The Ancient Christian church did not use musical instruments in public worship. They did not enter public worship in the West until the middle of the 8th century, i.e., well into the early medieval period. Further, that was one isolated instance, in Spain, licensed by the Roman bishop. As I have noted here many time times, even as late as the late 13th century Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74), who was reasonably well-traveled for a medieval scholar, seemed unaware of the use of musical instruments in public worship. He called their use in public worship “Judaizing,” i.e., an unjustified return to types and shadows by Christians. In our time, however, we are awash with musical instruments in public worship in even what are the most confessionally conservative Reformed churches.
The Disconnection Between Our Past And Our Present
In our context, it is easy to assume that Christians have always used instruments in public worship. The reasoning is as straightforward as it is flawed: 1) We are Reformed; 2) We do x; 3) Ergo X must be a Reformed practice. Of course, the conclusion does not follow. It does not follow that whatever a person thinks, says, or does is necessarily Reformed in character. E.g., it is not difficult to find Reformed congregations that are otherwise quite conservative with buildings that feature visible representations of the second person of the Holy Trinity. Of course such is not a Reformed practice since it is a violation of the law of God as we confess it in our catechisms.
Just because musical instruments are widely used now in public worship, in Reformed and Presbyterian congregations, that does not make their use normal or the historic practice of the churches. In the sixteenth century, during the Reformation, following the apostolic practice and the ancient Christian practice, the Reformed churches banished musical instruments from their churches across Europe and the British Isles. E.g., the Synod of Dort ruled against them in 1578:
77. We do not consider the use of organs in the churches to be good especially for the preaching (services). Therefore, we judged that ministers should labor, even though organs are tolerated for a time, that they be removed at the earliest and most suitable time.
The difficulty the Dutch Reformed Churches faced was the need of the Reformed members of the civil government to make alliances with the more numerous and powerful Erasmians, who favored the use of instruments. Think of Parliamentary governments. When there are multiple political parties and none with a majority, alliances are necessary to form a government. So it was is the Netherlands and so the battle against instruments would continue with the Erasmians supporting them and the Reformed ministers opposing them for another century or so.
Two Ways Of Making Melody
Even though we have practically lost touch with our original understanding and practice of worship, the principle remains and calls us to reconsider our practice in light of Scripture as we originally understood it.
Yesterday I was meditating on Psalm 149:3 and Ephesians 5:19. The Psalm says:
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with timbrel and harp (Ps 149:3; ESV).
In the Greek translation of v. 3 says,
Praise his name in the choir, with the tympani, and making melody to him with the psaltry.1
There the verb for “making melody” (ψάλλω) could also be translated “praising.” For the purposes of this argument it does not matter much which we choose. In this context Ephesians 5:19 caught my attention and gave fuel to some doubts I have been entertaining about one part of my argument that I advanced in Recovering the Reformed Confession. There I expressed doubt that Ephesians 5:19 (and Col 3:16) had much to do with public worship. I doubt my doubt. There are hints in the context of Ephesians 5 that might suggest that, as part of his contrast between those who walk in darkness with those who walk in the light, Paul is thinking, at least in part of the passage, of public worship.
In vv. 19–21 he writes:
speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ (Eph 5:19–21; NASB).2
Verse 19 seems to correspond to v. 4 above: “and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (NASB).
Rather than “filthy talk” etc., which Paul associates with pagan debauchery, the mouths of Christians ought to be full of God’s Word: “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” These are three of the four types of songs in the Psalter (the 150 Psalms). It has become fashionable to dismiss this identification but typically I find that those who dismiss it have not spent the time to look at the Psalter as it appears in the LXX. When I did I was convinced that Paul did used established categories of songs known to the Ephesians congregation from the Greek translations of the Psalms (see the resources below).
Where would this speaking and praising take place? Where would they be speaking to one another in “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”? Where would they be “making melody in their hearts” and where would being “subject to one another” come to visible expression? In public worship.
The point of this essay, however, is this: as part of his argument to the Ephesians about how they ought to conduct themselves, in contrast to the way the pagans conduct themselves, he not only appeals to their singing of different kinds of songs from the Psalter but he also implicitly contrasts the way we do it now with the way it was done when the Psalms were originally given under the types and shadows of the Old Testament.
