The Church Fathers Reject Instrumental Music In Public Worship

…there are many passing references to music scattered throughout the writings of the Fathers. Most of the passages deal with psalmody and vocal music, but a few are concerned with musical instruments. The authors of these passages were almost unanimous in rejecting the use of musical instruments. The Fathers brought three basic arguments to bear on the question of instruments: (1) instruments and other “ceremonies” were characteristic of the “infancy” of the church (i.e., the Jewish Dispensation), while the church was now in its maturity (the Christian Dispensation); thus, (2) the numerous references to instruments and instrumental music in the Old Testament should be interpreted symbolically; and (3) instruments were associated with immoral practices, even as some pagan writers had noted. …[T]he Fathers do not seem to have been writing in reaction to contemporary Christian practice. That is, they were not trying to correct abuses that had crept into the Christian church, for there is very little evidence that instruments had ever formed a part of Christian worship during its practice in the early centuries…..

The vehement and unanimous objections of the Church Fathers to musical instruments apparently succeed in suppressing their use in Christian worship for many centuries. Indeed…at least one instrument, the Greek hydraulic organ, appears to have been largely forgotten in the West…..

The demise of the organ as a common instrument in the West was so complete that when one arrived as a gift at the court of the Franks in 757 it was regarded as a great novelty.

—David W. Music, Instruments in Church: A Collection of Source Documents, vol. 7, Studies in Liturgical Musicology (Lanham and London: The Scarecrow Press Inc, 1998), 27, 43.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. (Conversation continued from twitter) so why not see instruments as fulfilled in christ hust like tge sacrifices and holy war? Seems to me a much more consistent hermeneutic.

  2. Maybe this a topic for a different post, but for those who may be newly convinced that instruments are not allowed in the NT church, what is the way forward? For those in the broader evangelical community who don’t have access to a reformed church, let alone an acappella, psalms only reformed church, it seems we are sinning both by going to church and not going to church.

    • Hi Eric,

      The two most important words here are patience and grace.

      The a cappella view is not widely held or practiced today. Many Christians have never seen or heard it. Thus, even though the evidence for the historic view is very strong it seems very strange to most people. Further, people really like musical instruments. They have a deep emotional connection to them. Thus, when people hear or read that instruments should not be used in public worship, they feel a sense of loss.

      The first thing to do is pray. The second thing to do is pray. The third thing to do is pray. Those who favor the historic view cannot do the work of the Spirit and we shouldn’t try.

      Here’s a plan I outlined a while back:

  3. “The first thing to do is pray. The second thing to do is pray. The third thing to do is pray. Those who favor the historic view cannot do the work of the Spirit and we shouldn’t try.” Thank you, Dr. Scott. This is the encouraging truth we can rejoice in, and prayer is the vital work we can all undertake for the reform of the church. The worst thing we could do is get mad at our local churches. “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it…” And I so appreciated your earlier post: There may come times, places and occasions where we have the opportunity to speak about these things, and that will take courage (and patience and grace!).

  4. Dr. Clark, when the Psalmist in Psalm 33 says;

    “Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; make melody to Him with the harp of ten strings! Sing to Him a new song, play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” (vv 2-3)

    How was/is this interpreted? I have read what Calvin had to say on this passage, yet I am not convinced of his argument given that the context here does not seem to be speaking of ceremonial temple practices, but of worship in a general, and even public, sense. Calvin seems to be drawing on a larger principe of a regulative principle of worship that he believes in, and reading it back into the many passages in the Psalms that advocate for the playing of instruments in the worship of God. What am I missing? (Some of my friends would quip: “A good theology on the RPW” lol)

    • Hi Samuel,

      Good questions, which have been answered repeatedly through the centuries. Here are some resources. Let me encourage you to be open minded. If you have a strong emotional commitment to instruments in worship you need to be willing to forgo them should scripture require it.

      Here’s a brief (older) history of instruments in worship. It’s still basically correct. The apostolic church did not use musical instruments for the same reason they did not slaughter bulls and goats or practice holy war against the Gentiles: those were types and shadows that were fulfilled by Christ.

      As to the connection between the typological religious system and instruments it’s very plain in 2 Chronicles 29:20–35. The same priests who offered bloody sacrifices also played musical instruments in public worship. It’s very difficult to get the (figurative) blood of bulls and goats off of those instruments.

      In fact, as you may know, the early church decided it could not be done. Not only did the apostolic church not use instruments, the early post-apostolic church positively, with one voice, rejected them. There were no instruments in Christian worship until the 7th century. Further, even as late as the 13th century they were still relatively unknown so that Thomas called their use “judaizing” (i.e., going back to the types and shadows). The were not even used in papal masses in the high and late medieval church because they were regarded as unsuitable for a high mass.

      The Reformed all returned the apostolic and early Christian practice. They would be absolutely shocked by the prevalence of the use of instruments in public worship.

      It’s not a matter of reading the RPW into Scripture, it’s a matter of paying attention to the context and the flow of redemptive history. Yes, certainly the psalms urge the use of musical instruments but they also urge holy war against the Gentiles and sometimes in the same Psalm (e.g., Ps 149–50, which may actually be one psalm). Be careful of the hermeneutic you use to justify the restoration of musical instruments because, historically it also brought with it the restoration of an earthly priesthood, sacrifices, and quasi-Davidic king. In other words, the Mosaic cultus (worship) is a package. It’s very difficult to keep some of it (e.g., instruments) without bring the rest because the principle (“it’s not forbidden”) on which instruments are preserved/restored will also bring other things.

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