Friday, May 24, 2019

The hymn section of the Book of Praise

As published in Clarion (68:8, April 19, 2019) 

The editor asked me to write about the hymn section of the Book of Praise. We are primarily a psalm-singing church, but we also have hymns in our songbook, and likely we sing both psalms and hymns most Sundays.

Table of Contents

The table of contents for our hymns is found on page 356 & 357 of the Book of Praise (BoP). At present there are 85 hymns and what is good to note is that the songs are organized according to the structure of the Apostles’ Creed. In the early days the collection of hymns had no real discernible order. For instance, who remembers that the Apostles’ Creed (now Hy. 1) used to be Hy. 45? To arrange them according to the Apostles’ Creed was the idea of the late Rev. G. van Dooren, who served on the Standing Committee for the Publication of the Book of Praise (SCBP) for twenty-six years, 1954-1980.[1] It first appeared in 1979. The order is:

·         “We praise you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”
·         “With them his covenant he established”
·         “O come, O come, Emmanuel”
·         “The Word became incarnate”
·         “Christ Jesus full atonement made”
·         “Christ has risen! Hallelujah!”
·         “The LORD ascended up on high”
·         “He has come, the Holy Spirit!”
·         “Watch o’er your church, O LORD”
·         “Come, LORD Jesus! Maranatha!”
·         “Praise to the LORD, the Almighty”

To organize the hymns according to the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith is good. Every Sunday we confess faith in our Triune God, and it is great to have our hymns organized accordingly. It also ensures a good balance to our hymn collection. The organization of the 150 psalms obviously suggests itself, but it is good to think about and be purposeful when it comes to organizing the hymns.

I suggested that it is a good way, but it is not the only way. Recently the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) was published. Its 425 hymns are organized this way:

·                      Worship
·                       Faith and Life
o   God
o   Jesus Christ
o   The Holy Spirit
o   The Church
o   Salvation
o   The Christian Life
o   Special Topics
·                    Service Music

Both structures are good. Without quibbling about which is better, perhaps it could be said that while the TPH follows a systematic or thematic method of organization the BoP takes a synthetic and historical approach intentionally following the order of the Apostles’ Creed, from God and creation to God and consummation.

Canticles and Hymns

Our collection of hymns includes quite a number of “canticles.” According to a strict definition, canticles are songs based upon parts of scripture which are not psalms. There are 31 such songs in our hymnary. The clue as to whether a song is a canticle is that in the case of a canticle a text of scripture is printed under the title. For instance, if you look at Hy. 17, The Song of Mary, you will see “Luke 1:46-55” included. That easily identifies it as a canticle.

It is good to sing canticles for then too we know that we are singing words put into our mouths by God himself.

The singing of hymns has, from time to time, proven to be contentious. John Calvin’s Genevan Psalter, 1562, besides the 150 psalms included only four canticles: The Ten Commandments and the songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon.[2] There are Reformed churches which allow only the psalms to be sung in the Lord’s Day worship services. The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) follow this strict application of the “Regulative Principle.”[3] The introduction of the singing of hymns has, historically, been one of the reasons for church secessions. For instance, it was one of the complaints that led to the Dutch Secession (“Afscheiding”) of 1834. On the North American side, such introduction was one of the causes for a secession from the Reformed Church in America and the subsequent formation of the Christian Reformed Church in 1857.

What are we to say about the singing of hymns? Is it allowed? Since the establishment of the Canadian Reformed Churches we have allowed also the singing of hymns. Hymns, as well, are an important way for us to sing praises to our God. We live in a covenant relationship with our God in which he extends the gospel to us and in which we respond with faith, praise, and obedience. The writing of hymns is part of our covenant response of praise to God. In the new covenant we are no longer little children who can only speak God's words after him but adults who can think and respond in a grown-up way.

The hymns in our collection have various sources that span the centuries. Some are based on ancient Christian texts, such as the Apostles’ Creed (Hy. 1 & Hy. 2) and the 4th century Apostolic Constitutions (Hy. 6); others on our confessions, for instance Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s 1 (Hy. 64); another on an apocryphal text, Ecclesiasticus 50:20-24[4] (Hy. 85); many others are free poetic songs based on Christian themes and motifs; a number of others are based on various benedictions and doxologies.

