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 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 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 of 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.2

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 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. “But I return to answer the former objection concerning singing of Psalms composed by an ordinary and common gift, as God in his providence gives occasion. And to this I say that I am not so much against composing, as imposing; when men set up their own new songs, and shut out David’s Psalms. Suppose it is lawful for men of spiritual minds to indict a Psalm, and then commend it to others, and sing it; yet, for argument’s sake, it will not follow that therefore we must not sing the Psalms of David.”

    Here is an example of Thomas Ford using “Psalms of David” to differentiate the 150 psalms from non canonical hymns. This was after 1640 and he is also dealing with an objection that others can compose ‘psalms’ and so is forced to distinguish somehow. But could it be an indication that later, some (those holding the objection) tried to interpret the Westminster to include non canonical ‘psalms’?

    Excerpt from
    The Puritans on Exclusive Psalmody
    Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
    This material may be protected by copyright.

  2. Minutes of the Westminster Assembly, April 15, 1646:

    “Ordered, That the Book of Psalms, set forth by Mr. Rous, and perused by the Assembly of Divines, be forthwith printed in sundry volumes: And that the said Psalms, and none other, shall, after the first day of January next, be sung in all Churches and Chapels within the Kingdom of England, Dominion of Wales, and Town of Berwick upon-Tweede; and that it be referred to Mr. Rous, to take care for the true printing thereof.—The Lords concurrence to be desired herein.”

  3. Hi Scott,
    In support of your thesis that the Westminster Assembly was exclusive psalmody, I have a reference that discusses the commissioners explicitly abolishing the use of the doxology at the end of metrical psalms, in spite of the objections of one of the Scots commissioners, Calderwood, who is said to have exclaimed “Let that alone for I hope to sing it in glory”! (Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 133). If they outlawed even singing the doxology as an appendix to a metrical psalm, they would hardly have permitted a broader range of songs. It would be interesting to know more about the usage of the doxology in tandem with the psalter in Scotland prior to the assembly and perhaps after as well.

  4. Ultimately, Chad Van Dixhoorn (in “Confessing the Faith”), does not conclude that the Assembly was advocating exclusive psalmody in the WCF:

    “Nonetheless the commendation of the Psalms in the confession and the directory needs to take into account that early-modern use of the word ‘psalm’ is not limited to the Book of Psalms only. The common use of psalm almost always included hymns, and in its scriptural proof texts the assembly deliberately directs readers of the confession to passages like Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19, and James 5:13, which call Christians to ‘sing praise’, or to sing ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’.”

    • Ben,

      I have to dissent from Chad’s explanation. The Reformed knew in the 16th and 17th century how the LXX (Septuagint) used those terms. They knew that they were different kinds of psalms in the psalter, in the LXX. See this explanation.

      I would like to see the evidence for the claim that “early modern use” of Psalm did not refer exclusively to canonical Psalms, and especially in the context of this question.

      As other commenters have noted, the evidence for the intent of the divines is rather strong. As we try to understand their use of Colossians etc we certainly can’t assume that they meant what some have argued in the Modern period, namely, that Psalm is one thing, hymn another, and spiritual song a third thing.

    • There is no question that the P&R church owes Dr. Van Dixhoorn an immense debt for his groundbreaking work in recovering, editing and republishing the original Minutes of the Westminster Assembly previously thought to be lost forever.
      That said, even Homer nods.

      When a Psalter is included among the Principal Documents of the Westminster Assembly at the Westminster Assembly Project website edited by Dr. Van Dixhoorn and we know that that it was a genuine psalter – a metrical translation of the Psalms as such – just what exactly is one supposed to conclude?
      That the divines took an oath to promote uniformity in doctrine, worship and government. in a pragmatic sense only and they really had no principled or scriptural objections to uninspired song?

      Yet to whom much is given, much is required.
      Does Jer. 5:30,31 have anything to say to the modern P&R church when it comes to worship?

       A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land;
       The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?

      Rather than Jer. 6:16?

      Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.

      Unfortunately we do know what Israel’s answer was at that time:

      But they said, We will not walk therein.

  5. One might suppose that Dabney’s remarks in regard to the office of the ruling elder – that every generation has to appropriate certain truths for itself – also applies to the issue of psalmody. Regardless, the evidence of what the Assembly meant when they said “psalm” or “psalms” is so overwhelming as to be incontrovertible. Whether one agrees with it or not or even thinks them mistaken, is not the first or foremost question per se. Those who wish to reinvent the wheel at this late date are welcome to do so, but not at the expense of abusing the 9th commandment, history, reason or others’ patience.

