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James Dodson

Human Inventions and Human Composure.


In pleading the cause of the Songs of Zion, the great argument on which we rely, is, the divine appointment of them, to be used in singing God’s praise; and our grand objection to the use of the evangelical compositions of uninspired men, is, that whatever other recommendations they may possess, they lack divine appointment. With regard to worshipping God, in the way which he himself has appointed, I am happy to find that we have the explicit testimony of the author of the “Inquiry.” “The Church,” he correctly observes, “cannot be pure, nor expect that the dews of divine grace will descend upon her, while she worships God in any other way, than that appointed in his word.”

As this is a principle of very great importance at all times, and especially so at a time like the present, when there is so strong a disposition to make improvements in religion, as well as in the department of human science, the reader will allow me to add a few remarks to what has already been said.

To ancient Israel, the following direction with regard to the worship of God, was given by Jehovah himself: “An altar of earth, thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon, thy burnt-offerings and thy peace-offerings, thy sheep and thine oxen. And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone; for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” [Exodus 20:24, 25.] If human wisdom had been consulted with regard to this institution, many reasons could have been advanced to show the propriety of erecting an altar of a different kind from the one here described. It might have been said with much plausibility, that to set up an altar, of rough unpolished stone, would look very much like carelessness, in relation to religious worship; that it would seem to indicate an unwillingness to submit to any labor or expense in the service of God; and in appearance at least, would be disrespectful to the object of religious worship. And the wisdom of man would not hesitate to decide, that an altar of polished stone, neatly adjusted together by the skill of the artificer, would appear much more respectful to the Deity, and consequently would be more likely to prove acceptable to God. But, no! It does not belong to human wisdom to determine what is proper in the worship of God. This is exclusively the prerogative of him who is the object of religious worship; and his declaration is, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone; for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.

Take another illustration. Under the legal dispensation, some animals might be offered in sacrifice to God, while others were forbidden. Among those animals which might be presented upon the altar, the sheep and the goat are included, while swine are forbidden, as unclean. Suppose human reason had been required to pronounce its decision with regard to the propriety of this distinction. Arguments of a plausible character could readily have been produced, to prove that the animals which are pronounced to be unclean, are no less suitable for sacrifice, than those which are allowed; and it might have been argued with much show of reason, that the flesh of the pig is in no respect inferior to that of the kid, and therefore, that it might with equal propriety occupy a place on the altar of God. The important difference, however, between these animals, is, that the use of the one was divinely appointed, while the use of the other was not. And hence, the offering of the one was acceptable, while the presentation of the other was an abomination in the sight of the Lord. The conclusion of the whole matter then, is, that in all our religious offerings, we must be prepared to answer the question. Who hath required this at your hands?

The controversy with regard to the propriety of using in the worship of God, the evangelical compositions of uninspired men, turns upon this point: Is there divine appointment for the use of them? These compositions may be adorned with all the beauties of style, decorated with all the graces of poetry; and what is still more valuable, the sentiments which they express, may be strictly in accordance with the sacred Scriptures. But none of these properties, nor all of them together, can render it proper that these compositions should be employed in the worship of God, unless divine appointment can be produced in their favor.

The venerable author of the “Inquiry,” admits the principle, that divine appointment is necessary, to render our worship acceptable to God. And he maintains the position, that “we have both precept and precedent,” for the use of evangelical hymns, composed by uninspired men. But before he enters directly on the defence of this position, he devotes a chapter to the consideration of “human inventions” and “human composures.”

By “human inventions,” I suppose, any person acquainted with the English language, will understand such things as have been found out by the wisdom of man. But when these words are employed with reference to the worship of God, they convey an idea the opposite of divine appointment. Wherever men introduce into the worship of God, anything which is not divinely appointed,—or incorporate with divine ordinances, that which God has not instituted,—there we behold the introduction of “human inventions;” that is, we see something which man has found out, but which God has not appointed.