Principles and Guidelines

General Synod 2001 gave the SCBP the mandate to increase the hymnary. At that time we had 65 hymns in the BoP. To help fulfill this mandate Principles and Guidelines were crafted,[5] which were approved by Synod 2004 and then given back to the SCBP and the churches to guide us in the selection of hymns (please see sidebar).  

In the process of augmenting our hymnary the committee was guided by two criteria: first, the proposed hymns had to meet the adopted principles and guidelines and, second, they would have to fortify those parts of the collection that, possibly, needed strengthening. A careful inventory was performed of the several categories, and it was deemed that seven of them should be augmented.

This was a significant process in which the SCBP involved the whole federation of churches. First letters were sent to the churches asking for suggestions. In the meantime the SCBP made a careful assessment of the hymns we already had. The hymns the churches recommended were then evaluated according to the principles and guidelines.

The General Synod had also given the committee the mandate to examine the 150 psalms and to revise where necessary. The committee used the good services of Dr. William Helder for this.

Two sub-committees were appointed by the SCBP: one consisting of members from the Carman and Winnipeg churches to evaluate the hymns, and another made up of members from Fraser Valley churches to assess the revised psalms. These sub-committees gave advice to the SCBP which was used to made recommendations to the subsequent General Synod, which led to the Authorized Provisional Version in 2010. The churches were invited to give feedback to the SCBP which, upon further evaluation, led to the “final” version in 2014, the songbook from which we currently sing.

Is it a perfect product? No, but it is, in my estimation, a very good product, one that is accepted and loved by the membership of the churches. By effectively turning the whole federation of churches into one large super-committee all were able to take ownership of the Book of Praise.

Where to from here?

The BoP, although it is a good product is neither perfect nor complete, hence the word “final” a few lines back was put in scare quotes. Our present BoP is the “final version” …… for now. The last hymn has not yet been written or sung. The work of writing new hymns will, and should, continue until the return of our Lord Jesus on the clouds of heaven. There is room for improvement to and expansion of our current collection. Some disappointment has been expressed that not more of the classic English hymns have been included. Perhaps we should add them. Or some newly written hymns could be included.

This was recognized by our most recent General Synod. It noted that there has been a long-standing practice of having the churches directly address the SCBP with suggestions for improvement and augmentation of our songbook. The synods have recurrently mandated the SCBP “…to receive, scrutinize and evaluate the contents of correspondence from the churches and report to the next General Synod as to the validity of the suggestions made.” And further “…to seek, receive, evaluate and recommend proposals for changes to the hymn section to be compiled for possible submission to a future Synod” (Article 122 of General Synod Dunnville, 2016).

Getting practical

How ought this to be done? The consistories could appoint committees to ask their congregations for suggestions. The committee can then evaluate the suggestions according to our adopted principles and guidelines and advise their consistory. Attention should also be paid to whether the proposed song “fits” within our present Apostles’ Creed structure. Several years ago the SCBP recommended the inclusion of two marriage hymns (Augment, 2007); however, it was thought that since the BoP is primarily meant for the worship services, it ought not to be “cluttered up” with songs obviously meant for other occasions and that, therefore, would not be sung in worship services. Arguably, marriage hymns, as beautiful as they may be, do not really fit into the present organization. As long as we are using the structure of the Apostles’ Creed, attention should be paid to this by members, committees, and consistories. It would be helpful to state in one’s proposal where the song fits. Once the consistory has reviewed their committee’s work it can make a proposal to the SCBP which will, then, evaluate all the proposals to make recommendations to a General Synod and, via it, to the churches.

It has been said that ecclesiastical mills grind slowly, and also that one person does not, necessarily, always get his way.[6] Liturgy, although it must be based on biblical and confessional principles, is always somewhat of a compromise. We need to give and take a bit all-the-while honouring each other and thinking the best of one another. In the meantime, let’s sing our psalms, canticles, and hymns to the praise and glory of our King!

