Is The Organ God’s Gift To Worship?

I’m a big fan of Booker T. Jones (of Booker T and the MGs). What follows, however, isn’t about taste. It’s about principle. So, I was just minding my own business, checking out the usual Monday morning morning flood of social-media, and I saw a tweet from Justin Taylor of a post by Kevin DeYoung quoting Harold Best, the former Dean of the Conservatory of Music at Wheaton College, on the superiority of the organ over other musical instruments for use in public worship. Best never, in the material quoted, asks whether musical instruments should be used in public worship. The premise of the argument is, yes, of course, they should be used. The only question is which ones should be used. His case here is for the superiority of the organ over other sorts of instruments.

He begins by conceding that the organ has been abused by self-aggrandizing soloists. He admits that, for some, the church organ has become an idol. In the second paragraph Best makes his case for continuing use the organ in public worship.

The very basis of the design of even the most modest organs flows directly out of natural, God-given laws found in the overtone series…Without any doubt, the organ is the most naturally supportive instrument for singing that Western culture knows of. Its very design and its intelligent use in hymn singing are meant to accomplish one purpose: to support singing by the intelligent use of registers chosen to fill in the cracks–to provide both an underpinning and a blossom to the work of the congregational voices.

This is nothing if not an argument from nature and yet I suspect that it will resonate with a number of people. Best focuses the argument for those of us who confess the regulative principle of worship. “What is that?” you ask. This is what the Presbyterian and Reformed churches confess:

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils or decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men or of themselves liars, and more van than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us saying, Test the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: any one comes to you and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house (Belgic Confession, Article 7 [emphasis added]).

We also believe that although it is useful and good for those who govern the churches to establish and set up a certain order among themselves for maintaining the body of the church, they ought always to guard against deviating from what Christ, our only Master, has ordained for us. Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way (Belgic Confession, Article 32).

96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 96).

1. The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped 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 of Faith, 21.1).

Notice well that, where Best invokes nature as the rule by which he decides how God is to be worshiped, the Reformed churches invoke Scripture as the sole arbiter of how God may be worshiped. It is no accident that just as soon as the Reformed churches invoke the Scripture principle (sola scriptura) the very next thing they mention is the public, congregational worship of God. They certainly believed that natural revelation and natural law have their place in life. The Westminster Divines even allowed that determining such things as the time and place of worship were matters of nature, i.e., circumstances, but the substance or elements of worship are determined by God. When it came to public worship they did not, in contrast to Best, appeal to natural revelation but to special revelation. For the classical Reformed tradition, if there is any one activity for which Scripture was regarded as fully and solely sufficient, it was public worship.

When the divines spoke (and wrote) of “imaginations and devices of men” they were invoking the sorts lists that were, by then, more an a century old. Already in the 1520s, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Tyndale, and others developed a standard list of abuses and practices. The language of the confession is simply shorthand for that list (e.g., priestly vestments, the 5 false sacraments added by Rome in the 13th century). Among the list of Roman corruptions of worship were “organs” and “musical instruments.” As far as the Reformed, in the 16th and 17th centuries knew, they were returning to apostolic and ancient Christian practice.

Indeed, there were no musical instruments in either the synagogues or the apostolic congregations in the first century. There were no musical instruments in Christian worship until the middle of the 7th century. They became more widespread through the high medieval period at the same time the church began to re-define its worship and ministry in sacerdotal (priestly) terms. Ministers became priests. The Lord’s Supper was re-defined as a memorial, propitiatory (wrath-turning) sacrifice of Christ (the bread and wine having been turned into the body and blood of Christ at consecration), and the two sacraments instituted by our Lord were turned into seven with the addition of 5 unauthorized sacraments. Roman apologists would appeal to the use of instruments under Moses and David as grounds for their use in Christian churches—in the same way they appealed to the institution of the priestly ministry under Moses as grounds for a priesthood of the “New Law.”

Because they believed that the types and shadows instituted by God, under Moses and David, were temporary and intended to point to Christ (typology) and were fulfilled by Christ’s incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection, one of the first things the Reformed did, in their Reformation of the church, was to rid churches of musical instruments. The Reformed did not use them again for more than 200 years. When the Reformed churches confessed what they did about worship (see above), they did so in the context of an intentional, conscientious repudiation of the use of musical instruments in public worship.

