Aquinas: The Use Of Instruments In Public Worship Is Judaizing

Obj. 4. Further, In the Old Law God was praised with musical instruments and human song, according to Ps. 32:2, 3: “Give praise to the Lord on the harp, sing to Him with the psaltery, the instrument of ten strings. Sing to Him a new canticle.” But the Church does not make use of musical instruments, such as harps and psalteries, in the divine praises, for fear of seeming to imitate the Jews. Therefore in like manner neither should song be used in the divine praises.

On the contrary, Blessed Ambrose established singing in the Church of Milan, as Augustine relates (Conf. ix.).

Reply Obj. 4. As the Philosopher says (Polit. viii.), Teaching should not be accompanied with a flute or any artificial instrument such as the harp or anything else of this kind: but only with such things as make good hearers. For suchlike musical instruments move the soul to pleasure rather than create a good disposition within it. In the Old Testament instruments of this description were employed, both because the people were more coarse and carnal—so that they needed to be aroused by such instruments as also by earthly promises—and because these material instruments were figures of something else.

—Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74), Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 2a.2ae.91.

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  1. Aquinas, the pinnacle of pro acapella apologia! Castigating the users of musical instruments for “seeming to Judaize”, while himself strengthening his Papist Church with his nominalism to Paganize in substance by worshiping wafers and wine. To quote Billy Bray: The Old Vagabond!

    • Sorry, in the universe brought to me at my old High School, in which William of Occam was a realist. I fear my education replaced the official terminology with terminology that would be applied instinctively by modern culture, which would consider Occam’s Razor realism and Aristotelianism non-realism.
      However, if we replace “his nominalism” in my comment with “his brand of Aristotelianism”, I would stand by my comment. Indeed, the Pharisees only strained out gnats when they swallowed camels; Aquinas strained out a grasshopper when deceiving his Church to swallow his (I’m thinking Food Laws here).

    • It would not be surprising if it were just my memory that was betraying me. But I think I got my earliest information from a schoolmaster, either whose memory was betraying him, or who got his information from someone, who got his information from someone, who ……….from someone whose memory was betraying him. Or maybe we all assumed definitions from the fact that Occam’s Razor is realism (with a small “r”). We may have just assumed that what was realistic was Realism, i.e., that Realism was realism.

      • The point of Ockham’s razor was to minimize the number of (realistic) ontological assumptions in an argument. Had he been a realist, he would not have developed his razor and his beard, as it were, would have been much longer.

  2. It isn’t clear to me that Aquinas’ “for fear of seeming to imitate the Jews” is the same thing that we mean by the term Judaizing.


    • David,

      Yes, I think that’s a fair observation. We tend to use the adjective “Judaizing” in relative to soteriology but traditionally it was used the way Thomas used it here, i.e., undue or slavish intimation of Jewish/Israelite practice. This usage goes back to the fathers. It also connoted the corruption of Christian practice by Jewish shadows.

    • I am not at all sure that in banning musical instruments, people are not seeming to imitate the Jews; by this, I mean, not Old Covenant and first century Jews, but worse, Talmudic Jews. Let me explain.
      Girardeau and others assume that under the Old Covenant musical instruments in worship were confined to the Tabernacle/Temple and banned from the Synagogue under the regulative principle. However, all the evidence relating to synagogue practice comes from Jewish sources after the fall of Jerusalem, and I think that Percy Scholes, in his Oxford Companion To Music, implies that something very different may have been the practice before that time.
      As far as Scripture is concerned, all I know about the synagogue in the Promised Land from the Old Testament is that it existed. I also know that they would not sing Psalm 137 in Babylon with musical instruments, not because they weren’t in the Temple, but because they weren’t in Israel at all (which implies that there were places in Israel, other than in the Temple, where it was legitimate to use musical instruments when singing the Lord’s Song). All I know about synagogue practice from the New Testament, and that by example rather than precept, is that they read and attempted to expound Scripture, and brought greetings and other messages. I don’t read anything about singing, with or without musical instruments. When the Lord and His disciples sang before going to the Mount of Olives, they didn’t use a musical instrument and, therefore, the verb hymneo, not used in the Ephesians and Colossians passages regulative for the Church, is used in the Gospel accounts (The Greek doesn’t tell us what they sang, and so “sung an hymn” is actually an AV mistranslation, reproduced by all the major modern versions – Modern versions seem to be there mainly for the purpose of contradicting good textual readings and good translations. Comparatively few of the AV textual readings are improved on and comparatively few AV mistranslations are actually corrected). I fail, in fact, to find either evidence that Biblical synagogue worship was regulated in the way that Temple worship was or any doctrinal reasons why it should have been. Indeed, the commandment to restrict sacrifice to Temple worship is normative for outside the Temple, rather than regulative – If the regulative principle applied to synagogue worship, this commandment would have been superfluous, it’s forbidden anyway because not commanded.
      If, therefore, musical instruments were permissible in Promised Land synagogues, banning them from the visible Church will put the Church in bondage to the practice of Talmudic Jews mourning the destruction of their Temple, rather than free her from practices of worship childish under the Law (I think this is what Justin’s apologist for singing, with whom I disagree, is getting at).

