A Cappella and the Ancients

Have you ever written something in vehement and vociferous opposition to something you like?

If you really enjoy watching a particular television program, do you spend a lot of words taking it apart piece by piece, critiquing the acting, the script, the cinematography, the score, the special effects and the editing?

If you feel it has a place in the world of entertainment, do you mention it at all in your writing? Or just enjoy it?

The reason I ask is that one of the claims made by those who seek to condemn instrumental praise is that “The early church didn’t use it.”

That, simply put, is a conclusion drawn from a handful of non-biblical historic critiques of the practice from people who obviously did not like it.

The source which makes that implication is none other than Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 275-339) in his commentary on Psalm 91:2-3:

Of old, at the time those of the circumcision were worshipping with symbols and types, it was not inappropriate to send up hymns to God with the psalterion and cithara and to do this on Sabbath days … We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living cithara with spiritual songs. The unison voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. Accordingly in all the churches of God, united in soul and attitude, with one mind and in agreement of faith and piety we send up a unison melody in the words of the Psalms.

He makes this statement at a time in church history when Christians could not agree on the relationship among God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. So it is possible that he writes of the way he feels the church should be, though not necessarily as it was. His remarks are, after all, commentary. (Though it’s also possible he polled all of his fellow bishops at the Council of Nicea [A.D. 325] and states an accurate summary. It’s one of those writings that you can easily accept as indisputable fact if you’re inclined to do so, seeing no other possibility.)

And his contemporary, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), gives a clue why he might have felt that way when describing the singing at Alexandria:

… musical instruments were not used. The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.

Now obviously their predecessor by a century, Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 190), didn’t like instruments either – and wrote that each of the instruments of the scriptures he knew actually meant the human voice:

Leave the pipe to the shepherd, the flute to the men who are in fear of gods and intent on their idol worshipping. Such musical instruments must be excluded from our wingless feasts, for they are more suited for beasts and for the class of men that is least capable of reason than for men. The Spirit, to purify the divine liturgy from any such unrestrained revelry chants: ‘Praise Him with sound of trumpet,” for, in fact, at the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise again; praise Him with harp,’ for the tongue is a harp of the Lord; ‘and with the lute. praise Him.’ understanding the mouth as a lute moved by the Spirit as the lute is by the plectrum; ‘praise Him with timbal and choir,’ that is, the Church awaiting the resurrection of the body in the flesh which is its echo; ‘praise Him with strings and organ,’ calling our bodies an organ and its sinews strings, for from them the body derives its Coordinated movement, and when touched by the Spirit, gives forth human sounds; ‘praise Him on high-sounding cymbals,’ which mean the tongue of the mouth which with the movement of the lips, produces words. Then to all mankind He calls out, ‘Let every spirit praise the Lord,’ because He rules over every spirit He has made. In reality, man is an instrument arc for peace, but these other things, if anyone concerns himself overmuch with them, become instruments of conflict, for inflame the passions. The Etruscans, for example, use the trumpet for war; the Arcadians, the horn; the Sicels, the flute; the Cretans, the lyre; the Lacedemonians, the pipe; the Thracians, the bugle; the Egyptians, the drum; and the Arabs, the cymbal. But as for us, we make use of one instrument alone: only the Word of peace by whom we pay homage to God, no longer with ancient harp or trumpet or drum or flute which those trained for war employ.

(Evidently Clement would have no difficulty with the singing group called A Cappella, which imitates instrumental sounds by using tongue and palate and lips.) Yet, in a work dated five years earlier, he weakens the argument by lauding the power of David’s harp to send “daemons” fleeing from Saul:

Moreover, King David the harpist, whom we mentioned just above, urged us toward the truth and away from idols. So far was he from singing the praises of daemons that they were put to flight by him with the true music; and when Saul was Possessed, David healed him merely by playing the harp. The Lord fashioned man a beautiful, breathing instrument, after His own imaged and assuredly He Himself is an all-harmonious instrument of God, melodious and holy, the wisdom that is above this world, the heavenly Word.” … “He who sprang from David and yet was before him, the Word of God, scorned those lifeless instruments of lyre and cithara. By the power of the Holy Spirit He arranged in harmonious order this great world, yes, and the little world of man too, body and soul together; and on this many-voiced instruments of the universe He makes music to God, and sings to the human instrument. “For thou art my harp and my pipe and my temple.”

