Thoughts on Music, Worship, and the Reformation

Thoughts on Music, Worship, and the Reformation

Liturgy Lesson: October 27, 2019 (Reformation Sunday)
Call to Worship: Psalm 46:1-5; Ps. 124:8
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Praise: The Word of God is Solid Ground
Scripture Alone: 2 Peter 1:16-21
Christ Alone: John 14:6 & Acts 4:11-12
Hymn of Praise: In Christ Alone
By Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone: Romans 3:21-24; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9
Hymns of Response: By Grace Alone and God of Grace
Glory To God Alone: Ephesians 3:20-21
Doxology: #731
Heidelberg Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: Luke 13:1-9
Sermon: The Power of Humility, Rev. Eric Irwin
Supper: How Deep the Father’s Love for Us; The Power of the Cross
Hymn: A Mighty Fortress (#92)*

“Not unto us, not unto us, O Lord, but to your name be the glory!”
– Psalm 115:1)

Worship renewal was at the very heart of the Reformation. We’ve all heard about Martin Luther’s 95 theses and the famous five Solas, but one of the central areas of focus for the Reformers was worship, or more specifically, a liturgical reformation. We should be grateful for the way the Holy Spirit moved in the early 16th century to awaken the church to the voice of God. We are indebted to the Reformers for bringing truth and much-needed change to the public worship life of God’s people. By the late 15th century, Mass had evolved into a spectator sport, filled with ornate displays of choral polyphony and priestly chant that, despite its beauty, was mostly unintelligible to the average Joe. The reformers wanted the heart of each individual to dialogue directly with God, to hear and understand Him speaking through the scriptures, and then responding in kind. Hence, the great fight to translate the Bible and all liturgical language into the vernacular. Christ is the great Mediator. He is our high priest. His voice, and not that of the choir, is always the sweetest music.

In Christian worship there has always been a tension—or rather, a power struggle—between the words that are sung and the music that carries them. If we are a people of the book, and we understand that the word of God is supreme, then what is the role of music in church? Some of the greatest Christian thinkers in history, from Augustine to C. S. Lewis, have wrestled with this question. It was one of central concern during the Reformation because the elaborate music in the Catholic church was often sung in such a way that it obscured the text (this was a problem that was later resolved almost singlehandedly by Palestrina). The other glaring problem, of course, was that the congregation did very little of the singing.

Unfortunately, this meant that there were some reformers (not Luther) who laid guilt at the feet of Music herself. She was a temptress to idolatry, especially when she was all done up for Sunday Mass. People kept gawking at her, and not looking to Christ. Their answer? She was to be stripped of her beautiful garments and either put in humble rags or made to stand outside. In this way, the northern European reformers truly redressed the church’s music.

Given all the heresies and corruption in the church at the time, this sort of asceticism and reactionary rancor is understandable…but lamentable. Music is unparalleled as an aid to prayer. She can seduce the soul, but she is no harlot. She is more like Cinderella. She holds in her breast a longing for paradise and her prince, and hers is a story that reminds us of where we truly belong, at the ball with our beloved. For these reasons and more, Music holds an indispensable place in the church. If our worship is a foretaste of the great marriage supper of the Lamb, then the bride of Christ should be beautifully adorned. The church should be fostering deeper, richer, ever more beautiful expressions of praise. I can recall countless times in church when music contained the very breath of God and was to me a delightful expression of His love. In its transcendent beauty I can hear the sweetness of His voice, and almost feel the warmth of His exhale.

There is an art song by Franz Schubert entitled “An Die Musik” (to music). Written in 1817, it is one of the most beloved songs, by a composer whom many consider to be a true master of melody. Its greatness and popularity can be attributed, in part, to an infectious tune that sweeps effortlessly over the top of a galloping bass line. The melody and accompaniment perfectly capture the spirit of the text written by Schubert’s friend, Franz Schober. The poem is an exuberant ode to the charms and joys of music itself. It borders on outright worship.

You holy art, in how many gray hours, when the wild ring of life constricts me,
Have you kindled warm love in my heart, and transported me to a better world?
Often a sigh has escaped from your harp, a sweet, holy chord from you,
That has opened up the heavens of better times for me.
O holy art, I thank you for that.
O holy art, I thank you!

This song always reminds me of Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music,” a lush and gorgeous rendering of the dialogue about music from “The Merchant of Venice” by Shakespeare, which assigns god-like power to music, saying that when the sounds “creep in our ears,” they transform the dark affections of man’s heart and bring the stillness of the night into a “sweet harmony,” a heavenly beckoning that can “draw us home.”

At this point, it may be tempting for some of us to re-form our hand into a fist and start shouting “idolatry.” But before we go the way of Zwingli, Cromwell, and others, I would like to refer you to this poem by George Herbert.

Church music (1633)
Sweetest of sweets, I thank you: when displeasure
Did through my body wound my mind,
You took me thence, and in your house of pleasure
A dainty lodging me assigned.

Now I in you without a body move,
Rising and falling with your wings:
We both together sweetly live and love,
Yet say sometimes, God help poor Kings.

