Why We Also Sing Hymns

Alan D. Strange

New Horizons: June 2017

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In the last century and more, especially in North American evangelicalism, hymns have eclipsed psalms in the liturgy of the church. Actually, hymns themselves have given way in more recent years in many communions to the ubiquitous Scripture songs and choruses. We would hope that the forthcoming Trinity Psalter Hymnal might contribute to the recovery of both robust psalmody and robust hymnody.

This comparatively recent loss of psalm singing is quite remarkable, especially in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, whose liturgies historically consisted either mostly or exclusively of psalms. We intend for this book to assist in the recovery of psalm singing for all of those churches, and we have in recent times seen hopeful signs of such. At the same time, we want to foster a recovery of first-rate hymnody.

We as Presbyterian and Reformed Christians affirm that there must be positive warrant in Scripture for what we do in worship. We are not free simply to do what we want, at least as far as the elements of worship—the Word, sacraments, prayer, singing, etc.—are concerned. (There is latitude with respect to the circumstances of worship—things like time, place, etc.) Some have averred that the praise we render to our God in song during worship is to be restricted by such a principle to the psalms. Others have affirmed that hymns may be added to the psalms and that the Bible provides warrant for such. We are decidedly of the latter opinion.[1]

Worship in Biblical Times

In Old Testament times, it is sometimes argued, the congregation obviously sang psalms. Indeed, there is in some of the psalms a clear leader/congregation responsive pattern that would point to such involvement. Additionally, it is the case that there was likely some family and personal use of certain psalms, suggested by their content. However, much of the ordinary usage of the Psalter was in the temple by the priests or Levites, especially by those designated as musicians.[2] Thus, it was not so much the Hebrew laity in temple worship that sang the psalms as it was the choristers/musicians among the Levitical and priestly classes. After the destruction of the first temple (in 586 B.C.), both in exile and after, the Jews developed worship in the synagogue. There is evidence both of selected soloists in synagogue worship (which continues to this day in the tradition of the Jewish cantor and other trained singers) and broader congregational usage of at least some of the psalms. It was evidently the synagogue that familiarized the Jews with the whole Psalter.

The synagogue more than the temple furnished the pattern for the church as it entered the Christian era. The early Christian church corporately sang more of the psalms than the Jews of old ever did, certainly more than the Jews who lived before the days of the synagogue did. There is evidence from the earliest time of the New Testament church, however, for the singing of Scripture other than the Psalms. The early church sang the Exodus hymn (Ex. 15:1–18), the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46–55), the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68–79), the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29–32), songs recorded by Paul (arguably in Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–20; 1 Tim. 3:16), and other songs in the Old and New Testament. References in Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation further support this contention.[3] Songs based more or less directly on these passages will be found in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.

Worship in Church History

Pliny the Elder furnishes a pagan witness to distinct hymns in noting that the Christians sang a “hymn to Christ as God.” Justin Martyr suggests such in his First Apology, as does Hippolytus in the Apostolic Tradition. Tertullian especially mentions the early church practice of singing in worship “something from the Holy Scriptures or something of [one’s] own composition.”[4] Having said that, it appears to be the case that the early church, particularly the Roman church and those associated with it, predominately sang psalms or songs drawn directly from Scripture in the churches, meeting as they then did in members’ homes.

While we have fragments of hymns from the ancient church, the earliest complete hymn is that of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–220), “Shepherd of Tender Youth.” Other hymns attributed to the Fathers of the ancient church are “O Light That Knew No Dawn” (Gregory of Nazianzus, 325–390), “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright” (Ambrose of Milan, 340–397), and “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, 348–413). There are several more hymns from the ancient church and even more from the medieval church that are worth singing today in our worship.

Did the first generation of Reformers sing hymns as well as psalms? Before addressing that, we should note that the Reformation embraced psalmody because psalmody was so central in the early church. The Reformation, in no small measure, involved a recovery of congregational singing, such as had existed in the churches meeting in homes, when the church was still under persecution (until the early fourth century). As Hughes Old notes, “The early Christians sang psalms in the celebration of the Eucharist and in the daily morning and evening prayers during the week … [also] at meal times … [and] at work and during the quiet times of meditation at midday and evening. It was precisely this ideal that the Reformers wished to see re-established.”[5]

Psalmody, as it had belonged chiefly to the priesthood in Old Testament temple worship, had come in the Middle Ages to belong to the secular clergy in the parish and especially to the regular clergy in the monastery, as had hymnody; both the psalmody and the hymnody of the period was generally singable only by trained musicians. The Middle Ages witnessed, in other words, a removal of accessible singing as a regular part of congregational life and a relocating of much music, highly ornamented and difficult, to the preserve of clergy particularly trained to sing it.

