Posts Tagged 'URCNA'



“Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal”

I suppose making a blog post on April Fools’ Day might be a somewhat unwise decision. Maybe you opened this post expecting a satire piece about Crown & Covenant’s recent release of The Book of Psalms for Worship, Hip-Hop Edition, or about the recent finding that John Calvin’s personal copy of the Genevan Psalter had “The Heart of Worship” pasted inside the back cover.

Alas, I bring you neither of those things today; the article I’m sharing today is a genuine one. It’s my most recent contribution to The Outlook magazine, entitled “Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal.” In it I argue that the URCNA needs to adopt a federational songbook, even if there are still many things about the new book that don’t line up with the personal preferences of myself or others. The article has generated a lot of feedback via email and Facebook, so I thought I would invite you to join the conversation here as well, especially as Synod 2016 and the prospect of a final vote draw near. I’m happy to hear opposing points of view and interact with fellow URCNA members who have given significant thought to this issue.

These two paragraphs pretty much summarize my opinion as regards the new book:

‘Have it your way’ may be the (former) motto of Burger King and the rest of our culture, but it is not—and must not be—the motto of the church. More and more the culture rejects the idea of a common sphere that requires the sacrifice of personal preference. In so doing it creates a world where common causes are impossible.

In direct defiance to this worldview, the church exists as a community of believers united in Christ—believers who deny themselves and look to the interests of others for the sake of the kingdom of Jesus. A Psalter Hymnal is tangible proof that we love each other enough to come to a common agreement about what music glorifies God most and serves the church best, even at the cost of our personal favorites. That is how I can say that I wholeheartedly support this project whether or not I like every song it contains.

That’s all for now!

–MRK

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“Trinity Psalter Hymnal” Editors Appointed

Hymnological MathAs Danny Olinger reports in the latest issue of New Horizons, Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen (URCNA) and Rev. Dr. Alan Strange (OPC) have transitioned from being chairmen of their respective denominations’ Psalter Hymnal committees to the official co-editors of the new proposed “Trinity Psalter Hymnal.” This news serves as a welcome–but still jarring–reminder that the final vote to approve our denominations’ new songbook will occur within the next year (June 2016), and if approved it may be in production in a year and a half!

I’m beyond excited that we have this opportunity to work together as sister churches on such a worthwhile project, and that it is so close to completion. I do have two questions that keep popping up in my mind, though–whether due to my perspective as a URCNA member rather than an OPC member, or just because I’m a (20-year-old) fuddy-duddy. Neither one is earth-shattering. Neither one makes me want to pull the plug on this excellent project. But I still feel the need to raise them here, if only to start a conversation about them.

Okay, the first one is really pretty insignificant. It’s about the proposed title of the new book: Trinity Psalter Hymnal. I have to say, I’m just not won over.

I get it, I get it. Both of our denominations have longstanding relationships with our previous songbooks–the OPC since 1961 (Trinity Hymnal) and the URCNA/CRC since 1934 (Psalter Hymnal). The new compilation contains a significant amount of material from both–so why not combine the names? Also, the word “Trinity” reminds us that when we sing psalms and hymns, we sing them as Trinitarians. The psalms are sung to the Father, about (and by) the Son, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is good.

At the same time, we have never felt the need to refer to the Book of Psalms in our Bibles as the “Trinity Book of Psalms,” any more than we would refer to Acts as the “Trinity Book of Acts.” It simply goes without saying that the Psalms are Trinitarian. Plus, between the awkward acronym “TPH” and the near-certainty that pastors in both churches will be messing up the title from the pulpit for at least the next five years, I just can’t see a need for this cumbersome appellation. Maybe it’s just my Dutch tendency to want to call it what it is–a Psalter Hymnal. I’m happy to hear explanations and thoughts from my brothers and sisters on the OPC side of the aisle.

My second concern has to do with the comparative sizes of the psalter and hymnal sections. As of the last count, the psalter contains 279 selections and the hymnal contains 428. With almost two hymns per psalm setting, the new songbook has the potential to give the priority to hymn-singing, detracting from the official position (at least in the URCNA) that psalms are to have the principal place in worship.

I’m not as concerned about this trend as I could be. First, I understand that the OPC comes from a rather hymn-biased worship tradition in producing this book, and that the decision to include all 150 psalms is already a significant change for them. I respect the fact that this transition will take time. Second, even many URCNA churches use supplemental hymnals which push our own hymn-to-psalm ratio far past half-and-half. For that matter, many URC’s use the current Trinity Hymnal themselves!

