(Disclaimer: There are ideas such as corporate singing of psalms makes it automatically a worship. I do not thinks so, and the reason is closely tied to the definition of worship. For instance, 2 Chronicles 29:28–30 distinguishes offering, praise, and worship. Some thoughts on this that I wrote in the past can be found here.)
People claiming exclusive psalmody (or similar ideas) ask,
Who has the authority to put uninspired songs on the lips of God’s people?
Before we begin to answer, we must properly understand the question. First of all, by “inspired” one cannot mean ‘verbatim inspiration’;1 it must mean inspired content. Even in the scriptures, Romans for example, we find Paul referring to the Latin translation of the Old Testament.
Therefore, the question can be restated as follows:
Can one sing songs with uninspired content when praising God during worship?
The answer is obviously ‘no’ if we we are to uphold the regulative principle of worship.
Psalm, or the Entire Scripture?
Jesus taught us that we must worship in spirit and in truth; this is the method of worshiping the true God (see end note2 to see what Calvin has to say on this). More discussion can be found here.) Thus, if we wish to worship God in singing, we must do so by singing truths about God.
Now compare the two statements below:
Blessed be the Lord! For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,
One is from Psalm 28, and the other is from 2 Corinthians 1:3. They convey essentially the same content and speaks why we want to praise Him. Nonetheless, there are some people who say that “Well, still, 2 Corinthians 1:3 is not from the Psalms so we can’t sing it in corporate worship.” Such a focus on the wording is childish since the English translation is already not the original wording and, as already mentioned earlier, we see from Paul’s example that it is not so much the wording that counts but the content. Now the only logical and acceptable reason for singing only the Book of Psalms would be an exegetical proof that whenever the Scripture tell us to sing praises (especially in the New Testament) it means to sing The Book of Psalms. There is one article (follow this link) that makes a careful study on this issue and concludes that the scripture warrants singing only the Psalms in corporate worship. It is a very nice article and I thank the brothers who did such a nice job. However, I still think that it is incorrect to treat the words “hymns” or “psalms” appearing in the New Testament synonymous to “The Book of Psalms”. I would like to explain why, but not today. Maybe I’ll write it up sometime in the future, but there are good articles already out there.
Thus, as long as the lyrics convey the same truth, it is futile to debate over whether the lyrics are from to the Book of Psalms or from other parts of the Scripture. Scrutinizing the use of words is a mean to convey the idea and content correctly; being verbatim should never be an end itself.
We might still think that there is a value in singing Psalms only. What if I misunderstood the meaning of a certain word in the lyrics (maybe the word has several different meaning, or whatever) but I just sang it. Would God accept such a singing just because I used the inspired text? Not likely, because we learn from the Scriptures that God does not accept offerings or sacrifices just because people brought it according to the Law:
When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. (Isaiah 1:12–13)
What is the problem? What God seeks is spiritual reality:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)
Of course, I am not saying that form is irrelevant. However, consider the following logic of Paul:
When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
Paul is saying that when a preacher preaches according to the Scriptures, then its message should be accepted as the word of God. (The authority comes from the Scriptures, so I am not denying Sola Scriptura.)
Paul also says,
“For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (Romans 2:25–26)
Following the same logic, we could say the following:
“For singing of Psalm (or Scripture) indeed is of value if your heart is resonating with the truth it conveys, but if you heart does not obey the truth, your singing of Psalms becomes abomination. So, if a man whose lyrics are not verbatim to the Scripture sings with his heart filled with the truth of the Lord, will not his non-verbatim singing be regarded as an acceptable psalm singing?”
Conclusion: We are to sing praises to our God as He is revealed in His written revelation. Everything—worship, praise, offering, prayer, anything—should be done in the name of Christ (Colossians 3:17) and in faith (Romans 14:23). Instead of asking “Who has the authority to put uninspired songs on the lips of God’s people?” the true question should be “Who has the authority to put uninspired hearts (or an uninspired definition of worship in our hearts) when worshiping God?”
This is not the proper place to give a treatise on this issue. But here are some things to consider:
- Even though one firmly believes in verbatim inspiration, we don’t know which, among various versions of the copies we have today, is the one 100% the same with the original manuscript. KJV believers might say differently, but they have no proof.
- We see in Romans where Paul himself referred to Latin translation of the Old Testament.
The following is from The Necessity of Reforming the Church by John Calvin (emphasis mine)
Let us now see what is meant by the due worship of God. Its chief foundation is to acknowledge Him to be, as He is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation; in accordance with this, to ascribe and render to Him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in Him alone, and in every want have recourse to Him alone. Hence arises prayer, hence praise and thanksgiving — these being attestations to the glory which we attribute to Him. This is that genuine sanctification of His name which He requires of us above all things. To this is united adoration, by which we manifest for Him the reverence due to his greatness and excellency, and to this ceremonies are subservient, as helps or instruments, in order that, in the performance of divine worship, the body may be exercised at the same time with the soul. Next after these comes self-abasement, when, renouncing the world and the flesh, we are transformed in the renewing of our mind, and living no longer to ourselves, submit to be ruled and actuated by Him. By this self-abasement we are trained to obedience and devotedness to his will, so that his fear reigns in our hearts, and regulates all the actions of our lives. That in these things consists the true and sincere worship which alone God approves, and in which alone He delights, is both taught by the Holy Spirit throughout the Scriptures and is also, antecedent to discussion, the obvious dictate of piety. Nor from the beginning was there any other method of worshipping God, the only difference being, that this spiritual truth, which with us is naked and simple, was under the former dispensation wrapt up in figures. And this is the meaning of our Savior’s words,
“The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:23.)
For by these words he meant not to declare that God was not worshipped by the fathers in this spiritual manner, but only to point out a distinction in the external form, viz., That while they had the Spirit shadowed forth by many figures, we have it in simplicity. But it has always been an acknowledged point, that God, who is a Spirit, must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.
Notice that by “wrapt up in figure” he means that “this spiritual truth” was so, not the worship itself. Worship always had a clear meaning of “bowing down” in Hebrew. Calvin is pointing out that such bow was to be done in spirit and in truth regardless of ages. In the same letter he writes, (words in parentheses mine)
“For, next to idolatry, there is nothing for which they [the prophets] rebuke the people more sharply than for falsely imagining that the worship of God consisted in external show.”