Singing, in the Body and in the Spirit -- By: Steven R. Guthrie

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 46:4 (Dec 2003)
Article: Singing, in the Body and in the Spirit
Author: Steven R. Guthrie

Singing, in the Body and in the Spirit

Steven R. Guthrie

[Steven R. Guthrie is lecturer in theology at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, South Street, St. Andrews, KY16 9JU, Scotland.]

I. Why Sing?

Christians in every era of Church history, in every culture, in every social setting, in every major liturgical tradition have adorned their gatherings with song. In a liturgical universe of extraordinary diversity, music is one of the handful of practices which has been and remains an almost universal feature of Christian worship. One author observes that “three acts, corporate prayer, public reading and corporate singing, form the basic building blocks of corporate worship in all of the traditions.”1

Prayer, scripture, and song-at first glance these seem obvious things for Christians to do when they gather together. It seems obvious that worshipping people should address God in prayer. It seems plain that they should attend to the words of God in Scripture. But the special contribution of song is less clear.

“Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous,” writes the psalmist, “it is fitting for the upright to praise him” (PS 33:1).2 But why should the people of God be urged to engage in this particular activity? Why not, “Dig ditches you saints of his, for the LORD is good!”? Why not, “Do beadwork, you righteous!”; or “Mime to him joyfully O Israel!”? Why, in other words, have so many, in so many cultures and traditions agreed with the psalm writer’s assessment, and found music an especially fitting vehicle for praise?

II. Reasons Not to Sing

A well-known answer to this question, and one which still finds widespread currency, can be found in Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine observes that when sacred words are joined to pleasant music, “our souls [animos] are moved and are more religiously and with a warmer devotion kindled to piety than if they are not so sung.”3 He can bear witness to this power of music in his own life:

When I remember the tears which I poured out at the time when I was first recovering my faith, and that now I am moved not by the chant but by the words being sung, when they are sung with a clear voice and entirely appropriate modulation, then again I recognize the great utility of music in worship.4

Music moves us. It engages one’s sou...

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