“Psalms” & Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

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Poimen

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
This is my sixth response (in a series) to common objections to exclusive psalmody. The first is found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here & the fifth here.

For years I thought that exclusive psalmodists (EP) were in denial. How could they contend that the biblical Psalms were sufficient for congregational worship when Paul speaks of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19 & Colossians 3:16)? It seemed obvious that if Paul meant to reference the Psalms exclusively he would have done so i.e. with the moniker “psalms” or “book of psalms.”

But having come across the argument as to how an EP would understand this phrase in Pauline usage, I was struck by its simplicity and it required me rethink my previous objection. After some time of study and prayer I became convinced of the position.

As I reflect on these matters again, I thought it would be helpful to outline a defense of the EP position contra the way I used to understand these verses (which happens to a fairly common argument against exclusive psalmody). The reader will see that these are mostly, if not exclusively (!), arguments borrowed from other EP writers. I do not claim to write or propose anything new: I have simply catalogued them here for convenience

1) The command in both Ephesians 5:19 & Colossians 3:16 is to “sing.” Paul assumes an extant collection of songs i.e. he does not propose for any to write but to sing those that already exist. One might argue that the command to compose is implied but that would be gratuitous.

“These are not commands to make hymns, but to use hymns and Spirit-given songs such as were already at hand. These could be found only within the volume of inspiration... W.I. Wishart, “The Psalms the Divinely Authorized and Exclusive Manual of Praise” (page 55) The Psalms in Worship (1907), edited by John McNaughter

As others note, this is supported by the fact that no gift of song writing or a new songbook is ever attributed to any NT author.

2) The standard EP explanation is that Paul is simply using a ‘standard’ three-fold phrase to refer to one collection of songs: “This use of “psalms, hymns, and songs” to refer to the collected Book of Praises thus echoes the OT summary for the Law of Moses, “commandments, testimonies, and statutes” (1 Chronicles 29:19), or Jesus’ summary of the Bible, “the Law of Moses and the prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:44).” Christian Adjemian, Psalms in Worship

“Jewish writers would list three identical or synonymous words or phrases, or list three aspects of a thing to emphasize perfection or completeness. See Ex 34.7; Dt 30.16; Is 6.3; Jer 7.4; Lk 24.44; Acts 2.22; 2 Cor 12.12; 1 Thess 5.23; 1 Tim 2.1” James R. Hughes, In Spirit and Truth: Worship as God Requires

3) Does it seem reasonable to conclude that Paul would place the biblical Psalms in the same category as uninspired material?

“if the Psalms of Scripture are intended by the word ‘psalms,’ as is assumed for the present, it is quite unthinkable that Paul would link human compositions with those of the Spirit of God, and direct that they be used for the same end... It was he who distinguished the Old Testament writings, inclusive of the Psalter, as “God-breathed” literature, clothed with inviolable sanctity... It seems incredible, therefore, that in this instance he should trample upon a distinction which elsewhere he guards jealously and put uninspired songs in competition with those inspired as having equal teaching worth.” John McNaughter “A Special Exegesis of Colossians 3:16 & Ephesians 5:19” (page 131) The Psalms in Worship (1907), edited by John McNaughter

4) The NT scripture, including its wording & phrases, is not an entirely ‘new creation.’ Consider how many words and allusions are inspired from the Old Testament and this three-fold phrase takes on old(er) meaning:

“What shall we sing? Why, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. How shall we know what these are? We must look in scripture, where these words are used. Now we find them nowhere explained so properly as in the Old Testament; where they are the usual titles of David's psalms, and the songs of other holy men, and no other use of them expressed in the New” Cuthbert Sidenham, A Gospel Ordinance

“In Psalm 137:3 (LXX) we read: “There they who took us captive demanded of us words of songs (ᾠδαῖ), and they who led us away said, ‘Chant us a hymn (ὕμνοι) out of the songs (εκ των ωδων) of Zion.’ Here the word “songs” (ᾠδαῖ) covers all the Psalms and a “hymn” may be selected at random from these “songs.” John McNaughter “A Special Exegesis of Colossians 3:16 & Ephesians 5:19” (page 140) The Psalms in Worship (1907), edited by John McNaughter

See also http://spindleworks.com/septuagint/lxx_psalm_titles.htm

5) The grammatical phrasing of this Pauline expression is also instructive: “The structure of “psalms and hymns and songs spiritual” can be re-written in transformation syntax as: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase. A noun phrase equals either a single noun (psalms or hymns) or a noun plus an adjective (songs spiritual). The conjunction, of course, is "and." "And" is a coordinating conjunction in Greek, as it is in English. “And” places the things it coordinates in the same plane or gives the elements coordinated an equality relationship.

