Category Archives: History and Doctrine of Worship

Presbyterian Identity

Historically the Christian faith as understood by Presbyterians has experienced tension between the three aspects of correct doctrine, personal piety and social engagement. All these aspects are necessary to a well-rounded Christian faith.

They were well represented in James Forbes (1813-51), the first Christian minister settled in that capacity in Melbourne. He served the Scots’ Church and then founded the Free Presbyterian body in 1846. On the one hand he held definitely to the Confession of Faith and thought deviation from strict adherence would come back to haunt the church, but he also maintained a personal devotion and piety that included special gatherings for prayer with other evangelical believers. On top of that he was a foremost educationalist, and principal founder of the Melbourne Academy (later known as Scotch College) as well as involved in many of the early community enterprises such as the hospital, the temperance society and missions to aborigines.

It is not surprising that Australian Presbyterianism has manifested some divergence. In any church of some size different emphases will develop through geographical, social and political factors as well as the influence of significant people.

The impact of the early dominance of the Free Church of Scotland and Irish ministers in Victoria, the much greater Established Church of Scotland influence in New South Wales and the strong Irish Church and Glasgow Bible Training Institute influence in Queensland is seen to this day in the main Presbyterian denomination [PCA] in this country. Differences between rural and city PCEA congregations are another example.

Worship issues

In my youth I used to think that if a church of my own stripe was not available then the Baptists would be best; nowadays I’d say a PCA church would be preferred, but when I go I’m not sure what I’ll find in the worship service.  I may find something similar to my own denomination, or I may find a very traditional PCA style like the 1950s, or increasingly, it seems, I’ll find a rather casual approach with plenty of music and a charismatic feel.

If one attends a charismatic church one tends to find a pretty common style for all that charismatics usually want to stress they are a Spirit-led community and not a structured denomination. So how is it that Presbyterians, who identify as a structured church body without denying being Spirit-led, have such wide divergences in worship?

I want to suggest that in fact these variations in Presbyterian worship, as in anything else, reflect theological commitments. It may be the love of order, beauty, continuity and tradition that controls what we do, or it may be the desire to be with it, and to get people in without being very precise about method. In either case we are missing the Presbyterian point. As Christians who strive to be biblical we are supposed to be committed to the view that the glory of God is the chief purpose for which we are made and that this is the way to enjoy him forever.

So how does the glory of God illuminate our Presbyterian identity?

1. Scripture nourishes the life of the church

We can readily pay lip service to the authority of Scripture while we actually let our own experience and culture interpret it rather than the other way around. The Church can only live by God’s word. Sometimes one has the impression the Code book is more important! The seriously liberal phase in the history of the Presbyterian Church in Australia reflected not just an imbalance in the three aspects mentioned already but an alien intrusion of anti-supernaturalism so that man’s thoughts and not God’s were dominant and directive. And of course the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man proved a very empty response to the human predicament.

Similarly, the emphasis in much of the charismatic movement since the 1970s is on my feelings, my desires, my happiness. The concept of sin, if it’s not blamed on demonic forces, is downplayed as negative and uphelpful.  In this way the path to a God-centred life and true happiness is blocked up. The wonder of the love of God and the significance of the cross of Christ is evacuated of its true meaning. God in his glory and grace is reduced to my good mate, hymns become Christianised love songs to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is there to give us good feelings about ourselves but not lead us in the disciplined life of true godliness.

2. The church is the gathering of God’s people by means of his word and Spirit

Paul was clearly well aware of the culture and intellectual influences in Athens when he spoke in the Areopagus (Acts 17). He employed that knowledge so that he might speak more effectively to them of Jesus and the resurrection. We need to be abreast of the intellectual influences in our culture also, but we must not descend to social and management theory as if they are to control how we see the work of the church. Ministers are not managers per se but preachers and proclaimers, shepherds of the flock. Statistics have a place but the great means for the extension of God’s kingdom is the word of God blessed by the Spirit. After all, the church is not a human institution although there is that face. Ultimately it is Christ who said, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’ Clever psychology and slick marketing is no substitute.

3. Understanding of Scripture occurs in the community of faith in the context of our Confession of Faith

The New Testament emphasizes that the Gospel is to be traditioned, that is, passed on faithfully. Thus Paul writes 2 Thessalonians 3:6: “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition (Gk: paradosis) that you received from us.” He uses accounting terms when elsewhere he writes: “what I received I also passed on to you” The Gospel was passed on without addition or subtraction. The gospel is not to be understood individualisticly as if I can adjust it to my preferences, but it to be understood communally. Hence we have a consensus creed in the Confession of Faith.

Now clearly various procedures and aspects of how we worship need not be everywhere the same so long as they follow the general principles of Scripture.  The Confession says that. And the Confession is not the rule of faith but a help to faith. The Confession also says that. However, Presbyterians are committed to the position that Scripture rules doctrine and life, and that in matters of worship the express direction of Scripture or the good and necessary consequence of its teaching is required.

Ministers have both form and freedom, but it’s to be an ordered freedom. Too often we can act like independents as if we can ignore the wisdom of our fathers and the consensus that binds us together. In the Presbyterian system holy moderation ought to be furthered. “Here”, said Alexander Henderson, the great Scottish Churchman of the 17th century, “Here is superiority without tyranny, . . . here is parity without confusion and disorder . . . and lastly, here is subjection without slavery.”

