Foundations: No.76 Spring 2019

What is Sweeter to us is Clearer: The Aesthetics of Worship – A Historical Survey

What is sweeter to us is clearer (illa nobis dulcior, ista clarior)
Augustine, De ordine, 2:17.

It should be self-evident that Christian worship is to be shaped by the nature of its object. God, the Holy Trinity, is the only object of worship. Basic to God’s self-revelation is his glory. This is not some abstract concept to which he conforms but is simply the very nature of God, “who dwells in inapproachable light” (1 Tim 1:17), such that no one can look on him as he is and live (Exod 33:20), yet who has made himself known to us as man (John 1:14-15). His glory is beautiful, the quintessence of what beauty is.

This was the experience of the emissaries of Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, who wanted to discover the true religion. In the year 987, his envoys visited the Bulgars but were not impressed, for their worship was devoid of joy and, besides, they had a bad smell. Rome was hardly better. Finally, they came to Divine Liturgy at the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. They reported as follows:

We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.[1]

We cannot forget that beauty, we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, God dwells there among men: given appropriate content in the gospel, what could better describe worship as it should be? Yet much evangelical worship, under the façade of plainness and simplicity, has moved far from such a place, to the tired, banal and mediocre. Talk of beauty in relation to worship in such a context seems anachronistic and irrelevant. Moreover, it is not a concept that is noticeably present in evangelical discussion.

I. The Beauty of God

Barth has a striking discussion of the beauty of God as an aspect of his glory:

If we can and must say that God is beautiful, to say this is to say how he enlightens and convinces and persuades us. It is to describe not merely the naked fact of his revelation or its power, but the shape and form in which it is a fact and is power. It is to say that God has this superior force, this power of attraction, which speaks for itself, which wins and conquers, in the fact that he is beautiful, divinely beautiful, beautiful in his own way, in a way that is his alone, beautiful as the unattainable primal beauty, yet really beautiful. He does not have it, therefore, merely as a fact or a power. Or rather, he has it as a fact and a power in such a way that he acts as the one who gives pleasure, creates desire and rewards with enjoyment. And he does it because he is pleasant, desirable, full of enjoyment, because first and last he alone is that which is pleasant, desirable and full of enjoyment. God loves us as the one who is worthy of love as God. This is what we mean when we say that God is beautiful.[2]

It is, perhaps, what was intended by the Westminster divines in affirming that the chief purpose for humanity is “to glorify God and enjoy him for ever”.[3]

Barth recognises the dangers of constructing an autonomous concept of beauty into which God can be fitted. Aestheticism cannot have the last word. In the same place he refers to Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius as exemplifying a hardly-veiled Platonism.[4] But, he insists, that is no reason to go to the other extreme and take the “tragic attitude to the danger that threatens from the side of aesthetics – which is what Protestantism has done”.[5]

The Psalms are full of admiration for God’s work in creation, his glory seen in its various elements, singularly and together: “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1), while Psalm 104 presents a kaleidoscopic picture of God’s providential care for the world he made. Psalm 148 calls on the whole creation, with united voice, to praise its maker. Creation and the exodus are the two main foci and in both the wonders of God are made known. Since redemption is the renewal of creation it follows that it embraces the same reach. As Barth goes on to say, “We have already said that God’s glory is his overflowing, self-communicating joy. By its very nature it is that which gives joy”.[6] He cites a wide range of passages in Isaiah and the Psalms to demonstrate that human sin makes no difference to the fact that “the God who stoops down to the man whose heart is like this in judgment and mercy… is himself most supremely and most strictly an object of desire, joy, pleasure, yearning and enjoyment”.[7] Moreover, where this is neglected “the proclamation of his glory will always have in a slight or dangerous degree something joyless, without sparkle or humour, not to say tedious and there finally neither persuasive nor convincing”.[8] God defines what is beautiful, enjoyable and desirable – non ideo Deus Deus, quia pulcher est, sed ideo pulcher, quia Deus est.[9] The Trinity and the incarnation demonstrate this supremely.[10] Some might say that this is dangerous. Indeed it is, but so too is the doctrine of justification only by faith dangerous, so too is preaching. The gospel calls us to a place of danger, not to a haven safe and secure from all alarms.

This theme of the beauty of God in creation, and its implicate in redemption, is superbly voiced by Calvin, in the introduction to his commentary on Genesis. Moses’ intention, he argues, is “to render God, as it were, visible to us in his works”. The Lord, “that he may invite us to the knowledge of himself, places the fabric of heaven and earth before our eyes rendering himself, in a certain manner, manifest in them”. The heavens “are eloquent heralds of the glory of God, and… this most beautiful order of nature silently proclaims his admirable wisdom”. He “clothes himself, so to speak, with the image of the world… magnificently arrayed in the incomparable vesture of the heavens and the earth”. In short, the world is “a mirror in which we ought to behold God”.[11] There is a symmetry in God’s works to which nothing can be added.[12] The divine artificer arranged the creation in such a wonderful order that nothing more beautiful in appearance can be imagined.[13] The world around us, and the universe beyond, is the clothes God wears to display his glory – through his clothes we perceive something of his infinite majesty and desirability. The clothes are not the person; their beauty points beyond to the transcendent glory.