Singing The Psalms In Light Of Their Fulfillment
Recently it was argued to me: “You want us to sing Psalms but you do not want us to do what the Psalms say to do, namely, to play instruments.” That is correct and for good reason. The very same Psalms that urge us to play various kinds of instruments also urge us to conduct actual, military holy war against God’s enemies and sometimes they do so in the very same Psalm as in Psalm 149.
In v. 3 the Psalmist urges the choir (of Levitical priests; 2 Chron 29:20–36) to praise God using various musical instruments. Keep reading:
Let the high praises of God be in their mouth,
And a two-edged sword in their hand, To execute vengeance on the nations
And punishment on the peoples, To bind their kings with chains
And their nobles with fetters of iron, To execute on them the judgment written;
This is an honor for all His godly ones.
Praise the Lord! (Ps 149:6–9; NASB)
Under the Old Testament generally believers were under types and shadows, indicators of heavenly realities and future realities that we have now, in Christ. Under the Old Covenant, a temporary subset of the Old Testament, which began with Moses and ended with the death of Jesus, God also commissioned his national people to destroy his enemies militarily. Under the Old Covenant, God’s people worshipped him with a musical instrument in one hand and a sword in the other. More than that, the same Psalms that called the Old Covenant people to worship the Lord by using musical instruments also called him to worship him with blood sacrifices and offerings: “
Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices,
In burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then young bulls will be offered on Your altar (Ps 51:19; NASB).
It is true that the sacrifice that the Lord has always required are “a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart” (Ps 51:17; NASB) but it is also true that, under the types and shadows, those virtues were to expressed outwardly with ritual, bloody sacrifices. In other words, it does not seem possible to extract the instruments of Psalms 149 and 150, for use in New Covenant worship, from the holy war of Psalm 68, 149, 74, and 89 et al or from the animal sacrifices commended throughout the Psalter.
Under the New Covenant we understand that Christ fulfilled all those types and shadows. We are not called to engage in a literal, military holy war. Our war is real but it is spiritual, against principalities and powers (Eph 6:12). Christ is the Lamb of God (John 1:29). He is the temple (John 2:19). He is our high priest (Heb 2:17; 3:1; 4:14; ch. 7–10). All the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). When Jesus said, “It is finished” all the sacrifices were done “once for all” (Heb 7:27). They will never be re-established.
The ancient Christian understanding and the original Reformed understanding of the movement of redemptive history is that all the types and shadows, the sacrificial system, the holy war, the ceremonial laws, the the civil laws were all fulfilled by Christ and they all expired with the death of Christ.
We should see Paul’s implied contrast here with in Ephesians 5:19 and Psalm 149:3. Under the types and shadows we were called to praise God (“make melody”) with instruments but to the Ephesians Paul wrote that they should be “making melody (ψάλλοντες) to the Lord with the heart.” Paul used the same verb as used in the LXX of Psalm 149:3. He used the same construction. The instruments of praise in Psalm 149 are literal musical instruments. Under the New Covenant, the instrument of praise, of making melody, is “the heart.”
We might miss the contrast because, frankly, for most evangelical and Reformed folk today that Psalter is a lost book but as we regain familiarity with Psalms and sing them the contrast that would have been evident to the Ephesian church is perhaps hidden from us to the extent that we do not much sing the Psalms any more. For those used to singing Psalm 149, they might have expected Paul to say, “making melody with timbrel and lyre” or “with “tympani and psaltry” (LXX) but he did not. He said “with the heart.” The instrument of New Covenant worship is the heart.
Further, in contrast to Psalm 149 Paul said nothing about dancing or (Levitical) choirs. Those things also belong to the types and shadows. As he explained to the Colossians, using the same formula from the Psalter, we sing “with thankfulness” in our “hearts to God.”
So, yes, Paul calls us to sing God’s Word (the Psalms) to him, in public worship, but without the types and shadows. We are sing with the understanding that the types and shadows embedded in the Psalms have been fulfilled for us in Christ and rejoice in that reality.
