Saturday Psalm Series: Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Instruments in the Vulgate (Part 2)

The Latin Bible was a major formative influence on the way the Reformed theologians interpreted Scripture. The King James Version/Authorized Version (1611) particularly reflects the influence of the Latin Bible, but its influence reverberates in many English translations. It influenced their word choice in translation. Since our theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries used a Latin Bible for their personal study, it also influenced their understanding of the meaning of Scripture.

In the first post in this series, we looked at how the psalms are categorized in the superscriptions of the psalms in the Vulgate. We also considered the way those words are used in the NT.

From 1579, however, the Reformed orthodox had a new study tool. It did not have a clever title like, The New International Reformed Study Bible, but that is what it was. When the Reformed orthodox writers used a Latin Bible they tended to use the edition produced by Franciscus Junius, Immanuel Tremellius, and Theodore Beza. It was titled Biblia sacra sive testamentum vetus et testamentum novum (Sacred Bible: Old Testament and New Testament).

I have worked through the Biblia sacra to see how the psalms were classified in the superscriptions and the results are enlightening.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

The question before us is this: Against what background did the orthodox Reformed understand the expression in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18, “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”?

In Beza’s Latin NT, the expression reads:

psalmis, hymnes, et cantionibus spiritualibus

The only difference between the Vulgate and Beza’s text is Beza’s choice of cantio in place of canticum for “songs.” Cantio is a relatively rare word, a late, post-classical word. It does not occur in the pre-Clementine Vulgate but occurs only once (Ps 136:3) in the Clementine Vulgate (1592). That it occurs in Beza’s 1556 Latin New Testament suggests the word had found favor in the second half of the 16th century. Perhaps this noun was favored by the humanists for some reason? Calvin used it four times in the 1559 Institutes (3.8.11, 4.13.19, 4.19.22, 4.19.24). Was he influenced by Beza’s 1556 translation or were they both influenced by a broader trend?

How did Junius and Tremellius translate the superscriptions to the psalms and how might that have influenced the Reformed understanding of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16? The other question we pursued was how the Vulgate translated the terms for musical instruments and how that influenced the Reformers. We will ask the same question of Junius’ and Tremellius’ translation (hereafter Junius/Tremellius). This work was more difficult because at the time I conducted this study, there was no digitized version of the translation, so I went through the text carefully by hand.

Forty-one of the psalms have no superscription and thus no classification for the psalm. Forty-four of the psalms were classified as a psalm (psalmus) of David or of Asaph et al. Nineteen of the psalms were classified as a canticum (song). Twenty-six were classified as an ode, which is a transliteration of the Greek term used in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. Four psalms were classified as an oratio (prayer), six as a canticum et psalmus (song and psalm), and one as a carmen Davidis (a song of David).

These categories were not isolated or sealed from one another. Some psalms were classified as psalms as well as something else (e.g., a canticum). No psalms were classified as a hymnus, but none are classified as a cantio, Beza’s word for canticum. The fact that ode was used suggests the retrospective influence of Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 on Junius/Tremellius. Their choices also suggest that the line between psalm and other forms of song is blurry, if it existed at all. The noun psalm occurs more frequently in Junius/Tremellius than in the Vulgate psalter.

They do not seem to have followed the LXX pattern exactly, but there are some patterns. Psalmus tends to occur earlier in the psalter (books 1 and 2) and canticum occurs with more frequency later in the psalter (book 5). Ode occurs throughout the psalter but occurs in most often in books 1 (1–41), 2 (42–72), and 3 (73–89) of the psalter.

Following the humanist pattern, they used a greater diversity of terms (oratio, carmen, ode) than the Vulgate.

Two of the three terms used in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 were used interchangeably in the Junius/Tremellius translation of the superscriptions of the psalter and they used Paul’s word ode, which seems to connect their understanding of Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 directly to their understanding of the psalter. Arguably, canticum stands for hymnus.

