Wineskins Archive

December 18, 2013

The Early Church on Instrumental Music (Sept-Dec 2010)

Filed under: — @ 9:51 am and

by Danny Corbitt
September – December, 2010

Accompanied or A Capella?It’s fun to look at an Old World map of the Earth. Like gazing at a modern map of the Earth through a fun-house mirror, we see the resemblance … and smile at what might only be Earth’s cousin. True, the land masses are mostly there, but the detail is considerably skewed. Explorers once sailed with those maps because they were the best available, but no one charts a course by them today.

Like the 16th Century map makers, 16th Century theologians had their own limitations. Cartographers’ missing and remolded land masses are matched by abbreviated, re-sequenced and misinterpreted claims about church history. The chief difference between the two is that where cartographers were limited by knowledge, the Reformers “were compelled by their allegiances to construct revised versions of the past,” history that was “selective and interpretive.”1 Reformers such as Calvin and Zwingli called for sweeping changes based on their perspective of early church history, but we have the advantage of access to the whole story. There’s great danger to us if we chart our course today based on 16th Century representations of early church history.

For example, Puritans praised God without musical instruments in part because they thought musical instruments had been opposed by a Christian named Justin Martyr in the middle of the Second Century.2 Modern historians have long known that the quote the Puritans credited to Martyr actually came hundreds of years later.3 Even today, though, if you look at our Church of Christ Web sites, you will typically see us lead with this statement, mistakenly attributed to Justin Martyr and misplaced centuries out of time. Conversely, our Web sites will make no mention of a Christian telling how he praised God with his lyre, possibly written a generation before even Martyr.4 One wonders why our maps of history still echo 16th Century models. Why aren’t we catching up? Did we stop doing serious research a century ago?

Readers may not be aware of the numerous books that have been written even in our own generation on the subject of early Christian music. An amazing, widespread agreement regarding early church music has been built among scholars of early church history. We have a much clearer picture of the early church, and so we’re no longer slaves to a 16th Century caricature. Comparing the Old World map of church history to a modern map reveals that our Old World map has been wrong about (1) the influence of the synagogue, (2) the influence of Greek and Jewish philosophy, (3) the influence of the Christian asceticism, and (4) the origin of scriptural arguments.

The Synagogue. Maps of early church history once argued that Christian worship adopted its practice of singing from the a cappella, First Century synagogues. In contrast, J. A. Smith summarizes the consensus among modern scholars: not only is there absolutely no evidence of singing (or chanting) in the First Century synagogue, but also the church did not adopt its worship from the synagogue anyway.5 Moreover, in the earliest centuries, it was common meals (the love feast or agapē) rather than the Lord’s Supper assemblies where Christian songs of praise were fostered.6

Greek and Jewish Philosophy. We have claimed that the early church preference for voice over instruments was unique and could therefore only have come from God. We have said that Christian opposition to the degeneration of music in the Roman culture also singled them out. Instead, modern “maps” show that Jewish philosophers and the Greeks philosophers before them were the ones who first favored the voice over instruments7 and who spoke out against the degeneration of music in the Roman culture.8

Perhaps the strongest philosophical influence upon the early church, however, was a new method of interpreting scripture. It came by way of a contemporary of Jesus, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Building on Greek philosophy, Philo taught that correctly understanding scripture requires one to go beyond the literal meaning to derive an allegorical one.9 Although Philo was not a Christian, his works were adopted and exclusively preserved by Christians. Beginning with Clement of Alexandria (died 215) (note that both are from Alexandria), Philo’s allegorical method became a standard for early Christian interpretation of scripture.10

Their thought seems to be that if the story of Hagar and Sarah could teach an allegorical lesson about covenants (Gal 4:21-31), then imagine what hidden meanings we could find by interpreting nearly everything allegorically! One of my favorite musical allegories comes from Niceta of Remesiana (died after 414), speaking of David:

While still a lad, singing sweetly yet strongly to the cithara [harp], he subdues the evil spirit which worked in Saul — not because such was the power of his cithara, but because a figure of the cross of Christ was mystically projected by the wood and the stretching of the strings, so that it was the Passion itself that was sung and that subdued the spirit of the demon.11

Setting aside the misquote of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria moves to the top of our list of Church Fathers who opposed instruments in praise, although his opposition is outside of an assembly, where we accept instruments. He writes of Jesus “scorning the lyre and cithara as lifeless instruments.” Because Clement can cite no supporting scripture, one might wonder how he got there. Clement explains that Jesus “sings to God on his many-voiced instrument and he sings to man, himself an instrument.”12

Perhaps you’ve heard the allegory that man is God’s musical instrument for so long that you no longer recognize it as scripturally homeless, born instead of the Third Century allegorical search for God’s “hidden meanings.”

Nevertheless, allegory had not yet completely overcome literal understanding. In the specific context of Col 3:16, Clement elsewhere approves of praising God on this same lyre and cithara.13 Still, you’ll only see his allegorical quotes on our Web sites.

Our “maps” do not note how Third Century Christians of the School of Alexandria began reinterpreting the instruments of the Bible in an allegorical sense,14 following the influence of Greek and Jewish philosophy. Western Church Fathers, on the other hand, were not so quickly influenced by the musical allegory of the School of Alexandria, although they agreed in opposing the immoral influences of music in their culture.15 For example, Novatian (died 258) said that when musical instruments were used for immoral purposes, then “sacred things have been transferred into illicit ones.”16 The persecution that cost him his life, however, was about to change everything.

Asceticism. Hermits. Recluses. The Decian persecution of 247-248 AD was the worst that Christianity had ever known. Many were martyred. Others fled the cities to escape, assuming the humblest of circumstances, leading to the monastic system.17 In time, we read of how these ascetics prayed at set hours throughout the day and often through the night.18 To maintain prayers for extended periods of time, they recited the Psalms. Of course, the Psalms were not written in 3/4 time; they don’t rhyme; they defy singing in the Western way. But they could be chanted.

