Like most people, I love music and couldn’t imagine the world without it. In my church (and probably in yours) music is central to the experience of worship. But during the Reformation there was some question about music’s suitability for church services.
For a time, Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli banned all music from services in the newly reformed churches of Zurich. John Calvin also banned instrumental music from church, considering it suitable only for secular use. He called instrumental music in church “senseless and absurd.” Only acapella singing was permitted, and even that had to be in unison not harmony!
The organ pipes in Lübeck’s Lutheran cathedral.
Now, before I get too harsh with Zwingli and Calvin, I understand that their reasoning was in reaction to the excesses of the medieval Church. These reformers realized that in many cases works of art, including statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, had come to be used as idols or in ways that were very close to idolatry. Perhaps, the over-use of music had also become a kind of idol or at least a distraction. Christians desperately needed to hear the Word of God taught in their own languages through scripture reading and expository preaching, and Zwingli and Calvin made sure that was the focus. (For more on this see CH #118)
But clearly, this is a “baby and bathwater” situation. In reaction to errors, Zwingli and Calvin swung way over to the other extreme, focusing almost exclusively on didactic teaching at the expense of all the other means that God uses to speak to us. God reaches us through all our senses; sight, sound, smell, taste (“Take, eat this is my body”), and even touch (“Greet one another with a holy kiss”).
Luther made this point forcefully in his ever-charming way, calling those who would ban music “fanatics” and “cranks.” He encouraged the church to “praise God with both word and music.” Luther saw music and all of the arts as a natural way to worship our Creator and reflect his image. (See CH #39 for more.)
After all, if worship (and life, for that matter) is about glorifying God for his greatness, his creativity, his kindness, his beauty, how on earth could we exclude one of His most profound and beautiful gifts to us? Whether in harmony or unison, accompanied or not, I say, crank it up!
William Carroll is film production manager at Christian History Institue and Vision Video Bill was associate producer of the three-hour documentary This Changed Everything about the roots and the fruits of the Reformation.
(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)