Select Page

The Psalter in the Early Church - by The Rev. Jas. Harper

Articles on Exclusive Psalmody

Today, many Christians are turning back to the puritans to, “walk in the old paths,” of God’s word, and to continue to proclaim old truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no new theology. In our electronic age, more and more people are looking to add electronic books (ePubs, mobi and PDF formats) to their library – books from the Reformers and Puritans – in order to become a “digital puritan” themselves. Take a moment to visit Puritan Publications (click the banner below) to find the biggest selection of rare puritan works updated in modern English in both print form and in multiple electronic forms. There are new books published every month. All proceeds go to support A Puritan’s Mind. Check out these articles on Exclusive Psalmody by some of the best writers.

The use of the Psalms in worship in the early church.

It is no recently formed opinion, but has long been a settled conviction with me, that from the records of ecclesiastical antiquity may be derived a powerful confirmation of the view that the true and proper psalmody of the New Testament Church, no less than of the Old Testament Church, is the inspired Psalter, or Book of Psalms. While something has been done in the way of framing from post-biblical history an argument in support of the view that the only divinely authorized system of praise is that contained in the Book of Psalms, much remains yet to be done, and I propose to furnish, at this time, a scanty contribution toward the construction of the argument in question.

Be it clearly understood at the outset of this discussion that I have no intention or desire to deviate by a hair-breadth from the great principle that the Bible alone is the rule of faith. The sentiments and practice of the post-apostolic Church must themselves be tested by the unerring standard, the inspired writings; and that alone is to be accepted in the sphere of doctrines, morals, worship, or Church polity which has the sanction of the ” lively oracles.” But from the creed and conduct of the early Church our interpretation of the Scriptures may receive strong confirmation. Thus, for example, we observe from time to time the Lord’s Supper, because we believe that in the Scriptures the warrant and obligation to do so till the Lord come are taught; yet our conviction that such is the teaching of Scripture is much strengthened by the discover}’ that the same observance subsisted in the Church from apostolic times onward. Our conclusion naturally is, in such a case, that the duty is so plainly indicated in Scripture as to be almost inevitably perceived by the readers of the Word, or else that the practice had been so general and unquestioned in the Church while under the oversight of the apostles, as to project itself into the succeeding age, or even that there has been a concurrence of the written Word and the primitive custom of the Church to bring about the result. The doctrine and practice of the Church after the apostolic age have no binding authority over the conscience, but they may be of evidential use and afford a strong presumption for or against certain interpretations of the real standard of faith, the Word of God. In this sense, and not in the spirit of the Romanist, or of his Protestant imitator, the ritualist, do I propose to draw from the records of the ancient Church some proofs that the Psalter or Book of Psalms was the only hymn-book of the Church organized by the apostles, and that therefore it alone should be our hymn-book if, indeed, apostolic prescription as respects worship is still authoritative.

1. In the ancient Church the inspired Psalter was not merely read as other parts of Scripture, for edification, but also sung or chanted in the solemn worship of God.

This assertion is not a precarious one. Few, if any, will venture to impugn it. Even the followers of George Fox will hardly dispute it, although they deny that the literal singing of the praise of God is a New Testament ordinance. If the earl}- Christians had any regard for the injunctions of the apostle Paul, they must have sung psalms; for it is beyond reasonable doubt that he inculcated the singing of these at least, whatever else he may have meant, in Eph. 5:9 and Col. 3:16. It is true that as to the matter of sacred song in the second and even the third century, we possess but little direct evidence. There is nothing, however, which militates against the presumption which has just been expressed; while, besides, we have the testimony of a competent witness, Tertullian, about the end of the second century or the beginning of the third, to the effect that in religious gatherings and in the domestic circle Christians were then in the habit of singing psalms. In his “Apologeticus” this distinguished writer repels the charge, often made by the heathens, that the Christians in their meetings were guilty of atrocious practices, and gives a rapid sketch of the manner in which the love-feast, as it would seem, was conducted among them. Having described the simple, social meal partaken of by rich and poor together, he adds: “After manual ablution and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the Holy Scriptures or one of his own composing.”