The structure of Ephesians 5:19, the syntax of Ephesians 5:19, is illustrated several other times in the New Testament. Matthew 28:19 is a parallel structure. The New American Standard Version translates Matthew 28:19 "...baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." This is a correct rendering and it indicates that there is one Name, and three Persons. The relationship between the name and the persons is clearer in the Greek. "...baptizing them into the Name of the Father and (into the Name) of the Son, and (into the Name) of the Holy Spirit." The parentheses are implied by the cases of the nouns, but are not written on the surface structure" of Matthew 28:19. Rewriting this structure in transformational terms we have: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase. The first noun phrase is “into the name of the Father” the second noun phrase is “of the Son” and the third noun phrase us “of the Holy Spirit.”

II Corinthians 13:13 reads: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you." The structure of I Corinthians 13:13 in Transformational terms is: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase. Luke 24:44 reads: "(Jesus) said unto then.., that all things must needs be fulfill which are written in the law of Moses and the Prophets, and the Psalms, concerning me." The underlined words can be expressed in the Transformational terms: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase.

The argument is that the syntax of Ephesians 5:19, Matthew 28:19, II Corinthians 13:13 and Luke 24:44 is the same in form: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase. The point is that the intimate and precise relationships of the elements in the four passages, Ephesians 5:19; Matthew 28:19; II Corinthians 13:13; Luke 24:44 are guarded by syntax. There is no more intimate, close, and indissoluble relationship than that of the Trinity. This is expressed, syntactically, in terms: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase. To use this same structure in Ephesians 5:19 indicates that the terms psalms, hymns and songs are related very closely. It means that if any one of these terms is Scripture, then all of the terms have the authority of Scripture, i.e. are the equal of Scripture.

This is exactly the conclusion we are approaching. The terms psalms, hymns, and songs are equal in authority by reason of their syntax. Psalms is already acknowledged to be a reference to Scripture. Songs, modified by the adjective, spiritual, would also be a reference to Scripture, and therefore hymns must be Scripture. (page 200) Edward A. Robson, An Exposition of the Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs of Ephesians 5:19 & Colossians 3:16. Taken from “The Biblical Doctrine of Worship”[1]

6) Thus the adjective spiritual should not be understood to modify ‘songs’ only but all three words and thus does not have reference to some special kind of song but rather Paul is noting the inspired source of these songs:

“The question, of course, arises: why does the word pneumatikos qualify odais and not psalmois and humnois? A reasonable answer to this question is that pneumatikais qualifies all three datives and that its gender (fem.) is due to attraction to the gender of the noun that is closest to it. Another distinct possibility, made particularly plausible by the omission of the copulative in Colossians 3:16, is that "Spiritual songs" are the genus of which "psalms" and "hymns" are the species. This is the view of Meyer, for example. On either of these assumptions the psalms, hymns and songs are all "Spiritual" and therefore all inspired by the Holy Spirit. The bearing of this upon the question at issue is perfectly apparent. Uninspired hymns are immediately excluded.” Minority Report of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God Submitted to the Fourteenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

“when the apostle calls for the use of such songs of praise as he designates "spiritual," he enlists a word which in all but one of its twenty-five occurrences in the New Testament refers to what belongs to or is determined by the Holy Spirit; never does the word designate merely a religious function, or what is produced by the human spirit.[2] When the word is used of men, as in I Cor. 2:15, 3:1, and Gal. 6:1, it indicates men savingly renewed and led by the Spirit. But when the term is applied to words and texts, as it is in Rom. 7:14 and I Cor. 2:13, it plainly denotes Spirit-indited, in the sense of revelatory prophecy;[3] the only other instances in which it is used with respect to words and texts are Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16” Sherman Isbell, The Singing of Psalms

7) If these references do not speak of the biblical Psalms, then a quandary exists for those who advocate uninspired songs in worship. What, after all, is a hymn?[4] How is it to be distinguished from a ‘spiritual song?’ Do modern hymn books actually distinguish between all three?

“we must make an effort to understand what the words “psalms, hymns, songs” meant to the apostle and to his hearers. Most scholars today agree that it is difficult to draw distinctions between the three Greek terms ψαλµος, υµνος, and ωδη (psalmos, hymnos, ode). Some older commentators look to the etymology of the words to identify three classes of song, but this has proven fruitless. Modern lexicography considers them to be nearly synonymous, drawn from a single semantic field of ‘religious song.’ All commentators note the frequency of occurrence of these three words in the LXX, and especially in the book of Psalms” Christian Adjemian, Psalms in Worship

8) Many early church fathers & our Reformed forebearers have spoken very clearly on this matter:

In the early Christian church, similarly, the three terms [ed. of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs] were used interchangeably to describe the book of Psalms. Justin Martyr was referred to before as endorsing the LXX translation of "hymns" in Ps. 72:20. Clement of Alexandria must have been contemplating either Eph. 5:19 or Col. 3:16 when he said: "The apostle calls the psalms ‘a spiritual song.'"[5] Lactantius called David, "the writer of divine hymns;"[6] and the apostolic constitutions could not be any clearer: "sing the hymns of David."[7] Matthew Winzer, Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land

and to us David's Psalms seem plainly intended by those terms of Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs, which the Apostle useth, Ephes. 5.19, Col. 3.16.” subscribed by Thomas Manton, Henry Langley, John Owen, William Jenkyn., James Innes, Thomas Watson, Thomas Lye, Matthew Poole, John Milward, John Chester, George Cokayn, Matthew Meade, Robert Francklin, Thomas Dooelittle, Thomas Vincent, Nathanael Vincent, John Ryther, William Tomson, Nicolas Blakie, Charles Morton, Edmund Calamy, William Carslake, James Janeway, John Hickes, John Baker, Richard Mayo. David Silversides, The Development of the Scottish Psalter

See also http://www.cprf.co.uk/quotes/psalmshymnsandspiritualsongs.htm


[1] Published by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, 1974.

