Posts Tagged 'CRC'

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 2)

Psalms vs. HymnsIn my last post I mentioned the first major artifact in the long story of the Christian Reformed Church’s Psalter Hymnals, leading up to the one the URC uses today and the one it hopes to produce in the future. That document is the “Report on the Hymn Question” submitted by the first Psalter Hymnal Committee to the 1930 synod of the CRC.

While the “Report on the Hymn Question” contains the first formal justification and discussion of the reasons for a Psalter Hymnal, it was not the first step in the journey towards a hybrid psalm- and hymn-book. That first step began with an overture from Classis Grand Rapids East in 1928.

Before 1928, as the foreword to the 1934 Psalter Hymnal notes, the Christian Reformed Church sang “practically nothing but Psalms in public worship.” This was an easy tradition to justify as long as CRC congregations worshiped in Dutch and sang from Dutch psalters. As churches (and especially young church members) began to transition to worship in the English language, however, the matter became stickier. Hymns began to be used “in religious gatherings outside of public worship,” and pressure mounted to incorporate more hymns into worship than the dozen or so standard offerings included in the back of the Dutch psalters.

Up until that time the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church, handed down from the Synod of Dort itself, contained this instruction regarding congregational singing:

In the Churches only the 150 Psalms of David, 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 the Hymn of Prayer before the Sermon, shall be sung. (Article 69)

In 1928 came the first definitive call for action, as the CRC’s synod faced overtures from three of its fifteen classes arguing for the inclusion of hymns, two classes and a consistory arguing against the inclusion of hymns, and four classes requesting the appointment of a committee to study the matter further. Among these overtures, two stand out as the longest and most thorough: the one from Classis Grand Rapids East in favor of hymns, and the one from Classis Zeeland against hymns. I’ve transcribed the text of the GR East overture and done a little bit of the translation work here. The Zeeland overture is among the additional communications posted here.

I encourage you to read through Classis Grand Rapids East’s overture yourself and examine their reasoning. If I had to summarize their arguments, it would be as follows: Hymns should be incorporated into worship because (1) the singing of hymns is not forbidden in Scripture, and (2) there is a need for hymns in the churches. The classis’s additional points are qualifiers: i.e. that hymns must be doctrinally sound and must not dominate the church’s worship.

While I’m not here to argue against using hymns in worship, some of the particulars of Classis Grand Rapids East’s reasoning trouble me.

First, the classis all but ignores the regulative principle of worship (what is not commanded is forbidden), which we’ve discussed elsewhere on URC Psalmody. They argue for the inclusion of hymns by calling into question any biblical command for psalms or hymns in worship. In regard to Paul’s exhortations to the Ephesians and Colossians to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” they claim to have “no definite certainty whether these passages refer to our singing in public worship.” (Yet they later seem quite sure that I Timothy 3:16 quotes a “well-known hymn of praise” in the early church.) “Nor is the singing of spiritual songs or hymns expressly forbidden in God’s Word,” the classis adds, falling back on the normative principle of worship for justification (what is not forbidden is permissible).

This alarms me. If we are to sing hymns in worship, we should possess at least a fair amount of certainty that God has commanded their use. The classis seems to lack that conviction, yet continues their case for hymn-singing unconcerned.

Second, the classis argues for hymn-singing by attempting to point out insufficiencies in the psalms: that they fail to reflect the “clearer revelation” and “fulfillment” of the New Testament. Unfortunately, the Trinity is a poorly chosen example. Indeed, the Book of Psalms contains some of the clearest indications of the Trinity in the entire Old Testament, if not all of Scripture. Think of Psalm 2: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” Or Psalm 104: “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created.” Or Psalm 110: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Indeed, the fact that so many of the psalms “employ the past tense, the tense of fulfillment,” seems to prove the lasting value of the Psalter rather than an inherent need for New Testament-inspired hymns. The psalms come with the light of fulfillment built in!

