All posts by Rowland Ward

Creation and the flood

This article is from Trowel & Sword, the magazine of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia, May 1999.

The letters of your two correspondents in the last issue of T & S suggest they have not understood, assuming they have read, the Biblical arguments I have tried to develop in Foundations in Genesis. Lord’s Day 43 in the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us that God’s will is that we never give false testimony against anyone or twist their words. We Christians must keep this in mind when we discuss our differences.

My two brothers seem to have such a narrow view of what is authentically Reformed that Herman Bavinck and B.B.Warfield, among many other giants in the Reformed tradition, would be in the dock with me. [In this case the privilege would be mine!]

Indeed, while Calvin accepts creation about 4000 BC in six ordinary days, as did just about every one in his time, he specifically rejects the notion that the Bible is a book of science; he affirms Moses wrote in a popular style for ordinary people. He recognises as legitimate the results of scientific investigation such as the greater size of Saturn relative to the moon. He was not a modern fundamentalist. Mind you, modern literalists are not consistently so, otherwise they would believe in a flat earth supported by pillars in the sea.

Expansion of a couple of topics not covered in my September T & S article may help your readers. I hope so, since the issues are important.

1. The nature of creation
Recent creationists usually suggest that creation was ‘perfect’, and that redemption involves a permanent return to pre-fall conditions. If this is true it supports the notion that all that is less than ideal in the present world is due to sin. The contention that animal ferocity and death comes from human sin could then seem plausible.

This approach is certainly flawed. Scripture teaches that creation was ‘very good’, that is, free of moral evil and as God intended, and in that sense perfect. However, creation had a greater destiny than simply to continue as God had made it. Eternal life was in prospect, the seventh day of God’s rest pointing to a glorious destiny. Accordingly, the body made of earth and earthy (1 Cor 15:44-49) was to undergo glorification following a history of obedience here.

Disobedience brings God’s judgment here and now (thorns and thistles), but it also means that the reward of obedience has been forfeited, and a dreadful end is in view if God does not mercifully intervene. Christ by his redeeming work gains the forfeited destiny and bestows it on his people. Redemption is not the abandonment of creation but its glorification as envisaged in the beginning and with a display of the Divine character that otherwise we would not have known.

Creation’s ‘bondage to decay’ (Rom 8:19ff) arises from the decree of God who has subjected it to frustration in the setting of hope. Creation looks forward to its glorification but it cannot attain it apart from the consummation of God’s redemptive purpose with humanity. The new heavens and the new earth as the dwelling place of the redeemed will reach a new standard of perfection set by God.

While recognising the cosmic dimension of sin we need not attribute everything around us that would be inappropriate in the world of glory to its effects. The original ‘very good’ pre-fall creation had features which will not be needed in the world to come: the relatively weak and powerless human body depended on food intake (1 Cor 6:13), and it excreted wastes; humanity was capable of being invaded by death.

Is animal death another of these features? Paul’s argument in 1 Tim 4:3-4 is that God made everything ‘good’ and therefore everything is able to be eaten. The recent creationist argument, based on Genesis 1:29-31, is just about the reverse. It runs, ‘God made everything good and therefore humans were to confine themselves to plants and vegetables’. Surely this view proves too much: fish, eggs and milk products would also be off limits if the interpretive principle used is correct.

What is ‘good’ is defined by God, not by abstract notions of perfection arising from human thinking.

2. The Noahic Flood
Similar care is necessary in considering the Noahic Flood narrative. In the Flood the primary theological factor is that of decreation/recreation. God foreshadows the cosmic judgement of which Enoch had spoken earlier (cf. Jude 14,15) by a particular judgement on Noah’s contemporaries which will powerfully show both his righteousness and his redemptive purpose. The New Testament uses the account in the same way.

The earth is reduced to a watery waste like that described in Gen 1:2, and a new, cleansed world is formed with righteous Noah at its head, a picture of the ultimate new heavens and new earth at the end of history. Noah, like Adam, sins but in contrast to Adam he is not a sinner only because he rebelled; he sins because he is a sinner, a partner in the rebellion. Though a recipient of God’s mercy he is unable to carry the weight of the redemption which God has promised. So we are encouraged to look for a new development: the covenant of life with Abraham, from whom comes Jesus, the true Redeemer.

The universal language in the Flood account is not to be down-played by translating eretz as ‘land’ rather than ‘earth’. The universal language would be perfectly proper even if the Flood was limited geographically, since the intention of the narrative is to prefigure the final judgement of all who have ever lived. In the same way, the provisional fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham is behind the statement in Genesis 41:56-57 that the people of ‘all the earth’ came to buy grain from Joseph; the statement is not scientifically true, and wasn’t intended to be, but it highlights God’s faithful covenant purpose to be climaxed in a greater that Joseph.

God said that never again would all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, never again would there be a flood to destroy the earth (Gen 9:10-11). If the Flood was not geographically universal what do these words mean? They mean the Flood did reach to all places where humans had settled and destroyed them, and/or they mean that there will never again be a flood of such significance in God’s purposes, although there may be extensive flooding and even numerically greater loss of life in the future.

For a parallel, notice Jesus said that the overthrow of Jerusalem in AD 70 would be “unequalled from the beginning of the world [not ‘since the Flood’] until now – and never to be equalled again” (Matt 24:31). If we object that more Jewish lives were lost, and more hideously, in Nazi Europe, we may speak truly yet miss the point. We must not interpret the narrative by our benchmarks of significance but by God’s.

The eminent Puritan commentator Matthew Poole (1669) was one of the earliest Protestants to suggest the flood was not geographically universal; the Talmudic sages had argued similarly much earlier. For examples of universal statements not meant in a physical or scientific sense see Deut 2:25; 1 Kings 18:10; Dan 2:38-39; Luke 2:1; Mark 1:5; Acts 2:5; Col 1:23.

