Dr. Coppes declares,
The theological method and conclusions expressed in exclusive psalmody reverse the order of importance of preaching and singing. It does this by its conclusion that God regulates singing more closely than He regulates preaching. Biblically speaking, however, God teaches us that preaching occupies a more central and more important place in Christian worship than does singing.(58)
Professor Poythress understands “teaching-by-singing and teaching-in-the-narrow-sense” as “two forms of teaching.”(59) He then draws this line: “We challenge the exclusive psalmist position to prove from Scripture, rather than assume, that teaching-by-singing and proclamation are ‘two separate elements of worship.’”(60)
Professor Gordon points to Acts 16:25 to display the similarity between prayer and praise. “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God.” Literally, the text reads, “praying they hymned to God” [proseuxomenoi humnoun ton theon].
The importance of this relation between song and prayer for the present discussion is significant, because this consideration causes a general problem with exclusive psalmody to be more acute. Generally, it is already problematic that exclusive psalmody argues that the words of songs of praise must be inspired, and restricted to the canonical psalter, while the words of the other elements of worship are not so restricted … But this is even more acute a difficulty when two elements in scripture that are so similar (prayer and praise) are considered to be regulated differently.(61)
Preaching, prayer, and praise are separate and distinct elements of worship. Paul tells Timothy, “I am writing these things to you … so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3:14-15). Paul’s purpose was to guide the conduct of the church. He tells Timothy, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). It seems strange that, in Reformed circles, it is necessary to defend preaching as a distinct element of worship. It will be argued below that the references to singing in both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 have to do with corporate worship. The Westminster Divines appear to have held this position. Public prayer is also an important part of corporate church life.(62) “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
The Westminster Confession of Faith is clear on these matters. “The reading of Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching, and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence; singing of Psalms with grace in the heart … are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God” (WCF 21:5). “Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men” (WCF 21:3). Following Scripture and our Confession, it is maintained that preaching, prayer, and praise are separate and distinct elements of worship.
Colossians 3:16 makes it clear that preaching and singing in the congregation are equally important: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,  teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom,  singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (ESV, italics added). Colossians 1:28 defines admonishing and teaching as preaching. “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom.” In the grammatical construction of Colossians 3:16, the two participles, admonishing and teaching, are parallel to the third participle, singing. This construction indicates that preaching, on one hand, and singing, on the other hand, are equally important. Singing is definitely not more important than preaching. Exclusive Psalmody rejects such a notion.
At the same time, note the translation of the English Standard Version. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,  teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom,  singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (italics added). The Revised Standard Version is similar. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,  teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and  sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Both of these versions place psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with singing. John Eadie supports this approach.
Our translators, too, so point the verse as to make psalms and hymns the material of instruction, whereas, it seems better, and more appropriate, to keep the clause distinct, thus—“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another: in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto the Lord.”(63)
Paul therefore restricts singing more than preaching. As just indicated, teaching and admonishing is preaching: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28, italics added). From Paul’s perspective wisdom comes from the Scriptures. He reminds Timothy, “From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15, italics added). When Colossians 3:16 exhorts, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom,” the text exhorts teaching and admonishing rooted in Scripture. In other words, preaching must be Scriptural.
Second, Paul is more specific when it comes to singing. He not only requires the singing of public worship to be Scriptural, he specifies the Scriptures to be use in this singing; he specifies the psalms, hymns, and songs inspired by the Spirit found in the Book of Psalms. Again, the English Standard Version exhorts, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly … singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (italics added). What are believers assembled for worship to sing? They are to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; these are the songs of the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament. In other words, Paul requires exclusive Psalmody. The Apostle Paul commands the New Testament church to restrict corporate, public singing to the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament by the power of, and under the inspiration of, the Holy Spirit. Restricting singing more than preaching is not arbitrary. It is Scriptural.
It is also granted that believers pray when they sing the Psalms. In his preface to the Geneva Psalter, Calvin acknowledges that, “As for public prayers, there are two kinds: the ones made with word only, the other with song. And this is not a thing invented a short time ago. For from the first origin of the church, this has been so, as appears from the histories.”(64) Believers may pray and earnestly seek God’s face when they sing (Acts 16:15). Prayers expressed in song do not eliminate the status of prayers with word only as a separate element of worship. Prayer with word only must be according to the will of God (1 John 5:14). Such prayer must be Scriptural. As already argued, prayer with song is restricted to certain Scripture, the Psalms. God may and does regulate one element of worship differently than the other.