Again, valid arguments can be made for the inclusion of uninspired hymns alongside psalms in worship, songs that reflect the message of the whole Bible. But we must not base those arguments for hymns on failings in the psalms. If we confess that God gave us the psalms to use in worship, we cannot also claim that they are insufficient for the church’s needs. We cannot affirm the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the Old Testament while also dismissing it as somehow sub-Christian.

Finally, the classis defends the need for hymns by mentioning their “directness” and “heart-appeal” that speak to the “younger generation,” whereas understanding the psalms requires “a rather extensive exegesis.” (Don’t these terms call to mind more recent arguments for praise choruses?) This is not only a ridiculous misrepresentation—which is more direct and heartfelt, the sappy “I Surrender All” or the raw emotions of Psalm 130?—but it also utterly neglects the role of the psalms as a teaching tool. In fact, many psalms address the “younger generation” directly: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD” (Psalm 34:11); “We will not hide them from our children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (Psalm 78:4). Hymns are constrained by time, place, and cultural context; the psalms are for every generation.

Readers, what do you think? Are there particular areas in which you agree or disagree with Classis Grand Rapids East’s case for hymn-singing? Do you think this makes an adequate case for hymn-singing in the churches? How would you structure an argument for a Psalter Hymnal?

Next time, Lord willing, we’ll delve into the overture against hymn-singing from Classis Zeeland.


Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 1)

It’s a fascinating time in the church’s history.

That statement may sound a little naïve. “Has your head been buried in the sand this past year? Or even this past week?” you might be wondering. Between the aftermath of racism-motivated shootings, turmoil over recent Supreme Court decisions, concerns about tax-exempt status and religious freedom going forward, and the continuing liberalization of mainstream Christianity, it certainly doesn’t seem like the church is in prime condition.

But don’t let the news headlines faze you. If anything, we are merely re-entering the kind of atmosphere in which the church thrives, and in which it has thrived since the time of the apostles. “In the world you will have tribulation,” promised Jesus (John 16:33). Maybe we in the West haven’t been confronted with the full truth of this statement for the last few centuries, in which the surrounding culture has been overwhelmingly favorable to Christianity. Actually, I think there is abundant evidence the church of Jesus Christ has atrophied in such an environment, with liberalism and loose “cultural Christianity” as two likely byproducts.

The possibility that tribulation may be in our future is no reason to be discouraged, but it should make the church “get off the couch,” so to speak, and exercise its limbs and members in preparation for whatever rigors may be ahead. After all, we have the rest of Jesus’ promise too: “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

That’s why I say it’s a fascinating time in the church’s history: because, particularly in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, I find myself surrounded by encouraging signs of this reinvigoration. The one that pertains to us the most at URC Psalmody, of course, is a renewed concern for Biblical, God-glorifying worship—particularly through psalm-singing.

Now, combining a fresh interest in psalmody with the reconsideration of assumptions from the church’s past leads me to an interesting question: How did our worship come to be this way?

I’m not talking about the structure of Reformed worship services in general, like our series last summer. Here I’m thinking particularly about the unique combination of songs in the URCNA’s heritage of worship: not psalms only, not hymns mixed with psalms, but distinct categories of psalms and hymns—a Psalter Hymnal.

Although this combination has been a familiar part of our worship since the publication of the Christian Reformed Church’s first Psalter Hymnal more than eighty years ago, it’s not a common sight in the broader church. There are psalters, such as the RPCNA’s Book of Psalms for Worship (2009). There are hymnals, such as Word’s Celebration Hymnal (1997). But songbooks that devote separate sections to both psalms and hymns are hard to find. The OPC and PCA’s current Trinity Hymnal (1990) includes a significant number of psalm settings, but they are merely interspersed among the hymns. The PCUSA’s Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) has a separate psalm section, but it is incomplete. Even the new hymnal of the CRC and RCA, Lift Up Your Hearts (2014), merges psalms and hymns (though these denominations separately published Psalms for All Seasons, a complete psalter).