 

4. Worship on the Lord’s Day is at the heart of the church’s life

Public worship on the Lord’s Day is the meeting of God’s people with their Lord. The older continental Reformed orders of worship bring this out. They began with a votum or promise, a response to God’s call to worship him, such as “Our help is in the Lord who made the heavens and the earth.” Then followed a salutation or greeting such as “Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Benediction at the close is not so much a prayer but a blessing from the Lord as we leave his special presence.

Neglect of public worship is dishonouring to God and destructive of piety. But when that worship is centred on us as a kind of pick-me-up, glossy show, we are moving on dangerous ground indeed.  James S. B. Monsell was right: “O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness/Bow down before him, his glory proclaim.”  Some trends in the PCA as regards worship and the Lord’s Day are very disappointing. We in the PCEA need to let our light shine.

A New Year resolution?

A brief article like this can only hint at issues. The recovery of family worship and the use of the catechism are also important. Princeton Professor B.B.Warfield somewhere tells the story of two men of calm and purposeful bearing, whose very demeanor inspired confidence, walking towards each other in a street of a city then in the midst of commotion and violence. They passed, then turned around and one asked, “What is the chief end of man?” The other answered, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever’ ”—“Ah!” said the first man, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!” “Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,” was the rejoinder. It is worth while to be a Shorter Catechism boy, adds Warfield. They grow to be men. And better than that, they are exceedingly apt to grow to be men of God. So apt, that we cannot afford to have them miss the chance of it. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

In 2012 let us resolve that God and his glory, supremely seen in Christ, may be our chief joy. Then we will find our identity as Presbyterian Christians!

Free Church of Scotland Position on Worship

From The Presbyterian Banner, December 2010 plus Appendix March 2011 and important Supplement August 2013

I confess very happily that I am an inclusive Presbyterian: I’ve very ready, despite my own prejudices, to live in the same church with office-bearers who have different viewpoints on many issues that are not decided by our Confession of Faith.  I’m also very happy to have close fellowship with churches like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the USA that do not have the same form of worship as ourselves, but do cling loyally to the Reformed Faith. Still, I’m very sorry to see that the Free Church of Scotland on 19 November voted 98-84 to change its position on unaccompanied singing of inspired material in public worship.

The matter of the propriety of limiting sung praise in public worship to inspired material without musical accompaniment has been under discussion in the Free Church for several years. Of course our sister is entitled to make its own decisions in accordance with its constitution. Still, it’s the way the matter has been raised and dealt with that is of particular concern.

As well as rescinding certain past decisions (1905,1910,1932) – not a bad idea if simply replaced with a simple Declaratory Act as to the meaning of the vows – the Assembly resolved:

“5. The General Assembly declare that purity of worship requires that every aspect of worship services, including sung praise, be consistent with the Word of God and with the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith approved by previous Assemblies of this Church.

“6. The General Assembly ordain that every service of congregational worship shall include the singing of Psalms.

“7. The General Assembly ordain that, with regard to the sung praise of congregations in worship, each Kirk Session shall have freedom, either to restrict the sung praise to the Psalms, or to include paraphrases of Scripture, and hymns and spiritual songs consistent with the doctrine of the Confession of Faith; that each Kirk Session shall have freedom whether to permit musical accompaniment to the sung praise in worship, or not.

“8. The General Assembly advise that, notwithstanding the foregoing, no Kirk Session should agree to a change in sung praise or musical accompaniment against the wishes of the minister of the congregation, and that a visiting minister, presiding at a service in a congregation where the aforementioned freedom to use uninspired materials of praise and musical instruments has been exercised, may exercise that freedom or not as he sees fit.

“9. The General Assembly ordain that in meetings of Church Courts the use of uninspired materials of praise and of instrumental music will be avoided.

“10. The General Assembly appoint a Special Committee (using consultants as required) to investigate the feasibility and desirability of producing a  recommended list of paraphrases of Scripture and hymns and spiritual songs consistent with the Word of God and the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith, and whether the Free Church ought to produce a praise resource supplementary to the Psalter, and to report to the 2011 General Assembly.”

These decisions arise from a plenary Assembly of all ministers and an equal number of elders. Against the advice of the Assembly Clerk, James Maciver, it was claimed that the plenary nature of the Assembly rendered Barrier Act procedure unnecessary. Barrier Act procedure dates from 1697 as a method for regulating the exercise of the lawful power of the church. The relevant part reads:

“…considering…that it will mightily conduce to the exact obedience of the Acts of Assemblies, that General Assemblies be very deliberate in making of the same, and that the whole Church have a previous knowledge thereof, and their opinion be had therein, and for preventing any sudden alteration or innovation, or other prejudice to the Church, in either doctrine or worship or discipline, or government thereof, now happily established; do, therefore, appoint, enact, and declare, that before any General Assembly of this Church shall pass any Acts, which are to be binding Rules and Constitutions to the Church, the same Acts be first proposed as overtures to the Assembly, and, being by them passed as such, be remitted to the consideration of the several Presbyteries of this Church, and their opinions and consent reported by their commissioners to the next General Assembly following, who may then pass the same in Acts, if the more general opinion of the Church thus had agreed thereunto.”