      • John,

        The historians are united on this. There were no instruments in the synagogue. The NT church made no use of instruments. There were no instruments in the post-apostolic church until the 7th century and they did not become widespread until the 14th century. That is why Thomas could safely assume that to use them is “Judaizing,” i.e., slavish imitation of the OT.

    • What do you mean by “historians”? Just church and modern-day Jewish historians? or can you quote me some musicologists who confirm that there were no musical instruments in any Israel-situated pre-AD70 synagogue? Where do these united historians get their information from? What evidence is there that it didn’t all come from the principles and practice of post-AD70 Jews that were living out Psalm 137 again.
      Remember, all natural philosophers in the hundred or so years before Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen believed in the Phlogiston Theory. Barring the possibility of resurrecting it on the basis that phlogiston has negative volume as well as negative weight (a suitable report for an April 1 issue of the Scientific American or the New Scientist), which would mean Cavendish’s gas (currently called “hydrogen”) probably has to have two components; were they right?

      • John,

        You’re offering a hypothetical reconstruction, a structure resting on spider webs. Show me a single piece of concrete, actual evidence of the use of musical instruments in a 1st-century synagogue or Christian congregation.

        Here’s a fact: We know beyond a shadow of doubt that there were no instruments in early 2nd century Christian worship. Had the apostolic church used them they would most certainly have continued the apostolic practice or at least mentioned it. They neither mentioned it nor did they use them. Indeed, the Fathers, to a man, fulminated against them.

    • I admit I haven’t read anything like enough of the Fathers, but I have read 1 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache, and Epistle of Barnabas. Which of these fulminated against musical instruments?
      I have given my evidence for musical instruments in the first century church in (Should I have given it here, and cross-referenced from there to here instead? I wouldn’t have thought it mattered).

  3. Didn’t Judaizing have a specific NT definition of returning people to a part of the law which was no longer required. But the words written above seem not to be referring to the kind of Judaizing which the apostles confronted.

  4. I agree that bringing musical instruments back into use in the gathered church was a form of Judaizing. To Judaize meant more than to teach “you must be circumcised in order to be saved” to Paul (Galatians 2:14, Greek), though in the apostles’ day the whole matter was driven by the fear of that powerful circumcision party, which is of course not a factor today.

    But the same spirit behind the Judaizers of the first-century church is surely behind the corruption of worship and practice that followed. It worked to undermine the teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and it worked later on to undermine the worship “in spirit and in truth” taught by and of utmost importance to Christ and his apostles, by the same means- the reintroduction of faded types and shadows.

    I guess “Judaizing” is the visible shoot of a root of hatred of Christ and his gospel. Like Peter, not all who succumb to its pressures hate Christ! But those who pushed for the reintroduction of musical instruments in times when it was widely agreed that they were not warranted under the new covenant- I can’t imagine that they were all good men who loved the church and sought her peace and good. It caused great upset, both in the earlier times of the church and post-Reformation. Causing upset in the church is a mark of a false teacher (Titus 1).

    It’s obvious that Roman Catholic worship brought back elements of Mosaic and Davidic temple worship, which caused great harm to the church. The Reformers rid the church of these reintroduced types and shadows to varying degrees, but they have now largely won the day again.

  5. How ironic! Thomas Aquinas says use of instruments is “Judaizing”–yet an Orthodox Rabbi I once met once explained to me that Orthodox Jews do not use instruments in Synagogue worship and pointed to Psalm 137, saying that as long as Jews are in galus (exile–without the restored Davidic monarchy), the harps will remain “hung up”.

    While I admit to being conflicted about the issue of Psalms only v. Analogy of Prayer and instrumental v. non-instrumental (respect them as I may, the divines of Dort and Westminster were still fallible men, as am I), I suspect that the ancient non-instrumental tradition in Christianity suggests that the primitive church of ‘Eretz Yisroel and the Mediterranean world (where Jews were often the first Christians as well) carried over a non-instrumental tradition already in place.

    However, here’s a bit of consternation for me–someone who both has Jewish roots and rejects the dispensational position on the grounds that the NT seems to say Jesus’ kingship is present and that the atonement made on the tree ends the need for the temple. If we revive the non-instrumental position (for which Dr. Clarke makes a good case), would we be saying that we still need to wait for the return of a literal temple in Jerusalem and Jesus’ throne being literally in Jerusalem rather than in Heaven?

    • Peter,

      As I explained earlier, Thomas was using the adjective in the same way the Fathers used it: “slavish imitation of the Old (Mosaic) Testament.”

      The point of the Aquinas quote is that it wasn’t just the Reformers who abandoned instruments as inherently typological. It was the Fathers, who did not use musical instruments in public worship.

      What this passage from Thomas reveals is that he was able to accept as a premise that a cappella worship was the norm. In other words, the use of musical instruments had not yet become so widespread in the 13th century that he had to defend the premise. He didn’t because they had not.

      When the Reformed churches (not just individual pastors) rid their buildings of musical instruments they were reversing a novelty, not an ancient practice. Historically speaking most of the time, since the ascension of our Lord, the church has not used instruments in public worship.