Nevertheless, if this project is ultimately to serve the church of Christ, we need to see a conscious effort made (from the pew-backs or the pulpit) to re-emphasize our biblical and denominational commitment to the preponderance of psalm-singing. Knowing the two godly men who have assumed the responsibility of editing this book, I hope and pray this will become a reality.

–MRK

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 6)

The Big Three (Psalter Hymnals)It’s long past time to wrap up URC Psalmody’s summer series. I head back to Geneva College in a week, and what I imagined as two or three blog posts has grown into a lengthy and multi-faceted series. That’s typical fare for this blog—so today, let me try to provide some concise closing thoughts.

We began by asking this question: Why do we sing out of a Psalter Hymnal? More particularly, why do we sing both psalms and hymns in worship, yet still insist on distinguishing between the two?

To help answer this question historically, I dug up several applicable documents from the early history of the Christian Reformed Church: overtures from different classes in 1928 (here and here) regarding the question of hymn-singing, the “Report on the Hymn Question” from 1930, the Foreword to the first Psalter Hymnal in 1934, and a few other sources. I found plenty of arguments for and against hymn-singing in worship (along with a fair share of weird Dutch expressions). What I didn’t find was a substantial argument on Biblical and historical grounds to justify the introduction of hymns—especially in a denomination that had gotten along fine without them since the Reformation 300 years earlier. I read plenty of reasons why hymns might be permissible in worship, but not much (other than repeated appeals to “New Testament light”) as to why they were needed.

In fact, even the optimistic Psalter Hymnal Committee of 1930 acknowledged some significant dangers with the introduction of hymn-singing. One of them was that the psalms would cease to be sung in worship. Wary of this possibility, the Committee proposed the following principle:

Whereas the Psalms in the Old Testament were purposely given for Public Worship (cf. for instance Ps. 51:1; 52:1; 53:1; etc.) and were used accordingly, and whereas they do not belong to the things set aside by the New Testament, but, to the contrary, their Divine authority and lasting worth is pronouncedly acknowledged in the New Testament (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33,35), it must be considered, acknowledged, and maintained by us as a principle founded on the Word of God, that Psalm-singing must always remain an element in our Public Worship.…[A] service without the singing of Psalms would be conflicting with the will of God as revealed in His Word. (pp. 21,22)

Yet after this well-placed word of caution, the committee rushes to add, “Nor does it follow that because of said danger the use of New Testament Church songs must be considered out of the question.” Just because they can be abused doesn’t mean they can’t be used properly, they suggest. Besides, they claim, the “urgent demand” for hymns in Reformed churches cannot be brushed aside as “disloyalty, spiritual weakening, and retrogression.” Once again they call attention to supposed insufficiencies in the psalms: that they speak only “in the Old Testament language of hopefully expectant prophecy, not in the New Testament language of jubilant fulfilment.” And here’s the real whopper: they turn the discussion about hymn-singing on its head by suggesting that an exclusively psalm-singing church is “guilty of neglect in properly caring for Public Worship and for the perfection of the saints, and of slighting a precious gift of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, a psalm-singing church harms its members by not allowing the singing of hymns. That’s a bold claim!

In summary, the committee asked the Synod of 1930 to (1) continue the preparation of a collection of English hymns; and (2) to (attempt to) prevent psalm-singing from fading away by revising the Church Order and setting limits in place on how many hymns could be sung in a worship service. Synod more or less agreed, and the Psalter Hymnal project moved forward. That’s most of the story; for the rest of it, you can refer back to the first Psalter Hymnal’s Foreword.

Got it? Does this synopsis give you an historical glimpse into the reason for the unusual wording in the URCNA’s Church Order—that the psalms “have the principal place,” but hymns “may be sung”? The relationship between psalms and hymns in North American Reformed worship is a long and complicated one. Partly it was a Dutch vs. English and European vs. American issue. Partly it was a Reformed vs. broader evangelical issue. Mostly it was an issue of biblical interpretation. And just because the CRC’s synod officially “settled” the question doesn’t mean it really went away.

Eighty years ago, hymns entered the worship of a denomination that was still deeply divided over the question. That’s the heritage that’s been handed down to us in the URCNA.

I can’t end without noting one additional twist, however. While the 1932 Church Order clearly stated that “the singing of the Psalms in divine worship is a requirement,” the CRC later revised their Church Order to merely state, “The consistory shall see to it that the synodically-approved Bible versions, liturgical forms, and songs are used” (Revised Church Order, 1959, Article 52b). All reference to the primacy of the Psalter was gone! With that revision in mind, it’s important—and encouraging—to note that the URCNA’s Church Order is actually a step back in the direction of principial psalm-singing.

