In the April 15, 2000 issue of this magazine, I began the treatment of the regulative principle of worship that concludes in this issue. That opening article explained the regulative principle and contrasted it with the lawlessness of contemporary, “progressive” worship. The editorial in the May 1 Standard Bearer continued the treatment by demonstrating that the regulative principle is biblical, as well as confessionally and traditionally Reformed.

The May 15 editorial distinguished between the contents, or elements, of public worship and various circumstances that attend worship. It also entered into several areas of difference among sound Reformed and Presbyterian churches regarding the application of the regulative principle. These included instrumental accompaniment of congregational singing, the use of forms and formulas, and observance of the Christian festivals, particularly Christmas.

The purpose of looking at these controversial matters is to plead that such differences in applying the regulative principle do not betray fundamental disagreement over the regulative principle itself. Thus, it is hoped, this examination of differing application of the regulative principle will make for peace among those who are truly one in ecclesiastical subjection to the second commandment.

One troublesome area of difference remains: what the Reformed congregation is to sing at church, whether the Psalms only (“exclusive Psalmody”) or also songs based on, or versifying, other passages of Scripture, including the New Testament.

The May 15, 2000 editorial on the regulative principle ended this way:

There remains the question, whether the regulative principle requires exclusive Psalmody. Does the regulative principle demand that the Reformed church sing only the Psalms at church, or does it allow for the use of certain hymns? This is a controversial issue. Treatment of the issue in the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) has sometimes been ambiguous, leaving both members and those without in doubt, what precisely the stand of the PRC is.

At that point, other matters demanded attention in the editorial column, so that the conclusion of the treatment of the regulative principle of worship was delayed to this issue of the magazine.

The Songs at Church

The question is this: Does the regulative principle demand exclusive Psalmody, or does it allow for hymns. By hymns are to be understood songs that are either based on Scripture other than the Psalms or that are versifications of biblical passages other than the Psalms.

Some Presbyterian and Reformed churches argue for exclusive Psalmody as the requirement of the regulative principle. This implies the judgment that the singing of a hymn in a worship service, whether it be the doxology, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” or the Lord’s Prayer, is transgression of the second commandment. Obviously, this position makes close ecumenical relations with churches that sing any hymns impossible.

The Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) are a Psalm-singing denomination. Singing the Psalms has been an important part of their heritage from the very beginning of their existence some 75 years ago. They maintain this part of their heritage without change to the present moment. The PRC sing only the Psalms in worship with the exception of a few specified hymns. What the churches sing in worship is governed by Article 69 of their church order:

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.

Of these nine hymns, five are never sung, most of them being unknown to the people. In addition to singing some of these hymns infrequently, all of the churches sing “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” as the opening doxology at every service, and one or two sing the hymn, “May the Grace of Christ the Savior,” as a closing doxology on occasion.

The PRC are Psalm-singing churches. Hymns have almost no place in the services.

Reasons for Singing the Psalms

But the reason is not that the PRC think that exclusive Psalmody is the requirement of the regulative principle. Obviously not! No church that thinks that the regulative principle demands exclusive Psalmody will permit any hymn to be sung at worship ever. The article that rules the singing in worship of this church will read: “In the church only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung. Period!”

There are other reasons for singing the Psalms at church, virtually exclusively, than the regulative principle.

From 1959-1962, the PRC considered becoming a hymn-singing denomination. The occasion was an overture from one of the churches to the synod of 1959 to change Article 69 of the church order to include many more hymns. In response to this overture, the synod of 1960 moved to change Article 69 to read: “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung, as also such hymns which are faithful versifications of the Holy Scriptures, in each case the General Synod being the judge” (emphasis added). This motion was not then adopted, but was referred back to committee for further study. The result was a lively debate in the churches until 1962 when the issue was finally decided by the synod. The debate was carried on in the Standard Bearer, in private discussions, and annually at the synods of 1961 and 1962. The conclusion was a decision by the synod of 1962 defeating the motion to open up the worship services to hymns.

The significant thing about the debate is that neither the friends nor the foes of hymns in worship argued on the basis of the regulative principle. The regulative principle simply did not figure in the discussion. Although the decision by the synod of 1962 included no grounds for the defeat of the motion to make the PRC a hymn-singing denomination (which is highly regrettable, since the issue was both important and controversial), the decision was certainly not grounded in the regulative principle.

The reasons why the PRC sing Psalms in worship (and the reasons, presumably, why the synod of 1962 defeated the motion to introduce hymns) include the greater spirituality of the Psalms, especially their God-centeredness; the fact that the Spirit has given the church one songbook—the Psalms—by inspiration; the danger that the inclusion of hymns will soon drive the Psalms out of the worship of the church altogether; and the lesson of history that good hymns are invariably followed by a host of corrupt hymns—songs that are superficial, songs that are centered on man and his religious feelings, and songs that are Arminian.

This last was in the mind of Prof. G. M. Ophoff when he commented on Article 69 of the church order in his notes on “Church Polity”:

The lesson of history is that when a group of Reformed churches begin to apostatize from the truth of God’s Word, they also begin introducing the hymns for liturgical purposes. Let us never, as a communion of churches, substitute hymns for the 150 Psalms of David.

