Could Instruments Be Idols?

church organFriday, in the Medieval-Reformation course I gave a lecture on Calvin’s doctrine of worship during which a student asked about instruments. I replied that Calvin (and most of the Reformed) would have viewed the introduction of instruments into the service the same way they would have viewed someone slitting the throat of a bull during a stated service. Let’s say that my response elicited considerable response from the students. During the good-natured, free-wheeling, give and take I suggested that musical instruments are not mere circumstances in worship. I say that because I get the same (shocked) response every time I suggest that we return to original Reformed practice, i.e. to worship God without the aid of musical instruments and without the aid of uninspired songs.

The only vaguely Reformed defense of instruments and uninspired songs is that they are only circumstances and not elements. The latter are essential to worship. They are usually said to be Word (preached, read, and visible in the sacraments) and prayer, our divinely authorized response to the Word. Historically, we’ve defined circumstances to refer to things truly indifferent such as time, place, and posture. A circumstance is supposed to be something that is genuinely indifferent, i.e. something that neither adds to worship nor, if omitted, takes away from worship.

When I say, “If they’re only circumstances, let’s get rid of them” I get a reaction that suggests that they aren’t really adiaphora (indifferent) or circumstances at all. “You can’t smash that organ. Why Mr So and So donated money for that organ back in 1870.” Or “We can’t stop singing that hymn, after all, that’s my favorite hymn.” Or even more to the point, as one student said years ago, “When I hear the organ, I feel the presence of God.”

When we hear objections like these we can see that it’s quite unclear whether musical instruments function as mere circumstances. When I propose to change the time of worship no one says, “But 11AM means so much to me.” When I say, “Let us stand,” no one says, “But when I sit, I feel God’s presence.” If folk do become so attached to a time or a posture or a place, well, then it’s probably time for a change. Worship isn’t about time, place, or posture, it’s about being met by the living God and responding in the authorized ways.

People react to the mere suggestion of the removal of instruments as they do because instruments and music are affective. Worship has become so identified with the affect produced by the instruments (or our favorite scripture song) that to take them away seems almost blasphemous. We love our instruments in a way we don’t love posture, place, or time. There is a categorical difference between instruments and P, P and T. If we can’t change them or if they have become sacred, well, maybe they have become idols?

There’s a second problem with instruments that is even more fundamental than our experience and that is those instruments that folk love so much come with some pretty heavy baggage. The only biblical ground for instruments also entails the sacrifice of animals. In other words, how are we going to use Moses’ or David’s instruments without killing Aaron’s lambs or engaging in holy war? The same instruments we want to borrow from Moses come covered with the blood of bulls and goats and resonating with the sounds of holy war against your local Canaanite city. The old Reformed churches understood that the Mosaic covenant was totalitarian. It’s pretty hard to borrow just a little bit of Moses. Just ask the medieval church. How are we going to do what the medieval church did, borrow Mosaic elements (and for the same reasons) without gradually reproducing the Mosaic worship system just as the medieval church did?

Maybe the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries knew what they were doing when they rid our worship of instruments and of uninspired songs?

[This post appeared first, on the HB, in 2008]

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  1. Amen. I couldn’t agree more. The only problem is that churches willing to forsake what’s popular for what’s Biblical are few and far between. I’ve yet to find one in Philadelphia or the surrounding area.

    Great post.

  2. If you’re particularly speaking of Reformed churches that hold to a similar view of the Regulative principle, try the two RPCNA congregations in Philly:

    As with all RPCNA congregations, both exclusively sing Psalms acappella. My wife and I have visited both. It’s very encouraging to hear some of the children singing Psalms at the top of their lungs.

    Dr. Clark, you’ve delivered a challenging post once again. I can’t say that I’m completely convinced yet, but you have me thinking. If someone is going to argue that instruments are a circumstance, such sentimental arguments simply won’t pass muster for keeping them. However, I have a few questions:

    What about the argument that many people simply need instrumental accompaniment to follow the music? Would instrumental accompaniment be permissible even for a short period of time to aid an untrained congregation in their singing? What is the crucial difference between one note on pitch pipe and several on a piano?

    As I recall, not everyone seems to share your view of the Continental tradition and instruments. Acappella singing doesn’t seem to be particularly in vogue among the Dutch Reformed these days. Could you point me towards some reading supporting your perspective on Calvin and most of the Reformed’s attitude towards?

    Again, thanks for the challenging material and keep it coming!

  3. Amen, Dr. Clark,

    I am encouraged to see this view espoused from a Dutch Reformed perspective. I belong to the OPC, which doesn’t, corporately, share this view on the regulative principle. I do, however.

    I would like to second Bryan’s questions, however. I am not aware this view was popular among the Continental Reformed, and seems to be a majority Scottish Presbyterian view.
    I have also often heard of the pitch pipe used constituting the same as an instrument (often against adherents of the Church of Christ)

  4. Hi All,

    The view I’m trying to articulate, and which I explain at more length in Recovering the Reformed Confession (coming in Nov, 08, Dv), was the historic view held by the Reformed churches in Europe and England in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Dutch churches were acapella psalm-singing churches until the modern period.

    As to whether they are needed, I’m tempted to say that Jeroboam thought that the calves at Bethel and Dan were needed, but I won’t say it. I’ve been in congregations that didn’t have instruments, not even pitch pipes. Would it be a struggle? Sure. Would it take adaptation? Sure. Will it take a long time? Absolutely.

    We’re using instruments now. If we can gradually abandon them, I can live with that.

  5. Great Dr,
    I’ll be looking forward to that book, too!

    Now if only I could get you in touch with my OPC pastor and get this idea into his head, it’ll save me the time of constantly debating it with him!

  6. Very interesting. So would you say the only viable argument for instruments as circumstances would have to see their elimination as the ultimate goal? Does this also mean that many RPCNA congregations should aspire to eliminate pitch pipes?

    Looking forward with eager anticipation to the upcoming book.

  7. Thornwell has a nice definition of circumstances in his essay: Church Boards and Presbyterianism:

    “Circumstances are those concomitants of an action without which it either cannot be done at all, or cannot be done with decency and decorum.”

    If this is right, then this would mean that there may be situations where instruments are necessary (in the sense Thornwell means) and others where they are not. This also would allow the possibility of gradually abandoning instruments as they become less needed without giving up on the RPW.

  8. Excellent; very quotable!

    There’s a second problem with instruments that is even more fundamental than our experience and that is those instruments that folk love so much come with some pretty heavy baggage. The only biblical ground for instruments also entails the sacrifice of animals. In other words, how are we going to use Moses’ or David’s instruments without killing Aaron’s lambs or engaging in holy war? The same instruments we want to borrow from Moses come covered with the blood of bulls and goats and resonating with the sounds of holy war against your local canaanite city. The old Reformed churches understood that the Mosaic covenant was totalitarian. It’s pretty hard to borrow just a little bit of Moses. Just ask the medieval church. How are we going to do what the medieval church did, borrow Mosaic elements (and for the same reasons) without gradually reproducing the Mosaic worship system just as the medieval church did?

    • Yes, I have always understood the Mosaic code to be indivisible. But when was the distinction between Moral, Ceremonial and Judicial/Civil first made, and how was it argued from scripture?

