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  • Wednesday, October 14, 2015
  • 3:30 PM–4:50 PM

By Yudha Thianto, Professor of Theology at Trinity Christian College

In his public lecture hosted by the Meeter Center in October, Yudha Thianto, professor of theology at Trinity Christian College in Illinois showed that in the early 17th century the tradition of Psalm-singing, which originated in the Genevan church, had been transmitted by the Dutch via the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to the indigenous people of the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia). After displacing the Portuguese from the archipelago, and becoming the dominant European power in that region, the Dutch soon focused on bringing the gospel to the indigenous people in their own tongues. They did so by translating the Bible into Malay, the lingua franca of the region, and also by introducing the tradition of Psalm-singing in Malay with the publication of bilingual – Dutch and Malay – psalters.

Preparing metrical Psalms and ecclesiastical songs in Malay was not an easy task. Linguistically, Malay is very different from European languages. Early Dutch translations into Malay sometimes were awkward, and the meaning was sometimes altered in order to maintain the meter. However, as Thianto noted, these Malay psalms still upheld the core teachings of the Reformed faith. Furthermore, singing metrical Psalms also posed cultural challenges for the natives of the land. Long before the coming of the Europeans, the Malay people cultivated various traditional ways of singing. However, singing metrical psalms was totally foreign to them. Yet instead of fitting the traditional Malay ways of singing into Christian worship, the Dutch taught and imposed their own musical tradition. This approach can be assessed from different perspectives. First, the VOC was committed to establishing a Reformed identity in the Dutch East Indies. Second, political motivations shaped the VOC’s approach: by teaching the Malay people to sing and to worship in the Reformed tradition, the VOC hoped to reinforce their position against their Catholic rivals. Finally, these limping translations were probably as much as the Dutch Reformed versifiers could accomplish at the time.

Thianto therefore demonstrated the continuity of the Reformed tradition from Geneva to Indonesia via the Netherlands. Discontinuity, however, also held sway. Right from the beginning of their presence in the archipelago, the VOC insisted on the Reformed way of worship in vernacular. One should not underestimate this effort. It is certainly one significant factor, I believe, that contributes to the acceptance of the Reformed faith and its practice by the natives of the land. In the present day, this practice of singing Psalms and ecclesiastical songs is still maintained by many Indonesian Reformed churches.

Philip Djung

Ph.D student, Calvin Theological Seminary

October 2015
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