Considering Exceptions: Singing Psalms

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.

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.”

 

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.”

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