  9. But Thornwell disagreed instrumentation in worship was a circumstance, as did may of his contemporary Southern Presbyterians–Dabney, Girardeau, Peck, Adger, etc. For these Southern Presbyterians’ take on this see for instance,
    John L. Girardeau, The Discretionary Power of the Church
    John B. Adger, A Denial Of Divine Right For Organs In Public Worship
    See the third link, Volume 12 Issue 3. July-September 2003.
    Or a direct link to the PDF:

    Thornwell has a nice definition of circumstances in his essay: Church Boards and Presbyterianism:

    “Circumstances are those concomitants of an action without which it either cannot be done at all, or cannot be done with decency and decorum.”

    If this is right, then this would mean that there may be situations where instruments are necessary (in the sense Thornwell means) and others where they are not. This also would allow the possibility of gradually abandoning instruments as they become less needed without giving up on the RPW.

  10. Out of curiosity, do we oust something like the Apostles Creed or the Gloria Patri simply b/c we’re never specifically commanded to use them?

  11. Hi Jay,

    FWIW, Calvin’s congregation sang the AC — I think they did it because he viewed it practically as quasi-inspired. That practice was not universal. It doesn’t appear in the Directory for Public Worship.

    I don’t repeat the Creed during the service. I believe it and Scripture repeatedly instructs us by example and command to confess the faith but not with uninspired words.

    I don’t have any problem with the pastor reciting the creed as an exposition of the Scriptures. That belongs to his office. Part of the problem is that we’ve confused the office of the congregation with the office of the minister.

    There’s no need for the gloria, which is a wonderful song, when we have biblical doxologies.

  12. Hi Bruce,

    Well we have example (e.g. Ex 15:1; 1 Chr 16:9) and precept in the typological revelation and in the NT (1 Cor 14:15; Heb 2:10).

    It is certain that the NT church sang when they gathered for worship and the there is abundant evidence that the post-apostolic church did so.

    We have no evidence that that the apostolic church used instruments and we know that the earliest sub- and post-apostolic churches did not use them.

  13. So a more practical question…
    I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said. Confessional integrity, Biblical fidelity, and a consistent regulativism demands exclusive psalmody. Practically, however, what are we to do when most of our churches do not embrace this kind of consistent regulativism? Would you regard it as sinful to sing un-inspired hymns which make use of accompanied musical pieces, when you’ve embraced exclusive Psalmody? Should we leave our churches, refuse to sing, etc. etc. etc.? I know these are highly personal questions which we all must answer for ourselves. Nevertheless, maybe some kind of practical advice would be helpful seeing that continental/historic Presbyterian worship is non-existent in todays Reformed world.

  14. Isn’t there a difference between saying that it might be wise to reduce our dependence on instruments (because wisdom should govern our use of circumstances) if they become an idolatry, and absolutely forbidding them for all new covenant believers in all times and places? I would agree with the first statement, and think that acappella singing would be a great discipline in many instances. However, I would be loth to utterly forbid a circumstance of worship used by Old Testament saints unless it could be clearly shown that it is fulfilled/changed with Christ’s coming. Congregational singing (with instruments) is introduced under Moses, in response to God’s deliverance. It is associated with tabernacle/temple worship under David. Passover is instituted under Moses, and we celebrate its new covenant homologue every week (or should). It seems that Passover and congregational singing are as closely tied to Mosaic religion as instruments. As far as I can tell, instruments are never separated from congregational singing at the gathering together of the people in the Old Testament. So it seems that the relative silence of the New Testament about instruments (harps in Rev. is all that comes to mind) is an argument for their use (as it is for infant baptism). It is not like the New Testament never uses the temple as a pattern for the church and its worship (1 Peter 2, for example).

  15. sacramentalpiety,

    I hope he has changed his mind on this, however I don’t think that R. Scott Clark is an exclusive psalmist but is an ‘inspired song onlyist’.

    Anyway; you ask, Would you regard it as sinful to sing un-inspired hymns which make use of accompanied musical pieces, when you’ve embraced exclusive Psalmody?

    My answer is as follows; Where I live there is no Reformed or Presbyterian church so I attend an evangelical Anglican church. Next week our NEW evening service is going to be unleashed. I was happy to find out that a new format for the service was planned but I was unhappy when I found out the content…what the new service now includes is a choir and even more musical instruments!!

    As a committed EPer and acapella I shall not be attending. I attend the 8am Holy Communion service which is Book of Common Prayer which has no singing. If that did not exist I would attend the 10am but I would not sing anything other than psalms.

  16. Dr. Clark, some WSC friends were talking…

    What is the Exegetical/Historical evidence that the congregation (non-office bearers) can only respond in worship with inspired words?

    Just curious.

    Another thought, were Peter’s words (Acts 3) inspired when he first preached them (as an office bearer) or were they only inspired when Luke recorded them? Could this be used as evidence of an office-bearer speaking uninspired words?


  17. SP,

    This is a difficult issue. I don’t have any brilliant insights. I guess it will take a very long time for there to be a reformation of the worship of the churches. This means that, unless there is an RP congregation or some other that observes the RPW closely, those who hold the RPW closely will have to worship in congregations that don’t observe it closely.

    I try to enter into worship as best I can. When the congregation sings an uninspired text I try to find an inspired text set to the same tune or in the same meter and to sing along quietly. BTW, I’m amazed how often even a randomly-chosen psalm (or other Scripture text) is more appropriate to corporate worship than the uninspired song being sung around me.

    I do think it’s better to worship in a mixed setting than not to worship. I try to hold my principles without becoming legalistic or arrogant or a general pain in the neck.

    Patience is the key. I really don’t think that most Reformed folk have ever been confronted by the RPW or have ever thought about it.


    I’m not an exclusive psalmodist. I’m not convinced by the EP arguments, but I don’t see any ground for requiring a congregation to sing or recite uninspired texts.


    So that’s the way it is eh? Ganging up against the old prof?

    I assume that Peter’s sermon was inspired. I don’t assume that every inspired word was recorded. What we have, of course, is Luke’s inspired synopsis of Peter’s sermon.

    The historical Reformed pattern is that the minister speaks the Word of God (by reading, sermon, and prayer) and the congregation respond with the Word of God. Read the historic Reformed liturgies. The sorts of congregational responses that have become common place in modern times don’t conform to older Reformed practice. I’ve no problem asking the congregation to sing or recite God’s Word but I can’t see how the consistory is authorized to require members to speak to God anything but his Word.

    What sort of exegetical evidence will the committee accept?

    Hi Jamie,

    The problem with your argument is that what we do with the Abrahamic promises is one thing and what we do with Moses is another. The Old Covenant was the Mosaic covenant and the Mosaic covenant, as a distinct epoch in redemptive history, is fulfilled. The history of trying to preserve elements of Mosaic worship is not promising.

    The NT appeals to the temple metaphorically, never literally, as a pattern for the church and never as a pattern for public services.

    Actually, we know a little bit about early Christian worship. We also know about the synagogues and the close connection between the early church and the Synagogue. Like it or not, the synagogue set the pattern for early Christian worship.

  18. Not really ganging up, more like a…think tank, if you will. I’m not sure what the committee will accept…

    It seems that the “committee” wanted to know where the scripture requires that non-office bearers respond only with inspired words.

  19. PRCalDude,

    You asked about Lee Irons’ thoughts on exclusive psalmody. I would be happy to put forward an EP rebuttal but I do not wish to hijack these comments. Let me know if you would be interested and I could post it in your blog.

