Against Revising Church Order Art. 39 (Or Why We Should Not Sing Fewer Psalms) (Updated)

Preface

We sometimes talk about “the worship wars” as if they are a new thing. They are not. There are examples of ecclesiastical arguments over what should be sung in church dating to the ancient church. In one case a regional synod in Spain issued a ruling against the singing of hymns (non-canonical songs) that some churches had begun singing. That decision, however, was overturned by a successor synod. There were conflicts, in the Reformed Churches, over worship in the Netherlands from the 1560s through much of the 17th century. The Erasmian magistrates favored the singing of non-canonical songs and the use of musical instruments in worship and the ministers tended to oppose the same. The great Reformed theologian Gijsbertus Voetius (1589–1676) battled against the introduction of the organ even as he battled against the influence of Cartesian rationalism, Socinianism, Arminianism, and Amyraldianism in the Dutch Reformed Church.

It is no mystery who “won” those contests. By the late 19th century the historic Reformed practice of singing God’s Word without instruments was on the ropes. In the 1850s, the Christian Reformed Church left the Reformed Church in America for three reasons. One of those was their conviction that God had ordained the singing of Psalms in public worship. By the 1920s and 30s, however, one sees evidence in the minutes of synod and in the preface to the first Psalter-Hymnal (1935) that the Reformed understanding of the rule of worship (Calvin’s phrase) was being eclipsed by other approaches.

Today, those few denominations who worship without musical instruments are rare and considered odd, even though the ancient church intentionally and knowingly rejected the use of musical instruments for the first 7 centuries. Some write as if the Reformed Churches were always hymn-singing churches. T’hat is simply not the case. The exception has become the norm. Most of the Reformed Churches in the 16th and 17th centuries sang only God’s Word (a cappella) and most of the time, the portion of the Word they sang was the 150 Psalms.

The Church Order adopted by the Synod of Dort said:

69. In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the 12 Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon shall be sung. It is left to the option of the churches whether to use or omit the song, “O God, Who Art Our Father.”

The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands sang no non-canonical hymns. They sang God’s Word and, of that, mostly Psalms. “O God, Who Art Our Father” was a non-canonical hymn but it was not imposed. Rather its use was left to the discretion of the consistory.1 To complicate the story, almost as if to illustrate the difficulty of hanging on the Reformed theology, piety, and practice, synod opened and closed with the use of the city organ in Dordrecht. Score on for the Erasmian magistrates.

When the United Reformed Churches in North America were formed, in 1996, the Church Order (art. 39) said (and says):

The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches. Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.

This language, though certainly a compromise with developments since the 18th century and a conservation of the 1935 shift away from Psalms only in the CRCNA, preserves something of the original Reformed understanding of the rule of worship.

The Proposed Revision

A consistory (the assembly of elders and ministers in a local congregation) in classis Michigan (the regional assembly of elders and ministers) has proposed to revise our church order “ replace the current wording” of church order art. 39 with:

The singing of the churches shall consist of “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). When new songs are introduced, they must faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture, as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity, and be approved by the consistory prior to use in public worship.

We notice immediately that the sentence “ The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches” has been replaced by the sentence, ‘The singing of the churches shall consist of “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ (Ephesians 5:19).” This language might not be objectionable except for the explanation given to Ephesians 5:19 in the grounds of the overture. Further, the rest of the grounds and the footnotes raise even more serious questions that should lead Classis Michigan (and the United Reformed Churches) to reject this overture.

Objections and Questions

Of course no Christian may object to Ephesians 5:19 but we may object to a given interpretation of it. In this case, the interpretation evidently is that “hymns” and “spiritual songs” are distinct from Psalms. Number 7, of the grounds, juxtaposes hymns with Psalms and number 6 of the grounds invokes the 1930 CRCNA report, which justified the addition of non-canonical hymns to the Psalter. Thus, it seems to be seeking to weaken the place of psalms in the worship of the URCNA in favor of non-canonical hymns and songs.

