Posts Tagged 'History'



Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 3)

Here on URC Psalmody we’ve been spending some time considering why and how the first Psalter Hymnal came into existence more than 80 years ago. As we’ve already seen, the first impetus for the project came from several overtures on the question of hymn-singing to Synod 1928 of the Christian Reformed Church. If Classis Grand Rapids East was the primary voice arguing for hymns, Classis Zeeland was the strongest in arguing against them. You can read the entire overture here; it’s the eighth in the list. (I’ve provided a rough translation I worked out with the help of Google Translate, but if any Dutch-speaking readers would care to submit a better version, I’d be very appreciative!)

Classis Zeeland urged synod to declare uit dat het niet wenschelijk is gezangen in onzen openbaren eeredienst in te voeren—more or less, “that it is advisable not to introduce hymns into our public worship.” When I first read this, I expected them to back up their position with some of the standard exclusive-psalmody arguments against hymns: that they are not commanded in Scripture, that they are unnecessary additions to worship, etc. But whether or not they would agree with these points, Classis Zeeland left them out, giving six other grounds for their position.

  1. Historically, the introduction of hymns tends to crowd out or even exclude the psalms from worship. Both “cold facts” and personal experience back this statement up. Where hymns are used, the frequency and vibrancy of psalm-singing often fades. Eventually, the psalms become a lonely minority amidst a broad collection of music. Even for us in the URCNA, isn’t it often true that the last third of the blue Psalter Hymnal contains the songs we know the best?
  2. Hymns speak about the life of God’s people, but the psalms speak out of the spiritual life. I think this point is clearer in Dutch, having something do with the difference between the prepositions over and uit. The classis could be talking about the fact that psalms are divinely inspired, i.e. they speak “out of the Spirit’s life,” or they might be emphasizing that the psalms are suitable for every experience of the human “spiritual life.” In any case, the point is that the faith expressed in many hymns is shallow and sentimental compared to the all-encompassing range of the psalms.
  3. Even though metrical versions of the psalms are not themselves inspired, they are still based on the inspired Word of God in a way that hymns are not. Technically, metrical versions of the psalms are no more divinely inspired than hymns. However, rhymed versions of psalm texts are still rooted in and guarded by the inspired Word of God, while with hymns, “Anything goes!” Psalm-singing helps to safeguard our worship against unbiblical teachings and themes.
  4. Many English hymns are “leavened with Arminianism” (doorzuurd met het Arminianisme). Hymns have an incredible power to spread false doctrine. To be sure, many uninspired songs are thoroughly Biblical, even staunchly Reformed, and some of the best have made it into our current Psalter Hymnal. But even in the beloved blue book, there are songs I cringe to sing. On the other hand, it’s very hard to imagine an “Arminian psalm setting,” as long as the translation and versification have been done faithfully.
  5. If the current metrical psalter fails to shed enough New Testament light on the Psalms, the remedy is not hymn-singing but better versification. Now, the classis could mean one of two things here: that the psalms should be “recast” in New Testament language (à la Isaac Watts), or that faithful translations of the psalms will automatically allow New Testament light to fall on them. For my part, I think the second of these possibilities better honors the Word of God and edifies the church. While the psalms need to be explained and connected to Christian living today—and there are many opportunities for this during the worship service—I don’t believe we can only sing psalms after they’ve been “translated” into “New Testament language.” It is the same voice of the same God speaking to us.
  6. The introduction of hymn-singing would cause unrest in the churches. To be fair, there would continue to be unrest in the CRC on this issue whether or not hymn-singing was approved. But Classis Zeeland seems to have in mind the principle the apostle Paul emphasized to the Corinthians: Even if all things are lawful for the Christian, “not all things are helpful” (I Cor. 6:12). To suddenly change a significant element of the worship service—and one that had remained basically unchanged for more than three centuries prior—would necessarily cause turmoil and upheaval in the church.

How does Classis Zeeland’s overture apply to the church today? In the URCNA and the OPC, our position is significantly different than the CRC’s in 1928. Hymn-singing is a longstanding practice in our churches. The question the new Psalter Hymnal will force us to consider is not whether to sing hymns, but how to define the ongoing relationship between psalms and hymns in our worship.

At the same time, though, several of Classis Zeeland’s warnings still apply very much today: the crowding out of psalm-singing, the stunting of Christians’ spiritual expression, and the spreading of false doctrine. Thankfully, there’s a simple answer we can apply right here and right now: Sing more psalms. This is the most effective way to guard against the dangers mentioned above—and along the way, our spiritual lives, both as individuals and as a church, will be strengthened.

