Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Westminster Assembly, The Singing of Psalms and The Sleight of Slight Arguments

The question is whether the Westminster Assembly's Confession of Faith (WCF) in Chapter 21:5 Of Religious Worship  and the Sabbath Day, when it mentions the "singing of psalms with grace in the heart", is  referring to the 150 psalms of the canonical variety or were the Westminster divines  rather talking  about psalms in the broader sense of any religious song of praise, even uninspired song. We mention this because the  latest two commentaries on the Assembly's Confession  by Fesko and Van Dixhoorn  - as well as other presbyterians who should know better when framing the question? -  conclude the latter. (As to whether one agrees with the Westminster Assembly is another question. The first thing to determine is what did the Assembly actually set forth in its documents.)

Yet there seems to be no due diligence in thoroughly examining all the primary sources. This means not only the Confession and the Catechisms,  but also  the Directory for Public Worship (DPW) and the Form of Presbyterial Church Government (FPCG) along with the Minutes of the Assembly and what eventually became the Scottish Psalter 1650, or the Assembly's revision of Rouse's psalter over and above Barton's.

In other words, to suggest that "psalms" in the Westminster Standards means something other than the psalms, hymns and songs of David, Asaph and Korah in the Old Testament's Sepher Tehillim or Book of Praise,  is either disingenuous or incompetent to the question. That psalmody may or may  not be popular these days in or outside the P&R church is again, beside the question as to what the Westminster Assembly actually taught according to the primary sources. Likewise whatever  the common use or meaning of the term "psalm"  might be, whether today or in the Assembly's day is immaterial;  the Assembly's use pre-empts the common usage, if not dictates how we are to understand the term, at least when it comes to the Westminster Standards, the animus imponentis of contemporary presbyterian churches notwithstanding when it comes to their affirmation of the  WCF.

In other words, let there be no mistake about it. The overwhelming, if not unanimous use of the term in the Standards,  along with the Minutes and the Assembly's Psalter, categorically  refers to the 150 Old Testament psalms. The same, written in part by David, "the sweet psalmist of Israel" who said "The Spirit of the LORD spake by me, and his word was in my tongue. (2 Sam. 23:1,2)".

Singing of Psalms and the Westminster Assembly's Directory for Public Worship
While the DPW is the main emphasis below,  the FPCG does explicitly consider the “singing of psalms” to be one of the "Ordinances in a particular Congregation". Under the 9th head under the 9th rule in the "Rules for Ordination", we are told that "singing of a psalm" is to conclude an ordination service.

As for the DPW, there are eight references to the “singing of the psalm” or “psalms”. Starting with the third chapter of the DPW, the first mention  is the opening line to Of Public Prayer before the Sermon: "After reading of the word, (and singing of the psalm), the minister who is to preach..." The second line to the end Of Prayer after Sermon reads: "The prayer ended, let a psalm be sung, if with conveniency it may be done".  The closing paragraph of Sanctification of the Lord's Day says: "That what time is vacant, between or after the solemn meetings of the congregation in publick, be spent in reading, meditation...singing of psalms...".  Publick Solenmn Fasting reads: "So large a portion of the day as conveniently may be, is to be spent in publick reading and preaching of the word, with singing of psalms...(emph. added)".

And, because singing of psalms is of all other the most proper ordinance for expressing joy and thanksgiving, let some pertinent psalm or psalms be sung for that purpose, before or after reading some portion of the word suitable to the present business...
The sermon ended, let him not only pray. . . And so, having sung another psalm, suitable to the mercy, let him dismiss the congregation with a blessing. . . When the congregation shall again be assembled, the like course in praying, reading, preaching, singing of psalms, and offering up more praise and thanksgiving, that is before directed for the morning, is to be renewed and continued, so far as the time will give leave . . . (emph. added)
 As for the last rubric or section of the DPW, Of Singing of Psalms, we quote it entirely.
It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by the singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family.
In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.
That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book; and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof (emph. added).
True, at this point, while there is no question that psalms are to be sung, the Assembly has not explicitly defined the term.

The Directory, the Bible and Psalmbooks
Yet,  while it is somewhat of an aside, note again the third paragraph above which begins by saying:
        That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book; and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read.
Compare this to the concluding paragraph in the DPW's  Publick Reading of Holy Scripture which says: 
     Besides publick reading of the holy scriptures, every person that can read, is to be exhorted to read the scriptures privately, (and all others that cannot read, if not disabled by age, or otherwise, are likewise to be exhorted to learn to read,) and to have a Bible.
Alexander T. Mitchell in The Westminster Assembly, Its History and Its Standards, (1883) clarifies the origin of the parallel.
    A few verbal alterations were suggested by the House of Lords and adopted by the Commons. The most important of these was, that to the direction in the section of singing of Psalms 'that every one that can read is to have a Psalmbook.' their Lordships proposed to add the words, 'and to have a Bible.' The Commons, improving on the suggestion, proposed to transfer the words to the section of the public reading of the Scriptures and developed them into a paragraph similiar in form to the one in the section of singing of Psalms (p.217).
In other words, in the Directory, incidentally there is marked practical parallel between having a Psalmbook and having a Bible and being able to read both.  Again, is this proof positive that the former is as inspired as the latter? No, but it does bear mention that  WCF 1:8 states that:
[B]ecause the original tongues [of Hebrew and Greek] are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope (emph. added).
Consequently the common practice at the Reformation was that Reformed churches not only translated  the Scripture into the vernacular tongue, but also the Psalms in  a metrical or rhyming psalter that men might 'worship God in an acceptable manner'.