On this statement I subjoin a few comments:

First. The service described scarcely appears to be one of regular, solemn worship, for the singing was not performed in concert b}’ the entire company assembled, but in “solo” fashion by individuals in their turn.

Second. Hymns taken from the Scriptures formed, at least in part, the matter of song; and from what part of the Scriptures would these so probably be drawn as from the Psalter, the recognized hymn-book of the Bible? Beyond question the psalms of Scripture were often designated “hymns” by the early Christians, as very properly they might.

Third. Some of the hymns used were improvised, or at least composed by the singers themselves. In such an informal service the liberty to use such effusions ma}- have been allowed, although not permitted in regular worship. Besides, the custom as it existed in Tertullian’s day, may have been a relic and echo of that marvelous season of supernatural endowments which the Church enjoyed during the apostolic period, when individuals may in the public Christian assemblies have been suddenly inspired to pour forth their emotions in poetic strains. If such outbursts occurred, as is very possible, they were but transient, the song or chant passing away with the occasion that had called it forth, and never being preserved as a part of the stated and permanent psalmody of the Church. Yet when the age of extraordinary gifts had closed, it can easily be credited that attempts to perpetuate it or to reproduce its scenes would be made by persons utterly devoid of the gift of inspiration.

Fourth. According to Tertullian’s account there were but two sources whence the hymns used at love-feasts were derived, namely, the Scriptures and the brains of the singers respectively. It would appear, then, from this that there was then in use no written collection of hymns except that furnished in the Bible. Furthermore, in his treatise entitled ” Ad Uxorem,” Tertullian, describing the domestic life of Christians, says: “Between the two” (that is, husband and wife), “echo psalms and hymns, and they mutually challenge each other which shall better chant to their Lord.”

According to this testimony it appears that in Tertullian’s day the Christians were wont to use the Psalms in the praise of God in the domestic circle; nor is it necessary to understand that the hymns spoken of were any other than those found in the Book of Psalms.
Incidentally, while denouncing in his treatise, ” De Spectaculis” attendance in the Theatre, Tertullian shows how natural it was for a psalm to be suggested to the Christian in his day. “Amid the measures of the effeminate player, will he,” says Tertullian, meaning any professing Christian, “call up to himself a psalm? ” It is plainly implied in this that but for the distracting and carnal excitements of the theatre the spectator, if of the Christian faith, would have psalms readily recurring to his mind, a hint as to the familiarity of the Christians of those days with the Psalms.

Descending the stream of time, we reach the age of which we have a picture in the compilation known as “The Apostolic Constitutions.” This work professes to be a production of the apostles jointly, but it is in this respect a palpable forgery. It seems to be in substance a product of the third century; but according to the judgment of the most competent scholars numerous interpolations occur in it to which no earlier date than the first quarter of the fourth century (A. D. 300 to A. D. 325) can be assigned. Now in this collection, which partakes partly of the character of a “directory for worship,” particular instructions are given as to the use of the Psalms; not as if the use of them in worship was a novelty, but with the view of securing uniformity in the use of them, or in respect to the fittest times for introducing them in the service of worship. A few extracts from this ancient document will be of interest as showing the condition of the Church in regard to psalmody about the beginning of the fourth century.

In Book I., Sec. 5, occurs the following advice addressed to such as may be absent from public worship: “Or, if thou stayest at home, read the Books of the Law, with the Kings and the Prophets, and sing the hymns of David.” It is noteworthy that here, as sometimes elsewhere in the “Constitutions, the psalms are called “hymns,” just as we believe they are in Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16.

Again we read (B. I., Sec. 6), ” If thou desirest something to sing, thou hast the Psalms.” Further, it is said (B II., Sec. 57), “But when there have been two lessons severally read, let some other person sing the hymns of David, and let the people join at the conclusions of the verses.”
In B. II, Sec. 59, this rubric occurs: “But assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord’s house; in the morning saying the 63d Psalm, and in the evening the I4oth Psalm, but principally on the Sabbath day.”

