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Sunday, January 26, 2020

In the second chapter of the book of Ezra, we come across that thing that most of us avoid reading or skim over when it appears in our Bible reading plans—a genealogy.

From family genealogies, though, we learn much about our own family history, and the same holds true when we read our covenant genealogy in the book of Ezra.  This particular genealogy highlights a few important principles; first, that the Lord kept a remnant of faithful believers through the Babylonian captivity; second, that he called them by name, as he does you and me; and, finally, that the Lord makes distinctions—in this instance according to specific areas of labor and ministry.  Here we see those professions to include the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, and temple servants (Ezra 2:70). 

Now, of course, whenever we read a family genealogy or look at pictures that might be included, we want to see who we resemble.  Do I get my physical features or temperament from Uncle Sol or Aunt Brunhilde, etc.?   What I noticed in this genealogy was that the Lord makes specific mention to the singers, the sons of Asaph (Ezra 2:41).  I bring this up for one purpose; namely, that as the people of Israel were returning to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, the Lord thought it important to mention in his word that the musicians would continue to be actively engaged and serve a significant role in the worship of the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.  This fact carries with it the implication that through the exile, the children of this remnant had been trained in the worship of their fathers.

Bob Kauflin summarizes this beautifully:  “Asaph and his descendants were purposeful and intentional in passing on the practice and understanding of musical worship to future generations. And their focus was unmistakable: “God is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.” They took seriously the command to proclaim that truth to coming generations.”[1]

We live in a day and age in which traditions and customs handed down from our parents are viewed with suspicion, if not flat out disdain.  This is nothing new.  Both the history of Israel in the Old Testament and recent American history can attest to the cyclical nature of this sinful disposition.  Yet, it is hard not to sense that our current climate is especially engulfed by this pervasive, hardened attitude.  And it isn’t just conservative Christians  who are making this observation, but liberal academics are also apparently alarmed by this epidemic.[2]  Yet this tendency to question everything is not just “out there” in the world, but it is “in here” as well.  In Reformed circles, words such as authority and patriarchy are as often considered distasteful and gauche. Some pastors and bloggers (have they become synonymous?) flinch to speak on these matters, despite the fact that the history of our faith is grounded in authority and patriarchy.    When authority is exercised we quickly equivocate and label it authoritarian. When a father exercises authority over his wife and children, he is a draconian patriarch, and when observed traditions are insisted upon by the men whom God has put in authority over us,  we moan of traditionalism.  Gray hair is no longer a crown of glory (Proverbs 16:31) but it is something to roll one’s eyes at.  

Yet, we see in Ezra 2, that the faithful remnant has their eyes fixed on the temple and on resuming the worship of their fathers.  It was their house of worship and their worship that gave this community of believers their identity.[3]  Interestingly, not all were game and so many stayed behind in Babylon. 

In recent years, there has been an interesting trend among the younger adult generation to seek out churches with traditional worship and liturgies.  In a June, 2019 article in Real Clear Religion, Tom Raabe asks the following:  “Is it too much to suggest that the old ways of doing ‘church’ are the better ways? That a worship style that has prospered for many centuries has something theologically substantial, something religiously solid, to offer a generation that finds itself floundering among the flotsam and jetsam of religious ephemera and trendiness?”

One of the most encouraging things I’ve found here at First Presbyterian Church, through numerous conversations I’ve had with some of our college students, is that they attend this church not only because of the faithful teaching and preaching of the word, but because of the music in our worship services.   When I recently pressed the question further with one of our students about our music in worship, he simply said, “It just seems right.”  

We have the opportunity to be a witness by actually embracing the traditions and customs of our fathers. Imagine that!  We are countercultural by honoring and maintaining the traditions and the decisions of our elders, even some who haven’t been alive for many years.   One of the ways in which this is reflected is in how we worship, which predominantly (but not exclusively) includes an organ, a choir of singers (children, youth, adults, sometimes combined) that serve to support congregational singing and help point our wandering affections to Christ. The church has, more or less, been worshiping this way for five hundred years.  This church has been worshiping this way for well over one hundred and fifty years.   Perhaps it is our responsibility as a congregation to be a remnant in Israel that continues to do so, and to do so without apology.    


