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Iain H. Murray The Psalter – the Only Hymnal?

A Review and Response

Roy Mohon, Minister, Presbyterian Reformed Church, Stockton-on-Tees

(c) (2001)

We Benefit from Songs of Praise that do not Accord with our Experience - A Warrant Needed for Uninspired Hymns - "Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs" - Not New Meanings but Fuller Understanding of Meanings Already Present - Feelings in Praise

The Psalter – the Only Hymnal? is a compact little booklet with twenty-nine pages of arguments against exclusive psalmody. The author makes it plain that his booklet is a contribution to a debate among brethren that should be conducted in a proper spirit. With this we agree and would be understood accordingly. The Question stated is "Should the Psalter be the only hymnal of the Church?" The argument is developed in seven sections dealing with: common ground, the area of controversy, the Psalms-only case stated with a response, the regulative principle, the positive case for hymns and a postscript.

We Benefit from Songs of Praise that do not Accord with our Experience

In stating the common ground the writer prepares for his own argument and at times this leaves some points of importance not stated. Thus in response to the statement: "The content of praise must be such as is appropriate to the worshippers and therefore capable of being spoken from the heart in sincerity and in accord with the reality of his own experience" it needs to be added that often the content of praise does not accord with the worshippers' experience and the depth of repentance expressed in the song and the fullness of assurance expressed challenge the singers because our experience does not accord with it, but ought to. Divinely appointed praise is not to leave us at our own level but to deepen our experience. It is not enough to focus upon " the uplifting" of our spirits. Praise chastens and instructs as well. It prompts to self-examination as Psalm 51 illustrates. In this psalm the expression of confidence in being enabled to communicate the truth (verse 13), stems from conviction of sin, confession of sin and desired cleansing from sin (verses 2 – 4, 7). If I lack these latter experiences I am deluding myself regarding the former and replace joy by mere emotion. Reference is made to tunes and chanting as though things indifferent; but we who have formerly frequented the dance halls do not want all of the tunes from our past to follow us into worship. Similarly, as Alexander Hislop has shown, the now popular Gregorian chants were taken from the Pagan idolatry.1 Circumspection in particulars never becomes redundant for the Christian.

A Warrant Needed for Uninspired Hymns

In defining the area of controversy the writer makes it plain that his one purpose is to address the question whether Christians and churches may form their own judgment on the materials of praise or whether there is a principle requiring the exclusive use of the 150 Psalms of Scripture. Towards the close of the his booklet the writer does refer to "conscientious disagreement"2 but as can happen in books written against exclusive psalmody the writer seems not to appreciate that those he disagrees with are prepared to consider a Scripture warrant for uninspired hymns in the worship of God if one can be produced. Some of us have come from very different backgrounds and we have had to painfully work through where there is ground to stand upon and we cannot in conscience discard what we believe unless the case for uninspired hymns is demonstrated from Scripture. This Mr. Murray does not attempt to do. His position is simply that "sung praise" is the authorised part of worship and no attempt is made to produce a warrant for the composition of uninspired hymns for use in worship or to produce a warrant for their introduction into worship. The writer takes the view that the Psalms-only case can be repudiated for lack of Scripture warrant but the use of uninspired compositions requires no specific Scripture prescription. In other words the argument is formulated in a way whereby the author can demand a warrant for exclusive Psalmody but chooses to be unassailable in his own position because in his view no prescription is needed for uninspired productions.

A brief statement is given of the Psalms-only case although the historical argument is stated in a way which suggests that those who maintain exclusive Psalmody are either ignorant of the fact that worthies such as Luther, Spurgeon and others sang hymns or intentionally suppress what everyone else knows, which would be to demonstrate their own ignorance.

"Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs"

In his response to the exclusive Psalmody position the writer seeks to undermine the appointment of the 150 Psalms for public worship in the Old Testament Church and their continued sole use in the New Testament Church. In order to do this the force of Ephesians 5:19 must be dismissed. This is attempted by reference to several commentators who approve of uninspired hymns. Murray writes: "We know of no prominent orthodox commentator who takes that view", namely that Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs refer solely to different sections of the Old Testament. On page 5 in footnote 3 the writer makes reference to The Scripture Warrant respecting Song in the Public Worship of God by Professor John Murray and Dr. William Young3, so he will be aware of the seven pages of relevant exegetical material in that work demonstrating the connection between the Hebrew terms in the Psalter and the Greek terms in Ephesians 5:19. In his seven lines on the subject Hendrikson makes no attempt to deal with any of the Scriptural arguments advanced by Murray and Young. It cannot be enough for an author to list alleged assumptions or argue from the absence of titles for some Psalms, or to confound two different parts of worship. If exclusive Psalmody is to be fairly addressed the exegetical material must be dealt with. Make His Praise Glorious4 devotes considerable space to this subject. Iain Murray states: "it is sung praise that is authorised as a part" of worship5, meaning that the prescription goes no further; but the Apostle Paul explicitly specifies also the materials for praise saying: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom: teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…" (Colossians 3.16). The issue is that if the exegesis of John Murray and William Young cannot be overturned then the Psalter is indicated for New Testament Church worship whereas uninspired compositions never are. The burden of proof rests with those who would introduce the latter into the worship of God.

In his section on the regulative principle the author chooses to limit himself to demonstration by a series of quotations and anecdotes, that Reformed writers have not all supported exclusive psalmody. The section is historically interesting but as the writer himself acknowledges "this discussion cannot be settled by an appeal to history."6 No further comment is required.

