Examination of the Author’s Precept authorizing the Use of Songs composed by Uninspired Men.
The reader is desired to keep in remembrance the great point in dispute, in the controversy on Psalmody. It is simply this: Have we divine appointment for the use of psalms and hymns and songs, composed by uninspired men, in singing the praise of God? There is no dispute with regard to the duty of singing psalms and hymns and songs—but is it proper; or in other words, is it God’s appointment, that we should sing those psalms and hymns and spiritual songs which have been composed by uninspired men? If divine appointment can be produced in their favor, then the question is settled, and controversy is at an end. But if divine appointment cannot be produced for the use of them, then it is clear that the use of them is unauthorized, and consequently improper. And in relation to this general principle, it gives me pleasure to repeat, that I have the concurrence of the venerable author of the “Inquiry.” “The church,” he observes, “cannot be pure while she worships God in any other way than that appointed in his word.”
In the second chapter of the “Inquiry,” the author with great propriety proceeds to inquire, whether “the church is warranted to draw her songs of praise to God, from the New Testament, as well as from the Old.”
Let us endeavor to understand precisely the import of this inquiry: Has the church a warrant to draw her songs of praise from the New Testament? We all know, that in the New Testament there is no book of psalms and hymns and songs. If, then, the church has authority to draw her songs of praise to God from the New Testament, she must have authority to make or compose her songs of praise. The inquiry, then, resolves itself into this: Has the church now, authority to prepare or compose her own songs of praise? Or, which amounts precisely to the same thing, has the church authority to use psalms and hymns of human composure? The whole Bible is the word of God; and whether the materials of which her songs are composed, are to be drawn from the Old or from the New Testament, is not the matter in dispute. But the question is,—Has the church, with all the help which she can derive from the New Testament, authority to make or compose her own songs of praise? To this question the author of the “Inquiry” replies in the affirmative:—“We think that we have both precept and precedent for doing so, and that our songs of praise are to be drawn from the New Testament in an especial manner.” That is, in the opinion of the venerable author, there is “both precept and precedent” to warrant the church to prepare her own songs of praise, and that the matter of her songs should be “drawn from the New Testament in an especial manner.”
Where, then, is there to be found a precept in the word of God, authorizing the church to make or compose her songs of praise? The venerable author replies,—“In Colossians 3:16, 17, we have the following precept or command: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.’” In relation to the apostolic injunction, the venerable author observes, “No precept can be clearer or fuller to the point than this; or that we are to draw our songs of praise to God from the word of Christ, or the New Testament Scriptures.” No precept can be clearer or fuller to the point than this. What point? That we are to draw our songs from the New Testament,—that is, that we are to compose our songs of praise, drawing the matter of them from the New Testament? Why, my venerable Father, will you allow me to say, that this precept which you represent as so full and clear, does not utter one syllable in relation to the point in controversy. There is no dispute as to our obligation to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly; none, as to the duty of teaching and admonishing one another, as we may be able; none, as to the propriety of singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. All this is fully and clearly revealed, and all this we firmly believe. But what is now wanted, is a precept to authorize the church to compose her songs of praise to be used in the worship of God. And on this point, the precept to which we are referred, instead of being full and clear, is perfectly silent. All that we want, to settle the point in dispute forever, is, authority in the word of God for any uninspired man to compose psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, to be used in the worship of God. That it is our duty to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, we know. But where has God authorized any uninspired man, to make psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, to be employed in the worship of God? This is the point in dispute. And with regard to this matter, the precept which we are told is full and clear, says in reality nothing at all.
It would appear that it is on the phrase, “the word of Christ,” in this direction which the apostle gives the Colossians, that our author chiefly relies for his proof that we have authority to draw our songs of praise from the New Testament. “The word of Christ,” he understands as referring to the writings of the New Testament. He, however, notices a different interpretation, with regard to which, he makes the following remark: “But it is said that the word of Christ means the same thing as the word of God, or the whole of the Scriptures. Be it so; and it proves all that we desire to prove.” The reader will perceive, that the words of the apostle furnish a very accommodating proof; for, according to our author, understand them as you will, and they still establish the point which he wishes to prove. But I repeat it, that the apostle is here directing the Colossians to sing, not to make psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. So that the great inconvenience under which this proof labors, is, that it says nothing at all in relation to the thing to be proved.
However, though our author seems in the first place kindly to admit that the phrase, the word of Christ, may mean the same thing with the word of God, or the whole of the Scriptures, yet he soon changes his tone. Hear him!
