Right Recipe for Psalmody

Really, I’m just not the baking type. I know many people bake because they just love it. But, I’m more the person for whom people bake, because I love eating! That’s at least the way it works out in my family. My wife loves to bake and finds great joy in doing so. I love to eat what she bakes, and I shower her with compliments as I eat it! We have a great “baking” relationship.

Now, she tells me the secret to baking is the recipe. Just assemble the ingredients and follow the instructions. Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? But really that is it: the right ingredients and the right instructions. I believe her and the proof is in her pudding, or better her pavlova!

From pavlova and baking, we now turn to Psalmody, the matter of singing Psalms in corporate worship. Perhaps not the smoothest transition, but it works. It works because there is similarity between baking and Psalmody. The similarity is with their shared model of success, namely, that with the right recipe both baking and Psalmody work out for the best.

Ah, but what if things don’t turn out for the best, i.e. the end product is only half-baked or over-done? Beyond a possible user error, there is likely something wrong with the recipe, either in the ingredients or the instructions. This article is a series of two in which we will evaluate the known recipes for Psalmody to see which one is the best. This particular article shall be given to the recipe known as Exclusive Psalmody, to see if it is right recipe.


What is the recipe for Exclusive Psalmody? Well, let’s start first with the ingredients. The core “ingredients” according to this recipe are the three robust doctrines of inspiration, preservation, and the regulative principle. Now isn't the time to detail each one, but let the following stand as a summary:

  • Inspiration is the belief that the Lord God has “breathed out” His words to us in Scripture, in such a way that when men of old wrote down the Scriptures, they were carried along and above by the Spirit to write the Word of God accurately and without error.
  • Preservation of Scripture is the belief that God has so sovereignty worked throughout history to protect, compile, and keep pure His inspired Word for the blessing of all future generations.
  • The Regulative Principle is the belief that God not only cares about how He is worship, but has prescribed the "pattern" in which He is to be worshipped. All things not prescribed are therefore forbidden.

These three doctrines form the core ingredients to Exclusive Psalmody. They also form the core ingredients to several other theological recipes such as church liturgy, church governments, and more. But what that illustrates is our second part to the recipe, which is the instructions. For once you have the right ingredients, then it’s all about how you mix them together.


Now, there may be some minor tweaks, but for the most part the instructions for Exclusive Psalmody are the following: (1) The Lord has given us His inspired Word in Holy Scripture; (2) That Holy Scripture includes by God’s sovereign preservation a book of Psalms for singing in worship; and (3) the Lord regulates that only such Psalms be sung in His worship. (Hopefully you can see by the italicized words how the three core ingredients are mixed in).

We all must admit that such a “recipe” is quite possible from the core ingredients. It is also, once presented, quite intimidating. The question, though, is must the ingredients necessarily mix this way?

To ask such a question may appear to some to be blasphemous. However, this we must do because it isn’t as though such a precise recipe exists within Scripture. Nowhere does Scripture explicitly say that we must only sing Psalms in corporate worship. No, to the contrary, this recipe or doctrine of Exclusive Psalmody, as admitted by the position’s own words, is deduced or “inferred from good and necessary consequences of Scripture”1. Yet, we must push further to ask, are they truly “good and necessary consequences”? And this we may answer from evaluating the recipe instructions.


So where do we begin? Let’s begin with the last step of the Exclusive Psalmist recipe concerning the Regulative Principle. If it may not be explicitly stated in Scripture that we must sing only the Psalms in corporate worship, where does one begin to infer it?

One of the most popular texts to appeal to is Ephesians 5:19 (or its sister verse in Colossians 3:16): “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord…” The argument made for Exclusive Psalmody stems from the Apostle Paul’s use of three like terms, "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs." It is believed that by showing these three terms all refer to one thing--the Psalms--therefore, only the Psalms may be sung in corporate worship.

There is just one problem with this logic: the Apostle is not speaking in the context of corporate worship. Instead, he is speaking about our worship of the Lord in all of life. How rather than being filled with wine or a unharmonious spirit, we are to be filled with the Spirit. And how might we do that? By us singing and meditating upon the actual words and teachings of Christ in Scripture. Oh, that is rich and wonderful, but the Apostle isn’t exhorting us here to be singing Psalms exclusively in corporate worship on Sunday mornings or evenings. Rather, he is exhorting us to be filled with the Spirit by being saturated with the Word and teachings of Scripture every single day of our lives! Thus Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 do not regulate that we only sing Psalms in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day.