We cannot be sure when the Flood occurred or its mechanism. However, the Bible shows not the slightest interest in explaining how the fresh and salt water creatures survived; obviously they did not have to survive in a thick global soup of sediments in suspension.

Similarly, the Bible shows no interest in explaining how all the other creatures fitted in the ark; obviously they were necessarily limited by the ability of 8 people to feed and care for them for a year. I would suppose representatives of the creatures in the cultural region where Noah lived were on the ark, probably some hundreds of animals and birds. This would be sufficient for the purpose of conveying the significance of the Flood to all succeeding generations.

Giving the language a scientific sense means 35,000 vertebrate creatures converge on the ark, according to Whitcomb and Morris, recent creationist leaders. There are some difficulties of course: for example, loading them through the single door using 8 people in seven 24 hour days (10,080 minutes) allows 17 seconds per creature, assuming no time for meals or sleep.

I’m wanting to stress that the definition of the Bible’s universal terms, of creation’s goodness and of the creation days themselves, is not to be determined by our standards: the benchmarks are God’s. Scripture does not exclude an old universe and so I am open to it. In fact it seems as clearly established by science as was the greater size of Saturn compared to the moon in Calvin’s day, but that does not mean I accept macro-evolution of living creatures.

All Christians must reject naturalistic evolution as inherently atheistic, while theistic evolution using the present dominant neo-Darwinian understanding of change does not meet the requirements of an adequate explanation, scientifically or biblically, in my view. But whatever turns out to be the right explanation Christianity is not at risk. As Romans 11:36 reminds us: ‘All things are from God, through God and for God. To whom be glory for ever! Amen.’

Book Review: Nostradamus in the 21st Century

by Peter Lemesurier (London: Piatkus Books 2000) pbk. 325pp)
ISBN: 0749921633


From The Presbyterian Banner, September 2002

Peter Lemesurier appears to be one of the more sane followers of Michel de Nostredame (1503-66), if that is not a contradiction in terms. Nostradame, later known as Nostradamus, was a contemporary of his fellow Frenchman John Calvin (1509-65), but was a far different character. Nostradamus was of Jewish extraction but a practising Roman Catholic. He achieved considerable fame as a physician of the plague, although his medical qualifications are uncertain, and he did not claim great success himself. He was also famed somewhat as an ‘astrologer’, but preferred, rather wisely one would think, to call himself an ‘astrophile’, or ‘star-lover’. On his semi-retirement in around 1550 he turned to writing, particularly in the area of astrology and prophecy. This brought him into great public prominence, and he became particularly influential at the French court where he was a favourite of Catherine de Medici. Twice married, he had two children by his first wife (all three died) and six by his second. He was careful not to fall out with the Roman Church.

His prophetic writings included annual books of predictions for the following year. The success rate of the 6,338 or so predictions thus made has been calculated by Bernard Chevignard at only 5.73%. He also produced more general and usually undated prophecies of the future history of the world. These include 1,000 4-line verse prophecies called quatrains. There are many obscure expressions in them, but these are the writings that attract most interest today. The success rate cannot be determined because the commentators vary so widely on their interpretation. Lemesurier suggests only a dozen or so are agreed on by all (p. 32f). His published horoscopes show, according to Pierre Brund’Amour, that he was ‘astonishingly incompetent’ as an astrologer. Roger Prevost [Nostra-damus, le mythe et la realite, Laffont, 1999] suggests that many of Nostradamus’ prophecies were based on past events drawn often virtually word for word from ancient histories and medieval chronicles. The idea seems to have been belief in cycles in history so, given the same celestial conditions, the potential for the same terrestrial occurrence existed.

According to Lemesurier, in a website on the subject <> :
‘The most up-to-date research into Nostradamus’ prophecies generally is contained in Bernard Chevignard’s Présages de Nostradamus (Editions du Seuil, 1999). The latest and most reliable work on his astrology is contained in the late Pierre Brind’Amour’s Nostradamus Astrophile (Lincksieck/Univ. of Ottawa Presses, 1993), and possibly the most reliable analysis of the first-edition verses (1.1 to IV.53) in the same author’s Nostradamus: Les Premières Centuries (Droz, 1996) – but both, like Chevignard’s work, are of course also in French. Even James Randi’s characteristically sceptical The Mask of Nostradamus (Prometheus, 1993) contains – for all its many errors of detail – far more up to date, correct information on the seer than most of the popular books in English put together!’

One of the most interesting aspects of Lemesurier’s book is the way in which he understands free will and prophecy. ‘If we respond to those warnings appropriately, the prophecies – this time around at least – will fail. And so Nostradamus will be proved wrong – which, of course, is the fate of all good prophets’ (p.8).

From a Biblical perspective there is a certain truth in this. God may announce judgement yet relent if there is changed behaviour, as with Jonah and the Ninevites. In such cases there is an implied condition. But Lemesurier’s view seemingly does not allow God to control his creation, nor allow the credibility of the prophet to be demonstrated by predictions that are absolute. It’s a neat way of making prophecy meaningless, as if 5.73% accuracy makes you a better prophet than one who is 100% right! Of course, it also assumes one knows the meaning of the prophecy so as to act to counter it.

In the Bible the true prophet’s predictions never fail, except insofar as any implied conditions are fulfilled. If they do fail then it is a sure sign God is not speaking by him (Deut 18:21-22). Further, even if the prediction comes true but the prophet leads away from the truth of God, he is not a true prophet, but one God is using to test his people (Deut 13:5).

Nostradamus is an interesting character. Yet isn’t it amazing that the Hebrew prophets’ predictions do not gain the interest and attention that Nostradamus receives, a man who failed both Biblical tests? That’s man, however. If he will not subject himself to the word of God, he’s open to believe anything.

