Updated: Apr 7, 2019
(A review of the book, “With Reverence and Awe, Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship” by D. G. Hart and John R. Muether. In conjunction with our Wednesday night study, I am using this book and the principles taught in it to aid us in a study of worship.)
Chapter 11: Song in Worship
“As we turn our attention to music, we come at last to the most divisive issue in the so-called worship wars…In large measure the worship wars are really wars about singing, with sides divided between “traditionalists,” who defend hymns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and advocates of “contemporary music,” who insist on the use of praise songs from the 1970s and 1980s…This debate is understandable because the church has long understood the value and necessity of song in worship.” (Hart & Meuther)
As we sing, congregations give voice to their beliefs and theology. As we sing, part of our benefit is to get a theological education. John Calvin stated, “We know from experience that song has great force and vigor to arouse and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.” Debates of music are not over the importance of song in worship. On that issue all sides would agree. As we look at what may be appropriate and what may be inappropriate in worshipping the Lord with reverence and awe, we have to keep in mind the principles of worship that have already been discussed in previous chapters.
So what about Psalms vs Hymns?
“The prevailing illiteracy over the Psalter in today’s churches is a testimony to how much of our Reformed heritage we have abandoned. Reformed worship ought to at least embrace frequent or even preponderant use of the Psalter. How many of us can claim that we know the Psalms well enough or that we sing them often enough?…Our songs should link together promise and fulfillment, and so the Psalter becomes the pattern for our hymnody.” (Hart & Meuther)
The authors give a quick review of the principles of a Reformed theology of worship that should inform congregational singing:
1. There is a great antithesis between the church and the world. When we are engaged in the public worship of God we stand in great contrast to the world. If this is true, then the world’s music, which may be appropriate in other contexts, should not be the model for the church’s song. Music should not be used as a vehicle to draw outsiders or the unchurched, but should first of all edify the people of God.
2. The fact that worship takes place on the Lord’s Day should guide our music. Activities that we do on the Lord’s Day should be different than activities we do during the week. In the same way, various musical tastes we enjoy Monday-Saturday; from country, to classical or from jazz to contemporary Christian music may not be appropriate for corporate worship.
3. Reverence is appropriate for the gathering of God’s people in worship. Godly fear should characterize our song. “We need to ask whether a given hymn or praise song can cultivate the sensibilities of reverence, along with self-control, discipline, and moderation.” (Hart & Meuther)
4. Because the covenant governs worship there is a dialogical structure to it. Song is part of our response to His Word. Because God is the audience for our singing, we avoid the ideas of performance by individuals as the corporate body of Christ responds together.
5. The regulative principle states that the only kind of worship that is acceptable is that which pleases God according to His revelation in Scripture.
“These reformed principles show that worship, contrary to much public opinion, is not a matter of taste. It is a matter of theological conviction. In song we give musical expression to the faith we profess. And so, the songs that Presbyterians and Reformed sing in worship should be as distinctive as the theology they hold dear.” (Hart & Meuther)
In concluding this chapter the authors share that for most Christians today worship has become a license for aesthetic relativism. An appeal to demographics or the demographics one wants to reach becomes a primary motivation. Another issue in modern worship today is a drift from God-centered lyrics to man-centered lyrics. We make music more about us than we do about God.
Terry L. Johnson, writing in the Westminster Theological Journal gives four tests for music: 1) Is it singable? 2)Is it biblically and theologically sound? 3) Is it biblically and theologically mature? 4) Is it emotionally balanced? While these are not a biblical criteria for music, they can provide some guidance to the church regarding music selection.
“In the end, the worship wars are not simply about new songs replacing old hymns, but reflect a reorientation of public worship away from the Word read and preached and toward the singing of songs. Worship music is threatening to undo the one trait that has always characterized Reformed worship, namely, the centrality of the Word. If this is the case, the worship wars are truly worth fighting. But this also means that the fight can’t be waged over our preferences in music. It must be fought over the elements and nature of worship.” (Hart & Meuther)