Outside the psalter—for example, in Matthew 26:30—Beza translated ὕμνουν as “hymn” and in Acts 16:25, Paul and Silas were “singing (canebant) hymns to God.” Like the Vulgate, Beza used the transliterated (Latinized) Greek, except that he turned the singular (in both the Majority Text and the NA 28) into a plural. That choice raises its own questions that we cannot pursue here. The caveats from last time still apply. We cannot anachronistically reinterpret hymn in light of our modern (largely psalmless) experience. The question is how it was understood in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

We get greater clarity about how Junius/Tremellius and Beza understood Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 in Beza’s translation of 1 Corinthians 14:26 where the Vulgate transliterated ψαλμὸν (psalm), Beza chose canticum. This is illuminating. He did not choose to transliterate psalm, which is the noun that Paul used, but instead chose to translate it with a different noun. Why? Because, in his understanding, and arguably that of the rest of the Reformed orthodox, there was no substantive difference between a psalm and a canticum (song) and, we should add, an ode. Nor was there any discernible difference between a canticum (Vulgate) and cantio (Beza). They signify the same thing.

In short, the Reformed orthodox would not have understood the objection against interpreting Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 against the background of the psalter. In their minds, the two were bound together. For them, when Paul said “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” he was referring to the superscriptions of the psalms. Nor would they have sympathized with the argument that “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” must refer to distinct types of songs, and certainly they had no sympathy for the notion that “psalm” refers to a canonical psalm, a hymn to a type of non-canonical song, and “spiritual song” to another type of non-canonical song.

Musical Instruments

One of the more interesting facets of the Junius/Tremellius psalter is their translation of the directions to the musician. In fifty-five psalms, in all five books of the psalter, this superscription appears:

To the master of the symphonia (magistro symphoniae).

Typically in our English Bibles (e.g., in the ASV and ESV), the superscription over Psalm 4 reads, “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” The 1559 Geneva bible has, “To him that excelleth on Neginoth.” Thus, they left the Hebrew untranslated—though we have already observed how the editors/translators addressed the use of musical instruments in the new covenant, in the note on Psalm 150:3. The KJV/AV revised the Geneva Bible slightly: “To the chief musician on Neginoth. . . . ” The Geneva/KJV tells the English reader less than the ASV/ESV, but none of them has quite the same effect as the Junius/Tremellius translation. Symphonia was a transliteration of the Greek term (συμφωνία). According to Liddell and Scott (the precursor to Liddell, Scott, and Jones), a symphonia, in this context, is a band or an orchestra. It features percussive instruments (drums, cymbals) but apparently included wind instruments since the superscriptions to Psalms 53 and 75 include instructions to the “master of the symphonia” regarding the use of a “pneumatic instrument.”

Outside the psalter, terms for musical instruments occur most frequently in 1–2 Chronicles, in conjunction with the Levitical, priestly ministry (and often in the context of burnt offerings and sacrifices). In 1 Chronicles 15:16, the Levites were playing “with instruments of music, psalteries, cithara, and cymbals.” In 16:42 it is “trumpets and cymbals for resonating and musical instruments. . . . ” In 2 Chronicles 29, the Levites were using “musical instruments” including various horns. This fits the evidence we saw in the superscriptions of two psalms regarding the use of particular instruments.

What does the Junius/Tremellius translation tell us about how they saw musical instruments in the psalter and redemptive history? First, whereas the terms for a symphonia and musical instruments generally (and certain instruments particularly) occurred with regularity in both the psalter and 1–2 Chronicles, they occur, of course, not at all in Beza’s NT. Second, it would have been very difficult for the Reformed orthodox, for whom the Junius/Tremellius/Beza Latin Bible became the study Bible (apart from the original text), not to think of musical instruments as inextricably tied to the typological period of redemptive history and to the sacrificial ministry of the Levites. Where our translations sometimes encourage us to think of a vocal choir, their translation encouraged them to think of the use of musical instruments in the psalms. In that respect, our experience of the psalter is quite different from theirs. The use of “choir” or “choirmaster” anachronistically tends to create the impression that the Israelites did just as many modern congregations do. But for the Reformed orthodox, who composed our confessions when they thought of the psalter and Old Testament worship generally, they thought of musical instruments, sacrifices, and even holy war (Psalm 149) against the enemies of God’s national people.