[1] Bob Kauflin. “The Legacy of Asaph–Learning to sing in the Same Room.”  Worship Matters, September 3, 2009.

[2] See Gerg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.  The Coddling of the American Mind. Penguin Random House:  New York,  2018. 

[3] “Introduction to Ezra” in ESV Study Bible.  Crossway Bible:  Wheaton, IL, 2008, pg. 799.


Sunday, November 17, 2019


On Friday night, Dec. 6, at 7:00pm, the Chancel Choir, orchestra, and soloists will be presenting two of the best known and best loved choral/orchestral works from the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat and Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria.  The upcoming blog posts will be about the music of these pieces.

These works are commonly performed and recorded together around Advent for various reasons: first, these texts from chapters one and two of the gospel of Luke deal with events surrounding the birth of Christ; second, both musical compositions are from the same baroque historical period (though they are very different in musical character); finally, both are set in the catholic (universal) Latin language. The Magnificat text is taken from Luke 1: 46–55.  The Gloria text is a Latin hymn whose roots can be traced back to c. 380, and a Greek version as early as the 2nd century.  It is often referred to as the hymnus angelicus since it begins with the text from Luke 2:14.*

This Sunday, the choir will sing the final two movements from Vivaldi’s Gloria– Quoniam tu solus sanctus  (For you alone are holy) and Cum Sancto Spiritu (With the Holy Spirit).  The full text of both movements is as follows:

For you alone are holy.  You alone are the Lord.  You alone are the most high, Jesus Christ.  With the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

For those of you familiar with Vivaldi’s setting, you’ll probably recognize the music of the Quoniam, as it is taken from the popular opening movement.  This very brief movement is then followed by what is called a double fugue. Before talking about a double fugue though, let’s briefly discuss what a fugue is.  A fugue is a type of imitative musical conversation.  One voice will present a musical theme or subject.  Another voice then responds to that voice using almost the same material, but usually a bit higher and in different but related harmony.  The first voice then presents a counter-subject, which is also imitated.  Eventually, all four voices (sometimes fewer or more voices) will continue this musical dialogue.  In the final movement of the Gloria, Vivaldi actually sets two subjects rather than just one, thus the term double fugue.   In doing this, Vivaldi is assigning to the text “With the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father” two very different characters or affects. The first subject, presented by the basses, is stolid and unmovable, much like the church itself. It gives the music foundation and strength.  The 2nd subject, sung by the sopranos, moves twice as fast as the other subject, and is lively, energetic, and contagious.  Baroque composers often characterized music intended to represent the Holy Spirit in this manner.  

What makes a fugue or a double fugue successful in a performance is how well and accurately the singers and instrumentalists convey the music.  In vocal music of this type, it is done by how the music is articulated and phrased, not to mention how well in tune it is.  When the presentation of the musical ideas is clear and imitated consistently, the music becomes clearer as well, and easier to comprehend as a listener.  A good analogy might be the passing of texts by oral tradition (a lost art form, though one that may become important again to Christians sooner than we anticipate). 

One last comment that I think is important to make—fugues are first intellectual procedures or exercises.  They are organized, almost rigidly; there are rules and laws to their composition and structure.  The greatest organists are able to improvise fugues—a remarkable gift and discipline.  Yet, like the Christian life itself, it is in obedience to the knowledge and rules of contrapuntal writing (fugue writing falls into this) that true musical freedom and expression abounds!  As Christians, we know from experience that our lives our truly free in the grace of Christ when we keep his commandments. We have been born again in Christ that we may love the law of God and abide by it, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  Our lives, much like a fugue, find coherence, balance, perseverance, steadiness, and ultimately freedom and joy when we are walking with the Lord in the light of his Word.  We start to see how the seemingly random ups and downs in our lives, informed by his Word, are intended to make us living stones, being built up as a spiritual house, whose cornerstone is Christ (1 Peter 2:4–8).

This coming Advent and Christmas season, may we continue to seek the peace of Christ, the joy of Christ, and grow to truly love one another by walking faithfully with the Lord, according to his Word, with the Holy Spirit, in and for the glory of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


*Taken from Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire:  Volume 1: Sacred Latin Texts, compiled and annotated by Ron Jeffers. Oregon: Earthsongs, 1988.