If so with the creation, how much more in the reality of redemption? There the staggering wonder of the eternal Son of the Father taking human nature, living the whole gamut of human experience to the point of human death and human burial, in our flesh offering himself as an atoning sacrifice to the Father, then raising our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand so that “man with God is on the throne”[14] – this is the most beautiful thing in the world.

Nevertheless, the church has followed differing paths in approaching this matter. Some decisions have proved seminal, producing quite dissimilar understandings of the way in which the church should worship. First on the scene was the early commitment of the Greek church to visual modes in church worship.

II. The Visual and the Auditory[15]

On entry to an Orthodox church, the most prominent sight is the iconostasis, dividing the sanctuary, symbolising the spiritual, immaterial world beyond, from the nave, the image of the material world, these two in reality parts of one whole, the meeting place of heaven and earth.

On the iconostasis are several levels of icons, although icons are found throughout. Starting at the top and moving down are images of the OT patriarchs; then the OT prophets; the liturgical feasts (the fulfilment of OT prophecy); the tchin or order, with John the Baptist and the Mother of God in prayer before the icon of Christ on his throne, together with various angels and others, representing the result of the incarnation and the intercession of the church; and a variety of locally significant icons. There is a careful theological point to the arrangement. Before the service begins, the Orthodox obtain a candle, go up to the icons on the lower level, cross themselves, kiss their favourite icon and light the candle.

This arrangement signifies the meeting of heaven and earth (Heb 12:19-24), a great cloud of witnesses present (Heb 12:1f), represented by the icons, pointing to the church opening out on to eternity. The priest or deacon will cense the icons and the congregation, “thus paying homage to the image of God in man and uniting in one gesture the saints represented in the icons and the congregation – the heavenly and the earthly church”.[16] The entire building is full of theological symbolism.[17]

Behind all this lies a conception of the cosmos as semiotic, in which man, who straddles the material and spiritual, is enabled to grasp invisible, spiritual reality through material signs. In turn, this entails a significant role for the imagination. Ouspensky argues that the truth of Christianity underlies icons, for the image is its basic truth and “the preaching of Christianity to the world was from the beginning carried out by the Church through word and image”.[18]

Gregory of Nyssa, in opposing the heretic Eunomius, following Psalm 19:1-6 and Romans 1:20, pointed to the creation declaring the glory and power of God. He argued that,

this is not given in articulate speech, but by the things which are seen, and it instils into our minds the knowledge of Divine power more than if speech proclaimed it with a voice.[19]

For Gregory the visible revelation of God in creation is superior to a verbal declaration by God’s voice. This is because “we are not told that God is the creator of words, but of things made known to us by the signification of our words”. Apprehension through the senses is more readily accessible to us and so is an aid to intellectual knowledge.[20]

Gregory thought that language is inherently ambiguous. Each word contains an implicit reference to its contrary. Thus, language is inappropriate to describe God, since God’s existence entails no opposition, whereas creation positively indicates his existence. Eunomius, the leading anti-Nicene, held to the objectivity of language; Gregory opposed it. For Gregory, sense knowledge is clear; intellectual knowledge is not.[21] The issue of icons points to deeper and far-reaching questions concerning revelation. This was a momentous statement.

Icons (from eikon, image) are held to be teaching devices, windows to heaven, through which to perceive greater realities beyond; in the words of Leontius of Neapolis, “opened books to remind us of God”.[22] They portray the saint in a two-dimensional mode made according to strict guidelines by iconographers. These iconographers are not individualist artists but monks, who compose their work in an ethos of prayer and contemplation. Titus Burkhardt writes, “The art of icons is a sacred art in the true sense of the word. It is nourished wholly in the spiritual truth to which it gives pictorial expression.” It gives “access to a living and inexhaustible source”.[23] Novelty is anathema, faithfulness to the archetype all-important. The iconographer’s concern is not to express himself but to transmit tradition and to convey the gospel teaching.[24] Indeed, the Orthodox believe that the archetype takes the initiative. Tales are told of occasions when an iconographer breaks off work, goes elsewhere, and on his return finds that the icon has finished the job itself! In 2005, an icon of St. Anna, the mother of the virgin Mary, visited a local Orthodox church near my home; it was reported to have wept tears of myrrh on a number of occasions, which the bishop – in my hearing – suggested could as much be tears of joy as of sorrow. Either way, the idea was that St. Anna was communicating with the faithful through the icon. The church, note, was Antiochene Syrian Orthodox.

The Orthodox claim that the first icons date from the lifetime of Jesus. Eusebius records that not only had he seen a large number of portraits of Jesus and the apostles that had been preserved to his own day but that there was a statue of Jesus in Caesarea Philippi put up by the woman who had the issue of blood (Matt 9:20-3 and parallels).[25] Jewish synagogues in the first century AD had pictures in them, while portraiture was popular throughout the Roman Empire. An early report, no doubt apocryphal, claimed that King Agbar of Edessa sent messengers to Jesus, requesting some likeness of him; Jesus, so the story goes, made an impression of his face in a cloth and sent the cloth back to the King.[26] Eusebius does not mention this, although he provides details of an exchange of letters between Jesus and Agbar, and the latter’s healing by Nathanael.[27]

Nicaea II (787 AD) insisted that icons are not to be worshipped. John of Damascus, in his earlier landmark treatise in defence of icons, distinguished between latreia (worship) given only to God, and proskunēsis (veneration) given to the saints. He also differentiated clearly between the icon and the one signified. While it might be tempting for a Westerner to denounce this as idolatry, the Orthodox equally emphatically deny it and point, inter alia, to the same law that forbad the worship of graven images also requiring the carved images of the cherubim to be placed over the ark in the holy of holies itself. Moreover, they argue, the incarnation has happened. The Son has come as man; to oppose icons betrays a docetic Christology and a Manicheian doctrine of creation.

