Music and the Worship of the Living God

Dan G. McCartney
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Nov/Dec 2002

n Scripture, worship of the living God involves at least three activities. First, we bow down to God, thereby acknowledging his sovereignty and indicating our loving and faithful subservience. Second, we glorify God by praising his attributes and recounting his deeds and virtues. Third, we draw near to God in adoration, thanksgiving, and supplication.

Music is especially suited to worship because it can encompass all of these activities. Not surprisingly, then, when worship is described in the Bible, singing often figures prominently both in the Old and New Testaments. Songs are used to acknowledge that God has acted and fulfilled his promises (see Exod. 15; Deut. 32; 2 Sam. 22, Ps. 18). Some Old Testament worship also includes instrumental music (see, e.g., Ps. 98:5, 6). Scenes of heavenly worship are expressed in singing and music (see Rev. 5:8, 9; 14:3; 15:3, 4). In fact, Scripture commands believers to sing and make music (see Ps. 33:2, 3; Isa. 42:10-12; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).

Since worshipping God is our highest calling and music is so naturally a part of worship, it is appropriate to consider their relationship in depth. Before we do that, however, let us consider two concerns. First, questions of musical style-the principal battleground of the “worship wars”-are very tightly bound up with cultural forms that vary from one social context to another. Although these questions are relevant, they must be answered anew in each cultural context; here we will be concerned with larger principles. Secondly, God is more interested in a particular kind of worshiper than in a particular kind of worship (see John 4:23). Yet worshiper and worship intertwine, so it is important to discuss certain biblical principles that apply to the use of music in worship. These principles include the following:

The worship of God, and, thus, also the music of worship, should correspond to God’s character. How we worship should reflect the kind of God he is. This correspondence principle underlies all other principles. The worship of God, and, hence, the music of worship, should exhibit joyful reverence and awe. This we may call the holiness principle. The worship of God, and, thus, the music of worship, must conform to God’s own prescriptions for worship. This we commonly call the regulative principle. The worship of God, and, thus, the music of worship, should involve the whole worshipper and not just cognitive but also aesthetic, emotional, and physical aspects of our being. This is a holistic principle. The worship of God, and, thus, the music of worship, should embody the best the worshipper can do. I will term this the excellence principle.
The Correspondence Principle

How we sing is integral to how we worship, and our worship expresses what we believe. Our worship, whether we are conscious of it or not, reflects our conception of God. If our concept of God is biblical, then the way we worship-and not just the propositional content of our sermons and prayers-will reflect that. Pagan styles of worship reflect pagan conceptions of deity. Christian styles of worship ought to correspond to the biblical concept of God. Cultural critic Marshall McLuhan may have overstated it when he said that the medium is the message, but it is undeniable that the medium affects the way the message is received. Worship, including its music, reflects and extols God’s character, attributes, and actions. So it is important in any particular culture to use music that adequately conveys his character.

People come to God for different reasons. We can be driven to God by servile fear, or seek him to satisfy a need, or we can be drawn to him by both his splendor and beauty. The latter is true worship (see Ps. 27:4; 29:2; 96:1-9; cf. 50:1-2). The former two motives for coming to God are not bad and often are necessary steps, but they do not produce the kind of worshipper God seeks. Hence, the music of worship ought to reflect, in word and form, God’s splendor and beauty. The less our worship does that, the harder it is for the true worshipper to be drawn to it.

Hugh of St. Victor declared “the world is like a book written by the finger of God” and its “visible beauty is an image of invisible beauty.” Indeed, beside God’s beauty all earthly beauty is but a pale reflection. Yet since God’s beauty is one of his communicable attributes, his image bearers should reflect it.

Does this mean that worship itself should be beautiful? Wouldn’t that distract us from God’s own beauty? It can. In the high Middle Ages, the Church honored art. It strove to represent the divine beauty in magnificent buildings and great paintings. Unfortunately, it also tended to emphasize art to the point of obscuring the gospel’s truth. By substituting the delights of ornamentation for the true knowledge of God, it often lost sight of the biblical principle that God is to be worshipped only as he himself prescribes. But Roman Catholicism’s excesses ought not to tempt us to renounce beauty anymore than gluttony should prompt us to renounce food.