1. Αἰνεσάτωσαν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐν χορῷ, ἐν τυμπάνῳ καὶ ψαλτηρίῳ ψαλάτωσαν αὐτῷ (Brenton).
2. λαλοῦντες ἑαυτοῖς [ἐν] ψαλμοῖς καὶ ὕμνοις καὶ ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς, ᾄδοντες καὶ ψάλλοντες τῇ καρδίᾳ ὑμῶν τῷ κυρίῳ, εὐχαριστοῦντες πάντοτε ὑπὲρ πάντων ἐν ὀνόματι τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τῷ θεῷ καὶ πατρί.
Ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ1, (NA 27).
Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs in the Septuagint.
Wow, this is intense.
I like this!
I can see the logic of applying the Old Covenant/New Covenant rubric to musical instruments: The moral law that justified now condemns (and leads to Christ/repentance) since the external visible standards were refined/escalated to private and internal thoughts. In a parallel way, purity that used to be cultural is now imputed. And worship itself moved from an external legal racial/cultural ritual community practice to an internal grace-driven interaction with and expression through the Holy Spirit. Right? From sacrifice to confession.
In short, just as the law became condemnation by heart, just as ritual purity gave way to salvation by heart (or confession by heart), worship became praise by heart.
A quick guard:
Just because the law condemns our failure doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue what success we can; just because ritual doesn’t bring salvation doesn’t mean we cannot clap; just because vestments aren’t holy doesn’t mean I shouldn’t wear a nice scarf; just because music is external ritual doesn’t mean we can’t play.
As an example, I visited a church where everyone wore a dress shirt or a dress. If I recognize similarities to the Old Covenant external visible symbolic holiness (like the Amish), I must not condemn them for it. Some of it just culture. By that I mean “amoral” not “immoral.”
One more note: I hear you suggesting implicitly that musical instruments are a type and shadow of Christ. You must say this more clearly! This is a book!
I appreciate you!
Saint Louis, MO
I’m saying it explicitly. See the resources.
Book? See Recovering the Reformed Confession for starters.
Scott, I have heard this position before but have not studied it yet. Am I following correctly? You are arguing that instruments do not have a place in corporate worship during a church service, are you also arguing by extension that instruments should not be involved in Christian music outside of the church?
These are not new arguments. I’m just re-stating older arguments, which date to the middle of the 2nd century AD, which were revived by the Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries.
I’m not seeking to bind anyone’s conscience as to what they do outside of public worship. As far as I know, Christians are free to gather and to play instruments and sing hymns. Zwingli himself was a musician. The question here is what has God commanded and do types and shadows belong in New Covenant worship? The ancient Christian answer was a resounding no. The consensus Reformed argument, during the Reformation (with a couple of possible exceptions in Basel and Strasbourg) was no.
Check out the resources linked at the bottom of the article.
Resources On The Rule Of Worship
Resources On Psalm Singing
Resources For Recovering Psalmody
Thank you for your response, I recognize they are not new arguments, my rhetoric could have been clearer. I will have to spend more time reading. I grew up in a PCA church that did not hold to this and had an organ or piano with an occasional accompanying instrument so it was not a concept I was ever introduced to. Thanks for bringing this up for our edification.
RSC: Appreciate your post. I noticed your question in the comments: ” … do types and shadows belong in New Covenant worship?” I recall Gaffin arguing that the weekly sabbath-day of worship and rest does belong in New Covenant worship and is a shadow and type of the sabbath-age to come. Any thoughts on how that view might relate to the overall point that shadows and types don’t belong in NC worship?
I would rather say that the Christian Sabbath anticipates the eternal Sabbath and even participates in it but I notice that Hebrews speaks of a/the remaining Sabbath rest without making our Sabbath a type & shadow.
It seems needlessly confusing to speak of NT types & shadows since it has a clear sense & reference, in Hebrews, to Old Covenant types & shadows fulfilled by Christ.
