Music and Worship

George C. Hammond

New Horizons: August 2023

The 89th GA

Also in this issue

The 89th General Assembly, the Kingdom of God, and You

In his book Taking Note of Music, musician and Westminster Theological Seminary professor William Edgar points out that the creation of music as it is presented in the Bible is unique when compared to the ancient Near Eastern and Greek origin-of-music myths. In these stories, music is the creation of the gods and given to human beings. In the Bible, however, music has its origin with human beings (Gen. 4:21), specifically with Jubal, who is a son of Cain, who in turn is among the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:14–15). This fact caused the early church fathers to be highly suspicious of music.

The point of the Bible’s statement regarding the origin of music is surely that it is something shared by all humanity, whatever their spiritual condition. The views of the early fathers regarding music in worship are contradicted by the Bible’s own prescriptions for worship, which include singing (as indicated by the direction to use certain tunes in Psalms 9, 22, 45, 56–60, 69, 75, 80) as well as musical instruments (Psalms 33, 57, 71, 81, 92, 108, 144, 150). Music in worship is alluded to in the New Testament (1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Jam. 5:13) and is a part of the worship of heaven (Rev. 5:9; 14:3; 15:3), including instrumental music (Rev. 5:8; 14:2; 15:2).

The Psalms demonstrate that they are musical compositions, but the music itself is not preserved. There is musical allusion, but no musical notation. While the words are God’s Word, the music was a purely human expression. Consequently, musical expression in the church’s worship changes by location and throughout time.

The Introduction of Modern Musical Forms

Early on, the church practiced “plainsong,” the exercise of all voices singing in unison in flowing, free-form meter. As harmony and rhythm (in the West) were developed in the late medieval period, Martin Luther and the German Reformers became early adopters of the new style for use in worship.

Luther translated sacred songs from Latin into vernacular German and, to the horror of the Roman traditionalists, wrote four part-harmony for it (soprano, alto, bass, tenor), along with rhythmic notation. Later, melodies and musical form were borrowed from non-church music. The introduction of this musical novelty was vindicated in that there was more vigorous participation in singing on the part of the congregation.

Since music is a human creation, it does not bear the attributes of being infinite, eternal, or unchangeable. Isaac Watts caused a stir when he introduced completely new hymns into the church’s worship at the turn of the eighteenth century. Watts grew concerned as he watched people sing the old hymns with detached boredom. What had at one time stimulated God’s people to joyful adoration was now a source of tedium reflected in their unenthusiastic participation.

His new hymns met with opposition by traditionalists at first, including his own father. It was not long, though, before his church embraced them because they breathed new life into the expression of worship made by the people, a new life which was reflected in their enthusiastic participation in singing.

How Music Means

In Taking Note, William Edgar argues that music itself carries no content. Its meaning comes through association. Music historian and scholar Ted Gioia, for example, has noted that songs in certain cultures that are performed at fast tempos with strong percussive rhythms are experienced by most Westerners as joyful and exuberant but are in fact funeral dirges and laments.

The lyricist E. Y. Harburg famously observed, “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.” The phenomenon can be observed with Fanny Crosby hymns. When I first entered the ministry thirty years ago, Fanny Crosby hymns were popular with the mature saints. Younger saints (those my age at the time) didn’t like them very much but would sing them on occasion out of deference and love.

The tunes are campy. Lyrically, they are subjective, having more to do with a personal experience with Jesus than with objective doctrine. These “new” songs, sung by people in their youth at the time they were having their first real spiritual experiences, became a powerful touchstone for them. Their children, however, hearing the music as dated and not having the same associations as their parents, were not thrilled.

Because generations rise and pass away, very few of the hymns we regard as “traditional” are sung with the music that was originally written for them. A quick look at the bottom of the pages of any hymnal will show that the music they are sung to is significantly newer—sometimes centuries newer—than the words of the hymn itself.

I remember when the old (blue) Trinity Hymnal was replaced by the new (red) Trinity Hymnal. The differences between the two fell into four broad categories: 1) The keys were generally lowered across the board because all but children and sopranos found it difficult to sing in the registers of the old hymnal. 2) New hymns which had come into usage in the churches were added, while old, little-used ones were deleted. 3) Lyrics were adjusted or replaced to be more theologically accurate or to update archaic language. 4) New tunes were paired with old hymns that had particularly good theology but that had fallen into disuse because the music was sorely dated and disliked by many.

The Body As God Has Arranged It

An important principle often overlooked at best, denigrated at worst, is that “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18). This has bearing on music in the church. Several years ago, an acquaintance was part of the musical ensemble providing his church with accompaniment for worship. One night the pastor came to their rehearsal and thanked them all for their service but told them that the coming Sunday would be their last. “We’ve decided to go in a different musical direction and hire musicians,” he said. These faithful servants were not “adequate for the task” and were summarily dismissed. I don’t know if the direction they were going in was more contemporary or more classical. It hardly matters. The point is that a preference in worship was allowed to trample the principle that God had arranged the members of their local body. God had brought those musicians to that church.

Contrast that heartbreaking account to a God-honoring one. One Sunday when I was on vacation, I went to visit a friend at his new church plant. The message was spiritually uplifting and nourishing, but I judged the music harshly. It was simplistic, lacking in sophistication, even “jangley.” During the fellowship time, when I heard the story of the church plant, I was ashamed of my judgmentalism. As plans were laid for the launch of the new church, it became evident that there was not a musician in the group. A small number from within the group volunteered to—within four months’ time—learn how to play musical instruments to accompany and lead the church in her musical worship. The music they played was the music they could play. When I heard this, my conscience was stung. They played the only music they could, as best as they could play it, unto the Lord.

God Has Determined Our Time in History and the Place Where We Live

I say with some confidence that Watts would be surprised that his hymns are still sung in the churches. I am not sure he would be happy. To the degree that Watts’s hymns are meaningful and cause enthusiastic participation in worship, Watts would be humbly gratified. To the degree that his hymns are mumbled dutifully and with long faces, he would be displeased, for that is why he introduced his new hymnody in the first place.

It has been a joy for me to hear the exuberant participation on the part of the congregation as they sing new songs, or old songs in new ways. Over thirty years in the ministry, I’ve heard the music change, but in every change, God has remained faithful, and by his grace his Word has been faithfully proclaimed and reflected in the changes. God has placed his church in this place, here and now, with these people to reach this generation. He has not placed us in the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth century, but rather in the twenty-first. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18). He has “marked out [our] appointed times in history and the boundaries of [our] lands” (Acts 17:26 NIV). Through the years, our own church’s music has reflected and continues to reflect both these biblical truths.  

The author is pastor of Bethel Presbyterian in Leesburg, Virginia. New Horizons, August–September 2023.

New Horizons: August 2023

The 89th GA

Also in this issue

The 89th General Assembly, the Kingdom of God, and You

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