The Psalms

Singing Scripture only: the regulating role of the Word from Heidelberg to Dordrecht – part 1 of a 2-part series

By Simon Jooste and Johannes Potgieter

The key question to be explored in this article is whether the Reformed Churches in South Africa (RCSA) possess within her tradition the resources to perpetuate her predominating legacy of singing Scripture only. Did her 2012 General Synod decision to revise Article 69 of her (Dordrecht-modelled) church order and permit free hymns signal the end of further historical and theological inquiry into the merits of this legacy?

To answer this question, this article provides historic evidence for the scriptural or regulative principle of worship (S/RPW) underlying the original formulation of Article 69 of the church order of Dordrecht by beginning with the Three Forms of Unity. These forms – the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordrecht – are not only historical precursors to the RCSA’s original church order, but continue to serve as the ongoing interpretive lens for understanding what Scripture and the Reformed tradition teach on the theology and practice of singing in worship. In addition to the Three Forms, other select figures and events leading up to the 1618–1619 Synod of Dordrecht will be examined.

Principles for worship: some confessional co-ordinates

Like historic Presbyterians and Lutherans, the Reformed tradition is inherently confessional. This means her identity and practice have been shaped by agreed-upon creedal statements, from Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances to the Three Forms of Unity. The continental Reformed symbols are a faithful summation of what the Bible teaches. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that they have much to say about worship.

God and covenant

Mostly implicit to the Three Forms and its teaching on worship is the covenant relationship between God and his people. Although the term is only mentioned five times (HC 1983: Questions 74, 77, 79), the concept emerges organically (Brown 2015). God is King over heaven and earth as the chief architect of creation and salvation (BC 1983: art. 1–2; HC 1983: LD 9–10). In the infinite perfections of his divine being, he is wholly other than what he has created (BC 1983: art. 1; HC 1983: LD 34–7). God is sovereign Lord and man is his servant (LD 34; CoD 1983: head I; HC 1983: Questions 26–27). As perfectly holy and just, God has graciously chosen to act freely for his glory in creating and redeeming sinners – to make them into worshippers. Throughout the Bible, God has progressively unveiled his plan of salvation through various covenants culminating with the new covenant sealed in Christ’s blood (cf. especially, BC 1983: art.1, 8, 10–26; CoD 1983: heads II–IV; HC 1983: Questions 1–23). Basically understood, a biblical covenant is a formal agreement that creates a relationship between God and his people with legal aspects (Brown & Keele 2012).

It is beyond the scope of this article to defend at length the claim that the doctrine of covenant substantively undergirds the continental Reformed standards (cf. e.g. Beach 2010; Brown 2015; Estelle et al. 2009; Ursinus 1992:97–99; Woolsey 2012). Suffice to say and for starters, although increasingly contested in more recent times, there is a robust body of contemporary Reformed scholarship defending the notion that the Three Forms depicts God entering into a covenant of works with Adam prior to the Fall (cf. e.g. Beach 2010; Brown 2015; Estelle et al. 2009). Evidence for this is found, for one, in that Adam is portrayed as created in the image of God in a state of holiness, righteousness and goodness, with obligations inherent to this state. He was to live a life in conformity with the sanctity of the divine image (BC 1983: art. 14; CoD 1983: heads III/IV: 1; HC 1983: Questions 6–8). The Belgic Confession states that Adam was given the “commandment of life” – not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – which in the end he transgressed, thereby violating the whole law (BC 1983: art. 14). Second, Adam was created and put to test as the federal representative of the human race. When he failed to live out the divine image and transgressed the commandment, all his posterity fell in him (BC 1983: art. 15; CoD 1983: heads III/IV:2–3; HC 1983: Questions 6–8). Although Adam and Eve had the ability to obey God’s law, they rebelled against God and came under his just and supreme punishment for law-breaking (BC 1983: art. 14–15; CoD 1983: heads III/IV:1; HC 1983: Questions 9–11). While the language of covenant of works prior to the fall is not explicitly present in the Three Forms, the elements are there, namely federal representation, the standard of legal conditions, and sanctions and actual punishment for covenant-breaking.

With the covenant of works as the critical and illumining backdrop, the Three Forms also substantively set forth the (less contested) constituent elements of the covenant of grace. Far from setting aside the perfect legal standard, Christ the Mediator fulfils all righteousness, thereby rescuing sinners from divine judgment. In doing so, Jesus acts as the justified second Adam whose perfect obedience is imputed to those guilty in the first Adam, who receive it by faith (BC 1983: art. 17–18, 20, 20–25; CoD 1983: heads I, 2, II:1–4, 9; HC 1983: Questions 12, 15–18, 20, 36, 59–60). The Reformers understood that the Gospel message would be lost without the anchoring of its twofold covenantal foundation (Brown 2015).

