Tag Archives: Canadian Reformed Churches

Prioritizing the Psalms — How?

Over the last while, a couple of classes (plural of ‘classis’) in the Canadian Reformed Churches have adopted overtures seeking to make a change to the CanRC Church Order.  They want to add a new line to article 55: “The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches.”  That wording is exactly the same as what the United Reformed Churches have in article 39 of their Church Order.

In principle I agree completely with this proposed change.  In Aiming to Please, I have an entire chapter dedicated to the topic of Psalm-singing.  In the final chapter, I mention “Prioritized Psalm-Singing” as one of the distinctives of Reformed worship. 

However, there’s one question I didn’t answer in that regard.  It’s a question I’ve been pondering lately in relation to the proposed changes to the CanRC Church Order:  what does it look like to have the Psalms in “the principal place in the singing of the churches”? 

One could take a simplistic approach to this question.  If, in a given worship service, there are more hymns than psalms in the order of worship, then the Psalms are not being prioritized.  Take this example of a recent order of worship:

  • Hymn 79
  • Psalm 75:1-3 (after the law)
  • Psalm 47
  • Hymn 69
  • Hymn 81

So, there are three hymns, but only two psalms.  According to this reasoning, the Psalms are not being prioritized.  It’s simple math:  three is greater than two.  But what about this order of worship?

  • Psalm 100:1,2
  • Psalm 51:1 (after the law)
  • Psalm 85:3
  • Hymn 67
  • Psalm 146:1,2

That would seem to be better.  After all, now we have four psalms and one hymn.  Four is much greater than one.  But is it really that simple?

Two factors are being neglected with that kind of an approach.  One is that it shouldn’t just be about the number of individual psalms that appear in the order of worship.  We also have to account for how much of the psalm is being sung.  In the second order of worship above, we don’t sing any psalm in its entirety.  Instead, the pastor has just selected a few stanzas, even when with Psalm 100 it’s no burden to sing the entire piece.  This is a common practice in our churches.  So you could have a scenario where you have four psalms and one hymn in the order of worship, but you actually end up doing more hymn-singing than psalm-singing because only small portions of the psalms are being used.         

The other factor being neglected is the relation of the order of worship to the sermon.  A well-crafted order of worship is going to reflect the theme of the passage being exposited.  In some instances, it then makes more liturgical sense to have certain hymns than the psalms.  To use the first order of worship mentioned above, the text of the sermon was John 12:1-8 and the theme was: The Lamb is worthy to receive all our honour.  Where do you find a psalm which explicitly speaks in those terms?  “Lamb/lambs” is mentioned twice in the Psalms, both times in Psalm 114, and both times used poetically for hills skipping.  But there’s no explicit reference in the Psalter to the Messiah as the Lamb of God.  However, in our Book of Praise, we do have Hymn 69, which is based on Revelation 7:13-15 and 5:9-10.  That hymn explicitly says, “Worthy the Lamb, for sinners slain…”  There are some worship services where, in relation to the sermon and the passage it’s based upon, a greater number of hymns can better serve the glory of God.

As another example of that, think about “Days of Commemoration.”  When we celebrate Christ’s incarnation, it is liturgically odd to sing a preponderance of Psalms, particularly since there aren’t any explicitly related to this event.  Christ’s incarnation is one of the greatest events in history – and yet we’re just barely permitted to mention it in song?  On this occasion, it’s more suitable to sing a selection of the appropriate hymns – and perhaps one or two psalms.  To do otherwise gives the impression of slavish and simplistic adherence to a rule for the sake of a rule.

So what does it look like to have prioritized Psalm-singing?  We have to think big-picture.  We ought to think beyond the number of psalms and hymns in a given order of worship.  A better metric would be to look not only at the number of psalms sung over a longer period (like a year), but also how much of these psalms are being sung.  Another important metric might be the number of different psalms being sung – in its worship is the congregation singing the full range of God’s revelation in the Psalter?  Furthermore, when comparing psalms and hymns, we also have to remember that not all hymns are the same.  Some hymns are based on the Psalms – in the CanRC/FRCA Books of Praise, for example, Hymn 54 is based on Psalm 90 and Hymn 46 is based on Psalm 72:8-19.  More than a few hymns are directly based on other specific passages of Scripture – as just one example, Hymn 36 is based on 1 Peter 1:3-5.  Surely more weight has to be given to these hymns based on the Psalms and other passages of Scripture.

I love and treasure the Psalms.  I’m thankful to be in a Reformed church that fosters that positive attitude towards these songs.  Nevertheless, it’s important to be mindful of the tendency for churches to drift away from God’s covenant song-book.  That’s why I’m thankful for these proposals in the CanRC and why I’d support a similar move here in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.


