(This overture from Classis Grand Rapids East appeared before the 1928 synod of the Christian Reformed Church. It represents one of the first definitive steps taken in the CRC’s shift from singing psalms almost exclusively to singing both psalms and hymns.)
Classis Grand Rapids East overtures Synod to amend Article 69 of our Church Order, which reads as follows: “In the Churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, etc., shall be sung”, so that a synodically approved collection of hymns may be added which may be used in our public worship and regular services. . . . . And, furthermore, overtures Synod to take the required steps to procure such a collection of hymns which may be used in our Divine worship.
(1) Classis realizes that this is an important and a very delicate matter, which should be considered carefully and prayerfully, in order that no serious disturbance be created in our churches. Classis feels that there are various conditions which the churches must take into consideration before deciding this matter. The first condition to which we would like to call your attention concerns the principle of the whole matter, namely, whether the introduction of a collection of hymns in our public worship is compatible with the principles laid down in the Holy Scriptures. Since all the other conditions depend upon this one, allow the Classis to develop this first condition.
Classis is of the opinion that the introduction of a number of hymns into our public worship is not a matter of principle, that is, there is no fundamental Reformed principle involved or at stake. “Het is geen principieele zaak.”1 By this we mean that nowhere in Holy Writ are we commanded to sing only the Psalms in our public worship; nor is the singing of spiritual songs or hymns expressly forbidden in God’s Word. It might be expected that your Committee would quote Colossians 3:16, where we read: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs“; or Ephesians 5:19, where we read: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” However, it is the opinion of Classis, since we have no definite certainty whether these passages refer to our singing in public worship, not to adduce these texts. We would refer you to Biesterveld’s Commentary on the Colossians, chapter 3, verse 16: “Trouwens is lang niet zeker dat Paulus hier doelt op het kerkelijk gezang.”2 In addition compare Meyer, Van Andel, Hodge, and Greydanus on these texts.
The very fact that Article 69 of our Church Order permits the singing of “the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and Hymn of Prayer before the Sermon, as well as the 150 Psalms of David,” shows very clearly that a larger collection of hymns cannot be excluded from our public worship on the ground of a fundamental principle.
Our Reformed people have never defended as a principle that the Church in its praise of God must only use words which were inspired by God. Dr. A. Kuyper, in Onze Eeredienst,3 page 53, expresses this as follows:
Is nu het standpunt in te nemen dat de gemeente zelve het recht mist om te formuleeren het lied, waarmee ze God zal toezingen? Zie, men bidt tot God in proza en in dicht. Is er nu iemand die beweert, dat de gemeente het recht mist, om zelve, hetzij in dicht hare gebeden, haar aansprekingen van het Hoogste Wezen te formuleeren? Ons is zoo iemand niet bekend. Het vrije gebed is steeds in onze kerken gehuldigd. Formulier-gebeden hebben onze Kerken in den beginne vaak zelve opgesteld. En nooit heeft men beweerd, dat er in de Kerk niet anders mocht gebeden worden dan met gebeden die in de [Heilige] Schrift, in of buiten de Psalmen voorkomen. En toch, dat alleen zou de strenge consequentie zijn. . . . .4
Voetius, in his Politica Ecclesiastica, Vol. I, p. 527, treating of psalms and hymns, states that it has been stipulated nowhere that only the psalms mentioned in the Bible were to be used in the Church of our Lord. Our (Reformed) Churches, he declares, had never wanted to condemn hymn-singing Churches, considering the use of hymns to be one of the adiaphora (middelmatige dingen), and in regard to them they should leave freedom one to another. (Quoted in The Banner, Vol. 62, p. 736.)
We conclude with a quotation from Prof. Heyns’ Liturgiek, pp. 126 and 127:
Tegen de invoering van gezangen heeft onze Kerk zich steeds verzet. Maar waarom? Heeft zij, als beginsel, vastgesteld dat de gemeente het recht mist het lied dat ze Gode zal toezingen zelve te formuleeren, en dus in den eeredienst alle vrije liederen van God verboden zijn? De Schrift geeft daartoe geen recht. . . . . Blijkbaar zijn onze vaderen dan ook niet door leerstellige, maar door practische overwegingen geleid tot het standpunt dat zij hebben ingenomen. Het misbruik was zoo ver gegaan.5
The question may arise, however, whether we can point to any New Testament example in which the New Testament redemptive facts are set forth in poetical language? If we should point to the songs which we find in Luke’s Gospel, chapters 1 and 2, the objection might be raised that in these songs the thoughts naturally are couched in Old Testament forms. For this reason we would rather refer to the passage which we find in 1 Timothy 3:16:
He was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen of Angels,
Preached among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.
Many expositors, as Van Andel, Godet, Warfield, and others, are of the opinion that this passage is a quotation from a well-known hymn of praise.
From the above-mentioned quotations the Classis is convinced that the introduction of a collection of hymns in our public worship is not in conflict with any fundamental principle laid down in Holy Writ.