In the course of some instructions in regard to the observance of the Lord’s Supper, the following direction is given (B. VIII., Sec. 13): “And let the 23d Psalm be sung while all the rest are partaking.” Although the point is unimportant for our present object, it may be mentioned in passing that by the 23rd Psalm in this instance is to be understood, according to the Septuagint numbering, the 24th Psalm. For in the Septuagint, which is followed in this respect by the Vulgate version, the 9th and 10th Psalms are numbered as the 9th Psalm, while Psalm 141 is divided into two psalms.

The foregoing extracts, to which others might be added, from ” The Apostolic Constitutions,” may serve to show how customary it was in the Church at the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth to use the Scripture Psalter in the exercises of worship, both public and private.

One of the most eminent churchmen of the fourth century was Basil, surnamed “The Great,” Bishop of Csesarea, in Cappadocia, who was born A. D. 330, and who died A. D. 379. In his notes on the 1st Psalm, he descants in glowing terms on the excellence of the Psalter, and incidentally reveals to us the extent to which the practice of singing psalms prevailed in his time, when he says, ” But the utterances of the Psalms all chant at home and bear about in the forum.”

Athanasius (born A. D. 300, died A. D. 373), the famous champion of the doctrine of the supreme divinity of the Lord Jesus, wrote a treatise on the Psalms, of which the learned Bingham says: “It is nothing else but a direction how to use the Psalms and forms of prayer and praises upon all particular occasions, where, with other things, he observes that the 63d Psalm was always to be used at morning prayer.” His estimate of the Psalms may be learned from the statement which he makes respecting them, “They appear to me to be a mirror of the soul of ever}’ one who sings them.” These words imply that it was customary in the time of Athanasius to sing, and not merely read, the Psalms. That this was so is corroborated by the fact that on a critical occasion in his own life, when the soldiers of the Emperor Constantius, with hostile intent, closed in around the church in Alexandria where the great theologian was preaching, he gave directions that the congregation should sing the I36th Psalm, during the singing of which he contrived to make his escape. Incidentally, also, mention is made by Athanasius of the rude treatment to which a certain woman was subjected by the soldiers of Constantius when they saw her with her Psalter, or, as we would say, her psalm book, in her hand.

But another extract from his writings must be given to show how Athanasius, the greatest man, with one exception, in the ancient Church, regarded the Psalms. “In them,” says he, “you find portrayed man’s whole life, the emotions of his soul and the frames of his mind. We cannot conceive of anything richer than the Book of Psalms. If you need penitence; if anguish or temptation has befallen you; if you have escaped persecution and oppression, or are immersed in deep affliction concerning each and all, you may find instruction and state, it to God in the Words of the Psalter.”

In the Church of North Africa, where, in the early centuries of our era a vigorous Christianity flourished, there is clear evidence that the inspired Psalter was the recognized hymnbook. The great Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in Africa (born A. D. 353, died A. D. 430), often refers in his discourses to the psalms which had just been sung in the meetings, making it clear that the psalmody in use in those assemblies was that of the Bible. The Donatists of Africa, who differed in some particulars from their brethren who were known as Catholics, or orthodox Christians, propagated their views by means of hymns of their own composition and ridiculed the orthodox, as Augustine intimates, for adhering in their worship to the inspired songs. Moreover, Augustine, in his confessions (ix., 4), speaking of the Psalms, says, “toto orbe cantanter”—”they are sung through the whole world.”

Jerome (born probably A. D. 340, died A. D. 420), tells us that in his childhood he had learned the Psalms by heart, and that in his old age he sang them daily. Describing the convent which he had succeeded in establishing at Bethlehem, he employs the forcible expression, “extra psalmos silentium est,” meaning that its silence was unbroken unless by the singing of psalms.

The eloquent Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, (born A. D. 347, died A. D. 407), bears ample testimony to the prevalence of psalm singing in his time. In his sixth Homily on Repentance, he signifies that the Psalms were used by all classes and on all occasions. “When,” says he, they hold their vigils all night in the church, David’s Psalms are in the beginning, and middle, and end of all their service;” “David is always in their mouths, not only in the cities and the churches, but in the courts, in the mountains, in the deserts, in the wilderness.”

