22 Jan 2010

God as 'Supreme Being'

It is well known that liturgical language changes more slowly than ordinary spoken or written language and that people are exceedingly reluctant to alter the language of worship unless forced to do so. Of course any innovation, however controversial at first, has the potential to develop into hallowed tradition over time.

The Dutch Reformed churches have long sung from the Genevan Psalter, but there has been more than one approved versification of the psalms. An early versification in Dutch was that of Pieter Datheen, which became the standard version sung in the Reformed churches after 1566. In 1773 the States General of the Netherlands commissioned and imposed a new versification of the psalms on the churches. This was controversial at the time, as told by my emeritus colleague, Dr. Harry Van Dyke:

There were of course nation-wide protests when the 1773 berijming [versification] was forced on the church by the States-General. People hate to lose their well-known spiritual songs. In the town of Maassluis riots broke out when the minister announced a psalm from the new versification. A complication was that they were also to be sung at a faster tempo than the old version, and the congregation had practised doing so in weekday evening sessions a month earlier. That Sunday, however, people stormed out of the sanctuary and bellowed loud protests. But it was not likely to have been a protest against rationalism in the verses, and much rather a question of the tempo and the wish to stay with the old and familiar versification of Petrus Dathenus of 1566 (still sung in some ultra-conservative Reformed churches, esp. in Zeeland).

With respect to "rationalism," the 1773 version refers to God as het Opperwezen (Supreme Being) in 16 psalms (7, 8, 21, 33, 38, 40, 68, 71, 77, 78,81, 96, 99, 102, 112 and 113). With its abstract and impersonal connotations, Opperwezen's use here reflects the influence of the Enlightenment and Deism — at their height in the 18th century. It is found nowhere in the Statenvertaling, the 1637 Dutch translation of the Bible, comparable to our own King James Version.

The 1967 versification of the Psalms almost entirely removes Opperwezen as a reference to God except for a single uncharacteristic reference in Psalm 68 that appears to have escaped the attention of the editors.

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