Singing Scripture only: the regulating role of the Word from Dordrecht to today – part 1 of a 4-part series

By Simon Jooste and Johannes Potgieter

The question of driving concern in this article is whether there are historical–theological reasons to critique the 2012 Reformed Churches in South Africa (RCSA) Synod decision to revise Article 69 of the church order to read as follows (RCSA 2012):

[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 and Scriptural faithful hymns which have been approved by the Synod, is left over to the jurisdiction of the churches. (p. 379)

Did the RCSA in her landmark decision marshal sufficient evidence from within her tradition to overturn such a thick catholic and early Reformed theology of singing only those songs found in God’s Word?

The scope of this article is focused on an investigation of song in worship in the period leading up to and including the 150-year history of the RCSA. It focuses on the period from the dissenting “Doppers” to the adoption of the Dordrecht church order in 1859 and thereafter from Totius and into the present. And yet, it assumes and builds upon a body of historic Reformed scholarship congruent with the main argument of this essay: that is, what fundamentally lies behind the historic Reformed practice of singing only God’s inspired songs in worship – pre- and post-1859 in South Africa – is the scriptural or regulative principle of worship (S/RPW). This article begins its parochial retrieval of the S/RPW by briefly tracing applicable social, political and religious forces leading up to the establishment and shaping of the formative convictions of the RCSA in the two young South African republics and the Cape Colony. Our attention then turns to a sketch of key figures and synodical decisions around the evolution of singing in worship, as set forth in the original version of Article 69 of the RCSA church order. Finally, and in light of the findings, this article argues for the value of reforming worship today according to the historical and confessional theological category known as the S/RPW, especially in light of the introduction of free hymns at Synod 2012.

Calvinist successors to Dort: The Dutch settlers and the dissenting Doppers

Inheritors of a contested Calvinist legacy

The Dutch Reformed Synod of Dort (1618–1619) is a highlight in the history of the early continental Reformed tradition. The Church Order Article 69 that it birthed essentially perpetuated the catholic (Bushell 1999:154–167; Maxwell 1936; Oliphant Old 1975; Oliphant Old 2002:47) and Calvinist (Clark 2008, 2010:266–269) practice of singing only the songs found in God’s Word. More contested, and yet assumed, is the claim that what motivated this practice was a Calvinist and confessional theology otherwise known as the S/RPW (Clark 2008:227–229; Clark 2010; Gordon 2003; Manetsch 2015:34–35; Oliphant Old 1975:231). Thus, when Reformed immigrants from the Lowlands anchored in Table Bay in 1652, they brought with them a tradition of singing predominantly Psalms, rooted in an understanding of sola Scriptura as summarised in the Three Forms of Unity. That confession is: what is permissible in corporate worship – including what is sung – must be commanded by God in his authoritative and sufficient Word, and nothing besides (BC 1983:art. 2–5, 7, 32; HC 1983:LD 35; Inst. 4.10.23–26; cf. 4.10.30; 3.11.1; Ursinus 1992:506–549; Voetius 1891:783, 797).

The early Dutch imports stationed at the Cape of Good Hope sought to further a Calvinist and confessional legacy with an inherited church order that bore the marks of ecclesiastical and political ferment. More specifically, and not unlike the reforming attempts of Calvin in 16th-century Geneva (Clark 2010:258–269), Article 69 of Dort (1619) gives evidence of a liturgical renewal effort that was compromised and ultimately cut short by a meddling civil magistrate (Clark 2008:253–254). How then would Article 69 of Dort – an article that made a contested provision for the singing of two uninspired hymns – fare in the new religious and political landscape of Southern Africa? Would this new outpost of Cape-Dutch Reformed churches reform according to the catholic and Calvinist practice of singing God’s inspired songs only or not? And on what theological basis would their decisions be made?