The proposal passed was not what was recommended by the relevant Assembly Committee (which essentially recommended the status quo), but was an amendment not considered by presbyteries beforehand. In the setting of the plenary Assembly a decision might well be taken that was not sufficiently weighed and considered, although a majority of Sessions were known to be opposed to change. I have the very distinct impression that a significant number of commissioners were anxious to avoid another split after the division in 2000, and so accepted the proposal as the best obtainable, but in the setting of Presbytery meetings it might well have been rejected. The decision also might have had something to do with the long-standing lack of a positive and succinct statement on the vows about worship, as well as the rather complicated legislation of the Free Church hitherto which might convey to sensitive consciences the thought that other forms of worship were of necessity to be regarded as sinful.

So the Free Church, by the barest of margins, has enacted new binding laws without Barrier Act procedure, and rescinded a contrary position adopted in 1910, again without the Barrier Act procedure required by the Act of 1736. I don’t think this was wise procedure and I’m afraid it may cause trouble. I confess some sympathy with the supporters of the substance of the decision, but their pushing the matter through as they have is disappointing. (I guess as a Church we can’t be too critical since we did something similar re our relations with the Free Church in 2005, but I was opposed then to not following Barrier Act procedure.) William Mackay, a former elder in Melbourne, rightly pointed out in debate how inappropriate it was to make this decision so soon after the new Psalter had been produced.

I know that there was frustration that the Free Church worship style seemed a barrier to evangelicals disillusioned with the now so liberal Church of Scotland, but I hardly imagine introducing hymns and musical instruments is really the solution, assuming that it is within the church’s constitutional power to do so. If we have a proper balance in our practice, singing the psalms is liberating, honours the word, protects the conscience and is truly ecumenical.

The decision will not of itself lead to theological liberalism in the Free Church but when a few high flyers thumb their noses at the vows and garner support from others, with good men caving in for the sake of peace, you have pragmatism operating and ultimately you will get liberalism,

Of course most Free Church congregations will not change from exclusive use of the psalms, but some will. I remain very happy to have close relations with the Free Church, our sister if not our mother, but have no desire to follow in her direction on the worship issue. One very happily supports the superiority of the Psalms of the word of God, and it was pleasing to note at our second Leaders’ Training day in Melbourne on 20 November that our two newest ministers in Southern Presbytery (Messrs Bajema and Miranda) spoke so positively of their use in public worship.

Appendix

I add the following comments 26/3/2011

1. For some considerable period certain ministers advocated change. Now these same ministers object that some of those opposed to the decision are publicly indicating their disapproval. This sounds like the pot calling the kettle black! -especially when the ground of opposition is the claim that the decision was not constitutionally valid.

2. It is claimed that singing of psalms and use of instrumental music is not a change requiring Barrier Act procedure.

a. The Barrier Act is not a means of changing the constitution but of regulating lawful changes within the constitution to ensure they are well considered.

b. The recommendation of the Trustees to the Plenary Assembly was that there should be no change in worship but some tidying up of legislation. The Presbyteries had been informed by the Chairman of Trustees in a letter dated 30/11/2009

‘…If the Plenary Assembly resolve to change the Church’s practice on worship then the matter would have to go to Presbyteries under the Barrier Act and come back to another Plenary Assembly for final resolution. The Board will recommend to the May Assembly that it empowers the Plenary Assembly to call another Plenary Assembly to receive the results of the Barrier Act round of Presbyteries and finally give its ruling on the matter. If the initial Plenary affirms the status quo it will of course be unnecessary to call another.’

c. As it turned out a proposal from Rev Alex J. MacDonald was submitted a day or two before the Plenary Assembly and it was accepted by a narrow margin, and was then declared to be a decision equivalent to one passed under the Barrier Act.

3. The decision was not an esoteric one on a point not of general interest to the church, nor was it one about which there was general agreement, – in which case one could argue that the intent of the Barrier Act was either not applicable or met by a decision of a plenary assembly, but it was one on which there was much division of opinion and concerning which it was known that about 70% of Sessions were opposed and thus ‘the exact obedience’ aimed at by the Barrier Act was not likely to be achieved.

4. It would appear that pressing ahead with change in these circumstances, even supposing it within the constitutional power of the Church, was not prudent but only likely to further division.

5. While one is not forced to use hymns and instrumental music, how one can keep the vow to  ‘assert, maintain and defend’ the worship of the church if one is not satisfied that scripture warrants hymns and instrumental music in public worship is not at all obvious.

6. In March 2011 a Memorial and Protestation appeared in several newspapers circulating in areas where the Free Church of Scotland is represented seeking signatures to a Memorial and Protestation to the Assembly to meet in May 2011 seeking that the decision of the plenary Assembly by recalled. Several former Moderators expressed their agreement with the Memorial although doubtless wishing the situation was not so serious as to require this practice.

7. Much as one respects many who have supported the change as Christian ministers, the proceedings have not been edifying. The Free Church of Scotland suffered from the tyranny of the right in 2000; does she now suffer through the tyranny of the left?

Supplement

On of the finest statements of the Free Church of Scotland principle and practice is found in

The Free Church of Scotland: The Crisis of 1900 by Alexander Stewart DD and J. Kennedy Cameron DD: ([1910]Edinburgh: Knox Press 1985) – The Maintenance of the Heritage: Chapter XVI, pp 393 – 396.

