Preponderance of biblical evidence satisfies common objections to ‘special music’ in worship
The “regulative principle of worship” held by many Reformed churches posits that the Lord’s people in corporate worship are permitted to express worship only in ways that the Scriptures explicitly reveal. Hence, the same principle negates that the Lord’s people are not permitted to express worship in any ways that exceed what the Scriptures specifically reveal.
Yet, there may exist as many different definitions, interpretations and applications of the so-called regulative principle as there are Reformed denominations, congregations, or perhaps even individuals.
For example, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) believes that Scripture regulates only the congregational singing of Psalms and does not explicitly permit the use of instruments or songs other than the Psalms within Scripture. Whereas, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) has some exclusive-psalmody congregations, but as a denomination their understanding of the regulative principle permits for instruments, songs other than Psalms, and in the case of a few congregations: choirs, ensembles and soloists. Whereas, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), being generally much more diverse in its approaches to worship, has some congregations that would claim to follow the regulative principle, while they integrate the singing of Psalms, hymns and songs other than Psalms, as well as many instruments, choirs, ensembles and soloists. Meanwhile, some PCA congregations neglect the singing of Psalms altogether and would not claim to follow the regulative principle.
All these groups generally believe they are truly following the regulative principle.
Therefore, the regulative principle, like any other locus of God’s Word, largely depends on not only what Scripture explicitly reveals, yet also depends on what Scripture implicitly reveals — that is, a hermeneutic pattern, or a method of textual interpretation.
In the spirit of the regulative principle, the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1,5 teaches,
But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God has been instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations or devisings of men … or any other way not commanded in Holy Scripture. …
The various elements of the ordinary religious worship of God are … the singing of psalms with grace in the heart …
Here, Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn, PhD, Cambridge University, comments,
Under the spotlight of our conscience, there is no hiding the truth about the existence of the invisible God. And we know in our conscience that we must worship him. However it is Scripture that teaches us that the only acceptable way of worshipping God is his way. It was after a discussion about worship, and before a discussion about false teachers, that the Lord told his old covenant people to do everything they were told, nothing more, and nothing less (Deut. 12:32). In other words, God institutes the practices of worship. We do not. … The call to do in worship what is prescribed in the Bible, rather than merely to avoid what is proscribed in the Bible, is an important regulating principle for worship.
(Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A reader’s guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 276-277)
Further describing the regulative principle from a Puritanic perspective, in their chapter “Theology in Practice: Puritan Theology Shaped by a Pilgrim Mentality,” Drs. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones have paraphrased the definition of Christopher J.L. Bennett:
Whether in Puritan times or today, those who adhere to the regulative principle believe that God is offended by unauthorized, man-made additions to His worship. The royalty of Christ is violated, and His laws are impeached. … We can learn much from the Puritans, especially when so many churches today give scant attention to purity in worship and put all their emphasis on what pleases people rather than God. The Puritans did precisely the opposite. Their goal was to please God through holy worship. The question was never, “What do I want in worship?” but always, “What does God want in worship?”
(Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, p. 851)
Different Reformers from the sixteenth century onward have had different views on how music is to be employed in church services. It is impossible here to analyze everything that every influential Reformer has written on worship or a full treatment of the purpose of worship, so we will specifically discuss the legitimacy of choirs, ensembles and soloist offerings. For the sake of shorthand, we may define “special music” as anything that is not singing that the entire congregation simultaneously performs together.
Instructing orderly worship, Apostle Paul stated, “Let all things be done for building up. … all things should be done decently and in order,” and Reformed churches are to be commended for seizing upon this command so frequently.
Yet, like any instruction of Scripture, this also can be used by those who are prone to overcorrection from worship styles and examples that the majority would consider clearly fall outside the bounds of what is done decently and in order.
Congregations perform music just as choirs, ensembles and soloists perform music. The word “performance” does not necessarily connote an entertainment aspect, or that the performer is insincere or self-indulgent. So, we can use the word “performance” simply to describe the delivery or instance of any kind of music that can be found as proper and legitimate.
Nehemiah 12:45 recounts, “And they performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did the singers and the gatekeepers, according to the command of David and his son Solomon.” Here, the Hebrew transliteration way-yiš-m?-r?, which has been translated into many Bible versions as “perform,” means “to keep, watch, preserve.”
