Many of the most important debates of the recent “worship wars” in evangelicalism (including the form/content divide identified in yesterday’s post) have their origins in two important conflicts from the first few decades of the Reformation: first, the debate over the exegesis of the Ten Commandments or “Decalogue,” and second, a broader conversation about the place of music within a liberal arts education. In this post, I’d like to take up both of these debates in turn and attempt to show how they relate more broadly to the construction of musical meaning.

Within the seventeen verses which comprise the Decalogue in Exodus 20, there are no less than twelve distinct statements that might be numbered as commandments. Unfortunately the text does not provide divisions or numberings, though it does suggest in numerous places that the Law of God consists of specifically ten commandments. The primary dispute among the Reformers arises from varying interpretations of the first six verses which read:

(1) And God spake all these words, saying, (2) I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (3) Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (4) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (5) Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; (6) And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.*

Roman Catholic interpretation, going back to St. Augustine, maintains that all six of these verses are part of a single commandment. In his Small Catechism of 1529, Luther interprets these six verses in the same way, reducing them to the statement, “You shall have no other gods before me.” In a series of challenges to Luther’s interpretation, Andreas Karlstadt and Huldrych Zwingli felt that the second half of the commandment was being ignored and that the implications of this marginalized portion of the text––the injunction against “graven images”––involved a radical simplification of corporate worship and a staunch rejection of the Roman Catholic practices of iconography. Though these opinions did not prevail in Wittenberg, this hardline stance won support from other reformers, including Martin Bucer and Johannes Oecolampadius, who influenced the most important Reformer of the next generation, John Calvin.

Even as early as the publication of the first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536, Calvin divides these same six verses from Exodus into two different commandments, explaining that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” and “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” stand as two separate and equally important ideas. Bypassing Augustine, Calvin grounds his interpretation in the writings of Origen. In application, Calvin clearly believed the purpose of this new second commandment was to condemn idolatry as well as place emphasis on a transcendent God who cannot be subjected to representation or comprehensibility by the senses. Additionally, Calvin believed that it established a new theological paradigm called “the regulative principle of worship,” in which scripture should be used to completely and authoritatively regulate and prescribe the means and objectives of worship.

In addition to these differences in interpretations of the Decalogue, Luther and Calvin disagreed more broadly about the place of music within a worldview informed by educational paradigms of the day. Musicologist Gary Tomlinson has noted the ways in which musical study in the Renaissance was “suspended between two categories of knowledge: the mathematical arts of the quadrivium, in which music had found its intellectual niche since late antiquity and to which it sill looked for its theoretical and rational foundation, and the speaking arts of poetry and rhetoric [called the trivium]” (Tomlinson, “Renaissance Humanism and Music,” 8). Luther, being a product of good Augustinian monastic education, emphasizes music as the most important member of the quadrivium, the grouping of scientific disciplines set out by Boethius in late antiquity. As part of the quadrivium, music is seen to be valuable on its own terms, as a description of the ways that the world actually works in a manner that is often compared to mathematics. By contrast, Calvin, because of his training in the French humanistic tradition, was more inclined to engage with music from the trivium, seeing rhythms and intervallic content of the music not as mathematics or divinely inspired art, but rather as a vehicle for text. In all of his writings dealing with music, Calvin consistently refers to “text” and “melody” as two separate constituent elements of “music” as such––thus rehashing the binary we identified in the previous post between musical form and textual content. This view is most evident in Calvin’s “Epistle to the Reader” from the beginning of the 1542 psalter.

Now in speaking of music I understand two parts, namely, the letter, or subject and matter, and the song, or melody. It is true that, as Saint Paul says, every evil word corrupts good manners, but when it has the melody with it, it pierces the heart much more strongly and enters within; as wine is poured into the cask with a funnel, so venom and corruption are distilled to the very depths of the heart by melody.

This quotation makes clear that, while music certainly “has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men” as Calvin notes earlier, it is the text which holds the true content of the song. The melody is simply a potent vehicle for conveying it.

Many of the implications of these two Reformation-era debates for modern “praise and worship” music will be obvious at first glance. Are instruments, musical styles, or textual formations that are not explicitly mentioned in scripture to be forbidden in accordance with the regulative principle of worship? Is instrumental music capable of conveying religious content? And much more importantly, where exactly is musical meaning to be located? Within Calvin’s framework, music is only effective as a “funnel” for text, which explains many of the complaints about how overly flashy or textually vapid many praise choruses appear. But if, as Luther suggested in his foreword to a collection of motets by composer Georg Rhau, musical meaning was to be found in the ways that the individual musical voices “play and trip lustily around [each other],” then it seems that the full-on sonic assault of many “praise and worship” concert experiences could constitute a equally sound (pun intended) means of spiritual formation. In the final installment of this series, I’d like to bring my observations from the first post and the theological sketches presented here to bear on the contemporary evangelical theology of worship that underlies most “praise and worship” music by engaging with recent trends in sacred and secular pop music and by engaging critically with some of the observations from James K.A. Smith’s recent “Open Letter to Praise Bands.”


*I have selected the KJV here because it maintains the language of “graven image” which is so essential to the theological discussion of the Reformers and closest to Luther’s rendering of “Bildnis” in the 1545 edition of his German translation of the text.