R.J. George, “Historical Argument against Instrumental Music in the Worship of God”

(1844-1911)

Lecture XVI
Historical Argument against Instrumental Music in the Worship of God

I. Instrumental Music Was Not Used in the Worship of the Apostolic Church.

Dr. J. R. W. Sloane, in the article referred to in the last lecture, says: “The practice of the apostolic and primitive Church is simply a matter of historical fact. Instruments of music were not used. So that we have that which is equivalent to a command — approved example: and not one word on the other side.” — Our Banner, 1880, p. 265.

The testimony furnished by McClintock and Strong’s encyclopedia is peculiarly weighty. There are two articles on the subject. One is signed “R. H.,” one of our own ministers, the late Robert Hutchison, who was always recognized as an able and scholarly writer. The other article is signed “J. H. W.,” who is Professor J. H. Worman, A.M., of Lawrence University, Wisconsin. He is an ardent advocate of the use of instrumental music in worship, as appears from his article on the organ in Vol. VII, p. 426; yet, on this subject, Professor Worman says: “The Greeks, as well as the Jews, were wont to use instruments as accompaniments in their sacred songs. The converts to Christianity, accordingly, must have been familiar with this mode of singing; yet it is generally believed that the primitive Christians failed to adopt instrumental music in their religious worship. The word Psallein, which the apostle uses in Ephesians 5:19, has been taken by some critics to indicate that they sang with such accompaniments. The same is supposed by some to be intimated by the golden harps which John, in the Apocalypse, put into the hands of the four and twenty elders. But if this be the correct inference, it is strange indeed that neither Ambrose, nor Basil, nor Chrysostom, in the noble encomiums which they severally pronounce upon music, make any mention of instrumental music. Basil, indeed, expressly condemns it as ministering to the depraved passions of men, and must have been led to this condemnation because some had gone astray and borrowed this practice from the heathens.”

Dr. Killen, in The Ancient Church: Its History, Doctrine, Worship, and Constitution, Traced for the First Three Hundred Years, gives the following decisive testimony. After speaking of the typical and ceremonial worship of the temple, he adds: “The worship of the synagogue was more simple. Its officers had indeed trumpet and cornets with which they published their sentences of excommunication, and announced the new year, the fasts and the Sabbath, but they did not introduce instrumental music into their congregational services. The early Christians followed the example of the synagogue, and when they celebrated the praises of God, in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, Eph. 5:19 (according to some the psalms were divided into these three classes) their melody was the fruit of their lips. For many centuries after this period, the use of instrumental music was unknown in the church.” — Killen’s Ancient Church, p. 216.

Girardeau says: “The church historians make no mention of instrumental worship in their accounts of the worship of the early church. Mosheim says not a word about it. Neander makes the simple remark: ‘Church psalmody also passed over from the synagogue into the Christian church.’ . . . Bingham, deservedly held in high repute as a writer of Christian antiquities, and as a member of the Anglican church, certainly not prejudiced in favor of Puritan views, says: ‘I should here have put an end to this chapter but that some readers would be apt to reckon it an omission that we have taken no notice of organs and bells among the utensils of the church. But the true reason is that there were no such things in use in the ancient churches for many ages. Music in churches is as ancient as the apostle; but instrumental music, not so!‘ — Bingham’s Works, Vol. 3, p. 137.” After these quotations Girardeau adds: “These men were historians, and could not record a fact which did not exist.”

II. Instrumental Music in Religious Worship Was Not Introduced for Many Centuries After the Christian Era.

I will again quote from Professor Worman: “The general introduction of instrumental music can certainly not be assigned to a date earlier than the fifth or sixth century. Yea, even Gregory the Great, who towards the end of the sixth century added greatly to the existing church music, absolutely prohibited the use of instruments. Several centuries later, the introduction of the organ in sacred service gave a place to instruments as accompaniments for Christian song, and from that time to this they have been freely used with few exceptions. The first organ is believed to have been used in the church service in the thirteenth century. Organs were, however, in use before this in the theatre.” — McClintock & Strong, Vol. VI, p. 759.

Girardeau says: “There is no evidence, but the contrary, to show that instrumental music was commonly introduced into the church until the thirteenth century.” He also quotes Thomas Aquinas, 1250, as saying: “Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize.” After quoting a long list of authorities Girardeau concludes: “Let us pause a moment to notice the fact, supported by a mass of incontrovertible evidence, that the Christian church did not employ instrumental music in its public worship for 1,200 years after Christ. It proves, what has been already shown from the New Testament Scriptures, that the apostolic church did not use it in its public services: and surely the church ought now to be conformed to the practice of the apostles and of the churches whose usages they modelled, according to the inspired direction of the Holy Ghost.”

III. Instrumental Music in Worship Was Introduced in Connection with the Corruption and Decline of the Church.

It came into general use in the thirteenth century. That ought to settle the question for students of church history. It was the period of the full sway of the Papacy. It was at the darkest hour before the dawn. Girardeau says: “It deserves serious consideration, moreover, that notwithstanding the even accelerated drift towards corruption in worship as well as doctrine, the Roman Catholic Church did not adopt this corrupt practice until about the middle of the thirteenth century. This is the testimony of Aquinas, who has always been esteemed by that church as a theologian of the first eminence; and who, of course, was acquainted with its usages.”

