Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.

“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.” 

Church Order, Article 69.

Historical Background

The earliest Dutch Reformed synods addressed the matter of singing in the worship services. Already the synod of Wezel, 1568, decided:

As for singing in the church, the use of the Psalms as rendered by Peter Datheen shall be maintained in all the Dutch churches so that nothing less fitting and less edifying is introduced because of the variety of versions.

The synod of Dordrecht, 1574, reaffirmed the decision of Wezel. The Church Order of the synod of Dordrecht, 1578, included the following article:

The Psalms of David translated by Peter Datheen shall be sung in the Christian gatherings of the Netherlands churches as has been done until now, excluding the hymns which are not found in the Bible.

The synod of Middelburg, 1581, ruled that

Only the Psalms of David shall be sung in the churches, omitting the hymns which are not found in the Scriptures.

Article 69 of the Church Order of the synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19, read:

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 shall be sung. The song, “O God, Who Art Our Father,” is left to the discretion of the churches whether to use or omit it. All other hymns shall be banned from the churches, and where some have already been introduced, they shall by the most suitable means be excluded.

Article 69 was revised somewhat by the synod of Utrecht, 1905. The hymn “O God, Who Art Our Father” was referred to as the “Hymn of Prayer before the sermon,” and “the Morning and Evening Hymns” were added. Utrecht’s revision was essentially that adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914 and later by our Protestant Reformed Churches.

It ought to be plain that Article 69 concerns the singing at the official worship services of the congregation. The article is not prescribing what may and may not be sung at the Bible study societies, in the Christian schools, or in the homes of Reformed believers. The specific concern is with public worship.

Article 69 presupposes that the singing at the worship services of Reformed churches is to be congregational singing—the whole congregation, including the children and young people.

Lusty singing! From the heart!

In the beginning of their existence the Reformed churches opposed strenuously choirs and soloists in public worship. Instead they insisted on the privilege and duty of the congregation to sing. The congregation was not to be sung to, but to sing. At the time of the Reformation, congregational singing had fallen into decline. For the most part, polished and practiced choirs had replaced the singing of the gathered people of God. Credit is given to the well-known Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) for introducing this innovation. Calvin was outspoken in his denunciation of choirs and led the way for the restoration of congregational singing. It is a sad commentary on the state of Reformed worship today that in many Reformed churches choirs and soloists have again replaced congregational singing.

Psalm Singing

It is plain from Article 69, as well as from the decisions taken by the early Dutch Reformed synods, that the Reformed churches stood for exclusive psalmody. This is still today the position of the Protestant Reformed Churches. This is not merely our tradition; it is our conviction.

It is true that Article 69 refers to a few other songs besides the “150 Psalms of David” that may be sung in the worship services. Of these other songs, only the Lord’s Prayer and the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon are available in the present psalter used in the worship services of the Protestant Reformed Churches. The mention of these other songs that were in use in the churches at the time that the early church orders were written cannot be construed as a setting aside of the principle of exclusive psalmody. The rule in the churches is that the Psalms and only the Psalms are to be sung.

Psalm singing has a rich history in the Reformed churches. Already Calvin superintended the production of a psalter for the church of Geneva. At his request, a number of Psalms were versified by Clement Marot and Theodore Beza, and melodies were written by Louis Bourgeois and Maitre Pierre. Some of the work of these men survives in the psalters used in various Reformed and Presbyterian churches still today.

One of the earliest psalters used in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands was that produced by William of Nijevelt. In 1566 the Rev. Peter Datheen published his psalter. For many years Datheen’s psalter enjoyed great popularity with Dutch Reformed folk. In 1580 yet another psalter was published by a certain Marnix of St. Aldegonde. Although this new psalter became accepted in some of the churches of the Netherlands, it never supplanted the psalter of Datheen.

Although Article 69 does not specify the use of a certain psalter, the psalter used in the Protestant Reformed Churches is the 1914 edition of the United Presbyterian Psalter. This psalter was the work of an interdenominational committee that included members of various Presbyterian and Reformed denominations. Most denominations that at one time used the Psalter have since replaced it with more recently published song books. Besides the United Presbyterian Psalter, other English psalters have been produced and are being used for worship in other denominations, some of them of rather high quality. It cannot be denied that improvements could be made in our Psalter, both in regards to the lyrics and the melodies of certain numbers. Perhaps someday a committee of qualified persons could be appointed by the synod to propose a revision of the Psalter.