At this point, we could appeal to other Scriptures, such as 1 Corinthians 14:26, James 5:13, and so on. However, we may breifly address them by making a couple of commments. Whereas these texts cite instances of "psalms" being sung by the early church (either in or out of worship), it does not necessarily follow that these texts teach that only "psalms" may be sung in worship. On the contrary, what may be inferred from their example is that "psalms" are valid songs to be sung in ad out of worship.

Aware that we have not exhuasted all potential Scriptures cited, we must move on to the second step of the recipe. The second step calls for the Preservation of Scripture, and says that the Lord has sovereignly preserved a book of singing for the His people to sing and that book is the Psalms. There is no doubt that Lord has sovereignty preserved Holy Scripture throughout time for His people. Furthermore, Holy Scripture includes the Book of Psalms, recognized first by the Men of the Great Assembly in 516 BC and subsequently later by many other assemblies. However, must we necessarily include with the doctrine of preservation the very narrow intent that the Lord wanted us to sing exclusively this Book of Psalms in corporate worship?
One such passage cited to support such a conclusion is 1 Chronicles 25:1-7. This passage details the setting apart and instruction of David and his men to compose and compile many of the works contained with the Book of Psalms. What one will note in reading this passage is how these men “prophesied in giving thanks and praising the Lord” (1 Chronicles 25:3) with the purpose to “sing in the house of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 25:6). As a result of these observations some come away with the good and necessary inference that the Lord has not only inspired these Psalms to be sung, but also that He wants these Psalms to be sung exclusively in worship.

To evaluate if this inference is good and necessary, what we need to do is compare it to the rest of Scripture. When we do, we find that several other passages support the opposite conclusion, such as Exodus 15, known as the Song of Moses. As Exodus 15:1 says, “Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song to the Lord” as a commemoration of God's great deliverance over Pharaoh’s army through the Red Sea. That is, the saints of times past sang this song in worship to God for what He has done for them. How Exodus 15 relates to psalmody is that if a song that was once sung to the worship of God at some earlier date, how can it no longer be appropriate to sing to His worship at some later date? And if so, what has changed substantially that renders Moses’ song no longer valid or permitable for corporate worship at a later date?

Even if one was able to find a reason to exclude Moses’ song due to a substantial change within redemption history or the preservation of Scripture, there is another problematic Scripture to work through for this recipe—-Habakkuk 3:19. The concluding tag line Habakkuk’s prophesy reads, “For the choir director, on my stringed instruments.” What this verse says is that at least part, if not the entirety of Habakkuk’s prophecy, was intended to be given to the choirmaster of the ancient people of God to be sung in corporate worship. The import of which is obvious: how could God give us a song to be sung that He forbids us to sing since it is not included in the Psalms? That is a big problem, isn’t it? This should, at a minimum, cause us to question the validity of step two for the recipe for Exclusive Psalmody.

But then we come back to the first step of the recipe, concerning Inspiration. Again, there is no doubt that the Psalms were and still are inspired. But as the logic of the recipe goes, the Lord has given us inspired songs to be sung in corporate worship. To this statement no one should object: the Lord has given us inspired songs or Psalms to be sung in corporate worship. But are we to go so far to say that since He has we must only sing inspired Psalms?

At this, I believe there is a huge problem with the assumption made in this step. It has to do with the ingredients, and how you need to look at the fine print for this one. We read the term “inspired Psalms”, and what one automatically supposes is that it consists of 100% pure Scripture with zero human impurities. Yet, in fact, that is not the case. When you investigate further, what you find is that “inspired Psalms” is actually an ingredient with the parenthesis behind it, i.e. it is comprised of several ingredients. Of what? Mainly Scripture but it also includes human additives/enhancements for rhyme and meter.

Our point here is not to call out a deception. Hardly, for many of the English Psalters for Singing state this issue plainly in their prefaces (See the 1880 Revised Scottish Psalter2). Rather our point here is for evaluation of the claim. If it is claimed that only “inspired Psalms” may be sung in corporate worship void of human compositions, then that claim must be consistently held. For there to be any human additives or enhancements placed within an “inspired Psalm”, necessarily the inspired Psalm would be rendered corrupt or at least partially uninspired. This then would nullify the claim that what is being sung is only inspired material.