When the use of musical instruments was re-introduced into the Reformed churches, it was not on the basis of biblical exegesis, principle, or confession but on the basis of expediency and pragmatism. On this see Recovering the Reformed Confession.

Since about the middle of the 20th century, however, it has become commonplace for Reformed folk to appeal to circumstance as a way of defending the use of musical instruments in public worship but, for what it’s worth, the original Reformed understanding of the RPW, of the definition of “circumstance” did not allow for the use of musical instruments in public worship. The classical Reformed pastors and churches, however, did not see musical instruments as a circumstance of worship. Rather, they saw the association of musical instruments with the bloody Israelite practice of worship in places such as

1Chronicles 15:28:

So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouting, to the sound of the horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and made loud music on bharps and lyres.

1Chronicles 16:42:

Heman and Jeduthun had trumpets and cymbals for the music and instruments rfor sacred song. The sons of Jeduthun were appointed to the gate.

1Chronicles 25:6:

They were all under the direction of their father in the music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, charps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the order of the king.

2Chronicles 7:6:

The priests stood at their posts; the Levites also, with the instruments for music to the Lord that King David had made for giving thanks to the Lord—wfor his steadfast love endures forever—whenever David offered praises by their ministry;1 zopposite them the priests sounded trumpets, and all Israel stood.

2Chronicles 34:12:

And the men did the work faithfully. Over them were set Jahath and Obadiah the Levites, of the sons of Merari, and Zechariah and Meshullam, of the sons of the Kohathites, to have oversight. The Levites, all who were skillful with instruments of music,

Isaiah 38:20:

The Lord will save me,
and we will play my music on stringed instruments
all the days of our lives,
qat the house of the Lord.

In his lecture on Exodus 15:20, Calvin accounted for the use of musical instruments under Moses and David as a matter of redemptive history:

The beating of timbrels may indeed appear absurd to some, but the custom of the nation excuses it, which David witnesses to have existed also in his time, where he enumerates, together with the singers, “the damsels playing with timbrels,” evidently in accordance with common and received custom. Yet must it be observed, at the same time, that musical instruments were among the legal ceremonies which Christ at His coming abolished; and therefore we, under the Gospel, must maintain a greater simplicity.

He described the re-introduction of musical instruments into Christian worship, in the medieval church, as “stupid imitation” of the Mosaic covenant. Robert Nevin, the 19th-century critic of the modern re-introduction of musical instruments into public worship, summarized the older Reformed view:

The use of instruments in worship was admittedly part of the Temple service. It had no place in the Tabernacle before David’s day, beyond the use of two silver trumpets made by Moses, in the hands of the priests. There is not a particle of evidence to show that it entered into the ordinary worship of the family or the synagogue. We are now prepared to take a step further, and note that, in the Temple service, it was uniformly and most closely associated with sacrifice and the burning of incense.

In the 16th- and 17th-century Reformed understanding, the use of musical instruments in public worship was just as closely associated with Levitical worship as was the shedding the of blood of lambs, bulls, and goats.

Calvin made this very argument in his lecture on Psalm 33:2. He argued that the private use of musical instruments is a matter of Christian liberty. Introducing them into public worship, however, is much more problematic.

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. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostle is far more pleasing to him. Paul allows us to bless God in the public assembly of the saints only in a known tongue. The voice of man, although not understood by the generality, assuredly excels all inanimate instruments of music; and yet we see what St Paul determines concerning speaking in an unknown tongue. What shall we then say of chanting, which fills the ears with nothing but an empty sound? Does any one object, that music is very useful for awakening the minds of men and moving their hearts? I own it; but we should always take care that no corruption creep in, which might both defile the pure worship of God and involve men in superstition. Moreover, since the Holy Spirit expressly warns us of this danger by the mouth of Paul, to proceed beyond what we are there warranted by him is not only, I must say, unadvised zeal, but wicked and perverse obstinacy.

He made the same argument in his exposition of Psalm 71:22:

We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to him only in a known tongue.

For Calvin, as for the Reformed churches in Europe and the British Isles and elsewhere, the use of musical instruments in public worship was a part of the ceremonial law fulfilled by Christ.

When he speaks of musical instruments the allusion is evidently to the practice of the Church at that time, without any intention of binding down the Gentiles to the observance of the ceremonies of the law (Lecture on Ps 98:4).

