Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Rise and Decline of Exclusive Canonical Psalmody in the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches: The German Reformed Church

In the post that introduced this series on the Rise and Decline of Exclusive Canonical Psalmody in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, reference was made to an article which caught my attention many years ago when I first started studying out the issue of exclusive canonical psalmody. That article was entitled, “We Used To Sing Only Psalms---What Happened?”, and in examining that article it was noted that the “We” in the title referred to several different American Reformed and Presbyterian denominations including the RPCNA, CRC, RCA, PCUSA, and OPC and PCA. The significant claim made in that article was 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. Of course, the only denomination which continues to remain faithful to the Reformed heritage when it comes to worship is the RPCNA, the rest of the denominations listed, long ago exchanged the praises of Scripture for the words of men. The keen observer will have noticed however, that one denomination, which has roots in the 16th century Reformation, the German Reformed Church, has been left out of the article. Some might argue that omission was intentional and the account of it is that the German Reformed were so heavily influenced by the Lutherans when it came to song in worship, that they never really followed the pattern of Geneva. Such an accounting however is surely inaccurate and wrong. The PCA sub-committee on Psalm-singing was able to conclude many years ago that the German Reformed Churches shared the same worship practices as the rest of the 16th century Reformed church as it reported that “the Reformed churches in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, as well as the Presbyterian church in Scotland and later the Puritan churches in America were all exclusively Psalm singing until the beginning of the 19th century.” Obviously what is relevant for our purposes is that the German church is listed here with the rest of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches and the committee report asserts that the German’s along with the rest of the churches committed themselves the practice of Psalm singing until about the early 19th century. In what follows, support for that claim will be provided.

The early Reformation era practice of the German speaking churches must be distinguished from the later, mid 16th century German church practice. Hughes Old explains that the sources of Reformed psalmody and hymnody are to be traced back to four main cities: Strasbourg, Augsburg, Constance, and Geneva. The first three cities are relevant in this analysis because they were German speaking and their practice of praise in worship in the early days of the 16th century Reformation did vary from the practice which would take hold in Geneva under Calvin. Strasbourg, having a strong claim on being one of the earliest German speaking Reformed churches, deserves attention first. Bucer, the reformer of Strasbourg, held the line, early on, when it came to the content of worship song. The first several Strasbourg Psalters contained only inspired canonical songs. Apparently, Bucer’s position was coherent enough and consistent enough on this point, that Old is able to conclude that Calvin took over his position on worship song from Bucer (p.260). However, honesty requires us to mention that the 1537 Strasbourg Psalter does contain, for the first time, some human compositions which were used for newly approved holiday services, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Ascension. The newly revised practice of Strasbourg would be short-lived however as the city was sacked by imperial forces and returned to Papal control in the late 1540’s. As for the German speaking church at Augsburg it did not follow the early pattern set by Strasbourg, and as early as 1530 had included roughly 20 man-made hymns. Finally, we must note the rather obvious inclusion of a large number of hymns in the Constance Hymnbook of 1540 (p.260). Johannes Zwick and Ambrosius Blarer were so committed to the use of man-made hymns, that Old reports they made an argument for their practice in the preface to their hymnal. Conscious of a need to support their argument from the early church, they appealed to Tertullian’s comment that some brought songs of their own composition to church and to the example of Ambrose of Milan who is known for having composed a number of his own hymns for worship. Old’s comments at this point are instructive, as he points out that though it was legitimate, historically speaking, for them to appeal to Tertullian and Ambrose as support for the claim that the practice of Constance conformed to examples of the early church, it was also fraught with its own difficulties since “Tertullian and Ambrose represented the minority opinion in the ancient Church. From the middle of the second century until at least the end of the fourth century most churches confined themselves to hymns and psalms taken from Scripture” (p.261). It is not a great obstacle to the thesis presented in this post to note that Constance maintained such a liberal policy on man-made hymns since the Reformation was suppressed in Constance in 1548. That means, whatever worship practices emerged in the German Reformed church of the mid 16th century are not necessarily tied by genealogical succession to the practice of Strasbourgh, Augsburg, or Constance, since the work of Reformation had largely been terminated in these areas.