We are, thus, faced with opposing errors: Worship can be ugly or boring, hence obscuring God and making his beauty hard to see; or it can focus so much upon human creative art that a substitute beauty gets in the way, and, thus, again makes God’s own beauty hard to see. Calvin addressed this issue of the kind of beauty appropriate to worship in his preface to the 1645 Psalter: ” Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous, but that it have weight and majesty (as Augustine says) and also that there be a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the church in the presence of God and his angels.”

Calvin was not against beauty in worship. But that beauty had to be fitted to its task of conveying God’s weight and majesty. Consequently, it needed to manifest simplicity, sobriety, and measure. The kind of beauty that is appropriate for worship is a holy beauty-or, to use the phrase used in the King James Version, “the beauty of holiness” (Ps. 96:9). This brings us to our second principle.

The Holiness Principle

Our worship of God, and, hence, the music of worship, should exhibit joyful reverence and awe. As Scripture declares, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28, 29).

God is a consuming fire because he is utterly holy, and, therefore, acceptable worship is characterized by reverence and awe. In fact, the translation “awe” in modern versions is a bit weak. The fact that God is a consuming fire does not just inspire awe, it inspires holy fear. Granted, the Greek word here-deos-is not the usual word for “fear,” but it is no weaker in force. It refers especially to numinous fear, in other words, fear that the unknown, uncontrollable, limitless, raw power of deity’s presence evokes. New Covenant worship-even more than Old Covenant worship-should be filled with reverence and a deep sense of numinous fear, because we now more clearly know the holiness of the one we worship by understanding the depth of what was required for our redemption.

Immediately preceding these verses, the author of Hebrews tells us that Moses was afraid because of the fire and smoke on the mountain. “But,” he writes,

you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (12:22-24)

Often we think this means that while God was frightening in the Old Testament, he is a nice friendly God in the New Testament, so we no longer need to be afraid. But that is not the author’s point. His point is that although worship early in Israel’s history was so frightening that even Moses was terrified, the reality is far more glorious than even Moses could perceive-and, hence, should evoke even greater fear and reverence. Yes, the sprinkled blood of Jesus speaks more graciously than Abel’s; but this, too, if we really understand it, should evoke holy fear: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps. 130:4). Again, if the appearance of even one angel evokes terror, what would the presence of innumerable angels be like? And, most crucially, we come not just to a smoking, fiery earthly mountain that may still be touched (see 12:18), but we come to the living God, who is the judge of all, with absolute, total power, and who will burn away in furious fire all that is not holy.

This is why the text continues with the words, “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven?” This greater warning is more weighty and fearsome-and there are greater consequences for failing to pay attention. True worship at Mount Zion is not less reverent and awesome than worship at Sinai, but more so. Hence, our author says: “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens'” (12:26). The internal quotation is from Haggai 2, where God says he will shake heaven and earth to restore the splendor and glory of Israel’s worship (see 2:6-9). And since, as the Hebrews’ verse points out, God shakes not just earth (which is frightening enough!) but the very heavens in order to do it, he must regard New Covenant worship as extremely important.

Thus, we arrive back at the verses that opened this section: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” We are brought back to reverential and fearful worship because God is no lightweight, temporary, fly-by-night deity but a consuming fire who will shake both heaven and earth.

Nevertheless, our worship is also filled with great joy, because we have a perfect mediator between us and this fearsome God. True worship is full of joy precisely because it is aware of how terrifying the One whom we worship is, and how great our privilege is in being allowed to approach him. Truly joyous worship remains ever aware of the terrifying, dreadful, awesomely holy God who is a consuming fire-and it is, therefore, performed in fear and reverence. True joy in worship is not a “happy hour.” True joy in worship is only possible when we realize what an enormous and almost inconceivable provision God has made to make us fit to appear before him-and, thus, what an indescribable privilege we now have of standing in the presence of this consuming fire.