    God bless,


  20. Hi Chris,

    Well, it’s a deduction drawn from the history of redemption, when the canon is being formed. Obviously, God’s people sang songs before the psalter was formed, as in the case of Moses and Miriam. I take it that they were, however, moved by the Spirit. This is how Calvin interpreted David’s dancing before the ark.

    We also know, however, what God’s people sang in corporate worship in the NT was psalms and we don’t have any idea that they sang anything that was uninspired. The question the church has asked implicitly since the close of the canonical period seems to be: where are we licensed to sing anything uninspired?

    The early Christian practice was to sing inspired texts. When we’ve been given divinely inspired texts for singing why would we want to improvise? Is divine worship any place for jazz, as it were?

    We need to be more critical of our self-indulgent, democratic, egalitarian age. We assume that God is interested in our self-expression. Why do we think that?

  21. Well, it might be that we won’t be able to agree because we have a different view of exactly how to relate to the Mosaic covenant. But my argument is just that instruments cannot be held guilty by association, since congregational singing is associated with the exact same things. So if we keep congregational singing, don’t we tacitly admit that at least one element of Mosaic worship is appropriate for new covenant believers?
    I am also a bit wary about drawing my worship practices from the synagogue. Doesn’t the RPW mean that we should make our case from Scripture? There seems to be a lack of data in the NT on this issue. My instinct is to think the solution lies in careful interpretation of the OT in light of Christ, rather than appeal to the synagogue.

  22. Hi Jamie,

    This is a good argument, but still fails, I think, on this point:

    It’s not the case congregational singing is purely Mosaic. It is not associated with the “old” and “fading” and “obsolete” covenant the way instruments are.

    Further, we know that the NT church sang psalms (and probably other inspired songs) and we have no evidence that the NT church used any musical instruments.

    We must be very careful about using the Mosiac and temple cultus as a pattern for Christian worship. The medieval church did that and we had to have a Reformation to get rid of the results.

  23. I am still unclear as to where instruments are associated with and old and obsolete covenant. Certainly not in Revelation, where they are associated with true heavenly worship and our future hope. The lack of evidence from the NT does not sway me any more on this issue then on baptism. I understand that you allow the Baptism argument as proceeding from the Abrahamic covenant, but do not allow similar arguments from the Mosaic, I am merely making a statement about the internal consistency of my argument.
    I agree that the temple cultus has been misused. Indeed, lets be careful. But this is the crucial point I don’t follow: If a priest said to me, “Why not say we are resacrificing Christ in the Mass?” I would not say “Sacrifice is Mosaic” but rather “Sacrifice is fulfilled in Christ, and no longer appropriate for new covenant worship” and I would point to Hebrews. I do not know of any such text to make that connection with musical instruments.

  24. Just some quotes from Reformed worthies!

    John Calvin writing on Psalm 33:

    “There is a distinction, however, to be observed here, that we may not indiscriminately consider as applicable to ourselves, every thing which was formerly enjoined upon the Jews. I have no doubt that playing upon cymbals, touching the harp and the viol, and all that kind of music, which is so frequently mentioned in the Psalms, was a part of the education; that is to say, the puerile instruction of the law: I speak of the stated service of the temple. For even now, if believers choose to cheer themselves with musical instruments, they should, I think, make it their object not to dissever their cheerfulness from the praises of God. But when they 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.”

    David Dickson on the inscription of Psalm 4

    From the inscription of this Psalm, which is the first wherein mention is made of the chief musicians, or musical instruments: learn 1. The praise of God and the joy of his Spirit, allowed on his people, surpass all expression which the voice of words can make; for this was signified by the plurality, and diversity of musical instruments (some of them sounding by being beaten, some of them by being blown,) superadded to the voice of singing in the prædagogy of Moses. 2. Albeit the ceremonial, figurative, and religious use of musical instruments be gone, with the rest of the Levitical shadows, (the natural use of them still remaining:) yet the vocal singing of Psalms in the church is not taken away, as the practice and doctrine of Christ and his apostles make evident; and so the voice of a musician in the public worship still is useful. 3. The Psalms are to be made use of with discretion, as the matter of the Psalm, and edification of the worshippers may require. And in the public, it is the called minister of the congregation’s place, to order this part of the worship with the rest; for this, the direction of the Psalms to the chief musician giveth ground.

    David Dickson on Psalm 150:3-5
    Here are other six exhortations, teaching the manner of praising God under the shadow of typical music, appointed in the ceremonial law. Whence learn,

    1. Albeit the typical ceremonies of musical instruments in God’s public worship, belonging to the pedagogy of the church, in her minority before Christ, be now abolished with the rest of the ceremonies; yet the moral duties shadowed forth by them, are still to be studied, because this duty of praising God, and praising him with all our mind, strength, and soul, is moral, whereunto we are perpetually obliged.

    2. The variety of musical instruments, some of them made use of in the camp, as trumpets; some of them sounding by lighter touching of them, as stringed instruments; some of them by beating on them more sharply, as tabrets, drums, and cymbals; some of them sounding by touching and blowing also, as organs: all of them giving some certain sound, some more quiet, and some making more noise: some of them having a harmony by themselves; some of them making a concert with other instruments, or with the motions of the body in dancing; some of them serving for one use, some of them serving for another, and all of them serving to set forth God’s glory, and to shadow forth the duty of worshippers, and the privileges of the saints; – the plurality and variety, I say, of these instruments, were fit to represent divers conditions of the spiritual man, and of the greatness of his joy to be found in God, and to teach what stirring up should be of the affections and powers of our soul, and one of another, unto God’s worship; what harmony should be among the worshippers of God, what melody each should make in himself, singing to God with grace in his heart, and to show the excellence of God’s praise, which no means nor instrument, nor any expression of the body joined thereunto, could sufficiently set forth: and thus much is figured forth in these exhortations to praise God with trumpet, psaltery, harp, timbrel, stringed instruments, and organs, loud and high sounding cymbals.

  25. You know if you were consistent with your hermeneutic you couldn’t teach at a seminary because seminaries are extrabiblical institutions , as are presbyteries, and denominations. If you wish to follow a rigid stance of the regulative principle do be consistent with it and rid yourself of all these things which would not fall in lie with your principle.

  26. Steven,

    A seminary isn’t a stated worship service.

    If I may, this is the thing I notice with critics of the RPW. They rarely understand it and they rarely understand it’s intent and historic application.

    The RPW was intended to apply to stated worship services. Full stop.

  27. Steven,

    As Dr. Clark has already mentioned, you misunderstand the RPW. For example, here is a definintion of the RPW from the Westminster Confession:

    . . . But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.

    Westminster Confession – Chapter XXI
    Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day

    Please notice that this pertains to worship and has nothing to do with seminaries, presbyteries or denominations.

  28. I understand it’s limited scope, but in it’s limited scope of only making it regulative for worship in contrast to other aspects of church it is being applied in an inconsistent manner. Might I humbly submit that the use of instruments maybe ordered according to the light of nature under the guidance of Scripture which would be in keeping with WCF 1:VI:

    VI. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

  29. J.R. Polk the WCF confesses that the whole counsel of God is revealed in the Bible concerning all things needed for life and faith. If seminaries, presbyteries, and denominations are necessary for the church why are they not revealed in Scripture. If they are not necessary then would it not be best to conform your practice to the biblical standard and get rid of them?