The mention which Chrysostom makes of the singing of psalms in deserts and other sequestered regions is in consonance with the evidence furnished by one of his contemporaries, John Cassian, touching the routine of devotional exercises then prevalent in the monasteries of Egypt. He informs us that at first in those establishments a great difference of usage existed as to the number of psalms to be sung daily, there being eighteen psalms sung in uninterrupted succession in some monasteries; in others twenty, or even more; but that at length it was arranged that twelve psalms should be sung continuously each morning, and as many each evening.

In addition to all the vouchers now produced in support of our present proposition, the fact may be mentioned that in the Council of Laodicea, held about A. D. 360, it was decreed that no psalms composed by uninspired men should be used in the Church service. The compositions thus excluded are styled in the language of the Council, “psalmoi idiotikoi,” which seems to mean psalms not pertaining to the canon of Scripture, or at least not the direct product of supernatural inspiration. Such is the judgment of the writer of the article, “Psalmody, “in the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, edited by Dr. Wm. Smith and Professor Cheetham. Having referred to the hymn composed by Augustine for controversial ends, the writer alluded to says, “Such psalms of human composition were sometimes called psalmi plebeii or vulgares; and in Greek, idiotikoi.”

Moreover, in the first Council of Braga, held A. D. 563, it was ordained, in response to memorials from certain quarters, that no poetic composition be sung in the Church except the Psalms of the sacred canon, ” Ut extra psalmos vel canoni-carum Scripturarum Novi et Vctcris Tcstamenti nihil podice compositum in ecdesia psallatur.” It is true that this decree seems to allow the use of other songs than those contained in the Psalter, yet it plainly debars the use of any songs in worship except those contained in the Word of God. It is observable also that, according to this ordinance the singing must be limited to poetic portions of Scripture, not extended to any part of the Bible whatsoever.

Indeed, so prevalent was the use of the Psalms in the devotional services of the Church during the fourth and fifth centuries that it was generally felt to be very desirable, and in some cases it was counted indispensable, that any who aspired to be teachers and leaders in the Church should be able to recite the Psalms from memory. The following summary, given by the writer of the article, “Psalmody,” in the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, is in point: ” One remarkable effect of the prevalence of psalmody and the scarcity of books was that the Psalter was frequently learnt by heart. In the sixth century this is reported by Cyril, of Scythopolis, to have been done by St. Theodosius. St. Jerome desired that it should be done even by very young people. Sketching the prelect monk, he requires that by such a character it should be learnt word for word. The damsel, Pacatula, was to commit the Psalms to memory at seven years old. No one of the sisters in the Jerusalem convent might be ignorant of the Psalter. Even the Huns, he says, are learning the Psalter.
Cyril, of Scythopolis, in the “Life of St. Sabas,” says that monks were not admitted till they had learnt the Psalter and the rule of psalmody. Hence it was ruled by the Second Council of Nicaea (Can. 2) that no one should be advanced to be a bishop unless he knew the Psalter by heart, and that he was to be examined b3^ the metropolitan. Gregory the Great says that he would not ordain John the Presbyter, because he did not know the Psalms. The same Pope would not allow Rusticus, the deacon, to be made Bishop of Ancona for a similar reason. “He was a vigilant man, indeed,” he said, “but he did not know the Psalms.” A great deal more in the same strain might be quoted, but the citation made is sufficient for our purpose.

Enough has been advanced to prove that, even from the age of the apostles, the Church used the divine Psalter in singing the praises of God.

2. A second statement may be fearlessly made, namely, that in the ancient Church, and for centuries after the time of the apostles, the psalms were, at least, the matter chiefly used in the service of praise. The evidence supplied under the previous head may serve for proof of this proposition, although further proof could easily be produced.

3. It has never been proved, and, 1 think, cannot be, that for some time, perhaps a century, after the removal of the apostles, any composition but those contained in the Psalter were sung, or chanted, in the ordinary worship of the Church.

In making this statement, I would not be understood to deny that during the presidency of the apostles, and, perhaps, for a time afterward, certain effusions, suddenly produced under supernatural influence, may have been poured forth in worshiping assemblies of Christians. But these outbursts, if indeed they occurred, were but transitory, not materially affecting the stated psalmody of the Church.

