Rev. denHartog is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
One of the three areas that were desperately in need of reformation in the church of Rome according to the great reformer John Calvin was her corrupted form of worship (along with the urgent need for correcting her false doctrine and the hierarchal tyranny of her church government). The corruption of the worship of the church of Rome was serious. It was characterized by evils as great as image worship and the inclusion of all sorts of unbiblical ceremonies and superstitious practices. It was particularly one of the confessions of the Netherlands Reformed churches that called the mass of Rome at bottom “accursed idolatry.” The preaching of the Word of God was almost nonexistent.
The Reformation, with holy zeal for God and His glory in the midst of His church, sought to deliver the church from all Roman corruptions and superstitions and to institute again in her a form of worship pleasing to God and one that would also comfort and edify the people of God. The cathedrals of the Roman church with all their grand architecture, famous art work, and images of the saints were awe-inspiring to some, but they were an abomination to God.
Unholy zeal for cleansing the church of Rome of her images and pagan superstitions broke out into iconoclastic riots in the Netherlands that were referred to as “The Troubles in the Netherlands.” But these were severely condemned by the leaders of the Reformation in Holland.
The dramatic spread of the Reformation in the Netherlands is an astounding wonderwork of God in church history. Once virtually the whole country was strongly Roman Catholic. So powerful was the influence of the Reformation here that the Reformed Church actually became, for a time, the state church of Holland.
Principles of Calvinism made dramatic changes in the worship of God in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. The followers of the Reformation were persecuted by the Spanish inquisition. During those times they had to worship in open fields at great danger to their lives. But in character with their understanding of true worship, they did not need the Roman cathedrals. Hundreds of people flocked to outdoor meetings to hear preachers of the Reformation. God’s spiritual temple was among them.
Later, because the majority of people in communities in Holland became Reformed, church buildings were taken over, cleansed from their idols and all vestiges of the corrupted worship of Rome, and adapted to serve for worship according Calvinistic Reformed tradition. Dramatic visible changes were made to church buildings. The altars of the Roman Catholic mass were replaced with communion tables. Pulpits were placed prominently in the forefront with pews around them.
The chief part of the reformation of the worship of the church in the Netherlands was the restoration of the true preaching of God’s Word to its rightful and central place in the worship of God.
The Reformation revived the right understanding of the nature and authority and character of the preaching of the Word in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. The preaching of the Word was recognized as the very voice of God Himself in the church. God’s people came into the awe-inspiring presence of God when the Word of God was preached in the midst of His church. The preaching was considered to be the chief means of grace for the people of God.
Calvinism believes that the purpose of the worship service is centrally the revelation of the glory of God in the midst of His people through the preaching of the Word. True religious experience takes place in the worship of God, in response to the declaration of God’s truth and glory in the preaching. The worship service is not the place for the telling of someone’s private religious experience, not even that of the preacher. It is not the occasion for ecstatic, supposedly Spirit-filled, utterances by individuals at the worship service. The church worships corporately and reverently together as one, and the central focus is on God. Through the preaching of God’s Word, God’s holy temple is in the midst of His people. They enjoy true spiritual fellowship and communion with the Holy One.
True preaching is based on the careful and serious exposition of the Word of God. Calvin, more than any man in church history, deserves the title “prince of exegetes.” The preaching of Calvin was characterized by simple, yet very profound, careful, penetrating exegesis of the infallible Word of God as revealed in the Scriptures. Calvin did not fill his sermons with a lot of illustrations and human interest stories. Calvin simply, with great power and authority, declared the Word of God by explaining the meaning and intent of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures. Even today, centuries after the Reformation, Calvin’s commentaries show the clarity and power of Calvin’s preaching.
Preachers of the Reformation in the Netherlands had a very distinct and powerful Calvinistic imprint. Some were trained in Calvin’s Geneva and other Reformed schools that had arisen in Europe and England, where the influence of Calvin was very strong.
The Reformation in the Netherlands was in the beginning spread by itinerate preachers. There was a great scarcity of ministers. Much of the Roman Catholic clergy at the time of the Reformation were dreadfully ignorant and had never been trained to preach. Soon Holland also had its own excellent Reformed schools for the training of Reformed preachers. These became the agents of the rapid spread of the Reformation.
The Reformed churches in the Netherlands from the beginning had two worship services every Lord’s Day. They were usually well attended. Proper observance of the Lord’s Day was defined chiefly in terms of frequenting the house of God and faithfully attending to the preaching of God’s Word there. Many of the Reformed churches even had preaching services on weekdays. Sermons were long, lasting sometimes over an hour. Audiences were large. The common people had the spiritual gifts of God for listening to the preaching of the Word of God, even though many of them had only minimal formal education. Reformed preaching had a strong impact on the lives of God’s people. We are told by historians of the time of the Reformation that the Dutch were a devout people whose godly living made a noticeable impact on the everyday affairs of their life.
The Reformed churches in the Netherlands believed that one of the purposes of the preaching of the Word of God in the worship services was to build up God’s people in the knowledge of the truth of God. This was done through solid biblical preaching. Regular preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism was begun in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands already in the early days of the Reformation. The Heidelberg Catechism, from the Palatinate in Germany, was translated into the Dutch language by Peter Dathenus. It was divided into 52 Lord’s Days. The Church Order mandated that all preachers in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands preach on the Heidelberg Catechism. It was not considered sufficient that all the doctrines of the Word of God were explained in the churches in a systematic way. Heresies were regularly refuted by the preaching. The people of God were equipped to stand strong in the faith and to defend themselves from the many winds of doctrine that always deceive many in churches where there is little knowledge of the truth. Under the blessing of God’s covenant of grace, strong generations of Reformed people grew up in the Netherlands.