  30. The training of future leaders is not revealed in Scripture? The study and learning of God’s word is not revealed in Scripture? The meeting together of believers to conduct the affairs of the Church is not revealed in Scripture? Doesn’t the section of the WCF that you quote mention that not only are things that pertain to life and faith, etc., expressly set down in Scripture but that they may also by good and necessary consequence be deduced from Scripture?

  31. Jamie,

    It’s true that instruments were created before the Mosaic-Davidic epochs (Gen 4:21), and in the pre-Mosaic period they are not described as having religious significance but in redemptive history they are closely associated with the “old covenant” (as defined in 2 Cor 3 and Heb 7-10) or temple cultus. I’m thinking of places such as Ps 33:2. I think if you do a word search for words such as lyre, timbrel, harp, tambourine, you will see that they take on religious significance in old covenant worship.

    As to silence in the NT, there’s a little more than that. We’re there instruments in the upper room when Jesus instituted the Supper? We have good reason to believe that, when Peter said “the promise is to you and to your children” he’s referring to infant initiation. We have good reason to believe that at least some of the households in Acts included infants. We have no such positive data or implications for instruments. I don’t know of anyone who thinks that the NT church worshipped using instruments.

    There’s no question that there were no instruments in early sub-apostolic and post-apostolic worship. The letter of Pliny the Younger (c. 110) makes no reference to instruments. Yes, he mentions “hymns” but what else would a pagan make of Christian songs to Christ? He interpreted them via Roman categories. The early Christians all rejected instruments as typological (Jewish) and pagan. That fact must be given due weight when assessing 1st century (apostolic) practice. The setting wasn’t so radically different. The early fathers had no information that the apostles used instruments. Indeed, they understood the opposite to be true. Instruments only came back with the resuscitation of the priesthood in the medieval church and even then they were controversial.

    Your argument from the Revelation is used frequently. Here’s my response: Do you really want to employ this hermeneutic? The Rev. is the most symbolic book in the entire NT. It employs imagery from the Mosaic and Davidic (and later) epochs in redemptive history to illustrate New Covenant and eschatological realities. We’re not to think that Jesus is sitting on an actual throne–under which there are “souls”–any more than we are to think that there are literal instruments or that literal blood will rise to a literal bridle etc.

    Second, those images are not given as norms for new covenant worship or life. They are given to create impressions of heavenly realities and to paint a picture of inter-adventual life under the cross for the people of Christ as they wait for their Redeemer to return.

    I dont’ agree that there is a proper or safe way to use or employ the temple cultus in the New Covenant except, as the NT does, as a figure or metaphor for the church. We are the temple (1 Pet 4:14). We’re never called to worship as the temple did. The hermeneutic you’re suggesting is the very same hermeneutic used by the medieval church to justify the resuscitation of the priesthood and sacerdotal ministry.

    This line of argumentation is one of the major reasons why the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries abandoned all the Mosaic/temple/theocratic elements in worship reintroduced by the Roman and medieval church. They understood the totalitarian nature of the Mosaic epoch. They understood that it’s hard to have a little of the temple cultus in worship without having a lot of it.

    You are right that the sacrifices were fulfilled in Christ. So were the instruments. If you’re arguing that because Hebrews doesn’t mention any instruments specifically aren’t you ignoring the the synecdoche at work in Hebrews? Your implied argument strikes me a special pleading. The intent and function of the whole argument is to sweep (e.g. Heb 7:11-14) the entire OT cultus and you hope to rescue instruments because they aren’t mentioned specifically? Really? The whole spirit of Hebrews is to point Jewish Christians away from Moses and toward Christ and the New Covenant. Wouldn’t they have been justifiably confused if the pastor to the Hebrews said, “Yes it’s all fulfilled in Christ, except the instruments. Now, let’s follow along as the musicians….”

    The Roman priest would say, “We don’t have literal sacrifices. We have memorial sacrifices. You want to borrow from the temple cultus by way of instruments and we want to borrow from it by way of memorial sacrifices. What’s the difference?”

    Indeed, the Roman priest has a point. His borrowing is at least somewhat figurative. Musical instruments aren’t figurative, they’re literal.

  32. Regarding Revelation 5: In Worshipping with the Elders (in Heaven) Derek Thomas makes the important point that “Drawing too many conclusions from descriptive passages is hermeneutically perilous. Revelation 5 is descriptive of heavenly worship and not necessarily prescriptive of worship here on earth.”

  33. Dr. Clark,

    I found your article very encouraging. It seems like this position is the minority position, so it is good to find others, especially those of your calibre, who promote it.

    Back around the turn of the century (the 20th that is) there were two Psalm-singers conferences. One in Chicago, I believe, and the other in Belfast. The papers from both conferences are now in book form. I wonder if that sort of thing would be possible/profitable today? What are your thoughts?

  34. Yes, I’m familiar with that material. Some of it could be useful. It would have to re-printed selectively. I don’t think that reprinting works will do the job, however. It only re-enforces the notion that the RPW is antiquated. We need to be re-stating and re-arguing the RPW in our time, in our own context.

  35. I should have been more clear. I am not asking about republishing the books, I was asking about holding psalm-singing conferences today. I think though that you partially answered my question in stating that we need to re-argue the RPW in out time.
    Would you speak at such a conference?

  36. Also, the argument from Revelation is intended to demonstrate that your claim “The only biblical ground for instruments also entails the sacrifice of animals. ” is false.

    Which it does.

  37. Dr. Clark,

    As always, thought-provoking comments…

    I don’t suppose that you haven’t thought about this, but how can you sing Psalm 33, 81, 144, or 150 that explicitly prescribe the use of instruments in worship? After conducting a brief word study, it seems over 13% of the Psalter (at least 20 of the 150) either implicitly or explicitly calls for the use of instruments. Assuming for a moment that Psalms’ inclusion of instruments doesn’t necessarily make them normative for us today, how can we (in good conscience) sing Psalms that do implore us to use instruments? Do we momentarily suspend our agreement with the Psalter as we worship? I suppose the reason is similar to how we can sing Psalms that speak of bloody animal sacrifice (5, 66, 118, 141)?

    Any thoughts?

  38. Hi Matt,

    This was the question I put to Bob Godfrey back in 1990 that got me headed down this road. I complained that he wants us to sing psalms but he won’t let us do what they command. He replied that, on that hermeneutic, we should have to start slaughtering bulls and goats. He was exactly right.

    We do the same thing with those psalms that we do with the imprecatory psalms. We read them through a Christological grid and we understand that Christ is the Israel of God, he is the faithful one. He has undergone the the holy war for us. He has prosecuted and been the recipient of it.

    We invoke imprecations not against our earthly neighbors, with whom we are no longer at war, but against sin, the flesh, and the devil. The war is with ourselves.

    So, with the instruments, we understand them to be typological pictures/illustrations of the New Covenant inauguration of the age to come and of the consummation of the age to come. This is how they function in the Revelation– they don’t function as patterns of New Covenant worship. The Apostle John is not a Judaizer. He’s not contradicting Hebrews and taking us back to the earthly temple. Jesus is our Temple and, by union with Chirst, we ARE the temple, just as we are the circumcision (per Philippians).