Even within the context of the ancient sacrificial-system worship, “performance” was not faulty; rather, it signified a conscientious religious stewardship. So, such conscientious religious stewardship is what “performance” should mean for New-Covenant believers who presently offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving (cf. Psalms 50:14, 23, 69:30, 107:21-22, 116:17; Jeremiah 33:11; Amos 4:5; cf. Romans 12:1; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 13:15-16; I Peter 2:5, 9).
Old Testament roots of New Testament worship
Reformed theology has many precepts of worship that are carried forward from the Old Testament except where the New Testament explicitly abrogates or replaces an instruction.
Hence, there are many practices of Old-Testament worship, including from the Davidic and postexhilic periods, that are legitimately carried forward into New-Testament worship for Christians. Old Testament worship certainly was regulated by worship standards; for example:
- special orders of “skillful” singers leading praise and thanksgiving, often with directors (I Chronicles 9:33, 15:16, 27, 25:6-7; II Chronicles 20:21, 23:13, 35:15; Nehemiah 12:8-9, 24, 27-28, 31, 38-43, 45-47; Psalm 68:24-25);
- choirs (Ezra 2:65; Nehemiah 12:31, 38, 40);
- at least 55 Psalms or maskils composed “To the choirmaster” or “chief musician” (Psalms 4-6, 8, 9, 11-14, 18-22, 31, 36, 39-42, 44-47, 49, 51-62, 64-70, 75-77, 80, 81, 84, 85, 88, 109, 139, 140; Habakkuk 3:19);
- singers employed or supported for their special services (I Chronicles 9:33; 2 Chronicles 35:15; Nehemiah 12:4); and
- some, but not all, choristers and specially appointed singers were from the Levitical order of priests, which former holy order now is realized in the priesthood of all believers (II Chronicles 23:4-6, 13; Ezra 3:11; Psalm 68:24-25, 86:9, 97:2, 107:21-22, 113:1, 149:1-9; cf. Luke 2:3, 19:37; John 4:23; I Corinthians 15:57; II Corinthians 2:14-16; Ephesians 1:13-14, 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 13:10-16; I Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6).
The Levitical model of singer-leaders gave rise to the synagogue custom of cantors, which in turn is the lineage of the modern hazzan, a Jewish musician or precentor trained in the vocal arts who helps lead the congregation in songful prayer and chanting. Consequently, the position of hazzanim as a respected full-time profession, as well as cantors and cantorial soloists, are centuries-old traditions which have their genesis in ancient Judaism.
The seminal question in all this for Christians is: Should the church take cues from worship practices in the Old Testament, or not? Which Scripture texts are merely descriptive, that is, what occurred, and which Scripture texts also are prescriptive, that is, what occurred and should occur?
In his chapter “The Ministry of Praise,” Hughes Oliphant Old traces the Old Testament provenance for New Testament worship:
The beginnings of Christian praise go back at least as far as King David and the worship of Solomon’s Temple. Let us look then at the Temple praises to discover what they really were. There were two major places in the Temple worship where hymns of praise were sung: on entering the Temple and during the immolation of the sacrifice.
When pilgrims went up to Jerusalem, they sang as they went. Psalms 121 and 122 were probably first written for pilgrims going off to the Temple … In Psalm 84 we get a vivid picture of the pilgrims going up to Jerusalem … Psalm 100 …
Praise can be defined as the sense of awe and wonder that we have when we enter the presence of God. That is why the entering of the Temple is with hymns of praise.
When the pilgrims approached the gates of the Temple, there were evidently particular rites for opening the gates. At least two Psalms come from these rites, Psalms 15 and 24. When we add these psalms to the seventh chapter of Jeremiah, we get a fairly clear picture of what happened during the ceremonial opening of praise …
It was during the actual immolation or burning of the sacrifice that the singing of the psalms played its primary role. While the sacrifice was being burned on the altar, a psalm of praise and thanksgiving was sung by the Levites as the one who offered the sacrifice circumambulated the altar (Pss. 25-26). That is, the worshipers walked around the altar, usually seven times, by which rite they “owned” the sacrifice, identifying it with themselves as the smoke of the sacrifice ascended to heaven. Worshipers praised and thanked God for the works of creation and providence and recounted the story of God’s saving acts toward Israel. Often the story of the election of the patriarchs, the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt, their trials in the wilderness, and their possession of the promised land was recounted.
