Prescriptive Psalmody

Discussion in 'A capella Exclusive Psalmody' started by JohnV, Aug 1, 2008.

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  1. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    This is for JD (Panta) but anyone is invited to chip in.

    In this thread I want to assume the non-EP/non-NI position, that God approves of and blesses both the addition of songs besides the Psalms, and the use of instruments in the worship of Him.

    So if you're EP (Exclusive Psalmist) or NI (No Instruments) or both, you may also join in, but not to debate these issues. I ask that you take the assumption that the non-EP and non-NI take, if you can. The point at issue is whether the term "prescriptive" is the right term. I want to challenge the term "prescriptive". I'm having difficulty understanding it, and by this thread I want to take it out of the EP/NI context to see if it holds up on its own merits.

    JD, in another thread you were defending what you called a Prescriptive view of the Psalms. Now, I gave it some thought and at one point I was starting to agree with you, but then I had to back off. I mean, I agree with what you're trying to say, but I'm not so sure about some things that would follow in how you're saying it. It could just be overstating the case, but it could also be something else. So I have a couple of questions for you.

    1. By "prescriptive" do you mean that, since (we assume) that God approves of instruments and other songs, we must use instruments and other songs, otherwise we aren't filling the prescription?

    2. In a context outside the EP/NI discussions, would you still use the same term? Aren't you running the risk of adding something that wasn't there before, bringing in a new idea?

    3. (Here's my point) Is not the term "prescriptive" a bit too strong a term?
  2. Backwoods Presbyterian

    Backwoods Presbyterian Puritan Board Doctor

  3. Bygracealone

    Bygracealone Puritan Board Sophomore

  4. blhowes

    blhowes Puritan Board Professor

    Interesting thread. I'm looking forward to hearing what others think about the questions you ask.
    When you say that God approves of the use of songs and instruments, is that the same thing as saying that God commands their use, that He's saying in His scriptures that this is how he wants to be worshipped? Or are they not, and God blesses their use anyway? If God says in the Bible that He wants to be worshipped with the addition of songs, and the use of instruments, then the term prescriptive seems appropriate. (kind of like preaching - God commands it and you'd expect to hear preaching during the worship service).

  5. panta dokimazete

    panta dokimazete Panting Donkey Machete

    :) - John, thanks for pressing the issue and framing the discussion. This is a subject of particular interest to me (as a matter of fact, I have even started a blog on it :)) and I certainly appreciate all the dialogue/guidance from all, thus far, public and private.

    So, just to be clear for all - we are presupposing the RPW, right?

    Edited to add: I will be presupposing the RPW. :)
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2008
  6. panta dokimazete

    panta dokimazete Panting Donkey Machete

    Well, first off, let's distinguish between prescription and command.

    Actually, let's first define a hermeneutical approach:

    1. The NT has greater prescriptive authority than the OT for the NT church.

    2. However, unless abrogated by the NT, the OT prescription stands as normative.

    Now, I use prescriptive in the context that affirms and expresses requirement (command) and regulation (guidance). (Think in terms of a medical prescription "Take 3 times a day or as needed for pain...")

    So, in context of Prescriptive Psalmody, the Scriptures determine what is required and then what can be exegeted as appropriate in terms of regulation.

    So, with that said, I have stated before that it is clear in the NT that the commanded worship element is music, with singing as the required expression of the command and instruments as an allowable and regulatable circumstance for use as vocal praise accompaniment.

    I'll touch on new songs in a different post, since I missed addressing it before submitting the post. :)

    In terms of othrodoxy and orthopraxy, I don't see this as new, just reforming and refining.

    Not so much, if understood in the terms outlined above. :)
  7. timmopussycat

    timmopussycat Puritan Board Junior

    To answer your question 3, I would say no, for it is clear that whatever else may be said the apostle Paul tells us to sing psalms.
  8. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate


    This thread is not about defending the proposition that God approves of it. We're trying to look at that side of is supposing it to be true to see if it can stand up.

    There is an element in your question however that is to the point: is there a difference, if any at all, between "commend" and "command"? If I may therefore rephrase your question: If God commends something, then is that a command to do it?

    Peter found out in Joppa that God commended the eating of animals that were formerly forbidden to be eaten. But the passage does not indicate that this was then a command to eat formerly forbidden meats. You don't get that idea from the passage at all. God likewise commends many things without thereby commanding them.

