WORSHIP AND IDOLATRY
he late Kurt Cobain likely did not have a clue he was screaming the anthem of an entire generation in his 1991 hit “Entertain us.”
With the lights out it’s less dangerous;
Here we are now entertain us.
I feel stupid and contagious;
Here we are now entertain us.
Cobain and many pop musical entertainers like him became the idols of a youth culture that wanted what they were delivering, entertainment. But, tragically, it was not only the teen spirit of the unbelieving world that joined in the mantra “entertain us.”
Christians in the contemporary church have been stumbling over themselves to catch up with the world. The transformation is nearly complete. We have refashioned what we do in worship to look like pop entertainment on the stage at a Nirvana concert, necessary changes constantly being revised to match the vicissitudes of each iteration of the latest thing since 1991.
“…every one of us is, even from his mother's womb,” wrote John Calvin, “a master craftsman of idols.” Calvin and the Reformers of the 16th century knew something that we have almost entirely ignored today. Left to ourselves, we will create idols out of almost anything, including those who entertain us. Intractable rebels against God, we cast about to find something else to venerate, to bow down to, to worship. But when we Christians do it, we keep telling ourselves that we’re not doing it, that it’s still all about Jesus.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in medieval worship in the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, the RCC continued to talk about Jesus, his deity, his virgin birth, his bodily resurrection, but over the centuries they had added rivals. Layers of sacraments, including prayers to saints, to Mary, bowing down before images of saints and Mary, lighting candles to them, going on pilgrimages to venerate their relics—all of these and more had supplanted the true worship of God. And Calvin took these perversions seriously because he believed “...there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God.”
Hence, the Reformers set about returning to the Bible alone, wherein they discovered that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. This rediscovery of the gospel of grace led to a return to robust biblical theology about salvation and the gospel. Concurrent with the Reformation of theology was a Reformation of doxology, of how we enter into the presence of the living God in worship.
Knox, Calvin, and the Reformers proceeded to help break the chains of the idolatrous medieval corruptions that had been allowed to infect every dimension of corporate worship.
Because “The mind of man is like a work place of idolatry,” as Calvin put it, they scoured the Scriptures to learn what worship pleases God.
THE REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE
From their labors came what theologians call the Regulative Principle of Worship. I’d like to demonstrate that everybody in the worship wars has a regulative principle, that is, some controlling idea behind the choices that are made about what we do in church, how we order our service, the place and role of the sacraments, how and what we pray, read, preach, and sing. These components of worship never emerge out of thin air. We do them, or don’t do them, based on what is regulating our understanding.
Everybody has a regulative principle. Some churches regulate their worship by the past, tradition, and how they’ve always done things. There may have been more foundation in generations past, but for all intents and purposes today, they do what they do, how they do it, because that’s just how they’ve always done it.
Others regulate what they do in worship by their preference. These churches order their service of worship by what people like. What makes them feel good in worship, what gives them a sense of having worshiped when they’re finished. People who choose to attend these churches might say, I go to this church because it’s what I like and enjoy.
Still other churches organize their gatherings by the pragmatic principle of worship. They do what they do and how they do it because they believe it works. They regulate how they worship by what fills the church, what draws people into the church. For these churches what is popular and entertaining works. It draws people in.
Closely related to the pragmatic principle of worship are those churches that have concluded that they can do anything in church as long as it is not specifically prohibited in the Bible.
The Reformers rejected all of these principles informing worship. They believed that idolatry results from regulating worship by the past, by the pragmatic, by personal preferences, by doing anything not prohibited. Calvin and the rest concluded that a prescriptive principle of worship ought to regulate what and how we come into the presence of the living God in worship. They concluded that true worship is commanded worship; we may only include in our worship what God has commanded us to include in his Word.
The Regulative Principle of Worship is summarized in John Knox’s 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 some pretty serious housecleaning for the Reformers. Iconoclasm, the breaking of idols, resulted throughout Scotland and much of Europe as men, zealous for purity of doctrine and of doxology, tore down the idols that cluttered medieval church buildings.