In the West, stained glass windows were commonly used as teaching devices to instruct the illiterate – the windows of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge contain a rich biblical-theological lesson, demonstrating the unity of redemptive history and its fulfilment in Christ.

In all these practices, the icons or pictures are ancillary to worship. The King’s College Chapel windows were teaching aids, the Orthodox icons are evocative pointers to the reality of church worship as something that unites heaven and earth – the elders, the living creatures, the multitude without number, the church militant and triumphant, with angels straining to search and learn (Heb 12:19-24, 1 Pet 1:12, Rev 4:1-5:14, 7:9-8:5, 11:15-19, 14:1-5, 19:1-8).

It seems to me that something of this reality is missing in Protestant worship. The transcendent dimension is forgotten, practices being largely shaped by the post-Enlightenment world, the focus the felt needs of the congregants.

The limitations of the visual

The turn taken at the time of Gregory of Nyssa was unfortunate. What is missed is that God’s primary appeal to humanity, as Calvin wrote, comes more through the ears than the eyes.[28] Thus, Moses emphasised to Israel that at Sinai “you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut 4:11-12). While, uniquely, a form was to be seen in the incarnation, yet God continues to communicate with humanity and his church through words, read or preached. Thus, Paul urges the need for preachers to be sent in order to declare the message of the gospel (Rom 10:14-17). Elsewhere I have drawn attention to the point that the declaration of the word of God in preaching by those lawfully called is the word of God (Rom 10:14, Eph 2:17, Second Helvetic Confession, 1).[29]

A claim has often been made that worship must relate to all aspects of the human being, not just the mind. Clowney exposes this fallacy with a reductio ad absurdum. It was Canaanite religion that had this as its premise. Worship of these deities engaged the full range of human passions, most obviously the sexual, with cult prostitutes abounding. If this were a true and valid approach to worship, beds should be made available in the church building, with sexual activity incorporated into the liturgy.[30]

T. F. Torrance, in commenting on Calvin, underlines the hermeneutical breakthrough he and other Reformers made in rooting the knowledge of God in the auditory, rather than visual, realm. Medieval Western theology was preoccupied with the essence and existence of God. Metaphysical speculation was the order of the day. Essentially, the main question for medieval scientific enquiry was quid sit (what is it? referring to the essence of God)? At the root was the primacy of vision as a means of knowledge. Since God in his essence cannot be seen, a bifurcation developed between intuitive knowledge of God (face to face cognition of his essence as it is in itself), impossible in this life, and abstractive knowledge (logical and linguistic statements about God through contemplation of his effects in the created world). Thus, the faithful were left with the pronouncements of the church or its representatives. Direct personal knowledge of God was ultimately possible only beyond the present age. Calvin resolved this dilemma, Torrance continued, crystallising Reformation teaching, with profound effects for faith and assurance. He effects a shift in the basis of knowledge of God from vision to hearing. Consequently, direct auditive, intuitive knowledge of God is possible as God reveals himself in his word by his Spirit. The Spirit, as God confronting man, is God speaking to us in his own person. Calvin’s doctrine of the testimonium internum Spiritus Sancti, giving us evident intuitive knowledge of God and resolving the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between intuitive and abstractive knowledge, demands a new question as the start of theological enquiry. This new question, qualis sit? (of what sort is it?) presupposes a start with actuality and not with abstract essence or with the possibility of existence.[31]

Nevertheless, God does not leave visual elements aside. He has provided the sacraments, the Lord’s Supper being “a kind of visible word of God”,[32] while the Word has priority, creating the sacrament, and both establishing and expounding it.

In the sacraments the gospel is proclaimed before our very eyes. In baptism there is a washing – “rise and be baptised and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16). In the Eucharist there is giving of thanks, there the broken body and blood of our Lord is paraded before us as we feed on Christ by the Holy Spirit. The evidence is that on the first day of the week the apostolic church was accustomed to meet precisely for the purpose of breaking bread, of observing the Supper, of participating in the body and blood of Christ (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 10:16-17, 11:18-20).

If the gospel is so clearly proclaimed in the sacraments, why have evangelical churches neglected them to the point of having the Lord’s Supper only occasionally, in some cases requiring special admission tickets? Why have evangelical declarations of faith been so anxious to claim that nothing happens in them? A widely accepted statement of faith asserts that baptism does not impart spiritual life and the Eucharist involves no change in the bread and wine. While both statements are correct the overall definition expresses what the sacraments purportedly do not do.

In evangelicalism the sacraments have been sidelined. Possibly out of a reaction to the Oxford Movement, a predominantly Zwinglian or anabaptist mentality developed in which baptism was a symbol of something that had already occurred elsewhere but was not a vehicle through which the Spirit conveyed grace. What a contrast to John Knox![33] A dualistic division between “water baptism” and “Spirit baptism” became commonplace.