For the purpose of illustration, take the following example. It is universally admitted to be the divine appointment, that we should worship God in spirit and in truth. But some men contend that images or pictures of sacred things may be very helpful to raise the soul to the contemplation of those things which are above. Protestant Christians, however, reject all such helps to devotion, as “human inventions,” not appointed in the word of God.

Again: It is the ordinance of God that Christian baptism should be administered by the application of water to the body. But human wisdom has improved upon the divine appointment, by adding to the water, spittle, salt, and other things equally valuable! Those, however, who regard divine appointment as their rule in the worship of God, use water only in baptism, and reject all other additions of human folly, as coming under the head of “human inventions.”

And now, to apply these remarks to the subject under discussion, I would say, that if God has appointed the use of evangelical hymns composed by uninspired men, then it is manifestly improper to represent the use of them as a “human invention.” But on the other hand, if the use of them is not divinely appointed, then it is just as clear, that the propriety of using them, is something which has been found out by man,—or in other words, is a “human invention.”

The words, “human inventions,” are not restricted to the subject of Psalmody, but extend to every thing connected with the worship of God, which is not divinely appointed. The other phrase to which the author refers, and with which we are now more particularly concerned, is, “human composures.” The definition which the author gives of these words is the following: “Human composure, properly speaking, is something, whether in prose or verse, composed by men, the subject-matter of which is human views, wishes, concerns or interests.” With regard to this definition I would remark, that if the latter half of it were dropped, the remaining part would express the truth plainly and simply. “Human composure, is anything composed by men.” That is the plain truth. No matter what may be the “subject-matter” of a composition, nor the source whence the materials of which it is formed are drawn, if it has been composed by man, it is to all intents and purposes, a “human composure.”

The author of the “Inquiry” observes—“It is not proper to call a poem, the ground and substance of which is some doctrine, precept, promise, &c. in the word of God, a ‘human composure.’” And why, I would ask, is it not proper? If the poem, as such, is the production of man—if the matter of it has been collected and arranged by man in the exercise of his own understanding, judgment and imagination, no matter from what source the materials of which it is composed may have been gathered—it is certain that, if plain language is to be understood according to its natural acceptation, it is a “human composure.” And why it should be improper to call such a poem by its proper name, I am utterly unable to conceive. The sentiments contained in the poem, if you please, may all be gathered from the Bible; but the poem itself is not in the Bible. The materials have been collected by man in the exercise of his own powers, and are so arranged by him as to form a poem, which expresses his views of what is contained in the word of God; and yet will it be gravely said, that it is not a “human composure!” In truth, a poem composed by man, and a “human composure,” are phrases, which if not tautological, certainly approximate so nearly to that character, that it would require very “acute logical powers” to detect the difference in their import.

But the venerable author proceeds to remark, that “it is the subject-matter of any composition, in prose or verse, that gives it its distinctive character.” True. But does “the subject-matter” of a composition determine who is the author by whom it was composed? A composition may be, as to its “distinctive character,” philosophical, political or religious, according to the nature of its “subject-matter.” Should a man in the exercise of his own powers, prepare a composition, no matter whether the design of it may be to illustrate and defend the principles of philosophy, of politics, or of the gospel, still it is a “human composure.” The materials of the composition in the one case, may be collected from an investigation of the phenomena of nature; or in the other case, they may be drawn from an examination of the Bible; but still it is in the one case, as really as in the other, a “human composure.”

And yet the venerable author repeats it, as though it were a thing which deserved special notice, that “it is not the circumstance of its being arranged and written by man, that makes it a human or divine composition, but what it contains.” I would ask the honest reader, if this is not equivalent to the declaration, that it is not the circumstance of a poem being composed by man, which makes it man's composition.

The reader will perceive that the author of the “Inquiry” does not choose to appear before the public as the advocate of the use of songs of “human composure,” in the worship of God. And to extricate himself from this difficulty, he has invented a convenient definition of the phrase, “human composure.” He maintains that a composition, which has been written and arranged by man, provided the matter of it be taken from the Bible, is not a “human composure,” but is “divine.” And according to this definition, every evangelical sermon in the world, is a “divine” composition! and Dr. Ralston’s “Brief Explication of the Principal Prophecies of Daniel and John,” is a “divine” book! Against such an abuse of language, for the purpose of elevating the compositions of men to a level with the word of God, I enter my solemn protest.