The history of the use and development of Reformed liturgy in Holland is interesting and significant for understanding the development of the Reformation in the Netherlands. The Roman church had elaborate liturgies that were chanted by Roman Catholic priests, often in a cold and ritualistic manner. Because Latin was considered a kind of sacred language by the church of Rome, liturgies were chanted in Latin during the worship services, even though the worshipers could not understand a word of them and benefited nothing from them. This caused some in Reformed churches in other parts of the world to imagine that having liturgy at all in the worship services was itself a practice of Roman Catholicism to be entirely condemned.
This did not happen in the Reformed churches of Holland. Liturgies were already in use by Calvin in Geneva and by the Reformed churches in Germany. These liturgies were translated into the Dutch language largely by Peter Dathenus. These were officially adopted by the earliest synods of the Dutch Reformed churches for use by all the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. The consensus of the Reformed churches was that using such liturgy in the worship service was proper and, though not specifically mandated in the scriptures, their use in the worship of God was based on sound biblical principles.
The order of worship in the Dutch Reformed churches was amazingly uniform and purposefully structured. It closely resembled the order of worship in Calvin’s church in Geneva. This was according to the conviction that in the church of God all things should be done decently and in order. The worship services contained the simple elements of the opening votum and salutation, singing of the Psalms, the reading of God’s law, the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, congregational prayer, the reading of Scripture, followed by the preaching, which was the main part of the service.
The use of Reformed liturgy also served to maintain unity of faith and practice in the Reformed churches of Holland. In the main, those churches were not of the opinion that all use of liturgy and form prayers would lead to cold formalism in the worship services. This was considered to be a position of false piety. Leaders of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands were instrumental in producing and translating masterpieces of Reformed liturgy for worship. The most beautiful and classic examples of this Reformed liturgy are the forms that were used in all the Reformed churches in the Netherlands for Baptism and for the administration of the Lord’s Supper. These established forms of worship were of great value at the time of the Reformation, when there was such great controversy surrounding the meaning of the sacraments. They served to maintain the proper administration of the sacraments, one of the marks of the true church.
Perhaps we should say something yet about the singing and music in the Dutch Reformed churches. The Reformed churches, from their beginning, taught that singing belongs to the congregation as a whole, and it must always focus on the glory of God. The worship service is not a time for listening to glorious choir concerts or for providing an opportunity for a soloist to display his talents, or for a vocal group to perform a program. I can still remember hearing in my youth the stirring sound of large Dutch Reformed immigrant congregations gloriously singing the Psalms together. This was truly Dutch Reformed tradition.
From the beginning, the Dutch Reformed churches insisted on the singing of the Psalms of David in the worship services. A few directly biblical songs were also adopted for use in the worship services, such as the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, Elisabeth, and Simeon, the doxology and musical renditions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed. The introduction of additional hymns was at first opposed by the Netherlands Reformed churches. There was great carefulness about which songs were sung in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. Many feared that the free introduction of hymns into the worship services would involve the real danger of allowing heresy to creep into the Reformed churches through her singing. It was only later in the history of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands that this matter became the source of serious controversy and one of the causes of division in the churches of the Reformation in the Netherlands.
The Reformed churches in the Netherlands from the beginning were strongly committed to the idea that the Psalms are God’s own inspired songbook for His church, even in the New Testament age. Hymns composed by men may theoretically be sound in doctrine and even beautiful in expression of the truth, but the Psalms were in a category of their own and were specially adapted for the public worship of God. The Psalms are all properly God-centered. They are profound in their meaning. The Reformed churches in the Netherlands had a good understanding of the christological character of the Old Testament Psalms and therefore could satisfactorily answer questions regarding the need, in the worship services, for hymns that, it was said, spoke more directly from a New Testament perspective about the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Because in many cases Reformed Christians took over Roman Catholic cathedrals, they found themselves in buildings with magnificent organs. Calvin opposed the use of organs in the worship services. At first the singing in the Dutch Reformed churches was a cappella, led by an appointedvoorzinger. But, over time, pressures from the congregations led to the use of organs in the churches. Most Reformed churches did not consider this to be a violation of the purity of worship. In some cases, however, the use of organs led to the evil of using the worship service as the occasion for organ concerts. The organ in the worship service overpowered the singing of God’s people, and was therefore wrongly used. Organs could, however, be properly used to lead and support the singing of the people for the glory of God and not for the glory of the musicians playing the organ.
Let me end with a reference to some interesting things about the practice of Reformed Christians in the Netherlands in their daily lives. Because of the invention of the printing press at the time of the Reformation, songbooks that also included the creeds of the Dutch Reformed churches and their adopted liturgy could be printed in great numbers. These books were greatly prized by the devout members of the Reformed churches. They were carried along to church each Lord’s Day, but they were also used often in the homes of Reformed Christians. Liturgies and catechisms were taught in the home and even memorized by children. The love for the singing of the Psalms was promoted in the homes because children frequently gathered around their parents for the singing of the Psalms. Mothers in the home and fathers at work went about their work singing the Psalms. Having been raised in a Dutch Reformed home myself, I can remember the great blessing of this practice in my own home. There were many martyrs in the Dutch Reformed churches during the early days of the Reformation. It is recorded that many of these martyrs died with the comforting words of the Psalms in their hearts, and Psalms served as their courageous and God-glorifying confession before their tormentors.