A Peculiar Mind Viewed Historically

Writing in the 1940 s, Elmer T. Clark observed: It may be a peculiar type of mind which is convinced that God is interested in whether His worshippers sing with or without instrumental accompaniment, but it is a real type, and there are some 400,000 American minds in that category (The Small Sects in America, p.16). The interesting thing about this observation is that the mind which Mr. Clark found peculiar in the twentieth century was once the majority, if not unanimous, view of those who saw themselves as Christians.

The writers of the New Testament do not mention any use of musical instruments in the worship of the disciples of Christ. Post-apostolic writers not only are silent about their use in Christian worship, but some speak explicitly against their employment.

Origen (185-254 A.D.), commenting on Psalm 32:2, said: The musical instruments of the Old Testament understood spiritually are applicable to us. The kithara (harp), speaking figuratively, is the body, the psalterion (psaltery) the spirit.

Eusebius of Caesarea (260-340 A.D.), commenting on Psalm 92:2-3, is more explicit: 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 kithara But we in an inward manner keep the part of the Jew, according to the saying of the apostle (Romans 2:28f). We render our hymns with a living psalterion and a living kithara, with spiritual songs. The unison voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument.

Chrysostom (345-407 A.D.), commenting on Psalm 150, echoes Eusebius: Therefore, just as the Jews are commanded to praise God with all musical instruments so we are commanded to praise him with all our members - the eye, the tongue, ear, the hand. These instruments were then allowed because of the weakness of the people, to train them to love and harmony.

It is evident from these representative citations (and many others) that the post-apostolic churches did not worship with musical instruments because they recognized that the practice was part of an out-worn system that ended with the coming of Christ. For them, the use of such instruments was not an advance, but a step back in history.

There is some disagreement among historians as to when the first musical instrument (an organ) was introduced into the worship of the Catholic Church, some think as late as the tenth century. Their use must have been unusual as late as 1250 A.D. when Thomas Aquinas, a sainted Catholic doctor, wrote: Instruments of music such as harps and psalteries, the church does not adopt for divine praises, lest it should seem to Judaize.

In the intervening years between Aquinas and the Reformation, the once unusual practice became normative for the first time. The churches of the Lutheran and Anglican reformations continued the use of musical instruments in worship from their Catholic past, working on the principle that what was not forbidden was authorized, but the Reformed churches (the result of the work of Zwingli, Calvin and later Knox) and the Anabaptist branches of the Reformation rejected their use as a Catholic corruption.

Commenting on Psalm 71:22, Calvin wrote: To sing praises of God upon the harp and psaltery unquestionably formed a part of the training of the law and of the service of God under that dispensation of shadows and figures; but they are not now to be used in public thanksgiving. Commenting on Psalm 92:1, he said: For it appears that the Papists, as I shall have occasion to show elsewhere, in employing instrumental music cannot be said so much to imitate the practice of God’s ancient people as to ape it in a senseless and absurd manner, exhibiting a silly delight in the worship of the Old Testament which was figurative, and terminated with the gospel.

The Reformed movement’s strong objection to musical instruments in worship as the corruption of Rome and a return to the now terminated shadows of the Old Testament served for a number of years to preclude their use by the Presbyterians and Baptists. Even the Methodists refused to have them. But in the 19th century this began to change. In the midst of the century, Methodist churches began increasingly to use the organ. In the latter half of the century, the Scotch Presbyterians officially authorized the. In 1881, the general assembly of the United Presbyterian Church of America voted by the slim margin of 8 votes to remove from their Directory for Worship the following words: As the use of musical instruments in the New Testament Church has no sanction in the Bible, they shall not be introduced, in any form, in any of our congregations.

In just this way, a mind that once dominated in the writers of the New Testament and the earlier mind of both Catholic and Reformed scholars has become the peculiar mind of America’s small sects. Time changes things. Not always for the better.