Saturday Psalm Series: Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Instruments in the Vulgate (Part 1)

We 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 worship practice is not well known nor 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 sixteenth century. They did not return widely until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In some quarters they were still controversial in the early twentieth 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 sixteenth and seventeenth 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 several 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 one hundred-fifty psalms. More than once, however, I have heard contemporary interpreters appeal to this expression as 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 are those who read the original languages but relatively few of us read Latin anymore 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) appears 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 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 Chronicles 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, and 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 that 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., the ESV has Paul and the others “singing hymns” at 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. 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, and 30, are all canticles. The noun canticum occurs eighty-eight times in the psalms and most of them are in the superscription. As I mentioned, some of them are used together with psalmus. By contrast, the noun psalmus occurs only eighteen 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 seven centuries—eight 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.

Part 2

NOTE

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 congregation 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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3 comments

  1. Hey Dr great post. I have been talking with some folks who are not convinced about only psalms. And they say that we should sing hymns as well. If we sing hymns would that be considered adding to scripture? The Bible tells us to sing psalms. I have heard that to just sing psalms is huge error and I want to respond with “show me where I sing hymns as well.” Is singing hymns adding to what scripture is saying. Great post Dr awesome stuff!

    • David,

      Exclusive psalmody is a strong part of the Reformed tradition. We were once a Psalm-singing people and there is a reasonable case for it since, after all, God did give us 150 Psalms. There probably are other songs in Scripture but that qualifier is enough, for some, to say that we should just sing the Psalms. I certainly wouldn’t not agree that it is a “huge error.”

      I, however, am not entirely convinced by the arguments for exclusive Psalmody and neither were Calvin, Beza, and a minority in Scotland. They argued that God would have us sing other parts of Scripture as well. That is why, e.g., Beza asked for and was granted permission to gather and publish the New Testament songs (“canticles”) for singing in public worship. There are other canonical songs, e.g., the Songs of Moses and Miriam (Ex 15; Dept 32), the Songs of Mary (“Magnificat”) and others in the NT, e.g., Phil 2. I’m content to sing any part of God’s Word. We sing a doxology made from the Romans doxology in our congregation. The song of Deborah (Judges 5), Hannah’s Prayer/Song (1 Sam 2), David’s song in 2 Sam 22. Then there are the various songs in the Revelation. Here’s an academic article on these songs by James W. Watts.

      I discuss this some in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

      This seems like a good way between our modern turn to non-canonical songs. It answers the objections re only Psalms and it honors the principle that we should respond to God’s Word with his Word.

      Responding to God’s Word with a non-inspired song raises questions:

      1) Why isn’t Scripture sufficient?

      2) What is it about this non-canonical song that makes it superior to canonical Scripture as a response to God’s Word?

      I think those are very difficult questions for advocates of non-canonical hymnody to answer well. I have not been satisfied with their answers.

      If the rule of worship is that we do in worship only what God commands, then advocates of non-canonical hymnody have to show us where we are commanded to sing non-canonical hymns. “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” won’t do since those were headers in the Psalter.

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