The sons of the Decian persecution came to oppose instruments in all praise. (A public worship versus private worship distinction was unimaginable). In a wave of writing from roughly 350 to 425 AD, they promoted the ascetic lifestyle as the ideal for all Christians. To read our Web site lists of Christians who opposed instruments is to read a virtual roll call of Christian ascetics.19

The 4-year ascetic experience of John Chrysostom (died 407) permanently damaged his health,20 and he was “twice deposed and sent into exile because of his asceticism which he wanted to impose on others.”21 Jerome (died 420) taught that a virgin shouldn’t even know what a musical instrument is22 and that no man should ever hear a woman sing.23 Augustine (died 430) thought that singing itself was a concession to weak brothers.24 Following their ascetic map, it is no wonder that the Swiss reformer Zwingli banished even vocal singing from the churches.25 We speak of how these ascetics chanted, but we don’t chant.

Scriptural arguments. These ascetics offered their scriptural arguments for opposing musical instruments in praise. Most followed the pattern set by of the School of Alexandria, using allegory to reinterpret the instrumental language of the Bible.26 We don’t accept those arguments today. Indeed, it wasn’t many years ago that Church periodicals were filled with denunciation of the allegorical interpretation of scripture.27

The rival School of Antioch took exception to this model, preferring arguments from a more literal understanding of scripture. They contend that the Israelites had grown accustomed to playing instruments and making animal sacrifices to idols while in Egypt, and so God allowed these practices to continue as a “concession” to their weakness.28 This was God’s effort to “entice the Jews away from the worship of idols.”29 We don’t share that conclusion, either. We say that instruments were a shadow, but that is nothing like a concession, except that neither assertion is given in scripture.

Instead, Christian arguments painting the Jews as weak or sinful (and Gentiles as inclined toward faithfulness) were common evidence of the animosity between the two religions. Missionary rivalry had even seen Jews play an active role in the prosecution of Gentile Christians, such as Polycarp.30 Saying that commands of God were concessions to the distinctive weakness of the Jews played upon this unbiblical bias against Jews.

Modern arguments (e.g., that instruments are disallowed because God never named specific instruments in the commands to praise, that the meanings of the words for “sing” implied vocal singing only, or that all of these rules apply to public but not private worship, etc.) never occurred to the early church. Our modern arguments, as far removed from scripture as theirs, came along centuries later in an attempt to find scriptural reasons for opposing instruments better than the ones we inherited from the ascetics of either school of thought.

Conclusion. I grieve that in centuries gone by my brothers suffered the Decian persecution (even as others still suffer horribly today). Still, I want to praise God with all my strength and a heart full of joy, unshackled by the asceticism that their heirs wished for me. The modern map of early church history is free of misunderstanding about the role of the First Century synagogue and free of the Third and Fourth Century detours of allegory, asceticism, and claims about concessions to the weak. It’s time our maps told the whole story.
1 James McKinnon, The Temple, the Church Fathers and Early Western Chant (Ashgate, 1998), p. VII, 241.
2 John Price, Old Light on New Worship (Avinger, TX: Simpson Publishing Company, 2007), p.108
4 James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p 24.
5 J.A. Smith, The Ancient Synagogue, the Early Church and Singing¸ published in Music & Letters, January 1984.
6 McKinnon, Music…, p. 9.
7 “Philo [First Century Jewish philosopher] reflects the Greek contempt for instrumental music.”
Louis H. Feldman, Studies in Hellenistic Judaism (Brill, 1996), p. 525.
8 “The overall picture of music in the Roman Empire is a picture of decadence; in fact, as early as Cicero (first century BCE) there were complaints about decline.”
Calvin Stapert, A New Song for an Old World, (Eerdmans, 2007) p. 137.
9 Herbert M. Schueller, The Idea of Music (Medieval Institure, 1988), p. 130-131.
10 McKinnon, Music…, pp. 6-7.
11 McKinnon, Music…, p. 135.
12 McKinnon, Music…, p. 30.
13 McKinnon, The Temple…, p. IV: 71.
14 Ibid.
15 McKinnon, Music…, p. 42.
16 “The Spectacles,” chapter 3, cited in McKinnon, Music…, p. 48.
17 McKinnon, Music…, p. 51.
18 Christopher Page, The Christian West and its Singers: The First Thousand Years, p. 134.
19 “…including Athanasius (died 373), Basil (died 379), Gregory of Nyssa (died 395), Ambrose (died 397), John Chrysostom (died 407), Jerome (died 420) and Augustine (died 430).”
Page, p. 136
20 McKinnon, Music…, p. 78.
21 Schueller, p. 227.
22 McKinnon, Music…, p. 142.
23 McKinnon, Music…, p. 145.
24 Ibid., p. 155.
25 Price, p.91.
26 McKinnon, The Temple…, p. IV: 76
27 For a contemporary example, see “Why Do People Misinterpret the Bible?”
28 McKinnon, Music…, pp. 83 & 107 cite examples from John Chrysostom and Theodoret.
29 McKinnon, Music…, p. 7.
30 Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (InterVarsity Press 2002), pp. 259 ff.
New Wineskins

Danny CorbittDanny Corbitt is the author of Missing More Than Music: When Disputable Matters Eclipse Worship and Unity, offering additional fresh material dealing with the instrumental music controversy. The book is available for purchase at or download.

Danny has worked as a youth minister, a missionary, and a state college minister for the Churches of Christ. He presently works as a computer programmer in Arlington, Texas. Danny and his wife, the former Cindy Russell, have been married for 25 years. They and their sons, Cason and Austin, love music.


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