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

By Simon Jooste and Johannes Potgieter

It is our opinion that the 1942 RCSA revision of Article 69 was based on a church historical hermeneutic that set the stage for her more radical revision in 2012. As described above, the decision of the 2012 Synod turned on the assumption that the original Article 69 of Dort (1619) had built into it an expansive vision for singing rhymed versions of all biblical texts. And this despite the formidable catholic and Calvinist history of singing predominantly Psalms and only a select number of God-given (inspired) songs.

In addition to a flawed appraisal of this historical practice, there has been close to no engagement of a theology that underlies Article 69 of 1619 Dort, namely, Calvin’s principle of worship and the confessional category otherwise known as the S/RPW. These historical and theological tensions were picked up in the successful year 2000 gravamen against the Synod 1997 decision to exclude free hymns. The notion that only songs given by God in his Word may be sung (in keeping with the S/RPW; Van der Linde 1983:174–175; Visser 1999:192), while also allowing for non-poetic versifications of Scripture (such as the “Ten Commandments”) and non-canonical hymns (see the “Apostles’ Creed”), cannot be logically housed in Article 69 at the same time (cf. Viljoen 1990:55). Instead of resolution to this dilemma being found in historical Calvinist theology and practice, our churches embarked in a new direction of promoting the use of free hymns. In short, 20th-century RCSA deliberations around song in worship, which came to a head with the 2012 decision, evidence little investigation into the relationship between our confessional standards and our church order (the former being the basis for the latter). Practice in this instance, it seems, has been divorced from doctrine (read: confessional theology).

Historical–theological amnesia seems to have increased in the years following 1942, culminating with the latest revision of Article 69. This phenomenon appears to have been aided and abetted by the commentary of the RCSA luminary Totius – not only in terms of his later approval of an expanded list of Bible songs, but also his openness to the possibility of free hymns. Joining the conciliatory Postma and later Totius, other historic synodical commentary would fail to appreciate the catholic and Calvinist practice of singing predominantly Psalms. And furthermore, one would continue to search in vain for any substantive engagement of the S/RPW as set forth by Calvin, indirectly by the Doppers and explicitly in the Three Forms of Unity. To be sure, the historical RCSA conviction that singing Scripture is the safest way, because it limits the church’s exposure to heresy, has resonance with the S/RPW. Yet, evidently the RCSA’s understanding of this driving principle has evolved to welcome free hymns. Such a move is at stark odds with early Calvinist theology and practice, both on the continent and in Southern Africa. It threatens our confessional Reformed identity.

Concluding remarks: Semper reformanda and worship in the Reformed Churches in South Africa

Recovering continuity with a catholic and Calvinist tradition

The RCSA is a confessional federation with a laudable track record in many respects. And yet she has not been immune to the temptations facing all post-Apostolic churches: to compromise on account of cultural pressures. The Apostolic practice of Psalm-singing by the church fathers was almost erased by a worldly medieval Roman Catholic Church. Calvin’s reform back to the early church was stunted by Genevan authorities. And Dort (1619) failed to realise her Calvinist renewal efforts due to a meddling civil government. Similarly, the Reformed experiment on the southern tip of Africa has not been without marked religious and political turmoil. From the days of the VOC through the rise and demise of Afrikaner nationalism to the equalising impulses of a liberal post-Apartheid constitution, the Reformed family of churches has struggled to keep a clear liturgical vision. Add to this the political and pietist (and updated revivalist and evangelical) attraction towards social justice and subjective spiritual experience (cf. Campbell 2013; Clark 2008:1–116; Hart 2013:160–304; 2003:179–239; 2002:xv–28), and the heirs to the continental Reformed tradition have wavered in maintaining continuity with the best of their creedal past. The RCSA has been no exception. Aside from her decades-long vacillation over women in office, the 2012 revision of Article 69 – to give free hymns equal footing with inspired texts – is perhaps most telling. It is a decision that surely cannot be disconnected from a broader church atmosphere reflective of an egalitarian, activist and therapeutic culture.

Can the RCSA find a way back to her roots when it comes to her highest calling, worship? Could the road back be found in her confessions? And more specifically in the recovery of the S/RPW?

Recovering what we believe and confess: The scriptural or regulative principle of worship

As far as we can tell, the language of the S/RPW has not featured positively in any significant way in the history of the RCSA. And yet, substantive Reformed scholarship supports the claim that our church standards set forth this principle – in contrast to the (Anglican and Lutheran) normative principle of worship – as undergirding our theology and practice of worship. Beyond the element of prayers sung, we practise, for example, preaching and not drama (cf. BC 1983:art. 29; HC 1983:Q/A 65). Furthermore, we believe that representations of Christ run contrary to the second commandment (HC 1983:LD 35). In short, the confessional Reformed tradition rejects man-made pomp and ceremony in favour of the simplicity of the ministry of Word, sacrament and prayer that Christ ordained, and with reverence and awe (cf. BC 1983:art. 27–35).

While it is beyond the scope of this essay to wade into debates around its application in other areas of church liturgy, we nevertheless point out that the S/RPW has been invoked in historical debates around the appropriateness of the likes of festival days (i.e. observance of a liturgical calendar), the inclusion of the Apostles’ Creed in the liturgy, musical accompaniment in worship and infrequent observance of the Lord’s Supper (Clark 2008:253; Clark 2010; De Ridder 1987:144–145, 149, 217, 219, 280–281, 358–359, 554–555; Williamson 2001). In the more recent past, the historical conception of the S/RPW has been substantively revised almost beyond recognition in certain Presbyterian and Reformed circles within North America. Perhaps most influential in calling for change has been the well-known Presbyterian minister John Frame – a source that was used, in part, to implicitly dismiss the traditional reading of the S/RPW in the 2006 RCSA Synod doctrinal deputies report (GKSA 2006:565).

The RCSA should be commended for her continuity with the early Calvinist and Reformed traditions’ rendering of the S/RPW in many liturgical respects. This essay has focused on the legacy of her contested attempt to sing God’s inspired songs, especially the Psalms, and on the basis of divine mandate. Has the RCSA been at least historically unfaithful in introducing free hymns without engaging the S/RPW in any significant way? Can she reasonably dismiss such a prominent historic confessional Reformed doctrine just because it has not featured explicitly in her own history?

The original Article 69 of the Church Order of Dort (1619) is no golden standard for judging what is most biblically sound relative to church song. The 1618–1619 Synod of Dort represented a compromise for churches experiencing internal discord and external civil duress. What is required for semper reformanda today is a retrieval of the biblical theology driving the catholic and Calvinist practice of singing God’s inscripturated songs, especially the Psalms. And one need not look any further than the Three Forms of Unity to find it. For those open to revisiting the RCSA decisions of 1942 and 2012, the S/RPW promises to be an indispensable part of ongoing discourse around liturgical renewal.

Click here for part 1.

Click here for part 2.

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”.


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