A primer regarding a doctrinal debate among Reformation Churches

A primer regarding a doctrinal debate among Reformation Churches    by Jack Kettler

“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.” (Colossians 3:16)

Mounce Reverse-Interlinear New Testament:

“16 Let the ho word logos of ho Christ Christos dwell enoikeō in en you hymeis richly plousiōs as you teach didaskō and kai admonish noutheteō one heautou another with en all pas wisdom sophia by means of psalms psalmos, hymns hymnos, and spiritual pneumatikos songs ōdē, singing adō with en · ho gratitude charis in en · ho your hymeis heart kardia to ho God theos.”

Does Colossians 3:16 support the use of uninspired hymns? As will be seen, the Bible contains examples of triadic expressions or synonymous usages that will help answer this question. For instance, in Exodus 34:7, one reads about iniquity, transgression, and sin. These three terms are synonymous or fundamentally the same. Said another way, a word has the same or practically the same meaning as another word in the identical language. A triadic repetition of language can be used for emphasis.

Examples of synonymous threefold repetition in Scripture:

·         Commandments, statutes, and laws (Gen. 26:5; c.f. Deut. 30:16)

·         Iniquity, transgression, and sin (Ex. 34:7)

·         Statutes, judgments, and laws (Lev. 26:46)

·         Commandments, statutes, and judgments (Deut 5:31; 6:1)

·         Anger, wrath, and indignation (Psa. 78:49)

·         Heart, soul, and mind (Mat. 22:37; c.f. Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27)

·         Miracles, wonders, and signs (Acts 2:22)

·         Good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom. 12:2)

·         Signs, wonders, and mighty deeds (2 Cor. 12:12)

·         Supplications, prayers, intercessions (1 Tim. 2:1)

The following part of the text is where disagreements arise:

Psalms (Psalmos), hymns (Humnos), and spiritual songs (Odee) (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16)

The promoters of uninspired hymns only see Psalmos and not Humnos and Odee referringto the Psalms in Paul’s use of the terms. In this view, hymns and songs can be understood as being of human composition. Does this hold up?

Consider the following citation where these three terms are used in the book of Psalms.  

Michael Bushell gives more specifics on the use of the three terms throughout Scripture:

Psalmos…occurs some 87 times in the Septuagint, some 78 of which are in the Psalms themselves, and 67 times in the psalm titles. It also forms the title to the Greek version of the psalter…. Humnos…occurs some 17 times in the Septuagint, 13 of which are in the Psalms, six times in the titles. In 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Chronicles, and Nehemiah there are some 16 examples in which the Psalms are called ‘hymns’ (humnoi) or ‘songs’ (odai) and the singing of them is called ‘hymning’ (humneohumnodeohumnesis) …. Odee…occurs some 80 times in the Septuagint, 45 of which are in the Psalms, 36 in the Psalm titles… In twelve Psalm titles we find both ‘psalm’ and ‘song’; and, in two others we find ‘psalm’ and ‘hymn.’ Psalm seventy-six is designated ‘psalm, hymn and song.’ And at the end of the first seventy two psalms we read ‘the hymns of David the son of Jesse are ended’ (Ps. 72:20).” (1)


The texts where the terms “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual-songs” from Ephesians and Colossians appear are not a problem for the Psalm-Singing churches. The words “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” are used interchangeably in the Psalms, referring to the Psalms themselves. Someone may ask, why Paul didn’t use one word instead of three. That is because, in the Psalms themselves, these three words appear numerous times interchangeable. Moreover, the triadic threefold repetition is for emphasis. As an aside, and noteworthy is how Paul’s triadic language in Ephesians and Colossians parallels the New Testament formulation of the Trinity, God as Father, the Son, and the Spirit.


It has been said that one is not singing the Psalms unless one is singing them in the original Hebrew. Really? An argument about singing in Hebrew sounds similar to the Muslims saying that one is not reading the Koran unless it is read in Arabic. Furthermore, this assertion does not address the above argument from Bushell.  


Is the pastor reading the Word of God unless it is done in the original language? If not, how can it be justified not to read the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek? An argument like this fails for lack of consistency.

Does exclusive psalmody create divisions in Christ’s Church? Does the practice of pedo-baptism? Does the observance of the regulative principle of worship? Does the preaching of the Doctrines of Grace create divisions? The first question in this series of questions is not a refutation of exclusive Psalm-singing.     

Are the Psalm-Singing churches in sin by using only the Psalms? This writer is still waiting for a reply to this question. Are Psalm singing churches missing out? Missing out on what is a retort. Is there something superior to the Psalms? What would that be? What songbook did Jesus use? The answer is the Psalms. Should believers follow the example of our Lord? If not, why not? Nothing in the New Testament sets aside the Psalms as a songbook for Christ’s Church.

What about singing other portions of the Scriptures? While it would not be wrong per se, there is no command in Scripture to do so, like in Ephesians 5:19; and Colossians 3:16. The question about singing other portions of Scripture does not invalidate following Christ’s example of singing the Psalms.