The overture does not acknowledge the traditional Reformed understanding of Ephesians 5:19 (and Col 3:16), that Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs do not refer to one kind of inspired song and two kinds of uninspired songs but rather to three of the four headings in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which influenced the New Testament writers, including the Apostle Paul. By the time of the NT era, Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” was a formulaic, shorthand way of referring to the 150 Psalms. This is the same sort of formula that we see in Scriptures used to refer to the entire Old Testament, e.g., “the law and the prophets” (Matt 7:12; 22:40; Acts 13:15; Rom 3:21). The full formula was, “the law, the prophets and the writings” but it was shortened to “the law and the prophets.” So to, “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” excludes “wisdom” (but Paul invokes wisdom in Colossians 3:16).

A more complete explanation and defense of this understanding is appended below in the resources. It is enough to say here that the interpretation of Ephesians 5:19 (and Col 3:16) makes all the difference to the force of this overture. Were we to assume the traditional Reformed understanding of the clause, then the overture is moot. Indeed, the force of the overture itself (ignoring the grounds) would, in my view, be quite salutary since it would remove non-canonical hymns from the public worship of the churches. We may reasonably doubt, however, that is the intent of the overture.

Principal Place

The overture complains (number 5) that Scripture no where commands us to give the Psalms principal place. This objection begs the question (assumes what it must prove), that “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” does not refer to the 150 Psalms. If the traditional understanding of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 holds, and I think it does, then we do have a positive command.

Even if we doubt the traditional understanding of those verses,  the Reformed Churches have never operated on the basis, as Calvin noted in his Institutes (book 4), that we need explicit proof texts for every practice. We draw good and necessary inferences from Scripture. Our principle is that we do only in Scripture what God commands. He commands the singing of his Word. He gave us songs. We sing his divinely-inspired songs.

The overture objects to the expression “principal place” and alleges against it that it is vague. From this we may infer that it does indeed seek to dislodge the psalms from their primary place in the worship of the churches. It does take a bit of reflection but in time it has become reasonably clear to me that “principal,” in this context simply means first. The intent of the current wording of article 39 is that, when choosing songs for public worship, the minister (the person who typically chooses the songs for the service in our churches) should look first to the psalms. Non-canonical hymns are definitely given second place. The churches are permitted to sing them but only with the permission of the consistory. This was a conservative compromise. It intended to preserve the historic ecumenical Christian and Reformed practice of turning to the Psalms as the first resource in public worship.

Though one would not know it to look at the worship of evangelical and Reformed churches today, we were once a psalm-singing people. The Reformed Churches of France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the British Isles, and in the American Colonies (among others) were known as Psalm-singing churches. We translated the Psalms into the language of our peoples and we published psalters. We were not a hymn-singing people. Other traditions, notably the Lutherans, were hymn writers and singers. Even the one hymn attributed to Calvin (I Greet Thee…”) , as it turns out, was not written by Calvin at all but by Jean Garnier (d. 1574). Those few places where non-canonical songs were sung in public worship (apart from the Apostles’ Creed in Geneva), were outliers. Geneva sang the Creed not as a response to God’s Word, where hymns were used, but in place of what we ordinarily do in the recitation of the Creed. In other words, it was not sung as a hymn to God but as a confession of faith. This fine but important distinction has sometimes been overlooked.

The phrase “principal place” captures the intent of at least part of the Church Order of the Synod of Dort, that the first thing that the Reformed Churches should sing in public worship is songbook inspired by the Holy Spirit and  used by our Lord himself. It is the songbook used by the Apostle Paul.  As I wrote almost five years ago,

[The Psalms] are the songs that God gave to his people. They were given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and preserved for us as the canon (rule) and the holy, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. Songs written by uninspired writers, however much we find them personally inspiring, are not God’s Word. They are a part of God’s general providence but so are songs by the Rolling Stones. Non-canonical hymns have no intrinsic authority and relatively little as compared to God’s Word. Further, we know that God’s people sang the psalms in the early church: “When you come together, each one has a psalm (ψαλμὸν)…” [1 Col 14:26]. This noun is frequently translated into English with “hymn.” That choice, of course, leads most readers/hearers to think of “How Great Thou Art” more than Psalm 23.