When we call for evidence that, in the primitive period of the New Testament Church, other songs than those of the Psalter were statedly used in worship, the response of the most learned advocates of uninspired limnology is substantially as follows:

First. In a letter written about A. D. 104 or 112 by Pliny to the Emperor Trajan, respecting the Christians of Bithynia, it is said of them ” that they used to assemble on a fixed day before it was light, and to sing among themselves alternately a hymn to Christ as a God.”

Second. Among the writings bearing the name of Clemens Alexandrinus, who died about A. D. 220, there occurs a poem, of which Dr. Schaff has said: ” To Clemens, also, we owe the oldest Christian hymn that has come down to us, an elevated, but somewhat turgid, song of praise to the Logos as the divine educator and leader of the human race.”

Third. A sentence quoted by Eusebius from a controversial treatise, no longer extant, written by Cains, a Roman presbyter, against Artemon, an impugner of the doctrine of j the supreme divinity of Christ. The sentence runs thus: “All the psalms and songs written by the faithful from the beginning celebrate Christ, the Word of God, ascribing divinity to him.”

Fourth. From the charge preferred by the Council of Laodicea (A. D. 270) against Paul of Samosata, it is inferred that in his time it was customary to use in worship hymns of recent origin. He was charged with the offense of putting a stop to the singing of psalms in the honor of Christ, as being the productions of modern men, and of substituting for these certain hymns in honor of himself. It is urged that, at the time alluded to, the use of hymns recently composed was prevalent; the offense of Paul being, not that he allowed the singing of such post-biblical songs, but that he had excluded them, and introduced others made in praise of himself.

Some strictures on the foregoing items are here submitted.

On the statement contained in Pliny’s letter, it may be sufficient to remark that in the Psalms Christ is honored as God, and that this was the view of the Psalms which was current in the ancient Church. In proof of the latter point, an overwhelming mass of evidence is accessible. To cite one witness out of many, namely, Tertullian (born about A. D. 150, died about A. D. 220), who, in his treatise, ” De Carne Christi,”

expresses himself thus: ” David ille apud nos canit Christum, per quern, se cecinit ipse Christus,” which maybe freely rendered thus: That David, of whom I have been speaking, sings among us Christ, by whom Christ himself has sung (or celebrated) himself. Again, in his treatise, “Contra Praxeam,” Tertullian says: “But even almost all the psalms exhibit the person of Christ.” None of the ancient Fathers would have dared to say, as many modern professors of orthodox principles virtually allege, that the Psalms are “Christless” compositions. Hence, when in ancient records we read of the singing of odes to Christ, we are not warranted to leap to the conclusion that in such cases compositions, other than those embraced in the Psalter, were used.

In reference to the hymn, or poem, found in the writings of Clemens Alexandrinus, it is enough to say that there is not a particle of evidence, internal or external, to prove that it ever was, or was meant to be, employed in the proper worship of God. Even Dr. Schaff, a deep student of ancient hymnology, virtually admits this, for he says of this poem: ” It is not at all suited for public worship, and was probably never intended for such use.” Here, let it be carefully noted, that there is a great step from the fact that a religious poem exists to the fact that it was used, or was designed for use, in worship. This step, however, the advocates of uninspired hymns seem to take with great alacrity and agility. Yet it is beyond reasonable doubt, that many of the pious odes, originating among Christians in the early centuries of our era, were not written, and were not used, for purposes of worship, but merely for spiritual guidance, edification and enjoyment. Even Bingham, whose learning none will dispute, and whose leanings were certainly not toward Puritanism, frankly admits that the hymns composed by Gregory, Nazianzen, Paulinus, Prudentius, and several other Christian poets of antiquity, were not intended for public use in the Church, but only meant to counteract error, set forth the praises of martyrs, or inculcate the practice of virtue. When we read, then, of hymns having been composed, recited, or even sung, in primitive times, we must not, on this ground alone, conclude that these were used in the solemn worship of God.

