Synod 2018’s decision to add another 19 hymns to an abundance of hymns already adopted for the church services is a matter of concern. That is reflected in the Brief Report of a church council meeting dealing with the FRCA Synod 2018’s decision about the Book of Praise which said that “in general, the brothers were against the adoption of the 19 Hymns”.[i] I know for a fact that there are office bearers in other churches who likewise lament this decision. But what can a consistory, unhappy with the decision to adopt yet more hymns, do about it? I’m not speaking about the quality of the hymns—though there are definite concerns relating to a number of them—but about the decision to increase yet again the number of hymns for the worship services. A Consistory can feel forced into accepting a synod decision which it does not believe is in the best interest of the congregation and which the Acts of Synod do not demonstrate as being based on Scripture but which a consistory is hard-pressed to prove is unscriptural. Instead of synod demonstrating from Scripture that the churches must have more hymns the onus is now on a concerned consistory to prove that Scripture doesn’t permit it. Can this be pleasing to the Lord?
What a consistory could point to
A consistory could, of course, point to the fact that there is no evidence in the Bible that congregations ever sang hymns in church services. Whilst the Bible does mention hymns, they do not relate to public worship services. Moreover, there are commentators who say that when Scripture speaks of singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, it is referring to three different types of songs – praise, thanks and prayers – from the Book of Psalms.[ii] The trouble for today’s consistories presented with this latest synod decision is that, although there is no proof that hymns were ever part of the worship services in the Bible, this does not prove it is unscriptural and any appeal to synod must produce proof (CO, art. 31).
A consistory might also refer to how, in the history of the church, our forefathers were determined to keep hymns out of the church. For example, it could refer to the Council of Laodicea in 363-364 AD which decreed that in the churches only songs from the Book of Psalms and no hymns would be sung. This decision was confirmed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. However, whilst it would be good to consider their reasons, their decision in themselves do not prove hymn singing is unscriptural.
The same could be said about the fact that in Calvin’s Geneva no hymns were sung in the church services. Calvin was very rigorous in applying the Scriptural principle that only what is prescribed by God should have a place in worship. Consequently, he excluded hymns altogether, believing that the Psalms are divinely given and therefore infinitely superior to human compositions.[iii] But again, Calvin’s views could well be rejected as not providing definite Scriptural proof.
A consistory could go on and refer to the famous Synod of Dort (1618/1619) which, as I pointed out previously,[iv] stipulated in art. 69 of the Church Order:
“In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the sermon shall be sung… All other hymns are to be rejected by the churches, and any that have already slipped into the churches are to be resolutely removed.” [v]
However, although based on the Church Order of Dort, our own FRCA Church Order merely says: “In the church services only the psalms and hymns approved by synod shall be sung” (Art. 64). It relies on synods to take care that all its decisions are clearly based on God’s Word. And whilst for centuries the church sang the 150 psalms and just a few hymns for special days, an appeal to what was decided in 1618, or to subsequent history, does not in itself constitute scriptural grounds for appeal.
Not even a reference to the RCN Synod Arnhem (1930) will do. It decided:
“to expand the present number of hymns with a few rhymed and unrhymed Scripture passages or songs which are most closely matched to Holy Scripture to be made available to the churches to be used specifically on feast days, on the days devoted to the remembrance of the passion and death of Christ, at the administration of the sacraments, the ordination of office bearers and the confirmation of marriage”.[vi]
Nor an allusion to the RCN synod Middelburg (1933) which re-emphasised: “That for the regular church services the psalms are sufficient. These provide in an incomparable way what takes place in the soul of those who fear the Lord”. Yes, one could point to all this and it could still be said that this does not provide proof that having more hymns is contrary to Scripture. Scripture simply does not make references to hymns in church services.
So you see the quandary in which a consistory, unhappy about the proliferation of hymns, finds itself. Even references to how our own FRCA synods in the past have time and again emphasised the importance of limiting the number of hymns, as I showed elsewhere,[vii] does not provide proof that adding yet more hymns is unscriptural. Appealing this decision, then, seems a rather hopeless situation for such a consistory, does it not?