If it were necessary to add anything further, for the purpose of showing that this definition of our venerable author, is a modern discovery, the aid of which was found to be requisite to sustain a particular hypothesis, I might adduce the testimony of Dr. Watts himself. In giving the character of his hymns, this celebrated writer remarks,—“In the first part, I have borrowed the sense and much of the form of the song from some particular portions of Scripture. The second part consists of hymns, whose form is mere human composure.” [Preface to Watts’ Hymns.] Though, as appears from his own statement, Watts himself placed a pretty high estimate on his hymns, he was not quite so extravagant as to consider them “divine” composures.

After having given his definition of the phrase, “human composure,” our worthy author makes the following remark: “If it is unlawful to use in the public worship of God, a hymn or song written by man, provided it is founded upon and agreeable to his word, then Mr. Reid’s lectures, sermons, and prayers, are all unlawful; for though they may be agreeable to the word of God, yet the language and arrangement are his own.”[1.] To this I reply, that with all deference to my venerable Father, I must be permitted to say, this reasoning is not valid. The things which are here compared, are dissimilar, and therefore the conclusion may be logical and correct in the one case, while in the other it does not hold. Preaching the gospel is one thing, and singing the praises of God, is another thing. And consequently, for aught that appears, it may be proper, in the one case, to do that which in the other, would not be proper. In the volume of Inspiration, God has provided a book of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; and, therefore, in singing God’s praise, we have no need to compose psalms and hymns, since there is furnished ready to our hands, a book containing every desirable variety of sacred songs, and one prepared by Infinite Wisdom. But there is no book of sermons in the Bible; and therefore, if it is the appointment of God, that the minister of the gospel should preach sermons for the edification of the church, he must prepare them.

The reader will, therefore, readily perceive that it by no means follows, that because every minister of the gospel may compose his own sermon for the edification of his hearers, therefore he may compose a song, which he and they may sing to the praise of God. In both instances we must be governed by divine appointment. That it is the ordinance of God, that the minister of the gospel should preach the word; and that in the performance of this duty, he should speak the things which become sound doctrine, will be admitted by all. But that it is the will of God that the compositions of uninspired men should be employed in singing God’s praise, the author of the “Inquiry” has not yet proved. And consequently, all reasoning founded on the assumption that the use of them is in conformity with divine appointment, is inconclusive.

The same general remarks will apply to the subject of prayer. But as this point will be particularly examined hereafter, it is not necessary that any thing further should be said at present.

But with a view to strengthen his position, that a composition which is founded upon the word of God, is divine, though it may have been written, or in other words, composed by man, the worthy Father adds a remark, which does appear to me somewhat startling. He says—“If it is unlawful to use in the public worship of God, a hymn or song written by man, provided it is founded upon and agreeable to the word of God, then every translation of the Scripture is human composure, and consequently, it is unlawful to use or read them in the public worship of God.” Does not the venerable author here, confound things which are essentially distinct? A translation of a book, and the composition of a book, are surely things essentially different. In a translation, there is a rendering in one language, that which was written in another. In our translation of the sacred Scriptures, God as really speaks to his church now, in the English language, as he did anciently in the Hebrew and Greek. The translation is human, strictly and properly so; for it is the work of man. But it is not a “human composure.” In a human composure, the object of the writer is to give his own views of the import of God’s word. He collects and arranges his matter, so as to exhibit what he believes to be the truth taught in the Scriptures. But in a translation, that which an author has said in one language, is exhibited in another.

A human composition, then, though it may be strictly conformable to the word of God, is one thing—a translation of the Scriptures is an essentially different thing. The one may correspond with the word of God; but the other is, the Word of God. And in the name of the Protestant church of Christ, I protest against the principle which maintains that the one can with any propriety be elevated to a level with the other.