… Then, there are some shorter psalms that would be better used as choral anthems, such as Psalms 8, 19, 84, 100, 113, 117, and 133.
(Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed according to Scripture, Revised and Expanded Edition, pp. 33-35, 56)
An objection sometimes has been raised that certain singing styles and instruments recounted in the Old Testament are not appropriate for New-Covenant worship because they were used in the context of specific Temple rites such as the immolation of sacrifices described by this scholar. While we find that certain psalms were closely associated with ascension to the Temple as well as the setting of sacrificial rites, there does not appear to be strong evidence in the Old Testament that such Psalms were used exclusively for these occasions. If there were proof, it still would be difficult to abstract from a given Psalm the instruments supposedly having accompanied sacrifices, while keeping the Psalm itself intact.
In other words, if the New Testament commands Christians to sing Psalms — all of the Psalms, then all that is found within the Psalms should be “fair game,” as it were. If we avoid portions of certain Psalms because of their association with ancient Temple rites, then logically, we must abandon the singing of those Psalms altogether — which would seem inconsistent with the apostolic injunction to “admonish each other with psalms” in toto, and many Reformed churches’ rigorous observance of this precept.
Oliphant Old identifies a practical difference between the use of the psalms in the Temple and later in the synagogues.
When the Temple of Solomon was destroyed and the Jews were deported to Babylon, the normal place of worship came to be the synagogue. This involved far more than just a change in architectural setting. It involved two very different liturgies and two very different approaches to worship. While the Temple service centered on the sacrifices, the synagogue service centered on the study of the law and on the saying of the daily prayers. The synagogue service never took over the sacrifices. They were performed exclusively in the Temple, but the synagogue did take over from the Temple the psalms that had accompanied the sacrifices. Just when these psalms began to be used in the synagogue service and just which psalms were used is not clear. When the psalms were used in the synagogue, however, they were sung without the elaborate instrumental accompaniment used in the Temple.
(ibid., pp. 35-36)
It is further unclear from the available historical information whether this simplicity of worship was intentional by the synagogues, or simply resulted from a lack of resources from trained musicians such as were available to the kings and all their panoply at the Temple — especially considering that the Jews had since been invaded, their nation had been disbanded, relocated and scattered through the ancient Near East, and in a postexhilic period of recovery. Speculation as to the synagogues’ intention for a minimalist or banausic approach to worship seems inevitable here.
Oliphant Old continues,
The first Christians took over many of the worship traditions of the synagogue. They did not take over the rich and sumptuous ceremonial of the Temple, but rather the simpler synagogue service, with its Scripture reading, its sermon, its prayers, and its psalmody. We find many evidences of this in the New Testament. In Acts 4:23-31 we read of Christians gathering for prayer. Their prayer service began with the whole congregation singing psalms. Several times the apostle Paul tells Christians to sing psalms. In 1 Corinthians 14:26 Paul tells the church that when they are gathered together for worship, among other things they are to sing psalms. The text actually reads, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, … a revelation.” This probably means that the whole congregation is to sing a psalm, but it may indicate that the first Christians had cantors like the synagogue. The cantor would sing the text while the congregation answered by singing “Hallelujah” after each verse. It surely did not mean that everyone was supposed to get up and sing a solo.
(ibid., p. 36)
As another example of the historical connection of Old Testament and New Testament orderly worship, in his chapter “The Worship of the Synagogue,” Bannerman the younger recounts,
In the fourteenth chapter of First Corinthians we have a vivid picture of the sort of abuses hinted at by James. Apart from the special character of the gifts possessed by members of the Church at Corinth, this is just the state of things which would naturally arise in an ill-regulated synagogue.
When the congregation met, “each one had a Psalm, had a teaching, had an interpretation.” Several would rise to speak at once, and none of them was ready to give place to his brethren. Things were not “done unto edifying.” They were done neither “in seemly form nor according to order.”
Such abuse of freedom was no argument against its lawful use in the synagogue. But it showed the need of a wise and efficient provision for order and control in connection with it. And such there was.