The evidence for the use of non-canonical hymns in early Christian worship, in the 2nd century is scant at best. The use of non-canonical hymns began to grow in the 4th century and proliferated in the 7th. Even then, however, the monasteries and monastic choirs kept psalmody alive in the medieval church.

The overture objects (number 6) that the expression “principal place” is foreign to the “shared history” of the churches. This is true but misleading. The phrase was a compromise of sort with inherited practice (post-1935). The history prior to the early 20th century of the “shared history” of the Reformed Churches was of psalm singing. We did not have to use the phrase “principal place” because, typically, we only sang Psalms. Non-canonical hymns were only added later in our history. So, when do we want to begin with our history? In the 16th century, the 17th century, or the 18th and 19th centuries when we began to lose our way?

What is there about the history of worship in the Reformed Churches that would lead them to marginalize the Psalms in public worship? It is remarkable that the overture appeals to the 1930s rather than to the 1630s since the 1930s marked a significant turn away from the historic practice of Reformed worship in the CRC. The overture appeals to a 1930 CRC report and the red (1st edition) CRC Psalter-Hymnal as if it represented the norm rather than a significant deviation from the practice and theology of the church. By all means, read the report by all means. Read the preface to the 1935 Psalter-Hymnal. My first response upon reading the latter was to wonder how the Lutherans came to dominate a CRC committee? I say that because the Reformed principle of worship is rather different from the Lutheran principle. The latter confess that we may do in worship what is not forbidden. By contrast, in Heidelberg Catechism 96 we say:

96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.

Question 96 is an unambiguous articulation of what Calvin called “the rule of worship.” We do only in worship what God has commanded. Full stop. This is also the teaching of Belgic Confession art. 7:

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and 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 says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.

That same principle is expressed even more pointedly in art. 32:

We also believe that although it is useful and good for those who govern the churches to establish and set up a certain order among themselves for maintaining the body of the church, they ought always to guard against deviating from what Christ, our only Master, has ordained for us.

Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way.

So we accept only what is proper to maintain harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God.

One searches the Preface in vain for a recognition of this principle. The committee report is equally disappointing. The history is that the CRC was on the verge of inheriting a group of German Reformed (RCUS) congregations, who were fleeing the coming merger, which would form the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which is today the liberal United Church of Christ. The Germans, however, did not have a history, in America anyway, of singing Psalms. They had been deeply influenced by the Lutherans in that regard. The price of admission was to broaden the CRC’s historic approach (since the 1850s) of being a Psalms-only denomination.

Further, though one narrative popular in the URCs is that the CRC went “liberal” in the 1970s (or whenever), the history is more complicated. The CRCs began heading toward broad evangelicalism, to what the Dutchmen in the early 20th century called “Methodism,” long before they ever went “liberal.” The broadening of the Psalter to include non-canonical hymns and the permission of musical instruments in worship was a part of that trend. The 1930s CRC is not the baseline, it is significant deviation from the historic Reformed norm.

As to ground number 7, that neither Psalms nor hymns should be exalted over each other, if “hymn” in this context refers to non-canonical hymns, then yes, God’s Word may certainly be exalted over uninspired songs. It has always been exalted over uninspired songs.

It is interesting that the overture complains about vagueness in the church order but never clearly defines its own terms. What exactly does it mean by “New Testament hymns” and “spiritual songs”? There are songs in the New Testament but it is unclear whether the overture means to refer to those canonical songs or whether we are meant to think that non-canonical hymns and songs are “New Testament” songs and hymns?

There was a school of thought in the 16th and 17th centuries (e.g., Theodore Beza), with which I sympathize, which I supported in Recovering the Reformed Confession, that argued that the Reformed Churches ought to sing the Psalms and the other inspired songs in Scripture, e.g., Exodus 15 and the various songs in the New Testament itself. If this is what the overture seeks, I support it entirely but it is not at all clear that is the case.