FRCA Synod 2021 (3)

Unfortunately, there’s not much to report by way of decisions as yet. Our synod has been doing a fair bit of committee work; some of that work has been brought on the floor and then sent back to the committees for “fine-tuning.” Last night we had several greetings from other churches: the Canadian Reformed Churches, the Kosin Presbyterian Church of Korea, and the Calvinist Reformed Churches of Indonesia. This afternoon we’ll be dealing with committee proposals again. This evening will feature greetings from the Free Reformed Churches of South Africa and the Reformed Churches of Indonesia — Timor. Time permitting we also hope to have some initial rounds of discussion yet today on the proposal to send observers to the International Conference of Reformed Churches, as well as on the report regarding contact with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and Southern Presbyterian Church.

In case you’re interested, draft Acts of Synod are being published here.


The First Mark and Mission

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

Of the Belgic Confession’s articles on the doctrine of the church, article 29 is probably the most well-known amongst Reformed church members.  It describes the marks of the true and false church.  First among the marks of a true church is “the pure preaching of the gospel.”  What does this mean for mission?  What does this mean for our churches in relation to the lost around us in our own communities?

Historical Background   

In the early 1950s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) was beginning to develop a deeper conviction about its responsibility to spread the gospel at home and overseas.  To be sure, missionary consciousness was part of the CRC’s fabric from its beginning in 1857.  Initially, prayerful and financial support were given to Dutch and South African mission works.  It took some time for the CRC to develop its own missionary efforts.  There were extensive discussions at early CRC Synods about whether mission should be a denominational, classis, or local affair.  Eventually, the CRC settled on a denominational approach to mission.  The CRC Synod of 1880 appointed their first missions committee, then called the “Board of Heathen Missions.” In 1888, the decision was made to begin mission work among the American Indians.  In 1896, the CRC finally began work among the Navajo and Zuni peoples of the American Southwest.

The CRC began overseas work in Nigeria a few decades later.  It was one of the missionaries to Nigeria who really began to stir up discussions about mission in the CRC.  Unfortunately, Rev. Harry Boer would go on to become infamous for his objections to certain points in the Canons of Dort, but for our interests here, we can note his role in stimulating CRC interest in spreading the gospel in the mid-twentieth century.          

In 1952, a Christian Reformed consistory overtured the CRC Synod to “to draw up a creedal statement concerning missions.”  The CRC Synod declined to do so, on the grounds that “The work of Missions is included in the connotation of the first mark of the church, namely ‘the faithful preaching of the Word.'”  This was the earliest rumblings of dissatisfaction in the CRC with the Three Forms of Unity regarding mission — a history that I have traced and evaluated in one of the chapters of For the Cause of the Son of God.  Interestingly, the CRC Synod appealed to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Speaking through its Synod, the CRC in this era considered that the Belgic Confession spoke to the missionary task of the church. 

However, this was not a unanimously held position in the CRC.  Later in 1952, Harry Boer published his response to the Synod’s decision.  He pointed out that the CRC edition of the Belgic Confession then in use did not support the grounds for this decision.  The relevant part of article 29 of that edition reads, “The marks by which the true Church is known are these:  If the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached therein…”  Boer built his case on the word “therein.”  He noted that the earlier Dutch and Latin translations did not have that word.  He did not mention the earliest French editions of 1561/62, but they do not have it either.  While Boer was wrong about the Belgic Confession in many respects, he did get this correct.  There was a problem here with the old CRC edition of the Confession.

When the CRC published a new edition in 1985, this problem was corrected.  The Canadian Reformed Churches also had “therein” in their first English edition.  I suspect that it originally came from the English text adopted by the CRC in 1912.  But when a new edition of the Confession was adopted by the CanRC in 1983, “therein” was gone. 

Several North American Reformed churches continue to use the English text that basically dates back to 1912 and includes “therein” in article 29.  Among these are the Heritage Reformed, the Free Reformed, the Protestant Reformed and the Reformed Church in the United States.  Until this is corrected, Boer’s point sticks among these brethren:  one cannot appeal to the first mark of the true church in article 29 as a place where the Belgic Confession speaks about mission.

Biblical and Reformed = Missional

One might also ask whether it is even biblical to restrict the mark of a true church to what goes on in established congregations in their public worship services.  This is a place where the original 1561 Belgic Confession can help us.  Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission, is one of the proof texts for this statement in the original confession as penned by Guido de Brès.  In that passage, our Lord Jesus sends his disciples out to preach, teach, and disciple “all nations.”  Through those disciples, our Lord was also sending out his church of all ages and places.  Clearly the original intent of the Belgic Confession was to include the missionary calling of the church under the first mark.  A church that does not faithfully proclaim the gospel inside and outside its membership has a credibility problem when it comes to being a true church.