The Minutes of the Westminster Assembly and Rouse's Psalter
But we continue to the Assembly's clarification as to the exact nature of said psalmbook. In both commentaries we have what appears to be a glaring, if not inexcusable omission to the argument that the Assembly used the term "psalms" to mean any religious song, inspired or no. That is, the failure to consult the Minutes of the Westminster Assembly (1874) specifically on the question. Come to find out in those Minutes, the Assembly had actually commended their  revision of a psalter by Rouse for public use on Nov. 14, 1645 in answer to a request by the House of Lords to consider Barton’s psalter.
Ordered – That whereas the Honble House of Commons hath, by an order bearing the date the 20th of November 1643, recommended the Psalms set out by Mr. Rouse to the consideration of the Assembly of Divines, the Assembly hath caused them to be carefully perused, and as they are now altered and amended, do approve of them, and humbly conceive that if may be useful and profitable to the Church that they be permitted to be publicly sung (Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly 1643-1652 , 2011Van Dixhoorn, III: 708)
Rouse’s amended psalter was then subsequently published on Jan. 25, 1646 by the House of Commons, though the Scotch General Assembly had not yet officially approved it. Barton was still not satisfied and petitioned the House of Lords on March 20th, 1646 to also allow the use of his psalter, which House then requested the Assembly to reconsider the matter. On April 22, 1646, the Assembly pointedly and decisively replied:
That whereas on the 14th of November 1645, in obedience to an order of this Honourable House concerning the said Mr. Barton's Psalms, we have already recommended to this Honourable House one translation of the Psalms in verse, made by Mr. Rouse, and perused and amended by the same learned gentleman, and the Committee of the Assembly, as conceiving it would be very useful for the edification of the Church in regard it is so exactly framed according to the original text: and whereas there are several other translations of the Psalms already extant: We humbly conceive that if liberty should be given to people to sing in churches, every one the translation which they desire, by that means several translations might come to be used, yea, in one and the same congregation at the same time, which would be a great distraction and hindrance to edification (Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly 1643-1652, 2011, Van Dixhoorn, V: 303).
If the Solemn League and Covenant, which gave the Assembly its mandate, was all about uniformity in doctrine, worship, discipline and government, obviously the Assembly didn't think multiple versions or translations  of a psalter  from "the original text" - of Scripture we might presume -  furthered "conjunction and uniformity in religion". To define a "translation of the Psalms in verse" in the broader etymological understanding of "psalms" as uninspired songs or hymns is to both deny and defy the history and context of the Assembly on the question. (Particularly since the Assembly also  required training in logic for ministerial candidates in the Rules for Ordination in their FPCG.)

Secondary Sources and Authorities on the Question
After the primary sources, secondary sources can be helpful in further pointing out or interpreting what the primary sources did or didn't explicitly sayS.W. Carruthers, who as the 20th century editor of the authoritative/critical text edition of the Westminster Confession has some credibility as witness and expert on the Assembly, had this to say, in his chapter entitled “The Metrical Psalms” in The Everyday Work of the Westminster Assembly (1943, rpt. 1994, RAP):
After the Confession of Faith and the Shorter Catechism, the best known piece of work by the Divines is what is usually called the "Scotch Metrical Psalms." They were neither originated, nor were they finally completed by the Assembly, but it was due to their adoption by that body that they came, as a part of the proposed uniformity of worship, to be used in Scotland, and their singing by the Covenanters endeared them to the heart of that nation (pp.161-8).
Though no psalm singer himself, the presbyterian stalwart of old Princeton B.B. Warfield, in his Westminster Assembly and Its Work (1931) admits as much. (American presbyterianism as a whole had thrown off the Assembly's DPW by the 1800's.)
One of the sections of the Directory is given to the Singing of Psalms, and declares it "the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by Singing of Psalms together in the Congregation, and also privately in the family." This rubric manifestly implied the provision of a Psalm Book, and it was made part of the function of the Assembly in preparing a basis for uniformity in worship in the Churches of the three kingdoms, to supply them with a common Psalm Book (p.52, emph. added.).
In short, if one may be excused, it seems  that all the above is either underplayed, discountenanced or totally ignored in these recent commentaries regarding the question.   Consequently the respectful suggestion is that their conclusion on what the Assembly's "singing of psalms" means, likewise should be ignored because of the inadequate basis for the same.
There is no question that both  the Assembly and its Standards are fallible  as  admitted in WCF 31:4. But we need to be able to demonstrate what the Assembly actually said, much more the background to what it said,  if there is any ambiguity, controversy  or confusion, before we can profitably go on to disagree with or even correct the Assembly, never mind faithfully expound what they did say. We fail to see, that at least on the "singing of psalms with grace in the heart", that either Fesko or Van Dixhoorn have done that, whatever the other excellencies  their commentaries on the WCF might contain.

[As per Eccl. 1:9, there is no new thing under the sun, see the review of The WCF Into The 21st Century for the previous to this rehearsal and from which, much of this is taken.]