Touching the fragment from Caius, which has been preserved by Eusebius, it may be observed that it occurs in a controversial work, and that iu controversy there is a strong temptation to present, without modification, facts supposed to make for our side. The phrase, ” From the beginning,” might perhaps mean nothing more than from the middle of the second century; or it might mean, and I am disposed to think it does mean, from the origin of recorded sacred song; and on this supposition Caius would be merely appealing to the Psalms of the Old Testament, as was done so extensively by the Patristic writers, in proof of the divinity of Christ. The word ” psalms,” which is used by Caius, favors this view; for in ancient times that word had what we might call a technical meaning, and was rarely applied to any compositions except those contained in the Psalter.

In reference to the argument founded on the charge preferred by the Council of Antioch against Paul of Samosata, I would say that it rests on an improper translation of the language of the Council. The words, ” hos de” which occur in the Council’s indictment, should, as the best Greek lexicographers say they generally should, be understood ironically; and, thus understood, the accusation of the Council will be to this effect, that Paul had silenced the singing of the psalms made in honor of Christ, as if, forsooth, these had been new productions and the compositions of modern authors. Thus interpreted, the language of the Council, instead of discountenancing, corroborates our view that the Psalter was the hymn book of the early Church. It is additional evidence on the same side that the Council uses the word “psalms” in describing those songs that were displaced by Paul. Besides, if Paul had really objected to the psalms sung on the ground that they were but novel productions, how could he, with any show of consistency, have substituted for them songs of still more recent origin in honor of himself?

Having taken this hurried survey of the chief evidence adduced to prove that from the time of the apostles onward uninspired hymns were employed by Christians in worship, I venture to say that the proof furnished is inadequate to command assent. If, indeed, the primitive Christians were wont to worship God in the use of hymns composed by themselves, is it not passing strange that none of those hymns have been transmitted to posterity? Would not the hymns prepared and sung in those days of fiery persecution and of heroic endurance have been so endeared to the friends of Christ as to linger long in memory, not to say in manuscript, as precious echoes of the faith of ancestors, who died confessing Christ amid the flames, or on the gory arena of the amphitheatre? The early Church cherished a veneration for its martyrs and confessors which bordered on superstition, and which actually issued in a species of idolatry. Can we suppose that hymns redolent with the memories of those worthies, having been used by them in days of peril and distress, would have utterly perished from the lips and hearts of their admiring successors? Yet when we inquire for those hymns, uninspired, I mean, the utmost research can discover but one in all that eventful period from the time of Christ to near the middle of the third century, and that one, moreover, even by the confession of our opponents themselves, never, probably used in public worship! During this tract of time, however, which witnessed the most momentous conflict between light and darkness which history records, the Psalms, beyond reasonable question, were chanted everywhere by Christians in celebration of the praise of God. Nor is it without significance in that the Diocletian persecution, at the beginning of the fourth century, when most diligent search was made by the civil authorities for the books of the Christians, mention is never made of the discovery and destruction of a hymn-book, while accounts are given of the capture of copies of the Scriptures, but especially of the Psalter.

4. There is good reason to think that the movement toward the use of any matter of praise beyond that supplied in the Psalter was at first timid and hesitating, among the orthodox at least, as if the feeling were deep-seated in the heart of the Church that only that which God himself had provided should be used in the exercise of formal praise. The earliest attempts to supplement the Psalter consisted in the employment of brief extracts from other parts of Scripture. For instance, the “Trisagion, or Thrice Holy,” a doxology drawn from the 6th chapter of Isaiah, the so-called “song” of the Virgin Mary and that of Simeon are among the earliest additions made to the ancient manual, the Book of Psalms. These additions, be it carefully noted, did not form the body of the service, but merely a sort of ornamental increment or appendage, the feeling, apparently, being that if anything beyond the Psalms should be sung, it must, at least, be drawn directly from the Bible. Indeed, to this day the Psalms are the standard matter of praise in the liturgies of the Greek and Roman communions, although uninspired hymns have been added to the inspired collection.