    There are seven references to ‘singing a psalm/psalms’ in the Directory for Worship even before the last rubric Of the Singing of Psalms. (The Form of Church Govt. is an honorable mention. “Singing of psalms” is one of the ‘Ordinances in a particular Congregation’ and “singing of a psalm” is to conclude an ordination service under the 9th head under the 9th rule in the ‘Rules for Ordination’.)

    The first mention is the opening line to the third rubric, Of Public Prayer before the Sermon, after that Of Prayer after Sermon, Sanctification of the Lord’s Day and Publick Solenmn Fasting all mention singing a psalm or psalms.

    Concerning the Observation of Days of Publick Thanksgiving in part says:

    And, because singing of psalms is of all other the most proper ordinance for expressing joy and thanksgiving, let some pertinent psalm or psalms be sung for that purpose, before or after reading some portion of the word suitable to the present business…

    (Which is to say, that contrary to the contemporary P&R churches, the Westminster divines did not at least believe that the singing of psalms was oppressive or burdensome, but rather that it is of “all other the most proper ordinance for expressing joy and thanksgiving.”)

    Even further, the third paragraph of DPW’s last rubric Of Singing of Psalms,
    and the concluding paragraph in the DPW’s second rubric, Publick Reading of Holy Scripture respectively read:

    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.

    Besides publick reading of the holy scriptures, every person that can read, is to be exhorted to read the scriptures privately, (and all others that cannot read, if not disabled by age, or otherwise, are likewise to be exhorted to learn to read,) and to have a Bible.

    Alexander T. Mitchell in his The Westminster Assembly, Its History and Its Standards, (1883, rpt. 1992), clarifies the origin of the parallel:

    A few verbal alterations were suggested by the House of Lords and adopted by the Commons. The most important of these was, that to the direction in the section of singing of Psalms ‘that every one that can read is to have a Psalmbook.’ their Lordships proposed to add the words, ‘and to have a Bible.’ The Commons, improving on the suggestion, proposed to transfer the words to the section of the public reading of the Scriptures and developed them into a paragraph similiar in form to the one in the section of singing of Psalms (p.217).

    In other words in all this, there is an explicit approved parallel between the Psalter and the Bible.

    But what further ices the cake – or the puck for those north of the 49th parallel – is the historical record. The Assembly on:

    Nov. 14, 1645 Ordered – That whereas the Honble House of Commons hath, by an order bearing the date the 20th of November 1643, recommended the Psalms set out by Mr. Rouse to the consideration of the Assembly of Divines, the Assembly hath caused them to be carefully perused, and as they are now altered and amended, do approve of them, and humbly conceive that if may be useful and profitable to the Church that they be permitted to be publicly sung.

    Rouse’s amended psalter was then subsequently published on Jan. 25, 1646 by the House of Commons though the Scotch General Assembly had not yet officially approved it. Barton, author of an alternative psalter version, was not satisfied and petitioned the House of Lords on March 20th, 1646 to also allow the use of his psalter, which House then requested the Assembly to reconsider the matter. On April 22, 1646, the Assembly pointedly and decisively replied:

    That whereas on the 14th of November 1645, in obedience to an order of this Honourable House concerning the said Mr. Barton’s Psalms, we have already recommended to this Honourable House one translation of the Psalms in verse, made by Mr. Rouse, and perused and amended by the same learned gentleman, and the Committee of the Assembly, as conceiving it would be very useful for the edification of the Church in regard it is so exactly framed according to the original text: and whereas there are several other translations of the Psalms already extant: We humbly conceive that if liberty should be given to people to sing in churches, every one the translation which they desire, by that means several translations might come to be used, yea, in one and the same congregation at the same time, which would be a great distraction and hindrance to edification.–Journals of House of Lords, vol. viii. pp.283, 284 (Minutes, fn. pp.221, 222).

    Rouse’s amended psalter went on to be come the Scottish Psalter 1650 of which S.W. Carruthers, the 20th century editor of the authoritative/critical text edition of the Westminster Confession, in the chapter entitled “The Metrical Psalms” in his Everyday Work of the Westminster Assembly (1943, rpt. 1994, RAP,) says:

    After the Confession of Faith and the Shorter Catechism, the best known piece of work by the Divines is what is usually called the “Scotch Metrical Psalms.” They were neither originated, nor were they finally completed by the Assembly, but it was due to their adoption by that body that they came, as a part of the proposed uniformity of worship, to be used in Scotland, and their singing by the Covenanters endeared them to the heart of that nation (pp.161-8).

    IOW checkmate.
    With apologies for length.

  6. Just added this to my favorites bar. Not only the article, but the comments are gold.

  7. Dr. Clark,
    I have often asked when our church (URCNA in the dutch tradition) stopped using Psalms exclusively in our liturgical forms of worship. Accompanying that question I ask what was the reason for doing so. Most people in my church do not know how to answer that question. I commend you for continuing to fill the gap in an important part of our church’s history.

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