Old Testament and New Testament Songs

The overture (number 8) complains that giving the Psalms the first place in worship, which interpretation of the phrase “principal place” it seems to assume, marginalizes the New Testament. To this I reply that this problem never seemed to occur to the apostles nor to the church. Why was that? Because they read and explained the Psalms like Christians. They understood and explained the Psalms with reference to Christ as the focus of salvation and divine revelation. Christ is the King whom we must kiss (Ps 2). Christ is clean enough to go up God’s Holy hill (Ps 15; 24;3). Christ is the suffering servant (Ps 22). Christ is the Good Shepherd (Ps 23).  The NT writers quote Ps 110 repeated (20+ times in the NT) and thereby teach us how to read the Psalms. The Father said to the pre-incarnate Son “Sit at my right hand,” which the NT writers interpret to refer to Christ’s ascension and royal accession. 110:4 refers to the pactum salutis and to Christ’s priesthood. We could go one but the the point is plain enough: there is a New Testament way of reading the Old Testament generally and the Psalms in particular.

The Name of Jesus

Number 9 complains that the name of Jesus is not explicitly mentioned in the Psalms, which deprives the church of the use of his name. Again, tell it to the apostles. How many canonical New Testament songs actually mention the name of Jesus? The Magnificat (Luke 1), the Benedictus (Luke 1), the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2) do not mention the name of Jesus. The songs of the Revelation, which were given after the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord, do not mention his name. Some texts, which may or name not be songs, do mention his name but the exact nature of those passages (e.g., Col 1; Phil 2; 1 Tim 3) is disputed. Are they confessional formulae? Are they songs? It is uncertain. In any event, most of the New Testament songs fail this test and thus we conclude that it is a poor test the reflects a way of reading the New Testament that is foreign to the New Testament itself.

Expected Outcomes?

Beyond a doubt we live in the most psalm-less period in the history of the Christian church. Today many seminary students, however, come to school now with no experience of the psalms, ever. They have not only never sung a psalm, they have no idea that psalms have ever been sung or could be sung. Churches and denominations who retain the ancient Christian practice of Psalm singing (and especially if a cappella)  are almost unknown.

In such a culture, what should we expect the outcome to be were we to release the URCs from giving the Psalms the first place in the public worship of the churches? We need not guess. We need only look at the experience of the Free Church of Scotland. Almost a decade ago, the Free Church gave up her historic practice and began including non-canonical songs in worship. What has happened to psalmody in the Free Church since then? The evidence is anecdotal but it suggests that it has not lead to more psalm singing but to less. History tells us that, when the revivalists (e.g., Jonathan Edwards in New York) began to undermine Psalmody in the 18th century, it lead away from the Psalms. When the revivals swept across Europe in the 18th and 19th century, it did not lead to more Psalm singing but to less. Those movements affected the Reformed Churches. Abraham Kuyper wrote:

Here we come to the issue of psalms versus hymns. Our fathers ruled that, with a few exceptions, only the singing of psalms was permitted in the assembly of believers. When hymns were introduced in 1807 (by unlawful ecclesiastical might) many people objected to them and refused to sing them when announced from the pulpit. At the time of the restoration of the church in the Secession and Doleantie [Sorrowing], the position was reaffirmed that only psalms were to be sung.

Surely this is also a part of our “shared history”? The forces that were resisted in 1807 eventually won in 1935. The history of the various Reformed churches in the modern period fairly shouts at us a warning about what happens when the Psalms lose their principal place in public worship. Eventually they are lost.

Conclusion

For all these reasons and more, Classis Michigan should reject this overture.

NOTE

1. Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Brian Lee for pointing me to Petrus Dathenus’ 1566 De Psalmen Davids. The song was “ God die onse Vader bist” to be sung before the sermon.

Resources

Addendum

OVERTURE REGARDING ARTICLE 39:

Background:

Our current Church Order Art. 39 does not permit consistories the freedom to balance the singing of Psalms and hymns as they see fit in their local situation. Rather, it insists that the preponderance of the church’s singing is to tip to Old Covenant Psalms. While singing a majority of Psalms may be preferable to some, it might not be to others. This should be an area where there can be liberty as this requirement is not biblically commanded, is not consistent with our prior history and is not shared by those with whom we have close ecumenical relations (OPC, Can Ref, RCUS, PCA). Therefore, to maintain our historic practice of Psalm singing, while also giving freedom to our consistories, the following overture is humbly offered for the well-being of our churches.