… and he makes an interesting claim that “He who sprang from David and yet was before him, the Word of God, scorned those lifeless instruments of lyre and cithara.” One is led to presume he means Jesus, the only One who could have sprang from David yet preceded him. Yet the claim is unsubstantiated by scripture – unless the phrase that follows, “Thou art my harp and my pipe and my temple,” is a snippet of scripture lost to us yet known to Clement.

John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407) seems to echo Clement’s interpretation, yet it is not immediately clear that he is expressing any disdain for instrumental praise; he may simply be building a metaphor for the unity and full harmony of mind and body:

David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. He had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre with a different tone indeed but much more in accordance with piety. Here there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body. For when the flesh no longer lusts against the Spirit, but has submitted to its orders and has been led at length into the best and most admirable path, then will you create a spiritual melody.

Now, these are the most ancient of the sources I usually see quoted by folks who don’t like instrumental praise and are convinced that God hates it too.

The oldest is still nearly a century past century one, and far more than a hundred years past the cross and Pentecost. If the New Testament does imply an early church beset by difficulties without and within – pagan and Jewish persecution, Judaizing teachers, pre-Gnostic and/or Gnostic teachers; Roman emperors ordering them hunted down, tortured and slaughtered – and if those difficulties continued and worsened for the next couple of centuries, it would be perfectly understandable that cell churches would have worshiped as quietly as possible to avoid detection … followed by torture and protracted death, in many cases. Instrumental praise might not have been their first choice.

Expedience becomes practice; practice becomes precedent; precedent becomes tradition; and if we’re not careful, tradition becomes law – whether two thousand years ago, or less than two hundred.

Nevertheless, nearly two hundred years have passed within the span of century one to century three about which these writings tell us only one point of view. And it’s important to note that it is a point of view. It is commentary. It is not scripture. No one claims that these writers were inspired. They themselves do not claim it. Nor do these writings appeal to scriptures which directly support their point of view.

They are mere mentions among the volumes of works generated by some of these authors, which implies to me that their opinion on the matter was of distinctly less importance than many others they discussed.

So when those who dislike vocal and instrumental praise maintain it is incontrovertible fact that the early church absolutely did not worship with musical instruments and none of the apostolic or successive leaders approved of it … well, is it?

Really? When those who appreciated vocal and instrumental praise as they had known it in their previous worship – Jewish or pagan – would have felt no compunction to write against a cappella worship because they liked it, too?

Do these quotes prove anything other than the depth of history through which this difference of opinion extends?

And all those who followed – from Barclay to Clark to Knox to Luther to Spurgeon to Wesley; from Campbell to Franklin to Lipscomb to McGarvey to Stone to West, and all in between and beyond – surely had their opinions, too. Many of them are quoted by those who dislike instrumental praise. Do they not in those quotes state their own opinions, traditions, and interpretations on the matters of instrumental praise and a cappella worship, however well-researched and clever?

Would we agree with all of their opinions on other religious issues? With most of them? Would time change some of them? Might C.H. Spurgeon’s nineteenth-century declaration “I would as soon pray to God with machinery as to sing to God with machinery” be altered were he alive today and he realized that electronic machinery could help him lead prayer to millions?

I believe that the conclusion we can draw from these quotes is just this: It has long been true some folks like vocal and instrumental praise, and some folks prefer their a cappella worship unaccompanied.

And God, in His new covenant with man, mentions them together not at all. But scripture is not silent. He approved of both in the old covenant, whether together or separately. His revelation to John of Patmos paints a vision of both throughout eternity – whether literal or metaphorical.

Does it really make sense that His silence blesses and affirms one and condemns the other to eternal hell, but only during this span between the dawn of church and the end of days?

