Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Rise and Decline of Exclusive Canonical Psalmody in the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches: The Dutch Reformed Church Pt.1

In 1835, Hendrik DeCock, a minister and leader of the 19th century Secession churches of Holland, wrote a pamphlet against the use of uninspired hymns in public worship entitled, The So-Called Evangelical Hymns the Darling of the Enraptured and Misled Multitude in the Synodical Reformed Church and even by some of God’s children from blindness, because they are drunk with the wine of her fornication, further tested, weighed and found wanting, Yes, in conflict with all our Forms of Unity and the Word of God. Though a catchy title, it would probably not attract much positive attention in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches of the 21st century, since upon initially reading it most would immediately dismiss and reject it as nothing more than the mad ravings of a cranky internet blogger; however, in DeCock’s day, it caught the attention of a wide Reformed audience in Holland and was received with hearty affirmation. Cursory examination of the title would clue even the most inattentive reader in to the fact that DeCock was no fan of uninspired songs in public worship, that he believed exclusive canonical psalms alone had support from the history, practice, and confessions of the church, and that he believed using uninspired songs in worship was a violation of God’s law. As one might imagine, based upon the title of the tract, it is very negative in tone, and it would probably catch the typical 21st century Reformed reader off guard since its rhetoric is very salty and its attack on man-made hymns is highly vociferous. A series of quotes from the tract provide a quick sampling of the fiery and bellicose tone that pervades the work:

Hymns were never introduced into the church, except to cause degeneration and contempt for the welfare of the church
We see as well, amongst other things in the New Covenant, that in the best of times, and in the purest churches, hymns are never found or tolerated

Where, therefore, were the hymns, or other whorish songs ever used in the days of the apostles in the congregations of the Lord?

History alone is sufficient to acquaint us with the stinking source from which they i.e. hymns flowed forth, and so we are able to judge them shameful and abominable

 These quotes offer a brief orientation to the tone of the argument that DeCock makes against uninspired worship songs and additionally, it provides some confirmation for the claim made in the pop magazine article entitled, We Used to Sing the Psalms Only---What Happened?, which was alluded to at the outset of this series of blog posts.  If the historical construction of the practice of exclusive psalmody in the Dutch churches that DeCock makes is accurate, then it would appear, that at least in the case of the Reformed churches in Netherlands, the article has struck deep into a vein of truth when it claimed that Reformed churches of Dutch descent in America made a clean break with the past when they added uninspired hymns to the public worship of the church. In the following paragraphs we will take up DeCock’s claims and trace the rise of exclusive canonical psalmody in the Dutch Reformed churches.

There can be no doubt that from the earliest days of the Reformation in the Netherlands, that the Psalms of David had a central place within the life of the church and its worship. By the spring of 1566 Petrus Datheen had overseen a project to translate the Geneva Psalter into Dutch. The intended design and role of the Psalter in the life of the Dutch church is signaled in the dedicatory letter which read, “to all congregations and servants of Jesus Christ, who sigh and weep under the tyranny of the Antichrist." Commitment to a central tenant of historic Protestant eschatology is given expression in the dedication as the people of God are viewed from the perspective of suffering under the diabolical and heavy hand of the Romish papacy, which all the 16th century Protestant Reformers regarded as the Antichrist. One intentional design of the translated psalter was to bring solace from the inspired word of God to the Reformed saints who struggled under the Antichrist’s unholy oppression. Just how well the translated psalter did in accomplishing its intended purpose for this generation of persecuted saints can be evaluated by the comments of one historian who argued from the historical record that the word “all” in the dedication “proved to be prophetic, for the Psalter took the nation by storm. Soon all the congregations were singing Dathenus' psalms” (Kobald, 1997). Evidence for the psalter sweeping like a storm over the whole Dutch church is indicated by the fact that in 1568 at the Convent of Wezel, the synod adopted Datheen’s Psalter as the official song book of the church. Subsequent synodical decisions suggest that the principle of exclusive canonical psalmody was also adopted as the official position of the Dutch churches as the following evidence indicates:

The Psalms of David in the edition of Petrus Dathenus, shall be in the Christian meetings of the Netherlands Churches (as has been done until now) shall be sung, abandoning the hymns which are not found in Holy Scripture. (The National Synod of Dort 1578, art. 76)

