R. Scott Clark on hymns and instruments

A mass of evidence from the Heidelblog to show that unaccompanied psalm singing has been the majority position of the church, and especially the Reformers.


What Did the Divines Mean By “Psalms”?
“In [Calvin’s] treatises, including his 1559 Institutes, where the word psalm occurs about 500 times, the word psalm seems to refer almost invariably to a canonical psalm…I searched about 114 orthodox Reformed texts (from Junius, Perkins, Bucanus, Cartwright, Twisse, Gilespie, Diodati, Paraeus) from 1600 to 1640 and found no obvious evidence of psalm used to include an extra-canonical song.”

Calvin: We Sing Psalms In Public Worship
“Only let the world be well advised, that instead of songs partly vain and frivolous, partly foolish and dull, partly filthy and vile, and consequently wicked and hurtful, which it has heretofore used, it should accustom itself hereafter to sing these heavenly and divine songs, with good king David.”

Gavin Beers (!): Of Psalms, Hymns, And Spiritual Songs And The RPW
“But why does Paul employ three terms in Ephesians 5:19, if what you are saying is that all three refer to the Book of Psalms? Is that not a bit redundant, a bit like saying Psalms, Psalms and Psalms?’ In answer to this objection we have already seen that the Psalms themselves do this, eg the title of Psalm 76, Psalm 65 in the title and v1. In addition to this we should also note how frequently in Scripture God employs a three-fold statement to refer to the same thing, a Biblical triplet of terms. So laws can be ‘commandments, statutes and laws’ (Gen.26:5), miracles can be ‘Miracles, wonders and signs’ (Acts 2:22), and prayers can be ‘Prayers, supplications and intercessions’ (1Tim.2:1). So why should it be thought a strange thing that God should use three terms in the one verse to refer to His divinely inspired book of Psalms?”

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs in the Septuagint
“At the top of the Psalms in the LXX were titles or superscriptions. Those superscriptions described each Psalm, they categorized the psalms in 4 classes or groups:

  • ψαλμος [Psalms] (2-8, 10-14, 18-24, 28-30, 37-40, 42-43, 45-50, 61-67, 72, 74-76, 78-84, 86-87, 91, 93, 97-100, 107-109, 138-140, 142)
  • [συνεσις; understanding (31, 41, 43-44, 51-54, 73, 77, 87-88, 141)]
  • υμνος [Hymns] (5, 53-54, 60, 66, 75)
  • ωδη [Ode/Song] (3, 17, 29, 38, 44, 47, 64-67, 74-75, 82, 86-87, 90-92, 94-95, 107, 119-133)

…Arguably, even though the nouns for “wisdom” or “understanding” are different, we can say that here [Col 3:16] Paul invokes not just three of the categories but all 4: wisdom, psalms, hymns, and [Holy Spirit-given] songs.”


The 1559 Geneva Bible On Musical Instruments
“Psalm 150:3: Exhorting the people only to rejoice in praising God, he maketh mention of those instruments which by God’s commandment were appointed in the old Law, but under Christ the use thereof is abolished”

The Church Fathers Reject Instrumental Music In Public Worship
“The vehement and unanimous objections of the Church Fathers to musical instruments apparently succeed in suppressing their use in Christian worship for many centuries. Indeed…at least one instrument, the Greek hydraulic organ, appears to have been largely forgotten in the West…..The demise of the organ as a common instrument in the West was so complete that when one arrived as a gift at the court of the Franks in 757 it was regarded as a great novelty.”

Calvin: Diligently To Inquire What Worship God Approves
“…But the Chaldeans thought to satisfy their god by heaping together many musical instruments. For, like other persons, they supposed God like themselves, for whatever delights us, we think must also please the Deity.”

Dabney: Moral Courage in Defence of that Vital Truth
“Hence such instruments are excluded from Christian worship. Such has been the creed of all churches, and in all ages, except of the Popish communion after it had reached the nadir of its corruption at the end of the thirteenth century, and of its prelatic imitators.”

Aquinas: The Use Of Instruments In Public Worship Is Judaizing
“In the Old Testament instruments of this description were employed, both because the people were more coarse and carnal—so that they needed to be aroused by such instruments as also by earthly promises—and because these material instruments were figures of something else.”

Calvin On Instruments: Not Given For Us To Imitate

Bit a both!

Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Instruments In The Latin Bibles
“Most of the time the shift from the original Reformed practice to our practice is either accepted without question or ignored. Sometimes we assume (as I did for a number of years) that our current practice is the historic practice. Sometimes, however, the original Reformed understanding of worship is ridiculed. One sees this in the discussion of the proper interpretation of the expression in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18: “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The older Reformed writers tended to interpret this phrase as a reference to the 150 Psalms…
…The Reformers knew their history, that the early church accepted these principles and worshipped without musical instruments for the first 7 centuries—8 if we count the Apostolic church. They knew that the reintroduction of musical instruments mean the return to types and shadows, to the priesthood and that is exactly what happened. By the 9th century medieval theologians were theorizing about the transformation of the elements of the Supper into the body and blood of Christ. After that, increasingly ministers became regarded as priests who were making offerings. Indeed, by the 9th century the Holy Roman Emperor is increasingly being seen as a new Davidic king. What had expired on the cross was being resurrected and the church was returned to types and shadows. The Reformers rejected the new priesthood, the new (memorial, propitiatory) sacrifices just as they rejected the medieval neo-levitical reintroduction of instruments.”

Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Instruments In The Latin Bibles (2)
In short, the Reformed orthodox would not have understood the objection against interpreting Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 against the background of the Psalter. In their minds, the two were bound together.
…Second, it would have been very difficult for the Reformed orthodox, for whom the Junius/Tremellius/Beza Latin Bible became the study Bible (apart from the original text), not to think of musical instruments as inextricably tied to the typological period of redemptive history and to the sacrificial ministry of the Levites. Where our translations sometimes encourage us to thing of a vocal choir, their translation encouraged them to think of the use of musical instruments in the psalms.
…It is useful to know that most (but not all!) of us no longer agree with our Reformed sources. We need to wrestle honestly with the facts. It is simply not satisfactory to say, “Well they were wrong.” That might be the case but we cannot simply assert that. We must show why they were wrong. Why were they wrong to read “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in light of the superscriptions in the psalter? Why were they wrong to see the cultic (i.e., the use in public worship as distinct from the general, cultural) use of musical instruments as inextricably bound up with the types and shadows of the temporary, Israelite, national cultus and polity? It is an a fact of redemptive history that Levites played musical instruments so long as the burnt offerings were being made (2 Chron 29). They stopped with the sacrifices stopped. It is a fact of redemptive history that the same psalms that exhort us to dance and play musical instruments also exhort us to holy war against God’s national enemies.
When our theologies were being written and when our confessions were being framed, this was the understanding that informed them as they confessed that we may do in worship only that which God has commanded. In light of their understanding of redemptive history they removed instruments from the churches and sang only God’s Word (usually psalms) in response to God’s Word. They did not see musical instruments as circumstances. They saw them as elements just as the sacrifices were elements.

Podcast: Heidelcast: The Psalms in Worship and Living