The Argument Based on History

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1 The Argument Based on History Ultimately, the argument opposing instrumental music I find most intriguing is built on some very good history. For centuries the early church sang a cappella, at a time when numerous musical instruments were available. And the early, uninspired Christian writers wrote extensively on the subject. Different reasons were given. Some said this was to not Judaize (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (13 th century)), that is, act like the Jews. Clement of Alexandria (c 190) said the church rejected the instrument because instruments were employed by those trained for war. He also contrasted Christian a cappella singing with pipe-playing, and dancing, and intoxication, all kinds of trash. Novatian (c. 235) noted the association of instruments with idols. During the 4 th Century, Eusebius contrasted Christian singing with the temple practice described in the Old Testament, saying the church had matured beyond the childish practices of the Jews. Niceta and Theodoret argued to the same effect. The fact is that the early church was a cappella in practice. Why? The answers given by the early Christian authors strike me as unpersuasive. They were not really separating themselves from the Jews, as they often wrote they were unconsciously imitating the Jews. The Jews considered instruments to be a characteristic of temple worship, and so they insisted on avoiding any impression they were attempting to replicate the temple services in their synagogues, and so the Jews were strictly a cappella. Clearly, the early Christian pattern of worship was taken from the synagogue service of the Jews. Instruments were common in many pagan rituals and may well have had base, sensual connotations in the culture of the day. They were certainly associated with idolatry and licentious behavior. However, I ve heard The Messiah and the church music of Bach (a good Lutheran). This is not animalistic, pagan, childish, or idolatrous. Generations of Christian composers have developed the art of instrumentation to an ethereal level. (And if instruments truly are licentious, they are also licentious outside the church building, and yet we enjoy our instrumental music in every other aspect of our lives.) Now, the synagogue was a purely human invention, developed by the rabbis in response to Roman occupation and the dispersal of Jews across the Roman Empire, far away from Jerusalem and the temple. The early Christian church often met in synagogues, as recorded in Acts. It s hardly surprising that they adopted similar practices to the Jews. After all, the Christians surely felt themselves also dispersed across the Empire, separated from the temple in heaven, as the writer to the Hebrews wrote (Heb. 9:12,25).

2 The early Jews had no instruments and likely would have banned their use by Christians in their synagogues. Most early congregations were either Jewish or had Jewish members, who may well have taken offense had their congregations used instruments. Moreover, many pagan practices used instruments for licentious purposes. Therefore, an a cappella song services surely seemed natural. When the Jews threw the Christians out of the synagogues, they met in homes. A Roman home could only hold 30 or so people, so large gatherings were impossible. Rather, the church had to institute what we d call small groups or house churches. In a home setting, a band would be impossible. Some instruments might have been possible, but only if a trained musician were present. It would have been difficult to have a capable musician in every location, and the desire for uniformity was surely strong. It s easy to imagine a preference for a cappella music becoming deeply rooted in the Christian culture early. They were likely no more pleased with changing worship styles than we are today! Eventually, when pagans asked why instruments weren t being used, the defenders of the church had to find a reason, and each one came up with a different one. Some ignorantly argued they were avoiding Jewish practice, although the Jews had never used instruments away from the temple and none at all after the temple was destroyed in AD 70. In fact, most Jewish synagogues remained a cappella until the 20 th Century. The fact that an obviously false reason was given and that different reasons were given by different writers suggests that the reasons came after the practice, rather than the other way around. Now, I m obviously speculating, but for a purpose. It s just not necessarily so that the early church was following apostolic instruction meant to be binding for all time no more so than the New Testament s five commands to greet one another with the holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thes. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:4). If we can very properly limit the command to greet with a holy kiss to the local culture and time, why not so limit the uninspired teachings of the early church leaders? What makes the writings of Theodoret more binding than the writings of Paul and Peter? What makes us think that singing without an instrument has eternal significance? The reasons given were based on the local culture a desire to be unlike idolatrous practices, unlike the military, unlike the crude practices of paganism. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the Jews. Now, do these reasons make sense in today s culture? Does singing a cappella distinguish us from the military? From idolaters? From Jews? At some point, we have to step back and ask how we test these arcane theories of interpretation based on church history. There s a critical point of very serious theology here. Those who wish to bind the writings of uninspired 2 nd Century and later writers on today s church are making some very, very serious errors. 2