My point is that it is a little odd, both in theory and in practice, to sing both psalms and hymns in worship, yet still insist on distinguishing between the two. But that’s exactly the position held by the URCNA: “The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches,” yet sound hymns “may be sung” if approved by the Consistory (Church Order Art. 39). Moreover, the fact that the new URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal will (we expect) continue to separate psalm settings from hymns supports this distinction. Our churches’ position leads to an unusual conclusion: Psalms and hymns are equal as regards suitability for worship, but unequal as regards their essence.

1930HymnReportCoverThe debate over the theological basis for this conclusion will have to wait for another day. For now, though, I want to probe into its historical origins. A useful starting point is the background behind the publication of the CRC’s first “red” Psalter Hymnal in 1934. As the CRC had previously adhered to a practice of almost-exclusive psalmody, the incorporation of hymn-singing was a significant shift and merited a 133-page booklet from the Psalter Hymnal Committee in explanation. That booklet is available for download from the CRC’s online archives (in English, fortunately), and I’ll start by commenting on its most relevant portions. Interestingly, this booklet also includes the textual changes made to the hymns included in the first Psalter Hymnal—many of which have been passed down to us in the current “blue book.” Studying this Psalter Hymnal Committee Report may not provide a complete answer to our historical questions, but as I said, it is a starting point.

Does this summer series sound boring? If you’ve read this far, hopefully you don’t think so. Even though rehashing synodical decisions from the 1930’s sounds pretty irrelevant, it should be obvious why the question of a Psalter Hymnal remains important today. After all, the pursuit of Biblical, God-glorifying worship should never stop—especially not at a time in the church’s history as fascinating as now.


A Look at Liturgy: Its Reformation History

In visiting various United Reformed congregations, I’ve often been curious about the source of the basic structure and consistency of our liturgy.  In pp. 75-88 of the back matter of the Psalter Hymnal Supplement, the Liturgical Committee traces for us the general background of the liturgy inherited by the Christian Reformed Church and passed down to the URCNA.

In its commitment to the regulative and dialogical principles of worship, which we discussed earlier, the Protestant Reformation gave birth to a number of different liturgical structures.  What they had in common was their strong emphasis on the preaching of the Word and prayer, stripping the Roman Catholic mass of its ornate and intricate ceremonies.  The primary focus of worship was the fourfold purpose described in the Heidelberg Catechism: “to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor” (Lord’s Day 38, Q&A 103).

While the Reformation gave the Word of God the proper place in its worship, it tended to de-emphasize the sacraments, perhaps as a pendulum swing away from the Roman Catholic church.  When the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, it was often given its own unique liturgy, which explains why even today churches of Dutch Reformed origin often celebrate the sacrament only once every few months in a specially structured “Communion” service.

From the various liturgies of Bucer, Calvin, Zwingli, and even the Lutherans, Peter Datheen (Petrus Dathenus) created what would become the standard liturgy of the Dutch Reformed churches.  More than the actual structure of the worship service, however, Datheen was involved in the creation of liturgical prayers and formularies, many of which have made their way into the back of today’s Psalter Hymnal.

75AnniversaryWeekProgramInsideIt was not until late in the sixteenth century that the churches in Holland began to incorporate Scripture reading and psalm singing into their worship, first before the services began and later as part of the liturgy itself.  This gradual and unstructured growth explains the fact that a systematized order of worship was not established for the Dutch churches until 1933.

The Christian Reformed Church, ancestor of many of our congregations, inherited this unofficial liturgy from the churches in Holland.  It was not until 1916 that an overture came from Classis Illinois urging the CRC synod to establish a uniform order of worship.  The study committee appointed by synod to consider liturgical matters reported back in 1928 with this proposed order of morning worship, which the CRC adopted.  To emphasize the dialogical structure of this liturgy, actions from the side of God are italicized, whereas actions from the side of the people are in regular type.