(D. Douglas Bannerman, The Scripture Doctrine of the Church: Historically and Exegetically Considered. Part III. The Church from the time of the Exile to that of Our Lord, p. 133)
Argument for Reformed uniformity of worship
In his article “The Reformation of Worship,” D.G. Hart states,
The separation of church and state, prompted by the revolutions of the eighteenth century in Europe and North America, was another significant development for Reformed worship. As worthwhile as the church’s freedom has been to oversee its own affairs, rather than depending upon the political calculations of the monarch or magistrate, such liberty has also been the occasion for ever greater diversity in worship even within the same denomination. A state church could require and enforce a certain pattern of worship, thus yielding consistency across the congregations. But without the sanction of the state, Reformed churches have been reticent to require uniformity of worship. The result today is that a Presbyterian or Reformed Christian does not know what manner of service he will find when he enters a church in his theological tradition. As much as such diversity may add spice to ecclesiastical life, it also prevents the likes of an Evelyn Underhill to be able to claim that Calvinists are known for their particular way of worshiping God. Consequently, today’s churches need to examine their worship heritage to learn the genius of Reformed worship and find means for restoring consistency to Reformed ministry.
There is scholastic merit to this position that Reformed worship should strive to be “consistent.”
In the same chapter where Paul instructs orderly worship and confronts abuses which threaten the edificational character of orderly worship, he criticized the Corinthians,
Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.
(I Corinthians 14:36-40)
The footnote on I Corinthians 14:36 in The Reformation Study Bible (2015) says,
These sarcastic questions show that Paul is addressing serious problems arising out of the Corinthians’ boastful arrogance. Since Corinth is not unique in receiving God’s Word, this church should abide by the practices “in all the churches of the saints” (v. 33).
Yes, Reformed worship should strive for consistency, but as many in the Reformed court remind, substance is more important to worship than form; for in the same missive two chapters earlier, Paul said, (I Corinthians 12:4-7) “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
It is worth observing that Hart’s article is published by Ligonier Ministries, and the context does matter that for decades, Ligonier Ministries has promoted, facilitated and recorded choristers and soloists in worship. Also, RefNet, Ligonier’s 24-hour internet radio, streams a variety of worship styles from many artists whose songs are carefully selected for lyrical fidelity to biblical truth.
Cross-testamental consistency in Reformed interpretive methodology
Some people who hold to a “Reformed hermeneutic” affirm that the New Testament regulates worship by commanding the singing of psalms.
No one who holds to confessional Reformed theology who is intellectually honest can deny that the Bible absolutely does command the use of its own psalms for worship, and we should be grateful and joyful to sing the Scripture that God has given us.
Yet, many of the same “Reformed-thinking” people say that the New Testament forbids any type of singing that is not congregational, because it does not explicitly warrant for any other type of singing in church.
Yet, Oliphant Old points out that the personal paeans provided in Luke’s Gospel followed the form of Old Testament psalms, and they were written by individuals, modeling Christian worship.
The Psalms formed the core of the praises of the New Testament church; nevertheless the earliest Christians sang praises other than the one hundred fifty canonical psalms and the occasional psalms or canticles found elsewhere in Scripture. In the first place we find a number of Christian psalms such as the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), and the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). These are clearly Christian psalms written in the literary genre of the Hebrew votive thanksgiving psalms. So many of the Psalms contained prophetic oracles that intimated the reign of Christ. Now that the Christ had indeed come, surely the people of God should sing the votive thanksgiving psalms. In Covenant theology the thanksgiving hymn filled a most significant role. It confessed the obligation God’s people owed to their Redeemer. …
The canticles in the Gospel of Luke are the core of Christian praise. From these Christian psalms, Christian hymns rapidly developed. Yet these Christian hymns went beyond the Hebrew literary forms and took on Greek poetic features more familiar to the new Gentile congregations that were springing up over the whole Mediterranean world. In the epistles of Paul we find two hymns to Christ that many scholars feel reflect the hymnody of the Greek-speaking congregations. The so-called christological hymn of the Philippians is the leading example … (Phil. 2:5-11)
A similar hymlike passage is found in Colossians … (Col. 1:15-20). …
There is little question that the first Christians wrote hymns to Christ and sang them in their worship side by side with the psalms they sang as fulfilled prophecies of the coming messiah.
(Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed according to Scripture, Revised and Expanded Edition, pp. 37-38)
In fact, very shortly after the New Testament times, we read in one of the letters of the Roman governor Pliny the Younger (61-ca. 113) to the Emperor Trajan (53-117) a short description of a Christian worship service. It clearly says that the Christians sang hymns to Christ.
Apostle Paul further assists with application of Old Testament examples of praise of thanksgiving, instructing one church, (Ephesians 5:18-21) “… be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and another similar church, (Colossians 3:16) “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
The Greek here for “admonishing one another” uses a reflexive third-person pronoun in which the people required to participate are both giving and receiving the admonition. No one will argue that is what is being commanded here.
Yet, given the other New Testament instruction, how can an exegetical case be made that all music in corporate worship must follow this pattern 100 percent of the time, to the absolute exclusion of any type of special music?
Who has ever been to a worship service at any church of Presbyterian and Reformed testimony where there was not any congregational singing, yet only a few singers or only one singer performing? We would be hard-pressed to find anywhere a church that claims to hold to the regulative principle where the collective/congregational singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs is threatened by small-group or solo vocal performances.
Congregational singing is not going anywhere.
The propriety of solo singing in Christian worship
Following his account of worshipers praising/thanking God during the earlier Temple worship, Oliphant Old observes the Temple worship element of the solo singer, including the cantor:
At other times more personal acts of deliverance were described. In such cases the psalm was the personal witness of the worshiper. The psalm told what God had done in the worshiper’s life. Such a psalm was a confession of faith, but it was also a confession in the sense that it admitted to the obligation the worshiper now bore by virtue of having received the deliverance and gracious bounty of God.
(Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed according to Scripture, Revised and Expanded Edition, p. 35)
Also pertaining to the appropriateness of solos in public worship, we are hard-pressed to escape 65 percent of the Psalter which was inspired with the first-person singular voice. Inspired in this context means, “breathed-out” by God (II Timothy 3:16-17).
In his chapter “Speakers in the Psalms?”, this is the aspect that W. Robert Godfrey points out first:
One of the most important complexities that we must address as we seek to appreciate the Psalms can be expressed as a question: Who speaks in the Psalms? One psalm speaks in the third person: “Blessed is the man …” (Ps. 1:1). Another speaks in the first person singular: “Answer me when I call …” (Ps. 4:1). Still another speaks in the first person plural: “O God, we have heard with our ears …” (Ps. 44:1). … In answering this question, we must say in the first place that often David is speaking. In the titles of seventy-three psalms, David is named as the author. … In a sense, the Psalter as a whole is connected to David. At least twice in the New Testament, untitled psalms are attributed to David (Acts 4:25-26, about Ps. 2, and Heb. 4:7, about Ps. 95). He was indeed “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1). He inspired the nation to praise. Even the psalms written by other authors are often concerned with the king and the kingdom. As we go through the Psalter, we will see that all of the Psalms in some sense are from the perspective of the king.
(W. Robert Godfrey, Learning to Love the Psalms, pp. 21-22)
So, aside from the instruction of solo singing in the New Testament, if some who tout “Reformed theology” posit that solo singing is not permissible in Christian worship, then why are 98 of the Bible’s 150 psalms — nearly two-thirds — replete with singular pronouns “I” and “me” and “my”?
Why is the Bible’s songbook front-loaded with so many psalms markedly personal in tone?
Psalm 2: “I will tell of the decree.”
Psalm 3: “O LORD, how many are my foes! … Save me, O my God!”
Psalm 4: “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!”
Psalm 5: “Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness …”
Psalm 6: “Turn, O LORD, deliver my life.”
Psalm 7: “O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge.”
Psalm 8: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers …”
Psalm 9: “I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart.”
Psalm 11: “In the LORD I take refuge; how can you say to my soul …”
Psalm 13: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?”
Psalm 16: “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.”
Psalm 17: “Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry!”
Psalm 18: “I love you, O LORD, my strength.”
Psalm 19: “Declare me innocent from hidden faults. … Then I shall be blameless …”
Psalm 20: “Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed.”
Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Psalm 25: “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.”
