If Believers Are Playing Instruments In Heaven, Why May We Not? (1)

Whenever a defense is advanced for something like the historic Reformed understanding of the rule of worship one of the objections that regularly arises is this: if musical instruments are being used in Scripture, we may we not use them now in our worship? This question is a species of the broader question, “if x is done in Scripture (e.g., holy war, dancing in worship, or use of musical instruments), why may we not do x?” Let us consider the broader question first and then this particular question.

The (usually) unstated assumption behind the broader question is this: we are in the same place in redemptive history as the canonical actors. This is an unsustainable assumption. To put it directly: we are not Noah, Moses, David, or Elijah. Yes, Yahweh spoke quietly to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) but you and I are not Elijah. You and I are not the typological Old Covenant mediator (Moses) with whom Yahweh met face to face. In some ways you and I, as New Covenant Christians, have a more glorious position, since we have that for which they longed: the clear revelation of God the Son incarnate. You and I, however, are not actors in the canonical drama. We are recipients of the story and we participate in it, in Christ, by identity but God is not giving new revelation nor is he accomplishing new acts of redemption. There is only one outstanding act of redemption to come that is the glorious, visible, bodily return of Christ.

Yes, David danced before the ark but as Calvin reminded us centuries ago (CO, 7.609) but he did not do so as an example for us to imitate any more than the Israelite holy wars are to be imitated today. The Lord clearly commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20. The Lord commanded “when Yahweh your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword” (v. 13). If we are to be consistent in the way we are reading Scripture, any argument to take the Old Testament musical instruments must also take up the Old Testament command to conduct holy war. Yet, one does not see such an argument. Why not? We know that the Old Testament holy wars were typological (illustrative of heavenly and future realities) and completed with the death of Christ but we are reluctant to apply that logic to the use of musical instruments. Why not? The answer is fairly straightforward, if difficult to read: musical instruments are familiar and pleasant but holy war is unfamiliar and unpleasant.

2 Chronicles 29:25–28 connects inextricably the religious use of musical instruments to the Old Covenant ceremonies that we know to have been fulfilled by the life and death of Jesus:

And he stationed the Levites in the house of Yahweh with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from Yahweh through his prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to Yahweh began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished (ESV).

Yahweh commanded the very priests who were shedding the blood of animals also to play musical instruments in religious worship. Those instruments were splattered figuratively (and perhaps literally) with the blood of bulls and goats.  Christians regularly appeal to the use of musical instruments under the Old Covenant as grounds for using them today but they recoil when it suggested that we follow the pattern to its logical end.

The book of Hebrews is clear that the Old Covenant worship (cultus) was typological, that it has been fulfilled by Christ and that any return to it is an insult to the finished work of Christ. This argument was at the heart of the Protestant response to the thirteenth-century doctrine of the memorial, propitiatory (satisfying and wrath-turning), memorial, figurative re-sacrificing of Christ in the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). Trent’s ratification of the 4th Lateran Council was in direct contradiction to the virtually the entire book of Hebrews.

Yet, when it began to suit us in the 17th century (in the Netherlands) and later in the 18th and 19th centuries in the British Isles and in USA, we began to do the very thing for which we had criticized the Romanists in the 16th century. We had begun to clean off the blood, as it were, from the types and shadows and to restore them to Christian worship. To be sure, it had been done in the 16th century by the Lutherans but even Thomas Aquinas ridiculed the use of musical instruments by Christians as “judaizing.” Everyone knew that the early church had unequivocally and strongly rejected the use of musical instruments on the same grounds and that, though the organ had been introduced into Christian worship in the 7th century in Spain (in one place), they were hardly used even in the middle ages. They were forbidden from Papal masses as inappropriate for such a solemn occasion.

These examples illustrate the grave biblical, theological, logical, and historical problems with the broader argument: if believers did x in Scripture we may we not do it now? We may not do it now because those actions were peculiar to that period of redemptive history. This is why the apostles did not take the sword against pagans. This is why they preached Christ and called pagans to repentance and faith. This is why they sang God’s Word in worship without the ceremonies of the typological period of redemptive history. They knew where they were in redemptive history.

So too, we need to realize where we are. We are not in the canon. We are recipients of the canon. We are not actors in the story except by identification. We are recipients of the story. This basic principles will help us understand how to approach the Revelation in part 2.