This Gospel, alike in its fulness and in its freeness, the Free Church is able to preach in accordance with the terms of her Confession of Faith. She is in a position to give every aspect of revealed truth its appropriate place, and to unfold with the clear and harmonious exposition of a definite system the whole counsel of God. The teaching of the Confession was enough for the great preachers of Scotland during the two and a half centuries which embrace the most fruitful period of its history; and the Free Church of today does not profess to have reached unto higher attainments in the secret of the Lord than they. She will be satisfied if, with some measure of the same authority and tenderness, and with the same effectiveness of converting and sanctifying power, the doctrines of grace are proclaimed from her pulpits in the twentieth century.

In the services of the sanctuary the Free Church adheres to the simplicity which is a supreme characteristic of New Testament worship, and which prevailed in Scotland during the best days of its religious history. She dispenses with instrumental aids in her service of public praise. For this restriction she believes that she has ample Scripture warrant. She regards the use of instrumental music in the House of God as out of harmony with the spirituality of the New Dispensation. Adapted as it undoubtedly was to the period of the Church’s growth in which her services were to a large extent of a sensuous and symbolical character, it is among the “childish things” which she “put away” when she came of age in the day of Christ. An outstanding feature of New Testament worship is its independence of the external and its repression of the sensuous. The Father is worshipped in spirit and in truth. He listens to the language of the soul, and takes delight in those spiritual offerings of the grateful heart which find their most appropriate expression in “the fruit of the lips.” There was no need for instrumental music in those days of the Church when the power of the truth as it is in Jesus was most deeply felt in men’s hearts. “Indeed it is only within the last half-century,” says Dr. D. Hay Fleming, than whom there is no higher living authority on the subject, “that, in Scotland, instrumental music in God’s worship has come to be regarded as compatible with Presbyterianism and evangelical preaching.” (The Reformation in Scotland, p.310) There is no need for it still when the message of the Gospel makes music in the soul. These external trappings of worship are an invariable sign of spiritual impoverishment and retrogression. They are the attempt to make sensuous gratification take the place of spiritual enjoyment. When the tide of spirituality rises, it is always found that such professed aids to devotion are largely swept away. The need for them is no longer felt. They are found to be a hindrance rather than a help to the praises of the full heart. That these features of modern worship make a powerful appeal to the natural mind is a fact which cannot be gainsaid. Whether they are at the same time pleasing to God is another question. Certain it is, at any rate, that once there is a departure from the simplicity of worship which is sanctioned in the New Testament Scriptures, it is difficult to draw the line in actual practice. Experience has proved that the element of praise in the services of the sanctuary tends more and more to degenerate into an exhibition of musical proficiency; the needs of the congregation for the vocal expression of thanksgiving are largely set aside; and the Father’s House is turned to a great extent into a place of entertainment.

In the matter of public praise the Free Church confines herself to the words of Inspiration. It is not a little remarkable that the precedence which she thus accords to the hymns of the Holy Ghost should be the occasion of bringing upon her a large amount of reproach, and that even at the hands of those who profess to believe in the unique authority of Holy Scripture. The objections to the Psalter as a manual of New Testament praise are indeed in many cases of the most superficial character. Although advanced in the name of progress and enlightenment they are not always intelligent. The Psalms, for example, are often said to be deficient as a vehicle of evangelical truth and Christian feeling. Scarcely any charge could be more unfounded. The Psalms are full of Christ. When He himself first tasted of the joy of His Incarnation, and set His face upon the steep but pleasant path of obedience which ended in Joseph’s tomb, he found the words which best described the willingness of His heart in the Book of Psalms. When He gave expression again to those awful sufferings which culminated in the agony of His dereliction, it was in the same portion of the sacred volume that He sought the fitting medium of utterance. And, on the other hand, when an inspired apostle seeks, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, to declare the glory and honour which the risen saviour received from the hand of His Father as the reward of His redemptive service, it is to the Book of Psalms that he turns for the terms that most appropriately unfold the splendour of the Mediatorial Throne. Again, when after the Resurrection Christ expounded to His wondering disciples “the things concerning Himself” as the suffering and triumphant Messiah, the Psalms were one of the special portions of the Divine oracles to whose testimony He appealed. And when the apostles went forth on their great mission of preaching the Gospel of Christ to their fellow-men, the effect of the illumination which then flooded their minds was at once apparent. Their recorded sermons are in some cases little more than an exposition of those portions of the Book of Psalms which speak of the Death and Resurrection of their Lord.

Once indeed we realise that the key to the Psalter is held in the Saviour’s pierced hand, we shall find it “vital with His presence and vocal with His voice.” The Book of Psalms is a perfect instrument of praise, a complete and permanent manual of congregational song. There is no aspect of spiritual experience which it does not delineate. There is no phase of spiritual emotion to which it does not give utterance. From the de profundis of penitential sorrow to the exultant strains that are appropriate to the Delectable Mountains – it covers the whole range of expression. There is no form of Christian effort to whose activities it will not form a fitting accompaniment of song. For long generations in Scotland it has been inseparably associated with those peaceful and hallowed Sabbath scenes in which

“the kneeling hamlet drains
The chalice of the grapes of God”;

And for the more stirring and arduous field of missionary enterprise it furnishes material not less sufficient or suitable. The Psalms are adapted to every age of the Church’s history. “Unshackled from time altogether,” to use Dr. Hugh Martin’s striking words, “they are the Holy Spirit’s expression for mental action and spiritual emotion transpiring in a realm above all outward dispensation – the realm of immediate fellowship with God.”