Similarly, the Lord’s Supper was considered simply as a memorial – not in the sense of the OT memorials that marked epochal redemptive events but rather as an introspective trip down memory lane. All was seen as purely symbolic. Evangelical statements of faith today frequently deny that anything happens in the sacraments (not that they are ever called sacraments – that would be too much like Rome, wouldn’t it?). In short, evangelicalism is basically reactive.

This downgrading of the sacraments has encouraged the idea that there is nothing special in the worship of the church that is not found elsewhere, so that the whole of life is to be understood as worship. In some circles, the church does not meet for worship but for instruction and fellowship, activities on a purely horizontal level. However, the sacraments are integral to, and distinctive of, the life of the church. In Jesus’ parting instructions to the apostles about their task of discipling the nations, baptism comes first (Matt 28:19-20). The Reformers and Puritans, and the confessions that they produced, all recognised the efficacy of the sacraments, an efficacy given by the Holy Spirit; this is distinctive and is not found outside the church or its worship.[34]

III. The auditive parts of worship

1. Preaching

In De doctrina Christiana, one of the great classics of the church, Augustine discusses principles of biblical interpretation, how to exegete Scripture and its main focus on Christ and love. In Book 4 he moves on to consider preaching.

Augustine argues that part of the preacher’s task is to delight. It is not the only part or even the most important part but it is nonetheless integral. The duty of the Christian teacher is “both to teach what is right and refute what is wrong… to conciliate the hostile, to rouse the careless, and to tell the ignorant both what is occurring at present and what is probable in the future”.[35] But the sacred writers unite eloquence with wisdom,[36] Augustine citing a range of biblical examples.[37] The first priority is clarity, for expositors “ought in all their deliverances to make it their first and chief aim to be understood”.[38] Hence, a clear style is imperative: “He… who teaches will avoid all words that do not teach”. This is especially so, since in a public speech it is neither customary nor appropriate for listeners to ask questions, unlike in private conversation.[39] True eloquence consists in making clear what is obscure.[40] Clear and accurate teaching is foundational.

Augustine cites Cicero on the aim of the orator and applies it to preaching: “‘An eloquent man must speak so as to teach, to delight and to persuade…. To teach is a necessity, to delight is a beauty, to persuade is a triumph (probare, necessitas est; delectare, suavitatis; flectere, victoria).’”[41] Probare, delectare, flectere, to teach, to delight, to persuade: these are the tasks of the preacher. The hearer must be pleased, in order to secure his attention, and persuaded in order to move him to action. “The eloquent divine… must not only teach so as to give instruction, and please so as to keep up the attention, but he must also sway the mind so as to subdue the will.”[42]

When push comes to shove, to teach is a necessity but to delight and to persuade is not. Indeed, when it is clearly proclaimed, the truth itself gives pleasure because it is the truth.[43] But it cannot be heard with pleasure without eloquence.[44] All this assumes that prayer is most important, as is the life of the speaker:[45]

To speak eloquently, then, is just to express truths which it is expedient to teach in fit and proper words – words which in the subdued style are adequate, in the temperate, elegant, and in the majestic, forcible. But the man who cannot speak both eloquently and wisely should speak wisely without eloquence, rather than eloquently without wisdom.[46]

Given the prime necessity to teach the word of God with accuracy and clarity, next in order of priority is to do so in a way that delights, that is attractive and pleasing, while being true to what is taught. In the nineteenth century, in the age of pulpit orators, this element was overdone. In our day, possibly in fear of breaching these limits, there has been a retreat into the banal. Command of language is essential to be able to delight one’s congregation in the way Augustine suggests. It is necessary to maintain the focus of the listener at a time of decreasing attention spans. Reading classic English prose, grasping, as Churchill put it, “the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence – which is a noble thing”[47] should be the aim of every preacher; familiarity with writings that are clear, lucid, and elegant should assist in this endeavour.

2. Prayer

This question of delight is needed also in public prayer. Here the legacy of the nineteenth century is still with us, with Spurgeon’s strictures about a preacher who was supposed to have composed “the most eloquent [prayer] ever offered to a Boston congregation” still ringing in the ear.[48] Nevertheless, leading the congregation in prayer requires the ability to retain its attention and, prior to that, the mastery of language. This is not a private prayer. It is not merely a prayer as such. The question of its being offered in faith and its acceptability to God is at this point on one side. At stake is the vocalising of prayer in which the whole congregation can participate. For this, it must engage the people, delighting them so that it becomes not merely the preacher’s prayer but their own or, as William Perkins wrote, “expressing the prayer so that it is made in public in a way that is edifying for the congregation”.[49]

My experience of being in a congregation in Cambridge, sans minister, in 1977-78, has shaped my subsequent outlook pervasively. The entire pantheon of conservative evangelical ministers was on display, from that preacher than whom none greater can be thought, down to the merest tyro, myself. I considered myself to be reasonably intelligent and, as an opening batsman, with a good level of concentration. However, I discovered that after about one minute of the minister’s congregational prayer my mind shut down. Some might allege that I was extremely backslidden and have continued in that unhappy state ever since; however, I concluded there must be something substantial to it. Either few preachers have sufficient command of language to hold the attention of a congregation for a length of time while they pray, without the eye contact so important in preaching, or the practice of long prayers composed by an individual is deeply flawed, or both. Either way there was precious little of delectare and so even less of flectere.