(2) Since Classis is of the opinion that the introduction of a number of hymns is not in conflict with the principles laid down in the Holy Scriptures, we would call your attention to three other conditions with which the Church must reckon, as we see it.
a) The need of introducing such a collection of hymns.
Is there such a thing as a need for a collection of hymns? Is the present-day demand for hymns based upon superficiality or upon a real need? Classis is of the opinion that the introduction of hymns will be helpful in the fulfillment of a real, Christian need.
Classis whole-heartedly expresses its love for the Old Testament psalms, and would raise serious objections if they were ever to be relegated to an inferior place in our public worship. There is a depth of spiritual experience in the psalms which cannot be found anywhere else. We believe that the spiritual life of our people would lose much of its vitality if the psalms were no longer used in our public worship. Hence, we want to retain our psalms. Besides, Old Testament psalms in various instances give a fit expression to the Christian experiences and praises of the New Testament believer.
But it is an established fact among us that God’s revelation unto the salvation of His Church is clearer in the New Testament than in the Old. Take, for instance, the Trinity–how much clearer in the New Testament than in the old dispensation. Of course, we admit that the Old Testament is clearer to us than to the Old Testament saints, because we possess the light of New Testament revelation.
We possess the language of New Testament fulfillment in our study of the Old Testament. Consequently, a well-informed New Testament Christian can sing many a prophetic psalm and rejoice in his heart because of its fulfillment.
This is the more so, since the Old Testament prophecies often employ the past tense, the tense of fulfillment, as, for instance: “Sing a new song to Jehovah, for the wonders He hath wrought.” But it is equally true that a song exalting the New Testament redemptive facts in New Testament language, of necessity appeals to the Christian believer of our day, because of its directness. And has not the Church of the New Testament the right to take into account the dispensation
of fulfillment as well as the dispensation of promise and prophecy? Is it not true that a rather extensive exegesis is needed to understand the Old Testament psalms? Now we add, and that for obvious reasons, this directness, this heart-appeal in many of our hymns, appeals to our younger generation.
In view of these facts the Classis is of the opinion that there is a real need for a collection of hymns.
b) The second condition concerns the fitness of hymns. Classis is convinced that if a collection of hymns should be introduced into our churches, we should only have such hymns as are doctrinally, poetically and musically fit for our purpose, namely, public worship. One of the reasons why our people were so opposed to hymns in 1834 was that so many of the hymns that were forced upon them were un-Reformed. The same thing can be said of hundreds of our hymns today. For our use we must have hymns that are doctrinally sound. We would suggest that our Theological Professors and some of our leading ministers be placed before this task. We want Reformed hymns if we are to have hymns at all. We also must have hymns which are poetically and musically fit. Our praises to God should remain solemn and impressive. To this end the Classis would suggest that our Professors at Calvin and our leading musicians be placed before this task.
c) Classis would suggest in passing that the Synod make some kind of a stipulation whereby our Consistories would see to it that one-half of the numbers used to praise our God be taken from our Psalter, except on special occasions, where it should be left to the discretion and wisdom of the Minister.
This would avoid and overcome the danger which Dr. A. Kuyper speaks of in Onze Eeredienst, page 56: “Dat het vrije lied bijna nergens in de Kerken indrong, of het heeft straks de neiging geopenbaard om de psalmen terug te dringen en op zij te zetten.”6 History clearly substantiates this dangerous tendency, and since we are a psalm-singing Church, this is the time to take the necessary safeguards and precautions for the future.
In addition, such a collection of hymns alongside of our psalms would make it possible for our Publishers to place on the market a so-called Psalter-Hymnal, which could then be designated as our official Book of Praise.
(Classis Grand Rapids East.)
Source: Agenda for Synod 1928 of the Christian Reformed Church, Part II, pp. 28-31. Available online from CRCNA Agenda and Acts of Synod, Hekman Library, Calvin College
- “It is not a matter of principle.” (These are loose translations created with the help of Google Translate. If you’d like to contribute better ones, please feel free to do so!)
- “Besides, it is far from certain that Paul is here referring to singing in church.”
- “Our Worship”
- “Is the position now taken that the church lacks the right to formulate for itself the song which she will sing to God? See, we pray to God in prose and in verse. Is there anyone now who claims that the church lacks the right to formulate for herself either her prayers, or her discussions of the Supreme Being? This is unheard of. Free prayer is always honored in our Churches. Form prayers have often been formulated in our Churches from the beginning. And it has never been claimed that in the Church prayers could not be otherwise than prayers in the Holy Scripture, or occur outside the Psalms. And yet it all would be a strict consequence…”
- “By the introduction of hymns, the Church called upon herself increased resistance. But why? Did she, as a principle, determine that the Church lacks the right to formulate herself the songs she will sing to God, and that therefore all free [i.e. uninspired] songs are banned in the worship of God? Scripture gives no right to do so. Evidently, therefore, not doctrinal but practical considerations led to the position taken by our fathers, the abuse had gone so far.”
- “That free song is almost nowhere introduced into the Churches, without soon having a revealed tendency to reduce the psalms and set them aside.”