Psalm 26: “Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity …”
Psalm 27: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”
Psalm 28: “The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts …”
Psalm 30: “I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up …”
Psalm 31: “In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.”
Psalm 32: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away, through my groaning all day long.”
Psalm 34: “I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”
Psalm 35: “Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me.”
Psalm 36: “Let not the foot of arrogance come upon me …”
Psalm 37: “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken …”
Psalm 38: “Do not forsake me, O LORD! O my God, be not far from me!”
Psalm 39: “I said, ‘I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue.’”
Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.”
Psalm 41: “As for me, I said, ‘O LORD, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned …’”
Psalm 42: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”
Psalm 43: “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause … deliver me!”
Psalm 44: “You are my King, O God … For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.”
Psalm 45: “My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king.”
Psalm 49: “My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart will be understanding.”
Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Psalm 52: “I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”
Psalm 54: “O God, save me by your name, and vindicate me by your might.”
Psalm 55: “Give ear to my prayer, O God, and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!”
Psalm 56: “Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me.”
Psalm 57: “Be merciful to me, O God … for in you my soul takes refuge.”
Psalm 59: “Deliver me from my enemies, O my God … fierce men stir up strife against me.”
Psalm 60: “Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom?”
Psalm 61: “Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you …”
Psalm 62: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.”
Psalm 63: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you.”
Psalm 64: “Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from dread of the enemy.”
Psalm 66: “If I had cherished iniquity within my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”
Psalm 68: “… the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary …”
Psalm 69: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire …”
Psalm 70: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me!”
Psalm 71: “In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame!”
Psalm 73: “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.”
Psalm 74: “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.”
Psalm 75: “But I will declare it forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.”
Psalm 77: “I cry aloud to God … In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord.”
Psalm 78: “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth!”
Psalm 81: “I hear a language I had not known.”
Psalm 83: “O my God, make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind.”
Psalm 84: “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD.”
Psalm 85: “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak …”
Psalm 86: “Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.”
Psalm 87: “Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon.”
Psalm 88: “O LORD, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you.”
Psalm 89: I will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever.”
Psalm 91: “I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”
Psalm 92: “For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work … I sing for joy.”
Psalm 94: “Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers?”
Psalm 101: “I will sing of steadfast love and justice; to you, O LORD, I will make music.”
Psalm 102: “Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress!”
Psalm 103: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!”
Psalm 104: “Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, you are very great!”
Psalm 106: “Remember me, O LORD, when you show favor to your people.”
Psalm 108: “My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being!”
Psalm 109: “Help me, O LORD my God! Save me according to your steadfast love!”
Psalm 111: “I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company …”
Psalm 116: “I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.”
Psalm 118: “Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free.”
Psalm 119: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Psalm 120: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. Deliver me, O LORD …”
Psalm 121: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”
Psalm 122: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’”
Psalm 123: “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!”
Psalm 130: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.”
Psalm 131: “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high.”
Psalm 135: “For I know that the LORD is great, and that our Lord is above all gods.”
Psalm 137: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!”
Psalm 138: “I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise.”
Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!”
Psalm 140: “Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men; preserve me from violent men …”
Psalm 141: “O LORD, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you!”
Psalm 142: “I cry to you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion …’”
Psalm 143: “I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.”
Psalm 144: “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war …”
Psalm 145: “I will extol you, my God and King … Every day I will bless you …”
Psalm 146: “Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live.”
Some of these psalms even juxtapose the singular narrator with the plural congregation within the same lyric, further demarcating the distinctive, sometimes antiphonic lead of the solo voice.
This list only accounts what is explicitly in Scripture, specifically, the Psalter. It doesn’t remotely attempt to account for the vast repertory of hymns written in the first-person singular voice which Reformed churches have been regularly singing for hundreds of years.
Godfrey continues with reasoning of how a singular singer is meant to stimulate plural devotion.
In the second place, we should see that David as the king also speaks to God for his people and as their representative. Consider, for example, Psalm 25:1: “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.” Who is speaking here? Clearly, David as the “I” in this psalm in its original setting. So are the words only for David? Clearly not. David includes all the people of God in his reflection: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies” (v. 10). David speaks for himself and his personal need, but he also speaks as king and therefore representative of all his people. This reminds us that the most personal and individual psalm is for all of God’s people and the most national or corporate psalm is for each individual. All the psalms are both for individual believers and for all of God’s people.