@ Joe in St. Louis, you said,”…A quick guard: Just because the law condemns our failure doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue what success we can; just because ritual doesn’t bring salvation doesn’t mean we cannot clap; just because vestments aren’t holy doesn’t mean I shouldn’t wear a nice scarf; just because music is external ritual doesn’t mean we can’t play…”
Please elaborate further. There are things going on in post-Finney evangelical churches that resemble little more than entertainment. The choir loft is in front of the congregation where the singers can be seen. If the congregation is wealthy enough, a pipe organ is often elaborate and built into the structure behind the choir. In more current times the “stage” is set up with brass, strings, or occasionally a full orchestra. Now and then a very talented soloist performs. Off and on the congregation applauds the performances of these various musicians. At the end of the service, the organist plays a postlude, usually some complicated piece from Bach or similar, during which many in the congregation who remained to sit and listen applaud at the end of his performance.
Explain to me how this is not merely entertainment. If challenged about this, those in the congregation will often respond that they are applauding the talented musicians’ giving of praise to God. No way I’ll ever be convinced of that – it’s entertainment and they’re simply applauding a performance, period.
Some have said that they are using their “spiritual gifts” of music to give praise. Show me where Paul includes any kind of musicianship in his list of spiritual gifts. The thing RSC is trying to emphasize is to get past this entire business of being all about us and our various talents in worship. After all, if one has little or no musical capability he or she is often looked down on as lacking by those are talented. That is not where Paul would have us go and is certainly not just making melody from the heart. It is a dividing of those who have (as greater) from those who have not (as lesser) in the congregation.
George some great points. As I was dwelling on this recently it quickly became clear that all of the strife I have witnessed in churches over worship were unnecessary and at times divisive. And I have come to realize this is because the model practiced does not have biblical support which means the answers to the following are difficult to come by and full of our opinions and culture… What kind of instruments? Who should be allowed on the worship team? Should there even be a worship team? What songs should be allowed? and it goes on and on and on…
George, I appreciate you asking for further elaboration & I’m sorry I wasn’t clear.
When I said clapping I did not mean the response of approval from an audience after a performance. I meant the active physical rhythmic clapping of a congregation DURING worship. That’s my fault.
And you do make a fair point about the possibility of hostility between groups with different, or even greater, gifts. But this possibility is not limited to music. For instance, what about clothing choices? Some clothing was mandated under the Old Covenant, and none is mandated in the New Covenant. Do we come without clothes? (I’m sorry if that sounds silly!)
When I say that the Amish have acted on your advice here to try to get past the entire business of being all about us, I am not at all being derogatory or insincere. I love and respect the Amish. I appreciate that these are difficult issues.
This topic is much bigger than clothing. Even prayers of praise and confession run the risk of vanity. Maybe some churches don’t have times of prayer and praise from the congregation? I don’t know what the New Testament specifically says about worship.
I’ll write again when I finish rereading Clark’s chapter on Reformed Worship.
Sincerely and Warmly
Is singing the Psalms Eurocentric? Rhetorical questions but many reformed folks think and act like it is. Read the writings of St. Anthanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria in Northern Africa on the Psalms and their great usage for singing them.
Singing Psalms is indeed ecumenical in the best sense of the word. It is also transcultural. I’ve been making that point on the HB for some time.
Yes you have Pastor Clark, thank you!
“There is, however, one word of warning needed. No one must allow himself to be persuaded, by any arguments what-ever, to decorate the Psalms with extraneous matter or make alterations in their order or change the words them-selves. They must be sung and chanted in entire simplicity, just as they are written, so that the holy men who gave them to us, recognizing their own words, may pray with us, yes and even more that the Spirit, Who spoke by the saints, recognizing the selfsame words that He inspired, may join us in them too. For as the saints’ lives are lovelier than any others, so too their words are better than ever ours can be, and of much more avail, provided only they be uttered from a righteous heart. For with these words they themselves pleased God, and in uttering them, as the Apostle says, they subdued kingdoms, they wrought righteousness, they obtained promises, they stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens, women received their dead by resurrection. [Heb 11:33-36]” – St. Anthanasius
In relation to this topic, do you have any previous postings, reading suggestions, or opinions on the direction of “exclusive psalmody?” I have been discussing with some of our RPCNA brethren on their stance of only using the psalter in public worship versus the use of hymns and “new songs.” I am not convinced of their argument. It appears we (OPC & URC) don’t interpret the Regulative Principle of Worship the same as our RPCNA friends on this issue.