A century later, the Westminster Divines, the leading pastors and theologians of sixteenth century England and Scotland, encapsulated the Regulative Principle of Worship in the most careful and thorough Reformed confession of faith:
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, these godly men wanted the Church to worship God’s way not the world’s way.
What does the Regulative Principle of Worship tell us about music, about what and how we sing in worship?
For the answer, we will find it instructive to hear practical ways the Reformers employed music in worship. Calvin and Luther agreed about the power of music: “There is scarcely anything in this world which can more turn or bend hither and thither the ways of men. We know by experience that music has a secret and almost incredible power to move hearts.” Though he argues against those who wanted to condemn all music, still, this knowledge about the force of music led Calvin 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. Good things can become god things, as one man put it.
Yet, Calvin maintained a high view of the importance of music in worship. “And in truth we know by experience that 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.”
Because Calvin knew the “force and vigor” of music, he gives us wisdom on what kind of music is appropriate in the house of God:
Care must always be taken that the song be neither
light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and
majesty (as St. Augustine says), and also, there is 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 understood something about music that we have suppressed in the last generation. Music is not neutral. There are different kinds of music that may be appropriate in various settings, but musical styles are not interchangeable. Not all music is capable of bearing the weight of the majesty of the God into whose presence we are entering to adore. Calvin ranks entertainment music as “light and frivolous” and thereby inappropriate for corporate worship. Only music with “weight and majesty” was appropriate for the worship of the God revealed in Scripture.
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 the 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.” Some historians and hymnologists believe it was written by Calvin himself. We may never know this side of eternity, but we do know that when Calvin returned to Geneva, he included this hymn and others in the Geneva Psalter 1551, set to Toulon a fine 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 glory 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.
Thou art the King of mercy and of grace,
Reigning omnipotent in every place;
So come, O King, and our whole being sway;
Shine on us with the light of thy pure day.
Calvin knew that if we are to worship aright, we must preserve the pure doctrine of the gospel, and understanding 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.”
Thou art the life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;
O comfort us in death’s approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by thy power.
Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
No harshness hast thou and no bitterness;
Make us to taste the sweet grace found in thee
And ever stay in thy sweet unity.
Our hope is in no other save in thee;
Our faith is built upon thy promise free;
O grant to us such stronger hope and sure
That we can boldly conquer and endure.
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
We’ll never know for sure if Calvin wrote that marvelous hymn, but we know for certain that Luther wrote a number of hymns, including the musical accompaniment. Luther is less guarded and speaks of music with little of the caution Calvin used.
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.” Setting to work early, Luther published his first congregational hymnbook, Geystliche Gesangbuchlein, in 1524. He repudiated the “lazy worship” whereby everything was performed for them and the congregation was passive, observing but not participating in singing. But they needed to learn how to sing together. So, Luther began teaching his people to sing like God sings, with full voice.
Ranking music even higher than Calvin, Luther declared, “Music is an outstanding gift of God and next to theology. I would not give up my slight knowledge of music for a great consideration.” He was being overly modest. He played the lute, composed original music, and was called “The nightingale of Wittenberg” for his skillful singing ability. So important was music, he was an advocate of formal musical education in the school curriculum for all German children.
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 by far and away his best loved. Written likely while Luther was sequestered in Coburg Castle during the Diet of Augsburg, it is a rousing hymn loosely drawn from Psalm 46, wherein Luther defies “the prince of darkness grim” and demonstrates the Christologic hermeneutic of all the Scriptures, recovered in the Reformation. For Luther, Christ Jesus is the “right man on our side.” Though Christ’s name doesn’t appear in Psalm 46, Luther was hermeneutically and theologically correct to name Christ Jesus in his hymn.
Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side,
The man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
From age to age the same,
And he must win the battle.
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, “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 vulgarizes the eternal. In the warfare for true biblical worship, Jesus Christ “must win the battle.”
Douglas Bond is author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) and more than twenty-five other books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours in Europe. Watch for his forthcoming book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To), from which this post is an excerpt; preorder a signed copy of God Sings! at bondbooks.net.