Overture:

The Consistory of the Bethel United Reformed Church of Jenison, Michigan, overtures Classis Michigan to overture Synod Wellandport 2020 to replace the current wording of the CO Art. 39 with the proposed change:

Current CO Art. 39:

The 150 Psalms shall have the principle place in the singing of the churches. Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the consistory.

Proposed CO 39:

The singing of the churches shall consist of “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). When new songs are introduced, they must faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture, as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity, and be approved by the consistory prior to use in public worship.

Grounds:

5. Nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to give the 150 Psalms the “principle place”
in the singing of the churches.

6. The language of “principle place” is foreign to our shared history as churches. In the 1930 report that led to the production of the first Psalter Hymnal, the authors insisted that neither hymns nor Psalms should be exalted over one another.4

7. The proposed change addresses the imprecision of the phrase “principle place” which that neither hymns nor Psalms should be exalted over one another.5

8. The current article creates a standard for the Church’s singing (priority of Old Testament Psalms) which we would never insist on in the churches preaching (priority of Old Testament texts).

9. The current article creates a musical environment in our churches in which the explicit name of Jesus being sung, in the context of his specific redemptive work, is less weighty (may be sung) than signing the 150 Psalms (shall be sung).

10. The proposed change continues to uphold our historic practice of singing Psalms, while at the same time recognizing the freedom of the consistory to balance the singing of Old Testament Psalms with New Testament hymns as they see fit.

11. The proposed change is fully consistent with CO Art. 38 and is an expression of the consistory’s authority to ensure that the worship service is properly regulated in offering “praise and thanksgiving in song.”

Humbly Submitted,
Jamie Hart
Clerk of Bethel Consistory

Notes

4. “We fully agree with the statement that there are no Hymns which can equal the Psalms in voicing the depths of spiritual life, the depths of spiritual distress and misery, of penitence before God, of a struggling and triumphant faith, of praising and glorifying God. For that reason we value the Psalms as a priceless treasure which we can in no wise afford to miss. But such speaking from the depths of spiritual life is certainly not the only good quality of the Church-song. It must be admitted that the spiritual song which speaks the language of the glory of salvation in Christ as revealed in the New Testament has a virtue of its own which the Psalms could not possess. Therefore we need both, and may profit from both, without exalting one at the expense of the other, or casting one aside because it has a different character than the other. And as to inspiration, that which is wholly in agreement with Holy Scripture shares its inspiration.” Report on the Hymn Question and The Text of Approved Hymns, CRC Synod 1930 pg 23.

5. Does this require 51% of our songs to be Psalms or 75% (3 out of 4 songs)? Should “principle place” be applied to every service, the average for each Sunday, or, a calendar year?

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25 comments

  1. “ Our current Church Order Art. 39 does not permit consistories the freedom to balance the singing of Psalms and hymns as they see fit in their local situation. Rather, it insists that the preponderance of the church’s singing is to tip to Old Covenant Psalms.”

    If find this interesting. The consistory at my church claim the language of article 39 NOW allows for flexibility and is purposefully vague so that “primarily” does NOT mean a majority of Psalms in a given service, but as long as there are more Psalms than hymns over a given period of time. Who defines that given period of time I am never told and when employing the reductio ad absurdum argument that then in theory we could have 25 consecutive weeks of hymns and then 27 consecutive weeks of Psalms to tip the scales for the year, that somehow that is a silly argument. Well, duh.

    • Sean,

      I do think that the practice tends to be to try, over some period of time, to sing more Psalms than hymns. I doubt that’s what “principal” means here. When we read our CO in light of the historic orders, as I’ve been doing, it’s clearer.

      In that respect it’s a good thing that this overture is before us so that we can re-consider what the CO intends and how we ought to apply it.