For Best, there is no question whether instruments may be used. The only question is which instrument is best suited to suit the purpose. For Best, the organ is best suited because it fills in the cracks, as it were, left by the human voice. Where Best invokes aesthetics, the Reformed churches decide what may done under the heading of God’s will as revealed in his moral law. Where, for Best, the question is what may be done in worship, for the Reformed churches, the question has always been what must be done in worship.

In his lecture on Daniel 3:7, Calvin contrasted the biblical and Reformed principle of worship with the aesthetic principle.

We should learn also from this passage, not to be induced, by the will of any man to embrace any kind of religion, but diligently to inquire what worship God approves, and so to. use our judgment as not rashly to involve ourselves in any superstitions.

He went on to say that God had commanded the use of instruments, under David, as part of the Levitical, typological system. In contrast,

Hence the immense heap of ceremonies in the Papacy, since our eyes delight in such splendors; hence we think this to be required of us by God, as if he delighted in what pleases us.

According to Calvin it does follow that what pleases us must necessarily please God. This is why he and the Reformed did not first ask, “What do I like?” but rather “What has God said?” These are two different questions and behind them are two distinct principles. For Calvin and the classical Reformed writers and churches, to ask, “What is pleasing?” is what they called “will-worship” (εθελοβρησκεια; Col 2:23).

On this passage Calvin said:

He makes mention of three—self-invented worship, humility, and neglect of the body. Superstition among the Greeks receives the name of εθελοβρησκεια— the term which Paul here makes use of. He has, however, an eye to the etymology of the term, for εθελοβρησκεια literally denotes a voluntary service, which men choose for themselves at their own option, without authority from God. Human traditions, therefore, are agreeable to us on this account, that they are in accordance with our understanding, for any one will find in his own brain the first outlines of them.

The organ can be played gloriously. I prefer Booker T. Jones to Bach. Preferences are a matter of Christian freedom. You’re free to prefer Bach. We should asking questions, however, that Best does not: what does God require in public worship? What pleases him? We should not assume, as Best seems to do, that what pleases us pleases him.

To review, here are 10 discussion questions:

  1. What is the Reformed principle of worship as confessed by the Reformed churches?
  2. The use of musical instruments in public worship is sometimes justified on the ground that they are circumstances. Why didn’t the Reformed originally regard instruments as a circumstance of worship?
  3. Where in Scripture did the Reformed churches see a clear connection between the use of musical instruments and the typological, temporary, sacrificial system of worship under Moses and David?
  4. How did the Reformed interpret the movement of redemptive history and revelation regarding the use of musical instruments?
  5. Why didn’t the church use instruments in public worship until the middle of the 7th century?
  6. Why did instruments in public worship become prevalent in the high middle ages?
  7. What else was happening to the church’s theology, piety, and practice then (hint: think 13th century, 4th Lateran Council)?
  8. Was there a connection between the changes occurring in worship and the way Christian ministry came to be regarded in the high medieval period?
  9. Why did the Reformed churches universally rid the churches of musical instruments and banish them from the use of public worship?
  10. On what grounds were they re-introduced?

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  1. I know it’s not your main point, but let the worship wars reignite. From Clement of Alexandria (approximately AD 200): “having paid reverence to the discourse about God, they leave within [the church] what they have heard. And outside they foolishly amuse themselves with impious playing, and amatory quavering, occupied with flute-playing, and dancing, and intoxication, and all kinds of trash.” and “Let the pipe be resigned to the shepherds, and the flute to the superstitious who are engrossed in idolatry. For, in truth, such instruments are to be banished from the temperate banquet, being more suitable to beasts than men….If you wish to sing and play to the harp or lyre, there is no blame. Thou shalt imitate the righteous Hebrew king.”

  2. Your discussion questions are excellent way to think through this topic. Thank you! Dennis Prutow’s 2012 Joyful Voices: A Cappella Singing in Congregational Worship offers more on this topic and is an easy read.

  3. Dr. Clark,
    Thanks for the post. I found your list of verses that tie instruments to the sacrificial system very helpful. Are you aware of any comprehensive surveys of the use of instruments in Scripture?

    I think I fall on the no instruments side, but the argument that instruments can be a circumstance seems fairly strong. Is it possible that a thing can be either an element or a circumstance depending on how it is used? The use of incense during worship is an element that has no more justification, but surely using an air freshener before the service is not thereby prohibited. Instruments by themselves (at the start or end of a service) are certainly an element that has likewise expired. Does this mean that they cannot be used to aid in singing? Circumstances concern “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” (WCF 1.6). While our society doesn’t do much group singing anymore, when we do it is sometimes accompanied. This seems to suggest that instruments, when used as accompaniment to singing, could be regarded as circumstances and their use guided by wisdom. That’s the argument anyway.

