerbook despite the many examples of prayer in Scripture.
    The divines clearly said that God’s Word was to be both read and sung, but they did not hold that the freedom in preaching and prayer applied to the former elements whether we agree with them or not.

  3. Dr. Clark,
    Did the first few generations of the Reformers address using uninspired tunes when singing the Psalms? Either as a kind of extemporaneous element or addressing whether it was a kind of “Judaizing?” Or were the specific melodies understood to be accidents of nature?

    • Cameron,

      No. The Holy Spirit did not preserve the tunes they used. Your instinct is correct, tunes are an accident or a circumstance of worship. They are determined by the nature of the action. If we are to sing, we must use some tune. A tune is either appropriate to corporate, reverent singing or it is not. There is necessarily a degree of subjectivity here but I am not prepared to argue about taste. What fundamentally matters here is the magisterial authority of Scripture as applied to public worship.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Can you offer any insight into what the General Synod of Herborn (1586) had in mind when they said in Article 49 of their Church Order, “First, songs shall either be sung according to pure scripts written in the mother tongue or shall otherwise contain solid, pure doctrine according to the decision of the classis and synods.”? (Dennsion, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, vol. 3, p. 626.) Is there some distinction that they are making between songs “sung according to pure scripts” on the one hand and songs that “otherwise contain solid, pure doctrine according to the decision of the classis and synods” on the other hand, or is that their way of saying that only canonical songs may be sung?

    • Neil,

      Olevianus was very influential in Herborn, of course, as he was one of the principal organizers of the Synod. He, in turn, was deeply influenced by Geneva (Calvin and Beza), so I would expect him to follow their practice. Both sang canonical songs (with the exception of the Creed) only in public worship. Beza did seek and obtain permission to make songs for worship out of the NT canticles, as they were regarded.

      The English translation is ambiguous. I need to check the source text but I don’t have access to it right now.

      It is possible that, in Herborn, in 1586 they were singing non-canonical songs but I’m dubious. The phrase “pure Scripts” (which is an unusual phrase) probably refers to a setting of Scripture and the clause “or otherwise” refers to something like the setting of the Creed used in Geneva. I’m not aware of any of the Reformed churches singing non-canonical hymns in this period.

  5. To me I think that all honour or service invented by the brain of men in the religion of God without His own commandment is idolatry, often am reminded of one of the kings of Judah who after he did that which was right in the sight decided to burn incense in the temple something which was contrary to God’s commandment because only the levites were annointed for that. As the Bible says it didnt bring honour to the king neither did God accept the burned offering

  6. One of my favorite Ussher stories is when he was Archbishop over all Ireland, and the Laudians ordered the tables be turned altarwise in the east end of every church. Ussher did not protest, but when an investigator came to Ireland, he wrote back to Laud that it appeared no table was set altarwise… Perks of being off the radar.

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