The Reformed Tradition

In their stand that Reformed churches should sing the Psalms in worship, virtually exclusively, but on other grounds than that the regulative principle requires exclusive Psalmody, the PRC perfectly represent and carry on the tradition of the Dutch Reformed Churches. Dordt decided on Psalm-singing, in part because the Arminians were urging the introduction of hymns into the worship of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. The Arminians intended to have their heresy sung into the minds of the people. But Dordt did not ground this decision in the regulative principle and, therefore, Dordt permitted 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. Nevertheless, Dordt could permit them, as a synod holding that exclusive Psalmody is a requirement of the regulative principle could not have done.

In his book, Onze Eeredienst (English translation: Our Public Worship), Abraham Kuyper gives six reasons why the Reformed churches sing, and should sing, Psalms at church, not hymns. These reasons do not include an appeal to the regulative principle.

According to H. Bouwman, thegrounds 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; and 3) the use of hymns invariably crowds the Psalms out of the worship altogether. To these should be added a healthy fear that the introduction of hymns will lead to the introduction of Arminian hymns.

In the main, these reasons for singing Psalms and for keeping hymns out of the service were the “conclusions” of the study committee that reported to the PRC synod of 1960. It was a puzzling move of that committee, on the basis of a report and “conclusions” that were overwhelmingly opposed to the introduction of hymns nevertheless to recommend that synod decide to open up public worship in the PRC to the singing of hymns (see “Acts of Synod 1960,” pp. 115, 116). The “conclusions” really called for synod to reject the overture to introduce hymns. And that is what the synod of 1962 rightly and wisely did.

The churches ought to maintain their Psalm-singing position and practice resolutely, on the grounds that have prevailed in the Reformed churches of the Dutch tradition.

In terms of the regulative principle, which does, of course, govern our singing at church, the stand of the PRC is this: God requires the congregation to sing, and He requires the congregation to sing His Word; the soundest and safest and perfectly adequate policy is to sing His Word as found in the Psalms, which is, after all, the songbook that God has given us.

No one should suppose that this stand implies blanket rejection of hymns. With the Psalms, we sing good hymns in our homes, in our choral societies and programs, and in our schools. Yes, also in our schools. We expect that the schools will teach the children to love and sing the Psalms. The Psalms should even have pride of place in the singing at school and in the singing by the school. But there must not be a reactionary insistence that the schools sing only the Psalms. There are many God-glorifying and edifying songs in addition to the Psalms that the people of God may sing themselves and enjoy. Handel’s Messiah comes immediately to mind, and Toplady’s “Rock of Ages,” and the great trinitarian hymn of the early church, “Glory be to the Father.” Neither the regulative principle nor deep piety has a word to say against our use and enjoyment of such music in our personal, family, and social life.

The Importance of the Regulative Principle

The regulative principle governs the content, or elements, of the public worship of the instituted church.

This principle is important.

First, it safeguards our worship. How important this is in our day, when many of the churches are swept away in the movement of “liturgical renewal.” All worship that originates in men’s thinking, what Colossians 2:23 calls “will worship,” is cursed of God. The second commandment itself makes plain how serious it is to ignore the regulative principle: God is a jealous God. Reformed and Presbyterian churches must take this warning seriously.

Not as though a church’s holding the regulative principle automatically guarantees acceptable worship. The church must practice her worship “in spirit and in truth.” Also, there are Presbyterian and Reformed churches that are zealous for the regulative principle, exceedingly zealous, so that they enforce not only the principle but also their own application of the principle to indifferent circumstances. But these same churches preach a gospel of universal, resistible grace, which is the dishonoring of worship at its very heart.

Nevertheless, the regulative principle is important to keep the worship of the true church pure.

Second, the regulative principle enables the worshiping people of God to be sure that their worship pleases God and is edifying to themselves. The question arises at church, “Does this please God?” Inasmuch as we only do what He Himself prescribes, we can be sure of it.

On the other hand, the progressive crowd, amid their banners, dances, choirs, dramas, dialogues, and musical troupes, are subject to dreadful uncertainty: “All this pleases the professional worship leaders, but does it please God?”

Third, the regulative principle maintains the unity of the church. All of the members are bound to one and the same mode of worship. It is not that of the older or of the younger. It is not that of the educated or of the uneducated. It is not that of the white or of the black. It is not that of the “conservatives” or of the “liberals.” It is God’s way of worship—for old and young; for educated and uneducated; for whites and blacks; for “conservatives” and “liberals.”

Abandonment of the regulative principle brings about division. Ask the members of the churches where it is thrown out.

Fourth, the regulative principle in the confession and practice of the churches glorifies God. God is glorified by the solemn, simple, Word-centered, and Word-based worship prescribed by the regulative principle. He is also glorified in this, that He—He!—determines how He will be worshiped.

The regulative principle is the application to worship of the Reformed church’s confession, “Let God be God!”

— DJE