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.”
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.