“We hesitate not to say, that there is not a man, whose mind can rise above the prejudice of education, and think and judge for himself, or who has not in view the support of a sinking cause, would give these words that interpretation, but understand by them the New Testament exclusively.” I am sorry to hear my venerable Father using language of this character. There is prevailing in this nineteenth century a disposition, at least, sufficiently strong to “rise above the prejudice of education;” and I do not like to hear the wisdom and experience of hoary hairs, employing language so soothing to this proud spirit. Has not the venerable author himself, often mourned over the evils which this very spirit has introduced into the great body of the Presbyterian church! Have we not seen men who, after being taught by their good mothers the wholesome doctrines of the Shorter Catechism, have, even before their beards were grown, conceived the idea of rising above “the prejudice of education;” and in the indulgence of this spirit, have rejected some of the great doctrines of Christianity as the relics of a barbarous age? There are other prejudices, from which the church has quite as much cause to apprehend danger, as from the prejudice of education.
At the hazard of being charged by my Father with the sin of having a mind which cannot rise above the prejudice of education, I feel constrained to question, the soundness of his interpretation of the phrase, “the word of Christ.” Let us then endeavor to understand the meaning of the apostle, keeping out of sight every “cause,” whether it may be a “sinking” or a rising one, save the “cause” of truth.
1st. I remark in the first place, that by “the word of Christ,” the apostle certainly does not mean the word which was spoken by our Lord personally. If we were thus to restrict the meaning of the phrase, it would comprehend but a small portion even of the New Testament. And in regard to some things of importance, our Lord did not think proper to instruct his disciples during the period of his personal ministry. “I have yet,” said he, “many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit, when the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth; for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak.” [John 16:12, 13.] That which has been revealed to the church by the Spirit of Christ, is just as truly the word of Christ, as that which was spoken by our Lord in person, and is of equal authority in the church.
2d. I remark, then, in the second place, that “the word of Christ” is that revelation which Jesus Christ, by his Spirit, has given to the church through the instrumentality of his servants. “No man hath seen God at anytime: the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Jesus Christ is the Prophet of the church, and from him all the revelations of the will of God, which have been given to the church, have been derived. Under the gospel, “the word of Christ” was communicated to the church by the ministry of the apostles; and under the legal dispensation it was revealed by the ministry of the prophets. The word of Christ, it is true, has been more fully and clearly revealed under the gospel than it was under the law; and the truth relative to the way of life and salvation, has been more fully unfolded by the apostles, since the Comforter has been sent, than it was during the period of our Lord’s personal ministry. But still, whatever may be the relative fullness and clearness of the revelation under different dispensations, it was “the word of Christ” which was revealed to the church of old by the ministry of the prophets, as truly as is the revelation given by the apostles in the New Testament. And hence we see the propriety of the apostle’s declaration,—“Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you; searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.” [1 Peter 1:10, 11.] And again: “The prophecy came not in old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” [2 Peter 1:21.] It is then plainly the doctrine of the Bible, that the ancient prophets were under the influence of the Spirit of Christ as truly as were the apostles. The prophets spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, concerning the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow, as well as the apostles. And consequently, that which was spoken by the prophets under the influence of the Spirit of Christ, has precisely the same claim to be regarded as “the word of Christ,” as that which was uttered by the apostles.
3d. I object to the author’s interpretation of the phrase, “the word of Christ,” because it tends to exalt the authority of one part of the word of God, to the disparagement of another. If by “the word of Christ,” we are to understand “the New Testament exclusively,” then it would seem to follow, that the Old Testament is not “the word of Christ,” and therefore not of equal authority in the church. But while some do not hesitate to avow this pernicious sentiment, as my venerable Father well knows and firmly believes, the whole Bible is a revelation of the Spirit of Christ, by whom the prophets and apostles were inspired, and is the rule of our faith and life. While it is an indubitable truth, that the will of God respecting the way of salvation through Jesus Christ is more fully revealed in the New than in the Old Testament, it is no less true, that neither Testament is complete without the other. Neither of them can be explained, without the aid of the light which is reflected upon it by the other. The one is the introduction and partial development of a grand system, of which the other is the consummation. But they are alike the productions of the same glorious Author.
The interpretation, then, which would restrict the “word of Christ” to the “New Testament exclusively,” I must be permitted to say, is indefensible. But grant that this is the correct interpretation, still the words of the apostle afford no proof in support of the point in dispute. The direction of the apostle is, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom.” Let it be granted for the moment, that the meaning of the apostle is, “Let the New Testament dwell in you richly.” What has this to do with the decision of the question whether everyone has a right to compose psalms and hymns and songs, to be employed in the worship of God? It is undoubtedly the will of God, that the precious truths of the Gospel should dwell richly in the hearts of all true believers, and that they should sing “psalms and hymns and songs,” in the worship of God. But we are inquiring after authority, not to sing, but to make psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. And on this point, this passage of the word of God is utterly silent. And yet strange to tell, this is the only text of Scripture which the venerable author produces to establish the position that we have a “precept” to authorize us to draw our songs of praise from the New Testament. I must be permitted to express my surprise, as well as my disappointment, to find that the author devotes to the consideration of this all-important point in the controversy, only a few lines. We are inquiring for a divine precept, as our authority for composing psalms and hymns and songs, to be employed in the worship of God. The worthy author says we have a precept; and he refers us to a passage of Scripture in which we are directed to sing psalms and hymns, and then adds, “No precept can be clearer or fuller to the point than this.” And yet it so happens, that the precept says nothing at all in relation to the particular “point” about which we are inquiring.
