MUSIC IS CREATED FOR THE CHURCH - J. SMELIK

Music should not merely be a subject for discussion but an activity. Nevertheless, it is healthy and indispensable that from time to time we ask ourselves the question: What are we really doing? This may be a theoretical question, however, that does not mean that it is not essential. For "Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judg­ment."

Sung Prayers


Reformed choirs are active in churches of the Reformation. Therefore, it is meaningful to consider what Calvin has said about music. The most comprehensive source for this we find in the Preface to the Genevan Psalter, La Forme des Prieres et Chant, Ecclesiastiques, of 1543. This Preface gives us much information on Calvin's view of music and singing.

The Reformer writes that there are three things necessary in the worship service: preach­ing, prayer, and the sacraments. With respect to prayers, he distinguishes two kinds: spoken and sung prayers. Of the sung prayers, he says that they are not an invention of the Reforma­tion. He refers to the apostle Paul, and appeals to their usage in the early church. The singing of prayer is, indeed, a very ancient custom.

In The Heidelberg Catechism prayer is called "the most important part of thankfulness." When Calvin views singing as prayer, it also means that our song belongs to "the most important part of thankfulness which God requires of us."

Calvin was particularly influenced by Augustine. Following him the Genevan reformer says that the melodies of the sung prayers could neither be "light nor frivolous," but they must "have weight and majesty."

He does not deal here with how music must be performed but how the melodies were constructed. From the words "weight and majesty" one cannot conclude that the songs must be sung in a lofty manner and in a slow tempo. On the contrary all information we have from the time of the Reformation indicates that the psalms were sung in a rather fast flowing tempo.

It is important to establish the fact that Calvin considered the kind of music to be used with the prayer and praise highly relevant. He did not say as long as the text is good it does not matter what sort of music we have with it. According to Calvin a distinction must be made between music used in church and the music made at home. Calvin had a distinct musical style in mind for the church, which distinguished itself from all other forms of music. To achieve that end he gives a general, usable guideline: He says that the melodies must accommodate the content of the text.

In Calvin's time one of the possibilities of making text and music into a unified whole was through the use of the eight modes. Each mode had a specific character and it was therefore possible to match the character of the mode with the character of the text Than however does not mean that today we are only allowed to use the church modes in church music. There are many other possibilities which we can employ to match the melody to the content of the text.

It is of great importance to remind ourselves that Calvin saw music as "either the first, or one of the principal gifts of God proper for recreating man and giving him pleasure." Recreating here does not mean what we usually understand by it. To us the word "recreation" has acquired the meaning of leisure activities and relaxation.

Psalms of DavidCalvin takes the word "recreating" literally, i.e., to create again. The term means for Calvin that a man devotes himself to the task for which God has created him, namely, the praise of God's name. That is why, according to Calvin, we must take care that we do not use or pollute the gift which God has given for our profit and welfare.

Here it appears that Calvin principally thought the same about music as Luther did. Luther, too, placed music next to theology and considered music the most important gift of God in order to praise Him. For both reformers music was not an independent phenomenon which had nothing to do with theology. Theology and music rightly belonged together. For that reason the reformers did not have a musical but a theological view of music. They opened the Scriptures and discovered that music was not created for superficial leisure activities but that music primarily was given to man to serve his Creator and in so doing strengthen his faith. Therefore, the sung praise is a matter of importance for the whole church.

From the history of music we learn that up to the time of the Reformation church music played a dominant role. Music history was determined by the music written for and performed in the church. The church and daily life were intimately connected.

This also means that the separation, sacred-secular music, did not exist to such a degree as we know it today. The (theological) views of music, the written music theories, and the many musical genres which were developed in the church (music) also influenced the so-called secular music of that time. Since the Enlightenment the situation has changed radically. Church and life became separated. Enlightened man had no need of God, and consequently of the church, but was capa­ble of looking after his own interests. The lead­ing role and the dominant position of the church in musical matters diminished more and more. Since the Enlightenment, the church no longer set the tone.