It was this, among other things, that led me back to Reformation worship. Whereas I could not remember a single phrase from anyone I ever heard who prayed such prayers, yet the prayers of Thomas Cranmer are printed indelibly on my memory and on those of a countless multitude. When we are at a loss of what to say in prayer, they come to our aid. When we need to repent, God says through Hosea “take with you words and return to the Lord” (Hos 14:2). The Reformation liturgies give us words; the Psalms are even better.[50]

The absence of delectatio is also notable in most evangelical worship in that it is thoroughly sacerdotal, far more than the Roman church ever was. In conservative evangelicalism the minister is a priest. He prays on behalf of the people, confesses sins on behalf of the people, the people listening, passive. There is no congregational participation beyond this, no opportunity for the members of the church to join in the public confession of sins; the priest does it for them. Conservative evangelical worship deprives the congregation of their right to confess their sins.

Moreover, conservative evangelical worship frequently deprives the congregation of its right to hear the pronouncement of the absolution of sins. What could incite delectatio more than this? According to William Perkins, this is one of the main tasks God has given to the ministry  – the preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and the pronouncement of the absolution of sins.[51] Sinclair Ferguson affirms that Perkins “insists… that it is the distinctive privilege of the minister of the gospel to pronounce the forgiveness of sins”.[52] What a delight, what an aesthetic delight, what delectatio, it is to hear from the pulpit that one’s sins are forgiven. Yet many have gone years, even a lifetime, without this. Some have joined the stampede to the counsellor’s office or the psychiatrist’s couch. If you are a minister of the gospel this should be a matter for concern.

Sometimes, to stress the alleged superiority of personal piety, the minister prays with fervour. He is then performing his private devotions in public, with the congregation as spiritual voyeurs. This crosses the boundary between the individual and the corporate. A congregation cannot meaningfully participate in a prayer peculiar to the individual praying it, with passion and emotion of his own; they of necessity become observers, or auditors.

In contrast, Cranmer’s liturgy has a theological richness with a brilliant understanding of the beauty and cadences of the English language. We remarked on Hosea 14:2 – in repentance “take with you words and return to the Lord”. The Book of Common Prayer gives people the words to use when they are unable to vocalise them for themselves. If you are a minister, how many can remember a single prayer you have made from the pulpit? If you are regularly in the congregation, how many such prayers can you recall?

The practice of most conservative evangelical churches rests on a basic fallacy. It assumes that faith and spontaneity go together, with the formal inevitably linked with the perfunctory.[53] That this is erroneous is evident from the Psalms. Here we have written prayers and thanksgivings that were used in corporate worship settings. If the premise above is accepted then we should remove the Psalms from the canon of Scripture, abandon hymn books, compose on the spot (word and music), and not prepare sermons. Indeed, the assumption owes much to the inwardness of Descartes and the individualism of the Enlightenment.

The Westminster divines were not opposed to liturgies. The Directory for the Publick Worship of God contains many set prayers. They are given for the start of the service, before the sermon, after the sermon, before baptism, exhortations to the parents of the child to be baptised, prayer after the baptism, for blessing the bread and wine in the communion, after communion, and at the visitation of the sick.[54] Even John Owen was not opposed to liturgies; it was the imposition of a fixed liturgy by the civil authorities together with draconian penalties for infringing it that was the problem.[55] I am not suggesting that individually compiled prayers should be abandoned; rather there is scope for both and both should be used. However, they should be short or, when longer, broken into segments so that the whole congregation can participate in and with them.

3. Music

Music provides an extra dimension to worship that lifts it above the merely prosaic. Here delectatio comes prominently into play, viewed in an appropriate way. Not that Clement of Alexandria thought so. Impacted by his Platonism, of which he was among the most affected, he had a strongly ascetic outlook, with a negative attitude to music and even to laughter.[56] Clearly there was little interest with Clement in worship as a delight. Of the Reformers, Zwingli was notably hostile to music in church worship. In his case he was profoundly influenced by neo-Platonism, which found expression in his sacramental theology and his inability to see how God could use material means to transmit spiritual blessings.[57] In both cases, forms of ontological dualism were at work, with implications to which we will refer later. In contrast, both Augustine and Calvin had a positive appreciation for the place music could occupy in assisting the worship of the church.

i) Basil

Basil had an appreciation for music in worship. He stresses the need for faith and sincerity but also harmonious singing. Both spiritual and musical qualities go together to enhance the worship of the congregation. Thus, in his Sermon on Psalm 29 (LXX),[58] commenting on verse 1, he compares the body to a harp, and to instruments adapted to sing hymns harmoniously to God. When there is nothing out of tune in our actions it is like a psalm: “Wherever lofty contemplation and theology are joined together, so the word of the psalm is music, when the instrument is played harmoniously.”[59] Again, “A psalm is a musical word, when the instrument plays it harmoniously and according to the appropriate words”.[60] In preaching on verse 5 he says,

