I have read your editorial, “Shall We Please God or (Certain Kinds of) People?—or, the Regulative Principle of Worship (4)” (Standard Bearer, Vol. 77, No. 3, November 1, 2000). If I am not mistaken, the general thrust of your editorial seems to be that the Second Commandment (i.e., The Regulative Principle of Worship) does not require that the church sing the Psalms of the Old Testament exclusively in her worship. However, even though the Second Commandment does not require exclusive Psalmody, the Synod of Dordt, the Protestant Reformed Churches, and all who truly stand in the tradition of the Dutch Reformed Churches sing Psalms almost exclusively for other reasons.
When you gave the basis for these assertions, there didn’t seem to be much support given from Scripture or our major Confessions. The basis for your reasoning seemed to be opinion, tradition, or the popularity of certain ideas with the people. You only reference Scripture twice in your entire article, and that is near the end, where you site Colossians 2:23 and the Second Commandment in demonstrating the importance and seriousness of the Regulative Principle. When you state that the Regulative Principle does not require exclusive Psalmody, you base this claim not on proof from Scripture or our Confessions but on the fact that Article 69 of the church order, as drafted by the Synod of Dordt and maintained by us, does not require this.
Now, it is my understanding that the concept of “The Regulative Principle” is taught by our Confessions. Therefore, how our Creeds instruct us concerning the proper worship of God is of vital importance to this decision. We read in Lord’s Day 35 of the Heidelberg Catechism as follows:
Question 96. What doth God require in the second commandment?
Answer. That we in no wise a represent God by images, nor worship b him in any other way than he has commanded in his word.
a. Deut. 4:15; Isa. 40:18;Rom. 1:23; Acts 17:29
b. I Sam. 15:23; Deut. 12:30
In the Belgic Confession, Article 7, and Article 32, we read:
Article 7: The Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures, to be the Only Rule of Faith.
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe, unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein. For, since the whole manner of worship, which God requires of us, is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul saith. Gal. 1:8. For, since it is forbidden, to add unto or take away anything from the word of God. Deut. 12:32; Rev. 22:18, 19, it doth thereby evidently appear, that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects….
Article 32: Of the Order and Discipline of the Church.
In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial, that those, who are rulers of the Church, institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church; yet they ought studiously to take care, that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, hath instituted. And therefore, we reject all human inventions, and all laws, which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever….
Based on these articles from our Creeds, it is my understanding that from a positive point of view we are taught: We must worship God only in the way that He has commanded in His Word. And negatively we are taught: If God has not specifically commanded a certain element of worship, then it is forbidden. This view is significantly different from that of the Lutherans who say, “If God has not specifically forbidden an element of worship it is lawful for the church to incorporate that element as she sees fit.”
When explaining why Dordt drafted Article 69 of the Church Order the way they did you say, “…Dordt permitted (emphasis mine—DJ) a few, specified hymns. The reason why Dordt mentioned these hymns was that they were part of the songbook in use at the time and were popular with the people (emphasis mine—DJ). Nevertheless, Dordt could permit them, as a synod holding that exclusive Psalmody is a requirement of the regulative principle could not have done.”
I must ask, what is the scriptural basis that Dordt, and we, use to support the idea that the Regulative Principle does not require exclusive Psalmody? If Dordt did not believe that the Regulative Principle requires exclusive Psalmody, and we believe that they were correct, then there must be a reason from scripture that we can give to establish our position. You state specifically that “The reason why” Dordt allowed the few hymns in our Church Order was because of tradition and popular opinion. Were they not then pleasing people instead of God? We must be reminded again, if God has not specifically commanded a particular element of our worship, it is forbidden. Whether or not we like particular songs, or think there is anything wrong with them or not is completely irrelevant.
In the Standard Bearer, Vol. 68, No. 18, July 1, 1992, you responded to a letter about the Regulative Principle with these comments: “The mention of a few hymns in Article 69 of the church order of Dordt was a concession to a difficult situation (emphasis mine—DJ) then obtaining in the Dutch Reformed churches (cf. VanDellen and Monsma, the Church Order Commentary, Zondervan, 1954, pp. 282, 283). The spirit and intent of the Article, however, are that only the Psalms be sung in the public worship of the Reformed churches.” Similarly, in the article “Music in the Church” in the Standard Bearer, Vol. 71, No. 15, May 1, 1995 you speak of the contents of Article 69 of the Church Order this way, “The exceptions to the Psalms mentioned in Article 69 (some of which are quite unknown to most of us) find their place there through curious, historical circumstances: the popular Dutch songbook of the time of the Synod of Dordt contained also these hymns; rather than to disturb the people, Dordt made allowance for these hymns (emphasis mine—DJ). But the spirit and principle of Article 69 is: ‘In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung. Period!'”