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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. I am just curious about the argument regarding the instruments being covered in blood. It seems the singers would have been too. So where does that leave us? Just because instruments are not mentioned specifically, for instance in Paul’s epistles, does not necessarily mean there were none, or more specifically, that they were not allowed by the apostles. I am more curious than anything, but it seems to me the tradition was no instruments, but also that there is no specific prohibition. I am fine with the tradition answer, but I struggle on pulling it from the text. It has always seemed to me more of an inference based on what could be discerned from tradition and history. That doesn’t mean I agree with rock band style worship as I certainly don’t, and I like the tradition, but I just struggle with being able to say that it is a principle revealed in Scripture using the same hermeneutics that we use for things like the Trinity. You can certainly delete my comment, but I am earnest, and just curious, I am not trying to be irritating, and hopefully am not. Thank-you for your Blog, it is a blessing to me and always keeps me thinking about God, which is a good thing!

    • Charles,

      Great question!

      I your point, that the Levitical priests were splattered in blood is really important. They were. That’s why the Pastor to the Hebrews says that we must leave behind the types and shadows.

      It’s not a question of whether instruments were mentioned. It’s a question of whether they were commanded. We have no such command in the New Covenant. The instruments were a part of the ceremonial system. They were as fulfilled as holy war and hand washing. See the linked article in the essay above.

      We know from 2 Chron 29 that they were commanded under the OT. We know that they were fulfilled by Christ. The question now is, as always, what is commanded. We know from history that the synagogues sang a cappella. We know from history that the early church sang a cappella. So, in order to conclude that the apostles did it we should have to believe that they did it (despite their absence from the synagogue, which greatly influenced early Christian worship, and despite their association with the priestly typological worship) that they were used through the 90s AD but rejected by 110. None of the Apostolic Fathers knows anything about the apostles using instruments. Some of the Apostolic Fathers had direct contact with the Apostle John, and they say nothing about their use. Had they any inkling that it was apostolic practice, they would have continued it but instead they wrote strongly against them.

      It’s not a matter of tradition. It’s history. What do we know that the apostles and early Christians actually did and why they did it? We know that.

      So, it’s the wrong question to ask, “are they forbidden?” Great lots of things aren’t expressly forbidden but we don’t do them because the question Scripture teaches us to ask, which we confess, is: what has God commanded? We do only what he has commanded.

  2. I guess we can say, then, that God has not commanded, “thou shalt not use musical instruments in worship.”
    In addition, I just read Psalm 33:1-2; in the first verse, we are instructed to “sing joyfully to the Lord” and in the second verse to “praise the Lord with the harp.” By the reasoning in your blog, singing should also be excluded from worship.

    • From my understanding I dont think if the argument is excluding singing, if so he couldn’t have mentioned this(This is why they sang God’s Word in worship without the ceremonies of the typological period of redemptive history. They knew where they were in redemptive history.)

  3. But this statement is great(In some ways you and I, as New Covenant Christians, have a more glorious position, since we have that for which they longed: the clear revelation of God the Son incarnate.)

  4. Dr Clark, what do you think of the covenant renewal ceremony as a pattern for New Testament worship? Would this be improper due to the fact that we are in a different redemptive historical period?

    • Mike,

      Great question! I love it. In fact, we have a divinely-instituted covenant renewal ceremony: Holy communion. That’s exactly what it was intended to be, that ritual/sacrament in which God renews to us his covenant of grace and in which we respond with appropriate pledges of fidelity and gratitude. In the Supper the covenant into which we were outwardly initiated in baptism is renewed. The Supper is the gospel made visible. Hence, in the Heidelberg Catechism we confess:

      75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?

      Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises:1 First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.

      1 Matt 26:26-28. Mark 14:22-24. Luke 22:19, 20. 1 Cor 10:16,17. 1 Cor 11:23-25. 1 Cor 12:13.

      76. What does it mean to eat the crucified body and drink the shed blood of Christ?

      It means not only to embrace with a believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ, and thereby to obtain (Bergebung) the forgiveness of sins and life eternal (ewiges Leben);1 but moreover also, to be so united more and more to His sacred body by the Holy Spirit,2 who dwells both in Christ and in us, that, although He is in heaven3 and we on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone,4 and live and are governed forever by one Spirit, as members of the same body are by one soul.5

      1 John 6:35,40,47,48. John 6:50-54. 2 John 6:55,56. 3 Acts 3:21. 1 Cor 11:26. 4 Eph 3:16-19. Eph 5:29, 30, 32. 1 Cor 6:15,17,19. I John 4:13. 5 John 14:23. John 6:56-58. John 15:1-6. Eph 4:15,16. John 6:63.