The Reformed churches in the days of de Brès understood this well.  Being Reformed meant being outward looking.  It meant looking outwards and seeing the vast numbers of lost people who needed the gospel because they did not have Christ and were heading for hell.  It meant that the pastors were compelled by love to take seriously the charge of Paul to Timothy:  “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).  And they did. 

But this outward looking orientation indicated by article 29 was not limited to pastors.  Martyrology is a genre of religious literature dedicated to the stories of those who have been martyred for their faith.  The most well-known in English is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.  The first Reformed martyrology was written in French by Jean Crespin in 1554.  In that first edition, as well as in subsequent ones, Crespin described not only the martyrdoms of Reformed pastors, but of many Reformed church members.  They were often killed for sharing the biblical gospel with friends and neighbours.  Compelled by love, they could not keep silent.  Among them were believers who had been pastored by de Brès, including at least one entire family, the Ogviers of Lille.

According to our Belgic Confession, the navel-gazing, self-obsessed church places a question mark behind its status as a true church.  The ghetto mentality is not Reformed.  When we’re labelled “the frozen chosen” and we deserve it, we’re not being faithful to either our confessions or Scripture.  Instead, being Reformed means being missional, not only in terms of sending out missionaries to distant lands, but being outward looking and caring about the lost right in front of us who need the gospel.


A Herald of Freedom in Christ

Man of the First Hour: A Son’s Story: Jules Taco Van Popta, George van Popta.  Carman: Reformed Perspective Press, 2021.  Paperback, 226 pages. 

At a certain point in this biography, the author describes going to the Netherlands with his mother Helen.  His father, Rev. J.T. Van Popta, had died two years earlier.  While visiting his old church in Mussel, they heard congregation members still speak reverentially of “onze dominee” (our minister).  My grandparents on both sides had Rev. J.T. Van Popta as their pastor in Edmonton.  Long after he was gone, they continued to speak highly of him.  My Opa Bredenhof described him as a “good, peaceful man.”  When he became my paternal grandparents’ pastor again some years later when he accepted the call to Cloverdale, they were extremely thankful.  Rev. J.T. Van Popta became a legendary figure, even for us grandchildren who’d never met him.

So, when I heard about this biography written by his son George, I was all over it like white on bread.  The book certainly doesn’t disappoint.  It’s a well-told story of one of the pioneer Canadian Reformed pastors – in fact, the very first Canadian Reformed pastor.  We hear of his family background in the Netherlands, the trials of immigrating to Canada, and the enormous challenges in being a “man of the first hour.”  There’s joy and laughter, but the tears aren’t left out either.  In particular, the author relates his father’s struggle with depression and burnout, as well as the toll his sudden passing took on Helen and her children.

Let me share a few details I found particularly interesting.  Though he wasn’t yet a pastor, Jules Van Popta experienced the Liberation of 1944.  This was an ecclesiastical event which tore apart the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  It happened because of autocratic (and unlawful) synod decisions.  During and afterwards, Van Popta showed a keen understanding of the main issue resulting in the Liberation:

A theological opinion had developed that the children of believers are to be baptized on the basis of the presumption that they have been born again. The issue was not whether or not someone could hold that opinion; rather, it was that the opinion was made binding upon all. The ministers were required to teach this upon the threat of deposition from office. That, said my father and many others, was not allowed. The synod erred in binding a theological opinion on the pulpits of all the churches. (p.130) 

Ultimately this was about the freedom which Christ has won for us – a synod had illegitimately seized that freedom.

Living in the freedom won for us by Christ was a theme throughout the life of Jules Van Popta.  It comes out also in how he approached the issue of labour unions.  This became controversial in the early years of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  To find out Van Popta’s view, you’ll have to buy the book – I won’t spoil it.  Appendix 3 contains a lengthy article he wrote on the subject.  Looking back at Van Popta’s legacy, the author points out that his father’s “position on union membership left a stamp on the Canadian Reformed Churches” (p.131).

For those interested in apologetics, it’s noteworthy that Jules Van Popta corresponded with Cornelius Van Til, and even met with him on one occasion.  Van Popta loved to study philosophy – and so it’s no wonder he would take an interest in Van Til.  There seem to be echoes of Van Til in what Jules Van Popta writes in Appendix 7, “Either Faith or Science?”, especially when he says that in the Bible “Divine authority demands that every thought must surrender in obedience to Christ” (p.187). 