  • Prelude
  • Introductory Service
    • Votum
    • Salutation
    • Psalm of Praise
  • Service of Reconciliation
    • Summary of the Law (Matt. 22:37-40)
    • Confession of Sin
    • Penitential Psalm
    • Absolution
    • Apostles’ Creed
    • Psalm of Praise
  • Service of Gratitude and Benevolence
    • General Prayer and Lord’s Prayer
    • Offertory
    • Psalm of Thanksgiving
  • Service of the Word
    • Reading of Scripture
    • Preaching
  • Closing Service
    • Prayer of Thanksgiving
    • Concluding Psalm and/or Doxology
    • Benediction

How was this order of worship received?  According to the Psalter Hymnal Supplement, it fell on its face.  The congregations of the CRC “choked on the ‘absolution’ that had been given a place in the liturgy following the law and confession.  In 1930, the new liturgy was dropped—after considerable protest and agony” (p. 87).

The advisory committee assigned to address liturgical matters identified three common themes among the churches’ vociferous objections to the new order of worship:

  1. The new liturgy would be detrimental to the unity of the churches.
  2. Synod had no authority to impose a uniform order of worship on the churches.
  3. Elements of the liturgy, particularly the absolution, were unnecessary or even unbiblical.  With regard to the absolution and service of reconciliation, “they foster formalism and ritualism; the absolution is lifted to a sacrament; it will push the preaching into the background; it is a step in the direction of Rome; God alone can forgive sins; the absolution transfers the exercise of power of the keys from the Word to the man and his office” (Acts of Synod 1930, 158).

In summary, this advisory committee posed this rhetorical question: “May we endanger the peace and the welfare of our denomination by insisting upon a liturgical element that has no clear Scriptural foundation?” (1930 Acts, 160).

After the liturgical debacle of 1930 no more attempts were made at introducing a uniform order of worship in the Christian Reformed Church until the time of the Psalter Hymnal Supplement.  However, individual consistories continued to develop a variety of liturgies for their own churches, each to fill unique needs and worship God in distinct ways.

And that, in a nutshell, is the liturgical history the United Reformed Churches in North America has inherited.  Next we’ll consider a few of the key elements of Reformed worship and their varied manifestations in our liturgy.


Featured Recording: Luzon and Psalm 121

Featured Recording

Unfortunately, our post on today’s Featured Recording here on URC Psalmody finds itself cut short for lack of time.  Not to worry, however; the Psalter Hymnal Handbook available online at provides a fascinating background story to today’s selection.  “I Lift Up Mine Eyes to the Mountains,” a beautiful and unique versification of Psalm 121, was created specifically for the blue Psalter Hymnal (number 261).  Here’s the Psalter Hymnal Handbook’s explanation of this psalm setting and the choice of its tune name, LUZON:

Dick L. Van Halsema composed LUZON in 1954.  The tune was published with the Zylstra text in the 1959 Psalter Hymnal on whose committee both writer and composer served.  Zylstra and Van Halsema also served together as United States servicemen stationed on the Philippine island of Luzon at the end of World War II (hence the name of this tune).  At that time both men experienced the truth of Psalm 121 in their lives.

The tune and harmonization make use of repeated tones and pedal points to portray the stability and dependability of God’s care; the final phrase of the melody originally repeated one note throughout.  The E-flat chord in the third line provides a delightful touch of color.  LUZON is suitable for either unison or harmony singing.  Maintain one pulse per measure.

Below is a recording of the congregation of Grace Reformed Church (URCNA) in Dunnville, Ontario, singing Psalter Hymnal number 261.  How assuring it is to be protected by the Lord who “nods not, nor slumbers, nor sleeps”!


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Works of Power and Grace: Keeping the Banner Aloft

The Christian Reformed ChurchA handful of Reformed churches make the difficult decision to break away from their parent denomination.  Troubled at the trends of increasing liberalism and waning orthodoxy among their fellow churches, they at length determine that their only option is to form a new body with the express purpose of remaining faithful to the Bible, the creeds, and the confessions.