    • Scott,

      I don’t know of any comprehensive survey—the list above is close.

      As we distinguish circumstances from elements, we can see how the apostles did it. Prayer is an element. It persisted essentially unchanged. According to 1Cor 10, the sacraments are essentially unchanged. The law and gosepl are essentially unchanged.

      Sacrifices, however, are inherently typological. I don’t see how we can clean the typological blood from the instruments we want to use.

      Yes, as was already noted, lamps may be used as circumstance or in a religious way. Musical instruments, however, as I pointed out in RRC, are not quite like mics, lights, and buildings. In it’s nature, a circumstance is a product of nature. It must be. Worship must be somewhere. That place is a circumstance. It must be some time. That time is a circumstance. If worship is held after dark or before sunrise or if the sunlight isn’t sufficient, then we need artificial lighting. That’s a circumstance. We don’t need musical instruments to sing. We didn’t need them in the apostolic church. We didn’t need them for the first 650 years of the history of the church. We didn’t need them during the Reformation.

      We don’t need them now. They’re not a circumstance.

      As Bob already noted, even pagans can sing happy birthday or whatever acapella. When the organ/piano quits for a verse, congregations do fine. Might it take some adjustment? Sure, but it wouldn’t be difficult.

      Week 1 let the congregation sing 1 verse of each psalm/scripture song acapella.
      Week 2 let the congregation sing 2 verses of each psalm/scripture song acapella.
      Week 3 let the congregation sing 3 verses of each psalm/scripture song acapella.


      If we wanted to slow it to one verse a month, then it would take 3-4 months instead of 3-4 weeks but either way we could be instrument free in less than 6 months.

  4. Scott,

    The argument is anything that is a typical and fulfilled element of OT worship cannot be brought back into NT worship under the cover of indifference or circumstance.

    Yet another question might be how did either Paul and Silas with their feet fast in the stocks, pump the foot pedals on the organ to accompany their singing in Acts 16?

    Likewise nobody needs help singing Happy Birthday and Auld Lang Syne. Believe it or not, there have been times when Christians have been just as familiar with the Psalter.

    On another note, Booker I see. But where’s Duck and Steve?

    • If, in discussion with reasonably intelligent evangelicals, an a capella only advocate tries to bring Paul and Silas in prison to witness against instruments, he risks being laughed out of the room. Here’s why.

      There is no nothing in the text to indicate that they had musical instruments with them in the jail. If Scripture told us that they had instruments with them, but refrained from using them, the argument would be legitimate, but since nothing is said about their possessions on arriving at the jail, one is left deploying an argument from silence where we cannot really expect any data. For it does not take too much imagination to realize that even if the two men had instruments on their person on their arrest, a jailer of only moderate experience would have confiscated those instruments before nightfall.

      • Tim,

        I think he was just having fun. It does, however, speak to the claim “We can’t sing without instruments.”

        Not true. We can sing without instruments.

  5. (Honest question here. I’m trying to understand your point of view, so please don’t take this as trying to pick a fight, but forgive me if it sounds like I am.) In the commentary on Psalm 33:2, Calvin specifically groups “the lighting up of lamps” with the use of musical instruments. But I’ve never seen an argument from RPW that the lights should be turned off in the sanctuary during a worship service. In our sanctuary, it would usually be too dark to read anything. I can’t see how it would depend on the type of lamp–surely the choice of fuel (oil vs. electricity) is a circumstance if there ever was one. So assuming this one phrase in the commentary isn’t an outlier, how does one reconcile the use of lighting but not instruments in worship services?

  6. Don, it seems obvious to me from the context that Calvin meant ceremonial lamps — either ornate or decorated, or something akin to ceremonial or devotional candles, maybe scented or meant to produce a certain smoke.

    “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. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews.”

    Having visited Cathedrale St. Pierre in Geneva and knowing that it (and the next door Auditoire) was used at many different times and days in Calvin’s day, I cannot believe he meant “lamps as a light source” were wrong. Surely, then as now, weak eyes needed all the help they could get.