Such are some of the truths which the Free Church is called upon to “assert, maintain, and defend.”

Some New Psalm Versions

Knox PCEA uses

The Complete Book of Psalms for Singing with Study Notes

[1991, second printing 1994; 368 pages, full music, hardbound.] ‘This is beyond doubt quite the finest English language Psalter I have ever seen. The language is both majestic and modern; the words are Scriptural and simple; the tunes are nearly all very well known. This book merits a very wide circulation in the interests of true ecumenism.’ – Rev Dr F.Nigel Lee, Brisbane which can be obtained from the church.

From time to time additional fresh translations will be added here. Readers are invited to submit suggestions to: rowland.ward@gmail.com

 

Psalm 116

This version of Psalm 116 was written by Rowland Ward January 2011 and revised December 2012

 

Metre: 11.10.11.12D Tune: Londonderry Air

 

1  I love the LORD because he hears my pleading.
2  He’s heeded me; through life I’ll call on him.
3  The cords of death and Sheol’s terrors bound me;
in deep distress I grief and trouble found.
4  Then I cried out, I called upon the LORD’s name:
“You I implore, O LORD, deliver me.”
5  The LORD our God is kind and good and gracious;
6  the simple trusting ones the LORD keeps safe and sound.

When I was low, to me he gave salvation.
7  Return again my soul unto your rest,
because the LORD has lavished good upon you,
8  because my helpless soul you brought from death.
You saved my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
9  Before the LORD I’ll walk in lands of life.
10  I trusted you in time of great affliction;
11  and so I recognised all human help must fail.

12  For all the benefits he’s poured upon me
how can I give thanks to the LORD above?
13  Salvation’s cup I’ll lift up in the LORD’s name;
14  vows to the LORD before his people pay.
15  Indeed the LORD cares much for all the faithful,
their death is not a small thing in his eyes.
16  I am your servant, LORD, your loyal servant;
your handmaid’s son, whose bonds you broke and set me free.

17  So I a sacrifice will bring before you –
an offering of thanks for what you’ve done;
the LORD’s most holy name I will acknowledge:
and openly proclaim his worthiness.
18  Unto the LORD I’ll keep my solemn promise,
before the faithful ones I’ll give my pledge,
19 there in the courts of GOD’s own holy dwelling,
there in Jerusalem. O praise the GOD of grace!

Reforming Worship

[This article appeared in Australian Presbyterian, June 2008]

In 1550 John Knox was called by the authorities in Scotland to give a defence of his claim that the Roman mass was idolatry. Knox stated as his first proposition: “All worshipping, honouring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without his own express commandment, is idolatry. The Mass is invented by the brain of man, without any commandment of God; therefore it is idolatry.” We might shrink back at the boldness of this statement. We might recall some half-forgotten history lessons about image-burning by Protestants in the 16th century, and think that our spiritual fathers went somewhat overboard. But before we go in that direction we need to remind ourselves of the proper context.

Jewish worship in New Testament times was considered strange by non-Jews since, apart from the temple, it was so simple and unadorned. Even in the temple there were no images of the deity. It seemed like a strange ‘superstition’ to the Romans, but the Jews were touchy on the issue, and mostly were left alone.

Christianity in its early decades was also characterised by great simplicity. Most Christians met in private homes. But the pious remembrance of a loved and holy Christian developed in a number of unhelpful ways. Prayers to such departed believers appeared, and in the third century religious pictures began to have a place in the churches. Mementoes of the departed, such as a lock of hair, developed into a cult of relics regarded as having special virtue. Supposed pieces of the cross on which our Lord was crucified, a drop of his blood or some milk of the virgin, were highly valued. The official recognition of Christianity by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century brought many into the churches who carried similar ideas from their former paganism.

These ‘saints’, are a select class numbering nowadays more than 10,000. They may be patrons of particular occupations (eg. locksmiths) or activities (eg. travellers), or places (eg. St Andrew of Scotland), or ailments (eg headaches) or other dangers (eg. drowning).  At first recognised by popular acclaim, later the church hierarchy controlled elevation to sainthood. Veneration of images of saints was distinguished from worship of them, but the technical distinction was not very obvious in practice, and mere sophistry from a Reformed perspective.

The cult of images was justified as an aid to devotion, and a helpful way of teaching the poor who could not read. But it led to a lengthy controversy in the Eastern church in the 8th and 9th centuries with various rulings for and against. Ultimately on 11 March AD 843 the use of picture icons was permanently restored, a day marked by the Eastern Church as ‘The Triumph of Orthodoxy’.

In the West there was not the same level of controversy and three-dimensional representations were also permitted as well as pictures. In the West also the views on what happened to the person at death developed even more than in the East. The real saint who was sufficiently free of sin could enter heaven immediately at death. The one who died unrepentant in mortal (serious and fatal) sin went straight to hell. But the vast majority were not sufficiently holy and needed to be purified in purgatory before they could enter heaven.

