Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Rise and Decline of Exclusive Canonical Psalmody in the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches: A Brief Introduction

Early on in my seminary days as I was researching the Reformed regulative principle of worship and its classical application, I came across an article which grabbed hold of my attention: We Used to Sing Only Psalms; What Happened? It took only a moments worth of reading to determine who the “We” in the title referred to as the summary of the article listed the churches in view which included the RPCNA, CRC, RCA, PCUSA, and OPC and PCA. In other words, this article made the categorical claim that all Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America which have roots in continental Europe and the British Isles sang psalms exclusively in their worship in the past.

Such a claim, if  true, would certainly be a relevant consideration for one researching the historical Reformed and Presbyterian application of the regulative principle of worship because if the practice of exclusive psalmody could be traced to the beginnings of the Reformed church in the 16th century and to the writings of the Reformers themselves, then it could be objectively established that the Reformed church historically modeled in its practice what regulated worship consisted of. The unbiased reader, only after fairly and charitably evaluating the evidence, would have to concede the truth of the claim if it is adequately supported.

Making  such a concession is easier said than done since most people who are Reformed or Presbyterian will already know in advance that the claim is surely wrong. They will know that because their church is Reformed or Presbyterian, and at their church they sing hymns and so-called “spiritual songs” with guitars, drums, pianos, and organs; therefore, the article cited above must be wrong in what it claims about the historic practice of the Reformed churches. Furthermore, if the average Reformed or Presbyterian worshiper was unsettled by learning this truth for the first time and proceeded to ask anyone in the church who is “in the know” about such matters, they would be informed by such experts that it certainly is not the case that the Reformed and Presbyterians sang only psalms, and, even if they did (which they are certain they did not), they did not make this their practice because they thought the regulative principle required it; instead, the Reformed and Presbyterians maintained such a practice out of pragmatic concerns. Beyond that such experts will then provide thin support for this claim by sharing the anecdotal evidence that they once heard Calvin wrote a hymn “I Greet Thee My Fair Redeemer Art” (something for which there is not one shred of historical evidence). 

The purpose of this series of posts is to expose this kind of ill-informed expert testimony almost universally provided in confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches to those who inquire as to whether their church is conforming to the regulative principle as maintained and practiced by the Reformers. It is without question that if the historic practice of the Reformed church provides the model for the proper application of the confessional regulative principle of worship then it can be easily shown that the prevailing contemporary practice of most Reformed and Presbyterian churches is out of step with this confessional standard. This series of posts about the rise and decline of canonical psalmody aims to address this failure of conformity to the regulative principle of worship by setting the historical record straight through presenting evidence to substantiate the claim implied in the title of the article referenced above.

As Rome was not built in one day, so the evidence for the historical worship practices of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches cannot be reasonably presented in one post. So, in the introduction to this new series, we will seek to whet the appetite of the reader in order to encourage them to keep checking in to follow the evidence presented in subsequent posts. In what follows, we will set forth some documentation from reliable scholars which will provide evidence to substantiate the claim made in the introduction that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches of the 16th and 17th century sang only psalms. Evidence presented will show that the churches in Switzerland, Germany, France, Holland, England, and Scotland all sang the psalms exclusively. Having set forth that foundation, a series of posts will follow which will document the rise and decline of the psalms in these very same Reformed and Presbyterian churches. It will not be hard to establish that just as the rise of psalmody was on account of study of God’s word and an aim to apply the regulative of principle to the forms of worship, so the decline of psalmody and the rise of man made hymns was on account of replacing the authority of God’s word with subjective human standards.

So, in kicking off our introduction let’s take a moment to provide some evidence to support our claim that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches of the 16th and 17th century used only the psalms in worship. Remember, in reading over the evidence supplied here, challenge yourself to ask, who is more credible in establishing the historic practice of the Reformed church, the people who are “in the know” in your church or reputable scholars who are simply stating the facts as they understand them based upon careful research? By the way, asking that question is not all that radical, since most people make decisions about significant matters by weighing the evidence presented in credible and reliable sources. With that in view, consider the following:

      One: Every “expert” consulted in the article referenced above, except for Robert Copeland from the RPCNA, is committed to singing hymns and spiritual songs in worship. In other words, the experts who were consulted about the actual historical practice of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches (John Frame, Harry Boonstra, Norman Copeland, Hugh McKeller, and Arlo Duba) concede that how their churches now worship is not in accord with the historic practice of the Reformed church. This means that the so-called experts you consult in your church who tell you our claim is wrong stand in disagreement with these reputable scholars who have abandoned the Reformed regulative principle and yet, are honest enough to admit it.