    • OK, but it “seemed obvious to me” that Calvin was referring to the seven lamps on the lampstand of Ex. 25. There were ceremonial purposes for the lamps, but there was the practical purpose as well, to provide light. So the claim is that Calvin is not against lamps, just overly ostentatious, ceremonial ones that are more showy than useful. But that is not parallel to the argument against instruments, since the argument here is _not_ solely against instruments which are too showy/direct attention to the performer/do not aid in the congregation’s singing.

      • Don,

        I think Calvin assumed that the principal purpose of the lampstands of Ex 25 was ceremonial. That’s the aspect about which he was concerned. The medieval church had been gradually restoring modified aspects of the Mosaic and temple cultus (worship practices) for about 300-400 years before the Reformation.

        When candles are no longer candles but prayers, then the Reformed confessed against them. That’s why they defined circumstance so narrowly and why they were so stout about sola Scriptura and the 2nd commandment, because of the corruption of the human soul we are wont to turn circumstances into ceremonies.

        Yes, he (and the rest of the Reformed with him) was opposed to pomp and show in public worship. They very much sought simplicity but we can’t reduce their concern to aesthetics. Their concern was theological. They rejected the medieval move backward in the history of redemption. The re-introduction of levitical instruments in public worship was, for the Reformed, an implicit undermining not only of the progress of redemption and revelation but also of the finished work of Christ. The same system and practices which re-introduced instruments also re-introduced sacrifices. Where, for the Reformed. Christ said “It is finished” the high and late medieval church revised that to mean, “It is begun.”

        So, the Reformed opposition to instruments was theological.

        This is relevant to our own situation. Is it entirely coincidental that as our services have become more musically complex (organs -> praise bands -> video presentations ->dramatic re-enactments of Scripture) and the Word has become diminished, so too the FV theology has found a foothold? We’re also seeing a removal of the cup from the laity, often times in the very same churches where the music and drama have become more prominent.

        The farther we are from the mass (many Protestants have never seen a mass) the harder it is for us to know it when it re-appears in our midst, but the mass was nothing but a drama for the people. The memorial, propitiatory, eucharistic sacrifice was a dramatic re-enactment of the death of Christ. Ask those who lamented the loss of the old liturgy after Vatican II, the one thing they all said was, “We miss the drama of the mass.”

        In the Reformed worship services, the drama was in the preaching of the Word. It was reinforced by the administration of the sacraments. We broke the bread (fractio panis) intentionally and we administered the supper in two kinds (bread and wine) but we worshiped according to a principle.

    • Dr. Clark,
      Thank you for your response. I’m quite confused by one of your minor (I think) points, where you say that in moving from organs to praise bands the service has “become more musically complex.” Leaving aside how this leads to the FV getting a foothold, I think this is exactly backwards. What we’ve seen in the past 60-70 or so years is a severe dumbing down of music in church services. Pop music–rock and roll specifically–is the culprit. This is also your problem for promoting a capella singing: as musical performance was taken over by the professionals, people stopped singing for fun.

      • Don,

        I’m not talking about the complexity of the music. I understand that praise songs are not Bach.

        I mean complex in the sense of adding layers. The early (apostolic and early post-apostolic) practice was to respond to God’s Word with his Word sung acapella. Post 650 AD we added the organ to the simple response. Then, in the 1970s, we replaced the one organ (a band in a box) with a (praise) band.

    • OK, that makes more sense now. But still, it’s not solely the organ that’s been replaced. It’s also the choir, with its (ideally) four-part harmony, robes, and seasonally rotating stoles. That’s all been replaced by a couple guys in jeans and t shirts, with guitars and amps. Also hymnals replaced by powerpoint slides.

      Of course, removing the choir may be called for if their task is seen as being the professionals whose job it is to do the musical praising of God, so the congregation doesn’t have to.

  7. Prof. Clark,

    How do you take the “no-brainer” argument from the harps in the Book of Revelation? Basically, people claim that instruments feature in heavenly worship and are therefore an example for us. Would it be correct to answer that it’s a mistake to take worship details from a highly symbolic, apocalyptic portion of Scripture? Or that seeking to emulate heavenly worship is a theology of the beatific vision (instead of a theology of pilgrims) inappropriate to our place in redemptive history?

  8. Due to Dr. Clark’s “Are Instruments Idols” blog post and this one, I’m believing that musical instruments are not for the Church. Now I just have to get my wife who “idolizes” the praise band to agree. Unfortunately, I know she won’t.

