This article is in praise of our Church Order, the CO of the great Synod of Dordt (1618-19), its wisdom, its balance, in particular as evidenced by Article 69, the article that governs which songs may be sung in our worship services.
The occasion for this editorial is a follow-up on an article by the undersigned that appeared in the April 1, 2014 issue of the SB, an issue devoted to Psalm-singing. The article was entitled A History of Psalm/Psalter-Singing in the PRC. For the PRC the two are tied together. The 1912 Psalter is the one songbook used in our worship services and is the means we use to sing the Psalms.
At the conclusion of that article we indicated that we intended to say a bit more about Article 69 as it now (still) stands in our CO.
As the SB article pointed out, in our ninety-year history there have been a number of attempts (reaching the synodical level) to ‘improve’ the Psalter. Certainly that’s what those who brought the overtures were seeking to do. In fact a committee appointed by a synod in the mid-1940s did a great deal of preliminary work on this project, though its proposals were never implemented due to the doctrinal crisis that came to dominate the denominational landscape in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
As well, as the reader may recall, in our history a couple of attempts were made to add synodically-approved hymns to the “psalmody” of the PRC, one coming by overture to the 1959 Synod, the other brought by a committee (in 1949) seeking revision of its synodical mandate. The committee requested that, in addition to its mandate to come with proposed improvements of the Psalter versifications and tunes, it be mandated to recommend for synod’s consideration hymns suitable for worship. Following lengthy and energetic debates, both attempts failed.
These last mentioned proposals would, of course, have required a change of Article 69 of our CO, which article, with its present wording, goes back to the great Synod of Dordt itself.
The article (as we still have it in our CO today) reads: “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.”
Interestingly, in 2001 advice was brought to synod (advice that arose in response to an overture proposing wide ranging changes in our CO) to revise Article 69—to revise it, however, not in the interests of expanding the list of songs allowed in our worship, but in sharply curtailing our approved song list. Everything after the phrase “Psalms of David” would be removed. The newly worded article would then have read, “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung.”
In other words, exclusive psalmody.
Significantly, this too was defeated.
And that was the occasion for our commenting in our April 1 article that perhaps there was something to learn from this history, the Spirit Himself speaking through this history, so that for all the attempts in our history to add to or subtract from Article 69, Article 69 as originally worded still stands, at least in our churches.
In our judgment, that is how it should be.
As stated at the beginning of this editorial, we are writing in praise of our CO, its wisdom and its balance, and in particular as that is reflected in Article 69, the article on singing—singing ‘in church’ for sure (that is, in our worship services), but, by implication, what is to be allowed to be sung by God’s people outside divine worship as well. Namely hymns, doctrinally-sound hymns— not something to be forbidden, nor for that matter discouraged, but to be used with discernment and discretion.
What is striking about Article 69 as it presently stands is that it does not insist on exclusive psalmody, not even in divine worship. Neither the Ten Commandments nor the Lord’s Prayer are psalms. The Morning and Evening Hymns were not versifications of the Psalms, nor for that matter was the Hymn of Prayer sung at the beginning of the service.
That is not exclusive psalmody, no matter how you cut it.
The great Synod of Dordt did not bind the Reformed churches to exclusive psalmody.
But the Synod of Dordt was wise, ever so wise, and, we are convinced, biblically sound.
Good brothers may disagree with us on this. Some certainly do, energetically in fact.
Regardless, we are not convinced that the great Synod that led Christ’s church through so many issues of controversy and of error at that time suddenly lost its sound theological judgment when it came to songs appropriate for God’s people, songs appropriate for worship, songs pleasing to God triune, songs that might even make explicit reference to God as the great Three-in-One, mentioning Father, Son, and Holy Ghost by name.
We are convinced Dordt’s good judgment, biblically-based throughout, remained intact, also in Article 69 of the CO.
The wisdom displayed in Article 69 is, in our judgment, threefold.
The first two aspects apply to what is to be sung at our worship services.
First, Article 69 establishes the primacy of the Psalms in the psalmody of Christ’s church, even in the New Testament age. It lists the Psalms of David first, the 150 of them, many of which are anything but brief. And then it lists a mere nine additional songs that can be sung in the divine worship service.
That is not primacy by a slim margin; that is an overwhelming majority.
In Article 69 Dordt’s Synod was by no means putting the singing of the Psalms in worship at risk. Their primacy shouts at one.
As an aside, this is transparent to visitors to our worship services. More than once ‘outsiders’ have remarked to us, “So, all that your churches sing are the Psalms, evidently.” To which our reply has been, “Basically, yes. Although there are a handful of other songs you can find at the back of our Psalter.” We do not recall their having been impressed by the size of the ‘allowed’ list.
If singing hymns in worship services was an itch they had, the PRC was not the place to scratch it.
Hymns swallowing up the Psalms in our worship is not an issue. Not as long as one sticks with Article 69 of the CO.