      Two: Pierre Pidoux, a scholar of no mean credentials, in an article entitled, “The Fourth Centenary of the French Metrical Psalter” proposes the following question: it will be asked why, apart from the “Nunc Dimittis” and the Decalogue, the 1562 edition (the final form of the Geneva Psalter) contains only the psalms. It takes little thought to see that Pidoux is asserting that the 1562 version of the Geneva Psalter contains only inspired canonical psalms. So confident is he of this fact that he states it in categorical terms. If he is so sure of this fact, why is it that the anecdotal claim that Calvin once wrote and hymn and inserted it in the Geneva Psalter is given any credibility? Whoever offers that claim to you in order to argue for the practice of using hymns and songs in worship as consistent with Calvin and his practice is surely wrong unless they can prove that their opinion and evidence is weightier than that of Pidoux. 

      Three: The 1993 PCA sub-committee report on “Psalm-singing” presents the following question: how can it be that the Psalms, which God gave to His people specifically to be sung, particularly in public worship, and which for centuries were sung among all the major Protestant groups (exclusively so among Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, and Congregational, denominations) are universally neglected? Ouch, that is a zinger there, isn’t it? First, this is an official PCA sub-committee making this statement, not some “radical” Presbyterian theologian or even crazy group of Presbyterian zealots.  No one would claim that the PCA committee is doctoring the evidence to fit their bias and current practice, and expect at the same time to be thought of as credible.  Second, the question contains the statement that Presbyterian and Reformed churches exclusively sang the psalms and that they did so for centuries. Third, they lament that the practice of singing psalms is neglected today. When a PCA committee is willing to concede that the historic practice of the Reformed and Presbyterian church is exclusive psalmody and the contemporary practice is not, that is a wake-up call for all Reformed and Presbyterian churches and church members to sit up and examine whether their worship is Reformed.

      Four: Louis F. Benson, perhaps one of the greatest liturgical scholars of the late 19th and early 20th century, in the Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton in 1907, makes the following claim about what he calls a “peculiar” type of Protestant church song:

As over against this Hymnody, the distinction of the Calvinistic Psalmody lay not in its form but in its authorship and subject-matter. The Hymn was a religious lyric freely composed within the limits of liturgical propriety by anyone who had the gift. The Calvinistic Psalm, on the other hand, was simply the Word of God, translated and versified in hymn-form, so as to be sung by the people. To mark this distinction of the Calvinistic type Church-Song, it is designated as Metrical Psalmody. When the purpose is merely to distinguish the two types of congregational song within the bounds of Protestantism, it will be sufficient to designate the singing of metrical Psalms in the Reformed Churches as Psalmody, as over against the freer Hymnody of Lutheran and other bodies (1909: 3).

To summarize Benson’s point we could say that his claim is that the peculiar and distinct form of worship song used by the Reformed and Presbyterians was Psalmody while hymns of human composition were the form of song used by other Protestants (Lutherans!). Someone might respond to Benson’s claim by saying, “but the peculiar music of the Reformed and Presbyterian was not rooted in subservience to principle, rather, it was developed out of mere preference.” Such a claim is surely wrong, at least according to Benson who says:

In this, Church usage and Lutheran precedent alike were disregarded. The Scriptures were searched to find Apostolic authority on which to rest the ordinances of praise, and conformity to Scripture became the determining motive. To this supreme test the subject-matter of the songs themselves had to be submitted (1909: 4).