The Dutch reformed in the early South African context

The practice of song in public worship that was brought to the shores of Southern Africa by the Dutch settler Jan van Riebeeck on 06 April 1652 was Psalm singing. Although primarily tasked with establishing a supply post for the Dutch East India Company [Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie] (VOC), he and his fellow settlers were nonetheless eager to establish the continental Reformed tradition at the Cape of Good Hope. These pious Old-World immigrants brought with them their 1637 Statenvertaling (the first official Dutch Bible) and their psalter, The Psalms of Datheen (1566), for both public and private worship (Mathlener 1979:60). The aforementioned psalter, which included the Heidelberg Catechism, some church order notes and ecclesiastical formularies, resonated strongly with the French Genevan psalter of the French Huguenots, who joined the Cape Colony in 1688–1689. Datheen’s psalter formed a central part of early settler piety until its updated replacement in 1775 (Cillie 1983:34–5). This update included the introduction of a few free hymns, most likely for home use only (Louw 1999:589).

As a result of frequent interaction with trading vessels and a slow but steady increase in new settlers, the Cape Colony was not isolated from or immune to events happening in Europe. For one, there were the significant influences of the Enlightenment and the later 1789 French Revolution. And at the same time, like other places in Europe, there was the control of the Dutch state over the Reformed churches (Louw 1999:589). Adding fuel to these fires was the 17th-century entrenchment of pietism both on the continent and in the British Isles.

The Reformed churches at the Cape of Good Hope, though having freedom to govern themselves in keeping with the presbyterial system of their church order, were still responsible to Classis Amsterdam and under the ecclesiastical reign of the VOC. The VOC paid the salaries of the ministers, sat in on church council meetings and had to approve new office bearers before they could be ordained. This arrangement meant that developments in the Netherlands in particular also had a significant impact on the churches in Southern Africa (Coertzen 2018:5–7).

De Mist, pietism and the introduction of free hymns

Towards the end of the 17th century, there developed within the Netherlands a strong desire for spiritual renewal that focused on finding new songs for the churches to sing (Viljoen 1990:50–51). In 1773, a special commission was given this task. Their first completed collection of songs was produced in 1803 and in 1806 were made available for use (Viljoen 1990:52). In fact, it was mandated by the state (without any Synod decision because there had been none since 1618–1619) that an evangelical hymn be sung every Sunday (Louw 1999:589–590). The speed with which these songs were introduced into the Reformed churches in Holland was in stark contrast to the introduction of hymns in Germany, where it was a much slower and more gradual process. Despite the fact that the Hymns of the Covenant were produced by Joachim Neander as early as 1679, they were not accepted for use in the German churches until 1738. This is because they were initially opposed on the grounds that God’s Word and not man’s words was to be sung in the churches. However, because they were increasingly being used at private meetings and other gatherings, they became so popular that they won their way into churches and could not be refused (Good 1894:403–404).

After the Evangelische Gezangen [Evangelical Hymns] were approved for use in the Netherlands, it was not long before they were introduced to churches in South Africa. In 1812, the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in Stellenbosch ordered 2000 of these new songbooks and began singing from them on Sunday, 20 February 1814. For more than 150 years, no great change in singing had occurred in South Africa (Gerstner 1991:43). However, now, without any formal debate, free hymns were introduced into several churches (Spoelstra 1989a:64).

These extra-biblical song imports contained many of the hallmarks of pietism, rationalism, humanism and Arminianism (Cillie 1983:31). According to Spoelstra (1984:3), they exhibited the “spirit of the classical Greek worldview with an emphasis on an autonomous man who, through reason, can be his own god and master”. Not only were these ideas brought to South Africa through new hymns, but they also came in the form of a new church order.

In 1804, J.A. de Mist, the commissioner-general of the interim government of the Batavian Republic in the Cape Colony (1802–1806), drew up a constitution for the church according to the new ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Based upon the humanist philosophy of the 18th century (such as J. J. Rousseau’s Le Contract Social), the autonomous individual enjoys the freedom of religious association and constitutes by means of delegation and agreement with others a church to his liking (Spoelstra 1989a:62). Although the articles of the De Mist church order set forth in seed form a charter for religious freedom, they were out of place in a document intended to govern the spiritual polity of Christ’s church (cf. BC 1983:art. 30). In addition to mixing civic policy with spiritual governance and encouraging collegialism, the colonial government of the time overstepped its authority by acting like a synod when consenting on behalf of the churches to the introduction of free hymns (Louw 1999:590). Furthermore, the indirect effect of the patronage and ordering of the state at the time was a sidelining of the Dort church order.

