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Reforming the Church’s Singing

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   April 2, 2012   |  Type: Articles

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord...” (Ephesians 5:19). This call of the apostle to sing reflects one important way that Christians express the Spirit filled life. Song is a central manifestation of Christian fellowship (koinonia) as believers together share in praise to God.

By the late Middle Ages the biblical call to song had become muted. The worshiping congregation did very little singing - only a few responses like the Kyrie eleison, the Gloria in excelsis, and the Sanctus. Most singing was done by choirs composed of monks or clerics.  Choir music - in the churches that had them - was often elaborate and sophisticated.

The Reformation made a big change in the church's singing. Congregational participation increased dramatically. Each of the major Reformers - Luther, Zwingli and Calvin – had musical training and had the skill to write poems and tunes. Yet each had significantly different attitudes to music and song in the church.

Today Martin Luther is probably the best remembered Reformer as a writer of hymn texts and tunes. His immortal hymn A Mighty Fortress is one of the best loved among Christians. He believed in the importance and power of song in the church. Luther taught that the praises of the faithful would drive away the devil. He also was convinced that hymns were a great device for teaching doctrine. Lutheran hymnody produced hymns that were at the same time devotional and doctrinal. Think of Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended or Jesus Priceless Treasure.

Ulrich Zwingli - probably the best musician among the major Reformers - had a radically different position from that of Luther. Zwingli believed that music was too powerful and too emotional to be used in Christian worship. Under the strong influence of Platonic philosophy, he argued that music would too easily move people away from focusing on the Word and its meaning for them. As a result, in Zurich singing was eliminated from worship in Zwingli's day. No musical instruments, no choirs and no congregational singing were permitted. In the place of singing, Zwingli had the congregation recite Scriptural passages antiphonally.

John Calvin's thought on music in worship was neither so positive as Luther's nor so negative as Zwingli's. Yet Calvin does not just take a compromise position between Luther and Zwingli. He has his own distinctive approach. He sought to be guided by the Bible alone in his thought on music.

Calvin saw congregational singing as a crucial part of the praise of God and of Christian fellowship. He gave it a central place in the Genevan service. He saw the songs of the church as "truly pleasant and delightful fruits" of the Spirit.

But what should the church sing? Calvin believed that Paul wanted "the songs of Christians to be spiritual, and not made up of frivolities and worthless trifles." His search for the spiritual led him to the Psalms. The inspired Word of God, for Calvin, was the proper source of song for the church. Calvin said of the Psalms: "there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror." The Psalms and New Testament songs became the divinely inspired praises of the Genevan church.

Calvin encouraged poets and composers to use their talents for the community to prepare the Psalms for worship. Clement Marot and Theodore Beza were notable poets, and Louis Bourgeois a great composer who contributed to the Genevan Psalter. The Anglican, Winfred Douglas, wrote that Bourgeois was "one of the best melodists who ever lived, a man whose unsurpassed musical contribution to hymnody is only now coming to general appreciation after centuries of neglect."

The Psalm texts and tunes were to be both memorable and singable. This goal was important because Calvin rejected the use of musical instruments to accompany the congregational singing. (He believed that musical instruments were part of the Temple worship of the Old Testament economy and were not warranted in the New Testament era.) The result was the beautiful, simple tunes of Bourgeois and others that were carried beyond Geneva to France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, England and America. Those tunes carried the praises of the Reformed for centuries and continue to be a glory of Reformed Christianity. "The praise of God ... must be
guided by God's own Word."

Calvin like Zwingli, feared an excess of emotion in the music of the church as a distraction from the Word. He wanted only unison singing by the congregation. He did not allow choirs, seeing them as too theatrical and as usurping the praises that all God's people together should be offering to God.

In our day we see many changes in church music. Change is sometimes good and sometimes bad. What we need is not change for the sake of change, but reform. As we seek to reform the music of the church, we must try to do that - as Calvin did - in a biblical way. We may need to relearn many of the lessons that Calvin taught us. The praise of God is not a matter of indifference, but must be guided by God's own Word.

Originally published in The Outlook, February 1990 by Reformed Fellowship, Inc.  Used with permission.

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