The author of the “Inquiry,” in the next place, adverts to a custom of the Associate Reformed Church, according to which, explanatory remarks are sometimes made upon the psalm before it is sung, for the purpose of stirring up devotional feelings, and of preparing the worshippers to engage in praising God with suitable affections. And when the officiating minister makes some explanatory remarks on the psalm before it is sung by the congregation, our author gravely asks—“Do not he and they, virtually use ‘human composure,’ in the worship of God?” I answer emphatically and unequivocally, No! And I must express my astonishment to hear a man of the author’s age and knowledge ask the question. I have heard young men who do not understand the subject, but who would wish to throw some difficulty in the way of an opponent, ask questions of this character. But really I was not prepared to hear our venerable Father ask such a question, as though it involved any difficulty. Why, it is a perfectly plain and simple case, that the congregation of worshippers do not sing the explanation of the psalm which they may have heard. If appropriate remarks are made in explaining the psalm, the worshippers may be assisted thereby in praising God with the understanding and with the heart. But still, that which they sing in praising God, is no human explanation, but a SONG OF ZION.

When Dr. Ralston selects a text of scripture, and for the edification of his hearers, preaches to them an evangelical sermon, he does not expect them to receive his sermon, the object of which is to explain the text, as the word of God and the foundation of their faith. No! He teaches them to regard the text itself as the foundation of their faith and hope, and to use his exposition as a help to enable them to understand the meaning of the text, which is the word of God. In like manner, after a psalm has been explained for the edification of the worshippers, they use the explanation as a help to assist them in singing with the understanding. But they do not sing the explanation, which is given by man. They sing, literally and truly, a psalm or song which God has provided for the use of his church. And in doing this, they neither “virtually,” nor in any other sense, sing “human composures.” And if the “apprehensions and perceptions” of any man are “so dull,” that he cannot see that there is a very important distinction between singing a divine psalm and a human explanation of it, in the worship of God, I would suppose that they are not likely to be sharpened by human power.

But to bring our remarks on the first chapter of the “Inquiry” to a close. The reader, it is hoped, will now clearly perceive the ground on which our author stands. He maintains the propriety of using in the worship of God, evangelical psalms and hymns and songs, which have been written or composed by men. He does indeed deny that such songs can with propriety be represented as “human composure.” And in the support of this position, he gives a definition of “human composure,” which amounts to this,—that a poem composed by man, if it be founded upon the word of God, is not a human composure. Though I must be permitted to say, that according to my understanding of language, this definition involves something nearly allied to a contradiction, yet whether it be correct or not, is a matter of little importance, in so far as the great principle involved in this controversy is concerned. The question is this: Have we authority to sing in the praise of God, songs composed by uninspired men, provided these songs are agreeable to the word of God? If the reader is disposed to give these songs their appropriate title, he may call them “human composures.” But if he chooses, with our author, to call them “divine compositions,” though they have been composed by uninspired men,—why, he may indulge his own taste. Still, the question remains to be settled,—Have we authority in the word of God, to employ such songs in the worship of God? Our author maintains that we have, and proceeds in the next chapter of the “Inquiry,” to give the reader his reasons in support of his opinion. In our next chapter we propose to weigh these reasons in the balances of the sanctuary.

In the meantime, let me desire the reader to reflect that He who is the object of religious worship, is a Being who is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look upon iniquity. It is, moreover, required of all who approach him in the exercise of religious worship, that they serve him in spirit and in truth. He will not accept the homage of those who honor him with their lips, while their heart is far from him. It is important then, not only that the matter of our offering, be such as God hath appointed, but that it be presented with a proper spirit. In our approach unto God, we may therefore well appropriate the prayer, “O, Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. For thou desirest not sacrifice, else would I give it; thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O, God, thou wilt not despise.”


[1] It may be proper to inform the reader, that throughout the “Inquiry,” the author has a particular reference to a publication of the Rev. Robert Reid, of Erie, Pa.