–MRK

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.

–MRK

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.

–MRK

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.

–MRK

A Look at Liturgy: Definitions

College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church

College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church before an evening worship service

Attending a college located almost 300 miles from the nearest United Reformed congregation has allowed me to acquire the hint of an outsider’s view of how our churches worship.  Sometimes I’m able to stop by one of the URC’s in Pennsylvania or New Jersey on the way to or from Geneva, but for most of the school year I attend worship at the College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church on campus.  For someone relatively oblivious of worship practices outside our own federation, this sojourn has proved to be eye-opening.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) is closely related to the URCNA in background and theology, and its worship services exhibit the same basic structure and sequence: praise, confession, prayer, and preaching.  However, some of the particulars at College Hill are noticeably different.  Psalms are sung exclusively, instruments are not used, the service does not open with the familiar line “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth,” and the Ten Commandments are not regularly read.

It may seem like an obvious question, but why do different churches worship in different ways?  Which differences really “matter”?  Which distinctions are merely a product of history and tradition (such as the unique Dutch Reformed votum “Our help is in the name of the Lord”), and which arise from convictions about the nature of worship (such as the Reformed Presbyterians’ exclusive psalmody)?  Specific to the United Reformed Churches in North America, why do we worship as we do?  Are there areas in which we should improve our liturgy, and if so, how?

In the next few blog posts I’d like to explore some of these questions along with you.  It’s a study that will require delving into theology, ecclesiology, and history.  If you’re interested, I ask that you bear with my limited knowledge on this subject—I’m just beginning to seriously investigate it myself—and feel free to contribute your own thoughts.

The Psalter Hymnal SupplementAs a relatively simple introduction to the history of worship in the Dutch Reformed tradition, I’ll be referring often to material from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement published by the Christian Reformed Church in 1974.  The Psalter Hymnal Supplement contains a set of sixty-three songs commissioned by the CRC to “supplement” the contents of the blue (1959) Psalter Hymnal.  In addition, it includes the provisional translation of the Heidelberg Catechism that would later appear in the 1976 reprint of the Psalter Hymnal, and—most pertinent to our discussions—the report of the CRC’s Liturgical Committee to the synod of 1968.  While the Psalter Hymnal Supplement’s ideology of worship may raise some questions, and although it has ceased to be of much practical use to our churches (I dug this copy out from a musty corner of my church’s library), it continues to hold significant value for its historical insight.

Before such a discussion can even begin, we need to define our terms.  What is “liturgy”?  What, for that matter, is “worship”?  As the Liturgical Committee describes it, liturgy is “those acts done by the church in its solemn assembly with God” (Supplement p. 69).  Worship, though it can be applied in some sense to every waking moment of the Christian’s life, refers specifically to “a meeting between a Person and persons” (p. 74), that is, God’s meeting with his covenant people.  In other words, liturgy is the sequence of events that take place in our churches’ services; worship is the dialogue we are there to partake in.

Moreover, before any historical or practical arguments for particular worship practices can be made, we must emphasize two principles foundational to any faithful discussion of liturgy: the regulative principle of worship and the dialogical nature of worship.  The regulative principle of worship, a key tenet of the Protestant Reformation, is expressed succinctly in the Heidelberg Catechism’s treatment of the second commandment: we are not to “worship [God] in any other way than he has commanded in his Word” (Lord’s Day 35, Q&A 96).  (Presbyterian friends, see Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter XXI, Article 1.)  The dialogical nature of worship refers to the pattern of worship exemplified throughout Scripture: God speaks, and his people respond.

These two principles set limits on what can and cannot be incorporated into the church’s worship practices.  We live in a culture which prizes above all things freshness and novelty, and our own sinful hearts, “idol factories” as Calvin so aptly described them, love to devise not only wrong things to worship but wrong ways to worship.  The Catechism leaves us without excuse: in worship, as in all things, “we shouldn’t try to be wiser than God” (Q&A 98).

For DiscussionHaving laid this groundwork, we can go on to discuss the particulars of the Dutch Reformed tradition of worship in our next post.  For now, what is your church’s typical order of worship?  How are the various elements rooted in Scripture, and how do they represent an ongoing conversation between the Lord and his worshipers?

May the Lord guide us into the right actions and attitudes for worshiping him.

–MRK


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