Book Review: The Bible, Protestantism and the rise of natural science by Peter Harrison

 By Peter Harrison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), xii + 313pp., A$105

This review by Rowland S. Ward appeared in the Reformed Theological Review, December 1999.


Peter Harrison is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bond University, Qld. He has authored a volume that is well-written and rsearched and which is very valuable in understanding the origins of the natural sciences.

A common view since the 1930s has been that the Puritans were the key to the rise of the sciences since so many of them were involved in the founding of the Royal Society. They were also over-represented in the sciences compared to their proportion in the total population. However key elements of the scientific approach lie before the Puritan influence (Galileo, Descartes), and so a modified view has been proposed which claims that the spirit of enquiry promoted by Protestantism generally, and the breaking of clerical censorship, is a better way of explaining the rise of the natural sciences. However, Harrison suggests a more refined thesis. To him the key is the approach to the interpretation of texts fostered by the early reformers and their successors, and he makes a convincing case.

Biblical texts had early been subjected to non-literal exegesis in the interest of giving difficult parts moral or figurative value. In the same way, nature was seen as intended to illustrate moral and spiritual matters, and was not viewed in its own terms. It was a vast lexicon of meanings. With the return to a literal reading of Scripture, that is, to the meaning the author intended to convey by his words, we not only had a reformation in the church, we also had nature now viewed in terms of its usefulness at a practical rather than a symbolic level.

Dr Harrison provides a quite fascinating survey of early approaches to biblical hermeneutics and the understanding of nature. He does not overlook the emphasis, not only in Calvin, on ‘accommodation’ to the capacity of the unlearned in the narratives of Scripture so that simplified, observational ways of speaking are found in Scripture rather than strictly scientific statements.

It will not have escaped the attentive reader that this thesis is saying that the recovery of the literal meaning (as defined above) was the key to unlocking the world of nature, yet today it is the literalists who are considered the great opponents of scientific enquiry. Of course, modern literalists, operating in a developed scientific age, are not really in the same category as those who took a literal meaning of Scripture when the natural sciences were in their infancy.

Harrison provides copious interesting, instructive and sometimes amusing references from the 17th century which illustrate the struggles of early scientists who assumed the scientific nature of certain parts of Scripture. Approaches to the creation, fall and Flood narratives receive attention. Harrison concludes by noting the way in which the scientific impulse was increasingly secularised from the beginning of the 18th century leaving Christians with only a body of doctrines with which to concern themselves. The Western quest for redemption was now focused on a secular salvation. So there is a very relevant message here. This is an excellent book although unhappily expensive. It would be very valuable to any tertiary student of the humanities and the sciences.

Note: A paperback edition is now in print.

The Psalter in Worship: The Covenant Setting

Extracted from The Psalms in Christian Worship, pp. 1-6
It should be noted that the author holds the singing of the Psalter in public worship is a godly practice and supported by a number of lines of argument. However, he does not hold that use of other song material in public worship is necessarily sinful. He recognises there have always been differences over the application of the regulating principle of Scripture in this area, and has no interest in advancing exaggerated underpinning for the practice.

While this book is not intended as an exhaustive study of the principles underlying the practice of singing only the Psalter in public worship, it certainly seeks to commend that practice and show its foundation, for what God has given ought not to be neglected. At the same time it is hoped that those who do not expect to be persuaded of the position will at least wish to see a much greater use of the Psalter than is common at the present time.

Much of current practice in Christian worship is alarming to older Christians. One thinks not only of endlessly repeated choruses with limited content, but the whole approach to worship: the use of mime and dance, rock bands and drama – the whole sweep of practices which seem to have turned worship into entertainment. With incredible arrogance we sinful creatures seem to think that whatever pleases us must be acceptable with God. We hardly hear anyone ask, “Does this please God? Is it what he has commanded?” This book does not want to encourage a reversion to traditional ways of worship from the Victorian age, but it aims to encourage an examination of principles for the singing and musical content of worship.

Some broad principles

The practice of exclusive use of the Psalter in public worship does not rest on a few isolated texts but on broad principles of Scripture. Some of these principles can be stated as follows:

1. Worship has a covenant context
All true worship is obedient response in the context of God’s covenant. True worship is a right response to God’s initiative and God’s word. We do not seek him but he seeks us, finds us, redeems us and lays commandments which are not burdensome on us. God’s word is a word of salvation in Christ, the mediator of the new covenant. The response is obedience to “all things that Christ has commanded” (Matt 28:20). Obedience is not a means of establishing a new relationship with God (that would be legalism) but it is the fruit of the new relationship established by God in his grace. This was so in the Old Testament also where the preface to the ten commandments (Ex 20:1-2) declares that because the Lord has redeemed his people they are bound to the response of obedience.
2. The covenant’s heart: God with us
In the Old Testament God chose to dwell with his people (Ex 25:8 cf. Rev 21:3). The tabernacle is variously described as “the tent of dwelling” (Ex chs. 25/27; “the tent of meeting” (Ex chs.28/31) or “the tent of testimony” (Ex 38:21). All this indicates that God was represented as dwelling with his people; they could meet with him there, and they were to keep his testimony. The temple built by Solomon c.950 BC and rebuilt in Haggai’s day (c.516 BC) was just the permanent form of the portable tabernacle. The arrangements and furnishings were designed to teach spiritual truths, many of which are expounded in the Epistle to the Hebrews. This epistle emphasises the point that the earthly sanctuary was a copy of a heavenly original. With this agree Haggai’s words that the glory of the rebuilt house of God would be greater when the Desired of All Nations should come (Haggai. 2:6-9).

When Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19; Matt 26:60f; 27:40; Mark 14:57-59; 15:29; Acts 6:14) he was speaking of “the temple of his body” (John 2:21). This shows us that the death of Jesus and his resurrection involved the institution of a new temple of which the old was a picture. In short, the new covenant effected by Christ’s death and resurrection replaced the Mosaic covenant and the old temple was replaced by the new temple which is the Christian church, the dwelling place of God through the Spirit of which Jesus is the cornerstone (cf. also Eph 2:18-22; 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 6:16).

Through Jesus, God comes to us: we meet with him and we live out our lives for him, the righteousness of the law being fulfilled in us who walk according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4). Since Christ has entered into the heavenly sanctuary, into the very presence of God, there to appear before the Father on behalf of his people, Christians have no holy buildings on earth, and no symbolic structures or worship (other than baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Christ in the Gospel is not symbol but reality. Thus we come boldly to the throne from which grace is dispensed.

3. The songs of God’s temple – inspired and authorised
The use of songs in the praise service of the Old Testament temple was according to divine direction and the materials used were inspired. “The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, his word was on my tongue” (2 Sam 23:2). The Psalms are specifically noted by the Saviour himself, following his resurrection, as speaking of him, and doubtless his instruction formed the basis of the very common use of the psalms by the disciples in their teaching. More than 100 psalms are alluded to in the New Testament and about half of all Old Testament quotations in it are from the Psalter. No one can prove uninspired materials are commanded in the New Testament and everything favours the view that the Psalter, now come into its own with the coming of Christ, was intended to form the hymnbook of the Christian church, the spiritual temple, and to be the means of offering the sacrifice of praise (Heb 13:15).

a. The Psalter is meant to be sung
The Psalter is poetry in a form which loses little or nothing in translation, since rhyme of words is not a feature of the original Hebrew. Rhyme as we know it is replaced by parallelism or a kind of rhyme of thought, by which one line matches, contrasts or develops the thought of the previous line. Efforts to show a definite metrical structure have not proved successful, and we are left to recognise a simple and flexible rhythm. This involves a pattern of stressed syllables, often three or four to a phrase, interspersed with an indefinite number of weak syllables.

This poetry is meant to be sung, and its content is appropriate to all ages and circumstances. Even those believers who wish to supplement it with uninspired material admit this. This being so the Psalter ought to be used extensively. In fact it is not so used. One gratefully acknowledges that significant parts of the Psalter are read in some of the liturgical churches. But relatively few are sung by the congregations, and this is particularly so in fine evangelical churches professing a high regard for God’s word.

b. The Psalter is inspired
There are many doctrinally correct and beautiful compositions in hymnbooks. That there is a place for them in a Christian’s life is not doubted. But is the inspired Psalter, the word of Christ, to be displaced by them in the worship of the gathered people of God? We do not substitute a reading from Wesley’s Sermons or Calvin’s Institutes for our Scripture reading in the worship service. Why then should we displace the inspired songs by other compositions which, however true and beautiful, are not breathed out by God in the way the Psalter is?

c. The Psalter is authorised
In the Church of Christ we must rest content with what Christ has instituted. We must not add nor must we take away from what he has commanded. This is the truly ecumenical principle, and it is also the way to preserve true liberty of conscience. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship” (Westminster Confession 20:2 corrected text cf. 21:1; see also Belgic Confession Art 7; Baptist Confession of 1689 21:2). But human inventiveness and human traditions did not begin and end with the Pharisees. It is endemic to sinful man to think he is free to supply deficiencies he supposes are found in the worship prescribed in Holy Scripture.

The implications of the inspired character of Scripture and the Psalter as part of Scripture are well stated by the findings of the Minority Report of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God presented to the Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1947 by Professor John Murray and Dr William Young:

“1. There is no warrant in Scripture for the use of uninspired human compositions in the singing of God’s praise in public worship.
2. There is explicit authority for the use of inspired songs.
3. The songs of divine worship must therefore be limited to the songs of Scripture, for they alone are inspired.
4. The Book of Psalms has provided us with the kind of compositions for which we have the authority of Scripture.
5. We are therefore certain of divine sanction and approval in the singing of the Psalms.
6. We are not certain that other songs were intended to be sung in the worship of God, even though the use of other inspired songs does not violate the fundamental principle in which Scripture authorisation is explicit, namely, the use of inspired songs.
7. In view of the uncertainty with respect to the use of other inspired songs we should confine ourselves to the Book of Psalms.”

4. The covenant law
Jesus reminds us that love to God and love to man are the basis of the Old Testament (Matt 22:34-40). What is involved in love for God is covered by the first four commandments (following the Hebrew text). The first of the ten commandments requires that the Lord alone be acknowledged as God for there is only one God, and thus only one truth. At the heart of true worship is acknowledgement of the total rule of the God of salvation. Hence, Jesus is Lord. At the heart of false worship is rejection of this. In other words, whenever man defines reality by himself we see the essence of idolatry. The second commandment deals with the lawful approach to this one God: the approach to God must be consistent with his character and so we can approach him only in the way he commands. He must be worshipped “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). The third command forbids taking God’s name in vain. This means far more than forbidding casual use of the actual name of God. “Christ teaches that God’s name is comprehended in the heavens, the earth, the temple, the altar (Matt 5:34), because his glory is conspicuous in them. Consequently, God’s name is profaned whenever any detraction is made from his supreme wisdom, infinite power, justice, truth, clemency and rectitude.” The fourth commandment reminds us that although all our life is to be consecrated to the Divine glory, God claims one day in seven for himself, a day that is made for man to rest and rejoice in God, and which points to his eternal destiny with God when his work is done. The last six commandments express love to one’s fellows, since he who loves God must love those who bear the Divine image.