Nor is evidence entirely lacking that, for a long time, earnest resistance was made in the purest parts of the Church to the employment of anything as matter of praise except inspired songs. The profound historian, Neander, while favoring the use of uninspired hymns in worship, is constrained to write thus of the state of this question in the Church of the sixth century: “Besides the Psalms, which had been used from the earliest times, and the short doxologies and hymns consisting of verses from the Holy Scriptures, spiritual songs, composed by distinguished church teachers, were also introduced among the pieces used for public worship in the Western Church. To the last-named practice much opposition, it is true, was expressed. It was demanded that in conformity with the ancient usage, nothing should be used in the music of public worship but what was taken from the sacred Scriptures.” It will be observed how nearly the representation made by Neander tallies with the theory now put forth as to the historical development of ecclesiastical hymnology. His last statement is justified by a decree of the Council of Braga, held A. D. 561, in which, as already stated, it is ordained that no uninspired songs be used in the Church. The words of the decree are, ” Ut extra Psalmos vel Scripturas canonicas nihil poetice compositum in ecclcsia psallatur.” It deserves notice that the repugnance to uninspired hymns was evinced chiefly by those who resisted the growth of corruption in the Church. One of the Puritans of the ancient Church was Vigilantius, a contemporary of Jerome who wrote fiercely against him. What the views of Vigilantius were can be learned, not from himself, for his writings are lost, but from his violent opponent Jerome, who charges him with the offense of opposing monkery, prayers for the dead, the worship of relics and the observance of saints’ days, and adds, “that he would only, amidst jovial feastings, amuse himself with the Psalms of David.” This last thrust seems to imply that Vigilantius was marked by a peculiar appreciation of the Psalter.

Another bold protester against the corrupt tendencies of his time was Agobard, archbishop of Lyons, who died A. D. 841. Of him the learned historian, Kurtz, remarks: “He also opposed those portions of the public services which were merely designed to affect the senses, and he would have banished the use of all uninspired hymns.” The correctness of this statement of Kurtz will be seen in an extant treatise by Agobard, entitled “De Cotrectionc Antiphonarii” a paragraph of which I submit in translated form: “For who,” says Agobard, ” is so contentious, yea, so insane and averse to all manner of truth, as not to confess that in the praises of God this is better and more suitably and profitably sung which he sees to be taken out of the divine sayings and books? Even as in the Catholic creed, we profess our faith, not in our own, but in apostolic words, and in the Lord’s prayer, not in our own words, but in those of our Lord and Saviour himself; so also in the honor of the divine praise we may sound forth not in human effusions, but according to the apostle, in divine and spiritual psalms, hymns and songs. For needlessly are others sought when these are known to suffice and more than suffice.” It may be necessary to state that in the time of Agobard, and for a long time after him, it was the common opinion that the so-called “Apostles’ Creed” was a direct production of the apostles as inspired men. Clearly, also, Agobard understood the ” psalms and hymns and spiritual songs ” spoken of by Paul to mean inspired songs.

It might seem unfair, were it not mentioned here as an adjunct to our notice of the Council of Braga, in Spain, that the decree of that council did not serve to prevent the introduction into the churches of that country of hymns composed by the influential bishops, Hilary and Ambrose. But such was the opposition to this course that the Council of Toledo, held A. D. 633, was forced to give a deliverance on the subject of hymnology. As might have been expected in that rapidly-declining age, this deliverance was in favor of the innovation, but the reasons assigned for this decision, so far as reference is made to the ancient practice, are a proof that uninspired compositions in praise had, as yet, obtained but a very slight foothold within the sanctuary. Appeal is made by the assembled fathers not to any book or collection of hymns which had been for centuries in use, but merely to the antiquity of the practice of singing the doxology and the song of the angels at the birth of Christ, together with a few other customs of a like kind.

