Singing Scripture only: the regulating role of the Word from Dordrecht to today – part 2 of a 4-part series

By Simon Jooste and Johannes Potgieter

Undisputed is the fact that the Doppers desired and realised a return to the 1619 Church Order of Dort (Louw 1999:597). Scholars are in agreement that the secession of the VGK from the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk (NHK) had much to do with what was sung in worship (Louw 1999:599). What is more contested, however (Van Wyk 1984:6), are the reasons why Article 69 and its provision for essentially singing God’s inspired songs was upheld without the provision for free hymns. While the Doppers tended to verbalise their objectives rather than write them down (Van der Vyver 1958:203), the evidence provided above suggests that the Doppers resisted evangelical hymns on principled theological grounds. While not necessarily using the phrases “principle of worship” or “regulative principle”, they nevertheless contended that fundamentally churches should only sing the songs found in God’s Word.

Rev. Dirk Postma and formative convictions around free hymns in the Vrye Gereformeerde Kerk

Rev. Dirk Postma, a recent Dutch import and the first minister to serve in the new breakaway VGK (Jooste 1959:57), was asked for his opinion on the matter of free hymns at the General Council Meeting of the NHK in Pretoria on 10 January 1859. There he stated that although he would not condemn a church that sings orthodox free hymns, he nevertheless considered it safest for the church to sing only hymns for which the text was found in the Bible (Jooste 1959:53). He also contended that where church members were unwilling to sing free hymns, their consciences must not be bound; and in keeping with Romans 14, only Psalms should be sung. If disagreement remained, Rev. Postma advised that the General Council leave the matter to the wisdom and conscience of each minister, so as not to overlook church member sentiment and encourage unnecessary division (Jooste 1959:53–54). Arguments by the new VGK minister seem to resonate with some of those made by delegates to the 1847 Synod of the DRC (Van der Vyver 1958:206).

A couple of factors should, however, be kept in mind when evaluating the weight of Rev. Postma’s comments. For one, he was a recent immigrant lacking the first-hand insights of the historical Doppers into the events leading up to the introduction of free hymns. Second, Rev. Postma was likely trying to be as cautious and conciliatory as possible as he found his feet as a newcomer in the ecclesiastical scene of the Transvaal Republic.

At the 1876 RCSA Synod, an important decision was made regarding the application of the historic Article 69 of Dort, namely, that only the 150 Psalms of David (found in the 1773 psalter) and limited hymns (such as the “Ten Commandments” and the “Lord’s Prayer”) expressly derived from the text of Scripture may be sung in corporate worship. This decision seems to be not only a reformation back to the 1619 Dort Church Order, but even beyond, to the earlier Dort synods and Calvin himself.

Subsequent decisions made by early synods of the RCSA further reinforced the animus of 1876. Of particular importance is the decision made by the Synod of 1888 where, following a request to sing a versification of the Apostles’ Creed, they agreed that only the psalms and songs for which the text is found in the Bible are to be sung during church worship services (GKSA 1888:54). This suggests that unlike Calvin and other theologians from the Reformation, they did not consider the Apostles’ Creed to possess apostolic (and thus God’s) authority. Also, worthy of attention is the response of Synod 1907 to a request to sing Kinderharp and Sankey songs. In this instance the highest assembly encouraged church councils to promote Psalm singing in order to counterbalance the rise in the use of Methodist songs (GKSA 1907:31). However, they recognised that the composition and selection of songs for singing in the home and school was left to the individual (GKSA 1918:53). During these early years, the RCSA considered Church Order Article 69 to be the golden rule in determining what should be sung during communal worship. Accordingly, they only made use of the 1773 Dutch psalter and other songs for which the text is found in the Bible and that had been approved for use by the 1618–1619 Synod of Dordrecht (Basson 2016:149).

At the 1913 Synod, deputies responsible for doing a thorough study of the history and principles governing Reformed church songs concluded that the inclusion of a single free hymn is a failure of Reformed conviction (GKSA 1913:48). Furthermore, at this point the inclusion of texts found in God’s Word were still limited to those expressly listed in in Article 69 of Dort.

Up until Synod 1927, the status quo remained, insofar as the RCSA resisted both the introduction of free hymns and the expansion of singing metrical versions of other Bible passages (GKSA 1927:155). However, by 1930 a marked shift had taken place, which coincided with the sentiments of J. D. du Toit (Totius), as described in the next section.