5. Scripture is sufficient
Scripture, as God’s covenant word, is the revelation of his will for what we are to believe and do, and it is a sufficient revelation. It is able to equip the believer thoroughly for every good work because it is sufficient in teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16-17). It therefore does not need supplementing by other materials. So far as singing is concerned the Bible teaches that this has a vertical dimension (singing to the Lord) but also a horizontal dimension (teaching and admonishing one another by the singing). This points to inspired materials.

6. Outside the covenant: man is disqualified
Man is a sinner but he is still a worshipper. In fact, he is incurably religious, but apart from God’s grace he does not know what he worships (John 4:22). He lives a lie because he rationalises away the truth of God and suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). He thinks up worship from his own heart (1 Kings 12:26-28). He dresses himself in religious garb to justify himself, but having no sovereign God he has no sure hope and no future. His worship is false, his service fruitless. Compared to the utterly pagan he may have some considerable knowledge as did the Samaritans and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. But the words of Jesus to the Samaritans stand: You Samaritans do not know what you worship; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22); and to the Pharisees: “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Matt 15:9 quoting Isaiah 29:13). Thus we are directed again to the word of God.

Further, the way of salvation through Christ confirms man’s disqualification since Christ does not act in such a way as to supplement our efforts or to allow our efforts to supplement his obedience. Rather, Christ acts as the sinner’s substitute so that God is just and the one who justifies whoever believes in Jesus. When we seek acceptance ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’ we must not think that any thing we do, even in worship, measures up to the righteousness God requires. Our worship is accepted because Christ is the perfect worshipper, the obedient servant, and we are accepted in him by grace through faith. Thus we cannot dispense with the Psalter which, as we will see, is in a real sense the song of Christ for his people.

7. An historical note
So far as the public worship of the Christian church is concerned the Psalter reigned supreme for several centuries with a virtual monopoly during most ages of the church’s near 2,000 year history. It would appear that something is unbalanced about our worship practices in the 20th century when the average hymnbook of perhaps 600 items contains only a dozen or so psalms for congregational use; many have few more than the obligatory Psalm 23.

Should the Psalter be the Only Hymnal of the Church?

Historical aspects of the practice of Reformed worship suggested by a booklet of the same name by Iain H. Murray published by the Banner of Truth Trust, 2001.

Published in The Presbyterian Banner, December 2001 and
The Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland, January 2002

The title says it all. Murray’s answer is in the negative as expected from one who severely criticised the modernisation of many old hymns in Rejoice! – the 1987 hymnbook of the denomination which holds his ministerial credentials, the Presbyterian Church of Australia. However, why is Banner publishing this material? Given that Murray has been notorious for excluding controversial issues from discussion at Banner Conferences, he’s certainly changed his own practice of recent years. Further, considering that much of Murray’s last 45 years has been spent with republishing Puritan and Reformed books, his historical grasp is astonishingly lacking on this occasion.

Rather than a somewhat unedifying detailed rebuttal, I offer the following framework for a proper understanding of the historical issues, which are frequently poorly understood.

(1) The deliberate practice of Reformed churches was for the use of the materials of Scripture in praise, with the Creed and the Doxology, where used, the exceptions.

Congregational singing almost disappeared well before the 16th century, but was a important part of the Reformation. John Calvin wrote in the preface of his 1542 service book:

‘As for public prayers, there are two kinds: the one consists simply of speech, the other of song Now, what Augustine says is true, namely, that no one can sing anything worthy of God which he has not received from him. Therefore, even after we have carefully searched everywhere, we shall not find better or more appropriate songs to this end than the Psalms of David, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And for this reason, when we sing them, we are assured that God puts words in our mouth, as if he himself were singing through us to exalt his glory.’

The Psalter reigned supreme in the Reformed churches worldwide, although the argument for it was not a tight exclusive psalmody position as developed later on. Murray cites John Cotton as the earliest advocate of exclusive singing of the Psalms, but he did not hold to that position. I presume Murray has not read Cotton’s book and was misled by the title: Singing of Psalmes A Gospel-Ordinance. Or A Treatise wherein Are handled these Particulars: 1. Touching the duty itself. 2. Touching the Matter to be Sung. 3. Touching the Singers. 4. Touching the Manner of Singing (London 1647).

Cotton is explicit concerning the matter to be sung:

“Wherein we hold and believe;
1. That not only the Psalmes of David, but any other spirituall Songs recorded in Scripture, may lawfully be sung in Christian Churches, as the song of Moses, and Asaph, Hemen, Ethan, SolomonHezekiah, Mary and Elizabeth, and the like.
2. We grant also, that any private Christian, who hath a gift to frame a spiritual Song, may both frame it privately, for his own private comfort, and remembrance of some special benefit, or deliverance. Nor do we forbid the private use of an Instrument of Musick therewithall: So that attention to the Instrument, does not divert the heart from attention to the matter of the Song.’ (p. 15)

(2) The Reformed churches distinguished between the public worship of the church and the activities of Christians outside those settings, so that uninspired religious songs were valued but not used in public worship.

In Scotland the Guid and Godlie Ballats (not later than 1578) included a variety of matter which was used in non-church settings. A song is attributed to Calvin, and another to the well known David Dickson ca. 1650, but it is quite wrong to use this as an argument for church use, as Murray does. Note Robert McWard, the Covenanter, in his reply to Bishop Burnet: ‘We ought to abide content with God’s institutions, and refuse a superfluous mixture of human odes with these Divine Psalms, which he hath appointed for the matter of our more solemn praises’ (The True Non-Conformist, 1671, p. 278).

To the same effect one may cite influential Dutch writers. For example, Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711), in The Christian’s Reasonable Service (1700), writes positively of uninspired hymns written by Luther and Reformed writers such as Justus Van Lodestyn, whose songbook (Utrecht 1676) he describes as ‘second to none as far as spirituality is concerned’. Yet he also states: ‘The decision of the Dutch Synods has been very correct indeed, namely, that none other but the Psalms of David are to be used in the churches.’ (Vol 4, ET 1995, pp. 34-35).