Pictures and relics of Christ, Mary or the saints were sought after for their alleged spiritual benefit, particularly for obtaining indulgence from time in purgatory. Purgatory – a place of purification after death before entering eternal bliss – was itself a gradual development rooted in pagan ways of thinking, and only formally recognised as dogma by the Council of Trent in 1550.

Pieces of the true cross were legion, Mary’s breast milk was common, hair, nail clippings, bones, even heads of saints also. This all begins to sound bizarre to us, but if we remember the way in which the material and the spiritual were intertwined, and the religious fervour of the age, we will begin to understand.

The teaching of transubstantiation – that the bread and wine are turned into the very body and blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine – was referred to in this way by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and affirmed as Roman Catholic doctrine by the Council of Trent in 1551. It had grown out of a literal reading of Christ’s words ‘this is my body’ in a belief context where the material was making visible the spiritual.

Still in the current Catholic Catechism we read: “In the liturgy of the Mass we express our faith in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine by, among other ways, genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord. ‘The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hosts with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession.’”

Although before the 16th century there were criticisms of the cult of images, it is really only with the Reformation that there is a sustained theological objection. Luther was content to allow much carry over of religious practice so long as the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ was not imperilled. But the stream of reform associated with Zwingli and Calvin was more radical.

Calvin insists that the purpose of creation is to know God and to glorify him by worship and obedience. For him knowledge of the right way of worshipping God is foundational as the soul of the Christian life. In 1543 he writes in his book On The Necessity of Reforming the Church, “There is nothing to which all men should pay more attention, nothing in which God wishes us to exhibit a more intense eagerness, than in endeavouring that the glory of his name may remain undiminished, his kingdom be advanced, and the pure doctrine, which alone can guide us to true worship, flourish in full strength.” For Calvin true worship must flow from knowledge of God.

Calvin maintains that true worship must be spiritual in line with God’s nature. God must not be worshipped in material symbols, or through physical conceptions of him. Further, God is to be worshipped only in ways warranted from Scripture. Similarly, while art as such is not condemned, the second commandment excluded visual art from the worship and meditation of the church.

Idolatry arises out of the corruption of the human heart so that man’s mind is a veritable factory of idols, ignoring or perverting what God has revealed, whether in nature or Scripture, and making his own religion in which the material plays a major role.  Instead of worshipping the Creator according to his spiritual reality, man worships the creature, bringing God down to the creaturely level. The material world is good, but one cannot find spiritual values in it, but only in God himself.

Calvin’s most popular book was in fact a long list of relics called Inventory of Relics issued first in 1543. Calvin’s aim was to show the blindness of idolaters through listing its most obvious deceptions. He believes that as soon as one admits material objects into worship people begin to attach spiritual value to them. Materiality in worship is a disgraceful affront to God’s majesty. Calvin writes of Roman worship: “For they have prostrated themselves, and bent the knee before relics as before God, lighting torches and tapers as a sign of homage, putting confidence in them, and running to them as if they possessed divine power and grace. If idolatry is just to transfer the honour of God to others, can we deny that this is idolatry?”

The simplicity of Reformed worship, its barrenness in the eyes of critics, therefore is not something to be remedied by the creative arts. Rather it reflects a great and wonderful truth concerning the God we worship!  It is not an easier path to follow, given the materialistic tendencies in our minds and hearts, but it is the true path.

When challenged by the lack of miracles claimed by Rome, Calvin affirms that miracles are seals of the Gospel and its apostolic messengers. As the Reformed have no new Gospel, but have simply recovered the old, their teaching is attested by all the miracles Christ and the apostles performed. The miracles of Rome lead people away from the true worship of God and are necessarily false.

Calvin did not encourage people to act on their own initiative and smash idols, anymore than did Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19:37). But he did provide both a scriptural and a rational interpretation of idolatry that provided a very significant driving force for the reformation of both doctrine and piety along Scripture lines. It gave a more adequate grounding to the temptation of Protestants to compromise with Rome by outward conformity. Calvin allowed for exile if one could not worship God without idolatry, or alternatively one could live among idolaters quietly but inoffensively in line with true worship. His teaching enabled the Reformed Church in France to survive persecution. It produced martyrs but it even more produced people of conviction that the chief purpose for which man is made is to glorify God and worship and serve him accordingly.

Today the picture is not much different. It is said that more Italians pray to Padro Pio, who was declared a saint in 1965, than to Jesus or Mary. His body has recently been put on display and 7,000 people a day come to see it.  We regularly hear of statues of the Virgin which are weeping blood or oil, and many other such things. Certainly in Australia we do not see the gross idolatry of religious processions seen in many nominally Roman Catholic lands where compromise with earlier pagan traditions is even more noticeable. But even here we have a whole mass of teachin0g and practice utterly at odds with Scripture.  These are not things to laugh about so much as to weep for the dishonour given to God by them, and the ignorance of those who give reverence to physical objects.

We of the Reformed tradition need also to look at ourselves, given our human tendency to corrupt the worship of God in one way or another. Are there areas where we are slipping?

Worship in spirit and in truth

Notes of the sermon at the opening of the Synod of Eastern Australia 12 May 2008 by Dr Rowland S. Ward, Retiring Moderator.