IV. The Introduction of Instrumental Music, Even in the Roman Catholic Church, Was Resisted by Some of the Holiest and Best Men.

We have already had quotations from Gregory the Great, Bellarmine, and Thomas Aquinas. In addition to these Cajetan is quoted is saying: “It is to be observed that the church did not use organs in Thomas’ time. Whence, even to this day, the Church of Rome does not use them in the Pope’s presence. And truly it will appear that musical instruments are not to be suffered in the ecclesiastical offices we meet together to perform for the sake of receiving internal instruction from God: and so much the rather are they to be excluded because God’s internal discipline exceeds all human disciplines, which rejected this kind of instruments.”

You will be interested in the testimony of Erasmus, the great Humanist Reformer, who sought to reform the church without separating from it. He says: “We have brought into our churches a certain operose and theatrical music; such a confused, disorderly chattering of some words as I think was hardly ever heard in any of the Grecian or Roman theatres. The church rings with the noise of trumpets, pipes, and dulcimers, and human voices strive to bear a part with them. Men run to church as to a theatre, to have their ears tickled. And for this end, organ makers are hired, with great salaries, and a compay of boys who waste all their time in learning these whining tones.”

It is certainly an argument of no small weight, that instrumental music was so antagonistic to the pure spiritual worship of the New Testament church that it could find no admittance until the church was carnalized by the corruptions of Romanism, and even then, it was resisted by the best men.

V. The Churches Which During the Dark Ages Retain Their Apostolic Purity Never Introduced Instruments Into the Worship of God.

Of these, the Waldenses are the most important. The history of this wonderful people, by Rev. C. H. Strong, shows that they observed the ordinance of psalm-singing in its pure apostolic simplicity.

Dr. Breckenridge makes the strong statement that “the use or the refusal to use instrumental music in God’s stated public worship during that long midnight from the establishment of Popery until the Reformation, in the various sub-divisions of nominal Christianity throughout the world who were not subject to the Papacy, is as accurate a test as perhaps any other, of the real condition of those sects; and whoever will inquire will see that whatever piety was in the world was mainly with those who disagreed with Rome on this subject.”

VI. The Purest and Most Orthodox of the Reformation Churches Excluded Instrumental Music from the Worship of God.

The Zwinglians, the Calvinists, the Puritans, the Presbyterians, and the Covenanters, were a unit in excluding instruments: And it is a remarkable fact that even the Church of England came “within one” of doing the same thing.

Professor Worman says: “In the English convocation held in 1562, in Queen Elizabeth’s time, for settling the Liturgy, the retaining of organs was carried only by a casting vote.” — McClintock & Strong, Vol. VI, p. 760.

Hetherington’s account is as follows: “In the beginning of the year 1562, a meeting of the convocation was held in which the subject of further reformation was vigorously discussed on both sides. Among the alterations proposed was this: ‘That the use of organs be laid aside.’ When the vote came to be taken on these propositions, forty-three voted for them and thirty-five against; but when the proxies were counted the balance was turned. The final state of the vote being fifty-eight for and fifty-nine against. Thus it was determined by a single vote, and that the proxy vote of an absent person who did not hear the reasoning, that the prayer book should remain unimproved, that there should be no further reformation, that there should be no relief granted to those whose consciences felt aggrieved by the admixture of human inventions in the worship of God.”

Let me quote from Dr. Breckenridge: “My fourth remark is that at the Reformation, and ever since, those portions of the professing people of God who renounced and have continued to renounce most thoroughly and tenaciously the corruptions of Rome on this subject, are those sects and denominations which, out of all comparison with others, have been most orthodox, most faithful, and most alive to the glory of God.”

The next point I prefer to state in the words of this vigorous advocat of psalmody, Dr. Breckenridge:

VII. “Any change which has taken place since the Reformation in any of the Protestant denominations indicating a relapse toward Rome in the use of Instrumental music in God’s public worship, will be found to have been uniformly attended in these denominations by other changes injurious to their spiritual condition, which, though not very obvious at first, have worked themselves out disastrously in every case.”

Such a statement from such a source is well calculated to arrest attention. A careful study of the history of the Church will sustain the truth of the proposition. I can only add to this that the experiences of a sister church in our own times painfully confirms the truth of this observation. Many of the most thoughtful and conscientious minister of the United Presbyterian Church, even among those who favor the use of the organ, admit that their church has practically abandoned her position on the exclusive use of a Scripture psalmody and her testimony against secret orders.

In this historical argument I have aimed to present nothing that is not well substantiated as to facts. It seems to me sufficient of itself to sweep away all the arguments that can be adduced in favor of the instrument, either as a divinely instituted and essential part of worship in the New Testament church, or even as an “incident” in worship, or an accompaniment to it.

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