(3) The term ‘psalm’ in the 17th century (and at other times) is frequently used in a generic sense for a religious worship song inclusive of but not necessarily limited to the 150 songs of the Psalter.

In the above citation from Cotton this breadth of use is illustrated. It is also used this way in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21:5 (1646) when referring to religious worship including ‘singing of psalms with grace in the heart’.

The Westminster Assembly produced a revision of Francis Rous’ Psalter in 1645. The Westminster Version received approval from the Commons in April 1646, but it did not supplant the Sternhold & Hopkins Psalter of 1562 used in England, which included about 20 pieces additional to the Psalter itself. On 8 July 1647 the Scots commenced the process of radical revision of the Westminster Version which ended in November 1649 with the approval of what we know as the Scottish Psalter.

Meanwhile, the Confession of Faith was approved by the Assembly of the Scottish church in August 1647, and also a proposal that Zachary Boyd, who was helping with the revision of the Psalter, prepare versions of the other Scripture Songs. The Assembly that adopted the Confession believed in the Word of God in song, not exclusive singing of the Psalter.

Hence, the Westminster Assembly, the early Church of Scotland and its constitutional descendants, the Free Church of Scotland and the PCEA, are not to be regarded as maintaining the principle that the Bible requires the exclusive use of the Psalter in public worship. Other Scripture songs, and perhaps also prose parts of Scripture put into singing form, are admissible without breaching the principle of an inspired song service which is the point the churches named stand for.

(4) There was no consensus among the Reformed as to the precise meaning of the term ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.

a. Some make no special comment on the terms so far as whether they were inspired songs or not (eg. John Davenant (Colossians, Latin 1627, 1630, 1639, English 1831); John Diodati (Annotations, 1642, 1643 etc.) and John Trapp (Epistles, 1647).

b. Some considered the three-fold term referred to material agreeable to Scripture teaching but not necessarily songs embedded in the text of Scripture. Those who thus allowed for new songs included the Englishmen Thomas Cartwright (On Colossians, 1612), Paul Bayne [d. 1617] (On Ephesians 1643, 5th ed. 1658), and Edward Elton (On Colossians 1612, repr. 1620, 1637). We could add the learned Scot, Robert Boyd [d. 1627] (Ephesians, Latin 1652); and the English Baptist hymnwriter, Benjamin Keach (The Breach Repaired, 1691, 2nd ed. 1700).

c. Some regarded the terms as referring to inspired material only (inclusive of the Psalter). These included Nicolas Byfield (Commentary on Colossians, 1615, repr. 1617, 1627, 1628, 1649); Jean Daille (On Colossians, French 1643, English trans. 1672); John Cotton of New England (1647, repr. 1650) and the Scottish Commentator, James Fergusson (Colossians, 1656; Ephesians, 1659). Fergusson seems to restrict the meaning to Old Testament songs.

d. Others regarded the three-fold expression as referring to the Psalter alone. Thomas Ford (1598-1674), a member of the Westminster Assembly, is of this mind. Likewise Cuthbert Sydenham (1622-54), Presbyterian minister at Newcastle, advances this view in his 48 page tract on what he terms one of ‘the two grand practical controversies of these times’ (the other was infant baptism). To the same effect is the Biblical scholar Francis Roberts (1609-75) in his Clavis Bibliorum, 3rd ed. 1665.

This mixed tradition of interpretation is a further confirmation that the statement in the Westminster Confession, a consensus document, was not designed to bind the conscience as to the precise extent of the material of praise in the worship service.

In 1673 an edition of the Scottish Psalter was published in London with a preface signed by 25 of the leading ministers of the age, including John Owen, Thomas Manton and Joseph Caryl. They state:

‘Now though spiritual songs of meer humane composure may have their use, yet our devotion is best secured where the matter of words are of immediately Divine inspiration; and to us David’s Psalms seem plainly intended by those terms which the Apostle useth, Eph 5:19, Col 3:16.’

We know Thomas Manton was not opposed to uninspired materials of praise in public worship (see his Commentary on James at 5:13), but the signers obviously stood in the line of the earlier Calvinistic Reformation. The Psalter was envisaged as the norm of praise, but commonly was not underpinned by an argument for it alone.

(5) There were periods of scruple of any singing in church at all. Prior to 1690 most published discussion related to this question and stressed the use of Scripture songs, and thus in practice the Psalter.

The scruples against singing were first raised in the 1520s by Huldreich Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, and there was no singing there until 1598. In the 1640s scruple was raised in England about singing compositions in a church gathering where some might be unbelievers, or where the things sung may not be true of the singers. Also singing was treated very casually or negligently by many. There was of course little in the way of available hymns outside the Bible until the 1740s. If the Bible songs were not sung there would in effect be no sung praise at all.

John Cotton’s book (1647) has been mentioned already. Cuthbert Sydenham introduces his little work (1653) thus:
‘The next publick controversie which Satan hath raised to disturb the Churches, is about the practice of singing scripture-Psalms, on purpose to deprive the saints of the blessing of that soul-raising and heart-ravishing Ordinance, by which God is publickly and solemnly praised, and the spirits filled with the glory of God; and because your hearts may be established in every truth, and not so easily perswaded to part with such a holy Ordinance, I could not but endeavour to clear up this also‘ (A Christian sober and plain exercitation p.175).

Thomas Ford of Exeter published five sermons in 1653 with the title, Singing of Psalmes The Duty of Christians Under the New Testament. His main burden was that congregational singing was a duty, and particularly of the Psalter. He states:

‘I will not say it is unlawful to conceive and compose a Psalm upon occasion. But I say again, there is no reason that our conceived Psalms should shut out David’s how can we do better than in the words of David? It would become those who quarrell at our singing of David’s Psalmes, to give us better in the room of them, or else consider how they fulfill the law of Christ, when they neither sing those, nor any other’ (pp. 20,23).