      77. Where has Christ promised, that He will thus feed and nourish believers with His body and blood, as certainly as they eat of this broken bread and drink of this cup?

      In the institution of the Supper, which says: “The Lord Jesus the same night in which He was betrayed took bread: and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and said, Take eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also He took the cup, when He had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till He come.”1 And this promise is also repeated by St. Paul,2 where he says: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.”

      There is one caveat: Some federal visionist congregations have appropriate the language of “covenant renewal” to describe their worship services. The Federal Vision theology is a gross error that undermines the gospel and rightly condemned by the confessional P&R churches. When the FVists speak of “covenant renewal” they use it as a way of putting God’s people back under the law for their standing before God and for their salvation.

      So, for pastoral reasons I am cautious about using this language lest people be confused.

    • Thanks Dr. Clark. I appreciate the answer.

      I guess what I had in mind is the idea that the covenant renewal ceremony of the OT had a basic liturgical pattern. Would you see the NT covenant renewal ceremony as having a similar liturgy? Or would you see NT worship as being a different redemptive historical era and thus not bound to have that same basic pattern. Thanks for your time

      • What do you mean by “covenant renewal”?

        As I understand the biblical pattern of worship there is a call by the Word (read, preached, confessed, & made visible in the sacraments) and a response by God’s people, in prayer & song with his Word.

    • Thanks for the reply Dr. Clark. I am in agreement with you on your understanding of covenant renewal.

      But I have also thought of the NT worship service along the lines of a covenant ratification/renewal ceremony, such as Exodus 24. In this there was a basic pattern, i.e sacrifices at the bottom of the mountain, instruction in the Law, sharing a meal, etc. There seems to be an outline of a basic liturgy here. Do you regard this as something that can be an appropriate NT liturgy?

      For example, in this text, God called Israel to worship. This would be traditional call to worship. Then the sacrifices imply an acknowledgment of sin and need for forgiveness, as well as an atonement of sin typologically signified by the sacrifices. This would be the traditional confession and absolution in the liturgy. Then Moses gave instruction in the Law. This would be the sermon. Then they shared a covenant meal. This would be the Lord’s Supper.

      My question is this, “Do you think that this is inappropriate as a justification for NT liturgy because we are in a different redemptive historical period?”

      Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  5. ‘Bucer had spoken throughout the Foreword to the Strasbourg Song Book (1541) of psalms and sacred songs or spiritual songs, and in doing so, as he himself more than once acknowledged, he was following the tradition established by Luther of permitting all kinds of music and all kinds of texts to be sung in church as well as outside it. But what was variety for Luther and Bucer was promiscuity for Calvin.’ John Barber – Reformed Perspectives Vol. 8. No. 26. Luther & Calvin couldn’t agree. ‘Let every man be convinced in his own mind.’

    • Allan,

      I give you an extensive biblical defense of the historic, confessional Reformed position and you come back to me with Bucer. That’s amusing.

      It’s also the case that everyone who wants to be Reformed and adopt the 18th-19th-century view, appeals to him as their precedent. The problem is that his position was an outlier. None of the Reformed churches in Europe or the British Isles confessed his view. Further, I have doubts that his view is represented well in the secondary literature, because this is such an emotionally charged question.

  6. Dear Dr Clark,

    A brilliant article. As for the objection: “but if musical instruments are forbidden, so is singing” – the answer is simple. Singing is commanded in Scripture. Therefore, it must be done.

    Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; (Eph. 5:19)

    Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Col. 3:16)

    But as for musical instruments – as you say – we must look for a warrant in New Testament worship, and there isn’t one.

  7. Dear Dr Clark,

    You mention above (correctly) that the synagogues did not use musical instruments. The orthodox Jews still don’t. I live in Jerusalem, and there must be about eight synagogues in our immediate area. You can hear them singing on their Shabbat. No instruments.

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