The problem is that synods from their side do not always present proof that the decisions they make, and which affect the consciences of church members, are clearly based on God’s Word. In the case of its decision to add another 19 hymns, FRCA Synod 2018 said: “The additional 19 hymns were carefully selected and rigorously tested to provide a well-rounded hymnal that reflects the biblical truths as summarised in the Apostles’ Creed.” But neither the Acts of Synod 2018, nor those of the last few synods which fostered this, nor the Deputies’ Report to Synod, show that they have engaged with the principled reasons why, through the centuries, the churches have either rejected hymns outright or limited them to a handful of hymns of mainly scriptural passages put to music.
Have the reformed churches throughout the centuries then been remiss in being afraid to introduce more hymns so that it is only now, with the latest Book of Praise, that we finally have a “well-rounded hymnal” of no less than 85 hymns (with the likelihood of more to come)? I love our Book of Praise; Canadian deputies have done a great job of editing the Psalms, and they’re a delight to sing. But adding yet more hymns has not enhanced it. The heart of the problem is that recent synods have not demonstrates on the basis of Scripture why adding more hymns was necessary.
Yet this is the very thing synod should have done. Greijdanus points out that the obligation is on synod to demonstrate that suchlike important decisions are based on God’s Word: “What has been determined or prescribed by a broader assembly in accordance with God’s Word is to be kept, but then because it accords with God’s Word, because God’s Word prescribes or commands it, not because the assembly ordains it.”[viii]
And it’s not just Greijdanus. Asked “whether all things are to be confirmed by Holy Scripture” Synod Embden 1571 answered “that those things which concern the conscience must be confirmed by God’s Word, but those things which concern the order of the churches or are indifferent ought not to be driven to such necessity”.[ix] Synod of Dort a few years later likewise declared that, except for “indifferent matters” any synod decision affecting the consciences must be “grounded upon the Holy Scriptures”.[x] The decision to add more hymns is a matter of the conscience and a major departure from reformed church practice throughout the centuries. Synod 2018 should therefore have explained why it believed that adding yet more hymns was based on Scripture.
When synods make decisions that may bind the consciences, without demonstrating clearly that such decisions are based on God’s Word, concerned consistories will continue to feel coerced to go in a direction they don’t want to go. What’s more, instead of the onus being on synods to provide clear Scriptural grounds, the responsibility now falls on the consistories to demonstrate that a synod’s decision is unscriptural. Little wonder that there are office bearers who feel pressured into complying with decisions they must implement simply because they cannot prove from Scripture and CO that the decision is necessarily contrary to Scripture. The result can be that such synod decisions—instead of promoting a unity irrefutably based on the truth of God’s Word—cause dismay, disenchantment and disunity amongst brothers. When major assemblies clearly base important decisions on Scripture, they are a blessing to the bond of churches because they foster a unity clearly based on the truth. The obverse, alas, is also true.
[i] District Bulletin of the Free Reformed Churches in Perth and South West WA, 31/3/2019, p. 9.
[ii] One commentator says the reference to psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in the Bible (Eph.5:19 & Col.3:16) refer to Mizmorim, Tehillim & Shirim, Hebrew names of David’s Psalms. Another says psalms refer to songs of thanksgiving, hymns are songs of exaltation and worship, and spiritual songs are outpourings of the hart. Calvin says regarding these texts a “psalm is that, in the singing of which some musical instrument besides the tongue is made use of; a hymn is properly a song of praise, whether it be sung simply with the voice or otherwise; while an ode contains not merely praises, but exhortations and other matters”. However, commentators vary in views about whether the references to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” refer to three different types of songs all based on the Book of Psalms.
[iii] M C Ramsay, Psalms Only, J Bell & Co, Sydney, 1971, p. 50.
[viii] S Greidanus, “Scriptural Principles Concerning Broader Assemblies” in J de Jong (ed) Bound Yet Free: Readings in Reformed church Polity, Premier, Winnipeg, 1995, pp. 29-30.
[ix] Ibid, p. 16.
[x] Ibid, pp. 16/17