Or that He expects us to connect the dots between the eras and worship with the gifts and preferences He has given us, with all our hearts?


Footnote: I just received my copy of the eleventh ZOE Group album, Overflow two days ago. It is a cappella worship at its best, to my ears and heart. It is like being able to hear the songs as God must hear the rest of us singing: a blended, liquid, near-perfect praise. It is as refreshing as water, purifying to the spirit, expressive as the face of an uninhibited child. There are other a cappella groups who lead worship through their singing, and I love to listen to them and sing with them, too. I like some better than others, and some groups speak to the hearts of other listeners more keenly than to mine.

I love to sing in the gathered worship of my church family, multi-part harmony, completely without accompaniment. It is nowhere near perfection, but it is for the most part the honest expression of the hearts and voices of those I love, declaring their adoration of God and affection for each other. If someone were to try to introduce instrumental praise among them, it would violate the conscience of many and destroy that beautiful harmony. I would not ever wish that among my family. Causing such disunity would violate my conscience.

I also love to worship – though I have not availed myself of the opportunity very much – with voices accompanied by those whose expressions come through musical instruments. As with unaccompanied singing, this worship is not mere entertainment for those gathered, but I do believe it is entertainment for God. He hears His chlldren perform selflessly for His pleasure, together, for at least those brief moments. Sometimes this worship is quiet, reverent, meditative. Other times it is loud, thrilling, exhiliarating. And often it is somewhere in-between, because it is the collective expression of many, among whom are broken hearts and eager thanksgivings and givers and sharers and keepers and losers. There are thoughtful ones, achieving ones, social ones, private ones, analytical ones, experiential ones – and He made them and gifted them each to be unique.

And I believe His heart is touched by expression of praise of all these, His children, together. If He had intended for the expression of instrumental praise to be punishable by eternal hell-fire, I would think that at least a footnote to that effect would appear in His holy scriptures. If a cappella praise were to be required as a precondition to salvation, I should think that Jesus would have at least mentioned to God that His followers might always sing unaccompanied along with His petition that they might all be one.

So you must understand that I consider it very wrong for me to try to speak for God where God does not speak … to add to or subtract from what He has said … to judge when God has commanded not to judge … to condemn when I am clearly not qualified to do so … to rely solely on merely human knowledge and logic where divine matters are concerned. I want to hope that others share those convictions.

My personal preferences are not the same as God’s law. But God’s law is definitely my preference.

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14 thoughts on “A Cappella and the Ancients

  1. Thanks for that perspective, Keith. My preferences are pretty much the same…I love opportunities for instrumental praise…although the are usually only in my car! I have yet to actually get out to a Christian concert…I should get on that…Yet I grew up in the CoC, and a cappella music is what I’ve grown to know and love, and it will always have a special place in my heart.And I also enjoy listening to some a cappella in my car from time to time as well. I recently bought my first ZOE cd, because I’d heard quite a bit about them, but had really heard much of them. (But I don’t like to do much CD buying…I always end up with an entire CD of which I only listen to a few songs on it…*SIGH*) I especially like what you write about worship with your church family. 🙂14 minutes, by the way…that’s how long it took me to read that post. <>And worth every single one of them.<> Thank you, brother Keith!

  2. Great post brother.I think we spend to much time on issues that we should have settled many years ago. While we are focusing on these issues, people are dying. People are needing salvation. I believe as a Church and Christians we must get our focus back out Christian and understand that we have been called to go and make disciples. Again, this is such a great post. I hope you have a blessed weekend brother. Keep up the great posts!