Not to be underestimated relative to the reception of evangelical hymns in the early 18th-century South African context is the role that pietism played. Finding its roots in medieval mysticism (Clark 2008:75–76), 16th- and 17th-century German, Dutch and English pietism found its way to the tip of Africa through various channels. An element of pietism was felt in the spirituality of the founding Dutch settlers, especially after 1752 (Elphick & Davenport 1997: 22, 31–34; 2012:40–41), through European missionaries and the subsequent commissioning of Scottish Presbyterian ministers into the ranks of the Dutch Reformed clergy (Elphick & Davenport 1997:9, 21–25; Theron 2008:230–231). Although notoriously difficult to define, pietism of the Dutch and English varieties is a posture of ecclesiastical critique (for her collusion with the state and otherwise) that seeks reformation and renewal outside of the official forms, offices, creeds and worship of the established church. True and vital spirituality for the pietist is located in a free flow of heartfelt devotion to God that evidences itself in private devotion, moral living and social transformation (Hart 2013:72–181). Although beyond the scope of this essay to explore further and defend, it seems plausible to suggest that an updated pietism – in the form of revivalism– played a role within the DRC in the objectivity of Article 69 of Dort (1619) being replaced with the subjective novelty of evangelical hymns (Elphick 2012:40–41; Louw 1999:591; Moodie 1975:58–59).

The dissenting Doppers and a return to early Calvinism

Although the De Mist church order was accepted by the first Synod of the DRC of the Cape Colony in 1824 (Louw 1999:593), and despite the inroads of pietism and its daughters revivalism and later evangelicalism, there was by no means a unanimous acceptance of this turn away from the piety and practice of Dordrecht. Farmers living on the north-eastern border of the Cape Colony, bearing the nickname of “Dopper”, were not willing to accommodate the new worldly philosophy. They objected in particular to the “evangelical hymns”. And despite pressure from church authorities, they were unwilling to simply go along with the spirit of the age (Louw 1999; Spoelstra 1989a:63–64).

A circular issued by the Presbytery of Graaff-Reinet in 1841 sheds some light on the objections that these individuals raised. It seems as if the Doppers claimed that evangelical hymns contained a new gospel (Jooste 1959:38–39). In their objections to singing these hymns, they also appealed to Article 7 of the Belgic Confession and Article 69 of the Church Order of the 1618–1619 Synod of Dort (Kruger 1956:44; Spoelstra 1989a:64). Accordingly, it was contended that the Word of God was sufficient and complete. It needs no human additions because it contains everything we need to worship God. Furthermore, God had not ordained the use of free hymns. Therefore, by introducing them into the churches, Article 7 was effectively ignored (Kruger 1956:109). At other times, the Doppers were known to treat the extra-canonical hymns as a violation of the Second Commandment: idolatry. Recourse was also made to other classic texts in support of the S/RPW, namely, the likes of Deuteronomy 4:2, 1 Samuel 15:23 and Matthew 15:9 (Louw 1999:594). In short, the Doppers resisted the imposition of free hymns because they believed that such a requirement was out of keeping with God’s Word (Louw 1999:592). This position would feature more formally by a contingency of dissenters at the 1847 Synod of the DRC (Van Der Vyver 1958:206).

Eventually, opposition to the evangelical hymns by the Doppers and other like-minded Christians resulted in the (re-)establishment of a Vrye Gereformeerde Kerk (VGK; later renamed as the GKSA/RCSA) on 11 February 1859 (Pont 1979:71). Now at last, after a long struggle, which dated back to the 1830s, after years of resistance against false doctrine which had been tolerated in the churches, after years of sighing “because the church wants to force the people’s consciences to accept human ordinances and teachings contrary to the Word”, relief had finally come (Van der Vyver 1958:294).

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”.