It is in light of God’s choice to relate to man in the context of covenant that worship should be understood. Our same Lord who sets the terms of the covenant is the one who determines how he is to be worshipped. In keeping with the Reformation banner of Sola Scriptura (cf. BC 1983: arts. 3–7, 32), just as sinners are not left in the dark, as to the way of salvation, they are not left wondering how God wants his covenant people to respond to him in public worship (Clark 2008:261, 281; cf. Ex 19:7–8). But sinful man has always been prone to think and act otherwise.

Sin and the perverse imagination of man

In the Garden of Eden, God communed with man whom he had created righteous and holy. Man was able to do things agreeable to the will of God. And yet, Adam transgressed the commandment of life that he had received. On account of original sin, Adam and all mankind have been separated from God. They are by nature wicked, perverse and corrupt in all their ways, and thus, unable to know or do God’s will (BC 1983: art. 14–15; CoD 1983: heads 3–4:1–5; HC 1983: LD 2–3). As a result, the natural man hates God. Steeped in his own wisdom and wallowing in self-worship, he engages in serial idolatry (BC 1983: art. 36; HC 1983: LD 2, 35–36; cf. Ursinus 1992:506–549). Such is the plight of sinful man. And yet, even the redeemed, regenerated and those indwelt by the Spirit struggle to discern and follow through on the will of God. The saints are so weak – beset by all manner of temptations at the hands of the world, the flesh and the devil – that they cannot stand for a moment, without the preserving and strengthening work of the Spirit (CoD 1983: heads 5:1–4; HC 1983: LD 44, 52).

If Adam required the commandment of life to guide his existence and worship in a state of uprightness, how much more does the church depend upon the revelation of God as that institution comprising sinners and saints? How necessary are the directives of God when it comes to the church’s highest yet most abused calling: worship?

The authority and sufficiency of the Word

As the covenant Lord, it is God’s sovereign prerogative to determine the means by which he makes himself known for his glory and our salvation, which is the holy Word (BC 1983: art. 2). Endued with divine authority, the Word of God serves to regulate, found and confirm faith (BC 1983: art. 5). More specifically, as the manifestation of God’s will and the all-sufficient rule of faith, “the Holy Scriptures set forth the whole manner of worship that God requires of us” (emphasis ours). Therefore, all words of men intended to either add to or take away from this infallible rule are forbidden. “[W]e reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our conscience in any way” (BC 1983: art. 32; emphasis ours). The Belgic Confession goes on to speak in other places about God’s regulation of the life of the church at worship. For instance, the church is a creation of God’s Word, outside of which there is ordinarily no salvation to be found. To withdraw from God’s church is to act contrary to his ordinance (BC 1983: art. 27–28). Furthermore, the church, in order to be true to God and his Word, must display three essential marks: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments that Christ instituted and the practice of church discipline. “In short, it [the church] governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as her only Head” (BC 1983: art. 29; emphasis ours). The discharge of these three marks entails a spiritual order taught in the Word, namely, the offices of minister, elder and deacon – with their respective preaching, ruling and service functions (BC 1983: art. 30–32). These are the ways in which the true church can be recognised. To be distinguished from her is the false church, which may easily be discovered wherever “it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God” (BC 1983: art. 29).

Worshipping God only as he commands

The Heidelberg Catechism also speaks directly to those ways in which God wants his church to be governed, essentially repeating the three marks of a true church (see generally HC 1983: Part 2). Unlike the Belgic Confession, it uses the language of the keys to the kingdom according to the command of Christ (HC 1983: LD 31). Furthermore, the Catechism provides commentary on the first table of the Decalogue, which deals directly with public worship. In the First Commandment, the Lord commands that he alone be worshipped as the one true God. Anything contrary to this, his revealed will, is idolatry (HC 1983: LD 34; cf. Ursinus 1992:510). In the Second Commandment, God sets forth the manner, which he requires in worship. ‘That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word’. For we should not presume to be wiser than God (HC 1983: LD 35). In the Third Commandment, God commands the form of worship, which should be without the sin of blasphemy – the greatest of all evils (HC 1983: LD 36; cf. Ursinus 1992:536–542). And in the Fourth Commandment, our covenant Lord prescribes the day on which he is to be worshipped publicly and how it is to be sanctified (HC 1983: LD 37).

Indeed, seeing that what is sung in worship are prayers offered up corporately, the Lord’s Prayer – as the church’s primary pattern – provides helpful insight into what pleases God. Most applicable, in the First Petition the church asks that God’s name be magnified, praised and honoured, and not blasphemed. In the Second Petition, the faithful pray that the Kingdom of Christ would come insofar as the church is governed by God’s Word and Spirit. In the Third Petition, the saints pray to God that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven as men obey his Word. It is worth drawing attention again to the Sixth Petition where it is prayed that God would keep his church from temptation and evil, which burns most fiercely around her loftiest duty: worship (HC 1983: LD 47–49, 52).