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Sunday, November 3, 2019

 (Following is an article I submitted to Great Commission Publications, to be used in their annual catalog.  Great Commission publishes the Trinity Hymnal and Trinity Psalter.  I hope the information here is informative and helps you get a sense of how we set hymn texts to new or different tunes, as we will this Sunday in our closing hymn, ‘Tis Not That I Did Choose Thee.)

Last year, I was asked to give a lecture on “How to Use Our Hymnals Better?” One answer to this age-old question is nothing new. For centuries musicians have practiced the art of contrafactum, that is, substituting one text for another, without any significant changes to the melody. It’s a procedure that, when used effectively, can help a congregation expand its knowledge of hymnody (poetry) and help pastors and musicians more intentionally coordinate their sermons and musical hymn selections for worship. To put it more simply, it’s a way to set many different hymn texts to the same familiar tune.

We have several contrafactum in the Trinity Hymnal. One which is particularly effective is the Horatius Bonar text O Love of God, How Strong and True, set to Hubert Parry’s tune JERUSALEM. This tune is most commonly associated with William Blake’s poem, And did those feet in ancient time, a well-loved English nationalistic song. The eternal attributes of God as depicted in Bonar’s poetry makes a perfect match for the majestic character of Parry’s music.

Another equally effective contrafactum is Michael Perry’s hymn O God Beyond All Praising, set to Gustav Holst’s THAXTED, a tune excerpted from the noble and moving fourth movement of Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32.

There is a way for all of us to use contrafactum in our worship services or at home, but we have to understand a few things about our hymn page to be able to proceed. First, we need to understand what the information in the bottom right hand corner of a hymn page means. You first will see a name in all capital letters. This is the name of the hymn tune, and it is followed either by a series of numbers and will look something like STUTTGART, or the hymn tune will be followed by an abbreviated symbol, also in capital letters, such as L.M., C.M., S.M.D, etc. These numbers or symbols tell us what the meter of the hymn text is. Meter is the fundamental rhythmic structure of a poetic verse or lines of a verse. The collection of lines of a verse in a hymn is called a stanza (more on this shortly).

If you take your Trinity Hymnal and turn to the back, you can find two appendices—one entitled TUNES, and the other immediately following entitled METERS. The one that is most helpful for this exercise is the latter. You will see that hymn tunes are organized under subheadings with the aforementioned metrical letter and number assignments. Essentially, you can take any hymn with a particular meter and match it to another tune. The important thing to remember is that the character of the hymn text and musical character should be a good fit.

We’ve done this at First Presbyterian with many hymns. Sometimes I’ll come across a hymn text that I like very much and that would fit perfectly with the sermon text that morning or evening. At times it can be best to teach the congregation the new hymn altogether. At other times, it is more expedient and effective to use this contrafactum procedure by printing the hymn text in the bulletin with a tune that the congregation is more familiar with. For example, singing Charles Wesley’s text Christ Whose Glory Fills the Sky is a wonderful way to begin a worship service:

Dark and cheerless is the morn
Unaccompanied by thee;
Joyless is the days return
Till thy mercy’s beams I see;
Till they inward light impart,
Glad my eyes and warm my heart.

If you open the Trinity Hymnal to this hymn, it is set to the tune LUX PRIMA, with a meter of This tells us that one stanza of the hymn has six lines, each containing seven syllables. (Don’t be ashamed to count the syllables out on your fingers!) Your congregation might not know the hymn tune or text, but if you turn to the METER appendix in the back of the hymnal and locate the subheading you will see numerous other hymn tunes. If you skim through the hymns under that heading you will likely find a hymn with which your congregation is familiar. In this case, DIX (“For the beauty of the earth”) works quite beautifully with Wesley’s hymn. The best way to double check that it’s a good match is to make sure you sing through it first. Enjoy the process of discovering, learning, and teaching new hymns. It will be a blessing to you and your congregation.

Dr. Daniel Cole
Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina

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Sunday, October 27, 2019 

*This week’s blog was the intended talk for this past Wednesday night’s hymn festival.

“The Whole Church Sings”

The title of this talk is borrowed from the work of Christian musicologist Robin Leaver. Leaver’s book gives an historical overview of congregational singing in Luther’s Wittenberg at the time of the Reformation, though the quote is actually Luther’s reaction to the singing he heard in Martin Bucer’s church in Strasbourg.

