Reserve regarding Treatment of the Regulative Principle

I have read with a great measure of reserve your assessment of the Psalm-hymn issue and the regulative principle in our churches (“Shall We Please God or [Certain Kinds of] People? or, the Regulative Principle of Worship,” Standard Bearer, Nov. 1, 2000). Your presentation, I’m afraid, raises more questions than answers and as I read through your article I keep seeing the title above your editorial “Shall we please God or certain kinds of people.” This should be foremost in our minds when we assess this issue. In reading your assessment, I find three basic considerations that are lacking which I consider vital in assessing this issue.

1.In treating the regulative principle in the Psalm-hymn issue should we not be dealing with it in its simple form as in our Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 35: “Worship God in any other way than He has commanded in His word”? Our church founders were well acquainted with this simple form. However, there is no evidence that they were acquainted with the Presbyterian-coined phrase, “regulative principle of worship,” nor were they acquainted with the negative aspect of it, that whatever is not commanded is forbidden.

2.In dealing with this Psalm-hymn issue as you did in this article, we are dealing with worshiping God in any other way than He has commanded in His Word. Is not what Scripture instructs in this regard of vital importance? Yet, I found it missing in your article. Our church founders and the ministers and the office of all believers in the first half of our church history fought the battle of the Psalm-hymn issue valiantly with a very, very strong handicap. They believed along with Rev. Hoeksema that Scripture instructed us to sing Psalms and good hymns and good spiritual songs. I quote from Rev. Hoeksema, SB article of 1928, “Admonition to the CRC.” Rev. Hoeksema states: “Why would not the church be allowed to sing other songs besides the Psalms? There is not a single proof to be found in God’s word for the thesis that hymns and spiritual songs would not be allowed in the worship service. Rather Scripture encourages the singing of such hymns. How beautifully does the apostle admonish the church of Ephesus—”But be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:18, 19).

During the synod of 1960 it was discovered that Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 were not admonishment to sing hymns and spiritual songs but rather meant just the opposite: it was an admonition to sing Psalms. This fact brings up a very interesting question. Halfway through our church history, when we found texts in Scripture to mean exactly the opposite from what we formerly believed, would it not be incumbent for every one of our ministers to expound the true meaning of those texts to the people periodically? I have never heard one sermon ever on either of those texts.

3.The third issue that is troubling to me is your evaluation “in homes, choral societies, and programs and also our schools, yes also in our schools we must not expect a blanket rejection of hymns.” You certainly take the opposite view than Rev. Ophoff held.

In 1928 there were four revealing essays in the Standard Bearer by four young men from the newly organized First Church. One young man had been a teacher in the Christian schools for eight years. He made it plain that all the Christian schools of that day were predominately using the Service Hymnal, all of those eight years. This was at a time when even the CRC was still a Psalm-singing church. It became apparent to Rev. Ophoff that it was in the homes and schools that the love of hymns was originating. It is in response to this that Rev. Ophoff, in seeing the fundamental connection between the church, the school, and the home said, “A better and safer way would be to cultivate such a love and esteem for the Psalms that the need for hymns can no longer be felt.”

In response to finding out the Christian schools’ use of the Service Hymnal, Rev. Ophoff sounds the warning that is just as appropriate now as it was 70 years ago. He states it this way: “I say again, the aforesaid condition only strengthens me in my conviction that our schools should eject all hymns and return to the Psalms, or versified scripture, and that our churches should permanently keep its doors closed to the hymns.” Now, should we have a blanket rejection of hymns? Would it be wrong to sing good hymns in our homes and schools? To answer the question the way you did, I believe was a wrong approach to the Psalm-hymn question. The proper approach it seems to me is to evaluate what Scripture instructs on Psalm-singing along with the example of the early apostolic church, also evaluating 2000 years of history in which we see the blessing of God upon Psalm-singing churches.