John 4:24 is a familiar text: “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.” Yet although this text is described by one writer as “the most important teaching on worship in the entire New Testament” it is difficult to find an entirely satisfying explanation of it in the commentaries. Even books on worship seem to pass over it very lightly. This may be because it is assumed that the text is merely stating that worship must agree with God’s nature, but in my judgement this is only to touch the surface. I’d like therefore to explore this passage in some detail.

1. The context in John’s Gospel

After the Prologue of John 1:1-18 we have incidents over seven days that can be summarised this way.
Day 1 testimony of John the baptiser (1:19-28)
Day 2 ‘the next day (v.29) second testimony of John: Jesus described as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and has the one endowed by the Spirit who will in fact baptise with the Holy Spirit (1:33).
Day 3 ‘the next day’ (v.35) third testimony of John: disciples follow Jesus as the Messiah.
Day 4 ‘the next day’ (v.43) Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael who calls Jesus ‘the King of Israel’. Nathaniel is told that in future he will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (1:51), so Jesus will be the means of communication between heaven and earth.
Day 7 ‘on the third day’ (2:1) there was a wedding in Cana. Given the event as the climax of a series of incidents over seven days, we can recognise the glory of Jesus shown on this occasion incudes the fact that he is the host of the ultimate wedding banquet of which the original creation Sabbath spoke, and that the promised age of the new covenant that supersedes the old covenant is at hand.

Jesus then commences his ministry with the cleansing of the temple at Passover time and the saying about himself as the true temple (2:12-22). So Jesus looks beyond the era of temple worship, and feasts like Passover. Communication between God and humanity will be through Jesus as a result of his death and resurrection, and not through the temple of stone that represented the presence of God among his people, and the sacrifices that spoke of purification.

Then in John 3 we have a religious leader named Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night and receiving instruction about the necessity of being born from above by the Spirit, since earthly things cannot bring what is necessary for entry into the kingdom of God. When we come to John 4 we have Jesus striking up a conversation with an unnamed Samaritan women at midday. There are intended contrasts with the Nicodemus incident here, and the two narratives are linked by specific testimony concerning Jesus as the one sent from God to whom God has given the Spirit without limit (3:34).

All this background must inform our understanding of the case of the Samaritan woman.

2. The cultural context

The Samaritans were descended from Israelites who had intermarried with their Assyrian conquerors in the 8th century BC. They revered the books of Moses with its references to a prophet like Moses, but rejected the prophets who of course spoke of the coming Messianic King from David’s line. The Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim in 128BC, and the Samaritans had retaliated by defiling the temple with human bones one dark night several years before Jesus’ birth.

That Jesus should initiate a conversation with the Samaritan women, and be ready to drink from what she provides is itself quite revolutionary. A Jewish man would not talk to a woman – even his own wife – in public, and would not share vessels with Samaritans, but Jesus does both. He crosses the social and religious divide and the bitter hostility of centuries. In his conversation is brings the woman to realisation of both her need and his ability to meet that need. The saying of Ephrem the Syrian (306-73) is well known: “the woman sees a thirsty man, then a Jew, then a Rabbi, then a prophet, finally the Messiah. She tries to get the upper hand over the thirsty man, she disliked the Jew, she heckled the Rabbi, she was swept off her feet by the prophet, she adored the Christ.”

3. The worshippers the Father seeks

Without tracing each step suggested by Ephrem, I want to concentrate on the woman’s statement in verse 20 and Jesus’ response. She said: ‘Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Like Nicodemus she was thinking on the earthly plane. The question for her was the competing claims of Jerusalem and Mt Gerazim as centres of worship on earth. Where is the right place to worship? That is her question. Jesus responds, ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.’ Jesus is saying that neither Gerizim or Jerusalem will be the place of worship. He hints at the theme which comes out of the cleansing of the temple incident in John 2: Jesus himself in his death and resurrection replaces the temple. He goes on, ‘You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.’ He here affirms that the promises of God come to fulfilment through Jewish history not Samaritan history. Jesus adds, ‘Yet an hour is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.’ Yes, Jewish history is coming to a climax in Jesus. The last days have come and the promised fulfilment is at hand. The temporary institutions of Israel are to be superseded in order that we may draw near as children to a father. The Father is seeking those who worship in spirit and in truth.

It should be obvious by now that Jesus is not saying that from now on God is looking for heart-felt worship, for it has always been true that a broken and a contrite heart he will not despise (Psalm 51:17). Similarly, nor is he talking about God being near to all who call upon him wherever they are. Rather, he is speaking of the location of worship and access to the presence of God. Worship at Mt Gerizim was unlawful and worship at Jerusalem temporary. The unlawful was always unlawful – ‘you don’t know what you worship’ – for ‘salvation is from the Jews’. What was represented in the Jewish tabernacle/temple was temporary but is now fulfilled in Jesus. Consequently there is no salvation except in the way God has appointed.

That way is ‘in spirit and in truth’ and these two terms must be understood in contrast to what is passing away. Spirit means in the realm of the Spirit rather than in the realm of the material and physical which characterised Old Testament tabernacle/temple worship. Jesus himself is the source of the living water which describes the life-giving Spirit, by whom people are born from above (John 3:6-8). Truth means the reality as contrasted with the shadows of the institutions which God gave through Moses. Compare John 1:17: ‘The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ.’ The law was prescribed by God but it was not the very reality, the truth that is in Jesus (John 14:6; Eph 4:21). Jesus himself was to take the place of the temple (cf. 2:21).