The preeminence of the King in Israel’s worship of God was an important practice. Not only did David direct the people singing songs in worship, but this pattern also applies to David’s Greater Son, who is the Lord. Jesus is our King and is seated at the right hand of the Father. The apostle Paul makes the statement that during worship, believers are seated with Christ in heaven, specifically; “and made us sit together in heavenly places” Ephesians 2:6. Jesus, our King, is enthroned at the Father’s right hand, and we, through our union with Him, are led in heavenly worship by the King Jesus; “Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” Hebrews 2:12.

Jesus is our Kingly choirmaster in the heavenly and leads us in singing praises to the Father. The Psalms are profitable for doctrine, but they also testify of Christ. As said, they are, in fact, the songbook Jesus used to worship the Father. The Psalms were composed for Jesus as our perfect King and song leader.

The issue is Biblical sufficiency:

Reformed Churches are committed to the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. The Psalms are Scripture. Therefore, the Psalms are sufficient. A conclusion can be drawn, and since the Psalms are Scripture and sufficient, the Psalm singing churches are not missing out. Moreover, there is no command to sing uninspired songs in worship. Would it be permissible to preach from uninspired sources? Consistency is helpful.  

Without a doubt, there have been some extraordinary human songs composed. Human-composed songs can be used outside of worship, for example, Christmas caroling. Christmas caroling would be similar to street preaching. When it comes to human-composed hymns, one must always evaluate if the human composition is faithful to Scripture. Many modern human compositions are used in worship; all that seemingly matters is if it flows with the instrumentation and the lines can be repeated several times for emotional emphasis. Some of the modern compositions are so nebulous that non-Christian religions could use them. 

The reader is urged to study the topic of this debate by using Michael Bushell’s monumental work titled the Songs of Zion.

Bushell asks, what music does God want His people to sing in worship?

He asks:

“The question provokes strong emotions, but the answer must be solely based on Scripture. We live in a culture where personal preference dominates, where men recoil from the full display of God’s mercy and justice, and where the winds of fancy blow about a church ignorant of her history. This book calls the reader to prostrate himself before a thrice holy God, to echo His tender and fearsome Words in song, and to return to the historical worship practice of the Christian church.”     

The publisher writes:

“The most comprehensive contemporary work on exclusive psalmody now interacts with more recent scholarship, answering those who critique singing only psalms in worship. Like previous editions, it examines the sufficiency and propriety of the Psalter, the testimony of Scripture, the regulative principle, and the testimony of history. In the fourth edition there is a new Bibliography and new subject and author indices.”

Presbyterian denominations practicing exclusive psalmody:

    American Presbyterian Church

    Associated Presbyterian Churches

    Australian Free Church

    Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Australia

    Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)

    Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland

    Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia

    Presbyterian Reformed Church

    Reformation Presbyterian Church, Australian Presbytery

    Reformed Presbyterian churches

    Reformed Presbyterian Church of Australia

    Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland

    Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America

    Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland

    Reformed Presbyterian Church of Malawi

    Southern Presbyterian Church in Australia

    Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States

    Igreja Puritana Reformada no Brasil (Puritan Reformed Church in Brazil)

    Pilgrim Covenant Church (Singapore)

Dutch Reformed denominations practicing exclusive psalmody:

    Free Reformed Churches of North America

    Gereja Jemaat Protestan di Indonesia

    Heritage Reformed Congregations

    Netherlands Reformed Congregations

    Nigeria Reformed Church

    Old-Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands (Oud Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland)

    Old-Reformed Congregations (unconnected) (Oud Gereformeerde Gemeenten buiten verband)

    Reformed Congregations (Gereformeerde Gemeenten)

    Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland)

    Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands (unconnected) (Gereformeerde Gemeenten in Nederland (buiten verband))

    Reformed Congregations in North America

    Restored Reformed Church (Hersteld Hervormde Kerk) From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Reformation leader John Calvin on Psalm singing:

“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. And furthermore, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts the words in our mouths, as if He Himself were singing in us to exalt His glory.” – John Calvin, Epistle to the Reader, Genevan Psalter (1542)

A noteworthy observation:

“Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian Church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Although not dealing with the subject matter of the above primer, Bonhoeffer’s Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible is a must-read. 

Bonhoeffer’s publisher writes:

“Jesus died with a psalm on his lips. For millennia, humans have been shaped by the Psalms. And before the Nazis banned him from publishing, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published this book on the Psalms.”

“What comfort is found in the Psalter? What praise, and what challenge? What threat? In the pages of Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, discover the richness this book of Scripture held for Bonhoeffer, and learn to pray psalms along with Christ.”

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)


1.      Michael BushellSongs of Zion, (Norfolk Press, Norfolk Virginia), pp. 217-218.

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of books defending the Reformed Faith. Books can be ordered online at www. JackKettler .com

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