Unfortunately, the church did not react to this development. On the contrary, we see for the first time in the history of the church that the care and attention for music reaches an unprecedented low. The level of congregational singing dropped well below freezing. With a few exceptions the church was at peace with this development, for after all music was something that had nothing to do with religious, spiritual matters. For the most part, one used music to express one's emotion, not to praise God, let alone to build up one's faith.

I think that it is very realistic to state that the level of congregational singing in the Netherlands is higher today than it ever was before. However, it is equally realistic, in my opinion, to conclude that in general we still view music as something that belongs to the world and that, as much as possible, it must be kept outside the worship service. There is, indeed, much music which pretends to be nothing more that relaxation, amusement, and an agreeable pastime which for these reasons does not belong in the worship service. I think that there is nothing against using music for relaxation or as an agreeable pastime, as long as we keep in mind that music, in the first place, was given to man for another purpose. Music is there for our benefit and welfare (in the biblical sense of the words).

That is why there are fundamental objections when, at hearing the word music, we immediately think of amusement, hobbyism or superfluous decoration. For then we would do well to listen to David, Nehemiah, Paul, Augustine, Luther, and even the unmusical Calvin. They have said that music is "either the first or one of the principal" gifts of God given to man to praise God, to confess His name and to build up faith.

In other words, today praise and proclamation are seen as opposite poles, while God precisely gave music the most important place in the praise and proclamation. Again: there is nothing wrong with just making music together for the sheer fun of it. That, however, does not take away from the fact that God did not create music in the first place for the concert hall or places of amusement, but for church buildings. Music is created for the church.

Called to Praise

We must constantly learn what it means that we are God's people, that we were called out of darkness into light to declare God's praise with our mouth and the living breath which He gave us for that purpose (I Peter 2:9). "The people I formed for Myself that they may proclaim My praise." (Isaiah 43:21) and here it does not mean that our whole life must be a song of praise.

To be sure, it has to be that as well. However, here God calls for the praise of our mouth. For if God's people do not praise His name, who will have to do it then? "It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to silence; it is we who extol the Lord, both now and forevermore." (Psalm 115:16, 17). That is why it is so important that we urge each other to praise God. Not for nothing do the Psalms endlessly call us to praise God!

We are even commanded to praise God because of ourselves we do not like to do so. All too often singing is only considered pleasant by people who just happen to like it. Reformed choirs are ipso facto fun for hobbyists. However, for the same reason choir members could just as well become members of a bowling club.

Yet God asks of us that we, with all our troubles, questions and expectations, come to Him by means of a song. In the sung prayer we confess our dependence on God and that in itself is already praise. God asks of us that we use music in order to praise Him and to bring our needs before Him. Not everyone needs to be a choir member or play an instrument, but everyone has the task to magnify God's name by means of a song and to call upon Him in song. In the first place in the liturgy, but also outside of it.

Praise God!The imperative shows that singing is much more than expressing what one feels. The singing of praise is a mandate, even when we don't feel like it. In the Old as well as in the New Testament, it appears that the sung praise played an important role in making salvation our own. So we read in Psalm 50:23: "He who sacrifices thank offerings, honours me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God." A man who sings God's praise, opens up the way to God's salvation. The song, the sung prayer, therefore, has everything to do with the strengthening and upbuilding of our faith.

The singing of praise is like eating: we take the bread of life and consume it, for it is our life. The singing of praise is like drinking: we drink in God's word, for it is our life. That is why we are careful as to what we consume, cream pastry, french fries, meatballs, beer and gin are delicious, but in the long run — in any case with excessive consumption — they ruin our health.

We then say: we cannot argue about taste. But who tells the doctor that when he advises to eat less fat and to smoke less? Besides, healthy food can also taste good. In addition, healthy food comes in sufficient variety. We must radically rid ourselves of the thought that one cannot discuss the music of the church. For we then forget that musical works always function positively or negatively and that our musical choices always coincide with extra musical views of life and faith.

Those choices we almost always make unawares. Our church music is in large measure determined by the functions and goals which we (consciously or subconsciously) assign to music. For example: those who want music to swoon by, come with different music than those who wish to praise God for His infinite majesty. Or, someone who is only concerned about creating a nebulous atmosphere, decidedly does not sing Genevan-psalm tunes, but seeks his welfare, for example, in the pseudoreligious, erotic soft-pop songs.