Paul does not explain why he restricts singing more than preaching or prayer. Part Four of this study will investigate the unique power of music. Calvin was deeply concerned about music’s penetrating power. “For there is scarcely anything in the world which is capable of turning or moving this way or that the morals of men, as Plato prudently considered it. And in fact we experience that it has a secret and almost incredible power to arouse hearts in one way or the other.”(65) The penetrating capacity of music may be a factor in Paul’s command in Colossians 3:16.
Another factor may be the Psalter’s subjective element. Part of Psalmody’s purpose is to guide and train the inner person of believers through singing. Gordon maintains, “The capacity to compose worthy devotional material is due to the wonder of being created in God’s image; not to the wonder of inspiration.”(66) Gordon does not hesitate to indicate “the best work of Donne or Cowper rivals the best work of David …”(67) He neglects the depth of depravity that yet remains with converted composers. Calvin’s view regarding the material worthy of God is more circumspect.
Now what Saint Augustine says is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God unless he has received them from Him. Wherefore, when we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him.(68)
In Colossians 3:16, therefore, Paul teaches that singing the Psalms is part of the way believers let the word of Christ richly dwell within them. Another factor in restricting congregational singing to the Psalms may be their universality and staying power. Michael LeFebevre speaks to the universality of the Psalms, including their curses and imprecations, imprecations, and his experience at a seminar on the Psalms.
One of the participants was a young priest from the Anglican Church in Rwanda. He spoke of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and how most of his own family was brutally slain in that violence. Three of his brothers were killed on the same day. It was painful to talk about those events … But then he found Psalm 137 in the Bible … And ironically, he was able to forgive, because of Psalm 137.
After this young minister from Rwanda spoke, another young minister from Nigeria spoke. He described the unrest and bloodshed which his country has continually experienced over the years. And he spoke of the comfort which believers in that land found in looking to God to bring judgment on the wicked. “We need such Psalms,” he concluded
… Men like these live and serve Jesus in circumstances we, in the West, have not experienced for a long time … But … the Psalter is not a hymnal for the affluent churches of the modern West. It is the hymnal for all God’s church, in all times and places.(69)
Along with their universality, the staying power of the Psalms is well known. Gordon thus speaks about good hymnody. “I have suggested to my students, for instance, that one of the tests of a hymn is whether it would exist as Christian verse if it were not put to music.”(70) The English verse of good hymns has staying power. “This poetry would have survived, indeed has survived, apart from musical settings.”(71) Gordon then compares the Psalms. “Totally apart from any musical considerations, both individuals and congregations routinely find the psalms edifying for use in private, family, or corporate worship.”(72) The Psalter has exhibited much more staying power than traditional hymns, not only over centuries but over millennia. The Psalter’s universality, staying power, subjective element, and the power of music may be reasons why Scripture regulates singing more closely than preaching or prayer.
Used by permission from Dr. Dennis Prutow
- Coppes, Exclusive Psalmody, 22.
- Vern S. Poythress, “Ezra 3, Union with Christ, and Exclusive Psalmody (Concluded),” Westminster Theological Journal 37:2 (Winter 1975): 225.
- Gordon, “Provisional Thoughts,” 6.
- John Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. T. A. Smail (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 205.
- John Eadie, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Colossians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 251. See the complete analysis of Col. 3:16 in chapter 11 under the heading of “Exclusive Psalmody.”
- John Calvin, “Calvin’s Preface to the Psalter,” in Charles Garside, The Origin of Calvin’s Theology of Music (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1979), 32.
- Ibid., 33.
- Gordon, “Provisional Thoughts,” 19. Italics added.
- Calvin, “Preface to the Psalter,” 33.
- Michael LeFebvre, Singing the Songs of Jesus(Fearn: Christian Focus, 2010), 129-130.
- T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2010), 130.
- Ibid., 131.
- Ibid., 132.
Prutow, Dennis. Public Worship 101: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Worship, the Elements of Worship, Exclusive Psalmody, and A Cappella Psalmody. Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.