5. False teachers, with the view of diffusing their tenets, appear to have been the first to resort to the use of uninspired hymns in worship, and the orthodox were induced to adopt the same expedient for the purpose of counteracting the poison spread abroad through the medium of heretical hymns. These statements are not recklessly made. They rest on a very fair basis of evidence. For instance, Tertullian in his treatise, ” De Carne Christi,” represents Valentinian, a Gnostic heresiarch, as having boldly composed hymns embodying his pernicious sentiments. About the close of the second century and the beginning of the third, Bardesanes and his son, Harmodius, ardent Gnostics, prepared for use in worship, hymns expressive of their peculiar tenets; and in order to neutralize the influence of those hymns, Ephraem Syrus, who died about A. D. 378, composed hymns which were extensively used in worship in the Syrian Church. Adverting to these movements, the historian Kurtz thus writes, ” To supplant the hymns of Harmonius (or Harmodius) and Bardesanes, the Syrian Gnostics, which had in so many cases served to promote error, Ephraem Syrus (ad. 378) composed a number of orthodox hymns which soon became very popular. He, Isaac the Great (in the fifth cent.) and Jacob of Sarug (in the sixth cent.) were the three most celebrated ecclesiastical poets of the S3’rian Church. Their compositions were allowed to be used in public worship. Gregory, of Nazianzus, and Synesius, of Ptolemais, wrote orthodox hymns in the Greek language; but the interdict of the Council of Laodicea prevented their introduction into public worship.”

Again, Arius, from whom the Arian heresy derived its name, composed hymns for the propagation of his views, and it is on record that in order to defeat his plan Chrysostom and others prepared and put into circulation orthodox hymns.

Guericke, in his very accurate work, “The Antiquities of the Christian Church,” makes the following statement: “And since it was by the means of hymns and the beautiful music to which they were sung that Arius contrived to disseminate his erroneous doctrines, many of the fathers of the Church were stimulated to meet the evil by the composition of orthodox hymns; and the attempt was made first of all in the East, whence it was also adopted by the West.”

Furthermore, we know that Augustine composed a psalm or hymn, after the model of the 119th Psalm, in order to combat by this means the views of the Donatists embodied in hymns of their composure.
As our inquiry has been undertaken for practical ends, and not for the gratification of mere curiosity, I cannot desist without suggesting a few corollaries, or deductions, which seem warranted by this investigation.
First. Those who decry the use of the Psalms in the worship of God, saying that they are unfit for Christian lips, are not in accord with the New Testament Church during the early centuries of its existence.

Second. Those who neglect, from whatever cause, to use the Psalms in the exercise of solemn praise, even though they may abstain from decrying them, are not in harmony with the early Church.

Third. Those who, in the service of song, do not give the Psalms the chief place, have palpably diverged, in this particular, from the practice of the Church during at least the first three or four centuries after the apostolic age.

Fourth. Those who in singing the praises of God, as an act of worship, do not limit themselves to the words of inspiration, and especially to the Psalms, are most probably at variance, in this respect, with the Church of the second century.

Fifth. Those who contend for the exclusive use of the Scripture Psalter, in the direct and formal praise of God, find in the history of the early Church signal confirmation of their position; for the indications presented by the post-apostolic Church point to the conclusion that, while in the days of miraculous gifts, there may have been transient out-gushings of sacred song aside from the Psalms, the latter alone formed the matter of ordinary praise in the Church, as settled by apostolic authority.

Not otherwise can the attitude of the Church in the second, third and fourth centuries in relation to praise be accounted for satisfactorily.
Therefore, let us ” psalm-singers ” not be unduly moved by sneers and gusts of contemptuous clamor, but,: casting out anchor, let us wait, and work as well, for the day, deriving some comfort, meanwhile, from the thought that even those who at times deride and denounce our immobility are not, in their sober moments, so remote from us in sentiment as might be supposed; for even such a man as Dr. Schaff, whose impulses, on one occasion in a meeting of the Council of the Presbyterian Alliance, got the better of his judgment and his courtesy, has placed on record, in his ” Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms,” which is embraced in the Lange series of commentaries, the following judgment: “The Psalter is the first hymn-book of the Church, and it will outlive all other hymn-books. Its treasury of pious experience and spiritual comfort will never be exhausted. And as it will continue to be used in public worship and private devotion everywhere, so commentary will follow commentary to the end of time.”

Offsite Banner Ad:

Help Support APM

Search the Site

Reformed Theology at A Puritan's Mind