Comfort, I’ll die; for if you post from me,
Sure I shall do so, and much more:
But if I travel in your company,
You know the way to heaven’s door

Herbert was a skilled lutenist, who often set his own lyrics or sacred poems. The British composer William Walton said that Herbert composed “such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven.” He has been described as having a “soul composed of harmonies.” We don’t know exactly what the music was like in Herbert’s church. It is likely that some of Herbert’s own music was regularly used in gathered worship. My guess is that it was humble, grassroots stuff. He served in a small, country parish that did not have access to the talent and resources of the big-city cathedrals. His parish was likely without an organ, and the music may have been quite sparse and simple, with only a lute to accompany. In lieu of the grand late-Renaissance polyphony, there was probably a capella Psalm singing. Yet, it was in this context that he referred to the music in church as “sweetest of sweets.” It moved him so much that he pitied the “poor Kings.” For Herbert, each hymn sung in church led him to a “house of pleasure” and pointed the way to “heaven’s door.”

I think that Schubert, Vaughan Williams, and Herbert are all pretty much singing different arrangements of the same song here. For all three of them, music opened up a window to paradise. It was an echo of eternity, a hint of heaven, a gift imbued with transcendence. Music is a wordless wonder that cannot help but speak of eternity and the divine. We may create instruments out of wood and metal, but the stuff that music is made of is not of this world. It is, as C.S. Lewis once said, a “beam from the Glory.”

Music, in its very essence, will always and forever speak of the glory of God. Man, made in the image of God, is only a sub-creator. He receives the gift of music and offers it back up with an endless doxology of delight and devotion. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. A great performer may, at times, seem like a magician. It is as if we are watching some sort of musical Merlin, a wizard who wields and woos, enchanting a spellbound audience with his power. But he is simply channeling the charge from the fingertips of God. This is the “Götterfunken,” the God-spark, which is sung about at the end of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9.” The lightning power of music is impossible to untether from the hand of God. He alone is the architect of the overtone series. If we do not hear Him in the harmony, then our ears and hearts are closed and we are fools indeed.

Ah, what myriad and mystical ways the Maker sings through music! Do you not hear him? Listen closely, for in the stillness it can appear as soft and ephemeral as dust, a narrow shaft of afternoon light that sparkles with pollen. This is the sound of the flute, and it speaks of his tender mercies. “A bruised reed he will not break” (Is. 42:3). Other times we may behold the entire spectrum of symphonic color, the rainbow in the roar of the waterfall. This is the sound of the organ at full tilt, and it speaks of His majesty. “Out of the north comes golden splendor; around God is awesome majesty” (Job 37:22).

If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then music is one of the primal tools that God has given us to fulfill that twofold telos in a unified act. Singing and making music are thoroughly enjoyable acts that glorify God. He is, after all, a God of beauty, not duty. This is why he created music to be so lovely. It is intended for our delight and enjoyment. This is why the verb most commonly used to describe what musicians do is “play.” We are his children, and he is a good, good Father. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation…The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”

When we feast on the aesthetic delights of music, may we glorify the Lord, and honor Him with gratitude in our hearts. More than that, may every note, every chord, all the rhythm of our days combine into polyphonic praise. May this weave seamlessly with the saints’ and angels’ song and may it all crescendo into a rhapsodic roundelay. This is what the church’s song should be: a festal fantasia for the Faithful one, an immutable medley of ecstatic, perpetual thanks to the Composer of our lives, the Savior of our souls, and Giver of every good gift. Praise Him! Praise Him! Praise Him!

By Grace Alone
Words: Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Music: David Ward, 2002

This hymn, based on Psalm 130, takes its title from one of the five reformation solas: sola gratia—by grace alone. The text was penned by Martin Luther himself. Luther was a Monk in the Roman church who diligently sought peace with God through spiritual practices and earnest prayer. As he studied the Bible, he became confronted with the doctrine of justification and imputed righteousness. He came to understand and accept the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ alone. His hymn expounds upon the truth found in Ephesians 2:8-9. This text must have joyfully liberated Luther’s soul from the burden of fulfilling the law to earn salvation.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The music for this hymn is by David Ward, worship pastor at Trinity Baptist church in Nashville. On the subject of writing music for hymns, David has spoken in the true spirit of the reformers, encouraging us to continue to reform and renew the music of our worship for the right reasons.

“From the beginning of hymnody, new tunes for revered hymn texts have been written by various authors across successive generations. This is because music is rooted in a time and a place and a culture. The church should continue the tradition of writing new tunes for some old texts and encourage the local musician to try their hand at it. We should (not exclusively, but sometimes) be reviving old hymn texts by writing new tunes or playing existing tunes with fresh arrangements, setting them to more culturally appropriate or accessible music.”

Martin Luther would have agreed, and I think he would have liked this tune, which yields easily to the prayerful truth of the text.

Sheet Music

*For those of you who would like to read more about Reformation Sunday and dig deeper into Luther’s greatest hymn of all, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” I refer you here.