Thinking about the innumerable angels mentioned in verse 25 can help us here. These angels are gathered in festal assembly. The Greek word for “festal assembly”-panegyris-means a joyful but solemnly important occasion. It is not a party or a neighborhood barbecue. Coronations or royal weddings are festal assemblies. They are intensely joyful and festive but also very sober and solemn. Divine worship is all the more joyous and festive, because of our lowliness and the greatness of the king who has invited us to join this solemn assembly. Hence, the music of worship should be appropriately joyous and festive, but also solemn and serious. It should not be frivolous entertainment any more than a coronation or royal wedding would be.

The Regulative Principle

The regulative principle recognizes that God alone should determine how we worship him. It has a negative aspect-God proscribes certain things, such as the use of images-and a positive aspect-he prescribes certain things, such as the reading of Scripture. Singing is prescribed; it is something we are commanded to do. So the music of worship ought to be taken as seriously as the preaching of God’s Word and the administration of his sacraments.

In the Reformed tradition, the regulative principle says that God is to be worshiped only in the ways he specifically has commanded (see, e.g., the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 21, Section 1). To offer anything in worship that has not been commanded by God is not only religiously worthless (Col. 2:23), it is a travesty. But what does it mean to keep this principle? Few would argue that the use of a pulpit violates it, but many have argued that no musical instrument other than the human voice should be used. Such debates focus on the elements versus the circumstances of worship.

Reformed churches have always distinguished between these two. The elements of worship are its indispensable, obligatory, and efficacious parts; they are central to what worship is. Hence, they must not be added to or subtracted from because they are what God has said pleases him. The Westminster Confession of Faith lists the elements as prayer, the reading of Scripture, the orderly preaching and hearing of God’s Word, the due administration of the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and singing in praise of God (see Chapter 21, Sections 3-5). In some form, each of these things must occur in worship.

But the particular forms that the elements of worship take-such as reading Scripture responsively or individually-and their setting-such as whether flowers flank the pulpit-are circumstances of worship. Circumstantial aspects of worship include (among many others) standing or kneeling or sitting, raising hands, musical preludes, processionals, boys’ choirs, hymn books and prayer books, incense, candles, ministerial robes, pulpits and lecterns, stained glass, carved wood latticework, hand-crafted communion tables, plastic communion cups, collection plates, overhead projectors, printed bulletins, ceiling fans, carpeting, and pews. Classifying some of these items-such as incense-as circumstantial aspects of worship is controversial because some churches have regarded them as efficacious elements of worship; and so using them in worship at all is taken by some as implying that they are being considered to be more than circumstantial. Yet if they are considered to be merely circumstantial, then wisdom and discernment must determine their appropriateness. Scripture’s silence concerning them is not necessarily a condemnation of them. But still we must ask, What is most appropriate to worship in joyful reverence and awe? What forms or settings are best fitted to present the elements of worship in culturally appropriate and biblically faithful ways? What circumstances in a given cultural environment most clearly reflect and evince God’s revealed attributes?

Although the circumstances of worship are not prescribed, they are not unimportant or matters of indifference. If our worship reflects our conception of God, then circumstantial aspects of worship are important, and we should always ask, Is this form or this setting appropriate?

What happens if we ask this question especially of the music of worship? Perhaps the best way to understand the regulative principle with regard to worship music is like this: In addition to being careful to avoid all elements of worship that God forbids, we must also be careful not to introduce anything as an element of worship that God does not command. In general, the theology of the Reformed churches has stressed the continuity of the one God and his one plan and one people through the Old and New Covenants-the New Covenant does not annul the Old Covenant; it fulfills it. It is, consequently, a little odd that in music this emphasis was reversed and that discontinuity was assumed for awhile, resulting in the proscription of musical instruments and the limitation of singing texts to those that are actually found in Scripture. But this proscription and limitation may in fact violate the very principle that is being advocated; namely, that nothing be added to the command of God (see Deut. 12:30-32; cf. Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18, 19).

