What About the Bible?

The Futile Search for a “Biblical” Style of Worship Music

Recently I wrote a chapter for a book about forming an ecumenical theology of music for Christian worship (“Liturgical Musicians Attend to Musical Style When Preparing Worship,” in Living the Church’s Song: Propositions for an Ecumenical Theology of Church Music, ed. Heather Josselyn-Cranson and Jason McFarland. Chicago: GIA Publications, 2023). My chapter was mostly about how to think about musical style as a worship leader, especially when planning congregational music. Writing that chapter led me to ask myself, “What about the Bible?”

I’m no biblical scholar, but I do know some things about the history of worship music and its relationship to the Bible. I’d like to share how my studies and practice have affected the way I see musical style, church history, and the Christian theological tradition intersecting.


Learning from the Early Church
• Foley, Edward J. From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist. 2nd edition. Liturgical Press, 2009.
McGowan, Andrew. Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective. Baker Academic, 2016.
Ruth, Lester, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet. Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem. Eerdmans, 2010. 

What Church History Teaches Us

The impulse to have scripture anchor everything about our Christian life is a noble one—and one I share. But trying to find explicit biblical warrants or prohibitions for any particular style of music in worship is a futile endeavor. For one thing, stylistic arguments about liturgy in late antiquity largely happened at around the same time the Christian biblical canon was formed, so trying to base one thing upon the other doesn’t work sequentially. That is, even though the New Testament books were mostly written in the first century CE, there was not yet a universally recognized scriptural canon in which to find guidance about musical style as the Reformers of later centuries did. 

Liturgical historians specializing in these formative centuries of the church’s worship and song, often called the “patristic period,” have shown over and over how Christian worship practices seem to have developed parallel to one another in different regions and languages instead of in a single tradition. (The sidebar on p. 42 lists some excellent resources about early Christian worship development.)

Moreover, until the advent of modern evangelicalism, nearly all Christians tended to approach questions of doctrine, liturgy, and the like not simply through scripture, but through multiple lenses of scripture, tradition, and reason. (Others, including Wesleyan-leaning folks, would, of course, add “experience” to complete the quadrilateral.) And we know that many arguments about musical style in the time of the Protestant Reformation were based more on contemporary cultural or ecclesio-political concerns than on scriptural arguments. It’s hard to transfer those arguments directly to our modern context, though some folks try.

Two of the magisterial Reformers provide differing examples of these arguments. Martin Luther, though a fierce advocate for theological and structural reforms within the church, was still very much concerned with continuity of liturgical practices. Andreas Loewe and Katherine Firth’s recent book Martin Luther and the Arts (2023, Brill Academic) is one of many books and articles describing how Luther sought to leverage existing traditions of vernacular hymnody, choral music, instrumental music, and other arts to correct among his followers what he perceived to be erroneous teachings of the Catholic church. Luther did not seek to return to ancient musical practices, but leveraged contemporary musical forms both to educate emerging Lutheran communities and to criticize Roman Catholic practices. John Calvin, on the other hand, sought to recapture the ethos of the early Christian era by mandating unaccompanied, unison singing of psalms. Forbidding musical instruments in worship was ostensibly part of Calvin’s advocacy for gospel simplicity and a return to biblical practices, but in several of Calvin’s sermons and commentaries, it’s clear that it was just as much about contradicting the “papists.” Take, for example, this passage from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 33:2:

But when [believers] frequent their sacred assemblies, musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostle is far more pleasing to Him. 
—John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, Christian Classics Ethereal Library Edition, tinyurl.com/CalvinPsalms.

Or consider this passage from one of Calvin’s sermons on 2 Samuel: 

It would be nothing but mimicry if we followed David today in singing with cymbals, flutes, tambourines and psalteries. In fact, the papists were seriously deceived in their desire to worship God with their pompous inclusion of organs, trumpets, oboes and similar instruments. That has only served to amuse the people in their vanity, and to turn them away from the true institution which God has ordained. 
—John Calvin, Sermons on 2 Samuel, trans. Douglas Kelly (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), p. 241.

These anti-papist arguments are subtle in Calvin, who seems to be using “papist” practices to illustrate the need for a more “gospel-based” practices, but in writings by later Reformed and Presbyterian authors, even through the end of the nineteenth century, arguments against instruments, especially the organ, almost exclusively and more vehemently contradict Roman Catholic practice without the theological grounding Calvin provided.