We now know, since the synod of 1960, that Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 were the Holy Spirit’s injunction to sing Psalms. The primitive New Testament church recognized this. They did not have for everyone a Psalm scroll in the pew of the church. They had to learn the Psalms by heart through responsive chanting in the church. The word of Christ (the Psalms) dwelt in them richly and by them they taught and admonished.

God put His stamp of approval on 2000 years of history by showing that:

1.Psalm-singing and pure preaching were so intimately connected that one did not last long without the other.

2.When the love of the Psalms was taught it was the testimony of the early church fathers that the Psalms were the center of their lives. The following are quotes from Modern History of Psalmody.

“In the ‘Apostolic Constitutions’ we learn what was the method and practice of those days. We learn that ‘the women, the children, and the humblest mechanics, could repeat all the Psalms of David; they chanted them at home and abroad; they made them exercises of their piety and the refreshment of their minds. Thus they had answers ready to oppose temptation, and were always prepared to pray to God and to praise him, in any circumstance, in a form of his own inditing.'”

“The testimony of Chrysostom is fully in point. ‘All Christians employ themselves in David’s Psalms more frequently than in any other part of the Old or New Testament. The grace of the Holy Ghost hath so ordered it that they should be recited and sung night and day. In the morning David’s Psalms are sought for, and David is the first the midst and the last. At funeral solemnities the first the midst and the last is David. Many who know not a letter can say David’s Psalms by heart. In private houses where the virgins spin—in the monasteries—in the deserts, where men converse with God, the first, the midst, and the last is David. In the night, when men are asleep, he wakes them up to sing, and collecting the servants of God into angelic troops, turns earth into heaven and of men makes angels, chanting David’s Psalms.’ And on Psalm 145, the illustrious father remarks: ‘This psalm deserves special attention, for it contains the words which are always sung by those admitted to communion, saying “All eyes wait upon thee, and thou givest them their meat in due time; for he who has been made a child, and partaker of the spiritual table, with propriety praises the Father.”‘ And by Cyril we are told that at the communion solemnity they sung together, in Psalm 34, ‘Come, taste, and see that the Lord is good.'”

“In the middle ages, the ages too of moral gloom and terrible superstition, the purest of the church of God was found in the valleys of Piedmont. Among the Waldenses were found the simplicity of the apostolic order, and the purity of evangelical worship. They sung, ‘mid Alpine cliffs’ the Psalms of Scripture. And long before the Reformation dawned on Europe, they sung them in metre. ‘The Albigenses, in 1210, were metre psalm-singers.’ The morning-star of the Reformation used them. Wickliff is blamed by some for singing metre psalms. John Huss, in the fifteenth, as Wickliff had done in the fourteenth century,sung the psalms in verse. These were not friends, either to Papal domination, or to Arian heresy.”

If we now take seriously the admonitions of Scripture and the lessons of history, it would seem to me our foremost duty is to learn by heart the Psalms and teach them to our children (in school?). If this was accomplished, there would be room for some good hymns; however, I believe if that was accomplished you would find no need for hymns. The Word of Christ (the Psalms) is sufficient for the refreshment of your mind, you will have a ready answer to oppose temptation, and you will always be prepared to pray to God and to praise Him in any circumstance, in a form of His own inditing.

—John VanBaren

Grandville, Michigan



Evidently, the above writer has no disagreement with the editorial he refers to, as first I thought he did.

The editorial demonstrated that the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC), like the Dutch Reformed tradition generally since Dordt, are committed to the singing of Psalms at worship, virtually exclusively. The reason, however, is not that the regulative principle requires exclusive Psalmody. The writer does not take issue with this.

The editorial denied that the position of the PRC regarding the singing of the Psalms at worship implies the exclusion of sound hymns from the rest of the life of the members of the churches, particularly the Christian schools. In this connection, I affirmed that the Psalms should have pride of place. The writer quotes Prof. G.M. Ophoff, who explicitly approved of singing “versified Scripture” (hymns) in the schools, as well as the Psalms. And the writer himself, in the end, finds “room for some good hymns” in the schools, although questioning the need.

— Ed.