Not New Meanings but Fuller Understanding of Meanings Already Present

When we come to the positive case for hymns all proceeds on the dogmatic position that in the New Testament the case for hymns is left open.7 This position is based upon the assumption that no warrant is needed for the specific materials of praise. Therefore the writer removes from himself any responsibility to produce a scripture prescription or precedent for the composition and use of uninspired materials. The section is essentially devoted to seeking to demonstrate that uninspired materials of praise produced by Christians are superior to inspired materials of praise produced by the Holy Spirit through Old Testament saints. Charnock is quoted with approval in distinguishing between "fear" in Old Testament worship and the "love" in New Testament worship though the Scripture quoted, Galatians 4.24, has reference to Sinai prior to which there had been centuries of the Covenant of Grace and friendship with God. It should also be remembered that our Lord referred to the Law of Moses to specify our duty of love. The argument then turns to the fuller measure of the Spirit during the Christian dispensation. All grant the fact of a greater effusion. But though that gives every Christian an advance on the Old Testament saints, (a) it does not bestow upon individuals the gift of inspiration and (b) it does not even necessitate that particular Christians make more progress in holiness than Abraham, Moses, David or Daniel. In dealing with the issue of Christians being able to sing the psalms with greater light than Old Testament saints Isaac Watt's distortion is referred to.9 But the issue is not "to sing one thing and mean another" but to sing what others sang with less light with greater understanding now. It is not we who impute new meanings into Scripture. The outpouring of the Spirit means that we have a clearer understanding of what was already there. This is a Scriptural principle as Peter's exposition of Psalm 16 on the day of Pentecost shows. (Acts 2.25–31)

In response to Mr Murray's reference to Make his Praise Glorious it will be helpful to see the words he quotes in their context. They are italicised in the following extract from Make His Praise Glorious. "When we open the Psalter we are not going back to the Old Covenant, we are going back to the cross. The cross is at the heart of the Christian message and at the heart of true Christian experience. 'God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.' No human poet can advance beyond Psalm 22 or indeed approach anywhere near to it. It takes us straight to the cross and presents to us Jesus Christ crucified. It is not the voice of apostolic eyewitness that speaks but the Redeemer himself. It is certainly not fallible human response to Calvary but the testimony of the suffering servant of the Lord himself. His heart is laid bare. His agonies are disclosed. The redemptive event is graphically present to our view. 'They pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture. But be not thou far from me, O Lord …' What fruit Christ anticipates in consequence of this atoning sacrifice: 'I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.'"10 This is not a matter of confusing our words to God with God's word to us. When what was written is considered in full the significance is plain. The content of Psalm 22 is so profound, so incomprehensible that eternity will not suffice for finite mortals to grasp it. That is why our poetry of experiential response cannot hold a candle to it. It is the Sun of Righteousness speaking and suffering before our eyes. It is Jesus we see because we know exactly who is in view. We know of no more powerful influence upon the soul than the contemplation of Christ in the Word of Christ.

Feelings in Praise

The crux of the matter in The Psalter – the only Hymnal? has something to do with the nature of praise. Mr Murray wants to ask the question "whether Psalm 22 better expresses the feelings of the believer to Christ crucified than such hymns as 'O Sacred Head! Sore wounded …'"11 The more important question is: What has God appointed to lead out my feelings in spiritual praise? If the matter is to be decided on the basis of experience (which it is not), having many times sung "Rock of Ages cleft for me", "The Old Rugged Cross", "O sacred Head! Sore wounded" and other human compositions, I can testify before God that though my emotions might have been more stirred probably by the tune as much as the words, none of these led out my soul to Christ like Psalm 22. It is this latter leading out that I covet and this I find to be the essence of true praise, to love him, to rejoice in him, to adore him. I find nothing sub-Christian in this. I am fortified to go out into a world of sin to proclaim an invincible grace of which I have experience and which God would have preached to all the world. The reality is that there is no paucity of spiritual assurance in the psalms. Anyone who will examine all 150 Psalms for joy, gladness, rejoicing, blessing, prayers answered, being defended, having hope and expressions of confidence in God will not find a single psalm that lacks one or more of these themes. The appropriateness of the psalms in times of revival is shown by their adoption in Geneva and Scotland and their use in times of persecution and great blessing. The 1859 revival resulted in Psalm 40 being called "The Convert's Song" all over Ulster. Those who will seriously examine the exegetical evidence for exclusive psalmody and reduce it to practice in a spiritual way, for in this we wholeheartedly agree with Mr Murray, they will find that "Overdoing is undoing"12 is not applicable. Never have I sung more joyous praise to God, spontaneously, in private devotion, in family worship and in the congregation since I was enlightened to the beauty of the psalms for singing and their unassailable supremacy to answer in every way to my needs in praise. If others have a different experience I would it were otherwise. But we still have work to do together, in which I also agree with Mr Murray, and we must get on with it and work while it is day. The world is perishing.


1. Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons (London: Partridge & Co., 1989) p.22.

2. Iain H. Murray, The Psalter – the Only Hymnal? (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust) p.30

3. John Murray and William Young, The Scriptural Warrant respecting Song in the Public Worship of God (repr. Vienna, Va. Presbyterian Reformed Church, 1993)

4. Roy Mohon, Make His Praise Glorious: A Defence of the Book of Psalms (Eaglescliffe: WMP 1999) pp.10-18.

5. Iain H. Murray, op. cit., p.11.

6. Ibid., p.20.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p.21.

9. Ibid. p.23.

10. Roy Mohon, op.cit., p.24.

11. Iain H. Murray, op.cit., p.25.

12. Ibid., p.30.

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