    In short, they become figures and metaphors. We treat them the way we treat the blood of bulls and goats and the Mosaic-Davidic (etc) civil laws. We glean the general equity (the spiritual teaching) from them, but we don’t re-institute instruments any more than we re-institute animal sacrifices, holy war, or the civil law.

  39. Dr. Clark-

    Good discussion here, thanks for all the time you have spent answering questions.

    I always get hung-up on the instruments issue. Even if one is a canonical songs-onlyist, How do we go about composing tunes to the canonical words? It is obvious the Bible does not give us any guidelines about the tunes, yet tunes are very affective and very circumstantial (bound to change) and instruments are used to compose these tunes that we sing. I just have trouble seeing how the Bible prescribes the style of acappella as the normative style that canonical words must be sung in? I just think that instruments aid in the singing of canonical songs with regards to pitch and tempo.

  40. Thanks for quick reply and clear explanation.

    As long as this conversation is continuing, I have two more brief questions:

    1. Has anyone ever suggested that musical instruments are a common grace feature, not simply a feature limited to the Mosaic institution? How would you respond to this suggestion?

    2. As the RPW applies to how we worship in “stated services,” I assume that you wouldn’t have a problem with using instruments (or singing non-inspired songs) for worship outside of stated services (family worship, chapel services, etc.). Is this correct?


  41. Hi Austin,

    This is a good question.

    1. The fact that something is affective doesn’t make it wrong or right. My point about the affective quality of instrumental music is that it has made it more difficult for us to be self-critical since we define worship as an intense affective experience. I make this observation to explain how, even though they are often defended as mere circumstances and as adiaphora, when it comes to treating them as adiaphora, we find out that they aren’t really. I don’t think we’re being completely honest about instruments. If they were mere circumstances, mere adiaphora, then we could be rid of them with nothing added or lost to the service. Clearly most proponents of instruments don’t regard them that way.

    2. I agree that there are no clear biblical guidelines regarding tunes. I don’t know whether anyone knows anything about what sorts of tunes were used in the Apostolic period. We do have some information about the sorts of tunes used by the early medieval church. We reasonably believe that the apostolic church sang psalms (and other inspired songs) to familiar tunes.

    3. As to the utility of instruments, I’ve seen them help and I’ve seen them hurt congregational singing. Frankly, “good” congregational singing is a subjective judgment. I think we care about it a lot more than Christ does. We might be shocked by what passed for singing in the early church. Trying to meet a cultural standard (which i’ve seen shift in my own life) as to what is “good” singing is not a sufficient reason to employ instruments if they haven’t been commanded.

    4. We know that the Apostolic church sang. We know that Jesus and the disciples sang psalms at the institution of the Lord’s Supper and they did it acapella. I take it from those examples that the tunes are not bound to the temple cultus. I don’t know that instruments are essential to composing acapella tunes. I think that’s a supposition.

    5. From the pov of the RPW, acapella singing is not a “style” any more than worshipping without the blood of bulls and goats. This discussion isn’t about preferences or styles. It’s about doing that and only that in worship required by God. The question is whether instruments are so associated with the temple cultus (as the blood of bulls and goats is associated with the temple cultus) so as to have been fulfilled by Christ.

  42. Hi Matt,

    That’s right. I don’t think the RPW is intended to govern anything but stated services.

    I agree that instruments are probably rightly assigned to common grace, but there is a sort of universality (not to say “common grace” exactly; but to say that they are a sort of natural phenomena) to animal sacrifice and holy war too. That doesn’t mean that we are free to employ them in the service of God in the new covenant.

    In general, the fact that something is creational or natural does not necessarily commend it for use in divine worship.

  43. Using instruments or singing non-inspired songs for worship outside of stated services such as family worship, chapel services, youth fellowship, Christmas programs, etc. will surely have a way of degenerating into the kind of irreverent and disorderly evangelical worship we have today.

    Isn’t this how today’s Lord’s Day worship deformed? Start with one or two contemporary songs, add a keyboard or guitar, and soon you have a whole band entertaining the people of God. Man… a factory of idols.

  44. Of course in the (very) early church, you have the confusion of the temple still existing. I have heard it questioned whether there was any congregational singing in the synagogue before 70 AD (do you know of any examples?). It is interesting that singing isn’t even mentioned in Acts 2. But if instruments are a circumstance, I can see why wisdom would dictate that they not be used in a culture where they are totally associated with pagan worship. So the question is really whether instruments are not used because of the new covenant nature of the worship, or the cultural context.
    Part of the difficulty of interpreting the meaning of instruments in Revelation is that they do not have an obvious anti-type. The anti-type for sacrifice or incense, for example, is obvious from Scripture. So I would tell the Roman Catholic that we have the reality, so don’t go back to the shadows. But to make this argument for instruments, it is important that I can point to type and anti-type. Also for our understanding of their usage in Revelation, we need to know why John added them in there.

  45. Jamie,

    Just some brief comments.

    (1) The antitype of instruments is, in general, praise as noted by Gill writing that “they were typical of the spiritual melody made in the hearts of God’s people”. The trumpets were blown over the burnt offering. This pictured the preaching of the gospel of Christ’s death. According to John Gill the trumpet “was typical of the Gospel, which gives a certain and joyful sound, and is the cause and means of praising God (Isa 27:13)”.

    (2) A good question regarding psalm singing in the synagogue. Synagogues were established in Leviticus 23 whilst psalmody came very much later so I do not think that singing was an element of worship in the synagogue. However we can be sure that the Jews sang psalms outside of the Temple (Ps. 137).

    Some more quotes, this time from the early church:

    Chrysostom writes: “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. Here there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body. For when the flesh no longer lusts against the Spirit, but has submitted to its orders and has been led at length into the best and most admirable path, then will you create a spiritual melody.”

    Clement of Alexandria: “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 wingless feasts, for they arc more suited for beasts and for the class of men that is least capable of reason than for men. The Spirit, to purify the divine liturgy from any such unrestrained revelry chants: ‘Praise Him with sound of trumpet,” for, in fact, at the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise again; praise Him with harp,’ for the tongue is a harp of the Lord; ‘and with the lute. praise Him.’ understanding the mouth as a lute moved by the Spirit as the lute is by the plectrum; ‘praise Him with timbal and choir,’ that is, the Church awaiting the resurrection of the body in the flesh which is its echo; ‘praise Him with strings and organ,’ calling our bodies an organ and its sinews strings, for front them the body derives its Coordinated movement, and when touched by the Spirit, gives forth human sounds; ‘praise Him on high-sounding cymbals,’ which mean the tongue of the mouth which with the movement of the lips, produces words. Then to all mankind He calls out, ‘Let every spirit praise the Lord,’ because He rules over every spirit He has made. In reality, man is an instrument arc for peace, but these other things, if anyone concerns himself overmuch with them, become instruments of conflict, for inflame the passions. The Etruscans, for example, use the trumpet for war; the Arcadians, the horn; the Sicels, the flute; the Cretans, the lyre; the Lacedemonians, the pipe; the Thracians, the bugle; the Egyptians, the drum; and the Arabs, the cymbal. But as for us, we make use of one instrument alone: only the Word of peace by whom we a homage to God, no longer with ancient harp or trumpet or drum or flute which those trained for war employ.”

    Eusebius: “Of old at the time those of the circumcision were worshipping with symbols and types it was not inappropriate to send up hymns to God with the psalterion and cithara and to do this on Sabbath days… We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living cithara with spiritual songs. The unison 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.”