3 First, they are binding as law even as grounds of salvation teachings of admittedly uninspired men. The Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do exactly this. Ask a Catholic theologian why they baptize infants, and he ll cite many of the same authors that we cite for a cappella singing! Ask an Orthodox scholar why they have bishops over multiple congregations, and he ll refer you to the same uninspired writings some going back to the 2 nd Century. It s remarkably hypocritical that we make the same arguments that we condemn in others. Second, they are violating the fundamental premise of the Protestant Reformation sola scriptura which is Latin for scripture only. This principle was announced in order to escape the uncertainties and contradictions that arise when we try to bind the writings of uninspired men on one another. Third, we are not being silent. Thomas Campbell s maxim, We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent, is simply an application of sola scriptura. He announced nothing new rather, he called the church to return to the founding principles of the Reformers. The meaning of being silent is to say nothing. If the Bible says nothing about the instrument, so must we, if we are to be true to the Restoration ideal. Damning those who use the instrument is not silence. Fourth, whichever way we go, we are speculating. We don t really know why these early Christians behaved as they did. The record is just not that good. Should we be in the business of damning those who interpret Theodoret and Aquinas differently than we do? Fifth, we are re-creating the Mosaic concept of the clean and unclean. There is nothing inherently wicked with instruments. This is obvious because heaven is pictured as being filled with instrumental music. But we assume that God considers some things that are clearly morally neutral instruments can be used for Godly and ungodly purposes wrong for arbitrary reasons. Just as God declared pork unclean, we presume that he s declared instrumental music unworthy of his worship all the while we are claiming to be higher and better than the Jews under the Law of Moses! It is of such thinking that Paul wrote (1 Tim 4:3-5) They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (Col 2:20-23) Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self- 3

4 imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Does the banning of instrumental music in worship have any real value in restraining sensual indulgence? Does God really think that we ll be holier by refusing to worship with an organ all the while listening to Britney Spears and Madonna on the radio the other 6 days and 23 hours of the week? We might just be worrying about the wrong thing. Sixth, we are assuming a truly awful thought that God has hidden the rules for how to please him in a way that no ordinary person could understand. Rather than just telling us how to please him, God has given us riddles that only the smartest of us can solve. It s like a lot of today s computer games! Solve a riddle and move up a level! Under this view, the difference between the Old Testament and New Testament is that in the Law of Moses God was kind enough to make the rules nice and clear. In the New Testament, the rules are obscure and require a post-graduate education in Greek that gives you the secret decoder ring of Patristic writings, pattern theology, and how to divine the meaning of nothing. It s just as wrong as can be. Only the well-educated could sort this out, and so we make salvation limited to the educated and those precious few blessed by their wisdom. This kind of thinking was known as Gnosticism in the Second Century and was properly declared heresy by the church. There nothing wrong with being educated and sharing your learning. There is nothing wrong with studying the profound and difficult concepts in the Bible. There is everything wrong with insisting on making such matters tests of what pleases God. (1 Cor. 1:17-20) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate. 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Cor 2:4-5) My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men s wisdom, but on God s power. Any teaching that isn t built on the cross is a dangerous teaching indeed. Hence, the biggest problem with this kind of thinking is that it has nothing at all to do with the cross of Jesus indeed, it tends to deny the cross by making our salvation depend on 4

5 scholarship in the Patristics, which most people have never even heard of, rather than knowledge of Jesus. We need to stop playing with words and focus on the redemptive work of Christ. How does singing a cappella redeem the world better than singing with instruments? Both can be done very well and very badly. Both can be human-centered and both can be Christ-centered (recall The Messiah). (The idea of a cross-centered hermeneutic is developed in greater depth in Part III of Do We Teach Another Gospel? I have no complaint with the a cappella churches. My own congregation is a cappella and we have people join our church from instrumental congregations all the time. But I cannot condemn those who choose to use the instrument. The Bible doesn t, and so I must not either. And I cannot add to the Bible by judging someone based on the writings of an uninspired author. That would surely be sin. 5

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