In chapters 4 and 5 of Missing More Than Music: When Disputable Matters Eclipse Worship and Unity, Danny Corbitt argues —
Written opposition (from the church fathers) to any instruments in any setting was born in the third century, almost 200 years after Jesus.
Opposition to instruments was not blanket but limited to their role in contexts of immorality.
Corbitt’s analysis depends heavily on secondary sources — but very expert, authoritative secondary sources, including the work of Everett Ferguson, an ACU professor and opponent of instrumental music in worship. And so I thought I’d take a look at the Patristic evidence and see whether this is true.
CLEMENT “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 ar[e] 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 front 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 a homage to God, no longer with ancient harp or trumpet or drum or flute which those trained for war employ.” (Clement of Alexandria, 190AD The instructor, Fathers of the church, p. 130)
Clement’s argument is highly allegorical. He notes that instruments are used by “those trained for war” and “the class of men that is least capable of reason.” However, Clement doesn’t say that instrumental music in worship is wrong. Indeed, he doesn’t even seem to be talking about worship but rather “wingless” feasts — something else altogether.
CLEMENT “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 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 image 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” (Clement of Alexandria, 185AD, Readings p. 62)
Here Clement argues that Jesus “scorned those lifeless instruments of lyre and cithara.” He offers no support for the argument other than the fact that God made the human voice. However, he doesn’t condemn the use of instruments.
MARTYR “Simply singing is not agreeable to children (Jews), but singing with lifeless instruments and with dancing and clapping is. On this account the use of this kind of instruments and of others agreeable to children is removed from the songs of the churches, and there is left remaining simply singing.” (Justin Martyr, 139 AD)
Justin Martyr plainly appeals to prejudice against the Jews. He declares that the church doesn’t use instruments, but doesn’t say it would be sin to do so.
MARTYR “The use of music was not received in the Christian churches, as it was among the Jew, in their infant state, but only the use of plain song.” (Justin Martyr, 139 AD)
Again, we see Justin appealing to prejudice against the Jews.
I emailed Corbitt and asked how to reconcile these quotations with his conclusion. He wrote Everett Ferguson, an ACU professor who is a renown expert in the Patristics and an opponent of instrumental music in worship. Corbitt quotes Ferguson in his book at page 17 —
There is no polemic [argument against] instruments in the church. That is not under consideration. … In view of the violent response to the use of instruments in social life and their cultic use in pagan religion, it becomes incredible that the instrument was present in the worship of the church. That surely would have brought condemnation, or at least called for explanation. But there is not even a comment to this effect.
In response to Corbitt’s inquiry, Ferguson confirmed his conclusion —
[Justin Martyr] attests only vocal praise but has no polemic against instruments. The major discussion of music in Clement of Alexandria occurs in his discussion of conduct at a banquet; although some have tried to make it apply to a church service or an agape [love feast], such is not the setting for his remarks.
One opposes only what someone is doing or is advocating. The absence of statements opposing instruments in church is actually a powerful argument against their presence (apparently no one even thought about employing them in church), especially given the often strongly negative words (Clement of Alexandria is the rare exception) about instrumental music in other settings.
And so we see that in the First and Second Century Patristics there is no argument made against instrumental music in worship. Rather, we find that the Fathers argue against instrumental music in social settings, such as a banquet. And we find instrumental music associated with pagan religions. it’s not until the Third Century that we find literature arguing against instrumental music in worship!
Ferguson argues, not without merit, that this is because the Second Century church was uniformly a cappella, and therefore had no need to argue against instrumental music. And he may be right, but this is hardly proof positive that the modern argument against instrumental music carries any weight.
As noted by Corbitt on page 20, there is plenty of opposition to instruments among the Patristics — just no suggestion that God opposes instruments. In the early centuries, no argument is made that the apostles insisted on a cappella music, and no argument is made that instrumental music lacks biblical authority. Indeed, on page 21, Corbitt points out that Clement of Alexandria, writing in the late Second Century says,
This is our grateful revelry, and if you should wish to sing and play to the cithara and lyre, this is not blameworthy; you would imitate the just Hebrew king [David] giving praise to God.
Ferguson takes this approval of instrumental worship to be a reference to singing at home, rather than in the formal worship. Of course, most churches at this time met in homes, and it’s unlikely that the early church distinguished between “private” worship and “public” worship, when both took place in a home and, during times of persecution, both would have occurred in secret. And when there was no persecution, well, they lived in a world without glass windows. Anyone singing to God in his bedroom would have been heard by any stranger walking by. That’s not to say that the distinction is impossible, just not nearly as likely as we tend to think today.
On page 24, Corbitt notes that later Christian writers not only condemn the use of instruments in worship, they criticize the use of instruments by David. But this is a change from earlier writers, who actually considered David’s use of instrumental praise to be worthy of emulation.
In short, the Patristic evidence isn’t nearly as persuasive as our conservative brothers would have use believe. The adamant opposition to instrumental music we read about in the Third and later centuries is not reflective of the rhetoric found in the late First and Second Centuries. It probably is true that the early church did not worship with the instrument, but the reasons given are not based on the Bible. They come from prejudice against the Jews and concerns to be distinct from idolatrous cults, immorality, and the Roman military.
In later centuries, when we see the church leaders becoming much more insistent in opposing instrumental worship, we also find that secular philosophers are opposing instrumental music. It seems that the Patristic authors were not interpreting scripture or preserving an unwritten apostolic tradition so much as reflecting their culture. And this makes the argument against the instrument from history entirely without merit.
Of course, it’s always been entirely without merit, because it’s an attempt to impose church tradition rather than scripture. Were the First and Second Century Patristics interpreting the key worship passages in light of their superior knowledge of First Century culture and language, we should certainly consider them very seriously. But when they speak in terms of local culture and anti-Semitism, well, that’s no way to build a theology.