  46. In response to Jamie, it may not be clear to you now concerning the meaning of the instruments in OT worship, but if you sat under John Calvin’s ministry you would not have a doubt about it.
    Here is a lecture outlining the use of instruments in worship by going to Calvin’s sermons on the psalms.

    The lecture is by Dennis Prutow a minister in the RPCNA.
    Acappella Singing in Worship, Part Two

  47. “Such musical instruments must be excluded from our wingless feasts, for they arc more suited for beasts and for the class of men that is least capable of reason than for men.”

    Clement is WAAAY overreaching here, and undermining his argument.

  48. “Here there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body.”

    Sounds like “touch not, handle not”, which is will worship. 🙂

  49. of course, that Clement quote ALSO reads like serious allegorization. I wonder why we want *that* hermeneutics either.

  50. “I don’t repeat the Creed during the service. ”

    So if you’re in a church that does, you stand there is silent protest?

  51. “I don’t repeat the Creed during the service. ”

    “So if you’re in a church that does, you stand there is silent protest?”

    When does *abstention*, negatively speaking, become as disruptive as those who *practice*, positively speaking, what is fit in their own eyes? If the argument is one of conscience, is one out of line to kneel because he thinks it fitting when everyone else is standing, raise hands when everyone esle has them down? How does abstention not violate “all things done in a good and decent order”?

    If one abstains from using his mouth to repeat “uninspired texts,” may one abstain from using his ears to listen to “uninspired texts” (i.e. the sermon)?

  52. Dr. Clark-

    Thanks for the help.

    To clarify, I am confused about the “tunes” not being a style, I do understand the point about acapella not being a style. But someone writes the tunes, we don’t have notes in the Bible, whoever writes them is bound to a certain style and preference. What would different cultures make of our western baroque tunes, most likely they would find them out-of-place and dull (especially in the east).

    So my question, You mention that the early church sang psalms to familiar tunes, does this mean they adopted “common” tunes from the culture and placed the canonical words in them?

  53. Hi Austin,

    I think/assume that the apostolic church used appropriate tunes at hand. The early sub- and post-apostolic church was certainly aware that the music they used in worship sent signals about their intentions. The deliberately refrained from some types of music and from all instruments because of pagan associations.

    I agree that we don’t have notes in the Bible. There’s no question whether tunes evolve. I’m not arguing, as some do, for only the Genevan tunes or anything like that. I’ve argued here that we need appropriate contemporary tunes for the psalter for congregational singing.

    My point about style and preference is that the choice between obeying the law of God (second commandment; the source of the RPW) cannot be reduced to matters of style and preference. I realize that African-American congregations obeying the RPW may look different from Anglo congregations obeying the RPW. That’s fine. That’s a negotiation we all have to make in our settings. What is not negotiable is the distinction between elements and circumstances and the principle that that we do only what is commanded, that we worship God in the way he has commanded and in no other way.

    I understand that not everyone– probably not many– folk will follow me on my journey back to the historic understanding of the RPW. I don’t claim to have it all figured out. There aren’t many models around to follow, quite frankly. I’m still learning and reading, but it’s time to start. Most of our churches are heading in the wrong direction. They’re aping pentecostalism or Anglicanism or even, in some cases, Romanism. Better to ape Geneva and get some things wrong than not to try.

  54. PD,

    You’ve missed the distinction I’ve made between offices. The office of the laity is to hear the Word of God preached and to repeat God’s Word to him. It is the office of the minister to speak the Word of God.

    As to disruption, that’s a matter of “decently and in order.” No consistory can require anyone to violate the law of God. At the same time no one has the right to disrupt a service, even one that is observing the RPW imperfectly. So far it hasn’t been a problem.

    If I’m in a setting or situation when the RPW is not being observed, I sing when I may and participate whenever possible. I’m there to worship the living God not to make statements. If I can find a psalm or other portion of God’s Word set to the same meter, I sing along quietly — it’s probably less disruptive than someone singing a part loudly.

  55. RE: Clement. Yes, I’m just wrapping up a series in the adult class at OURC on the apostolic fathers. There’s a lot in Clement that we wouldn’t want to follow, but he and several other sources do witness to early Christian worship practice.

  56. “When I say, “If they’re only circumstances, let’s get rid of them” I get a reaction that suggests that they aren’t really adiaphora (indifferent) or circumstances at all.”

    did it occur to you that when you got those reactions, they’re not really defending their church organs, but rather their right to judge a circumstance in their own wisdom?

    and when you say “let’s get rid of them”, aren’t you also using your own wisdom in judging the circumstance of instruments? and the fact that you’re bothered by the presence of instruments, doesn’t that mean they aren’t “adiaphora” (to borrow your term) to you as well?

    if i may reverse your quote to clarify my point above:
    “I make this observation to explain how, even though [instruments] are often defended as mere circumstances and as adiaphora, when it comes to treating the [absence of instruments] as adiaphora, we find out that they aren’t really. I don’t think we’re being completely honest about the [absence of instruments]. If they were mere circumstances, mere adiaphora, then we could [have] them with nothing added or lost to the service. Clearly most proponents of the [absence of instruments] don’t regard them that way.”

    that’s what makes a circumstance a circumstance. it can or can not be there. you think instruments shouldn’t be there, others do. end of story.

  57. Jumper,

    It won’t work to reduce this to a matter of preference. An element is a divine institution. Our response to God (prayer) is a divine institution. We are not entitled to make up additions to elements or to revise instruments or to make up new circumstances.

    In other posts on this topic I’ve made the point that a circumstance is not religious. It is a time, a place, and things of that sort. It has nothing to do with how we respond to God but only when. A language is a circumstance but slaughtering bulls and goats or playing instruments isn’t a circumstance.

  58. Dr. Clark, you put too much stock on people’s “reactions” to the thought of taking away their “precious circumstance” of music/instruments. it might seem that due to their intense reactions, they consider music/instruments to be more than just a circumstance. however, i think the reaction is more because of them being taken out of their “comfort zones”.

    you say music is affective, but so is language. i bet you’ll have a riot in your congregation as well if you start preaching in esperanto. does that then make language an element (or an aspect/extension of it)? hardly.

    still consider language not affective? don’t tell me you’ve never slept through a sermon in your whole life!

    anyway, please pardon my tone. i think you’re one of the most gracious and humble reformed ministers i’ve encountered. it’s just that i got to this post of yours via Nollie’s blog. you should share with him some of your writings, specifically the one about jerks. i cannot, for the life of me, understand how he could have graduated from WSCal still in the “cage-phase”.

  59. Hi Jumper,

    Yes, people would rightly object if I started preaching in Esperanto because it would violate God’s law just as if I started slaughtering bulls during the service. It’s not as if Scripture does not speak to this. The Apostle Paul gave very clear instructions on this.

    The equivocation between language and instrumental music doesn’t work.

    I’m not sure you understand the RPW or I’m not sure we understand it the same way. As I understand the historic understanding of WCF 21 and HC 96, we confess that, regarding elements, we may only do that in Scripture that which is required by God’s Word. To be sure we always do so in circumstances that are ordered by the light of nature (time, place, language), but the great sin of the modern period is the way we’ve conflated circumstances and elements.

    We’ve majored in time and place (circumstances) and, in my view, corrupted the elements with will worship (Calvin’s word).