  9. The very basis of the design of even the most modest organs flows directly out of natural, God-given laws found in the overtone series…Without any doubt, the organ is the most naturally supportive instrument for singing that Western culture knows of. Its very design and its intelligent use in hymn singing are meant to accomplish one purpose: to support singing by the intelligent use of registers chosen to fill in the cracks–to provide both an underpinning and a blossom to the work of the congregational voices.

    I think that’s a little backwards. The organ was the synthesizer of its day; it was invented to produce a wide variety of sounds with only one musician. It makes a lot of things easier if you don’t have to hire and rehearse an entire orchestra. That built-in variety, well-used, can therefore do a good job “filling in cracks”.

    Indeed, there were no musical instruments in either the synagogues…

    Why not? I remember reading RRC and being curious about linking Christian worship with Jewish synagogues; where did Synagogues come from? (where in the OT were the elements of Synagoguery laid down?)

    According to Calvin it does [sic: not] follow that what pleases us must necessarily please God. This is why he and the Reformed did not first ask, “What do I like?” but rather “What has God said?”

    To bend this whole thing back towards nature arguments, it seems that Best successfully argues that the organ is the best instrument for making “good music”, according to objective nature categories. (see T.D. Gordon about objectivity in music). But God is apparently not interested in good music, he wants believers to worship him in spirit and in truth.

    I’m still not convinced against all instruments whatsoever, but this general argumentation does affirm a minimalistic approach. I recently moved and changed churches (mid-large PCA to small (i.e. regular) OPC, and also scaled back from piano+organ with choral introits (before the call to worship of course) and offertories, to just a piano in support of hymns. The piano is played competently but plainly; nothing to write home about (or idolize!). But looking back I don’t miss all the extras; it seems to me now to have been somewhat “overproduced”.

    • Rube,

      The synagogue was the midwife of the NT church. The church met in synagogues, was formed out of synagogues, and according to all the evidence I’ve seen, generally followed a synagogic pattern in its worship.

      Synagogues developed in the inter-testamental period, perhaps in the Bablylonian Captivity. They were an accommodation to circumstances. The temple was gone, the glory departed. It was the beginning or perhaps an anticipation of, in a sense, of the in-between time. The incarnation and pentecost, of course, are major, central episodes in the history of redemption but the time of the visible Glory-Spirit and all the things that marked the theocratic kingdom were gone. Jesus did not come with visible power (miracles, signs, wonders yes but not the sort of power that evidently impressed the powers of this age). That’s why he was discarded and crucified. He disappointed us. We wanted real power and glory.

      The point re the synagogue is that it, rather than the temple, was the paradigm. It’s an irony, since the 2nd temple was present until AD 70 but it was not formative or determinative of Christian worship until the medieval church set to re-building Moses, as it were. The early fathers (post 90s AD) didn’t look to the temple. All the evidence is that they persisted in simple, unaccompanied worship and were harshly critical of the use of instruments in public worship.

  10. Is a piano unacceptable in worship? even if it just backs or guides the notes of the voices? I worship in a small URC that uses a piano to do this but used to worship accapella

    • Camilo,

      If you’re asking the apostolic church, evidently no. If you’re asking the church from 100-650 AD (and most of the church until the middle ages), and the Greek orthodox church, and the Reformed churches from 1520s-1740s (and some beyond that), then, the answer is no.

      In principle, a piano is no different than an organ or a guitar. If this argument holds, the nature of the instrument doesn’t really matter. The good intentions behind the use of an instrument are understood and appreciated but this has always been the argument. We need instruments to do x (fill in the blank; to help the singing, to improve the singing). The Reformed were not moved by this argument.

      I understand that it would be a struggle to give up instruments. We should be patient. We might ask how did the small apostolic and early Christian congregations get along without pianos etc? How did the French-speaking churches in the Lowlands get along without organs while worshiping at night, hiding from Spanish (Roman Catholic) troops? They figured out how to do it. It is possible.

    • In principle, a piano is no different than an organ or a guitar. If this argument holds, the nature of the instrument doesn’t really matter.

      No, there is objectivity in music whereby musical media are objectively appropriate or inappropriate for a particular purpose. To channel T.D. Gordon, if you don’t think so, then how about I show up at your parents’ funeral and play a solo on the kazoo?