    So it is one thing to say that God commends the use of instruments, or that God commends that we put our praises of Him into song; it is another to say that it is commanded. It would mean that it is praiseworthy to use an instrument skillfully in praise of Him, or to compose a worthy song of praise; but that doesn't mean that those who are not able to do that are breaking a commmandment. Is it implied that following and imitating those who can do this is the same as doing it? Does it mean that everyone has to have his individual song, or his individualy melody to the Psalms? What is being commanded here, if God's commendation of something means that He commands it?

    It is the worship of Him for our good that He is concerned about, not about those poor things we call song or the playing of musical instruments. Even our most well composed music to enhance the direct words of the Psalms cannot be acceptable to God on their own, not without the justification of Christ and the sanctification of the Spirit. Yet it pleases Him to commend our praises and worship, our gathering together, the preaching of the Holy Word through weak preachers, our poor prayers, etc. He commands that we worship, that we preach the Word, that we pray.

    He not only commends songs of worship, but He commands it.

    Now I know a few people who think they can sing, but that's not singing. And there is no way that they even know how to obey that command. They can't carry a tune, and they have no idea what the people are doing when they sing the melody or sing in harmonies, none at all. Yet they grew up with songs and with singing, and they do what they think people are doing without really getting into any analysis of that practice. I know this is severely overstating the case, but I want to point out by this extravagant example that some are able to obey more than others, if it is considered that kind of commandment. In other words, some would be more guilty than others of not obeying it fully. But my point is that we would all be guilty of not obeying that commandment. It is more likely that not singing at all, excluding singing, disobeys that commandment. But even our poorest attempts at obeying it is as full an obedience as that commandment is intended to expect. In other words, it is a commandment to not exclude singing from worship, and a commendation to excel in it. It does not go into any detail beyond that point, otherwise it would have detailed parameters and guidelines along with it, like so many of the case law commandments which define with greater explication each of the Ten Commandments, the ones which the Theonomists are concerned about.

    It seems to me therefore that I would have to give you a negative answer to your question. God may and can approve of something without therefore necessarily or implicitly making it a commandment.

    But now, having said that, the question comes up about what it is that is being commanded, required, or prescribed. God does command singing; how do we obey that commandment? That's what I want to explore. JD brought up the word "prescribe". I think I know what he means, but I think that we could talk about it more.
  9. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate


    It is my persuasion that it is a philosophical impossibility to not presuppose the RPW. Whether you deny it or adopt a changed version of it you are always presupposing the RPW. It cannot be avoided. That's one of the points I hope comes up later.
  10. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    Give me some time with this, JD. I think you articulated your thoughts well. I mean, it came through clearly. But I want to sort this out a bit, because there are a couple of things here that need more discussion. And it's Saturday night, meaning tomorrow's Sunday. Please be patient.

    In some ways my post above to Bob gives you an idea where my questions are headed, what it is I'm trying to explore.
  11. panta dokimazete

    panta dokimazete Panting Donkey Machete

    no prob - brother - I don't have a thing pressing me :)
  12. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    That's right, he does. If I told you to sing the Dutch national anthem (supposing you were a complete stranger to it) would you be able to do it? You can't obey a commandment if you don't know how to go about it.

    So, I command you to sing the Psalms. So, go ahead, do it. Remove all twentieth century context and obey Paul's command here. Can you do it? I didn't think so. Very few can. So what does this commandment mean? Is it like giving a prescription without giving a dosage amount? Would not the word "prescription" instead of "command" lead to the same thing, an inability to fill it? What does it mean that we are told to sing psalms?

    I'm not saying that "prescription" is either right or wrong. I'm supposing that God tells us to sing our praises, and not only just to say them; and that He tells us that He accepts the expression of music as praise, and that this too is worship. Right or wrong, I'm presupposing it. Let's explore this outside the context of defending what I'm presupposing. Hopefully it will help us to use our terms better, in a more wholesome context, and in a less confusing way. I mean, when we discuss with EP people they will better understand what we're saying, instead of imputing things to our words which we never intended. And the same goes the other way around, we'll understand them better too without improber imputations. Otherwise we'll just continue to talk past each other. I'm thinking that the term "prescription" might also serve to misdirect out intentions and meanings instead of clarifying them. After all, you don't find it in the Confessions in that context.
  13. KMK

    KMK Moderator Staff Member

    Interesting thought.

