Music is undeniably an effective means of administering balm to the soul. When the Word of God is set to a beautiful melody, the music can stir within us a zeal and hope that nothing else can. Music is, as Abraham Kuyper wrote, a “means for bringing a worshiper’s soul out of the ordinary and the mechanical into passion and activity.” Additionally, praising the Lord in song displays and fortifies Christian unity, as members of one body unite with one voice.
It was 374, and the Roman city of Milan was riotous. The bishop had just died, and there was a deep divide between the Arians (who taught that Jesus is less than God) and the Trinitarians (who taught that Jesus is God). Which one would the next bishop be? Shouting and sparring in the cathedral, the people grew increasingly belligerent. Ambrose the governor walked in, and a peaceful silence immediately descended. Suddenly, a child yelled, “Ambrose for bishop!” Only days later, Ambrose commenced his pastoral duties as bishop of Milan. Much to the consternation of the Arians, Ambrose staunchly defended the Trinitarian orthodoxy set down in the Council of Nicaea fifty years before.
The Arian-Trinitarian battles continued. The mother of Emperor Valentinian II, Justina, was an Arian. The empress demanded that Ambrose give one of the basilicas to the Arians. Ambrose refused, prompting Justina to send soldiers to take it by force. Ambrose summoned the parishioners to the basilica to hold their ground. The parishioners—among whom was Monica, the mother of Augustine—fasted, prayed, and sang. Barricaded inside the basilica, Ambrose fortified the souls of his people by teaching them hymnody. Arians advanced their teaching by singing; now, at the behest of Ambrose, the Trinitarians set biblical theology to melody, and it reinvigorated their zeal. They sang antiphonally (i.e., back-and-forth, as in the chorus of “It Is Well with My Soul”), emphatically, and prayerfully. You can almost hear the reverberation off the stone colonnades as these Milanian Christians sing: “O thou true Sun, on us thy glance let fall in royal radiance; the Spirit’s sanctifying beam upon our earthly senses stream” (“O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright”). Justina eventually backed off. Arianism was held at bay by truth well sung.
Not without reason has singing played a major role in the life of the church throughout its history. The catholic (i.e., universal) church has long understood singing psalms and hymns as a form of liturgical battle cry and a biblically sanctioned pedagogical device. And yet the church of today has drifted from this practice, largely because it has missed these reasons for singing. In a word, we typically don’t sing because we have a low view of singing. We might think that singing is for those artsy folks who can read music, and so some of us end up merely mouthing the words rather than singing. Generally, it has been us men who have become particularly proficient at this practice, and admittedly, many of the church’s modern songs appeal to a more feminine demographic.