    As to Nollie, I think he’s reacting to what he’s seeing in the Philippines. If you have trouble with his tone, maybe you should speak to him privately? Perhaps he doesn’t realize how he’s coming across? I know him to be a gentle and sweet soul.

  60. I have to say that my mind on this issue is slowly changing. That the musical instruments used in the Temple was regulated no-one doubts but (a) did Israel worship Yahweh outside of the temple? (b) if so were musical instruments used? (c) if so what warrant was there for their use?

    One example is that of Exodus 15. (a) Is this worship? Yes. (b) were musical instruments used? Yes. (c) what warrant was there for their use? Hmmmmm……

    • Richard:

      In Exodus 15 we see that Miriam leads the women in worship through inspired testimony (she was a prophetess). The timbrel and dancing appears to function in the same way it did in other OT contexts when prophesying took place: 1 Samuel 10:5-6, 19:20; 2 Kings 3:15ff.;
      1 Chronicles 25:3. Depending on how we understand these verses, the instruments act as an impetus to prophesy though not necessarily to accompany the prophecy itself.

      In any case, it appears that these are particular redemptive-historical events that do not set a precedent for the use of instruments in non-prophesying contexts.

  61. Dr. Clark,

    (1)Do you think the reformers would allow an instrument in church provided it was supplied to only aid a congregation, who is otherwise untrained and not talented enough to sing acapella, and not to supplant or be the main focus of the singing?

    (2)What options does a small church plant being “coherced” and “pressured” by its mother church to implement the use of an instrument have?

    (3)Do you think that the poor psalm-singing of a small group of people is somehow less glorious than the organ-drowned-uninspired-hymn singing of a larger group?

    I’m in no way trying to get you in trouble with anybody. You’re more than welcome to reply privately to my email at

  62. Hi Victor,

    These are fair questions which I’ve had to face in my own ministry.

    First, we shouldn’t assume that the Reformers did not face the very same questions. They did.

    Many of our congregations today are probably, mostly, no more or less musically trained than those in the 16th century.

    There are ways to address these problems. One way is to train the people or at least some of the people to sing (as Calvin did with the children), even if the minister is the one who has to do it. There’s usually one or two people in the congregation who can read music and who can carry a tune well enough to help others learn how to sing. It might take some catechism/sunday school classes to do it, but it can be done.

    Sometimes when we give up instruments the people actually begin to sing better because they don’t rely on the instruments as much.

    We shouldn’t assume that our aesthetics are as important as the Lord’s will. We should obey the latter and the former will come.

    If a congregation or consistory/session/steering committee becomes convinced that the historic Reformed practice is correct, they should petition the sponsoring church for liberty to follow the Word of God as understood by the Confession and the Directory for Public Worship. I cannot see how a sponsoring congregation could refuse such an appeal. It’s utterly Protestant! If they cannot see their way to allow then I suppose an appeal to a broader/higher judicatory might be in order.

    On the other hand. prudence might dictate submission to the sponsoring church until you are on your own. Reformation according to God’s Word is difficult business and messy. We might not get where we think we should arrive right away. It might take time, it might take months or years.

    I hope your reformation goes peacefully, quietly, and graciously.

  63. Thank you Dr. Clark. You provide wise insight. If you don’t mind, I will like to submit this suggestion to the leaders of my church.

  64. Has anyone considered what the music has to say?

    The Instruments and the way in which they are played have as much or more to say than actual words!

    In singing the praise of God to the “beat of war drums”, people all to often feel the call of the music, and forget the words.

    I love music… the flute, the organ, the resonance of a grand building. It can easily make you “feel god”.

    But, if one wants to hear God or know God… Ithink you should leave the guitar, and even the organ, at home.

    Just a laymans views on the power of instruments

  65. Nice to read your blog Scott. Well expressed and to the point.

    If one has such a hopeless bunch musically that they need an instrument, does the instrument improve the situation more than a good song leader would, or does the music simply cover up our poor singing?

    If there are circumstances where an instrument is thought necessary, keep it to a piono. Why do we have go the organ/orchestra route?

    Keep stirring!!

    Greetings from Down Under! Melbourne (Australia)

  66. WoW! I missed this post. Amen, Amen.

    I will see what my Pastor thinks of it.

    He does have your book though. I hope that will stir up some good conversation and progress toward reformation as well.


    • Steve,

      Of course, but you missed the point. In our confession we distinguish between what must be done in worship and what may be done. We’re supposed to be careful to guard Christian freedom by not requiring in worship anything that is not commanded. The introduction of instruments in worship is justified on the premise that it’s adiaphora but when one says, “Okay, let’s get rid of it” we find that it wasn’t really indifferent at all. In that case, what is it?

  67. There is evidence that the use of instruments was prohibited in the (Dutch Reformed) Continental churches from early on in the Reformation:

    “Whatever may be the practice in recent times of the churches of Holland, the Synods of the Reformed Dutch Church, soon after the Reformation, pronounced very decidedly against the use of instrumental music in public worship. The National Synod at Middleburg, in 1581, declared against it, and the Synod of Holland and Zealand, in 1594, adopted this strong resolution: “That they would endeavor to obtain of the magistrate the laying aside of organs, and the singing with them in the churches, even out of the time of worship, either before or after sermons.” The Provincial Synod of Dort also inveighed severely against their use. Some testimonies are added from distinguished continental theologians. Pareus, commenting on 1 Cor. 14:7, says: “In the Christian church the mind must be incited to spiritual joy, not by pipes and trumpets and timbrels, with which God formerly indulged his ancient people on account of the hardness of their hearts, but by psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”
    -John Girardeau, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church

  68. Interesting point about the term “a capella”- it didn’t originally mean “without instruments”. It meant that the instruments doubled the vocal parts. That was as in opposition to the later Renaissance practice of polyphony where the instruments would be independent of the vocal parts. So the fact that “a capella” means “like in the chapel” doesn’t really help your case, Dr. Clark. I would argue that instruments that play parts independent of the vocals, in which case the instruments are performing as opposed to simply assisting the singers, is indeed a violation of the regulative principle, but instruments which simply aid the singers are a circumstance.

    And people get sinfully attached to circumstances all the time (what hymnals we use, pews vs chairs, color of the carpet, etc). The fact that someone gets sinfully attached to something is no evidence that it’s a circumstance or not a circumstance. People get sinfully attached to everything.

    • They didn’t become “circumstances” until the mid-20th century, when “circumstance” was re-defined to include them. For the Reformed churches, in the Reformation, they were typological and thus fulfilled by Christ’s obedience.

  69. Dr. Clark,

    Any comments on T. David Gordon’s thoughts on the RPW, specifically having to to do with form as explained in his book review of Gore from Modern Reformation and longer version in WTJ?

    Quote: “A “form” is the lexical (or, possibly, musical) content of a given element. Thus, if one determines that prayer is an element of worship, the decision to employ the “Lord’s Prayer” is a decision regarding “form;” not an element or circumstance.”


    • Hi Jack,

      I don’t think I disagree with his point re a distinction in forms but the point vs Gore is what happens to the RPW. I argued in RRC that, in slightly different ways, he and JMF turned the RPW on its head. So, I think my critique is foundational. The principle must be used the way it was intended to be used.