Later developments 1700-1840

It was not until the last quarter of the 18th century that refinement of the Scriptural psalmody argument occurred under the impact of ‘Christianised’ versions of the Psalter such as those by Isaac Watts (1719) and, from the 1740s, of the Methodist hymns. In England, William Romaine, the Anglican Calvinist, battled indifferent singing and Methodist influence. His An Essay on Psalmody (1775) was in the line of the earlier work of Francis Roberts. The displacing of God-inspired songs with ‘human’ songs was especially disliked by conservatives. On the other hand, the hymns had appeal to many as more expressive of personal experience and of the nature of the Gospel, as well as often being set to a variety of fresh tunes.

Most Scottish and Irish Presbyterians only moved gradually from the Psalter. The first step was the use of versifications of Scripture passages following the publication of 67 pieces as The Scottish Paraphrases 1781. They were used in some PCEA circles in the 19th century but formally abandoned in 1947. The Rev Dr James Glasgow (1805-90), a famous Irish Presbyterian missionary to India, is a good example of someone who maintained the position of accurate versification of Scripture in public worship song. He composed some 173 paraphrases himself, most between 1870-75.

The second and more significant stage was the move from Biblical passages to ‘free’ songs, what we commonly called hymns. These spread through the British Presbyterian and Anglican churches between 1850 and 1890 with little theological reflection. Only the smaller Presbyterian groups, often remnants, maintained the older position (although hymns were used in some PCEA Sabbath-Schools in the 19th century, and they were sung before the service in Prince Edward Island).

Not infrequently the small churches refined it to the position that the Bible required singing in public worship to be restricted to the Psalter. The earliest example of this that I know of is by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of the United States of North America in its Testimony of 1774, and it is moderately enough expressed. It reads:

‘Singing God’s praise is a part of public, social worship, in which the whole congregation shall join; the Book of Psalms, which are of divine inspiration, is well adapted to the state of the church and of every member in all ages, and these Psalms, to the exclusion of all imitations and uninspired compositions, are to be used in social worship.’

This is repeated word for word in the American RP Testimony of 1806, and for substance is the same in the Scottish RP Doctrinal Testimony of 1837. Yet there is no condemnation of metrical versions of prose Scripture or of other Scripture songs in these writings. The more restrictive theory had not yet come to the fore.

In this article I have limited myself to historical aspects in the main. If we want to travel from songs that are Scripture to doctrinally accurate free songs, a significant yet at times fairly fine point, let us not only get our history straight but also understand the principles of Biblical worship. Otherwise the train may go express to Sound Hymns, then stop all stations to Mime, Dance and Clowns, and ultimately end at Ichabod.

New Scientist and Fresh Threats – The question of Religious Science

From The Presbyterian Banner, November 2005

The popular weekly British news and information magazine New Scientist has a special report on Fundamentalism in its 8 October 2005 issue.

The first article ‘End of the Enlightenment’ argues that reason, pluralism, democracy and freedom of thought are under threat from intolerant belief systems – the fundamentalists of Christian, Muslim and other persuasions. Unable to cope with modernity’s challenge to religious orthodoxy, and fearful of secularism’s cultural dominance, they fight back by asserting the infallibility of the sacred text, the superiority of their belief system to all others, the inadequacy of reason, and the subjugation of human freedom to God or his followers.

A second article affirms that, as individuals, fundamentalists – at least those of the Christian variety – tend to be happy, sincere and healthy. They have a sense of playing a part in God’s great story whereas secular western culture does not provide a ‘grand narrative’ in which one finds one’s identity. But anthropologist Scott Atran from the University of Michigan is cited in support of the proposition that, in a group, fundamentalist Christians struggle to fulfil the prophecies of the Bible, and thus validate their cherished beliefs, and that this has ignited a global holy war. Atran thinks Christian fundamentalism and the apocalyptic visions of the book of Revelation are the cause of Islamic fundamentalism.

A third article outlines the research and funding behind intelligent design and suggest some supporters want to discredit global warming, ozone depletion and pollution issues.

A final article by well-known columnist Bryan Appleyard is on the whole helpful in its reminder that scientists can be fundamentalists too.

The first reaction to this series of articles is that definitions are not well thought through so that confusion rather than clarity results. Second, there is no smoke without fire, and there is certainly cause for concern that a new Dark Ages could descend upon us if some fundamentalists have their way. To make it easier to see the issues, let’s look at faiths other than Christianity first.


(i) Islam
In his book Islam and Science (Zed Books, 1991), Pakistani physicist Perved Hoodbhoy writes:
‘About 700 years ago, Islamic civilization almost completely lost the will and ability to do science. Since that time, apart from attempts during the Ottoman period and in Mohammed Ali’s Egypt, there have been no significant efforts at recovery. Many Muslims acknowledge, and express profound regret at, this fact. Indeed, this is the major preoccupation of the modernist faction in Islam. But most traditionalists feel no regret – in fact, many welcome this loss because, in their view, keeping a distance from science helps preserve Islam from corrupting, secular influences.’