If you’re like me and appreciate church history biographies, Man of the First Hour is a must-read.  If you’re interested in the Dutch immigration experience in the post-Second World War period, you’ll enjoy it too.  But more than enjoyment, you’ll be edified by both the life and the writings (in the appendices) of Jules Taco Van Popta.  He lived for Christ and his witness calls us to do the same.    

Man of the First Hour can be ordered from the Publisher at this link.                 


Preview of FRCA Synod 2021

It’s another exciting synod year for the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  This year’s synod is scheduled to be held starting on June 14 in Albany, Western Australia.  The reports for this synod are now publicly available here and I imagine other material will soon follow.  Let’s review some of the noteworthy items on the agenda for Synod Albany 2021 so far.  Since I’m delegated to this synod, I’m not going to be offering my views or opinions — what follows are just the facts, presented as objectively as possible.

Website

Synod 2018 mandated the Website Committee to design a new website for the FRCA.  This has been done and it just remains for Synod 2021 to give the green light.  In the meantime, you can find a preview of the new website at this link. 

Book of Praise

Our last synod also mandated the development of an Australian Book of Praise and, to that end, a Standing Committee for the Australian Book of Praise was appointed.  The Aussie church book is apparently at Premier Printing in Canada, but should be available by the time of Synod 2021.  It will officially be called Australian Book of Praise:  Anglo-Genevan Psalter.

Training for the Ministry

This is a significant report because these deputies were asked to develop a strategic long-term plan for an accredited Australian seminary.  The plan proposes to explore the possibility of an Australian affiliate of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. There are many unanswered questions about this route, but the deputies are asking for a new mandate which will see them finding the answers. 

The report also proposes that deputies be mandated to develop guidelines for a vicariate system in the FRCA.  This would see seminary graduates who originated in the FRCA being given the opportunity to have a one-year internship/vicariate in a local FRC congregation with an experienced pastor.  The proposed model is based on the practice of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand.

Ecumenical Relations

As happens at every synod, a lot of time is going to be spent on relationships with other churches.  Especially noteworthy at this synod will be a proposal from Classis North (originating from Launceston) to send observers to the next International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC).  The FRCA was part of the founding of the ICRC.  We left the ICRC in 1996, but this proposal suggests the time may be right to re-examine our involvement through a small step.

Within Australia, we have our Committee for Contact with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and Southern Presbyterian Church.  This committee is recommending that the FRCA continue discussions with the EPC and SPC with a view to eventually establishing sister church relations.  While the marks of a true church are in evidence with both the EPC and SPC, there do remain outstanding issues to discuss with them.  The committee is also asking the synod to clarify the status of a “Declaration” that was made by Synod 1986 with regard to “true church.”  Was that a general doctrinal declaration and therefore a form of extra-confessional binding?  Or was it simply a limited declaration meant to serve the narrow purposes of a discussion at Synod 1986 about the Presbyterian Church in Eastern Australia?  The answer has implications for moving forward with the EPC and SPC.                   

Outside Australia our closest sister churches are the Canadian Reformed (CanRC).  Among other things, our deputies were mandated to monitor developments in relation to Blessings Christian Church in Hamilton, Ontario.  In their report, the deputies noted that there were many efforts in the past three years to openly discuss and debate these developments within the CanRC.  They write that we need to respect the process of dealing with these things through the Canadian ecclesiastical assemblies.  Going forward, the deputies recommend that referring to a single church is not necessary or appropriate, because these developments are “part of a larger dynamic within the CanRC” (p.53). 

Geographically the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) are some of our closest sister churches, especially if you’re in Tasmania.  Our deputies were mandated by the last synod to keep urging the RCNZ to be vigilant with regard to the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia.  In their 2021 report, the deputies maintain that there is no need to continue doing this, seeing how as the RCNZ already do this on their own.  If we continue to make that a point of discussion it communicates mistrust, according to the deputies’ report.

Finally, there are two North American churches with whom we’ve been exploring a relationship.  Our deputies recommend that contact be continued with the United Reformed Churches and that a recommendation be made to Synod 2024 about a sister church relationship.  With regard to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the deputies recommend not pursuing a sister church relationship at this time, not because of any issue with the OPC as such, but because of the practical difficulties involved.  They also invite recommendations from the churches about the merits of pursuing ecclesiastical contacts with the OPC outside the context of a sister church relationship.

Conclusion

There’ll be other items on the agenda.  In the weeks to come, FRCA consistories will be reviewing all these reports and the other proposals that have been submitted.  Undoubtedly, in due time, there will be letters from some of the churches interacting with some of this material.  This is good and fitting.  It shows that the churches care about what happens at our broadest assembly and they care about the direction of our federation.  I look forward to June!