Thursday, January 19, 2012

David Dickson and Exclusive Psalmody

While preparing my Sunday School class on Chapter 22 of the Westminster Confession ("Of Lawful Oaths and Vows"), I came across the following in David Dickson's Truth's Victory Over Error:

"Question 2. "Is an oath warranted by the word of God, under the New Testament, as well as under the Old, in matters of weight and moment?
Answer. Yes...[he then gives a list of reasons why this is so, and the ninth reason is:]
9th, Because we need not fear to imitate any thing which is done in heaven. Our Lord has taught us to pray, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. But the angel, (says John, Rev. x. 5, 6.) which I saw stand upon the sea, and upon the earth, lifted up his hand to heaven, and swore by him that liveth for ever and ever. That angel calls himself our fellow servant, and of our brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book, Rev. xxii. 9. And therefore the angels being of the same fraternity with us, do not act under different dispensations from us."

The verses Dickson cites are: Revelation 10:5-6, "The angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised up his hand to heaven and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and the things that are in it, the earth and the things that are in it, and the sea and the things that are in it, that there should be delay no longer," and Revelation 22:9, "Then he said to me, 'See that you do not do that. For I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren the prophets, and of those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.'"

Now, the interesting this about this is:
  1. Dickson was a contemporary of the Westminster Assembly, and his Truth's Victory Over Error is the first commentary on the Confession (and an excellent one, at that!). 
  2. Not only was he a contemporary of the Assembly, but he was also an Exclusive Psalmist as most if not all Presbyterians were at that time. He makes this clear in his commentary on several Psalms. See, for example, his comments on Psalm 150.
  3. Dickson's argument for the validity of swearing oaths runs thus:
    1. We are not to fear imitating anything which is done in heaven
    2. Angels in heaven swear oaths
    3. Therefore, we too can swear oaths
If his argument is valid (which I think it is), can be applied to singing non-psalms just as easily as it could be applied to swearing of oaths. In Revelation 5:8-14, we read: 
"8 Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sang a new song, saying: 'You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, 10 And have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth.'
11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice: 'Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!'
13 And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: 'Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!'
14 Then the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever."

Note that those worshiping the Lamb in heaven sing a "new song" (verse 9. not a Psalm!) and they use harps (verse 8) in their worship.

 Then, in Revelation 14:1-5, we read:
"1 Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps. 3 They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth. 4 These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb. 5 And in their mouth was found no deceit, for they are without fault before the throne of God."

Again, those in heaven worshiping the Lamb sing a new song (verse 3) and their singing is accompanied by harps (verse 2).

Now, if we apply Dickson's argument to the worship we find in Revelation 5 and Revelation 14, we would have an argument like this:
  1. We are not to fear imitating anything which is done in heaven
  2. In heaven, new songs are sung to the Lord, and instruments are used in the worship of God
  3. We, too, can sing new songs to the Lord and use instruments in the worship of God
I appreciate the vigor with which my Exclusive Psalmist brethren defend the worship of God; however, I believe they are inconsistent when applying what Scripture has to say about the worship of God, specifically in singing "new songs" and in using instruments to accompany the singing of the congregation. We are not to fear imitating anything which is done in heaven, and it is clear from Revelation that in heaven more than Psalms are sung, and they are not sung a capella.


  1. As a Presbyterian, you know that the realm of worship is regulated differently than the rest of life is. Dickson is justifying a moral practice in the common realm based upon angelic practice, not as an element of worship. You will not find Dickson arguing that we should copy the elements of worship as seen in Revelation any more than you will find him arguing that the Old Covenant temple is to guide our worship today.

    Even though Dickson's words cannot be twisted to argue in such a manner, you will find a hearty affirmation from Romanist Scott Hahn. He has written an entire book in which he argues that the imagery of worship in the Book of Revelation should structure our worship on earth ( Of course, he includes several elements which you conveniently left out:

    "And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand. And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake."
    (Revelation 8:3-5, AV)

  2. Dear Seth,

    To add to Mr. Peters' sufficient word, I would also argue that -even if this was the logical result of Master Dickson's words (and I do not grant such)- at best it simply approves those songs recorded in the Scripture which, while being non-Psalm, is still inspired.

    Since we have no command, nor approval of the composition of mere man-inspired hymns, nor the singing of such, it still would not obtain that we, in our time, may create "new" songs, or sing them. We would still be limited to Scripture songs. Of course, I don't believe using apocalyptic examples are the way by which we should order our worship under the New Testament administration of the Covenant of Grace.

    This passage is not the only passage which approves of swearing lawful oaths and vows. So approved examples here are that we may take lawful vows and sing praise, not that we may sing uninspired hymns and play any musical instrument of our choice. As we well know, the instruments were regulated under David, and by trained men on those instruments who were vetted. Those instruments also had a distinct purpose not necessarily associated with musical accompaniment of sung praise.

    Charitably, Humbly, and Respectfully,


  3. Bryan: It is clear that the incense is representative of the prayers of the saints, which are made acceptable through the sacrifice of Christ (see 1599 Geneva Bible noets on the passage, here:

    What does the "new song" and the "harps" in the passages I've cited represent?