[1] Br. M.M. de Groot, sr., also served from 1954-1980.
[2] Premier Printing has published the New Genevan Psalter consisting of the 150 Psalms and these four canticles. It is a contemporary English version of the original 1562 edition. See Available from
[3] The regulative principle of worship is the doctrine that God commands churches to conduct public services of worship using certain distinct elements affirmatively found in Scripture, and conversely, that God prohibits any and all other practices in public worship.
[4] Ecclesiasticus 50:20-24—“And now bless the God of all, who everywhere works great wonders, who fosters our growth from birth,  and deals with us according to his mercy. May he give us gladness of heart, and may there be peace in our days in Israel, as in the days of old.  May he entrust to us his mercy, and may he deliver us in our days!” (NRSV).
[5] In those days the SCBP was working together with the songbook committee of the URCNA towards a “common songbook.” Alas, the project died in the cradle.
[6] Lieverkoekjes worden in de kerk niet gebakken.  J



The Canadian Reformed Churches and United Reformed Churches entered into "Phase Two" of ecumenical relations, effective January 1, 2002, with the goal of eventual federative unity. The synods of those two federations mandated their respective committees to labour together to recommend to the churches a common songbook that would be faithful to the Scriptures and our Reformed confessions.


The Bible is filled with references to singing. From the very beginning God's people have responded to His grace, almighty power and presence with song. The songs of the Church are, essentially, prayers to God. They are filled with praise and thanksgiving, sorrow for sin and petition for forgiveness, and prayers for intercession in behalf of others in Christ. They also include instruction and exhortation. Thus the songs of the Church express the entire spectrum of the Christian's experience. While every believer may find personal expression of praise, thanksgiving, petitions, and repentance in song, and while we encourage the families of our churches to make use of the songbook in family devotions, the principle purpose for which this songbook is being developed is for congregational singing. The Psalms and hymns are being selected with the prayer that they may express and enrich our congregational worship of God.

Psalm 66:2 ‑ "Sing out the honor of His name; make His praise glorious."
Ephesians 5:19 ‑ " . . .Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord."



1. The songs of the Church are to be scriptural
In content, form, and spirit the Church's songs must express the truth of the Holy Scriptures. Augustine, referring to the singing of Psalms, said, "No one can sing anything worthy of God which he has not received from Him . . . then we are assured that God puts the words in our mouth."

2. The songs of the Church are to be a sacrifice of praise. [Hebrews 13:15]
Singing is an important element of the congregation's response to God's redeeming work in Christ Jesus and the Word proclaimed in the worship service.
John Calvin wrote, "Singing has great strength and power to move and to set on fire the hearts of men that they may call upon God and praise Him with a more vehement and more ardent zeal. This singing should not be light or frivolous, but it ought to have weight and majesty."

3. The songs of the Church are to be aesthetically pleasing
The songs for worship are to be a beautiful blend of God‑honoring poetry and music. [Psalm 92:1-4]


1.       The songs of the Church must be thoroughly Biblical. They are to represent the full range of the revelation of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. [Psalm 147:1]
2.       The Book of Psalms is foundational for the Church's songs. Therefore, all of these Psalms, in their entirety, ought to be included in the Church's songbook.
3.       When Psalms or other portions of Scripture are set to music, the words must be faithful to the content and form of the inspired text. [2 Timothy 3:16]
4.       In the case of songs other than the versification of Scripture, the words must faithfully express the teaching of Scripture [Proverbs 30:6] as summarized by our Reformed confessions.
5.       The songs of the Church must be intelligible [1 Corinthians 14:15] and edifying to the body of Christ. [Colossians 3:16]
6.       The songs of the Church must reflect and preserve the language of the Church of all ages rather than accommodating current secular trends. [Romans 12:2a]
7.       In content and form, the songs of the Church must be free from artificiality, sentimentality, and individualism.
8.       The music of the song should suit the text.
9.       The music of the Church should be expressive of the Reformed tradition. Use is to be made of the music developed in the tradition of this rich heritage.
10.    The music of the Church should not be borrowed from music that suggests places and occasions other than the Church and the worship of God. [Ephesians 5:18-21]
11. The melodies and harmonies of church music must be suitable for congregational singing, avoiding complicated rhythms, excessive syncopation, and a wide range of pitch.