Saturday Psalm Series: Singing In Acts 16:25 And Plausibility Structures

In the English Standard Version, Acts 16:25 says “[a]bout midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them…”. Several other translations (e.g., NASB, NIV, TEV, ASV, RSV, NLT, NKJV, HCSB) follow this or a similar pattern. They all supply a direct object for the verb, “they were singing” (ὕμνουν). The noun “hymns” does not occur in the original text. Some earlier translations took a different approach. The Vulgate translated the verb with laudabant (they were praising). In the late 14th century, Wycliffe chose “worschipide (worshiped) God.” Tyndale (1525) translated it, “lauded God,” obviously nodding to the Vulgate. The 1560 edition of the Geneva Bible supplied a different object altogether: “they sang a psalme.” The 1611 edition of the King James Version had “they sang praises.” There is a distinct difference between the way the same text was translated in the pre-modern period and the way it has been translated since the late 19th century.

One way to ascertain the intended sense of a New Testament word is to look at the way it is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, i.e., in the Septuagint (LXX). The same verb occurs in the same form three times in the LXX in 2 Chronicles 29:30 and the book of Daniel 3:51 in the canonical scriptures and in 1 Maccabees 4:24 in the Apocrypha. In none of these texts would we supply the noun “hymn” in order to translate them well. For one reason, in the LXX, the noun υμνος is used regularly in the superscriptions to the Psalms to stand for a class of psalms. For more on that see this article.

Since, in the LXX, the verb simply means “to praise,” and since the earlier translations did not, why do modern translators supply the noun “hymns” in Acts 16:25? Indeed, given the larger canonical context and Paul’s experience, the Geneva Bible translator’s choice of “Psalms” seems rather more likely. One might plausibly argue that a neutral translation of “praising God” would be fair, but by supplying the noun “hymns,” translators create the impression in the minds of readers and hearers that Paul and Silas were singing non-canonical songs. Why would translators choose to supply a noun that, on the face of it, seems unlikely?

One reason for this choice is that, in the modern period, many of those who translate Scripture do not regularly worship in congregations where the psalms are sung as a part of public worship. Thus, it may never have occurred to them to supply any other noun but hymns since that is all they know. Sociologists have written about “plausibility structures.” People make decisions in social contexts. Sociologists study contemporary contexts and historians study past contexts to discover how those contexts influence what people say and how they behave. Our social context shapes our “plausibility structures.”

Modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice is much influenced by movements such as Pietism, which is a facet of what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). The immediate (i.e., un-mediated) experience of the divine has mattered much more in modern evangelicalism than doctrine or the way public worship is organized and conducted (e.g., liturgy). Indeed, given its roots in Pietism, modern evangelicals tend to be suspicious of formal liturgical structure and practice. The Pietists gave us a large number of non-canonical hymns, which facilitated the move away from the Scriptures as the source for the material used in public worship (sola scriptura). Under the influence of Pietism (and other movements) in 18th and 19th centuries, the regulating question was no longer, “has God commanded it?” but rather, “does it produce the right sort of religious experience?”

In contrast, the translators in the 5th, 16th, and 17th centuries sang the Psalms regularly and, in some cases, in public worship, almost exclusively. Further, they did so without the aid of musical instruments and without the goal of achieving a certain quality of religious experience. When the translators of the Genevan Bible chose to supply the noun psalm, they were not being provocative or tendentious. They were supplying the noun they saw as completely obvious to any rational person. It was beyond imagination that Paul and Silas would have been worshiping God with other than Psalms, the divinely inspired song book. In their world, the idea that Paul and Silas were singing to God non-canonical songs would have been almost unthinkable. To the degree non-canonical songs had come to be used in the public worship under Gregory I (c. AD 540–604), the Reformed saw that as a corruption.