When we look closely at Deuteronomy 12:30-32 we see that its primary concern is that God not be worshipped in any way that is contrary to his nature and character. Pagan gods were worshipped according to their presumed characters and attributes. They were localized and, thus, could be represented by idols; they were hungry and rapacious, driven by the most extreme forms of human passion, and, hence, could easily be offended as well as placated; and they could be manipulated with bribes or magic. Israel was repeatedly tempted to think of the true God as though he were just like those pagan gods, but associating the true God with any of these pagan attributes was abominable. Thus, for Israelites to burn their children in sacrifice, as Moloch’s worshipers did, was unspeakably blasphemous and horribly at odds with the true God’s character (see Deut. 12:31).

God’s command, enunciated by Moses, that we must be careful to do all and only what he commands also concerns his holiness. Uzziah was stricken with leprosy because, even though he was generally a decent king, he broke a strict temple rule that reflected God’s holiness (see 2 Chron. 26:19; cf. Num. 16). Even more tragically, Saul was cut off from kingship by violating God’s command to wait patiently for Samuel to arrive at Gilgal so that God’s holy prophet would be the one to offer the sacrifice (see 1 Sam. 10:8 and 13:1-14). And when Uzzah tried to prevent the ark from falling into the mud he was stricken dead for his trouble (see 2 Sam. 6:1-7). How often does our worship abandon the principle of holiness in the name of considerations such as seeker-friendliness, convenience, or economy?

The Westminster Confession of Faith first alludes to the regulative principle within the context of Christian liberty (see chapter 20, section 2). One purpose of this principle is to prevent human beings from laying religious duties on each other that God has not prescribed. In this sense, the regulative principle is a liberating one. If we use it to bind consciences where God has not bound them, then this violates the very principle that we are claiming to uphold.

This over-scrupulousness seems to be happening when Reformed churches proscribe instrumental music and limit singing to texts found in Scripture, particularly Psalms. The Psalms themselves enjoin the skillful use of instruments (see Ps. 33:3). Exclusive psalmody, moreover, not only seems to clash with New Covenant worship as it is portrayed in the New Testament itself (see especially Rev. 5:9; 14:3; 15:3, 4; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), but it also makes it difficult to sing of Christ by name. Those who proscribe musical instruments do so because the New Testament makes no mention of instrumental music in worship, but this way of arguing would also proscribe Sabbath rest because the New Testament never explicitly connects the Lord’s Day or the day of worship with the Sabbath. These believers also fail to acknowledge what instrumental musicians know-that instruments are simply a means for singing in different ways than with the human voice. Musical instruments are, therefore, circumstances, not false elements.

In summary, we should be cautious about proscribing something if we are unsure that God has proscribed it, for then our proscription may be adding to the commandment of God. And however we take the regulative principle, it should not be invoked in defense of worship that is ugly, boring, and cheap, for such worship does not reflect God’s character at all.

The Holistic Principle

The worship of God, and, hence, the music of worship, should involve all aspects of our created humanity. Since our whole being images God, it is important that the aesthetic, emotional, and physical aspects of our being be engaged in worship, in addition to our intellects (see Mark 12:30). Music is the one art that God specifically commands us to use in worship, probably because its capacity to address the physical, emotional, aesthetic, and intellectual dimensions of our being is unmatched by any other art. Obeying God’s command to sing, therefore, demands that our whole selves be put to the task.

Culture is also fundamental in shaping our whole beings-aesthetically, emotionally, physically, and intellectually. So music and culture are closely linked. Within any particular culture, there are a variety of different musical forms and styles, each of which affects us in specific ways. A culture’s funeral music differs from its wedding music, which differs from its battle music, drinking songs, love songs, and so on. A culture’s religious music is also distinctive and reflects that culture’s conception of deity.

Culture is not indifferent or ethically neutral. Writer T. S. Eliot was undoubtedly right to think of culture as the incarnation of religion (see his “Notes toward the definition of Culture” in his Christianity and Culture). Pagan cultures reflect pagan religion and functionally agnostic cultures like ours inevitably bear the marks of their agnosticism. Yet the gospel can transform any culture, because all cultures are produced by people who bear God’s image. Even the most depraved culture has musical forms and styles that can appropriately express and echo God’s truth.