Not that anyone by the mouth produces the words of the psalm so as to sing to the Lord, but whoever offers up the singing of psalms from a pure heart, and whoever is holy, maintaining righteousness in respect to God, these are able to sing psalms to God, harmonising fittingly spiritual realities.[61]

Later, on verse 7, he remarks that every soul is beautiful who contemplates the truth, and is reconciled by the grace of God, with souls purified. So we begin to take on its radiance, “whence Moses, by participation in that beauty in speaking with God, his face was glorified”.[62] Clearly, Basil had an appreciation for music and its relationship to worship.[63]

ii) Augustine

However, the most thorough treatment of music among the Fathers is by Augustine. He reflected on his own experience in the church at Milan, where Ambrose was bishop:

How greatly did I weep in thy hymns and canticles, deeply moved by the voices of thy sweet-speaking church! The voices flowed into my ears, and the truth was poured forth into my heart.[64]

Commenting in general on the practice of singing in the worship of the church, he wrote,

it was instituted that, after the manner of the Eastern church, hymns and psalms should be sung… which custom, retained from then until now, is imitated by many, yea, by almost all of thy congregations throughout the world.[65]

On his own practice and his attitude to singing in the church, he felt the danger of focusing on its beauty rather than its content:

Notwithstanding, when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of thy church… and how even now I am moved not by the singing but by what is sung, when they are sung with a clear and skilfully modulated voice, then I acknowledge the great utility of this custom.[66]

Augustine’s early works, De ordine and De musica, develop his ideas at some length, although there is much also in his sermons, The City of God, and the Confessions. In The City of God he has an extensive section expounding the beauty of creation as a gift of God.[67] Indeed, Augustine has a healthy attitude to beauty in creation; he sees it as exhibiting the lavish gifts of God. He describes God as largitor (lavisher of gifts), showing benign liberality.[68] He remarks in Sermon 88.15 on the exceptional beauty of the women of the earthly city.[69]

Music, Augustine comments, is similar to grammar but distinguished from it by the number and especially variety of its individual sounds, making music much more susceptible to memory.[70]   What is joined by the ear voluptuously remains perpetually.[71] This connects with his comments in De doctrina Christiana on delectatio in preaching. Aesthetic quality enables memory and so, in preaching and worship, assists in its long-term impact.

Augustine has a positive view of music, its harmony, variety, connections and movement: “what wealth of song is there to captivate the ear! how many musical instruments and strains of harmony have been devised!”[72] It is the science of good pitch and rhythm (musica est scientia bene modulandi)[73] and good movement, with inherent dynamism (bene movendi).[74] In fact, Augustine’s theoretical discussion in these early works was to underlie the theory of Western music for well over a millennium. Music displays connections, with both rhythmic and metric continuity. A versus – a cogent, deliberate, fashioned block of musical material – is formed of parts, the totality accommodating and connecting divisions and so “establishing through beauty a concordant parallelism”.[75] Music establishes connections of individual moments within time.[76] Moreover, “rhythmic pattern is an outward access to internal intrinsic emotional substance”, and it is the “intrinsic emotional material [that] is responsible for music’s profound effect on the listener”.[77]

This leads to a consideration of how Augustine understands beauty in music. In De ordine, he argues that the successful placing together of constructive units is suavitas (beauty). This consists both of a purely flowing rhythm and also a pleasant pitch.[78] This careful construction of a musical unit is necessary since God is not to be believed or sought after in a haphazard manner but in a disciplined and contemplated way.[79] There is therefore a connection in Augustine’s thought between music and the gospel, reflected in faith.

Music is sonorous substance within motion and time. Because of its immensely varied possibilities its beauty is remembered. “What is sweeter to us is clearer (illa nobis dulcior, ista clarior)”, he writes,[80] which we saw was a major theme in his theology of preaching. Again, in De musica he repeatedly states that whatever is delectable commends itself to the memory.

De musica deals with issues of particularity, connection, order and time. These realities – order and variety, unity and diversity, structure and continuity, beauty, teleology – are all inherent to the creation and thus revelatory of God. They are all present in redemptive history. Indeed, harmony – the combination of multiple notes at the same time, performed in sequence – distinguishes Western music from other cultures.[81] I have argued elsewhere that this distinctiveness arose in a culture permeated by the Christian faith and is an outflow of the unity in diversity of God’s creation, which in turn reflects the character of its maker.[82] Music thus expresses in a beautiful and memorable way, if done well, the heart of creation and re-creation.[83] “Music is the science of connections” (musica scientia bene modulandi) and is related to beauty, desirability and attraction throughout. As such it is analogously reflective of the beauty of God, delectable, hence memorable, “when properly undertaken”.[84] In this, rhythm is the main focus of De musica, patterns within metre rather than tonal intervals. This is so, once again, when it is done well for “Unde aliud est modulari, aliud bene modulari”.[85]

In reality, only a very small fraction of the work of classic hymnwriters was ever sung in church worship. In contrast, a vastly higher proportion of recent compositions (I am not including those by such as Timothy Dudley-Smith) are regularly sung, with accompaniment that never remotely threatens to reach the dizzying heights of mediocrity.[86] Many have an emotionally manipulative “hook”, including some of the most commonly sung. Meanwhile, many congregations mumble or else practise full-throttle bawling irrespective of the nature of the words.

iii) Calvin

Calvin, like Augustine, appreciated natural beauty and understood it as a provision of God for us:

Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, and sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odour? What? Did he not so distinguish colours as to make some more lovely than others? What? … Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?[87]

In particular, music and the arts are excellent gifts of the Lord, indicative of the riches of his favour. The harp and other instruments minister to our pleasure, rather than our necessity, but they are not superfluous. Music can be adapted to religion if it is freed from foolish delight.[88]

In the church, Calvin says, voice and song must spring from the heart or it has no value or profit with God. He strongly commended it. It exercises the mind and heart and keeps us attentive. The tongue was designed for this. Music was created to proclaim the praises of God, mainly through the assembly of believers.[89] Singing was an ancient practice going back to the apostles. In it the godly mutually edify one another. Singing, with gravity, lends dignity and praise, kindles our hearts to an eagerness to pray. Our ears should be more attentive to the meaning of the words than to the melody. It is a holy and salutary practice.[90]

In his commentary on Amos 5:21-24 Calvin says nothing against musical instruments in worship or the writing of Christian hymns apart from the psalms. Old remarks, “If Calvin were as much opposed to the use of an organ and Christian hymns as we are sometimes told, surely this would have been the place to have made this opposition clear.”[91]

iv) The Westminster Confession of Faith

When the Confession refers to the singing of psalms (WCF, 21:5), it is unquestioned that it has in mind the Psalms of David. However, does it require us to hold that it believed only these should be sung in the worship of the church? Or was this simply a reflection that these were the staple diet of the Church of England at the time? In short, is this prescriptive or purely descriptive? If the former, how are we to understand what the Assembly meant by “psalms”?

Nick Needham has presented evidence to establish that the Assembly did not restrict itself to the Psalms of David when it mentioned “psalms” in the Confession.[92] Of course, it regarded the Psalter as the backbone of the singing of the church; there was much debate on the production of a suitable Psalter. Needham presents comprehensive evidence to show the widespread acceptance in the Reformed churches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of songs other than the Davidic Psalms, although the latter provided the main diet in song. He concludes that “there is abundant evidence that in 17th century English, the word ‘psalm’ often meant simply a religious song”.[93] The verb psallo meant to pluck or twang, referring to a song sung to stringed musical accompaniment.[94] He unearths evidence from Richard Baxter, Zwingli and Bullinger, Calvin, and the French, German and Dutch Reformed churches, concluding that “the pattern of sung worship in the Continental Reformed Churches, then, does not fit into an exclusive psalmodist framework”.[95] The English Protestants in Geneva were not opposed to singing other Scriptural passages in worship, while the standard English Psalter by Sternhold and Hopkins contained a considerably greater number of non-Davidic songs and was definitive until 1696.[96]

While in Scotland, exclusive psalm singing was the rule, its existence does not prove the Scots were opposed in principle to non-Davidic compositions.[97] Indeed, before the Assembly the Scots used the Gloria patri but were required to desist by the Puritans.[98] Thus, Needham considers “the weight of evidence decisively favours interpreting WCF 21:5 as referring to a broader category of song than the Davidic psalter”.[99] On the other hand, the Assembly is silent about instrumental worship.[100] Parliament decreed on 9 May 1644 that all ecclesiastical organs be destroyed, in keeping with the Reformed churches’ belief that instrumental worship belonged to the Mosaic covenant.[101] However, the Annotations refer “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” to three different things, with psallo explained as a song plucked with stringed instruments!

Behind this question is the interpretation of the Reformed regulative principle. This is the claim that church worship should consist of only what the Bible requires, in contrast to the Lutheran and Anglican position of anything that the Bible does not prohibit. This is a reason why the church does not make provision for sexual union in worship, unlike in many other religions.[102] However, the principle must be understood in terms of the doctrine of Scripture, for “God’s revealed will” (WCF 21:1) includes not only what is “expressly set down in Scripture” but also “what by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1:6). At the time of the Westminster Assembly it was a liberative principle rather than a restrictive one.[103] That the regulative principle cannot possibly be understood to require explicit proof texts for worship items is evident insofar as the principle itself has no explicit text to support it.

v) Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI)

Where better to end a paper at the Affinity Conference than with a pope?! Ratzinger points to the capacity of music to express in wordless forms what cannot be expressed otherwise. In particular, it is a response to God that emerges spontaneously: “When man comes into contact with God, mere speech is not enough. Areas of his existence are awakened that spontaneously turn into song.”[104] Since a definitive new thing has happened in the resurrection of Christ, a new song emerges.[105]

Ratzinger continues, “The book of the Psalms is the proper source for us to rely on” for it indicates the richness of the instruments and different kinds of singing, even though it lacks musical notation and cannot be reconstructed. “The whole of human life is reflected here, as it is unfolded in dialogue with God.” It is “nourished out of the common store of God’s saving deeds in the past”. Indeed, the psalter is “the prayer book of the infant church”.[106] It is clear that David in the Holy Spirit prays through and with the Son of God:

The Holy Spirit, who had inspired David to sing and to pray, moves him to speak of Christ, indeed causes him to become the very mouth of Christ, thus enabling us in the Psalms to speak through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father.[107]

This includes music. Church music is “a gift of the Spirit, the true glossolalia”.[108] Ratzinger has a trinitarian interpretation of church music.