This helps explain why the churches in Geneva, Heidelberg, the Netherlands, France, and the British Isles removed or sought to remove musical instruments from Reformed churches. They were relics of the era of types and shadows, intimately, inextricably bound up with the Levitical sacrifices.

Obviously, the predominant contemporary understanding of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” varies rather sharply from that reflected in the standard Latin study Bible used by our orthodox Reformed forefathers. Further, there is considerable discontinuity between the way modern Reformed folks tend to think about musical instruments and the way the Reformed theologians and churches thought of them in the formative, classical period (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) of Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

It is useful to know that most (but not all!) of us no longer agree with our Reformed sources. We need to wrestle honestly with the facts. It is simply not satisfactory to say, “Well they were wrong.” That might be the case, but we cannot simply assert that. We must show why they were wrong. Why were they wrong to read “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in light of the superscriptions in the psalter? Why were they wrong to see the cultic (i.e., the use in public worship as distinct from the general, cultural) use of musical instruments as inextricably bound up with the types and shadows of the temporary, Israelite, national cultus and polity? It is a fact of redemptive history that Levites played musical instruments so long as the burnt offerings were being made (2 Chron 29). They stopped when the sacrifices stopped. It is a fact of redemptive history that the same psalms that exhort us to dance and play musical instruments also exhort us to holy war against God’s national enemies.

When our theologies were being written and when our confessions were being framed, this was the understanding that informed them as they confessed that we may do in worship only that which God has commanded. In light of their understanding of redemptive history, they removed instruments from the churches and sang only God’s Word (usually psalms) in response to God’s Word. They did not see musical instruments as circumstances. They saw them as elements just as the sacrifices were elements.

Part 1

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. RSC: It is interesting that “musical instruments [were seen as] inextricably bound up with the types and shadows of the temporary, Israelite, national cultus and polity.” Thus, “Levites played musical instruments so long as the burnt offerings were being made (2 Chron 29). They stopped when the sacrifices stopped.” Have you or someone else elaborated on the evidence for these claims somewhere? I’m sure somebody has. If you can provide some bibliographic info, it would be useful to see how the argument is presented.

    • Here are some of the fruits of my research.

      Most of the folks who write on the history of worship come from liturgical traditions which disfavor the patristic and classical Reformed consensus and so those aspects of the story don’t get much coverage.

      The Reformed in the classical period made these arguments regularly. That’s how I found them (and am still finding them). My next stop to work on Calvin’s arguments against instruments from 1 Cor 14.

    • Hi Scott,
      As far as I can see you (and everyone else I’ve read on this subject) have only provided evidence that in the temple the instruments did (at times) accompany sacrifices. No one disputes this. It is much harder to prove definitively that instruments were never used in worship outside the context of sacrifices. I would argue that a straightforward reading of the text suggests the opposite. Nehemiah 12 demonstrates the point clearly. There the instruments were not restricted to the time when sacrifices were offered (which must necessarily have been in the temple, not on the walls) but were used to support the praise of God’s people as they marched around the walls of Jerusalem. Likewise in 2 Chron 29, although the instruments accompany the sacrifice, the Levitical songs of praise do not stop when the sacrifices stop and there is no reason to suppose that the musical accompaniment ceased either (vv. 29-30). Since Levitical song and instruments seem to belong together naturally, 2 Chronicles 20 would provide another example. There is no necessary exclusive connection in the OT between instruments of praise and sacrifice. (The same is true even in paganism, as Daniel 3 shows).

      None of that proves that we must or ought to have instruments, of course, But I’m afraid that sometimes our exegetical work on the OT in this area is less solid than it should be.

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