    What if you were commanded to sing Ps 24 to the original melody/rhythm composed by David? Music of that region does not use diatonic scales. In fact, even melodies/rhythms from western cultures of hundreds of years ago are almost unsingable today by ameteurs. (Have you ever tried to sing along with the melodies of Josquin De Prez?) The fact that we are commanded to sing requires that 'someone' compose singable melodies/rhythms. These melodies/rhythms would have to conform somewhat to cultural norms. Therefore, if my reasoning is correct, the command to 'sing' is also a command to 'compose'.
  14. timmopussycat

    timmopussycat Puritan Board Junior

    Although I am presently ignorant of the text and music of that anthem, if you give them to me I could sing it to you within 5 minutes. But I am a trained musician. I know how to sing and I know how to hear and mimic words in foreign languages. Most Christians in most NA churches could follow the melody line of that anthem even if they couldn't pronounce the words correctly.

    Now, for North Americans the Psalms must usually be sung in English translation since the Apostle commands all things to be done unto edifying and it is harder to edify oneself or others if one is trying to translate as well as listen at the same time. So learning the words is no problem.

    The biblical psalms are given to us in text only. Which means we have complete and total liberty in the musical settings we choose, save only that the setting we use must not obscure the text for the hearers. If I am alone I might listen to a 4 part fugue setting of a psalm, in most churches at most times I would prefer to encounter a single melody line setting because that would be within the singing capacity of the average church.

    I don't see the difference between prescription and presupposing that God has commanded sung praise, but if you do, I'll use your term and avoid confusion by trying to argue for mine.
  15. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    Yes, that's the idea, Ken. It is impossible to have such commandment without implying more.
  16. panta dokimazete

    panta dokimazete Panting Donkey Machete

    John, I may be misunderstanding, but help me understand what context prescribed is used here:

    Why didn't the Divines use "commanded" if they did not intend prescription in the manner I have suggested?
  17. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    That's exactly what I was getting at. Only I was going about it from the opposite angle: if it is a prescription then what is meant by the word "command"?

    The context of this word talks about requirement and regulation as outlined in the Scripture. It refers to those things explicitly covered in the Bible when it comes to worship. But when you say that the Psalms prescribe how worship in song is to be done, well you might be saying more in the use of that term than the WA said about worship in general when they used the same word.

    I'm trying to figure this out too, JD. I didn't say that you were wrong to use the term. I'm just being careful about the admonition not to go beyond the witness of the Church and beyond her authority.
  18. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    OK, I think I understand. The difference between "command" and "prescriptive" is the added element of "regulation" to the latter term. And "regulation" takes on a fuller meaning according to the context; i.e., it isn't just another word for "command". Some things are required because of command, and some things are required though not directly commanded to facilitate what is commanded.

    E.g., "Fill the hall" requires having a hall to fill, though there's nothing in that command about acquiring a hall. Getting a hall is a requirement, though not in the command. You could call it an implied command maybe, but "requirement" is more accurate.

    As to hermeneutical principles, I take it that you are referring to the NT, which is complete, illumining the OT, which also is complete. Therefore, if there is a command or a requirement in the OT it is illumined by the NT.

    Under this understanding of your delineation of "command" and "regulation", and if I understand you hermeneutal principles, I'd say that I have to agree with your statement:
  19. panta dokimazete

    panta dokimazete Panting Donkey Machete

    Psalm 133:1
    Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brothers to dwell together in unity!

    Thanks, brother :)
  20. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    The regulative principle -- what is not commanded is forbidden, WCF 20:2, 21:1. If one prefers to say "prescribed" instead of "commanded" I don't think anyone will quibble over words; but if one adds "prescribed" worship to "commanded" worship, and thereby creates elements which are not required but merely permissible, his regulative principle has ceased to be regulatory of worship.
  21. panta dokimazete

    panta dokimazete Panting Donkey Machete

    Is preaching precscribed for worship?

    Does Scripture help us understand what is required (commanded) and regulated (permissible) concerning preaching?

    Is prayer prescribed for worship?

    Does Scripture help us understand what is required (commanded) and regulated (permissible) concerning prayer?
  22. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Scripture regulates what is to be done in preaching. E.g., "preach the Word." Once it has been determined that Scripture has so regulated the preaching of the Word that is the end of the matter -- Scripture is to be followed.