      • Rube,

        Aesthetically, perhaps, but for the purposes of this discussion, I don’t much care about aesthetics. One of the problems of the modern period (since the mid 18th century) is that aesthetics have trumped the moral law, which arguably, is a species of rationalism.

        That’s why I said “principle.” By that I mean “moral law as understood by the Reformed in the classical period.” This is also why I qualified it by saying. “if this argument holds.” In other words, if instruments may be used in public worship, then we can argue about which ones are appropriate but the argument here, in this post, is that the historic Reformed view is that they are not.

  11. A problem that I see with instruments in churches is the same problem I see with very talented singers – they may not want to admit it, but they have a tendency to see their talents as special “spiritual gifts” that they have been given, probably by the HS, and unless they get to use it they don’t feel like they have fulfilled the requirements that the siren call of the 2nd Great Awakening movement seems to have stuffed down the throat of American Evangelicals. Now, before going ballistic on this comment take a moment to first view the blog comment at this link:

    My wife and I left a congregation about 5 years ago who practiced what this blogger says, almost verbatim. Now, my wife is a very talented singer, but I am not and she appreciated the problem that the removal of common hymns with simple melodies from the worship service created for folks like me. I, on the other hand, happen to have considerably greater than average talent when I comes to graphic or spatial arts. Yet I never assume that everyone ought to be able to draw, paint, or sculpt as do I. Nor do I consider it to be any kind of spiritual gift even though I have used those skills in the past be the benefit of local congregations.

    It is for these reasons that I agree with the rejection of instrumentation as does Dr. Clark. I’m sure that rubs a lot of folks the wrong way, but if they have as great a vocal talent as they like to flaunt among the rest of us, maybe they could realize that the best use of it to lead the rest of us – who can’t sing – in acapella worship.

    It might also be a good time to take a serious look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church who seemed to have similar problems with spiritual gifts.

  12. Dr Clark
    You often make a connection between the increased use of musical instruments towards the end of the first millennium and the rise of the temple cultus in the Catholic Church. However would there not be a similar relationship seen in the writings of the fathers in the second and third centuries onward, between the disapproval of musical instruments and the rise of asceticism/monasticism?

    • Mark,

      I make that connection because there is one!

      There isn’t any direct connection between the denial of instruments and monasticism since the denial of instruments was universal and it existed before the monastic movements arose and it existed for different reasons than monasticism. The denial of instruments isn’t “worldflight” or denial of the physical world (as sometimes false alleged against Zwingli). The earliest orthodox fathers believed in the use of the means of grace. They were ardent regarding the true humanity of Jesus but they were also strong on the progress of redemptive history. They also wanted a clear distinction between Christian worship and pagan rituals (which did involve the use of musical instruments).

      There isn’t a direct historical or logical connection. The connection between the use of instruments and the rise of sacerdotalism exists historically and logically. The Western church brought back instruments at the same time it brought back the priesthood and sacrifices etc.

    • “The Western church brought back instruments at the same time it brought back the priesthood and sacrifices etc.” True, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they brought them back because of a desire for a reinstitution of the temple cultus. Even if some used OT temple usage of instruments as a justification, that doesn’t mean that was the compelling reason for doing it.

      • Mark,

        Take a look at RRC. I discuss this there but the stated reason, in some cases, was to get the young people excited about church. Really. Nothing has changed.

        The medieval church brought instruments back, over strenuous objections, because it seemed plausible. Why did it seem plausible when it had not for centuries? What had the church learned since the 4th or 2nd century? Nothing. The church’s perception of her ministry changed. The instruments were brought back because the church’s ministers had begun to think of herself as a new priesthood. That’s how they described themselves. The doctrine of transubstantiation was introduced in the 9th century but it wasn’t until the 13th century that it, with the idea of sacrifice became formalized. That’s the very same time when instruments began to return. It’s not a coincidence. The temple became the model for worship. Once that’s the paradigm it’s hard to avoid the consequences.

  13. See Dabney’s review of Girardeau’s Instrumental Music in the Worship of the Church for more on the didactic and word centered worship of the synagogue.

    While I had heard of Girardeau’s book, it wasn’t until I stumbled on Dabney’s review that I started paying attention. The argument and historic P&R position wasn’t all cuckoo clocks and balloon juice.

    But any day now, the continuing church of Thornwell and Dabney might start to get serious about it, ya think? Particularly since the RPW was the first thing in the cross hairs of what turned into the FV.

