Rev. Brian Schwertley on the Confession of Faith and Exclusive Psalmody

Brian Schwertley

In his Exposition of the Confession of Faith (1845) Robert Shaw teaches that the “singing of psalms” in the Confession of Faith means the biblical Psalms.

3. Singing of psalms. This was enjoined, under the Old Testament, as a part of the ordinary worship of God, and it is distinguished from ceremonial worship.—Ps. lxix. 30, 31. It is not abrogated under the New Testament, but rather confirmed.—Eph. v. 19; Col. iii. 16. It is sanctioned by the example of Christ and his apostles.—Matt. xxvi. 30; Acts xvi. 25. The Psalms of David were especially intended by God for the use of the Church in the exercise of public praise, under the former dispensation; and they are equally adapted to the use of the Church under the present dispensation. Although the apostles insist much upon the abolition of ritual institutions, they give no intimations that the Psalms of David are unsuitable for gospel-worship; and had it been intended that they should be set aside in New Testament times, there is reason to think that another psalmody would have been provided in their room. In the Book of Psalms there are various passages which seem to indicate that they were intended by the Spirit for the use of the Church in all ages. “I will extol thee, my God, O King,” says David, “and I will bless thy name for ever and ever.”—Ps. cxiv. 1.

Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Confession of Faith (Edmonton, AB, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, [1845]), 224-225. 

Not only is the teaching of the Confession of Faith and Directory of Public Worship clear on this issue, it is a fact of history that Presbyterians in Scotland, Ireland and North America were exclusive Psalm singers until the latter part of the eighteenth century.  What is of particular interest regarding the abandonment of exclusive psalmody by the large Presbyterian bodies in the eighteenth century is that exclusive psalmody was not abandoned as a result of careful study and refutation by pastors, scholars and theologians.  The departure of various Presbyterian denominations from exclusive psalmody (i.e., biblical worship) occurred primarily for three reasons.

(1) Various Presbyterian churches lost the biblical understanding of the regulative principle of worship and thus only applied it to the public worship service. “Private” gatherings, family and private worship were considered areas of life outside the strict parameter of divine warrant.  Virtually all the innovations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came into the churches through practices that were arbitrarily placed outside of the “sola scriptura” divine regulation of worship (e.g., family worship, Sunday School, revival meetings, etc.).

(2) Many Presbyterians were influenced by the pietistic, sentimental revivalism that swept through the colonies in the eighteenth century.  During this time a number of families and pastors began using Isaac Watts’ Psalms of David Imitated (1719) instead of the carefully translated 1650 psalter employed by Presbyterians of the day.  Watts’ version of the Psalms was a radical departure from exclusive psalmody which went far beyond even a paraphrase of the Psalms.  In many instances it amounted to uninspired hymns loosely based on the Psalms.  One must never forget that Isaac Watts, in the preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), openly admitted that he regarded the Psalms of David as defective, “opposite to the Gospel” and liable to cause believers to “speak a falsehood unto God.” Watts’ version of the Psalms became accepted by many families and various ministers and was a stepping stone to the blatant uninspired hymnody of Watts’ hymnbook.

(3) The innovations of the eighteenth century would not have taken root if the presbyteries in the colonies had done their job and disciplined ministers who had corrupted the worship of God and departed from Scripture and the Westminster Standards.  There was an unwillingness to make purity of worship an issue of discipline.  There were various battles over the Watts’ version from 1752 through the 1780s.  The outcome, however, was always the same.  The presbytery or synod involved refused to take decisive action, thereby allowing the Watts imitations to continue.  As a result, those unwilling to pollute themselves separated to smaller, more biblical Presbyterian bodies.  The declension was codified in 1788 when a new directory for worship was adopted which changed the statement of the 1644 directory, “singing of Psalms,” to “by singing Psalms and hymns.”

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