[2] Benjamin B. Warfield, "Notes on Pneumatikos and its opposites in the Greek of the New Testament," Presbyterian Review 1 (1880): 561. The occurrences are Rom. 1:11, 7:14, 15:27, I Cor. 2:13, 2:15, 3:1, 9:11, 10:3-4, 12:1, 14:1, 14:37, 15:44, 15:46, Gal. 6:1, Eph. 1:3, 5:19, 6:12, Col. 1:9, 3:16, and I Pet. 2:5.

[3] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1967), 1:254.

[4] Excluding, obviously, an anachronistic reference to modern day hymns.

[5] Clement of Alexandria, ‘The instructor,' in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993 rpt.), 249.

[6] Lactantius, ‘The epitome of the divine institutes,' in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 7 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993 rpt.), 238.

[7] Constitutions of the holy apostles,' in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 7 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993 rpt.), 393.
 
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Jeri Tanner

Moderator
Staff member
Another very helpful article. It's hard to see how anyone could not be convinced, yet I was reminded of this quote from "Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries," by Ruth Ellis Messenger:

"There is no part of the general field of Christian hymnology so baffling to the student or so full of difficulties as the one under consideration in this paper. Many accounts of the subject are in existence but are far from conclusive. This is due, first of all, to the unexpected scarcity of original sources (italics mine). When one views the rise of Christianity from its inception to the period of the Council of Nicaea, 325, its numerical growth from a handful of original adherents to millions of followers at the time of the Edict of Milan, 313, its literary development from early scattered records to the works of the great Greek and Latin fathers, one cannot help inquiring, 'What has become of their hymns?'...

"Let us abandon at once our contemporary connotation of the word hymn...In the pre-Ambrosian period Christian hymns were largely of the psalm type, to be chanted in rhythmic periods without rhyme. Not only should the word hymn be conceived in terms of ancient thought, but also the futile attempt to differentiate among psalms, hymns and canticles should be avoided."
 

timfost

Puritan Board Senior
Up front, I have no conviction for EP, but I am trying to understand the position. With this in mind, I am not desirous of debating the subject by any means. Rather, I just want to try to understand the conviction.

1. Would you explain "spiritual" in Col. 3:16 to mean "inspired"?

2. The context of Col. 3:16 seems to not deal with the RP. In EP circles, is this passage a proof-text for the position or is it a problem text?

3. Do you view the LXX as an inspired translation?

Also, is there a website or something that can briefly describe the rationale for EP? Again, this inquiry is because I'm curious, not because I am seeking to challenge the position.

Thanks in advance!
 

R Harris

Puritan Board Sophomore
3. Do you view the LXX as an inspired translation?

Are the KJV, NIV, NASB, or ESV translations "inspired"?

Certainly the LXX is used as the source for a number of OT passages that the Apostles quote in their epistles. So, obviously it is a legitimate translation, else if it was "wrong", they would not have used it.

Hope that helps. I will let Daniel or others respond to 1 and 2.

Daniel, that was an excellent piece of writing. Your writing style summarized the matter beautifully.
 

Poimen

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Up front, I have no conviction for EP, but I am trying to understand the position. With this in mind, I am not desirous of debating the subject by any means. Rather, I just want to try to understand the conviction.

1. Would you explain "spiritual" in Col. 3:16 to mean "inspired"?

2. The context of Col. 3:16 seems to not deal with the RP. In EP circles, is this passage a proof-text for the position or is it a problem text?

3. Do you view the LXX as an inspired translation?

Also, is there a website or something that can briefly describe the rationale for EP? Again, this inquiry is because I'm curious, not because I am seeking to challenge the position.

Thanks in advance!

Hi Tim.

1) Yes I would.

2) Personally I wouldn't put that much weight on it, hence I was answering an objection to EP not, so much, trying to build a case for it. However I firmly believe that Paul meant the biblical psalms in his use of that threefold phrase so I suppose one could argue that it is an argument for EP. Additionally it is a problem text for anyone who attempts to understand it since there are various interpretations of it.

3) Not at all. The Septuagint, however, is useful (along with other primary and secondary linguistic resources) to determine the meaning of the same words used in the Greek NT. At the very least, the LXX demonstrates that a valid interpretation of the threefold phrase is a reference to the biblical psalms.

This article will help you to understand the rationale for EP: http://www.reformedprescambridge.com/articles/Psalms_in_worship_final_version.pdf

If you would like a more comprehensive resource, I invite you to explore this website devoted to this practice: http://exclusivepsalmody.com/
 
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