Only the Psalms of David shall be sung in the church, omitting the hymns which one cannot find in Holy Scripture. (The National Synod of Middelburg, 1581, art. 51)

The Psalms of David shall be sung in the churches, omitting the hymns which one does not find in Holy Scripture (The National Synod of Gravenhage, 1586, art. 62)

Two immediate conclusions seem to be warranted from the testimony of these synodical decisions: one, the Dutch synods maintained that only the “Psalms of David” were authorized for use in public worship, and two, all hymns were to be omitted from use in public worship. The fact that alongside this series of decisions affirming the exclusive use of the psalms, corresponding declarations had to be made directing the churches to eliminate hymns in worship, suggests that in some places in the Dutch church, uninspired hymns were struggling to find a footing. Evidence of a struggle however does not indicate a lack of clarity about the principle staked out in these synodical rulings since the decisions are emphatic and unambiguous both in what they affirm and reject. A responsible conclusion drawn from the evidence listed above is that the Dutch Reformed churches of the 16th century found Biblical warrant to sing the Psalms exclusively in worship and that they were convinced that Scripture warranted use of only these songs and no others.

By 1619 it might appear that a slight change in principle about worship song began to emerge. In session 162 of the National Synod of Dordt the following statement about song in public worship was fashioned:

In the Church only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung. The 10 Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon, the hymn 'O God who is our Father,' and so on, shall be left in the freedom of the Churches, whether they want to use them or not, as they see fit. The rest of the songs shall be taken out of the church, and similarly any which have previously been imported into the church shall be omitted in the most decent way possible.

At first glance it seems that this official synodical statement represents a softening in the principle that all other songs except the Psalms of David and a select few inspired canonical psalms are not to be used in public worship. Some have proposed that the actual intention of the statement is to support and affirm exclusive psalmody though it admittedly makes a few concessions concerning uninspired songs which appear to have found a place in at least some of the churches. With the rise of Arminianism, use of some uninspired songs had crept into the churches of the northern and eastern Dutch provinces and found popular support for use on Lord’s Day’s when the Lord’s Supper was served; so, on account of entrenched use of and support for these few songs on certain Lord’s Days, in some places in the church, a sort of political settlement was reached and is reflected in the statement made in session in 162 (Polman, 1998).  Further support for such an interpretation is not only found in the series of unambiguous synodical decisions between 1578 and 1586 but is also found in the observation of 17th century Dutch theologian Wilhelmus a’Brakel who commented on this decision in his The Christians Reasonable Service that, “The decision of the Dutch Synods has been very correct indeed, namely, that none other but the Psalms of David are to be used in the churches” (1700, vol.4, 34-35). Though it could be argued that a’Brakel is looking exclusively to synodical statements from the 16th century, and not the statement of synod 1618-19, it could just as reasonably be argued that a’Brakel is interpreting the statement made in session 162 through the lens of prior synodical decisions and is operating on the assumption that those statements provide the proper framework for interpreting the more finessed and politically nuanced statement made by the great National Synod in 1619. Furthermore, what is clear from a survey of the Dutch psalters used from 1619 to the late 1700’s is that the Psalms of David comprised the manual of praise in the Dutch Reformed churches; however, by the latter part of the 18th century breezy winds of change began to start sweeping through the church and the decline in commitment to the principle and practice of exclusive psalmody began to emerge, flushing the Psalms out of the church and replacing them with the songs of men.

Our next post will chart the decline of exclusive canonical psalmody in the Dutch Reformed churches.

On the Necessity of Reforming the Church by John Calvin:
If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these are kept out of view, though we may glory in the name of Christians, our profession is empty and vain.

I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, "Obedience is better than sacrifice." "In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men," (1 Sam. 25:22; Matt. 15:9.) Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere " will worship" is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.

Brakel, Wilhelmus A, The Christian's Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, 4 vols. (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992), 4:34-35.  

DeCock, Hendrik, According to the Command of the Lord: Rev. H. DeCock’s Case against Hymns, trans. J.A. Wanliss and W.L. Brendenhof (Surrey, BC: By the Editors, 1998.)

Kobald, Norma. The Psalms, the Organ, and Sweelink. Reformed Music Journal 9 (1997).

Polman, Bert. The Hymn Question in the Christian Reformed Church. Origins 16 (1998).


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