In short, the initial objection of the RCSA to the use of free hymns seems to have been a combination of an attempt to stave off false doctrine and the principle that free hymns as a liturgical element and form are not found in the Bible and therefore not suitable for use in God’s churches.

Enter Totius: The expansion of singing Scripture

Around 1920, a desire for Afrikaans (not Dutch) songs began to be raised within the RCSA. As a result, J. D. du Toit (Totius) was commissioned with the task of creating the first Afrikaans psalter, which appeared in 1937 (Viljoen 1990:54). He was the ideal candidate. A strong intellectual, Totius completed his PhD at the Free University in Amsterdam on the topic of “Methodism”. Moreover, he followed in the footsteps of his father, S. J. du Toit, by eagerly promoting Afrikaans literature. Notable among Totius’ accomplishments was the Afrikaans Bible translation (completed in 1933) and, later, the first Afrikaans psalter (completed in 1937). He was especially suited for the latter role not only because of his knowledge of the Hebrew language, but also because of his poetic and musical abilities.

Throughout his life, Totius wrote extensively on the topic of church singing. For example, from 1906 to 1912, he wrote a number of articles in Het Kerkblad in which a hypothetical discussion takes place between an elder and a church member. Significant for a window into Totius’ early views is an essay from 1906 where he affirms the practice set forth in Church Order Article 69 of Dort (1619) – that is, to essentially sing God’s inspired songs. And, yet, with qualification. His preference at this point was for the Psalms, a conviction he believed was in keeping with the tradition of Calvin and the Dutch churches at the time of Dort (1618–1619). At the same time, however, he could still entertain the metrical versifications of a narrow range of Bible passages. When it came to the historical inclusion of free hymns, at Dort (1619) and prior, he considered this a concession by way of exception in light of the tenuous religious and political circumstances of the time. For the early Totius, the danger of introducing free hymns and expanding the range of metrical versifications of Scripture outside of the Psalms was that the “pearls” of the Psalms would be sidelined (Du Toit 1977:3.5–3.8, 370–389).

From 1918 onwards it seems that Totius began to revise his earlier position relative to song in worship in general and Article 69 of Dort (1619) in particular. For one, in 1918 he clearly stated that metrical versifications of the New Testament were in principle permissible and entirely in keeping with both Calvin and Article 69 of Dort (1619) – the latter supposedly making a start in encouraging the practice, a practice that Totius thought should be expanded to include as many metrical versions of Scripture as possible (Du Toit 1977:3.425–438,438–439; cf. Venter 1977:18). In 1931, Totius listed a number of texts outside of the Psalms that he deemed suitable for worship, including a comment to the effect that the Book of Revelation – because of its poetic form – was to the New Testament what the Psalms were to the Old (Du Toit 1977:3.381–3.385, 439–444). In the same year, he made another significant shift away from his earlier convictions with the argument that neither Calvin nor the early Dutch Reformed disagreed in principle with free hymns (Du Toit 1977:3.365–3.373, 381–385). Furthermore, at this juncture Totius believed that both metrical Psalms and free hymns were essentially human compositions, albeit that metrical Psalms were safer because they were closer to the biblical text and therefore permanent (unlike the ad hoc nature of corporate prayers, which supposedly formed part of the basis for permitting – in theory – free hymns) (Du Toit 1977:3.373–3.381).

Although Totius’ position on the “what” of song in worship seemed to develop over time, including his attitude towards the Psalms, one reason for the “why” of singing Scripture only seems to have remained constant. For the RCSA pastor and poet, although the singing of free hymns may not have been fundamentally unbiblical, the practice nevertheless increased the likelihood of introducing theological error into the church and should therefore be avoided (Du Toit 1977:3.370–3.389). Lying behind Totius’s sentiments here is perhaps in part the position of Gisbertus Voetius famously articulated in his Politica ecclesiasticae. Here, he stated that although free hymns were not contrary to the Reformed principle, they nevertheless risked the introduction of heterodoxy if left unchecked (Du Toit 1977:3.369–3.370). In this regard, Totius displayed more resonance with Postma than the earlier Calvinist tradition, including the Doppers.

Click here for part 1.

Click here for part 3.

This essay was first published in In die Skriflig volume 54 number 2 (2020) under the title “The contested legacy of singing God’s inspired songs in the Reformed Churches in South Africa: The regulating role of the Word from Dordrecht to Totius and into the present”.