If Dordt did not believe that the Regulative Principle requires exclusive Psalmody, and we agree, then it seems rather odd to me to speak of the hymns included in Article 69 as “concessions” or “exceptions that originated out of curious historical circumstances,” or even to say that they “permitted” or “allowed” them. Concessions or exceptions to what, the correct position? We do not “permit” what God has commanded. We require it. Twice you mention that the spirit and intent (or principle) of Article 69 is that, “In the church only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung. Period!” Why would we say such a thing if we believe along with Dordt that Article 69 reflects the command of God found in Scripture? If this is really what we believe, then we must say that the spirit and intent of the Article is exactly what it says. Period! If Dordt made “concessions” to please people rather than basing the contents of Article 69 on Scripture alone, then I question our continued persistence in defending its few exceptions to the Psalms.
Article 7 of the Belgic Confession tells us that all human writings must be held up to the light of Scripture and we may not look to tradition or popularity, etc. as our guide. I quote:
Article 7: The Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures, to be the Only Rule of Faith.
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe, unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein. For, since the whole manner of worship, which God requires of us, is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul saith. Gal. 1:8
For, since it is forbidden, to add unto or take away anything from the word of God. Deut. 12:32; Rev. 22:18, 19, it doth thereby evidently appear, that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, for the truth is above all (emphasis mine—DJ); for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore, we reject with all our hearts, whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule, which the apostles have taught us, saying, Try the spirits whether they are of God. I John 4:1. Likewise, if there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house (II John, 10).
The view in the early part of our history was significantly different than the one you present in your article. I quote from the article, “Hymn Singing in Public Worship,” by Rev. P. Vis (Standard Bearer, Vol. 20):
Scripture nowhere demands of us that in our singing we confine ourselves to the Psalms nor does it forbid us to sing hymns. Rather it does the very opposite. For we read in Ephesians 5:19, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” And again in Colossians 3:16, “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” From these verses it is evident that rather than to limit us in our singing to the Psalms God even encourages us to sing hymns in addition to these. This was also seen and understood by the Church in the past. Therefore it allowed the Song of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer to be sung in Divine worship and gave them a place in the Psalm book and Psalter. Hence the question is not at all whether we may sing hymns. Scripture plainly teaches us that we may and this the Church has always realized.
Here, Rev. Vis defends the content of Article 69 based on what he, and all the ministers in the PRC at the time, believed to be the correct interpretation of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. My point here is that he bases his position on Scripture, though erroneously. Apparently, through the study of this topic in the 1960s (see Supplement 24, from the Committee Re Changing Article 69, of the “Acts of Synod,” June 1, 1960), the PRC became aware that rather than promoting the use of Psalms and “other songs,” these passages refer specifically to the categories of the Psalms in the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament. In the Septuagint, the Psalms of the Old Testament are classified as Psalms, Hymns, and Songs. This is exactly what Paul was referring to in these two passages, and this is exactly what the Colossians and Ephesians would have understood him to be referring to.
There are two sermons preached by our ministers which demonstrate, both from the Old and New Testament Scriptures, that God does require the church to sing only the Psalms, and they give the correct interpretations of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 (1. “Our Calling to Sing Psalms,” preached by Reverend Steven R. Key, is taken from Psalm 105:2, Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19, and I Chronicles 16:9. 2. “God’s Calling to Sing,” preached by Reverend Barry Gritters, is taken from Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16). These sermons are available on the Internet in Real Audio format at the Fayetteville Reformed Fellowship’s web site. The web address is http://www.rsglh.org/exclusive_psalmody_realaudio_sermons.htm.