    Scripture regulates what is to be done in prayer. E.g., pray in a known tongue. Once it has been determined that Scripture has so regulated the manner of prayer that is the end of the matter -- Scripture is to be followed.
  23. panta dokimazete

    panta dokimazete Panting Donkey Machete

    Scripture regulates what is to be done concerning music - be taught and admonished by the Psalms. Once it has been determined that Scripture has so regulated the practice of music that is the end of the matter --- Scripture is to be followed.
  24. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Yes, the Scripture prescribes that the Psalms are the matter to be sung in worship.
  25. panta dokimazete

    panta dokimazete Panting Donkey Machete

    They are absolutely to be sung in worship and they are also to be followed in what they prescribe - in part - new song and instruments as permissible.
  26. Backwoods Presbyterian

    Backwoods Presbyterian Puritan Board Doctor

    Why "in part"?
  27. panta dokimazete

    panta dokimazete Panting Donkey Machete

    I am sorry - I actually regretted the usage of "in part" as soon as I posted it - I used "in part" to say - as it regards in the particular usage of new song and instruments - I believe that the Psalms have prescriptive warrant for worship beyond just those components.
  28. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    As we depend on the NT for our understanding that the Psalms are to be sung, so we should also depend on the NT for understanding what bearing the OT has on NT worship. But the NT explicitly states that the next period of revelation is not to be expected until the coming of Christ; it also explicitly teaches that the OT ceremony is abrogated. The Westminster Confession faithfully explains both points in chap. 1:1, 6 and chap. 19:3.

    I have already addressed the question of "new songs" in previous threads and shown that they refer to new revelation making known the accomplishment of salvation through Christ and the proclamation of that salvation to all nations of the earth. Such "new songs" were given in the NT, as is seen from 1 Cor. 14, and it is evident that the quality of the song was no less inspired than the prophetic songs of David. Further, these "new songs" have not been recorded in Scripture; therefore there is no means of singing them even if it could be proved that the command to sing "new songs" was a corporate imperative. Given that there is no evidence that this prophetic gift continues today, there is no means of singing new songs; and even if there were, the new songs would be ecstatic, individual pieces, not written compositions imposed on whole congregations.

    How do we discern whether an OT command was ceremonial? The apostle clearly described the chief characteristic of the OT ceremonies when he stated that underage Israel was "in bondage under the elements of the world," Gal. 4:3. In Heb. 9:10 they are called "carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation." To discern whether an OT command was ceremonial, therefore, all that is required is to show that it commanded the use of something material and this-worldly to be offered up in worship to God. What is a musical instrument? It is specifically described as a material thing without life; 1 Cor. 14:7, "And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?" Therefore, according to the apostle's own classification system, musical instruments belong to the elements of this world and their "prescription" in worship is a bondage.
  29. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    We are presupposing that it is the case that the Bible approves of the use of instruments and of songs of praise other than the Psalms. We're not assuming that therefore this proposition is right. We're seeing if the propositions within it hold up. The key here is "prescriptive".

    Within the idea of "prescriptive", if we allow it as the same definitive use as XXI, i, then so far it makes sense. There are things that are not mentioned in the command that would still be required to fulfill a command. If "sing a new song" is a command, for example, then being able to write and compose is a requirement. Whether or not this requirement itself makes sense is not the issue so far. We're still getting to that. Its the divisions that are implied that we're working on now: command and requirement as separate yet intertwined terms. So far this division makes sense, it seems to me. But I'm not the judge of that. That's why this has to be open to all parties concerned. We're trying to be honest to truth together.

    Not everyone can compose, and not everyone can write songs, and not everyone can play an instrument. So a command to "sing a new song" is not like "love thy neighbor": if you can do it, well and good, but if you can't you haven't disobeyed. It's a legal curiosity if its a command: a positive command in the form of a negative command, ruling out the opposite, not necessarily demanding the positive. This is where we get hung up, it seems to me. Creating a new song, for some, seems to be breaking with the requirement, while to others it is necessarily implied.

    We should recognize that both sides of the issue have it in their heart to heed the RPW. It isn't that just one side is appealing to it. In reality both sides are.
  30. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    I think we should ask the real regulative principle to stand up -- whatever is not commanded is forbidden. This leaves no room for a distinction between commanded and prescribed. Use the words interchangeably to refer to the same thing if you please, but you can't create two categories out of them. To do so is to negate the principle because it allows for uncommanded elements to be made permissible in worship, which is contrary to the fundamental idea that what is not commanded is forbidden.

    Regulative principle = what is not commanded is forbidden.
    Prescriptive additions = what is not commanded mught be permissible.

    The law of non-contradiction makes it impossible to adhere to both.
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