    • Indeed true, Sean R. Whether purposefully or otherwise, the current wording is so vague that two consistories can interpret it in virtually opposite ways. While the current Art. 39 ambiguously commands some arguable quota of Psalms above 50% but below 100%, the proposed wording acknowledges that the music used in worship is under the authority of each Consistory, and would support exclusive Psalmody where it was deemed beneficial, as well as other songs which “… must faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture, as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity, and be approved by the consistory prior to use in public worship.”

  2. I think Jamie should’ve written “principal place” rather than “principle place”.

    I have to admit that I find the “analogy of prayer” argument a lot more persuasive that the Psalms only. Perhaps it has to do with my mother having been brought up Lutheran, and my father, although from a Jewish family, was of German culture, thus we heard a lot of Bach, and I see that old German Kappelmeister one of the early witnesses I heard. However, I’m also of the mind that we should challenge musically-inclined Christians to try to put the Psalms and things like the Magnificat and Song of Zacharias to music suitable for congregational (rather than performance) singing.

    Indeed, while reading the Psalms is powerful enough, many metrical versions are wonderful, and the songs found in the Gospel of Luke would do a world of good for our congregations.

  3. I’m a Westminsterian, so I may not have a dog in this Continental hunt. It seems most of the larger conservative Presbyterian Churches has long ago thrown in the towel on this issue. But as a small business owner I have had a thought that might be pertinent: overhead. We are constantly fighting to keep our overhead costs down, and focus resources on our mission of making a profit. It seems that when I look at our modest church, a significant amount of the non-building overhead is tied up in music. The other night, after choir practice, while waiting for my wife to finish Praise Team rehearsal, I did a quick review and found that if our church went back to the old ways of psalmody without instruments we would:
    1) get rid of 2/3 of the staff: 2 to 3 thousand per month
    2) sell the 60k organ
    3) sell the guitars, drums and pianos 2 thousand or so
    4) sell the sound board wireless mics, keeping one for the Pastor and for congregational meetings, 3 thousand
    5) sell the lighting board – nothing its not very good
    6) redeploy the choir room for instruction
    7) sell off the huge library of music scores – huge, plus hundreds a month for new music
    8) spend Wednesday nights in teaching ministry instead of choir practice
    9) sell the brand new Trinity Hymnals we just got (I might fight this one)

    In short we would recapture many thousands of dollars, and cut thousands from our monthly operating budget. In short, unaccompanied EP would free up a ton of money for our mission which is not music, but is for instructing believers in righteousness and teaching the gospel to the nations.

    So, think about that when these arguments come up. If we were a persecuted church, I doubt we would spend a nickle on all this junk, when a simple Psalter would do. If doctrinal arguments won’t work, money talks!

    • While I don’t normally approve of equating the church with a business, your economic argument is persuasive.

    • My PCA has Trinity Hymnals but they are being quickly supplanted by the more “contemporary” MacArthur’s “Hymns of Grace” hymnals. If anyone suggested getting rid of instruments and contemporary hymns you’d have a lot of people tearing their clothes and throwing dirt in the air.

    • I don’t find the economic argument to be in any way valid here. Neither psalms, nor hymns, nor spiritual songs require any cost whatsoever to sing or use in worship. Any of the 3 can be sung a Capella or with any wide array of instruments.

  4. “The evidence is anecdotal but it suggests that it has not lead to more psalm singing but to less. History tells us that, when the revivalists (e.g., Jonathan Edwards in New York) began to undermine Psalmody in the 18th century, it lead away from the Psalms.”

    Should be ‘led’ in 2 places.

  5. If I might just comment, looking in from the outside…
    There seems to be serious ambiguity in the overture. On the one hand, it appears to wish to introduce texts of human composition which are said to ‘share [Scripture’s] inspiration’, though I suspect that ‘inspiration’ is not being used univocally. Inspiration (in the biblical sense) is not some kind of quality or attribute that is shared with human compositions. On the other hand, ground 10 refers to ‘the singing of Old Testament Psalms with New Testament hymns as [the Consistory] see fit.” Historically, any reference to a ‘New Testament hymn’ would be to a passage drawn directly from inspired Scripture, such as the Magnificat or the Nunc Dimittis. Historically, no one surely would refer to an uninspired lyric composition by Charles Wesley as a ‘New Testament hymn’. Again, there appears to be equivocation on the word ‘Testament’, with ‘Old Testament’ being used to refer to the Holy Scriptures, and ‘New Testament’ being used to refer to a historical period beginning in the first century and continuing to the present day. This double equivocation is very dangerous, and it is surely arguable that it wholly vitiates ground 7 that the suggested change is to address the ‘imprecision’ of the original Article, as well making appeals to ‘history’ and ‘historic practice’ in grounds 6 and 10 rather incongruous.