There have also been articles in the Standard Bearer from our more recent history (e.g., “The Hymn Matter Continued,” by Rev. G. VandenBerg, Vol. 38, No. 15, May 1, 1962; “The Songs of Zion: What Shall the Church Sing,” by Professor Herman Hanko, Vol. 74, No. 8, January 15, 1998; and “Music in the Church,” by Professor David J. Engelsma, Vol. 71, No. 15, May 1, 1995), and a pamphlet (“Psalm Singing: A Reformed Heritage,” by Reverend Jason Kortering) that give correct interpretation to Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. Also, issue number 26 of the British Reformed Journal, April-June 1999, published by the British Reformed Fellowship in Northern Ireland, was dedicated to exploring the subject of exclusive Psalmody. It contains several articles in which detailed and sound exegesis of key passages of Scripture show clearly that God commands His church to sing the Psalms exclusively in her worship. This is only a small list of resources that offer a sound scriptural basis for exclusive Psalmody. There are many more.
If you take away Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 as proof for the idea that God commands His church to sing the Psalms and “other songs,” then you have completely run out of any credible support from Scripture for this position. And again, the Reformed believer must be reminded that our Confessions teach us that we must worship God only in the way that He has commanded in His Word. And negatively we are taught: If God has not specifically commanded a certain element of worship, then it is forbidden.
There are other passages in the New Testament that also support the assertion that the Second Commandment requires the church to sing only the Psalms. In James 5:13 we read, “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.” Let us also consider the last Passover attended by our Lord Jesus as found in Matthew 26:18-20 and Mark 14:13-26. At this Passover wesee the beautiful transition from the old dispensation of types and shadows to the new. We see that Christ ate the Passover with His disciples in keeping with the Law of Moses and then He Himself institutes the Lord’s Supper. The old is fulfilled in Christ and gives way to the new as instituted by Christ. Consider that the church only recognizes the Lord’s Supper as an official Sacrament and proper element of worship because the clear command of God is found in Scripture to do so.
Notice, however, that although the old falls away, we read in verse 30 of Matthew 26 and verse 26 of Mark 14, “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.” Now, it is our position that what Jesus and His disciples sang was the Great Hallel (i.e., Psalms 113-118; I make this assertion based on information found in the sermons, Standard Bearer articles, pamphlet, and British Reformed Journal articles cited above). If you will notice, they sang after the Passover and after Christ had instituted the Lord’s Supper. Notice too, that although the Passover falls away and is replaced by the New Testament sacrament, Christ sings the Psalms. Christ could have instituted a new way for the church to worship in song, and would have if that were now God’s requirement for the new dispensation. He could have given to the apostles the command and ability to compose a new songbook for the church. Instead, He reaffirms God’s command to sing the Psalms in worship by leading His disciples in doing just that.
There is another point I need to make. In your article you cite several reasons, other than the Second Commandment, why we sing the Psalms almost exclusively, even though God, so it is said, does not require this of us. I quote from the article:
According to H. Bouwman, the grounds of the Dutch Reformed churches for singing the Psalms in worship are these:
1) God has given the church one collection of Psalms for singing, but no collection of hymns.
2) The Psalms far surpass the hymns in spiritual depth; also, the Psalms express the abiding truth of God of all ages, whereas hymns have a temporary character.
3) The use of hymns invariably crowds the Psalms out of the worship altogether.
4) To these should be added a healthy fear that the introduction of hymns will lead to the introduction of Arminian hymns.
First, I would say that reason number one appears to me to be a point that can and should be made to support the assertion that the Second Commandment requires exclusive Psalmody. God’s command is implied in the fact that He gave us a songbook. If He intended or desired the church to sing other things there would be no songbook or at least clear (very clear) direction in Scripture to sing the Psalms and “other songs.” Where is this clear command to sing other things found?
The third and fourth reasons given above are very true. History shows that, without exception, the inclusion of hymns in the worship has resulted in the loss of the Psalms, and that the precious doctrine of sovereign and particular grace gives way to Arminianism. This has taken place rather quickly in some cases and over a great deal of time in others, but the end result is always the same. The reason for this can be seen in the promise that accompanies the second commandment. In Exodus 20:5, 6 we read, “… for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.” God is jealous of His glory, and when we worship Him in ways that He has not commanded in His word we assault that glory. When churches offer up strange fire on the altar of Jehovah, the Second Commandment makes it very clear that God gives over the sinning people to their sins and errors, and the worship degenerates, in their generations, at an alarming rate. Even the purity of the preaching is removed, and the people are imprisoned in the darkness of their own sins.