      Indeed, the evidence is that the did carry over an existing tradition but they did so reflectively, intentionally, in light of their reading of redemptive history. They were conscious that the instruments that some Levites played while others sacrificed (or that some played while the Israelites conducted their typological holy war against the Canaanites), were part of that typological system.

      Jesus’ kingship has been inaugurated. As I wrote in an earlier post, this Christian life is a semi-eschatological existence. The consummate state, the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God, has been inaugurated in the earth and is manifested institutionally in the visible church and Christians, as citizens of that eschatological kingdom live out their Christian lives as citizens of the kingdom wherever they are, as they fulfill their vocations in this world. Nevertheless, the consummation is not yet. We live cheek-by-jowl with unbelievers who, in civil terms, have as much right co-exist in the civil sphere as we do. Thus, in civil life, we will necessarily have to make compromises that we cannot make in the spiritual sphere.

      It is the inauguration of that kingdom that makes typological elements such as sacrifice, instruments, and holy war obsolete. The thing of which they were typical, Christ and his kingdom, has come.

      No, we wait for no temple because the temple has already come! We wait for the consummation of the kingdom, of which the temple was a picture. There is a vertical aspect of the typology, that points up (as it were, in spatial terms) as well as forward in redemptive history. That is why there is so much Levitical and temple imagery in the Revelation, not so that we would try to imitate those images in our worship (who wants a throne in our churches, elders bowing etc?) but so that we would some way to think of the future reality and the meaning of the old types.

      Christ is the temple and believers are the Israel of God. Even so, come Lord Jesus.

  6. Greetings! I’m new to this blog, and I’m not too Reformed, but this post on Aquinas caught my eye. Thanks for pointing out a very interesting passage. I had a quick look at the context in the Summa, and here are some things that I think complicate matters:

    (1) The broad question Aquinas is debating isn’t whether instruments should be used in public worship, but whether songs/music should be used at all.

    (2) The objections against singing center on various features of (medieval) church practice, as well as the fear that music may distract from the spiritual content of what is being sung.

    (3) There is one very interesting objection against singing that invokes the regulative principle (!) in interpretation of Colossians 3:16 (“teaching & admonishing one another through psalms/hymns/spirituals songs”). The objector seems to interpret this as a command to sing only internally. As the objector says, “We ought to do nothing in divine worship that is beyond what has been passed down to us by the authority of Scripture. Therefore, it seems that we should not use corporeal/bodily songs in divine worship, but only spiritual.”

    (4) Aquinas rejects all these arguments. Instead he thinks that the praise of the mouth is “necessary” in order to provoke the human soul to devotion, and that the affective role of music can help those whose devotion is weak. It’s in this context that he responds to the objection that R. Scott Clark cites above.

    Note that while the objection & reply regarding instruments do tell us about church practice at the time, they tell us nothing about what people thought could or should be done, normatively speaking. In fact, by parity of reasoning, the objector’s argument against musical instruments is an argument against singing at all. Likewise, Aquinas’s arguments in favor of singing would have to work as arguments in favor of using musical instruments, since in both cases what’s at issue is the use of affective means for stimulating devotion in the weak.

    (N.B.: the complete reference for this question is ST II-II, q. 91, a.2.)

    • Dear Middling,

      1. Thanks for stopping by.

      2. Per the comments policy, unless you’re a missionary in an Islamic state or employed by a secular(ist) university or otherwise employed such that commenting here could put you in jeopardy anonymous comments are not allowed. This helps keep us all accountable and civil.

      3. In earlier comments the context was noted. That’s the interesting thing. Thomas is defending singing and he knows that in the OT singing and instruments are connected. He has to separate the two so as to save singing. Along the way, in the objection, he assumes that using musical instruments is judaizing (slavish imitation of the OT). He doesn’t question that aspect of the premise. It’s not controversial in the mid-late 13th century. That’s why it’s striking.

  7. Many thanks for the reply. In my case #2 unfortunately obtains. (Secular university.)

    By the way, lest you think I’m a troll — which really I’m not! I just happened across a Reformed blog where Aquinas made an appearance, of all things — I have to say I’ve very much enjoyed reading through the posts here. In the present case, Aquinas happens to be one of my areas of interest. Though I think it’s possible to interpret him as the comments do above, it’s not the only way or even the best way. For instance, notice that Aquinas himself never says that musical instruments are Judaizing. It’s the objector that makes the claim on behalf of the “ecclesia” (which church? where?). Aquinas’ own response doesn’t identify Judaizing as a problem, but rather the instruments’ non-rational and non-philosophical mode of creating affects. That dovetails perfectly with the 13th-century scholastic attitude toward music/poetry/story-telling as means of discourse that aren’t appropriate to philosophers or theologians, but which may be appropriate for the layperson or student. (Or to the Jews.)

    (For Aquinas’s comments on fables, see passages like his *Commentary on Job* chapter 3, or his commentary on I Timothy 4:7. For the general scholastic attitude toward fables, see, e.g., Maurer [1990], “Siger of Brabant on Fables and Falsehoods in Religion,” in his monograph _Being and Knowing_.)

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