    • Let’s see how we can twist and equivocate the the meaning of words so we can get what we want, while claiming to still be faithful to the regulative principle, even if we aren’t.

    • Thanks, that is as I suspected. As such, this seems to be a significant crack in the historical Reformed answer to “what’s appropriate to sing in church” question. If a very broad, even well-beyond paraphrased statement of belief of what Scripture teaches is deemed appropriate for recitation/singing, then why not __, __, and __? It effectively surrenders the field of strict EP.

    • Phil, I don’t know that I would want to argue that singing the creed allows for uninspired hymns. I have been told there is a version of HC Q&A1 set to music, but have never seen or heard it. Are there any uninspired catholic hymns as venerable as the AC out there?

    • I don’t know how helpful or central to the discussion this is, but I can’t resist pointing out a glaringly obvious answer to Bob S’s question: More venerable than the Apostle’s Creed is the Nicene Creed, and that has been set to music by several of the greatest composers, including at least one Protestant, and one nominally Romanist “freethinker” (The music to which it is commonly sung in worship in the churches that sing it is artistically of a lower order).

      • Anthony,

        1. It’s Apostles’ (it belongs to all of them).

        2. The Apostles’ Creed is organically linked to the regula fidei (rule of faith) articulated by Irenaeus c. 170s and by Tertullian (among others) in the early 3rd century, well before the Nicene Creed. There is a long history of using the Apostles’ Creed as the baseline confession, a tradition which the Reformers followed. This is no slight to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which is ancient, ecumenical, and to be treasured.

  6. I don’t have a dog in a URC fight, but as one of your commentators has already noted, “principle place” and “principal place” do not mean the same thing.

    Perhaps it could also be noted that if a whole consistory — not just one elder or pastor, but a whole consistory — can fail to find and fix an easily correctable error like this, it may be a symptom of a lack of care and attention to detail in the overture as a whole.

    As to the issue itself — regardless of what we think about exclusive or predominant psalmody, widespread lack of attention to the regulative principle is a principal reason (pun intended) why too many churches which call themselves Reformed sing no psalms at all. It’s hard to argue that this overture would improve matters.

  7. Dear Dr. Clark;
    Your note that “It does take a bit of reflection but in time it has become reasonably clear to me that “principal,” in this context simply means first” is the crux of the issue. If this is the intent of the URCNA in Article 39 then it should be a simple matter to clarify it. When someone of your stature and education requires “a bit of reflection” “in time” to make the interpretation of Article 39 no more than “reasonably clear” then the Article clearly requires revision.
    To quote you again, “In that respect it’s a good thing that this overture is before us so that we can re-consider what the CO intends and how we ought to apply it.” We pray Classis Michigan and the URCNA’s Synod 2020 will take up this opportunity to help the churches deal with this question.

    • Gary,

      It is possible to figure it out. I’ve been known to be a little slow on the uptake. It finally dawned on me that the basic meaning of principal is is not most (as in 51%) but rather first. The principal of a company is the first, most significant employee (e.g., the CEO). The principal of a school is in charge. Of course that’s the dictionary definition (e.g., Oxford Dictionary of English) “1 first in order of importance; main: the country’s principal cities.”

      So, it’s not endlessly confusing or vague. We’ve just not thought about it as much as we should.

  8. I agree fully, Dr. Clark (except with your self-deprecation). Neither consistories nor congregants should have to exegete the Church Order, especially in a matter so central to worship as music.