All this is to say that, when considering our ways of music and worship, having a myopic focus on doing things “biblically” rather than also taking tradition and reason into account is inconsistent with how both the pre-Reformation church and the magisterial Reformers operated.

What the Scriptures Teach Us

I want to again affirm the many evangelicals and other Protestant Christians today who attempt to seek the “biblical” way to approach all parts of the Christian life, including their worship music. But what exactly is there to say about musical style vis à vis the Bible?

First, searching for a biblical perspective on liturgical music will lead one largely into the Hebrew scriptures, where the specifics of music-making are mentioned far more than in the Greek New Testament. That said, for Old Testament passages to be prescriptive for Christian worship practices, one’s perspective on scripture must give equal weight to New Testament passages. In that case, the psalms are the most instructive about musical style.

Let’s consider one of the most oft-repeated phrases from Psalms about music: “Sing a new song [unto the Lord].” Psalms 40, 96, 98, and 149 all include some variation of this phrase. The concept of singing a new song validates the human impulse to be creative. Liturgical musicians do not often rely solely on the existing corpus of liturgical music within our tradition, beautiful though it may be; rather, we seek to add our contemporary voices to a very much living tradition. “Singing a new song” is an easy task to get behind; indeed, I’m not aware of any Christian tradition that argues against creating new music for the church.

Second, we might also glean from the psalms and other Hebrew Bible passages a couple of basic ideas about liturgical musical style. For example, the very word “psalm” comes from the Greek word ψαλμός (psalmos) and the Hebrew word רמז (zāmar), both of which indicate vocal music accompanied by an instrument. Some psalms, such as 4, 5, 8, and 67 even have headings that indicate the use of specific instruments. Moreover, some psalms and canticles (Psalm 150 and the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15) for example) speak of the use of a variety of instruments in the worship of God. Whether such instrumental praise is in the context of liturgical worship is a separate and difficult question.

Third, some psalms—9, 45, 46, and 60, for example—have headings that allude to a particular musical style accompanying the text. Therefore, if we use the Hebrew Bible to prescribe musical styles for Christian liturgical music, we can at the very least affirm that instrumental accompaniment is OK and that varying the styles is also acceptable. However,  it is altogether unclear whether the biblical psalms and canticles were used in liturgical services such as we understand them or for paraliturgical and/or purely devotional practices. 

Fourth, in scripture outside of Psalms, improvisation is viewed as a legitimate mode of liturgical music-making. As portrayed in the biblical narrative, most of the worship canticles contained in the Hebrew scriptures are improvised, like modern-day musicals in which characters spontaneously break into song at key moments of the story. All of the gospel canticles in the New Testament are sung extemporaneously too, and to some extent the canticles found in Revelation can be viewed similarly.


General Principles from Scripture
1. The repeated scriptural instruction to “sing a new song” validates the creation of new music for the  church.
2. The Bible describes a variety of instruments being used in worship.
3. The Bible describes a variety of musical styles being used in worship.
4. The Bible, especially the canticles of the Old and New testaments, witnesses to improvisatory music  making as a mode of worship.
5. We really don’t know anything concrete about musical style, instruments, or performance practices from the Bible. 

What We Don’t Know

Understanding that trying to find biblical justification for musical choices depends heavily on one’s understanding and interpretation of scripture, I offer one strong caution to those who seek to draw direct throughlines from practices observed in the biblical witness and current-day liturgical music: musicologically speaking, we know almost nothing about musical performance practices in the West, the Middle East, or most other places prior to the late Middle Ages. Our lack of knowledge about ancient musical instruments and stylistic terms from ancient languages, plus a lack of decipherable systems of ancient musical notation mean we can’t derive any useful musical style guidelines from the Bible. What we can derive, as shown above, is the simple conclusion that multiple styles, structures, and contexts are clearly part of the biblical witness to liturgical music making.

I cherish, respect, and applaud the desire to anchor one’s life, including worship, to the witness of scripture. It is, after all, one of the richest and most concrete parts of the Christian faith. But I grow weary of worship leaders, especially the musicians among us, allowing themselves to be lured into believing that the Bible provides answers to all of our questions about how to do music in worship. Let’s instead lean on the general principles we can glean from scripture while remaining open to the idea that tradition and reason also have something to say about how we sing praise to God.


Dr. Jonathan Hehn, OSL, is a musician and liturgist currently serving the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana. He is a passionate practitioner, writer, teacher, and thinker active on Facebook and Instagram.

Reformed Worship 152 © June 2024, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.