How will the URCNA’s worship change as the years go on? Will our new Psalter Hymnal prove to strengthen our commitment to psalm-singing or dampen it? For the answer to these questions we’ll have to wait on God, pray fervently, and work for the good of the Church. May our worship be pleasing and acceptable in his sight.

–MRK

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 4)

Hymnal Line-Up

Last week’s discussion of the creation of the CRC’s first Psalter Hymnal brought us to the Synod of 1928, the meeting at which the question of singing hymns in worship came to a head.

In Dutch Reformed church government, items before the synod must first go through an “advisory” or “pre-advisory” committee which examines each communication and formulates a concise recommendation based on it. All of the overtures related to hymn-singing, including the one in favor from Classis Grand Rapids East and the one against from Classis Zeeland, were assigned to the Committee for Preadvice on Liturgical Matters. This committee brought to the synod a recommendation to adopt the overture of Classis Grand Rapids East in its entirety, change the Church Order, and appoint a committee to prepare a suitable set of hymns.

This was a significant step. In effect, the pre-advisory committee was urging synod to unequivocally and immediately declare that hymns could be sung in worship. Their recommendation had an air of haste about it, too: “Our people are using hymns. Our churches in some localities sing hymns in song services held immediately before the public worship. The demand for hymns has gained great momentum. Your Committee feels that Synod should exercise a guiding hand before this demand can no longer be controlled.”

Also, the committee commented, “The Synod no longer needs to appoint a committee for study, but can enter upon the matter at once” by simply adopting the Grand Rapids East overture—yes, that’s right, the same overture whose reasoning made me so uneasy back here. Anticipating opposition, they responded point-by-point (though not very thoroughly) to Classis Zeeland’s objections.

What came next was “a lengthy discussion of this matter” on the floor of synod, which hasn’t been preserved for us in the minutes. In the end, the committee’s motion was replaced with a substitute motion that took things a little more slowly, but still declared unequivocally that hymns were acceptable for worship:

Although the Synod does, from the point of view of principle, not object to the introduction of hymns into our public worship, nevertheless the Synod, because of objections which are of a practical or of a historical nature, and which have been expressed on the floor of Synod, decides:

(1) To appoint a Committee which shall: (a) Study this matter thoroughly from every point of view; and (b) Investigate whether or not a sufficient number of hymns suitable for our public worship is obtainable.

(2) To further instruct this Committee that should a sufficient number of suitable hymns be found, the Committee shall not only submit the same to the Synod of 1930, but shall also publish its report six months in advance of that Synod, together with the text of the hymns which the Committee deems suitable.

–Acts of Synod 1928, Article 57, pp. 46-48 (available here)

Again, we don’t know exactly where individual Christian Reformed congregations stood on the question of hymn-singing or what debates took place on the floor of Synod. But to me it still seems like a strange decision to immediately affirm the suitability of hymns for worship, yet appoint a committee to “study this matter thoroughly from every point of view” anyway, and in such a short timeframe. It’s taken the URC more than fifteen years to finish compiling a Psalter Hymnal (under different circumstances, to be sure), but the CRC expected their committee to gather a hymn section from scratch in a year and a half. Such a rush doesn’t seem to do justice to the weightiness of the question under consideration.

Nevertheless, the “Committee on the Question of Hymn Singing” accomplished its task honorably, and reported to the Synod of 1930 with a hefty 133-page booklet containing (a) a response to the arguments made at Synod 1928 and an argument for the practice of hymn-singing; (b) the texts of 197 hymns; and (c) a list of revisions made to the hymns for doctrinal or poetical reasons. That booklet is available from Calvin’s Hekman Library here.

Before we delve too far into the “Report on the Hymn Question,” however, there’s one argument that pops up repeatedly in the overture from Grand Rapids East, the decision of the Synod of 1928, and the opening remarks of the Hymn Committee. It’s an historical argument, and it runs like this: The Reformed churches could have never opposed hymns in worship on principle, since the Dutch Psalter always contained a small section of hymns (“Eenige Gezangen”) since the 1500’s. The “Eenige Gezangen” are mentioned at least nine times in the “Report on the Hymn Question.” What were these songs? Were they the same as our definition of “hymns”? How were they used in worship? Stay tuned for next week’s installment.

–MRK

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


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