Music as Idolatry
Regulating Worship for Weight and Majesty
Everyone has a regulative principle of worship. Everyone regulates what they do in worship either by the past, the pragmatic, by personal preference, or by the unprohibited. Sola Scriptura, however, compelled the Reformers to regulate worship by the prescriptive principle. What we do when we come into the presence of the living God in worship is regulated by God himself in his Word alone. Anything else is idolatry.
John Knox summarized the prescriptive principle of worship with this emphatic assertion: “All worshiping, honoring, or service, invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without his own express commandment, is idolatry.”
This meant serious housecleaning for the Reformers. Iconoclasm resulted throughout Scotland and much of Europe as men, zealous for purity of doctrine and of doxology, tore down the idols that cluttered medieval churches.
A century later, the Westminster Divines encapsulated the Regulative Principle of Worship:
The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture (WCF 21.1).
Put simply, our theological forebears wanted the Church to worship God’s way not the world’s way.
For many, the worship wars are long over and entertainment music, center stage with all its obligatory paraphernalia, won. Before complete surrender, however, we would do well to hear practical ways the Reformers employed music in worship. Luther agreed with Calvin about the power of music: “We know by experience that music has a secret and almost incredible power to move hearts.” Calvin’s knowledge about the force of music, however, led him to be more cautious than Luther. “Therefore, we ought to be even more diligent in regulating it in such a way that it shall be useful to us and in no way pernicious.”
Calvin, who believed that all good things were gifts of God, also knew that, intractable sinners that we are, good gifts can easily become idols. Nevertheless, he maintained a high view of the importance of music in worship because “…singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.”
Not only did Calvin know the “force and vigor” of music, he knew something we have suppressed in recent decades: Music is not neutral. Musical styles are not interchangeable. What is appropriate to sing in the house of God must be “neither light nor frivolous,” wrote Calvin, but it must “have weight and majesty.” There was a place for a style of “music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses,” but Calvin argued that there was a “great difference” between entertaining music “and the psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels.” In other words, music was not neutral. Not all music is capable of bearing the weight of the majesty of the God into whose presence we are entering to adore.
Geneva was a party city, a trading center, a crossroads where many merchants, far from home, came and went. He had seen the abuse of music on the streets and in the taverns, music that gave only “…foolish delight by which it seduces men from better employments and occupies them in vanity.” Geneva was a Vanity Fair, the Las Vegas of Europe, a culture, like ours, screaming to be entertained, and this atmosphere exerted its pressures on the church, as it does today. Calvin had heard with his own ears the force of music when it was combined with unwholesome lyrics: “When melody goes with [music], every bad word penetrates more deeply into the heart…Just as a funnel conveys the wine into the depths of the decanter, so venom and corruption are distilled into the very bottom of the heart by melody.”
MUSIC WITH WEIGHT AND MAJESTY
Above everything, Calvin wanted music and singing in Saint Pierre to exalt the glory of God, and where better to find such songs than in the inspired Psalms of David? In Psalms, Calvin discovered “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.”
Meanwhile, Geneva became the refugee center of Europe, and Calvin soon learned that God had brought several people with particular musical gifts to the city-state. Clement Marot, court poet of France, he put to work versifying the psalms in French, and enlisted musician Louis Bourgeoise to compose melodies with “weight and majesty,” but that would also be accessible to common folks worshiping in the church.
While Calvin was in exile from 1538-1541 in hymn-singing Strasbourg, he wrote several treatises, but he never wrote anything against singing hymns of human composition rather than only psalms in corporate worship. An inexplicable omission for Calvin, if he was as vehement as some are about exclusive psalm singing as some insist.
What’s more, during his time as pastor of the French-speaking church in Strasbourg, a hymn of human composition appeared entitled, “I greet thee who my sure Redeemer art,” a lyric some hymnologists believe was written by Calvin himself. We do know that when Calvin returned to Geneva, he included this hymn in the Geneva Psalter 1551, set to Toulona fitting melody composed by Louis Bourgeois.
Imagine Calvin leading his congregation at Saint Pierre in singing this glorious hymn, not only as a call to worship, but as a rehearsal of the whole of the gospel and the life of a Christian whose only hope is in “the King of mercy and of grace.”
I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art,
My only trust and Savior of my heart,
Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake;
I pray thee from our hearts all cares to take.
Calvin knew that if we are to worship aright, we must preserve the pure doctrine of the gospel, and adoring God’s sovereign authority over salvation and all things was non-negotiable, both in life and as we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” The God that Calvin adored with all his being, was a God of “true and perfect gentleness,” one in whom alone the Christian could “taste the sweet grace,” and by whose power and keeping alone be enabled to “boldly conquer and endure.”
GRUNTING OF HOGS
Alongside Calvin, Luther completes our understanding of the role of singing in worship. He laid out his plan: “I wish to compose sacred hymns so that the Word of God may dwell among the people also by means of songs.”
Typical of Luther’s Teutonic bluntness, he had little good to say about someone who disliked fine music. “A person who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”
Of Luther’s thirty-six hymns, “A Mighty Fortress” is his best loved. Likely written while he was sequestered in Coburg Castle, it is a rousing hymn drawn from Psalm 46, wherein Luther defies “the prince of darkness grim,” and declares his allegiance to Christ Jesus, the “right man on our side.”
Jesus Christ and his gospel regulate what and how we sing in worship, and he is the same yesterday, today, and forever, or as Luther put it, “From age to age the same.” It is inimical to the timeless, enduring truth of justification by faith alone to recast it with music that is fashionable—but only for the moment. The trendy trivializes the eternal. In the warfare for true biblical worship, Jesus Christ “must win the battle.”