Friday, in the Medieval-Reformation course I gave a lecture on Calvin’s doctrine of worship during which a student asked about instruments. I replied that Calvin (and most of the Reformed) would have viewed the introduction of instruments into the service the same way they would have viewed someone slitting the throat of a bull during a stated service. Let’s say that my response elicited considerable response from the students. During the good-natured, free-wheeling, give and take I suggested that musical instruments are not mere circumstances in worship. I say that because I get the same (shocked) response every time I suggest that we return to original Reformed practice, i.e. to worship God without the aid of musical instruments and without the aid of uninspired songs.
The only vaguely Reformed defense of instruments and uninspired songs is that they are only circumstances and not elements. The latter are essential to worship. They are usually said to be Word (preached, read, and visible in the sacraments) and prayer, our divinely authorized response to the Word. Historically, we’ve defined circumstances to refer to things truly indifferent such as time, place, and posture. A circumstance is supposed to be something that is genuinely indifferent, i.e. something that neither adds to worship nor, if omitted, takes away from worship.
When I say, “If they’re only circumstances, let’s get rid of them” I get a reaction that suggests that they aren’t really adiaphora (indifferent) or circumstances at all. “You can’t smash that organ. Why Mr So and So donated money for that organ back in 1870.” Or “We can’t stop singing that hymn, after all, that’s my favorite hymn.” Or even more to the point, as one student said years ago, “When I hear the organ, I feel the presence of God.”
When we hear objections like these we can see that it’s quite unclear whether musical instruments function as mere circumstances. When I propose to change the time of worship no one says, “But 11AM means so much to me.” When I say, “Let us stand,” no one says, “But when I sit, I feel God’s presence.” If folk do become so attached to a time or a posture or a place, well, then it’s probably time for a change. Worship isn’t about time, place, or posture, it’s about being met by the living God and responding in the authorized ways.
People react to the mere suggestion of the removal of instruments as they do because instruments and music are affective. Worship has become so identified with the affect produced by the instruments (or our favorite scripture song) that to take them away seems almost blasphemous. We love our instruments in a way we don’t love posture, place, or time. There is a categorical difference between instruments and P, P and T. If we can’t change them or if they have become sacred, well, maybe they have become idols?
There’s a second problem with instruments that is even more fundamental than our experience and that is those instruments that folk love so much come with some pretty heavy baggage. The only biblical ground for instruments also entails the sacrifice of animals. In other words, how are we going to use Moses’ or David’s instruments without killing Aaron’s lambs or engaging in holy war? The same instruments we want to borrow from Moses come covered with the blood of bulls and goats and resonating with the sounds of holy war against your local Canaanite city. The old Reformed churches understood that the Mosaic covenant was totalitarian. It’s pretty hard to borrow just a little bit of Moses. Just ask the medieval church. How are we going to do what the medieval church did, borrow Mosaic elements (and for the same reasons) without gradually reproducing the Mosaic worship system just as the medieval church did?
Maybe the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries knew what they were doing when they rid our worship of instruments and of uninspired songs?
[This post appeared first, on the HB, in 2008]