Now I ask, if the Second Commandment truly does not require exclusive Psalmody, then why must we be warned like we read in points three and four above? Why must we say, “we had better limit ourselves to almost exclusive Psalmody, so that we don’t fall into the snare of losing the Psalms and the snare of false doctrine”? If it pleased God to include Psalms and “other songs” in the worship, then these things would not be a real danger to the church. God only blesses a church worshiping according to His will with spiritual prosperity and the strengthening of their love for the truth.
Also, the way we are using numbers three and four above sounds strangely close to what the CRC said when they adopted the Three Points of Common Grace. They said (I paraphrase), “This is the truth of Scripture and the Creeds … this is the will of God, but we must warn the people of the danger of worldly mindedness.” Throughout our history we have pointed out that this reasoning only serves to demonstrate the absurdity of their position. And yet, we now employ very similar logic when we say, “The Second Commandment doesn’t require exclusive Psalmody. Look at our Church Order … there is no problem singing certain other hymns in worship, but we must be warned of the danger in doing this too much … it will lead to apostasy and false doctrine.” I say to this, that obeying the will of God is never ever associated with the possibility that we will fall away from the truth. If God commands us to sing the Psalms and “other songs,” and by His grace we do it, there can never be even the slightest possibility that we will be cursed of God in our generations.
Consider again Exodus 20:6, “And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments,” and consider Psalm 1:1-3, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” If our delight is in the Law of Jehovah, including the second commandment, then our leaf shall not wither, whatsoever we do shall prosper, and we experience the mercy and salvation of God in our generations. This is the sure promise of God to all those who by His grace know and love the truth and keep His precepts.
In my view, Scripture is very clear on this matter. We find throughout the word of God the clear command to sing the Psalms in our worship, and the command of God to also sing other things is notably missing. Again, as Reformed believers, we must remember what our creeds teach us: We must worship God only in the way that He has commanded in His Word, and if God has not specifically commanded a certain element of worship, then it is forbidden.
It is my prayer that God will give us the grace as churches to truly study this issue in the light of Scripture and our Creeds, and put aside our traditions and feelings. Ultimately, we must either correct the “concessions” of Article 69 in our Church Order, or support its existing content on the sure foundation of Scripture and our Confessions, showing conclusively that Dordt, and we, make no “concession” and “permit” no error. We must without question, or compromise, do what God commands in His word. We must not add to it, and we must not diminish from it (see Deut. 12:28-32).
In the November 1, 2000 editorial referred to above, I explained Article 69 of the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (RRC), which was adopted by and has come down to us from the Synod of Dordt. Article 69 of the Church Order of Dordt requires the churches to sing the Psalms. It virtually restricts the singing of the Reformed church in public worship to the Psalms.
However, the fact that Article 69 does include a few, specified hymns shows that Dordt did not think that the regulative principle of worship requires exclusive Psalmody. Dordt and the Continental Reformed tradition have insisted on the singing of the Psalms at worship, but on other grounds than that the regulative principle demands exclusive Psalmody.
I explained Article 69. I did not prove it from Scripture. I did not intend to prove it from Scripture. As part of our adopted Church Order, Article 69 is binding in the PRC. One who supposes that Article 69 is in error must prove his contention in an overture to synod.
As regards Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, there is good reason, in my judgment, to understand “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” as a threefold description of the Psalms. Such exegetes as Calvin, Greijdanus, and Herman Hoeksema, however, do not interpret the passages this way. Even if “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” do refer to three kinds of Psalms, the passages cannot be used to prove exclusive Psalmody at church. For in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 the apostle is describing the everyday holy life of the saints in the world. He is not prescribing the elements of public worship.
If these passages on singing, understood as referring to the Psalms, are made to express and enforce the regulative principle of worship, they require Christians to sing only Psalms at their unofficial programs and informal gatherings, in their devotions at home, and, indeed, while traveling alone in the car or, as opportunity allows, while at work. In this case, for a choral group in our churches to sing the Messiah, for a family to include in their devotions “Glory Be to the Father,” or for a farmer to sing “Rock of Ages” in the praise of God as he milks the cows is violation of the regulative principle, that is, disobedience to the second commandment.
In the editorial of November 1, 2000, I did explain how the singing at church by the PRC in accordance with Article 69 of the Church Order is governed by the regulative principle. I refer the interested reader to that editorial.