I think the title of this book points to the goal of events like tonight’s, mainly to encourage committed and robust congregational singing. Leaver’s title implies that strong congregational singing is a good thing and  evidence of a healthy spiritual vigor within the church. The content of his research in the book affirms this. This then should lead us to ask the question, “Why do we value congregational singing as much as we do? Or, if we are going to poke and prod a little bit, the question to ask might be, “Do we value the practice of congregational singing enough or give it enough of a priority?” 

When we commemorate the Reformation, it should not just be about the actual historic event, but it should also serve as a reminder that the church is always to be reforming its worship practices in light of Scriptural principles. There are volumes and volumes of books written on this topic, but this talk needs to be short, so I would like to offer some comments that may offer some food for thought.

In an article entitled “Does It Matter How We Worship God?”, Ian Hamilton writes the following:

It would probably surprise many Christians, evangelicals in particular, that for Calvin, and the other magisterial Reformers, the Reformation was first about recovering the true worship of God. Getting worship “right” was for Calvin the first need of Christ’s flock. Calvin’s ranking worship as first in importance over salvation was due to one very important fact, namely that salvation is a means to an end, with worship being the end itself. We are saved to worship God, now and eternally, with our present public worship being a foretaste of the heavenly worship that awaits us. (From On Reforming Worship, ed. David Hall and Jonathan Master)

Every week, as part of our worship service, we affirm that we believe in one holy, catholic, and Apostolic church. To be catholic in worship implies continuity. To this point, Robert Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology of Westminster Seminary California writes that “The Reformed church…intentionally harvested the best theology, piety, and practice of the Eastern and Western Church, from the (Apostolic Church) Fathers through the Middle Ages.” Terry Johnson writes that “Continuity with the past in doctrine, worship, and ministry has always been a serious concern of Reformed Protestantism.”

Continuity in worship suggests that our worship supports a generational continuity–that we worship as our parents did, and as their parents did, while trusting those in authority to exercise wisdom and right judgment. Such generational continuity in matters of worship serves as a reminder of the covenantal nature of the church. This is why we commit time and resources in training our children here at First Presbyterian Church to read music, and why we continue using an organ and train organ scholars, and why we maintain choirs and instrumental groups of various ages and abilities. It is why we use hymnals still, or at least print music in our bulletins. For centuries, Christian churches have used hymnals and read music, and this was a result of the Reformation. Literacy included musical literacy. Luther thought musical education in the church was so important that he believed that men should not be ordained to be preachers without being “well exercised in music.”  

It is important that as we prioritize a connection to historic worship practices, we also uphold the principle of catholicity, which requires us to absorb what is best from the professing church today. When our family moved to Columbia, it was a great encouragement to discover that Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old was teaching at Erskine seminary, in classrooms just across the street. Holly and I had known Dr. Old and his wife Mary when we and they attended Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. It would be fair to say that Dr. Old was the leading authority on the history of Reformed worship and historic preaching. In his succinct but very helpful book entitled Worship: Reformed according to Scripture, Dr. Old makes this comment regarding the contemporary worship music movement:

            The ministry of praise wells up from the grass roots of Christian faith. It is a folk art that,
            inspired by the Holy Spirit, comes naturally in its own time. It is the very nature of
            American Protestantism that the ministry of praise is so central to its worship and flows
            forth so abundantly and in such rich variety. 

In conclusion, how we worship should be an informed balance of the church’s history and a right, biblical catholicity, under the authority of the church. We are not to worship as though we are on an island or function as a type of museum for worship, nor are we to simply follow the trends of worship we see around us. Zwingli forcefully puts it this way: “How dare you introduce innovations to the church simply on your own authority without consulting the Church!”

Whatever the style or mode of music used in worship, it is a help to remember that worship is under an historically informed and biblically mandated authority. Tradition has value when it is anchored in the entirety of church history but can be poisonous when the historical memory of a church is only a generation or two. And while new music and a new style of music can bring a welcome freshness to worship, its characteristic lack of longevity should be acknowledged and therefore sustained by the bedrock of congregational music that has been passed from generation to generation. In approaching music in worship with these things in mind, we hope that it might be said of First Presbyterian Church for many years to come, “the whole congregation sings.”