It is important that we have a good biblical view of music. For in a theory the desired functions and purposes are laid down which gives everyone something to hold on to and to which everyone is accountable. The development of a theory forces us to think about what we are busy with.

Calvin, and many with him, saw that not all music was suitable for the church, and that is even more the case today. The reformers were strongly in favour of a separate church musical style which had to have "poids Є majesté" (weight and majesty). He knew that we were making music before the Almighty, the Eternal, the Holy One. In the Bible we constantly come across the fact that God is the Exalted One who is enthroned in heaven. The Lord is exalted for He dwells in heaven (Isaiah 3:5), He is also exalted in His power (Job 36:22) and from on high, He looks upon the lowly (Ps. 138:6). "Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted" (Ex. 15:21).

That this is not only an Old Testamentic given appears from Hebrew 7:26 where it is written: "Such a high priest meets our need — one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens." See also Hebrews 8:6 and the hymns in Revelations 11, 12, 15 and 19.

For Calvin the loftiness of God and the littleness of man has consequences for all liturgical actions. It has thus also significance for the kind of music which is desired in the liturgy as praise. That it is "made in the presence of God and His angels," as Calvin literally writes also has its consequences. Recently, O. Jager strikingly pointed out that the "according to His exceeding greatness" of Psalm 150 means "let your praise, your attitude when you speak about God, be comparable to the exalted glory and greatness of God."

That is not a plea for archaic, swollen, pompous and bombastic music. The greatness of God one cannot express, equal, or translate in sound volume. Besides, the stillness is also His and man becomes still before the loftiness of God (Nehemiah 8:12; Psalm 62:2, 65:1, 76:9 and Isaiah 30:15). "According to his exceeding greatness" is neither a plea for elitist music and an elitist music practice in which even a willing congregation cannot recognize herself. It is, however, a call for a musical style which is worthy of the preciousness of the Gospel. No flag on a broomstick!

All vulgarity, religious sentimentality, commercial and amusement like music and musical styles we leave behind when we lift our voices in praise. We do that also when we speak with and about God. As well, each realistic possibility to improve the quality of singing and the playing of the organ, you take with both hands to praise Him "according to His exceeding greatness."

It goes without saying that the (sung) prayer, just like eating and drinking, is our first necessity of life. In this connection I wish to emphasize the necessity to deal properly with music at home and at school. Not because it is so much fun to cultivate an interesting hobby in children, so that they hopefully stay away from the disco, but because faith and singing music indissolubly belong together.

Besides it appears that singing and music make an important contribution to the maintenance of "a healthy spirit and a healthy body." Plato already knew that, and many people after him have confirmed it. Today, also this fact is scientifically confirmed. We must praise God. We must confess our dependence on Him. We cannot do so without a song, the fruit of our lips.

In addition the Word reaches our heart and penetrates it by means of a song. In the Bible, proclamation and song go together, that means that the Spirit often makes use of music. We can point to Deuteronomy 31 where God commands Moses to write a song and to teach it to the people then, in chapter 32, we read: "And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to Israel, he said to them, "Lay to heart all the words which I enjoin upon you this day, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no trifle for you, but it is your life, and thereby you shall live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to possess."

God also uses the song to proclaim His Word and to bring His Word to His people. Singing is never only an expression of faith but also an impression of faith.

When we praise God, we give back to Him what we have received from His hand (I Chronicles 29:14). How would we express our faith if it were not impressed on us first? And how can faith be impressed upon us, if it were not proclaimed first? Here, indeed, we arrive at the preaching.

We also arrive at the reading of Scripture and at all that the parents have told at home. And we arrive at the song that has been put on our lips. For also the song in the history of the church remains extremely important for spreading the Word. We already mentioned Moses' song in Deuteronomy. But we can also, for example, look at the time of the Counter-Reformation. At that time various Roman theologians wrote that Luther did more damage with his songs than all his other writings.


Service to One Another

A church service is a worship service and a service of the Word but it is also "godsdienst­oefening" (an exercise of God's service). During a church service there must be sufficient time to exercise this service. And — as Calvin repeatedly emphasized — the praising and magnifying of God's name is a primary purpose of the service of God and the principal one of thankfulness. The fact is that man lives to praise God.