The Reformation thus sought to return to a psalmody that the whole congregation could sing. It also had, to return to the hymn question, a commitment to strong hymnody. The centers of Reformed liturgical reforms were Strasbourg, Constance, and Geneva. The Strasbourg Psalter of 1537 contained numerous songs that were not psalms—what some called “hymns of merely human composure.” So also did, even more so, the Constance Hymn Book of 1540. To a lesser extent, the Genevan Psalter of 1542 did so. While Calvin, and thus Geneva, clearly preferred psalms (and a lesser number of hymns), other Reformers (such as those at Constance) had a more positive view of hymns, citing precedents from the early church.[6]

Biblical Teaching on Singing

We could continue looking at church history, but that is ultimately descriptive and not prescriptive. Committed as we are to the Bible as our final authority, the question must be: does the Bible prescribe what must be sung in worship and proscribe everything else? Does the Bible itself teach that only the Psalms, for instance, may be sung?

It quite simply does not. Calvin and those Reformers who were of his mind, especially in their reading of the church fathers, seemed to prefer the Psalms as the proper material for singing, not as a matter of principle, but for pragmatic reasons: the Psalms were written to be sung, and they were God’s Word.[7] Thus, the Psalms were safe and did not have the sorts of problems that plagued hymnody in the second and following centuries, when heretics began to write hymns. Clearly it was safer, many Reformers reasoned, to stick to the Psalms and other words of Scripture meant for, or amenable to, singing. They did not, however, rule out biblically faithful hymns.

What of the New Testament? Since we don’t believe that the Old Testament itself prescribed psalms only, and we’ve noted the prevalent situation in worship both at the temple and in the synagogue, it would not be reasonable to think that the New Testament prescribed exclusive psalmody. In the other elements—preaching and prayer, for instance—extemporaneous and extra-scriptural expressions (that are clearly in line with the teaching of the Bible) are common and expected. Prayer, particularly, is to the point here, especially since so much of what is sung is addressed to God. If we may sing only from Scripture, why are we not likewise restricted in our prayers? Yet no serious arguments are made requiring us to pray only the words of Scripture and forbidding us to pray extemporaneously and in our own words.[8]

It is also unthinkable, in all of our corporate singing in the church, that we would never sing anything that has the explicit name of our Lord Jesus Christ in it. Unconvincing attempts have been made to assert that the Psalms explicitly name or invoke Christ; however, Scripture simply does not do so explicitly until the New Testament. The thrust of redemptive history, particularly as set forth in the Pauline epistles and the book of Hebrews, is that the complete has come, and the provisional has given way, and so we are to proclaim to all the world that Jesus Christ is Lord. Hence, we are to worship with maximal explicitness, all shadows that typified the Old having given way to the bright light of the New, in the unveiled gospel of Jesus Christ. The hymns recorded in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, especially furnish us with a clear pattern of hymnic praise to the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, to whom all glory is due.

There is nothing in the New Testament that hints that this glorious message will not be on our lips in preaching, praying, and singing, both in the implicit form that this takes in the Psalms and in the explicit form that it takes in the hymns, which we see exampled on the pages of the New Testament and in the ancient church.[9] And then we see it in every succeeding period of the church, which continues to apply the Word of God in every age in all her worship: preaching, praying, and singing in ways that are in keeping with the Word, seeking to communicate the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom be honor and glory, forever. Amen.


[1] The Reports of the Committee on Song in Worship (together with a minority report) to the 13th and 14th General Assemblies (1946, 1947) of the OPC (available at www.opc.org/GA/song.html) defined and affirmed the “regulative principle of worship,” arguing that it is in keeping with such a principle to sing hymns as well as psalms (the minority disagreed).

[2] Tim Dowley, Christian Music: A Global History (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 11n25.

[3] Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed according to Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 36–40.

[4] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, American Edition (Black Mountain, SC: Worship Press, 2004), 235–36, 260.

[5] Ibid., 258.

[6] Ibid., 251–53.

[7] Calvin never makes an argument for principled exclusive psalmody, nor, as we’ve seen above, was it his practice.

[8] The OPC Reports of the Committee on Song in Worship uphold both the regulative principle of worship and the freedom that we enjoy in divine worship in our singing and praying: “Although the Bible gives us much instruction and direction in the matter of prayer, indeed even though the whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer and even though our Lord gave us a special rule of direction in prayer, we are not required to use any set form of words exclusively and invariably in our prayers.” Neither are we required to use such in our songs in worship.

[9] Dowley, Christian Music, 26–35.

The author, an OP minister, teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. New Horizons, June 2017.

New Horizons: June 2017

Caring for Our Aging Parents

Also in this issue

Caring for Our Aging Parents

The Reformation of Vocation

Summer Reading Club

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