Instrumental Music in Church History

by William J. Stewart

We have in previous articles looked at instrumental music in the book of Revelation, the Old Testament, and the New Testament (besides Revelation). In Revelation, we found the instances of instrumental music to deal with the heavenly realm, and not the worship of the Lord’s church upon the earth. In the Old Testament, we discovered that musical instruments were commanded and used in the worship of Israel, but noted that this is no authority for us, since we are not under the Old Testament law. Coming to the New Testament, we noted that none of the occurrences of instrumental music therein address worship. Rather, every example or command with regard to our worship in song calls for vocal music, not instrumental.

Today, we turn our attention to uninspired writings, that we might view the testimony of history regarding instrumental music and worship. Of course, the religious musings and contemplations of man are no authority for us, but it is interesting to consider the record of history with regard to the use of instrumental music. Primarily, we will focus on two specific groups of religious writers. First, those who came within the next few centuries following the time of the apostles, and second, those who were present in the days of the protestant reformation, and shortly thereafter.

Clement of Alexandria (approx. 150-216)
“The Lord fashioned man a beautiful, breathing instrument, after His own image and assuredly He Himself is an all-harmonious instrument of God, melodious and holy, the wisdom that is above this world, the heavenly Word. …and on this many-voiced instruments of the universe He makes music to God, and sings to the human instrument. “For thou art my harp and my pipe and my temple”

Clement of Alexandria (approx. 150-216)
“Leave the pipe to the shepherd, the flute to the men who are in fear of gods and intent on their idol worshipping. Such musical instruments must be excluded from our wineless feasts, for they are more suited for beasts and for the class of men that is least capable of reason than for men.”

Tertullian of Carthage (155-230)
“What trumpet of God is now heard – unless it is in the entertainment of the heretics?”

Novatian of Trinitate (died 258)
“Why should I speak of strings set vibrating to noise? Even if these thing were not dedicated to idols, they should not be approached and gazed upon by faithful Christians.”

Eusibius of Caesarea (275-339)
“We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living cithara with spiritual songs. The unison of voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. Accordingly in all the churches of God, united in soul and attitude, with one mind and in agreement of faith and piety we send up a unison melody in the words of the Psalms.”

Niceta of Remesian (335-414)
“Only the corporal institutions have been rejected, like circumcision, the Sabbath, sacrifices, discriminations of foods. So, too, the trumpets, harps, cymbals, and timbrels. For the sound of these we now have a better substitute in the music from the mouths of men.”

John Chrysostom (347-407)
“David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. He had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre with a different tone indeed but much more in accordance with piety.”

Aurelius Augustine (354-430)
“…musical instruments were not used. The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.”

Theodoret of Cyrhus (393-457)
“It is not simple singing that belongs to the childish state, but singing with lifeless instruments, with dancing, with clappers. Hence the use of such instruments and the others that belong to the childish state is excluded from the singing in the churches, and simple singing is left.”

Martin Luther (1483-1546)
“The organ in the worship is an insignia of Baal.”

John Calvin (1509-1564)
“Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps and the restoration of 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 outright pomp may delight in the noise, but the simplicity which God commands to us by the apostles is far more pleasing to Him.”

Joseph Bingham (1668-1723)
“Music in churches is as ancient as the apostles, but instrumental music is not so.”

John Wesley (1703-1791)
“I have no objection to the organs in our chapels, as long as they are neither seen nor heard.”

Adam Clarke (1762-1832)
“Away with such portentous baubles from the worship of that infinite Spirit who requires His followers to worship Him in spirit and truth, for to no such worship are these instruments friendly.”

Adam Clarke (1762-1832)
“I am an old man, and an old minister; and I here declare that I never knew them productive of any good in the worship of God; and have had reason to believe that they were productive of much evil. Music, as a science, I esteem and admire: but instruments of music in the house of God, I abominate and abhor. This is the abuse of music; and here I register my protest against all such corruptions in the worship of the Author of Christianity.”

Presbyterian Board of Publications, Philadelphia, PA (1842)
“Question 6. Is there any authority for instrumental music in the worship of God under the present dispensation? Answer. Not the least, only the singing of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs was appointed by the apostles; not a syllable is said in the New Testament in favor of instrumental music nor was it ever introduced into the Church until after the eighth century, after the Catholics had corrupted the simplicity of the gospel by their carnal inventions. It was not allowed in the Synagogues, the parish churches of the Jews, but was confined to the Temple service and was abolished with the rites of that dispensation.”

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892)
“The great congregation which is blessed with the privilege of listening to His instruction has no organ ‘to assist’ them in singing their praises to their God and Savior. They find their vocal organs sufficient. Their tongues and voices express the gratitude of their hearts… I would just as soon pray to God with machinery as to sing to God with machinery.”

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892)
“Israel was at school, and used childish things to help her to learn; but in these days when Jesus gives us spiritual food, one can make melody without strings and pipes… We do not need them. That would hinder rather than help our praise. Sing unto him. This is the sweetest and best music. No instrument is like the human voice.”

None of these quotes are authoritative, but the consistent testimony of history is that instrumental music was not used by the early church, and their introduction (which was in fact the innovation, not the absence of them) produced a huge stir and outcry. Many today believe that instrumental music has always been used in the churches, and look with curiosity and contempt at those who oppose their use. The testimony of Scripture, as we have seen in a previous article says otherwise. And, the testimony of history, as we have seen herein, also reveals that the introduction and use of instrumental music in the churches is relatively new, and not a practice which has its origin in the apostolic age. Let us not be innovators, adding to the doctrines and practices given in Scripture, but rather, let us simply be faithful servants, seeking to “…do all in the name of the Lord.”

Instrumental Music in Worship to God, Wayne Wells.

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