As noted above, the translators of the Genevan Bible would have had a right to think that what Paul and Silas were singing was a psalm since we have know that the Psalms were sung in the synagogue and in the early Christian church. We have no positive, unequivocal evidence that the apostolic (and early post-apostolic) church sang anything else but Psalms. As a Pharisee, it is certain that Paul would have memorized the Torah (Gen–Deut) and it is likely that he had memorized much more, including the Psalms. Indeed, there is little question that the Psalter was the songbook out of which our Lord sang (Luke 24) and that it was the Psalms of Ascent that Jesus and the disciples sang in connection with the Passover.

Is it possible that the Spirit inspired new songs for the Apostolic church? Yes. Do we have positive, unequivocal evidence of the existence of such? No. There are passages in the New Testament that have long been regarded as “songs,” like the “Song of Mary” (Luke 1:46–55; The Magnificat) and the “Song of Simeon” (Luke 2:29–32; the Nunc Dimittis). There are songs in the Revelation also. Because these are recorded for us in God’s Word, it seems that, as part of the Canon, they are imposed upon the church for worship, thus satisfying the rule of worship (“Has God commanded it?”). Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza (1519–1605), thought so, as did a minority in Scotland about the time of the Westminster Assembly. Nevertheless, I hasten to note that none of these songs is materially different from the Psalter and none of them meets the relatively arbitrary test by which some, in the modern period, have sought to marginalized psalmody: that a song mention the name of Jesus.

The major point of this essay, however, is not to try to sort out every possible problem with singing the Psalms in public worship or to advocate for exclusive psalmody, but to alert those readers who do not have access to the Greek New Testament that the majority English translation of Acts 16:25 is arguably misleading on this point, and thereby to explain why so many translations get it wrong and to try to suggest that the older translations of this verse had a point that should be reconsidered.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. “Plausibility structures” certainly makes sense. My first decade of Christian worship experience was in American evangelical denominations. Those years shaped my only understanding of worship, to include the singing of hymns. The thought of singing a psalm was totally foreign. In the absence of any scriptural regulation of worship, the only battle is between traditional hymns versus praise bands and contemporary music.

  2. While not convinced of exclusive psalmody (or only singing inspired songs in corporate worship), I do lament that most evangelical and even plenty of NAPARC churches don’t sing the Psalms at all (or rarely). I believe the URCNA, the denomination to which Dr. Clark belongs, does not subscribe to exclusive psalmody or the only singing of songs found in Scripture but does affirm that Psalter is to have the principal place in corporate worship.

    (As an aside, I also believe the URCNA allows for instruments during corporate worship as well, as opposed to some Psalm-singing churches which are exclusively acapella. Thus, I believe the URC does allow for instruments and the use of non-inspired songs during corporate worship, but the Psalms are to have the preeminent place. I’d be interested to hear how this sits with Dr. Clark since I believe he is against both the singing of non-inspired songs and the use of instruments (apart from the human voice) in corporate worship. For ex: does he not participate in singing the non-inspired hymns if/when the church he belongs to sings them?—just truly curious; not being facetious here.)

    Honestly, I wish the PCA and other NAPARC churches unconvinced of the exclusive psalmody position would adopt such a position as the URC, and at least give God’s inspired Book of Praises the principal place in corporate worship. May the Lord reform and conform the contemporary church’s worship according to His Word.

  3. Amen! I just commented on the Keith Getty post, basically lamenting the lack of Psalm singing in most of the PCA. The more I dig into the RPW, the more convinced I have become that EP is the correct understanding. Two years ago when I first saw mention of psalm singing over on the Puritan Board, it seemed quite strange! My first orientation to Christian worship was “praise music” not some stodgy old hymn … and certainly not a rhyming arrangement of a psalm.

    Becoming Reformed (or ‘TR’ as many would say) has changed so much of my understanding of God & of me. It now seems rather clear that as we embrace the doctrines of grace & see the sovereignty of God, then worship shifts from being about what pleases me, what “feels right,” and what is comfortable, to: what does the Word teach?!

    It strikes me that I read & believed the events of Nadab & Abihu but never saw any application for New Covenant worship. How have we lost this Reformed heritage?

Comments are closed.