  4. Josh: I appreciate your comment. I believe these examples in Revelation represent "good and necessary consequence" regarding the singing of new songs and the use of instruments in worship. I likewise believe that the Revelation 10 passage cited by Dickson gives good and necessary consequence to the swearing of oaths, which is a part of religious worship (WCF 21.5). Both singing and oath-taking/vowing are parts of religious worship. I fail to see how we can cite Revelation in support of one, but not the other. It seems inconsistent.

    I grant that Rev. 10 is not the only passage which supports the swearing of oaths and vows, however, I believe Dickson's argument is that we ought not to fear to do anything that is done in heaven. Unless the new songs and the harps can be shown to represent Psalms and not-harps (voices?), then we have an example of heavenly worship that is neither a capella nor exclusively Psalm singing.

    But, brother, I do appreciate the comment and the interaction.

  5. Instruments represent the praise of God's people (see Geneva Notes on Rev. 5:8, " The symbols or signs of praise, sweet in savour and acceptable to God"). Dickson particularly notes in his commentary on Psalm 4 that instruments were part of the Mosaic administration's worship to teach us that "The praise of God and the joy of his Spirit, allowed on his people, surpass all expression which the voice of words can make."

    As for the reference to a "new song," I must refer you to Michael Bushell's excellent explanation of the concept:

    I believe we can distinguish between Dickson's justification of the oath as a moral civil practice, yet stopping short of arguing for it as an element of worship. Fisher's Catechism helps us to make this distinction by recognizing that it is the "invocation of the name of God" which causes us to recognize religious worship in the oath. Oaths may be subdivided in assertory oaths, which are inherently civil, as well as both civil and religious promissory oaths. This distinction is why WCF 21.5 speaks particularly of "religious oaths." Not all oaths are properly made within the context of public worship because there is a difference in that which they concern. The oath is inherently religious due to the invocation, but actually may concern civil matters.

    Dickson doesn't seem to be trying to justify the oath as an element of religious worship. Instead, I read him as saying something akin to: "It is right and godly to open an assembly of the civil magistrate with prayer." Such would not be a justification in and of itself for the consideration of prayer as an element of worship. Thus it is reasonable to regard Dickson as addressing the propriety of bringing a religious invocation into the civil realm, not as providing a basis for invocation as an element of worship.

    In Christ,

    P.S. Hopefully my concern for this matter does not come across too negative. I have appreciated your writing and blog posts and look forward to many more.

  6. Good article, Seth. The "Gospel" Psalms, such as Ps 93, which Dickson declares is for the church to "rejoice and bless the Lord for Christ's coming to set up his kingdom in the world," and because neither human voices nor instruments are "sufficient to express the joy which cometh by Christ's kingdom" the whole of creation is called to the new song. So logically, is Dickson a depensationalist that would deny that Christ really did bring his kingdom to earth at His resurrection, ascension, session, and gifts of the Holy Spirit? Not being contentious, just thinkin' out loud. Dickson does say about verse 3 that it applies to the preaching of the Gospel to the heathen of the world. So the "new song" would seem to apply to the church on earth.

  7. Hi: Just a passing comment on your use of Revelation 14. The song sung in Revelation 14:3 was a song that could only be sung by the 144,000. If I understand it correctly, then this song could only be sung by the Elect and Elect Angels. Consequently, the "new song" sung by the Elect can be considered in only one of two ways: 1) It is a song that can only be sung in Heaven or after the New Heavens and New Earth, or, 2) It is a song sung only by the Elect here on Earth - that is, it is a depiction of the Elect here on earth truly singing from the Spirit of God. These songs cannot be sung by the Church Militant, but the Church Victorious. Consequently, the "new song" is figurative of the "spiritual songs" sung by the Elect prior to the New Heaven and Earth. These spiritual songs are the Psalms.

  8. Seth, Did the ARP change the Psalmody position in the WCF?

    Adam B.

  9. Hi Adam, Thanks for the question. The ARP adds this note concerning the singing of Psalms to its confession:

    (f) Relating to Chapter XXI, paragraph 5—“To conform with the more recent practice of the S ynod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, as approved in the year 1946, the validity of suitable evangelical hymns was recognized and their use permitted in those congregations electing to do so.”

    So, we, as a denomination, allow singing of suitable hymns in our worship services.

  10. It is also true that the worship in heaven is perfect and without taint of self or sin. Whatever is sung in heaven, as far as it is beyond the inspired canon of Pslams that God has given us through his Spirit, does not itself justify any man-made worship songs which the church chooses to use in its worship here on earth. Any discussion of heavenly worship must start and finish with its perfection. That perfection here on earth is only found in the inspired book of Psalms. That is the parallel to the 'new song'. It is the new song that God has given. It is a new song for a new situation. It does not give warrant to write new songs for our earthly situation.

  11. Hi: If you will allow me another passing comment? It seems that some here have already pointed out that, based on the use of Dickson's hermeneutic, one would have to allow golden bowls, incense, and golden altars in the worship of God. If combined with the RPW, then one would expect such to be commanded. Dickson's point was the last in a long line of Biblical references he used for defending the use of lawful oaths and vows. Consequently, in his opinion, the point was the weakest of them all. Also, the point was backed up by other references outside of the Apocalypse. The argument used above to defend musical instruments and uninspired hymns does not follow the line of reasoning used by Dickson.