The Psalms

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

By Simon Jooste and Johannes Potgieter

The Synod of Dort that convened in the Dutch town of Dordrecht during 1618–1619 is best known for its formulation of the Canons of Dort. Not unrelated to, and arguably even more important than, this seminal Reformed creedal statement is the church order and the accompanying liturgical order of worship that this church assembly produced. Informed by the grand doctrines of God’s sovereign election, the authority of God’s covenant Word, man’s sinful depravity, the bondage of the human will and redemption in Jesus Christ set forth in the Canons, Article 69 of the church order of Dordrecht essentially mandates the singing of Scripture only.

Was this prescription a unique quirk in the history of the church? Was it motivated by historical circumstances only? Or did it build upon substantive insights of the historic catholic church?

Select precursors to Dort

Church Fathers

It is beyond the scope of this article to investigate what exactly was sung during corporate worship services in the early New Testament church. It seems safe to assume that Jesus as a Jew at the closing of the Old Testament order sang Psalms only. More contested, no doubt, is the claim that the apostolic church also only sang the songs found in God’s Word. Central to the thesis of this article is that the evidence in the post-apostolic church strongly suggests reading the Scriptural witness in this light.

The first few hundred years of the New Testament church gives little evidence of uninspired hymn singing (Oliphant Old 2002:47; cf. Oliphant Old 1975). Of the four earliest witnesses, 1 Clement (96 AD), The Didache (80–100 AD), Ignatius’ Epistles (108 AD) and Pliny’s letter to Trajan (110 AD), only the last suggests the singing of a non-canonical text. Otherwise, the predominant practice in the early Patristic era was the singing of Psalms. Ancient church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (263–339 AD) supported these earliest witnesses with the following words quoted in Wagner (1901):

[T]he command to sing psalms in the name of the Lord was obeyed by everyone in every place: for the command to sing psalms is in force in all churches which exist among the nations, not only for the Greeks but also for the Barbarians; and further, throughout the whole world, in towns and villages and in the fields also, in short, in the whole church, the people of Christ, who are gathered from all nations, sing to the one God, whom the prophets foretold, hymns and psalms with a loud voice, so that the voice of the psalm-singers is heard by those standing outside. (p. 7)

By the fourth century, the church began to introduce more readily uninspired hymns, especially among the Gnostics in the East. This emergent practice was not without creedal resistance. For example, the Council of Laodicea (363–5), the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Council of Braga (561–3), the Second Council of Nicea (587) and the Fourth Council of Toledo (633) all prohibited the singing of anything but the biblical text (Bushell 1999:154–167). Further evidence may be marshalled from the orders of worship preserved from the Patristic period, of which all indicate the singing of Psalms (Maxwell 1936).

Final explicit patristic support for the singing of Psalms comes from St. Augustine at the dawn of the Middle Ages. In his preface to the 1543 Genevan Psalter, Calvin (1543b) cited the North African churchman in defence of the custom of singing Psalms in the ancient church:

Now what Saint Augustine says is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God unless he has received them from him. Wherefore, when we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate for the purpose than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him. And furthermore, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts the words in our mouths, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory. (n.p.)

Two final lines of evidence giving indirect support for the predominant practice of singing Scripture only in the early post-apostolic church are the absence of musical accompaniment and the observance of the liturgical calendar. Like the general refraining from singing free hymns, the church fathers found no basis in the Word of God for instruments facilitating New Testament corporate worship (Clark 2008:227–291) or the calling of special worship services to celebrate feast days (Williamson 2001).

However, the Middle Ages would see these early catholic church practices change. Alongside a more fully entrenched version of Constantinianism and the conflation of law and Gospel, the Medieval Roman Catholic Church progressively encouraged the singing of uninspired hymns accompanied by musical instrumentation (Clark 2008:246–247; cf. Oliphant Old 2002:47–49). This interlude of about a 1 000 years set the stage for the Protestant Reformation, which saw a return to the pattern of worship practised by the Apostles and in the early post-apostolic church.

Calvin and the Calvinists

The second-generation Reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) is inescapably influential upon the theological formation of the early continental Reformed tradition and what has otherwise since become known as Calvinism. Evidence pertinent to this article is the fact that among those commissioned to draw up the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583) and Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587) were influenced by Calvin’s theology and practice of worship. In addition to providing counsel to the likes of John Knox (1513–1572) and John Hooper (1495–1555), the Genevan Pastor’s theology of worship would also leave a significant imprint upon the formulation of the Westminster Standards in 1644, especially the penning of the Directory of Public Worship – and not least through the mediating influences of the Heidelberg Catechism and Ursinus’ commentary on the same (Clark 2010:266–269).