In many ways it is an exciting time for this new little group.  They have the chance to root themselves firmly in the historic Reformed faith, to spread their branches into a functional and God-glorifying federation of churches, to bear the fruits of Biblical preaching, sacraments, and discipline, and to sow the seeds for a whole new generation of faithful Christians.

But this period in the churches’ life is also filled with immense struggles, possibly the greatest they will face for decades.  It is what some have aptly called “the crisis of youth.”  Although the churches are united in their desire to remain faithful to Biblical orthodoxy, they differ in their origins, their ethnicities, their traditions, and even their theology.  Individuals with identities emerge who, intentionally or unintentionally, lead their followers in slightly different directions.  Debates develop and factions form over various aspects of doctrine, be they trivial or essential.  Being composed entirely of human beings, they are all too prone to sin and stumble.  But, striving to seek God’s will and to remain faithful to his Word, do they still comprise his church?  Absolutely.

Dr. Henry Beets

Dr. Henry Beets

The scenario I’ve just related is, of course, an historical one.  You may already have in mind the founding of the United Reformed Churches in North America in the 1990s, and their life and growth over these past 17 years.  However, the above account comes not from the history of the URCNA, but from a mildewy old hardcover entitled The Christian Reformed Church by Dr. Henry Beets.  Those words represent Beets’s summarized account of the founding of the CRC in 1857.  It is to Chapter 6 of his insightful work that we turn today.

There, in 1857, stood the little group of churches—four of them, in fact, with only two ministers.  In a few years there were only two churches and one minister.  It would take many years for the Christian Reformed Church to build enough of a presence even to form a denomination proper.  Along the way there were a host of impeding factors, some of which Beets comments on here.

Enough Dutch stereotypes have permeated our communications here in the URCNA that we probably fail to realize the significant cultural and psychological differences even between Dutchmen in those early days.  Beets points to three ethnic sub-groups in the first CRC congregations: “Friesians, Saxons, and Franks—considerably differentiated physically and psychologically.  As a result, the people of the provinces of the Netherlands differ among themselves as to several characteristics.  People speak of the Friesians as predominantly intellectual, of the Groningen folk (of Saxon origin) as practical, sober-minded, realistic; of the Drenths as conservative; of the Hollanders on the whole as phlegmatic, and of the Zeelanders as inclined to mysticism.”

Also, due to the history of the Secession in the Netherlands, the religious training the CRC’s early ministers had received varied considerably.  Many early leaders looked to one or another individual as their guide and role model, to the united churches’ detriment.  Theological understanding differed with regard to baptism, the covenant of grace, and “second holidays” (celebrating for two days Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost).  Beets says, “Add to this divergent opinion about fire and life insurance, vaccination, and, last but not least, the difference between ‘passive’ and ‘active’ attitudes as to religious life.  Closely related to this last fact was the distinction between experiential or subjective, and more doctrinal and objective preaching.  It took time to create at least something of an amalgamation of the aforementioned elements, forbearance in love on these issues, and of the presentation of a united front to move forward.”

What about education?  “The older element as a rule, strangers to the struggle for the Christian school in Holland, were quite content with public education here, since it had, as in the Netherlands of yore, at least a Christian veneer.  The element coming in later years clamored for a positively Christian school.  Time and again this led to alienation of affections and to occasional clashes.”  Varying political affiliations and ongoing financial struggles were two more causes of lamentable disunity.  Considering all of these factors, Beets comments:

In the face of all these things, it is amazing to find the small group, whose fortunes we describe here, able to keep up its own church establishment, to keep the banner they had raised floating in the breeze, to march ahead in several respects, and try to realize the early ideals.

The survival of the church is amazing, yes—but the work of our Lord is amazing too.