Clearly, Benson thinks that the reason why there is such a species of worship song which is “peculiarly Calvinistic” is because the Reformed bound themselves to Apostolic authority and warrant for establishing the content of worship-song. In other words, Benson says that the Reformed church maintained that the regulative principle of worship  applied to the content of worship song, and that not in a merely general way. This ought to pique the interest of any honestly inquiring Reformed and Presbyterian mind. You have been told that what your church does in worship is Reformed, that it conforms to the Reformed understanding of the regulative principle, that it is consistent with historical practice, and that it has Biblical warrant; yet, Benson, who is far more credible than anyone who you have heard this kind of thing from, insists that the historic Reformed practice claimed that the content of worship song was regulated by Scripture and that only inspired canonical psalms had Biblical warrant according to the Reformed. Someone is right and someone is wrong here, both about the historic practice and the Biblical warrant; and ,if you are a fair-minded reader, you must ask if Benson is more or less credible on this matter than the so-called “expert” who has proposed an alternate point of view to you.

      Five: 17th century pastor-theologian Wilhelmus a Brakel in volume 4 of his A Christian’s Reasonable Service testifies to what kind of songs were sung in the Dutch Reformed Church of his day: 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 (p.35). So much for the arguments made by the CRC in the 20th century when they claimed that the Synod did not have a principled objection to the use of man-made compositions. Obviously, a Brakel does not share that take.

      Six: A group of families seceded from the Dutch Reformed Church in America in 1857 and formed what is now called the Christian Reformed Church partly because the RCA used man-made hymns in worship as testifies: the seceders insisted on psalm-singing only

      Seven: James I. Good, a 19th century German Reformed church historian says that the German Reformed Church sang only the Psalms on account of the influence of Petrus Dathenus, court preacher of Frederick III in the Palatinate. Good says with respect to the use of Psalms in the German Reformed church that “through his influence” that is the Dutch pastor Dathenus “its use was sanctioned, and the singing of psalms became customary in the Reformed Church of Germany (History of the Reformed Church in Germany 1620-1890, pg. 287). He also is able to establish precisely when the German Reformed Church officially changed its practice. Good explains that it was at the “General Synod of Julich, Cleve, Berg, and Mark, after using Psalms for a century and a half, ordered in 1731 a new hymn book, which should have hymns as well as songs” (p. 356). Clearly, Good’s testimony, if it is accurate, establishes the fact that the German Reformed Church sung psalms exclusively. Furthermore, the fact that a synodical decision by the German Reformed Church was required to bring about an official change in practice speaks against the notion that psalms were sung out of mere preference for pragmatic considerations only. As we will see in a subsequent article, the German Reformed Church changed its practice only after altering its regulative principle of worship. All this means, that if you are in a German Reformed Church at the present time and one of your denominational “experts” tells you that it was not the practice of the German Reformed Church to sing psalms only out of submission to the regulative principle of worship, you need to ask them if their credentials as ecclesiastical historians can match up with Good’s and then demand evidence to establish their claim. By the way, the scholarly testimony of Dr. Paul Westermeyer can be added to that of Good’s whose Ph.D dissertation is in the history of music in the German Reformed Church in America . Westermeyer in an article entitled, “German Hymnody in the United States” testifies that not only did Calvin restrict church music to the metrical singing of the psalms, he also says, “it was Calvin’s example which the German Reformed followed” (1980: 89). In the mouth of two very reliable witnesses it is established that the German Reformed sang only the psalms and out of conviction at that!

      Eight: Anyone remotely familiar with the history of the French Reformed Church is aware of the valiant profession of faith made by the Hugenot’s who were ruthlessly oppressed and slaughtered by the French crown. In a series of posts we have discussed W. Standford Reid’s claims about the central role of the psalter in shaping the piety and martial ethos of the psalms upon the French Reformed. The question remains however, did they sing canonical psalms exclusively? Here again the expertise of Benson is extremely helpful. He explains that psalm-singing patterned on the model of Geneva was already the universal practice in the French speaking evangelical churches by 1553. Beyond that, he cites from chapter 10 of the constitution of the French Reformed Church (1559) about worship song:

Singing of God’s praises being a divine Ordinance, and to be performed in the Congregations of the Faithful, and for that by use of Psalms their hearts be comforted and strengthened; every one shall be advertized to bring with them their Psalm-Books unto those assemblies, and such as through contempt of the this holy Ordinance do forbear the having of them, shall be censured, as also those, who in time of singing, both before and after sermon, are not uncovered, as also when the Holy Sacraments are Celebrated.
Clearly, Benson is able to provide documentation which demonstrates that exclusive psalmody was constitutionally mandated. Perhaps one more quote from Benson will help us appreciate just how constitutive the psalms were for the French Reformed. Commenting on the centrality of the psalter in the life of the French church Benson says, “to know the Psalms became a primary duty; and the singing of Psalms became for the Reformed cultus, the characteristic note distinguishing its worship from that of the Roman Catholic Church (pg. 72). It is indisputable then, that the French practice did not differ from that of the Swiss, the German, or the Dutch; the churches on the continent then were uniform in their practice from the 16th century well on into the 18th.

      Nine: That the psalms found a home in the Presbyterian churches of the British Isles is beyond dispute. For instance, when the Reformation took root in Scotland under the oversight of Knox he not only brought the theology he had learned from Geneva with him, he also brought the Psalter as well. The Scottish Psalter of 1564 had all 150 Psalms and was used steadily until its replacement by the Scottish Psalter of 1650. Among the English Puritans psalmody was well established also. Multiple printings of the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter were made from 1560 on and used for nearly 100 years. It is also to be noted that the Westminster Confession explicitly authorizes and sanctions exclusive psalmody in chapter 21 on “Religious Worship.” Smith notes that chapter 21 was passed in session 732, October 29, 1646 with very little debate (pg. 6). He explains that the reason very little debate was needed is because the assembly had approved the Rouse Psalter for public worship just a year earlier in session 535, November 15, 1645. Such a legislative act meant that exclusive psalmody was the settled law of the land, therefore it is unquestionable that chapter 21 on religious worship can authorize nothing but exclusive psalmody.

So, there we have just a smattering of the evidence which substantiates the claim that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches of the 16th and 17th centuries used the psalms exclusively. Certainly more can and needs to be said to support the claim made in the introduction, but the trajectory is clear enough: Reformed and Presbyterians sang the psalms exclusively. Anyone who denies that must offer facts which refute the simple statement of the evidence presented above. If you are encountering this evidence for the first time you might be reeling a bit. After all, being Reformed is about being Biblical; yet, if your Reformed or Presbyterian church practices a form of worship so completely different than the historic Reformed church (which claimed to be Biblical in its worship), it cannot help but lead you to question if you are being Biblical in your worship. While you mull that question over, you might also be wondering whether it matters all that much after all. Surely one can be solidly Reformed in "the most important areas" without slavishly following the historic Reformed practice of worship right? Well, let me leave you with Calvin’s thoughts on the centrality of worship for the Reformation, and hopefully as you ruminate upon his comments, you will challenge yourself to come back and read the rest of the posts in this new series.

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.


David Rothstein said...

Awesome series. I embraced the Reformed faith about eight years ago, as a result of reading Calvin's Institutes. Very shortly after that, I encountered the regulative principle through an online reading of Girardeau's essay on the limits of church power. It wasn't long after that I read lots of stuff on the historic Reformed position on Psalm singing. Ever since then, it has continued to boggle my mind why so many excellent contemporary Reformed thinkers do not embrace the historic position. Since I belong to an OPC church that sings hymns, my own practice over the last few years has been to bring my Psalter to worship and take a few minutes before the service to choose Psalms that have the same tune (or at least the same meter) as the hymns listed in the church bulletin. That way, I can sing Psalms quietly while the rest of the congregation is singing hymns. It's not an ideal solution, but it beats remaining silent, or acting against conscience. Lately, though, I've been attending a church that sings Psalms exclusively. I look forward to your future posts on this!

Vic said...

As evidenced by David's post and my own experience, man-made compositions, far from being a bond of unity for the people of God, alienate those whose conscience is bound by the word of God, who wish to be faithful to the regulative principle, and who desire to follow in the footsteps of the reformers by singing God's own hymnbook only.

SinnerSavedByChrist said...

Awesome article. Thank you for defending such a glorious doctrine. Yes it is not immediately perspicuous, but the Westminster fathers of old spelled it out quite clearly: "Singing of Psalms" (note: nothing else. Just psalms!)