( ibid., p. 22)
A simple logical syllogism appears to prove the biblical, apostolic, and Reformed legitimacy of solo singing in the formal worship of God.
- Major premise: The New Testament commands the decent and orderly use of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in the corporate worship of Christians.
- Minor premise: 98 psalms — 65 percent of the entire psalmodic catalog — were inspired by the Holy Spirit with the first-person singular voice.
- Conclusion: It is biblically regulated and appropriate for Christian churches, Reformed and otherwise, to integrate decent and orderly solo-singing of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs into its corporate worship when possible and such resources are available.
As previously adverted, the regulative principle holds that only what is explicitly revealed in the New Testament must be observed in worship.
So, we find in apostolic teaching not only the permission, but also the commission of solo-singing when Christians gather for corporate worship, such as, (I Corinthians 14:26) “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”
Also, the New Testament’s pithy command, (James 5:13) “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise,” uses singular pronouns, clearly denoting at least the permission if not certainly also the commission of a solo singer in the worship setting.
Some Reformed-thinking people have been known to object to the notion of solo singing in church services because it may unfairly exalt one person’s gifts over others’; take people’s focus off worshiping God and onto the singer’s style and delivery; and/or introduce the opportunity for the singer’s temptation to pride. Of course, any of these can occur. But in addition to the biblical evidence, we should keep in mind the Latin axiom, abusus non tollit usum: “Abuse does not remove use.” This is further defined by one source as, “The fact that a thing may be abused or improperly used from a moral point of view does not justify its destruction, nonuse, or non-application.” (James T. Bretzke, SJ, Consecrated Phrases: A Latin Theological Dictionary, Third Edition, p. 3)
This classic Latin legal apothegm squarely comports with Douglas Bannerman’s aforementioned comment that “Such abuse of freedom was no argument against its lawful use in the synagogue.” Clearly, even a scholar of Scottish Presbyterian pedigree such as Dr. Bannerman recognized that any legitimate point of orthodoxy or orthopraxy is susceptible to overcorrection by Christians.
To opine that solo singing is too risky to integrate into worship — especially since both Scripture testaments explicitly provide for it — is to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater.
It makes as much sense that we shouldn’t earn money because there are people who are greedy; or we shouldn’t listen to sermons because there are preachers who grandstand; or we shouldn’t get married because there are people who abuse sex. Rather, Scripture regulates the lawful use of money, preaching, and marriage, and any of these legitimate categories are vulnerable to fallacy.
Just like any other area of ministry, solo singing is not inherently anthropocentric. The bevy of introspective psalms that God inspired abundantly proves this. Solo singing is man-centered only if the performer and the recipient make it so. If anyone reduces so-called “special music” to be entertainment, it certainly is not the Lord who designed it, but fallen, self-centered human beings.
So, whether speaking of congregational singing, choirs, ensembles or soloists; as some would say, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. In 16th-century Geneva, John Calvin observed,
Hence it is perfectly clear that neither words nor singing (if used in prayer) are of the least consequence, or avail one iota with God, unless they proceed from deep feeling in the heart. No, rather they provoke his anger against us, if they come from the lips and throat only, since this is to abuse his sacred name, and hold his majesty in derision. This we infer from the words of Isaiah, which, though their meaning is of wider extent, go to rebuke this vice also: “Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid” (Isaiah 29:13). Still we do not condemn words or singing, but rather greatly commend them, provided the feeling of the mind goes along with them. For in this way the thought of God is kept alive on our minds, which, from their fickle and versatile nature, soon relax, and are distracted by various objects, unless various means are used to support them. Besides, since the glory of God ought in a manner to be displayed in each part of our body, the special service to which the tongue should be devoted is that of singing and speaking, inasmuch as it has been expressly created to declare and proclaim the praise of God. This employment of the tongue is chiefly in the public services which are performed in the meeting of the saints. In this way the God whom we serve in one spirit and one faith, we glorify together as it were with one voice and one mouth; and that openly, so that each may in turn receive the confession of his brother’s faith, and be invited and incited to imitate it.
(Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.20.31)
Conclusion: attaining true consistency in Reformed interpretation
Christ is at the center of worship whether we sing as individuals, as a choir, or a congregation. Godfrey orients us as individuals and as a people to the obvious omphalos of our worship:
We should conclude that the Psalms are not only for the king, for Israel, and for the church, but that all the Psalms are also the songs of our great King, Jesus the Christ. David’s kingship and kingdom pointed forward to the coming of Christ and are fulfilled in Him. Jesus Himself declared that the Psalms are about Him: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Throughout our study, we will see over and over again how Christ fills and fulfills the Psalter.
In a profound sense, individual Christians and the church as a body identify with the Psalms because Christ did. He lived in the Psalms.
(W. Robert Godfrey, Learning to Love the Psalms, p. 23)
Reformed-thinking people such as Presbyterians have elements that are crucial to their doctrinal distinctives that are not explicitly revealed in Scripture, yet are deduced by good and necessary consequence. For example, the doctrine of infant baptism is part of the broader scheme of covenantal worship and it rests on implicit biblical revelation, which is the relationship of Old-Testament circumcision as replaced by New-Testament baptism as God’s covenant sign.
Baptists, in contrast, believe that infant baptism is wrong because the New Testament does not explicitly command it. This is consistent with their hermeneutic approach and is required by it.
So as long as we in the Reformed court are enunciating such a pressing importance of “restoring consistency to Reformed ministry” and “yielding consistency across the congregations,” why do some Presbyterians seize upon the principle of Old Testament implicit revelation when it comes to their sacramentology — but when it comes to music, they seem to abandon consistency of the regulative principle and flip their position to what resembles a Baptist hermeneutic much more than an actually Reformed method of Bible interpretation?
Also, how far will we feel the need to press this “yielding consistency across the congregations”? Will we require the exact same number of congregants in every church, with the exact same ratio of male to female voices, with the same instruments, in identical acoustics, playing every psalm, hymn and spiritual song the exact same way, following the exact same liturgy, every Sunday, so everyone can expect the exact same Big Mac they will get if they visit anywhere? When/how will our drive for consistency ever be satisfied if it is so important to standardize every circumstance and element of worship across the congregations? If these questions are ridiculous, then are they ridiculous only because they may follow an ostensibly innocuous notion to its logical conclusion?
The Bible espouses many instructions for church music: Holy Scripture is sufficient for all things pertaining to faith and practice, but it does not specifically define everything. The Lord has seen fit in the New Testament revelation to leave many details as to the outworking of worship rather open. This combined with the undeniable subjective component of people’s worship music views leaves the church operating with an ineluctable tension when discerning what is biblical worship.
We carefully follow direction from Scripture, yet, everyone undeniably has preferences. It is one thing for churches to not have choirs, ensembles and solos because they lack the resources, the interest or the desire to integrate them into their worship. It’s another thing to elevate a personal dislike for these elements to presume that they are “inconsistent with a Reformed hermeneutic.”
Rather than repeat the platitude that we must not exalt tradition over what is truly biblical, with the biblical evidence proponed, we must point out in the first place that the onus is on those who claim that what has been defined here as “special music” is by any measure inconsistent with a Reformed understanding of Scripture. Since special music is biblical and Reformed theology also is biblical, then there necessarily must be ground for special worship music in Reformed theology.
Idolatry certainly can be a pitfall for musicians and vocalists, which is true for anyone who sets out to perform their gifts in the service of the Lord. Yet, no less, idolatry can be a danger for those whose view of worship is so narrow as to the preclusion of entire classes of musicians from their access and potential to canorously edify the body of Christ and to make his name known.
Likewise, envy is just as much of a danger for some Christians as pride is for some others. We all must practice self-awareness, others-awareness, and God-awareness, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and “pursu[ing] what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
Christians of the Reformed persuasion, as conscientious as we might be in our respective outlooks of worship, should be cautious not to conflate our objective approaches to biblical worship with our personal preferences for certain musical styles and settings.
In other words, when our music choices come down to what we prefer, we should simply say our music choices are what we prefer, instead of saying that ours is the only faithful way to interpret Scripture, build up the body of Christ, and worship the Lord. While we all strive for accurate biblical worship, perhaps comity in legitimate diversity is more important for us than uniformity.