As it is believed that this passage of Scripture has perplexed the minds of some who may have paid more attention to the mere sound of words, than to the meaning of the apostle, the reader is desired to take up his Bible and read the chapter in which these words occur. It will at once be seen that the apostle is here exhorting christians generally, to the performance of various christian duties. “Set your affection on things above; mortify your members, which are upon the earth; put off the old man with his deeds; put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness; and let the peace of God rule in your hearts.” These, it will be admitted, are duties incumbent on all christians, in whatever sphere of life they may move. And in immediate connection with the mention of these duties, the apostle gives the direction contained in the passage under consideration, in which he likewise exhorts to the performance of a duty common to all the followers of Christ: now what is the duty? Can anyone seriously believe, that it is to write or compose psalms and hymns? Why this is a task which not one in a thousand among christians has the capacity to perform. The talent and the acquirements necessary to enable one to compose a sacred song, are possessed by few. Even in the present age, when the advantages of education are much more generally diffused than they were in apostolic times, the christian world can scarcely produce a man qualified to furnish the church with a tolerable version of the psalms contained in the Bible. Independent of the fact, then, that there is nothing here said about composing psalms and hymns, it is preposterous to suppose that the apostle exhorts the disciples of Christ generally, to perform as a duty, a work which is entirely beyond the capacity of the great body of the household of faith.
But the impropriety of the venerable author’s interpretation of this passage will more clearly appear, when we shall have inquired a little more particularly into the import of some of the terms which the apostle employs. There is particular mention made of three kinds of sacred songs: “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” It is natural to inquire, why are these different kinds of songs mentioned? From the nature of the apostle’s exhortation, it is to be supposed that the Colossians would readily understand its import. They are exhorted to teach and admonish one another, “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Or, as the duty is expressed in a parallel passage, the exhortation is, “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Now what would the apostle be understood by his brethren as referring to, when he speaks of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs?” He refers to these sacred songs, as things with which his brethren were familiar. Was there, then, any such thing in use among christians, with which it must be supposed that the members of the christian church were familiar? We know that there was. There was then a book of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, received by the church of Christ as a portion of the word of God. With this divine book, christians were familiar. And when the apostle exhorts christians to sing psalms, there is just the same reason to suppose that he would be understood as referring to those contained in the book of Psalms, as that when he speaks of the Scriptures, his brethren would understand him as referring to the sacred writings contained in the Bible.
But further: It is well known to the scholar, that there are various titles prefixed to the sacred poems contained in the book of Psalms. There are particularly three distinct titles used to designate these different compositions. For the sake of the common reader, I will give these titles in English characters. The whole book is called the book of Tehillim, or hymns. And the word is used in the singular number as the title of the 145th Psalm: “A hymn of David.” Many of these sacred songs bear the title, Mizmor, a psalm. And others have affixed to them the title, Shir, a song. Here then are three different kinds of songs in the book of Psalms, contained in the Bible: Mizmorim, Tehillim, Shirim, signifying psalms, hymns, songs. But the apostle wrote in the Greek language; and the translation of the Old Testament then used generally throughout the christian church, was that which is known by the title of the Septuagint, which is in the Greek language. Now it so happens that in this Greek translation of the book of psalms, we have in the titles prefixed to different psalms, the identical terms which are here employed by the apostle: “Psalms, hymns and songs.” We know that there was then received by the church, a book of psalms, hymns and songs, contained in the Bible. We know of none other. And the conclusion forces itself upon us, that the apostle, in directing his christian brethren to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, refers to those with which they were acquainted, and which the whole christian church regarded as a portion of the word of God.
Let me then say in conclusion, with all due deference, that the venerable author has failed to produce a precept authorizing any uninspired man to compose psalms and hymns and songs, to be employed in the worship of God. And as the author admits that God should not be worshipped in any other way than that which he has appointed, the want of such a precept, is the great reason why Me do not feel at liberty to use the compositions of men in singing the praise of God.
But the author contends that we have “precedent,” as well as “precept,” to warrant us “to draw our songs of praise from the New Testament;” that is, to compose our songs of praise, drawing the matter of them from the New Testament. In our next chapter we propose to examine his “precedents.”
Note.—As this passage of Scripture, Col, 3:16, 17, is regarded as containing authority for the use of songs of human composure, in the worship of God, if there is any such authority in the Bible, I shall at the close of this volume, devote a chapter to a thorough examination of it.