Hoodbhoy notes the influence of Maurice Bucaille, the French physician to the Saudi royal family who wrote The Bible, the Qur’an and Science in 1975, for which he was reportedly paid a nine figure sum. Bucaille is widely cited in Islamic material including A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam by I. A. Ibrahim. The Islamic Society of Victoria has published an edition of this latter book. Bucaille’s book was thoroughly refuted by Dr William F. Campbell, the physician to the Tunisian royal family, in a very interesting response [The Qur’an and the Bible in the light of History & Science] available on the web at <>

Bucaille and those like him wish to show that the Qur’an anticipated scientific discoveries that could not have been known at the time, and thus to prove the Qur’an is Divine revelation. For example, the statement in the Qur’an 96:15-16 “…We will take him by the front of the head, a lying, sinful front of the head!” is cited, since only in the 20th century did we discover that the pre-frontal region of the cerebrum is the area for planning, motivating and initiating good and bad behaviour. But one can only do this with appearance of being convincing by being quite arbitrary. What does one do with Qur’an 20:53, which speaks of God who has, “…made the earth for you like a carpet spread out…”? Are we to believe in a flat earth?

In some versions of Islamic science the Qur’an is held to contain all possible science. Examples of the pseudo-science includes existence of jinns as fiery beings possessing unlimited energy, and that this energy can be used as fuel; the claim that heaven is receding from earth at 1 centimetre per second less than the speed of light. Another author proposes that atomic charges are carved out of ‘spiritual forces’’ and “not simply the blind electromagnetic forces that the materialists would make us believe.’’

Another problem with claims that the Qur’an anticipated modern discoveries is that they lack an explanation for why quantum mechanics, molecular genetics, etc., had to await discovery by non-Muslims, or why antibiotics, aspirin, steam engines, electricity, aircraft, or computers were not first invented by Muslims. Nor is any kind of testable prediction ever made.

(ii) Hinduism
Hoodbhoy also writes: “…let me quote from a recently published book on the sciences of ancient India [Nem Kumar Jain, Science and Scientists in India, (Delhi, Indian Book Gallery, 1985). p.1]. The author, who appears to be an ardent believer in the Hindu faith as well as Hindu supremacy, asks his readers to ponder on Bhagavad Gita 2-16 which says: ‘What does not exist cannot come into existence, and what exists cannot be destroyed’. This line, proclaims the author triumphantly, is definitive proof that a pillar of modern physics – the law of conservation of matter and energy – was also known to the Ancients thousands of years ago. It establishes the divine nature of the Gita, and proves that there is nothing new which has been added to the stock of human wisdom since the time the scriptures were set down.”

(iii) Christianity
In Christianity, the same thing occurs. The statement of Isaiah 40:22, ‘It is he that sits upon the circle of the earth’ is regularly cited to prove Isaiah was aware of the global nature of the earth before such was known. Of course it is nothing of the kind but simply an observational way of describing the horizon, although to the ancients the world was more like a disc supported by pillars and floating on the sea (Psa 24:2; cf. Psa 75.3; Job 9.6). While we don’t usually hear Gen 3:15 taken at face value as if snakes were once upright legged creatures, we still have the ‘windows of heaven’ and the ‘fountains of the great deep’ taken as references to a water canopy above the earth and real subterranean caverns of water, with all the endeavour to establish scientific theories and proofs of a global flood. In fact these descriptions are pre-scientific depictions of the appearance of things – of heavy rain and overflowing flood waters. Scripture is not teaching us physics or geology and these statements are perfectly fine so long as we do not make them teach the sciences.

There certainly is an attitude in religious communities which wants to vindicate supposedly revealed texts by appeal to scientific proof. This has to be unconvincing to the believer since if a text is divine revelation it cannot be disproved. On the other hand, if there truly are in religious texts things intentionally taught that are contrary to reason, the status of the text as true has to be questioned.

Now Christians happen to believe that the Bible is reliable and without error in all it intends to convey, and this embraces historical facts. We may well at times have assumed too much of Scripture as if it taught us more about the natural sciences than it does. It is better as Herman Bavinck put it, to recognise the Bible as a book for science rather than a book of science. We may not understand parts of it well. I for one do not know how to understand some of the large numbers in the Old Testament. I suspect different symbols for writing numbers than were familiar to later copyists are a factor in enlarged numbers in our current text, especially given that something similar but much more exaggerated is found in records such as the Sumerian King List.


One can see from this very brief outline why this kind of fundamentalist approach threatens real science. And there are voices in the Christian community that are on a similar line. The disenchantment with and disengagement from scientific pursuits is not uncommon among some on the Christian right, even as they show an undue regard for scientific proofs of the Bible. In some cases the interest in home schooling reflects this disenchantment. There is no doubt in my mind that some of our Christian right, particularly those of literalist persuasion who subscribe to pre-millennial views, are prone to idealogues who will indeed lead us to a new dark age in some areas of science if they get their way.

On the other hand, intelligent design (ID) as discussed in the last issue of The Presbyterian Banner does not really seem such a major threat if the real point is to hold back those who in the name of science insist that reality is limited to the material or who, like Scott Atran named earlier in this article, are sure that there is no God other than the God created in our own minds. Still, the fear is that appeal to a Designer will excuse investigation and thus limit pushing forward the frontiers of science.

The New Scientist articles are not the most intelligent or helpful since they do not properly distinguish the issues. Nevertheless, there are aspects of concern that Christians of Reformed persuasion must share, I think.


For us the Biblical teaching is that the Triune God created all things and rules over all, so that all fulfils his perfect will. Creation reflects God’s wisdom, power, order and imagination. We may study it and make our science because creation is coherent, ordered, meaningful. Every scientist worthy of the name knows his work is fragmentary and provisional, and not the final word. But there is not a religious science as if there is Christian science or Islamic science, but there is a common method of investigation, and this science may be done Christianly or it may be done according to some other value system. Christian or atheist may, by employment of the scientific method, produce similar results, but the atheist cannot rule out the God of Scripture by the scientific method, while the Christian cannot help but rule God in, seeing in every process, simple or complex, the hand of the Creator behind it all. Yet it is a pity that after 300 years of scientific thought, and 150 years since Darwin, Bible loving Christians still have hang-ups that lead to over-reactions and simplistic solutions.

The author has served the PCEA in Melbourne since 1981.