  9. Thanks for the heads up on this, Dr. Clark.
    Wasn’t aware it was on the agenda for synod.

    Yet one, if the reformed churches are going to recite the Apostles’ Creed in worship, it might behoove us to ask just what the apostolic practice was in worship.
    It can’t be that hard to figure out. When it came to singing, it was acapella psalmody.

    Two, for the reformed, singing uninspired song in worship is a watershed issue on par with refusing to apply the sign of the covenant to the infant seed. While I don’t see how some baptists can consistently hold to a psalms only position, for the reformed to insist that the NT now allows uninspired song is a bit of a stretch if all we can come up with is Eph. 5 and Col. 3. Even then there is no overwhelming consensus that bye the bye these verses essentially open wide the gate to uninspired song, if we would allow Scripture to define psalms, hymns and spiritual songs just as we do baptism.

    Three seriatum as per the appeal:

    5. Nowhere in Scripture are we explicitly commanded per se to give the 150 Psalms the “principle place” in the singing of the churches, but the very presence of an inspired hymnbook in the canon ought to give us a good idea what we are to do with it. The Psalms are one of the most quoted books in the NT, if not by Christ himself.

    6. True, in the first Psalter Hymnal, the authors insisted that neither hymns nor Psalms should be exalted over one another. but if God has magnified his word above all his holy name (Ps. 138:2) exactly what are we to do?

    7. Imprecision of phrase again, depends. Are we talking about inspired or uninspired hymns in that typically the argument to sing other songs than the Psalms, ends up majoring in uninspired hymns.

    8. Not only is singing a distinct and separate part of worship than preaching, do we have a corresponding hymnbook in the NT like we do in the Old?

    9. If the Lord had to open the understanding of the apostles so that they might understand all the things written in the psalms concerning Christ (Lk. 24:44), perhaps the modern reformed church is still waiting for that to happen at this late date.

    10. The consistory may see fit to do whatever, but since the historic reformed couldn’t find a NT Book of Psalms, they stuck with the OT version. The NT hymns are no where near as definite.

    11. The proposed change is not consistent with the CO in that for all practical purposes and every time it has been tried in the past, uninspired songs become ascendent over the Scriptural because identifying the NT “hymns” is such a vague and speculative affair, as well they are comparably few.

  10. Hi Scott,

    Might you be able to provide a source on this important paragraph?

    “Those few places where non-canonical songs were sung in public worship (apart from the Apostles’ Creed in Geneva), were outliers. Geneva sang the Creed not as a response to God’s Word, where hymns were used, but in place of what we ordinarily do in the recitation of the Creed. In other words, it was not sung as a hymn to God but as a confession of faith. This fine but important distinction has sometimes been overlooked.”

    Thanks and regards,
    Simon Jooste

    • Hi Simon!

      Certainly. I came to this conclusion on the basis of my analysis of the Genevan liturgy. The structure of the liturgy was call and response. In the reading and exposition of the Word, the Lord calls to us. We respond with his Word. In both Strasbourg and Geneva the reading/exposition of the gospel was followed prayer (our response), which was closed by the Lord’s Prayer (or a paraphrase) and that was followed by the singing of the Creed. On this see Bard Thompson,Liturgies of the Western Church, 191. This is in contrast to the analysis offered in Gibson and Earngey, Reformation Worship, 302–03, who write of the Strasbourg liturgy, “[t] position of the the Apostles’ Creed at the head of the service of the Lord’s Table functioned as the bridge between the liturgies of Word and Sacrament, as a faithful response to the Word, as the faithful prepared for the Sacrament.”

      In the tables published on pp. 305–06 of the latter they assert that in the Service of the Word there is an absolution (but they note correctly that the people objected so strenuously to the absolution that it was abandoned) and they also indicate that the Kyrie was used after the Decalogue. This I have not seen elsewhere. In both the 1545 and 1542/66 liturgies they show the Creed being used as part of the Service of the Lord’s Supper but then indicate that it’s not actually in the liturgies but presumed. On p. 324 the direction as they have them indicate that the Creed was recited (1542/66 Genevan) (the 1545 Strasbourg Liturgy says sung). It seems clear to me that use of the Creed in the administration of the Supper stands in the place of the Word. It is followed by a prayer, which is our response.

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