Brian Schwertley on Exclusive psalmody, the metrical Psalms, and Translation

A rather common argument against exclusive psalmody is based on the assumption that metrical versions of the Psalms for singing (i.e., the Psalms are translated in a manner so they can be set to music and thus are made to rhyme, etc) are really not translations of the Psalms but are at best gross paraphrases of the original Hebrew.  Thus, it is argued that the singing of metrical Psalms is little or no different than singing uninspired hymns which are based on Scripture or which teach redemptive history.  In other words, both are human compositions and if one is permissible then so is the other.

While this argument is common, it is refuted in a number of ways.  First, note that the whole argument is based on an unbiblical, immoral analogy.  The argument assumes that if a group of people distort the original meaning of the Psalms with a bad or faulty translation this somehow permits other people to use man-made hymns.  In other words, if group A does something wrong, group B can also do something wrong.  If it is indeed true that some Reformed believers are using sloppy, poorly translated metrical versions of the psalms, then our response as Christians should never be “Let us do likewise” or even worse “Let us go a step further by ignoring the inspired psalms altogether.”  Rather it must be, “Brother, repent! There are excellent, faithful Psalters available.  You do not need to use a defective translation!”  To those brothers who use this argument we ask one simple question, “Does the fact that some churches use terrible paraphrases of the Bible for the Scripture reading in public worship justify the use of non-inspired Christian writings instead of the Scripture?”  No, of course not.  Then, poor translations of the Psalms do not justify man-made hymns.

Second, many who use the metrical Psalm argument assume that metrical versions of the Psalms (by virtue of the fact that they must be phrased to rhyme and fit music) are of necessity bad translations.  In other words, it is impossible to be faithful to Scripture while using a metrical Psalter.  This argument must be rejected because it is based on a false assumption.  Metrical Psalms can and have been faithfully and accurately translated from the original tongue.  Further, even if it were true it would not justify the use of man-made hymns.  If a Reformed believer holds that metrical Psalms are inherently defective and thus unfaithful to the scriptural command to sing Psalms in worship, then instead of turning to uninspired compositions he should chant the Psalms in their original phrasing (i.e., out of one of the more literal translations of the Bible) during worship.

Third, the metrical Psalms argument, in order to be consistent, would ultimately require the Scripture reading in public worship to be done in the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek).  Anyone familiar with Bible translation understands that a strictly word for word, absolutely literal translation of the Hebrew and Greek text is impossible.  Even the best, most literal translations in use today (e.g., KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASB) must at times resort to a phrase or multiple words to accurately convey the meaning of a single Hebrew or Greek word.  Further, it is important that a translation pursue as best as possible the majesty of style and elegance of the original language.  God commands His people to read the Scriptures and to sing the Psalms.  This requires translation. [1]. In the case of singing this may at times require a metrical translation.  What is important is that Christ’s church be as faithful as possible to the original language as it translates God’s word.  Once again, if a translation of the Bible or the Psalms is inaccurate, defective or sloppy in any manner the solution is not to discard the Holy Scriptures but rather to do a better, more faithful job of translation.  Accuracy is not an option, but a requirement. While we commend our brothers for pointing to the need for accurate translations of the Psalms, we must reject their attempt to circumvent God’s requirement of the singing of inspired songs in public worship.

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Note [1]: As the Confession puts it, “The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old) and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations)…But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God who have a right unto and interest in the Scriptures and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner.” (1:8) Westminster Confession of Faith, etc., Free Presbyterian Publications, 1973, pp. 376, 393.

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