The Nagging Hymn Question

Although historically the Reformed churches have stood for the principle of exclusive psalmody, there have always been those who promoted the introduction of hymns into the worship of the church. Some of these have been more conservative, wanting only hymns that are versifications of definite portions of Scripture. Others have promoted the singing of hymns generally, irrespective of whether or not the hymn is a versification of a passage of Scripture.

Prior to the synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19, the Remonstrants advocated the introduction of hymns in the worship of the churches. Article 69 is very much a response to their efforts. In 1807 a committee introduced a collection of hymns into the worship of the state Reformed Church of the Netherlands. At first the singing of these hymns was optional; eventually it became mandatory. The leaders of the Secession of 1834 (the Afscheiding) objected to these hymns and restored psalm singing. The Christian Reformed Church synod of 1932 revised Article 69 to make room for the singing of hymns in that denomination. In the years 1959-1962, our own Protestant Reformed Churches considered an overture to revise Article 69 to allow for the singing of a select number of hymns. After a lengthy discussion in the churches, this proposal was defeated by the synod of 1962 (cf. Acts 1962, Article 188, p. 34).

Not only are there solid biblical arguments in favor of the use of the Psalms in the worship of the New Testament church, but the church today ought also to be mindful of the lessons of history.

Lesson #1. The introduction of hymns, many of which are doctrinally superficial or unsound, man-centered, and emotionally appealing has been an instrument of Satan to promote false teaching in the church.

Lesson #2. The introduction of a few hymns leads to many hymns, so many hymns that the Psalms invariably are shoved into the background.

This is not to say that there are not good hymns. There are. They may be sung. They may be sung in our homes, at programs, on our visits with each other, or while we are driving down the highway in our automobiles. But not in public worship. Here the will of God requires the singing of the Psalms.

In the interests of good singing in our worship services, the children of the church ought to be taught the songs in the Psalter. We ought to sing more than we do in our homes, perhaps making singing by the family a part of our regular family devotions. The Christian schools serve the churches well in this regard, making use of the Psalter in daily devotions, choirs, chapels, and programs. Pastors ought to have the children sing a number at the beginning of the catechism classes. In this way the good tradition of Psalm singing will continue to flourish in the churches.

Instrumental Accompaniment

Deliberately Article 69 neither requires nor forbids the use of instrumental accompaniment in congregational singing. The reason for this is that instrumental accompaniment is considered an incidental of worship and therefore a matter of liberty. It is well known that John Calvin, as well as other of the Reformers, opposed the use of instruments in worship. Some of the early Dutch Reformed synods spoke against the use of instruments. Nevertheless, this did not become the accepted position in the Dutch Reformed Churches, convinced as the churches were that the Scriptures permitted instruments as a matter of Christian liberty. Especially fond were the Dutch of the beautiful sounds of the organ. Singing in the Protestant Reformed Churches is generally accompanied by an organ or a piano.

A few arguments in favor of permitting the use of instrumental accompaniment in the singing of the Psalms may be advanced. First, the word “Psalm” itself refers to a musical instrument, a stringed instrument. Second, the Psalms themselves make repeated mention of the worship of God with instruments: Psalm 33:2; 57:8; 71:22; 81:2; 92:3; 108:2; 144:9; 150:3. Third, not only does Scripture refer to the worship of God by means of instruments in the Old Testament, but it also refers to instruments in connection with the worship of the redeemed church in glory, as Revelation 5:8; 14:2.

Most consistories have adopted guidelines concerning the music played during the worship services by organists. Some consistories require that only numbers from the Psalter be played before and after the worship service, as well as during the offertory. This belongs to the discretion of each consistory, taking into account always what best serves the edification of God’s people. Although not, strictly speaking, a part of the worship service, what is played by an organist prior to the start of the service and what is played as the congregation is exiting the sanctuary ought to be conducive to worship.

Singing—a necessary and delightful part of the public worship of the church.

Let it be done according to God’s will and for His glory!