Thus, we should not take any culture as absolute and as the final standard to which all others must conform. The links between music and culture mean then that it is impossible to make absolute judgments about what kinds of music are appropriately reverent. This, however, does not mean that we should not make judgments that are relative to the culture in which we live. Just as it would be culturally confusing to sing a drinking song at a funeral or a battle song at a wedding, so it can be culturally and religiously confusing to take a song commonly recognized as praising “Mother Earth,” alter the words a bit, and sing it in Christian worship. (The oft-repeated claim that Luther put Christian words to drinking songs is simply not true. William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, did do something like that, but whereas he used popular melodies, he changed the style of their musical presentation.) The choice of music forms and styles in worship needs to be made conscientiously, recognizing the cultural implications, and not negligently defaulting to whatever form or style is most popular or least expensive to produce.

The Excellence Principle

An excellent God deserves excellent worship-and, therefore, excellent music in worship. It is inappropriate to “make do” with slipshod worship, including thoughtless, ugly, boring, or cheap music. But intellectually, physically, emotionally, and aesthetically excellent worship music requires resources, dedication, and focus. The Old Covenant requirement that worshipers bring their best to God (see Mal. 1:13) should certainly call into question our typical practice of doing worship music on the cheap.

What makes music excellent? Three principal ingredients of musical excellence are mastery, mystery, and passion. Mastery of any artistic medium, including a musical instrument or the human voice, requires years of dedicated labor and training. Maintaining that mastery is also time intensive. But without such mastery there is never the possibility of excellence. Psalm 33:3 commands musicians to play skillfully (see also 1 Chron. 15:22 and 28:21). This requires us as church members, to furnish them with appropriate resources, such as time to practice, decent (and, consequently, expensive) instruments, and adequate training.

Mystery refers to the subtle, nonpropositional character of any art that transcends what may be said in plain prose. Psalm 23 does not tell us anything that we cannot find elsewhere in Scripture, but our knowledge of God would be considerably impoverished if we did not have it. It takes a gifted and skilled artist to evoke such mystery-and once again that implies the need for resources for training and encouraging those who have such talents.

Finally, excellence in music requires passion-the kind of passion that flows from the deepest of human experiences. Great artists have suffered deeply, loved deeply, and rejoiced deeply. But shouldn’t these experiences be most characteristic of those who know the indescribable mercy of the Christian God?

Emphasizing excellence does not imply advocating exclusivism or elitism. Our worship must not exclude or denigrate any of God’s faithful ones because then it would not reflect his character as one who lives not only in a high and holy place but also with those who are crushed and lowly (see Isa. 57:15; cf. Ps. 18:27). Encouraging musical excellence does, however, acknowledge that just as God has gifted some with the ability to teach, he has gifted others with the ability to sing and make music-and that such gifts ought to be developed for God’s glory and the good of his Church.

How Then Should We Worship?

Our worship should reflect God’s attributes-his beauty, holiness, glory, and gravity. It should be done in consciousness of who he is and in conformity to his revealed will. It should involve each worshipper’s whole being, with each of us giving our best from every dimension of our humanity. And thus, worship will include music and singing as one of its indispensable and mandated elements.

We can see examples of these principles of worship in several psalms. Here is just one:

Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples. For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to the Lord, O families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.”The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.

Psalm 96

This psalm links together fear and trembling with splendor and majesty and beauty; and God’s splendor and majesty is echoed in the splendor of the worship.

Even attempting to worship this way is very uncommon today, even though earthly worship is the closest we can now get to what we will do after God restores all things. As has often been said, worship is a foretaste of heaven. It should be an eschatological experience. But how seldom do we experience the glories of worship in a way that anticipates heaven! So what has gone wrong? Probably many things. Yet isn’t it at least partly because we have such a poor understanding of who God is? And isn’t this reflected in how little thought we give to the way we worship? More specifically, we neglect worship’s aesthetic dimensions-and not only the aesthetic dimensions of its music, but also of its sermons, prayers, Scripture readings, and the administration of the sacraments. We think very little about how to manifest God’s splendor and majesty and beauty; and, consequently, our worship almost always lacks reverence and awe. But our earthly worship, including its music, ought to reflect what the books of Hebrews and Revelation reveal-namely, the great heavenly worship from which our earthly worship stems and to which it bears witness. May we begin to reflect such true worship again in our time.

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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