Before considering briefly Calvin’s theology and practice of worship as it pertains to singing, it is significant to note that he considered worship to be the most important part of religion, next to the article of justification by faith alone (Calvin 1543a; cf. Inst. 2.8.11). In part, this assertion rests on his conviction that because the first four commandments deal directly with worship, worship is to be the foundation of righteousness. To render to God false worship – to commit idolatry – is to rob God and destroy the basis of true godliness (Inst. 2.3.11). Yet, it is not as if the law of worship is at odds with the Gospel of free grace. The true worship of God comprehends and is premised upon the doctrine of justification (Inst. 3.6.1). Sinners are redeemed for the duty of glorifying God’s name in worship. And corporate worship is the chief means by which sinners are saved and in turn persevered in the faith (see title and contents of Inst. 2–3).

Building upon and refining the insights of the church fathers, St. Augustine and Martin Luther, Calvin’s burden for the reorganisation of worship in Geneva is evident as early as the 1536 edition of the Institutes. In January 1537, the Swiss Reformer along with his ministerial colleagues submitted themselves to the Council of Articles Concerning the Organisation of the Church and Worship in Geneva. Among the liturgical reforms set forth were the request for weekly communion, the election of elders, the institution of church discipline and that congregations sing Psalms in accord with the practice of the ancient church and Paul himself (Clark 2010:247–248; Institutes 1536; ed. McNeill 1954:47–55). Calvin’s renewed stress on the Word of God was particularly evident – amidst the removal of images, colourful vestments, choirs and organs, and the pomp of the Mass – in exegetical sermons and congregational singing from the Old Testament Psalter. The creation of the Genevan Psalter ‘established psalm-singing as the pattern for Protestant worship outside Lutheran and Anabaptist circles that would prevail for at least three centuries (in some places five)’ (Hart 2013:19). Calvin cared not only that the one true God be worshipped, but that he be worshipped in the right way. The Reformer believed in the importance of both content and form.

While Calvin is arguably well-known for many of his church polity and liturgical reforms away from the medieval Roman Catholic Church, although perhaps less for his acapella Psalm-singing, the central theological principle behind his reorganisation efforts in Geneva has become shrouded in obscurity (Clark 2010). Nevertheless, there is ample testimony in Calvin’s corpus to the effect that only what God has commanded in Scripture is permissible in public worship. This, Calvin’s principle of worship, would later become coined the regulative principle of worship – a principle that would gain widespread acceptance and gradual refinement from 16th-century Geneva to the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism and the work of the Westminster Assembly.

As indicated above, as early as 1537 Calvin demonstrated his belief that corporate worship should embody the will of God revealed in Scripture. That this conviction was not an idiosyncrasy of the early Reformer is evidenced throughout his literary output, both in terms of systematic theological treatise and biblical commentaries. Indicative of the former is Calvin’s contention in the 1559 edition of the Institutes that the reverence due to God is to ‘worship him as he commands, mingling no inventions of our own’ (Inst. 4.10.23; cf. 4.10.30; 3.11.1). For to give way to the imaginations of men is to corrupt worship and be guilty of idolatry (Inst. 4.10.23–26; cf. e.g. 1.11.8.; 4.10.11). In terms of Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible, one particularly striking formulation of his principle of worship occurs in his handling of the Second Commandment in Exodus 20. Also, noteworthy in his polemical writings are the comments made in the Necessity of Reforming the Church (ed. McNeill 1954) and the 1548 Leipzig Interim (Clark 2008:248).

In defending the practice of singing Scripture only on the theological basis of doing what God has commanded, Calvin saw himself as continuing the tradition of the Apostles and the early church. This same tradition has found significant continuity in the later Reformed and Calvinist witness. While the practice may have lagged (Clark 2010:258–263), the theological principle behind the singing of Scripture only in corporate worship became ever more robust and refined over time. Beginning with Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bucer and the Swiss-German Reformers, a consensus gradually spread with the help of Calvin to the French, German and Dutch Reformed. Beyond the continent, this phenomenon crystallised among the English and Scottish Presbyterians and Puritans. In England, the English Puritan tradition arguably reached its zenith at the Westminster Assembly in 1644 with the Directory of Public Worship espousing the singing of Psalms only on the basis of what had become known as the regulative principle of worship found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (Clark 2008:248–249).

Yet, perhaps the theology behind singing Scripture only is in fact more Calvin’s quirk fuelled by English Puritan novelty read back into the Three Forms of Unity? Is Calvin’s principle of worship or the regulative principle of worship indeed a thoroughgoing category in the continental Reformed tradition? To help further answer this important question, it seems only natural that one examines the theology behind the formulation of Article 69 of the church order at the Synod of Dort (1618–1619).