In short, to worship God only as he commands is in keeping with the tenor of the covenant relationship where God is the primary actor and his people are those who receive (cf. e.g. HC 1983: LD 25–31). The worship of the church is always in grateful response to the Word of the covenant Lord who commands, keeps those commands in his Son (HC 1983: LD 11–19), confirms his promises (questions 65–66), assures of salvation (question 73), graciously governs by his Spirit (question 76) and covers sin (question 81). This thankful response of those in Christ is by the Word of Christ given in Scripture. God gives what he commands the Christian through the Word and Spirit in the lisping praise of his redeemed people (HC 1983: LD 34–38). It seems reasonable to infer then that what God expects to be sung in corporate worship he gives in his Word, especially considering that worship is man’s highest duty (Ursinus 1992:536–537).

Liberty of conscience

The movement of the Heidelberg Catechism from guilt under the law to grace received in Christ to free and grateful obedience is the witness of Scripture (HC 1983). The conscience of the believer is at once gloriously liberated from the law for justification and subject to it in sanctification (HC 1983: Part 3). We may speak of the latter as the regulative or Scriptural principle of the Christian life. We believe and confess that the infallible rule of Scripture contains the will of God for our salvation and the manner of worship he requires of us (BC 1983: art.7). Echoing Scripture, the Three Forms of Unity gives priority of place to the revelation of redemption in Christ and the necessity of repentance and faith. The next order of attention is given to the chief duty of saved sinners, which is the public worship of God in the context of the church: from the day, manner and form, to the officers, elements and fellowship involved. In turn, our confessional standards set forth the church’s duties of discipline, prayer and love for one’s neighbour.

While the minister of the Word and ruling elders, who hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (HC 1983: LD 31), are to govern the lives of members of Christ’s church on the basis of the Word, they may not add to or subtract to that revelation for justification or sanctification (BC 1983: art.7). Lest they be guilty of legalistic imposition on the conscience of the believer (BC 1983: art. 32). Hence, while Scripture calls believers to live all of life by faith according to the law unto God’s glory (HC 1983: Question 91), God has not revealed many of the specifics of how that is worked out in communities and institutions beyond the church. Therefore, where the Bible is silent, the church may not bind the conscience of her members but must allow freedom of choice within the confines of the broader precepts of God’s revealed moral law. In matters ranging from building bridges and casting one’s vote to bioethics, the Christian must exercise wisdom derived from the light of nature (BC 1983: art.2; CoD 1983: head III–IV, 4; cf. Jooste 2019:192–194; VanDrunen 2010a:161–205; Vorster 2016). In short, the doctrine of God’s Word regulating worship and the broader lives of Christians has its limits. This is why the Reformed tradition has held to a robust teaching of God’s common grace or natural law, which informs decision-making relative to vocation and earthly citizenship (cf. Jooste 2013; VanDrunen 2010a, 2010b, 2014; Vorster 2010).

What is sung in public worship is one concrete and critical example of where the conscience of the worshipper must be safeguarded (cf. BC 1983: art. 7, 32). The minister and elders may dictate the responsive praise of the believer in the divine service with the Word only. Indeed, the ordained minister may preach and pray expositions of the Word of God. This freedom is in keeping with the nature of the special office he fulfils (cf. BC 1983: art. 30–2; HC LD 31). However, lay persons – who hold the general offices of prophet, priest and king (cf. BC 1983: art. 28; HC LD 12) – in responding to God’s Word can have no difficulty of conscience with singing the Word of God only (cf. HC 1983: LD 35). However, to put in the mouths of worshippers the words of men is to bind and force the conscience where it is free, and in the most crucial responsive act of the Christian in a saving covenant relationship with God (cf. BC 1983: art. 7, 32).

God’s regulation of worship

The aforementioned confessional section serves as the lens through which to return to Article 69 of the 1618–1619 Synod of Dort concerning what is to be sung in corporate worship. If our church order is the practical application of our confession (norma ministrans), it only makes sense that our confessions (norma normata) are the lens through which we read and interpret our church order. Our purpose then is to discover what principle lay behind an article that has had such a formative influence upon the global Reformed tradition, including South Africa. An historical reading of parts of the Three Forms of Unity, like the one above, suggests that the fundamental conviction underlying the desire to sing the Word of God only is what has become known as the regulative principle of worship.

What remains in the sections to follow is to test this thesis by considering principled reasoning behind singing Scripture only in select precursors and successors to the formulation of Article 69 of Dort, and with a specific eye on the South African context.

Click here for part 2.

This essay was first published in In die Skriflig volume 54, number 2, 2020 with the title “The legacy of singing Scripture only in the Reformed Churches in South Africa: The regulating role of the Word from Heidelberg to Dordrecht”.