Considering Exceptions: Singing Psalms

Often, potential exceptions to the Westminster Standards take this form: "If the Confession is saying 'x', then I must state my difference with that section." One particularly common example of this is found in WCF 21.5, which reads, If the "singing of psalms with grace in the heart" means that we may only sing psalms, as opposed to hymns, many (myself included) would need to seek an exception. It is, therefore, a matter of no small importance for us to understand just what that phrase-and the section as a whole-truly means.

Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith covers the subjects of worship and the Sabbath. Section one asserts the principle from Romans 1-that by the light of nature all men know that there is a God and that he deserves our worship. While all men know this truth (however much this truth is suppressed), the acceptable manner by which we are to worship God is instituted only by Himself in His word. As such, men may only properly worship God in accordance with the revelation he provides. For us, that means we must worship God only as he has revealed himself in the pages of the Old and New Testament. Section two, then, specifically directs our worship only at the Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sections three and four cover prayer as one special part of worship. Section five sets forth the ordinary and seasonal parts of worship. Section six talks about the time and place for worship, while the remaining sections deal with the Christian Sabbath.

When we come to section five, we find a list of the parts of worship: the reading, proclamation, and conscionable hearing of Scripture, the singing of Psalms, and the administration and receiving of the Sacraments. These are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God. In addition to these ordinary elements, various activities can be added as the season or occasion demands. These include oaths, vows, fasts, and thanksgivings.

The primary question, of course, concerns the statement about singing: Is the Westminster Confession of Faith advocating exclusive psalmody? Or, to put it another way: If one were to adhere to the confession without any stated difference, must that person refrain from singing any song in worship that was not one of the one hundred and fifty Psalms found in Scripture? For a variety of reasons, I do not believe the answer to either question is "yes."

The first reason is that the confession's use of the word 'psalm' does not necessarily restrict worship to the book of the Bible with that particular name. As Chad Van Dixhorn has stated in his reader's guide to the confession:

...the commendation of the Psalms in the confession and the directory [for public worship] needs to take into account that early modern use of the term 'psalm' is not limited to the Book of Psalms only. The common use of psalm almost always included hymns, and in it is scriptural proof texts the assembly deliberately directs readers of the confession to passages like Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19, and James 5:13, which call Christians to 'sing praise', or to sing 'psalms and hymns and spiritual songs'.1

As an historical document, the common usage of the word when it was originally written must take precedence over our usage of the word today. Further, however much the divines may have disliked the idea of adding in the Scripture proofs, the confession itself was not finalized without them. As such, they provide additional insight into their thought process (even if collected after the fact) in putting forth the Confession and Catechism.

Yet, even if one were convinced that "the singing of with grace in the heart" meant just that (and only that), I would still argue that the singing of hymns would not be contra-confessional and the conviction that singing hymns is acceptable and biblical would not require the granting of an exception. Further, it is my frank opinion that to argue otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand this chapter of the Confession.

The contrary argument (that the confession only allows the singing of Psalms) is based upon the notion that this section gives us an exhaustive list of acceptable elements of worship. 21.5 lists several elements and declares that these "are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God." At least two things mitigate against this being an exhaustive list. First, 21.5 does not say the preceding are "the parts" or even "all the parts" but rather "are all parts." The very language the divines used shows us that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list.

Second, we can consider the good and necessary consequences of an exclusivist reading of 21.5. If you believe that the confession only allows the singing of Psalms, you also have to admit that the collection of an offering is not part of ordinary religious worship. To be sure, an offering may be a form of thanksgiving. It would at least seem odd, however, to include something appropriate in "their special times and seasons" every week (especially while only occasionally observing the Lord's Supper!). Therefore, to assert that the confession only allows Psalms is to introduce a inconsistency with the very principle the Confession puts forth: the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and is not limited to the list in 21.5.

If, however, one does argues that 21.5 is an exhaustive list (perhaps because they don't collect an offering...), you still have an even larger problem of inconsistency. If 21.5 is the list of what can (and therefore cannot) be included in the ordinary or seasonal worship of God, then the confession of faith is precluding prayer in worship. Prayer is not found in the list that 21.5 gives. It is, of course, the subject of 21.3-4 - but if 21.5 is the list, it is utterly unbiblical in its setting forth the whole of worship! But, of course, that isn't the case: 21.5 sets forth examples from Scripture on the basis of the principle outlined in 21.1. We look not to the confession for our exhaustive instruction in the proper worship of God, but to Scripture alone.

I would, therefore, encourage everyone to sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs - knowing that the confession does not discourage the practice at all. Further, I would encourage anyone who believes that this portion of the confession is worthy of a stated difference (no matter how minor or merely semantic) to reconsider. When properly understood, the 21st chapter of our confession deepens our understanding of and reliance upon the self-revelation of God that is found in Scripture and 21.5 continues this by way of example, not by way of exhaustive list.

1. Chad Van DIxhorn, Confessing the Faith, A reader's guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Banner of Truth, 2014), p. 285. Note that this is contra G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (P & R, 2004), p. 217. I agree with Williamson that the historic practice of Presbyterian (and many Reformed) churches has been to sing only Psalms. I am not convinced that this necessarily means that the Westminster Divines were of the same mind. See also Nick Needham, "Westminster and Worship: Psalms, Hymns? and Musical Instruments?" in Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (Mentor, 2005), 2:223-306.