Which brings us to the second evidence of wisdom expressed in the article. It made plain that any songs to be sung in the federation of the Reformed churches had to have synodical approval. The songs sung had to be agreed upon by the churches in common. It was not left to each congregation to decide for itself which songbook it was going to use, nor, for that matter, what songs each congregation might like to add to the songbook. Rather, such matters were to be decided in denominational concert. Harmony in the approved song list was to be the rule.
Wisdom indeed. Every consistory can be thankful. Else, they can be assured, there would be no end of petitions suggesting that this or that old-time favorite be added to the approved song list, or a more recent composition. Endless debate, feelings hurt, anything but harmony flowing from the unsettled nature of the ‘approved song list’ issue.
So the approved list.
And all a consistory has to do with a request to add a new song or two for worship is to point to Article 69 and say, “The list of songs approved for worship has been set by our CO. It is not to be added to except by ‘an act of congress.’ This is what we intend to live with. You would like these changes? You will have to persuade synod of the need.”
Thanks to Article 69, precious time needed for other pressing matters is not spent considering another request to add another new song, the making of which there is no end.
But there is also a third element of wisdom clearly implied by Dordt’s Article 69, wisdom as it applies to the ‘song life’ of believers as it extends beyond the worship service. What is plain is that the synod did not oppose the singing of hymns as such. Hymns, too, could have their place in the lives of the people of God, that is, doctrinally-sound, biblicallyfaithful hymns, hymns that reflect the great truths and confessions of faith found in Scripture.
Obviously Dordt was convinced such hymns could be found (and composed by believers), or it would not have included any hymns in Article 69 at all.
It is evident what Dordt’s perspective was, namely, “In the worship service, let such songs as are directly tied to (are versifications of) Scripture be the prevailing rule. Hence, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer are listed with the 150 Psalms. If believers desire to sing other spiritual songs, songs faithful to the truths of Scripture and as expressions of the Christian life and confession, we do not forbid that. Only, if such songs are to be sung, let that be in homes and gatherings outside the worship service.”
If that were not its perspective, surely Dordt would not have tolerated mention of any hymn in its own Article 69. That it allowed for the singing of a hymn or two in worship demonstrates it did not condemn the singing of hymns as such.
You ask, why raise and address this issue in the SB?
Exactly because this issue of exclusive psalmody vs. the use of hymns has been an issue throughout New Testament church history. And it is an issue that continues to confront us as Protestant Reformed believers living with each other, as well. There are some who lean one way—Who needs hymns? Exclusive psalmody is the only way to go. The Psalter is all we need. And there are those who lean the other way. We do enough Psalter singing, many of which are not even the best versifications of the Psalms available. We need to expand our psalmody. And by that we mean the inclusion of more hymns.
I will be so bold as to say there can be a danger of leaning too far in either direction.
A danger in pushing for what amounts to exclusive psalmody?
Yes, if that means that one looks with suspicion upon those who have a high regard for good hymns and enjoy singing them at this function or the other. Let us be careful. Old HH (the Reverend H. Hoeksema) obviously had a high regard for certain hymns. “Amazing Grace” thrilled his soul. He could not sing it at worship. But he did quote it from time to time, as is well known.
And some others as well. His spirituality is suspect? His love for the Psalms?
His orthodoxy? He was being led astray by his affection for selected hymns?
Exclusive psalmody across the board has a fine pedigree. But that is not our heritage going back to the Synod of Dordt. And that has not been our practice as Protestant Reformed people.
The reality is this: the presence of hymns, the use of hymns, is going to remain part of who we are. Singspirations and school programs bear this out. The question is, “Which hymns, and hymns to what extent?”
And therein lies the danger of leaning too far in the ‘hymn direction.’ One becomes so enamored by the ‘singability’ of many a hymn, that discernment of the words is lost. And then orthodoxy can be at stake. Care must be exercised.
Or, so attractive are hymns and other melodies that the Psalms go begging.
Neither ‘evil’ may gain a foothold.
And here is where our Christian schools come into play.
School programs are an occasion for teaching our children various hymns to be sung, but hymns with substance—like our prayers, echoing scriptural truths. It is in this way that the youth can be taught to discern between hymns of substance over against the shallow and the superficial. In our day and age, overrun with superficial ‘feelings’-centered hymns, learning such discernment is important.
But in the morning, as the school day begins, the students are singing and familiarizing themselves with the Psalms and Psalter. So it was at Hope School (in Riverbend) when I was growing up. And so versified Psalms become part of our souls, who we were and still are. So the Psalter, looming large in our schools, carrying benefits for church and Sabbath worship, as well as for making melody in our hearts during the week.
We say again, our CO has wisdom and balance—in Article 69 too. It lays down sound principles to govern our song life as twenty-first century Protestant Reformed believers.
It has served us well. We judge it to be fine just as it stands.