  3. “I’d heard quite a bit about them, but <>hadn’t<> really heard much of them”That’s what I meant to say…I <>hadn’t<> heard much of their music…I hate typos…

  4. Thank you for this post. I have heard for a long time “the early church did not use instrumental music” and I have often wondered what sources people used for that statement. In my reading of the scriptures, it was certainly hard for me to contrive that it could be “gospel.” So I thank you for these resources to understand the argument! I was raised in the cofc. I love acapella music. My husband comes from a singing family, his grandfather use to hold singing schools in rural churches. Zoe is one of my favorite groups for acapella music. We have always been a singing family, both of our girls sing and competed in school with the choir and band! We are a “Sound of Music” family!About ten years ago, our church was in turmoil and split — partially over worship style. Many could not stand it that others would raise their hands in praise. Many were uncomfortable to have a group sing, praising God — they thought it was pure entertainment. I have mentioned here that we split and we have now merged with a Christian church and in our worship, we use both — acapella and instrumental. I have to admit at first, I was uncomfortable with any instrument use because I had grown up thinking it would condemn my soul! Yet, I can tell you I have no problem with it, now. In fact, my worship is much deeper than it ever has been in my life. Because……with my good soprano voice and loving to sing as I do, I often was more concerned with how I sounded to other people than what my heart was saying to God. With instruments, I don’t have to worry with how I sound. I can praise God and sing and hold my hands up high — to His Glory! Had anyone told me I would expect this change, I would have laughed. My praise to God is now what it should have been for many years, praise to God, not to man. I am not saying that is how it is with everyone. That is how it has been for me and I have grown more in my faith than ever before. Do I think every church should use instruments? Certainly not. In fact, it’s no business of mine what any other family does in their worship! THAT IS WHY WE ARE AUTONOMOUS! It is up to the leaders of that family to make those decisions and not up to me to judge or dictate what they do in their family. Again, thank you ever so much for your post. This worshipper appreciates it more than you will ever know or understand. Too often this has been the outcome of well meaning Christians — “Expedience becomes practice; practice becomes precedent; precedent becomes tradition; and if we’re not careful, tradition becomes law.”

  5. PegC – thanks, as always, for dropping by and sharing your perspective. I think division in the church is a bad thing – especially long division, where there are remainders and fractions.But I’m not certain that subtraction is …Sometimes it helps add to the church, and multiply believers.

  6. I enjoyed your historical perspective–and as usual, I agree with your conclusions!Thanks for putting this all together–I think it took me longer than 14 minutes to read it–but so worth it!

  7. This may be the best post I have read about anything in a LONG LONG time. Thanks brother!Now, what chapter is this going to be in the book? 🙂DU

  8. Oh, brother Keith! Your writing is just as good as his. In fact, you and Patrick are my favorites! There’s another blogger who was also my favorite, but this morning he announced that he was quitting for awhile…it made me sad.

  9. I haven’t commented in a long time over here, Keith, but keep up with you. I wanted to comment on this post because it is a good one and I like the way you presented your material.Good footnote, too, by the way.Cheers & Blessings to you all today! Deeof < HREF="http://deeandrews.net" REL="nofollow">Finding Direction: The Wind Vane Chronicles<>

  10. Unfortunately, these are not actual quotes. I’ve searched endlessly and I haven’t the foggiest as to where you found any of these quotes. Maybe if you could provide us with some links to the actual works themselves, that’d help.

  11. Erik, you can find some of these at sites which are proponents of <>a capella<>-only worship:< HREF="http://www.lookinguntojesus.net/20061029.htm" REL="nofollow">Looking Unto Jesus<>; < HREF="http://www.bible.ca/H-music.htm" REL="nofollow">Interactive Bible<>; < HREF="http://www.whatsaiththescriptures.com/ppt/Instrumental_Music.ppt" REL="nofollow">What Saith the Scriptures<>; < HREF="http://www.eastern-orthodoxy.com/mysteries2.htm" REL="nofollow">Eastern Orthodoxy<>; < HREF="http://oakhillcofc.wordpress.com/2006/02/26/instrumental-music-additional-historical-quotes/" REL="nofollow">Oak Hill Church of Christ<>; < HREF="http://inchristianlove.com/fromthescriptures/2006/02/instrumental-music-where-is-authority.html" REL="nofollow">In Christian Love blog<> and any number of other sources, erik; they are “actual quotes.”They are quotes of men who had and/or have definite opinions about instrumental praise. But you will not find those opinions expressed in scripture.

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