Earlier Dutch Reformed synods

A brief consideration is now given to three significant Dutch Reformed Synods leading up to the pivotal Synod of Dort in 1618–1619. With the exception of the Remonstrant Provincial Synod of Utrecht, 1612, in all the church orders set forth at the Convent of Wesel (1568), Dort (1574 and 1578), Middelburg (1581) and Gravenhage (1586), the wording is unambiguous to the effect that only the Psalms of David are to be sung in the church (and hymns should be omitted because they are not found in Scripture) (De Ridder 1987). It is assumed that these ecclesiastical charters, while giving practical directives, are nevertheless at their root the fruition of theological deliberation. In other words, like the church order that would later be formulated at Dort in the early 17th century, these documents reflect ecclesiastical consensus on what Scripture teaches – and in turn confessed in the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession – regarding, among other things and chiefly, corporate worship. Hence, it seems reasonable to conclude that what one finds in these early Dutch Reformed Synods is an underlying principle of worship sharing continuity with the catholic and Calvinist traditions, namely, to essentially sing Scripture only. It seems not coincidental that the church order of the Synod of Dort (1578) in Article 76 states: ‘The Psalms of David translated by Pieter Datheen shall be sung in the Christian gatherings of the Netherlands churches as has been done until now, excluding the hymns which are not found in the Bible’ (De Ridder 1987:220).

Dort 1618–1619 and Article 69: Singing Scripture only

By the time of the Synod of Dort in 1618–1619, the streams of patristic, Calvinist and Reformed influence had been pooled in an attempt to heed the Scriptural injunction to worship God only as he commands. A summary of this wisdom can be found in the Three Forms of Unity and the (1618–1619) church order of Dort, all of which had been adopted as the ecclesiastical standards of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands by the closure of this historic Synod (Clark 2010:183–184).

Like Calvin (cf. Clark 2010:258–69), seeking to further the Protestant reformation in Geneva, the delegates to the Dutch Reformed Synod that convened during 1618–1619 in the town of Dordrecht sought to do the same in a less than ideal context. Among others, churches were still recovering from the influence of medieval Catholicism, had to contend with the controlling influence of the civil magistrate and a short supply of educated Reformed ministers. Hence, it should not come at a surprise that by the early 17th-century not all churches in Holland were singing Scripture only. And, thus, the wording of Article 69 of the church order formulated at this time (during session 162) reflects an attempt at applying pastoral wisdom to a tenuous ecclesiastical and political situation (Clark 2008:253–254).

The exact formulation of the article under our consideration is as follows (per De Ridder 1987):

In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the 12 Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon shall be sung. It is left to the option of the churches whether to use or omit the song, “O God, who art our Father”. (p. 555)

An uninformed and superficial reading of these words would suggest a revision of the underlying theological principle informing Synodical decisions to sing Psalms or Scripture only to this point. Not only is there a widening of what is permissible to sing from the Bible, but there is also provision for the singing of the 12 Articles of Faith (the Apostles’ Creed) and another non-Scriptural hymn. At least three important observations are in order at this juncture. Firstly, while perhaps difficult for the modern church to appreciate, the Apostles’ Creed at the time of the famous Synod of Dort was still likely deemed to have had quasi-canonical status and instructional value in promoting church unity (Clark 2010:265). Secondly, and to fill out further the political contextual circumstances touched on above, the Pastors and elders delegated to the Synod saw it necessary – like Calvin before them – to bring about reformation slowly, so as not to divide the Dutch churches with their somewhat divergent practices unnecessarily. Thirdly, the delegates to the 1618–1619 Synod would not have foreseen that their ecclesiastical efforts would be curtailed by political dissension, thereby halting the unfolding process of semper reformanda for many years (Clark 2008:254). Hence, in short, it seems reasonable to conclude that when combining the above extenuating circumstances with scant authoritative theological argumentation to the contrary, the Calvinist principle of worship informing the Dutch Reformed church’s orders, running from Wezel 1568 to Dort 1618–1619 and Drente 1638, could not be brought to full realisation, in spite of what appears to be the best of pastoral intentions.


While it is indeed true that with time a significant contingency of churches would increasingly sing hymns not found in Scripture, the Calvinist and early Reformed legacy of singing Scripture only would live on in continental Europe and beyond (Clark 2008:254–257). However, this latter practice since the early reformation has not always been on the theological basis of Calvin’s principle of worship or what has later become known as the S/RPW – thereby adding an additional challenge to the modern quest for the reformation of worship. One poignant example of the unfolding of this chapter in the worship story is the RCSA: a contested site for the successors to Dort. Can a federation with such a rich history of singing Scripture only further renew her theology and practice by utilising more explicitly a category that emerges out of her confessional and Reformed heritage, namely, the S/RPW? And especially in the wake of her 2012 decision to allow for the singing of free hymns? This article has made a case for the recovery of the S/RPW in a historic Reformed and confessional key. To further this case, additional historical inquiry is encouraged into the theology and practice of song in worship in the RCSA from 1859 to the present.

Click here for part 1.

This essay was first published in In die Skriflig, volume 54, number 2 (2020) under 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”.


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