  70. For our small congregation not full of robust singers we take what I consider to be the musically minimalist approach of simple piano accompaniment. It is a help, not a centerpiece or focus, and I daresay it would be less conducive to worship to go without it.

    Frankly, I wonder if some of our problems stem from a too-high idea of what singing is. We think of operas, pop songs, professional singers, etc., but I doubt that is anywhere near the concept of “singing” that we get in the scriptures. Here we would need historical information: is it possible that “singing” was really more like a rhythmic chant? If so, we have a problem of our own creation as we wrestle with this element of worship.

    But rhythmic chanting will be so alienating to the average American pew-sitter that people would go elsewhere just for that reason.

    Easy answers? Bright lines? Other than making the singing the focus and not making it or instruments mere entertainment, maybe this isn’t an area over which which to hammer each other with absolute positions. (I’m not saying anyone here is doing that, but you know it is done.)

  71. One can find attachment to instruments even on the public face of many churches. I’ve browsed the websites of Reformed and Presbyterian churches and have found that many have pictures of guitars on their worship pages. Maybe it has to do with the prevailing view of worship as an “experience.”

  72. Hi Dr Clark,

    Long time listener, first time caller…

    Allow me to begin by saying I really appreciate your blog, and as a British (confessionally Reformed) Anglican, often find myself drawing on your thoughts to try and move discussion with my evangelical brothers and sisters toward more historic Reformed considerations. In particular, trying to get people here to recover psalm singing in worship services can be a bit of a battle, but one worth fighting.

    My interest has been piqued by this post of yours, because I’m not sure I follow the argument about instruments and circumstances. I wonder if you could trace out for me your thoughts on the question of metrical psalm arrangement, and melodies that use a Western tonal system.

    It was around the Renaissance-Baroque-Classical periods that the West began to develop the tonal system as we have it today (major/minor keys, chord progressions, etc), and all the psalters from which I have sung (including the one I used when, whilst visiting the USA, I attended Oceanside URC) use metrically arranged psalms (jigging the words to fit English rhythm and rhyme) and the tonal system. Music that sounds like acceptable music to our ears is nothing like the music of David’s Israel, or even the NT church. Why is it that this, the introduction of (relatively) modern musicality, and the re-arrangement of wording in psalms, is in your view permitted, but the use of instruments is not? Where in Scripture is it required that word and music be altered in order to fit the sensibilities of the particular congregation?

    Indeed, looking at the (inspired) superscriptions of some psalms, some would argue that a particular tune is in fact required; for instance, from ‘The Book of Psalms for Worship’ we can sing Psalm 45, with words changed to “My heart is stirred and overflows/Upon a noble theme I sing,/And, like a skilful writer’s pen/My tongue will speak about the King” and in ¾ time in Gminor. The words are not a strict translation of the original, and time signatures and keys were unknown to the psalmist, who instructed that it be sung ‘according to Lilies.’ Why can we do this, but not use a piano to accompany our singing?

    Thanks again for all you do. You may have addressed this elsewhere, and if so, I’m sorry for not picking up on it!

  73. Dr. Clark,

    I have only recently begun to look into the use of creeds in worship. Could you recommend a good resource that supports your view of not reciting them?

    • Hi Caleb,

      I have struggled with this over the years but studying Calvin helped. I don’t remember writing against using them but if I have, I’ve changed my mind.

      More later

    • Dr. Clark,

      Ok. I was referring to a snippet from one of your comments back in 2008 which came across that this was your position. Please let me know if I understood what you said correctly. Also, I will study Calvin. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Here’s the quote; “The historical Reformed pattern is that the minister speaks the Word of God (by reading, sermon, and prayer) and the congregation respond with the Word of God. Read the historic Reformed liturgies. The sorts of congregational responses that have become common place in modern times don’t conform to older Reformed practice. I’ve no problem asking the congregation to sing or recite God’s Word but I can’t see how the consistory is authorized to require members to speak to God anything but his Word.” From your comment on here on May 4th, 2008

  74. Hi Dr. Clark,
    You recommended to us our Psalter and we use that for our family worship, almost exclusively.
    My question is this, what about the tunes? Should they not also be inspired in order for the argument for exclusivity to be logical?
    I ask, because this is where the obstacle is for me to go full tilt toward exclusivity in Worship.


  75. @ Caleb,

    I still agree with that. I can see a case for using an ecclesiastically sanctioned summary of the Word as the Word. In Calvin’s liturgy St Pierre’s sang the creed that way. Ideally, perhaps, the minister would read the creed/confession but I don’t think my mind has changed otherwise. I still think the congregation is commanded to reply to the Word with the Word.


    Hi! No, tunes are circumstances determined by the light of nature. That’s why it’s important to distinguish between elements (Word and prayer) and circumstances (times, places, and tunes).

    Here’s an intro to this idea:

    Here’s a discussion of tunes:

    Here’s a related post:

    We have no certainty about what tunes were used in the OT or in the NT. We should use wisdom in picking tunes appropriate for the psalm/scripture text, which are appropriate for public worship.

    • Hi,
      This is very helpful. However you state your are an “exclusive-canonicalist.” Where does that leave the creeds and confessions in the place of Worship?


    • Hi Dr. Clark,
      Thanks so much for your dialogue with me on this. We both appreciate your posts.
      Just some stuff that I have listened to and read that were helpful for me as far as music is concerned:
      Also, have you read “What to listen for in Music” by Aaron Copeland?
      It is an excellent and guide to for anyone to better learn “how to listen to music.”

      Although his pure word renditions are wonderful, the musical aspect is not conducive to Worship or corporate singing. Which is too bad since he has lots of different types of music for each Psalm.
      In any case we listen to it as our extra music, driving in the car, at home
      As a tool, we have learned by memory almost fifty Psalms, and quite enjoyable so.


  76. Dr Clark said: “I can see a case for using an ecclesiastically sanctioned summary of the Word as the Word”
    Amen, I would have to agree with that. For example, in the PCA we use the Trinity Hymnal. Prayerfully, God in his providence will lead the Ecclesiastical Sanctioners to include “Shine, Jesus Shine” in the next edition, I love that song. 😉

  77. Dr Clark, this post and many of these comments were both helpful and convicting. This is the first time I have clearly understood the RPW. Thank you.

  78. Amen Dr. Clark.
    I miss Oceanside URC singing psalms with the crashing waves in the background.
    As a long time RPW and EP person I really appreciate your push for reformation worship. I think istruments and hymns are strange fire, and yes it would be like adding lamb chops to the Lords Supper because he’s the Lamb of God.
    To quote GI Williamson, “Zacharias Ursinus, one of the two authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, gives us a clear indication of what is meant by Question 96. “Those who worship God otherwise than He will be worshipped, imagine another God, one differently affected from what the true God is; and in this way they do not worship God, but a figment of their own brain, which they persuade themselves is affected in this manner.” And again, “to imagine a different worship of God from that which He has prescribed, is to imagine another will of God”.

    And again another great point of RPW is that not being Accaplella and Psalmist you necessarily bind the consciences of men. Wheereas the converse cannot possibly be the case. Williamson again,”When the Church sings only the psalms, hymns and songs of the Bible, commanded by God, no member of the Church can say that his conscience has been offended. But when the congregations are told to sing uninspired songs against which even a few object, there is a violation of conscience. No man should be directed to worship God in a way that violates his conscience unless it can be proved that God commands it.”

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