The word used in the Psalms for singing denotes singing supported by instruments, probably strings, the words related to a text. It is a speech song allowing melodic changes only at the start and the end. The LXX translated zamir by psallo, meaning to pluck, referring to the stringed instruments. It is ordered artistic singing.[109] Biblical faith created a culture appropriate to its inner nature.[110] New Christian hymns and canticles were composed – the Benedictus, the Magnificat, texts such as John 1:1-18, Philippians 2:6-11, 1 Timothy 3:16 and the like.[111] Pliny, shortly after 100AD refers to the church singing hymns to Christ as God.

Over the centuries various problems arose in relation to church music. Platonic mysticism gained ground, forcing the church, in the 59th Canon of the Council of Laodicea to forbid “the use of privately composed psalms and non-canonical writings in divine worship”. The 15th canon restricted singing to the choir – “other people in church should not sing”. This was necessary at the time but it was restrictive, following a synagogue form.[112] In the East, the church kept strictly to vocal music. The West developed psalm singing, in Gregorian chant, “which set a permanent standard for sacred music”. Polyphony developed in the late Middle Ages. Musical instruments returned. The connection of church music with ordinary music grew. Artistic freedom developed. Tunes were borrowed from the wider world, often from the popular level. Music was no longer developing out of prayer, and was moving away from the liturgy.[113] The Council of Trent intervened – “liturgical music should be at the service of the Word, the use of instruments was substantially reduced; and the difference between sacred and secular music was clearly affirmed”.[114]

Pius X, at the turn of the twentieth century, also intervened. The music of Bach and Mozart in church “reached such a high point in this period of cultural history, to the glorifying of God” that “we have a sense in either case of what gloria Dei, the glory of God, means. The mystery of infinite beauty is there”. But there were dangers. Subjective experience was held in check by the order of the musical universe “reflecting as it does the order of the divine creation itself”. But the threat of the virtuoso mentality was always at hand. The nineteenth century was the century of self-emancipating subjectivity, obscuring the sacred by the operatic. Pius X tried to remove the operatic from the liturgy and “declared Gregorian chant and the great polyphony of the age of the Catholic Reformation… to be the standard for liturgical music”. In this, he made a distinction between liturgical music and religious music.[115]

The cultural revolution of recent decades has led to a cultural universalisation that needs to be done if the church is to go beyond the boundaries of the European mind. Parallel developments in music in the West have forced classical music into an élitist ghetto which only specialists may enter. In contrast, the music of the masses has become “a cult of the banal”, Ratzinger contends. Rock music is an expression of elemental passions, opposed to Christian worship.[116]

The music of Christian worship is related to the events of God’s saving action to which the Bible bears witness and the liturgy makes present. The gift of singing and playing before God is from the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the Word leads us out of individualism into the communion of the saints: Christian liturgy is a cosmic liturgy.[117]

Ratzinger refers back to Augustine’s classic discussion in De musica. The beauty of music depends on its conformity to the rhythmic and harmonic laws of the universe which reflect the mind of its maker.[118] For Christians, at its deepest level, it reflects the mind of the creator – “the Father, the Logos, and the Pneuma” for “the Logos himself is the great artist, in whom all works of art – the beauty of the universe – have their origin”.[119]

In contrast, Hegel interpreted music as the expression of the subject and of subjectivity – what it does for me: a matter of personal taste – whereas Schopenhauer saw it as the pure expression of human will that creates the world, prior to reason, so that music should not be connected to the word.[120] This turns Christianity upside down.

This, may I suggest, is the mindset that has come to affect evangelicalism. The focus has been on catering to the surrounding culture. Worship has been made the servant of evangelism. Personal taste has become a criterion. A subjective view of music – “what it does for me” – rules. Recent popular church music carries a manipulative, emotional hook drawn from the world of popular culture. The objectivity of music, its rootedness in creation, tonality based in physics by related patterns of sound waves, its structure combining unity and particularity, the one and the many, its modulations and contrapuntalism, rhythm, metre, harmony and pitch echoing the variety that God has set in the midst of order, its teleological orientation, is not considered a significant datum. Over against this, the impact of trinitarianism on the musical culture in which the Christian faith became rooted was to bring to the surface its variety and depth. Ratzinger’s comment is pertinent: “The cosmic character of liturgical music stands in opposition to the two tendencies of the modern age” – music as pure subjectivity, or as an expression of will.[121] Transcendence, in contrast to the cult of the banal, is the appropriate goal, which reflects in measure the innate harmonic and rhythmic character of the universe God has made and, beyond that, the flow of redemptive history.

 “What is sweeter to us is clearer”, Augustine wrote. Has the neglect of delectatio in Reformed and evangelical circles muted the gospel? Has its studied indifference to beauty cast a veil over the nature of God? Furthermore, if God has made us in such a manner that we see and understand more clearly the more attractive the preaching and the liturgy, does our neglect indicate a deficient anthropology, a radical separation between God and creation[122] that breeds an inadequate appreciation of the incarnation? Lex credendi lex statuit supplicandi, Prosper of Aquitaine wrote, in what became an axiom – the rule of faith establishes the rule of prayer. The way we worship is indicative of what we believe.

Note: The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of any other person or institution. In turn, this statement is entirely the initiative of the author.


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