Singing Scripture only: the regulating role of the Word from Dordrecht to today – part 3 of a 4-part series

By Simon Jooste and Johannes Potgieter

By 1930 the tide appears to have begun to change within the RCSA relative to song in corporate worship. That this shift coincided with a similar change in the convictions of Totius (as described above) should not go unnoticed. Between 1930 and 1942, the convening of RCSA general synods culminated in a 1942 revision of the 1913 reading of Article 69 to make provision for rhymed versions of the Bible (GKSA 1942):

[I]n the Churches only the 150 Psalms and the rhymed versions of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostolic Confession, and the Hymns of praise of Mary, Zacharias and Simeon shall be sung. The use of other rhymed versions of Bible verses which have been approved by the synod, is left to the jurisdiction of each church council. (p. 134)

This revision was based on a number of important synodical decisions made during the aforementioned years. These included, for one, the decision by RCSA deputies, assigned to versify an Afrikaans psalter, to recommend six additional Bible songs for the back of the new hymnal (GKSA 1930:50), despite having no mandate to do so (Van Wyk 1979:64). Subsequently, at Synod 1933 consideration was given to investigating the possibility of expanding the number of metrical versifications of Scripture to be sung in worship (GKSA 1933:134) – yet without any gravamen (per Church Order Article 31) having been submitted against the standing Synod decision of 1913 to limit the number of Bible songs beyond the Psalms. In 1936, alongside the gravamen submitted against the decision of 1933, the deputies for producing a new Afrikaans psalter hymnal gave no insight into the scriptural or historical Reformed basis for their recommending of six new Bible songs (GKSA 1936:78–85). Further gravamina against the 1933 decision were received in 1939. Common to these complaints were the following: the founding principle of Article 69 was being challenged; the decision was at odds with previous Synod rulings and historical RCSA practice; the primary place of the Psalms was being endangered; and the unity of the church was challenged insofar as some would have objections on the grounds of conscience (GKSA 1939:90–100; Van Wyk 1979:67).

The decision in 1942 (GKSA 132–135) to revise Article 69 of the church order arguably represented an unprecedented move to amend the practice of singing predominantly Psalms. This move was made without any principled theological reasons given for why a change was necessary or advice given on what passages of Scripture were suitable for singing (Van Wyk 1979:72).

Song in worship deemed non-essential and the introduction of free hymns: 1961–2012

By 1961 the RCSA’s shift away from her confessional Reformed roots and founding vision became even more pronounced with the Synod decision that what was sung in churches was a non-essential matter (GKSA 1961:452–453). Taken together, the landmark Synod decisions of 1942 and 1961 provided fertile ground for the most dramatic revision of Article 69 to date: the 2012 decision to allow for free hymns. A brief consideration of select intervening synods provides further light on the emergence of such an oddity in the historically orthodox corner of the South African Reformed landscape.

At the 1997 RCSA Synod, a motion was submitted requesting that Article 69 be changed to make provision for singing free hymns. Part of the reasoning behind this motion was the supposed ‘fact’ that although the RCSA had historically sung Scripture only, this practice had not been on the principled grounds that free hymns were biblically unwarranted, but rather because they were potentially an invitation to error. However, the synod adjudicated that this motion failed, with the motivation that the songs the Lord had given his church in his Word were sufficient and best (GKSA 1997:797–799) – a motivation which resonates with the S/RPW (cf. Van Der Linde 1983:174–175). Yet, although the aforementioned theology may echo an earlier catholic and Reformed tradition, the fissure between confessional Reformed theology and practice within the RCSA opened her up to a successful year 2000 gravamen against the above 1997 decision. The essence of said gravamen was that it was inconsistent to claim the theological principle that only songs found in the Bible may be sung in corporate worship when the Apostles’ Creed and non-poetic Scripture versifications (SB 6, 26:11) were at the same time permissible per an updated Article 69 (GKSA 2000:459–462). In short, this gravamen demonstrated that the wording of Article 69 was neither in keeping with practice in the RCSA nor their alleged doctrinal principle (singing inspired songs only).

By 2006 further momentum had been generated in the direction of giving allowance to free hymns. Notable from the liturgical deputies’ report are the following arguments: that free hymns were used from the 2nd through the 4th centuries; historical proponents for singing Scripture, including Calvin, were motivated primarily by avoiding error; and differences around church song were not a reason for division. In short, it was argued that there could be no principled objection to the expansion of Article 69 to include free hymns (GKSA 2006:616–626). Also in support of the same conclusion was the report of the doctrinal deputies. Their arguments included the following: the idea that if instruction in the church can be given with free words, then the same liberty should be extended to song; Calvin made a selective use of church history and spurious use of Scripture to arrive at his position on song; the free hymn had been used since the earliest time in church history; the historical exclusion of free hymns was based on human tradition and not Scripture (reference was made to Belgic Confession Article 7); and additional songs were needed to aid churches in the celebration of the liturgical calendar. In short, the free hymn was supposedly both permissible and necessary (GKSA 2006:557–571). Because of a lack of time, further debate was delayed to 2009.

At Synod 2009, the RCSA decided that Article 69 might be amended to allow for free hymns, pending the production of a comprehensive framework for evaluating them. The basis for this decision hinged upon the claim that the fundamental principle behind Article 69 was to avoid heresy from entering the church through song. If hymns could be deemed scripturally faithful, then they were permissible to be sung and might not be refused. To arrive at this conclusion, recourse was made, among others, to Totius’s endorsement of the historic decisions of Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN) Arnhem (RCSA 2009:752–755).

In 2012, the RCSA Synod held in Potchefstroom made a landmark decision. It represented the culmination of previous decisions and a shifting animus around church song dating back to 1930, which had gained significant momentum with the decisions of 1942, 1961, 2000 and 2009. Article 69 was finally amended to allow for free hymns. This decision was essentially based on arguments presented in 2006 and 2009, as well as motivated by a desire to accommodate the differing liturgical practices in an increasingly multicultural RCSA (RCSA 2012:374). In doing so, the RCSA made substantial changes to Article 69 and reverted to a practice that they had vehemently objected to when they broke away from the NHK in 1859.

Click here for part 1.

Click here for part 2.

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”.