Gysbert HaanBeets moves on to describe some of the early leaders of the CRC who, at the risk of alienating themselves from their family and fellow churchmen, stood for the truth and upheld the orthodox Reformed faith.  Among these was elder Gysbert Haan of Grand Rapids.  “Slender, muscular, clean shaven, his hair whitened already early in life, with piercing eyes, with strong convictions and iron will power, an able debater, in calmness possessing his soul.  He was well posted on questions of church government and theology and was a born leader.”  Haan fought vigilantly against the advances of Arminianism as set forth in Baxter’s Call, a work that was strongly defended by two church leaders who later confessed that they had not even thoroughly read the book.  Beets praises him with all his faults as “one of our men of the hour.  There would, humanly speaking, have been no Return in 1857 to the standpoint left in 1849, without Gysbert Haan.”  Other important leaders included elders H. Dam and Y. Ulberg of Vriesland, J. Spykerman and P. Vanden Bosch of Noordeloos, J. F. Van Anrooy and A. Krabshuis of Graafschap, and A. Nysse of Grand Haven.

The young Christian Reformed Church was troubled both by ridicule and condemnation from the outside (even being termed “the vilest district of modern Babylon” by Rev. Scholte of Pella), and disagreements and quarreling from within.

At one time, 1863, in a moment of crisis, there was talk of discontinuance as a separate group.  Merging with Old School Presbyterians was proposed by one leader.  Then Johannes Groen of Vriesland was stirred up and delivered a speech that saved the day.

Through it all, however, the CRC survived, and grew, and thrived, as Beets emphasizes, “to the praise of God alone…The banner was not only kept aloft, but carried forward.”  By 1880 the denomination comprised four classes (Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Hudson), with a total of 12,001 souls.  Yes, though with a scornful wonder men saw her sore oppressed, the Christian Reformed Church was richly blessed by God even in those first hard twenty years.

Now, what of this narrative’s application to us today in the United Reformed Churches in North America?  The parallels are striking.  Both of our federations began as a relatively small group of churches seeking to remain faithful to God’s Word and the Reformed faith.  The CRC was 13 years old in 1880, the end of the period Beets describes here; our federation is about 17.

Many of the specific challenges we face have remained the same as well.  Although the URCNA has not made multi-ethnicity a hobby horse, as it has recently become in the CRC, one can still occasionally see misunderstandings and disagreements between our churches of Dutch origin and more recent congregations, much as Beets describes.  There also seems to be a certain tension between some of the seminaries that supply our ministers.  Our pastors, elders, and congregations have slightly different theologies and varying opinions even on the non-essentials, and worship practices (with psalm-singing high on the list) differ from church to church.  Taken together, these obstacles can sometimes seem insurmountable.  I’ll admit, lately I’ve experienced moments of despair about our weak collection of churches as well.

But there is an extremely important lesson to be learned from the story of the Christian Reformed Church’s founding, and woe to us if we ever forget it: The Lord builds his Church—not men, not consistories, not synods, not seminaries.  In fact, the Lord builds his Church using even foolish, quarrelsome, and sinful humans like us, for the glory of his Name.  Yes, the CRC has wandered far from its original foundation, and (much as it pains me to say it) perhaps the URCNA will have followed the same path by its 150th birthday.  But that eventual possibility must never distract us our immediate mission: to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, and remain steadfast on God’s Word.  And no matter what adversities come our way, we have these unshakable promises from the Lord to his Church:

Zion, on the holy hills,
God, thy Maker loves thee well;
All thy courts His presence fills,
He delights in thee to dwell.
Wondrous shall thy glory be,
City blest of God the Lord;
Nations shall be born in thee,
Unto life from death restored.

When the Lord the names shall write
Of thy sons, a countless throng,
God Most High will thee requite,
He Himself will make thee strong.
Then in song and joyful mirth
Shall thy ransomed sons agree,
Singing forth throughout the earth:
‘All my fountains are in thee.’


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