Church life develops from the liturgy. The basis for the upbuilding of the congregation consists of the worship services we hold. However, when we do not learn to praise God together in those services, and when the church does not there learn to confess, where can she learn it and where, as a community, can she do so?

Calvin knew that, too. When we read through Calvin's commentary of the Psalms, we regularly come across the fact that the worship service is the place par excellence where we can and must practice the singing of God's praise. Therefore, much room was provided for the sung prayers in Geneva. The Psalms were sung according to a fixed roster during the Sunday services and the Wednesday night service.

Per church service, people sang on an average eighteen to twenty stanzas. This means that they sometimes sang seven to eight stanzas after each other. When the Psalter was completed in 1562, it meant that it took twenty-five weeks to sing the whole Psalter. The entire Psalter was sung through twice in one year.

In the church service we also exercise our mutual service. Not only during the collections, but also by calling on each other to praise God, by comforting each other, by encouraging and by building each other up in faith. That is why we pray for each other in the liturgy. In the song, the sung prayer, we are dealing with one another.

Paul's call in Ephesians 5:18 and 19 is well-known. He commands us to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. The psalms also tell us that we are dealing with one another. For example in Psalm 40:10 we read: "I have not concealed thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness from the great congregation." (See also Psalm 22:23.)

In this context — and also to show that a certain view of singing and music has practical consequences — I will point to the practice of antiphonal singing. Antiphonal singing clearly shows that we are dealing with one another. When Paul writes about speaking to one another, it concerns the upbuilding of the congregation, for everything that happens in the church must happen for upbuilding and edification. In a church service we are dealing with one another and we may speak with one an­other before the face of God. Therefore, an­tiphonal singing is much more than a nice artistic device to break the monotony.

It would also be quite possible that a choir is given a function in the worship service. That does not mean that we introduce it without further ado. It could "be tried" during a congregational meeting or during a concert.

A Cantorei, which in its singing calls the congregation to praise God or which sings a passage from Scripture, is not giving a concert for the aesthetic pleasure of the listener. It takes care that the congregation is called and encouraged to praise. It can also lead and activate the congregation. Such a choir is then busy with the upbuilding of the congregation. From the structure of certain Psalms it appears that they were written for responsorial and antiphonal performance. Psalm 136 is a well-known example.

Antiphonal singing here, too, is not an artistic nicety. It has to do with the function singing and music was given in the Old Testament. A man who sings praises to God opens the way to God's salvation.

However, if there is something that does not come automatically, it is the singing of praise. We have already stated that of himself man does not come to praising God. It is therefore incorrect, in my opinion, to state that we "can sing the praise from the heart out of ourselves" and that we need nobody and nothing. Man of himself is inclined to no good, thus he is certainly not inclined of himself to raise his voice in praise.

As long as the old man must be overcome daily, so long the praise and the (sung) prayer finds itself in the danger zone. That is why man must set himself to the task of singing God's praise and must be spurred on to do so. Not for nothing does the Bible constantly sound the call to praise God and to call upon His name.

One must learn to praise and that takes a lifetime.

As an argument against responsorial and antiphonal singing one cannot, in my opinion, say that when a congregation sings alternately or antiphonally with a choir, that the word is taken away from her. It precisely deals with the fact that we put the words in each other's mouths and hear it from each other's mouth. In the final analysis it concerns our looking after each other which is given form and expression in the song.

Alternate singing is not only something that made sense in the Old Testament. Also in the New Covenant we speak in order to comfort and encourage one another and call on one another to praise God.

Calvin writes in his Preface of the Church Book, La Forme des Prieres:


And in truth we know by experience that singing has great force and vigour to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with more vehement and ardent zeal.


In a short and concise way it states why music was created, why there are Reformed choirs and why faith and singing are inseparable. "Be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord."


This article first appeared in Klankbord (February 1991), a publication of the Gereformeerde Organisatie voor Muziek en Zang. Taken with permission from the Reformed Music Journal Vol. 3, No. 4 (1991) Brookside Publishing Langly B.C.