    • Thanks for the laugh, mentioning Dabney in this context. Dabney and Best were certainly at opposite ends of the spectrum on organ music (Dabney=strait from the pit via the papacy). I think he would rather have had a flute 🙂

  14. Dr Clark, that’s for your feedback. There is a quote from Calvin I read some time ago in which he described instrumentation in church as escentially confusing law and gospel , (I wonder what the Lutherans would do with the quote), do you know where the quote is from? This matter hits close to home as I used to play guitar in my old church. Thanks

  15. Dr. Clark,

    What about air guitar?

    In all seriousness, though, how would your argument treat hand clapping to keep the beat (percussion)? Or, to go further (and perhaps a bit sillier), how would your argument treat a church which sang “a capella” like the group “Acappella”? Surely, they wouldn’t sound like the group, but it would be possible to get people singing in the various parts and the ooooos and aaaaahs.

    • Hi Jim,

      The old Reformed practice was to sing to sing in unison. As long as churches are following the RPW, I think there is liberty. I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking—is it about the imitation of instruments or the use of parts or both?

      The several RPCNA congregations with which I’ve worshiped, which have preserved the older Reformed worship in many regards regard, sing parts. Bob Godfrey has teased them about being “liberals” because of it.

      I think several of our problems would be eased by prioritizing faithfulness over aesthetics. I don’t counsel ignoring aesthetics but Scripture is much more concerned about faithfulness than it is aesthetics, since the latter is a shifting, culturally-defined standard.

  16. This is a very interesting topic, but probably only to a few. Obviously, a case can be made against instruments in worship. Apparently, one can be made for them as well.

    I think parallel arguments can be made for/against the use of microphones in worship. For/against the use of electricity in worship (on Sunday). Against the use of any public utilities (gas, water, sewer) on Sunday. Against use of television, internet, newspapers, radio on Sunday. Against traveling on Sunday. Against bike-riding on Sunday. Against use of motor cars on Sunday (or perhaps any day). Against walking more than 10 city blocks (i.e., a mile) on Sunday. Against swimming on Sunday. Against any form of recreation on Sunday. Against wearing of short pants on Sunday. Against use of a stove on Sunday. Against gathering for worship on Christmas/Good Friday/Ascension Day. Against not gathering for worship on Christmas/Good Friday/Ascension Day. Against using officially-sanctioned songbooks in worship. Against not using officially-sanctioned songbooks in worship. Against use of the King James Version in worship. Against use of any bible BUT the King James Version in worship. Against use of a bible translation published for profit (i.e., not by the church) in worship. Against women wearing pants to church (perhaps anywhere). Against forbidding women to wear pants to church (or anywhere). Against cutting hair. Against the prohibiting of cutting hair. Against hats in church. Against no hats in church. Against the use of cosmetics. Against the prohibition of the use of cosmetics. Against women voting for officebearers. Against the prohibition of women voting for officebearers. Against the use of examples or illustrations in sermons. Against the avoidance of illustrations in sermons. Against insurance (of any kind). Against theater. Against card-playing. Against . . . well, you get my point. Where does this stop?

    Perhaps instruments are not appropriate to worship. It seems less than crystal-clear to me from Scripture. What is clear is that this matter has become to some like a scab which wants picking — almost to the point of obsession. While it is not necessarily unhealthy to have discussions about this topic (or myriad others), it is not always edifying to do so publicly. Where the vast majority of God’s people are not seeing what seems so clear to me, a bit more patience might be warranted.

    • Shawn,

      Interesting you should use the example of the microphone. I address this argument explicitly in Recovering The Reformed Confession.

      I won’t rehearse the argument here except to say that the answer is the difference between elements and circumstances.

      A circumstance is, in the nature of things, something that is unavoidable or necessary by nature. For example, a service must be held at some time and in some place. Thus, time and place are matters of nature for circumstances. Not everything, however, that people want to use in a worship service is a circumstance.

  17. I`m more concerned about crosses hanging in our churches than if a musical instrument is used in worship.

  18. Dr. Clark,

    I’m thankful for your speaking on this issue. You mentioned how very key is prayer in your previous article on reforming the church’s worship—and it certainly is. Unless the Spirit works this reform will not take place, because comparatively few realize that our worship needs this reform. As you said, the question is not “what do we want” but “what does God want.” He is not silent on this issue!

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