So the saying means that the Father is seeking worshippers who worship in the realm of the Spirit and according to the truth as it is in Jesus. It is still centralised worship, but it is worship which corresponds to the accomplished redemption and the age of the outpoured Spirit in which we live. The expression ‘in Spirit’ or ‘in the Spirit’ reminds us of John’s identical expression ‘in the Spirit’ in reference to the vision he received on the Lord’s Day and at other times (Rev 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10). John saw things in heavenly places. Paul writes that believers are raised with Christ and seated with him in heavenly places (Eph 2:6). Worship in (the) Spirit is worship that enters by faith into the heavenly realm.

The one who ‘pitched his tent/tabernacled’ among us, has been endowed with the Spirit beyond measure. Just as Jesus by his death and resurrection erects the true temple and provides the means of communication between heaven and earth, so he obtains the life-giving Spirit for us that in faith union with Christ we might be living stones in the spiritual temple.

Jesus reinforces his statement: ‘God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth’. (1) It is not precise enough to say that God is a spiritual being, and so we must worship in ways appropriate to his non-material nature. God is not a spirit among other spirits. In any case worship in sincerity from the heart was always required by God of individuals. (2) The statement may not refer to God’s essence at all but rather the way he relates to us and thus should be read God is Spirit – capital S. It would then serve to emphasise that God relates to us through the Holy Spirit. (3) But perhaps it is enough to say God is spirit (not a spirit) and therefore is not accessible by us except through the Spirit given by Jesus. As the flesh gives birth to flesh and the Spirit to spirit (3:6), so we must worship according to/or in the realm of the Spirit. And to be ‘in the Spirit’ is to see by faith the reality of heavenly things.

4. Some implications

In the Epistle to the Hebrews we have an inspired commentary on the superiority of what has come in Jesus. It is addressed to Jewish Christians who were tempted to return from the simplicity of early Christian worship to the impressive ritual of Judaism. The writer tells us of how revelation has climaxed in Jesus the Son of God, a greater than Moses, a superior High Priest, a mediator of a better covenant. He tells us that the earthly sanctuary has been superseded by a heavenly sanctuary. It is by faith that we enter into heaven itself where Christ is (Heb 10:19ff). We see by faith what is invisible and not seen.

Our worship may seem simple, unadorned, not exciting. But if we have eyes of faith to see it, we come to the true Mount Zion (Heb 12:22), the spiritual Jerusalem (Gal 4:26). The earthly temple has gone but is replaced by the materials of a spiritual house that is more glorious than the former (cf. Haggai 2:7), and is seated with Christ in heavenly places. Jesus Christ is openly pictured before us in the preaching of Christ as crucified (Galatians 3:1). This, and not a physical picture, is the kind of icon of Jesus that is legitimate, as is the visible word of the sacraments given by Christ. It follows that as the location of our worship is in Christ through the Spirit, the emphasis must be on knowing, a knowing which involves head and hands, heart and feet, emotions and will. Hence we have Paul’s constant prayer that ‘the eyes of your heart may be enlightened that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and the incomparably great power for us who believe’ (Eph 1:18).

Worship that requires a building of great magnificence, worship that is a kind of show and display by us, worship that is physical drama and parade, something that makes us feel good in the same way we feel good after a bit of fine music or a powerful movie, is not spiritual worship. Clapping and dancing and great instrumental music is not as such spiritual worship however much it entertains us.

Worship matters to God. He seeks those who will worship in spirit and in truth, who will worship in union with Christ by the Spirit. Do our congregations operate on this level? Perhaps we are clinging merely to particular simple forms of worship without seeing the reality of worship in Spirit and in truth. True worship is in union with Christ by the Spirit, and involves access into the very presence of God through faith. It is worship that enthrals because it centres on Christ and his accomplishment for us. It is worship in the Spirit because we enter by faith into the very courts of heaven. It is worship that enables us to sing with true appreciation as we gather each Lord’s Day – ‘I joyed when to the house of God/ go up they said to me’ (Psalm 122). The very simplicity of worship from a human viewpoint is in fact a pointer to its true glory in access into God’s presence through Christ in the Spirit.

For the house of God today is not in Jerusalem in Palestine, nor is it a crowded room in a poor house in rural China, nor the humble shelter in a refugee camp in north Africa, nor the simple place of worship our fathers built for the convenience of the meeting of the church. The true scene of our worship is heaven itself where Christ is as our great High Priest and Saviour. There is nothing more glorious than this, and the gold encrusted altar of the church of San Jose in Lisbon, or the soaring beauties of St Peter’s in Rome only draw our attention to the physical and earthly, and take us backwards.

A Jewish midrash on Psalm 91 says, ‘He who prays in Jerusalem is as one who prays before the throne of glory; for there is the gate of heaven and the open door to the hearing of prayer.’ It is a perceptive comment. It no longer applies to the Jerusalem in Palestine, but it does apply to the Jerusalem above, and to Jesus Christ, to worship that accesses the very courts of the heavenly temple through our great High Priest.

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.