On votums, Scripture reading, and Fred Kaan

Q. I hardly ever find services in Reformed churches any more that use the votum to begin worship. Why have so many churches dropped this Reformed part of the liturgy?

A. A brief question with many ripples. Let me try to sort out a few threads here:

I'm not at all sure that the custom is as rare as your experience suggests. I still find it used in many congregations. In some churches the votum now takes place in a question ("Congregation, in whom is our help?") and answer ("Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth").

I know of other congregations where the votum is used, but the designation "votum" has been dropped. This is no great loss. The origin and meaning of the word is obscure, and the word is meaningless to most people, including those who have heard it all their lives. Most Reformed churches in The Netherlands still use the votum, but it now is generally designated as "Onze hulp" (Our help).

Is the votum one of those items that we can claim as "Reformed"? Probably not. Psalm 124:8 was used often at the beginning of the Roman mass during the Middle Ages—thus its use is hardly a Protestant or Reformed contribution. It is true that Calvin used it in his liturgy (was he just being "conservative"?!), and continental Reformed churches generally use the verse for the opening of worship. However, Presbyterians do not have the same tradition.

Is it a good way to begin our worship? It certainly is. Confessing our total dependence on the Lord is one of the essential aspects of Christian worship. Is this the only appropriate way to begin (Reformed) worship? Certainly not. Other scriptural calls to worship can be equally fitting.

My recommendation? Congregations that have not used the text recently should include it regularly. Congregations that always use it might want to use other texts occasionally.

Q. Our minister has started to read two Bible passages before the sermon. We used to read only one. Why this change?

A. The choice of Scripture passages (and the number) makes for an interesting study. Some preachers choose on the basis of "the Lord has laid it on my heart." Others choose favorite topics and hobbyhorses. (Maybe these two groups of preachers are really doing the same thing!)

  • Perhaps pastoral needs in the congregation will suggest a topic: for example, Scripture's teaching on illness and death if a congregation has been suffering.
  • One venerable Reformed practice is "preaching through a book" (or, if you prefer the Latin: lectio continua). Here a pastor systematically preaches through, for example, Romans, and treats each chapter (or part of a chapter) in a sermon.
  • Reformed pastors have often been guided by the Heidelberg Catechism for choice of subject and text.
  • A variation of the latter is to preach according to a lectionary—that is, a designated list of texts that tries to cover most of the Bible's teaching. The one most commonly used today is the Revised Common Lectionary. Your pastor may well be using a lectionary, since a lectionary usually lists four Scripture passages (normally, Old Testament, psalm, epistle, and gospel).

Each of these ways of choosing a Scripture passage has its own strengths. Your pastor's decision to use two passages regularly is especially helpful in relating one part of the Bible to another.

Q. I have come across the hymn "Help Us Accept Each Other" by Fred Kaan, but have not been able to find any information about this hymn writer. Can you help?

A. Kaan was born in Haarlem, The Netherlands, in 1929. He studied theology at the University of Utrecht, but then transferred to Western College in Bristol in 1954. He served as a minister in various Congregational churches in Great Britain (which later joined with the Presbyterian church to become the United Reformed church). Kaan's church service has been especially marked by urban ministry, ecumenical relations, and hymn writing. Some of his hymn collections are PiJgrimPraise; Break Not the Circle; Planting Trees and Sowing Seeds.

Probably the best introduction to Kaan is the collection The Hymn Texts of Fred Kaan (Hope Publishing, 1985). This volume also contains a fine biographical sketch of Kaan by Bernard Braley and a brief essay by Kaan. The magazine The Hymn (which, incidentally, should be known by more pastors and musicians) carried a good interview with Kaan (October 1980).

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.