Let the following table be listed for the evaluation of the claim of being 100% “inspired Psalms” from Psalm 18:27-33.
What we should see beyond the obvious interpretive changes in the text, is how clearly words and whole phrases are added and deleted from the Scripture to meet meter and rhyme. This, then, not only points out the difficulty of the claim to sing only “inspired Psalms”, but also how that claim is plainly not consistent.

So where do we go from here? Do we just abandon our English versions of the Hebrew Psalter? No, not at all. But what we should do is search for a better recipe for Psalmody, one that is more consistent with its claim.


At this point, an objection may arise that we are bound by a greater authority to use this recipe. This greater authority isn’t the Scriptures, but a common authority among many reformed churches—The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Specifically, it’s WCF 21.5, where the confession enumerates among the parts of ordinary religious worship the phrase, “singing of psalms with grace in the heart”. What is argued from this phrase is that the WCF here calls for exclusive psalmody.
Now, such a claim appears to be quite firm, and all the more so when one reads the majority of the individual works of the men who wrote the WCF, who were by far mostly exclusive psalmists. However, there are two problems with this view.

First, the listing of the parts of the ordinary religious worship is not exhaustive. It can’t be, or else we all violate the Confession when we have the collection of tithes and offerings during our services, because according to the Confession it is not among the listed parts of ordinary religious worship. But we do take up the collection because we don’t see the list of parts in WCF 21.5 as exhaustive, but representational of the types that are. In the same manner, though only “singing of psalms” is only listed, we would see the singing of hymns also within the bounds of worship.

Second, we must remember that the WCF is a consensus document. A consensus document means that the assembly was not monolithic but comprised of a variety of differing though orthodox theological positions. The work of the Assembly was then to work towards a theological common ground to which varying positions would agree. The notorious example is that of WCF 3.3, where several in the Assembly could not agree with double-predestination, namely that God in His eternal degrees ‘predestined [persons] to everlasting death’. After much time and debate, the word “predestined” was changed to its present reading of “foreordained” and this met the consensus of the Assembly.

We point this consensus part out because although it is clear that the vast majority of the Assembly were Exclusive Psalmists, there was at least one who was not, in the strict sense. His name was John B. Lightfoot. Two important quotes to cite from one sermon he delivered in his day on 1 Corinthians 14:26. First, in one of his concluding remarks he states the “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” as found in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:1, “are meant the Psalms of David, and other songs in Scripture... 'spiritual songs’ were other songs in Scripture besides David’s.” 3 Second, referencing back to his sermon passage on 1 Corinthians 14:26, though, he believes the second to be more probable, he concedes, “it is a question, whether these psalms, mentioned in the text, were of their own dictating, or penned by others”, i.e. the “psalms” sung in Corinth may very well have been from outside the 150 Psalm in the Book of Psalms.4 From these quotes, we need not see Lightfoot seeking to combat Exclusive Psalmody, but that he believed songs other than the 150 inspired Psalms were sung by the New Testament church. Furthermore, he did not exclude the possibility that the term “psalm” as used in the Confession could also mean songs outside of the 150 Psalms within the Book of Psalms in Scripture. For him to believe this and to be numbered among the Westminster Assembly who approved WCF 21.5 necessarily means that he did not believe the adherents to it must exclusively sing the “inspired Psalms” for worship.


So in summary, what we have shown thus far is problems with the recipe for Exclusive Psalmody. Whereas the recipe consists for the most part of very wholesome and sound ingredients, it’s the instructions or the mixing of the ingredients where it becomes dicy and, quite honestly, more constraining than the Scriptures and our own Westminster Confession of Faith. In its place, then, we should search for a more Biblically-consistent recipe. And if you are willing to accept the wait time for it to be completed, we will have it available for you all soon!


1 Kuehner, Adam. (June 10, 2019). What Shall We Sing? [Part 2 of a 4-part joint Psalmody Conference between the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church]. SermonAudio.com. https://www.sermonaudio.com/ saplayer/playpopup.asp?SID=8719212456356.

2 https://archive.org/details/pseded00pres/page/n3/mode/2up

3 Lightfoot, John B., Works, vol 7, 41. https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/lightfoot/vol07.pdf

4 Ibid.