 The German Reformation in the mid 16th century was marked by a new phase of development in the trend toward strict Calvinism. In 1546 the Protestant faith found an opening in the Palatinate but opposition between Lutherans and Reformed parties prevented a Reformed consolidation until Frederick III took control in 1559. Convinced of the Calvinistic brand of Protestantism, Frederick reorganized the doctrine and worship of the Palatinate along classically Reformed lines. Not only did Frederick commission a catechism, he also called for a new liturgy which included the requirement to sing the Psalms in German. Timing could hardly have been better since the finished form of the Geneva Psalter had just been printed in 1562 and all it took was some translation work to provide the church in the Palatinate with a song book. Westermyer (1980) tells us that the work of translation was performed by Konigsberg law professor, Ambrosius Lobwaser, by 1565, and it was done so on account of the fact that it was Calvin’s example that the German Reformed followed (pg.90). German Reformed church historian, J.I. Good, writing in the 19th century confirms the German Reformed commitment to exclusive psalmody after the model of Calvin when he writes, "the Reformed Church of Germany had been like the other Calvinistic churches, a Psalm-singing Church for about a century. Since the days of Zwick and the Strasbourg hymn-writers in the time of Bucer they had produced no hymns (pg.403)." This quote makes it fairly clear that German Reformed Church after the mid 16th century was a psalm singing church and that it followed this practice out of a conscious determination to align its worship with that of Calvin and Geneva.

Now comes the distasteful part, which is to relate in brief, the DECLINE of psalm-singing in the German Reformed Church. Whether it occurred by the mid 17th century or by the early 18th century, there seems to be no dispute among historians that the practice of the German church changed from exclusive psalmody to a position that is very similar to the Lutheran practice. How and why that change took place is not all that difficult to nail down. Good tells us that though the practice of psalm-singing had been the norm for the first 100 years of the German Reformed, the winds of change did begin to blow and those winds were fanned by rise of German Pietism. Perhaps a sampling of quotes from Good at this point will serve well to capture what caused the reversal in practice:

Now if it had not been for revival of Pietism, who knows but we might still be singing the Psalms in the Reformed Church?
               We therefore have Pietism to thank for our hymns…

Strange as it may appear to us, the introduction of hymns was bitterly opposed in many parts of the Reformed Church as an innovation, as the old Reformed people had become greatly wedded to the Psalms…

They held that God’s word (the Psalms) and not man’s words (the hymns), should be sung in God’s worship. And in their Psalms they aimed at the literal rather than the rhythmical translation, so that God’s Word might be changed as little as possible.

For many years Neander’s hymns were not permitted to be sung in the churches. They were, however, used at private meetings, at conventicles and prayer meetings. But by and by they became so popular that they won their way into the churches, for the Church could no longer afford to pass them by.
So after will nigh a century and a half of psalm singing, the General Synod of Julich, Cleve, Berg and Mark issued a new hymn book in 1738 (pg.404).

Clearly, Good writes as one who supports the change caused by Pietism, but he also makes it abundantly clear that the change from psalms to hymns marked a radical and not minor change in practice. He  points out that the radical change was more about what was pragmatic than principled. Notice the principle of the old German practice as Good says, “They held that God’s word (the Psalms) and not man’s words (the hymns), should be sung in God’s worship,” but now, the German church does what became “popular” through use in the private meetings and conventicles. In other words, the false piety of German Pietism actuated the change in practice not the discovery of a command in the word of God to sing man-made hymns.

This new policy was far from the old one not only in practice but also in tone and ethos. Again, a quote from Good, no advocate of exclusive canonical psalmody either, which implicitly contrasts the original German Reformed commitment to Biblical worship with the new captures the difference:

The Reformed in many places closed the organs and introduced the singing of the psalms into the churches. Many of the old hymn books contained nothing but psalms…these psalms sustained the Reformed in persecution and linked their hearts more fully to God’s word. The early Reformed Church was Puritanic in her churches and her services (pg.453-4).

What is striking about Good’s observation is that the psalms were for a time when the church endured suffering and persecution for the sake of the gospel, and the hymns were for a time of ease, after the blood had been spilt, and the sweat and pain of the previous generation of builders had provided them a church where they could take rest in comfort. Perhaps the key to understanding the rise and decline of psalmody in the Reformed churches is found in this off-handed insight of Good. When the church suffers it looks to the word of God for relief, but when the church is at rest it looks to the opinions of men to sustain its comfort and ease. In a sense though, that may be the silver lining in the story for those who desire to see the church return to faithfulness in worship since our age is growing increasingly hostile toward true Christian faith. It may just well be that as the church in our age begins to endure more significant forms of persecution from an increasingly hostile culture that the syrupy, feel good worship that prevails everywhere today, even in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, will be replaced with the worship prescribed in God’s word. However, our prayer should not be that God would send sufferings so that we may be obedient in our worship, rather, our prayer ought to be that God would send us the Spirit of obedience, and that out of gratitude for salvation and a desire to glorify His name we may return to the kind of worship which God commands.   

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.

J.I. Good, The Origin of the Reformed Church in Germany (Reading, PA: Daniel Miller, 1887).

Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Zurich: Theologisher, 1975).
Westermeyer, Paul. German Reformed Hymnody in the United States. The Hymn 31 (1980): 89-94.

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