Instrumental Music: Missing More Than Music by Danny Corbitt, The Patristics

MoreTHanMusicIn 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.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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24 Responses to Instrumental Music: Missing More Than Music by Danny Corbitt, The Patristics

  1. anonymous says:

    Does the Bible really tell us all God wants us to know or not? Are we dependent upon the people who came before us to tell us things that the Bible does not mention, e.g.instruments in corporate worship?

  2. Todd Collier says:

    What is most important for the way we do hermaneutics is that these second and third century writers never, ever, at any time or in any passage, quote or refer to anything written or spoken by any of the apostles or their disciples that forbids, condemns or constrains the use fo the instrument. If our view of Scripture were true and accurate then surely these writers, being much closer in time and temperament to the original believers would use the texts in the same way we do. Our modern arguments concerning baptism, grace, works, faith and the importance of the Eucharist are there, but not the argument against the instrument. (But then again there is also little evidence or argument for our views on church polity and organization either – a fight for another day.)

  3. Anonymous says:

    If instrumental music wasn’t being used in the First Century church as some claim then why were the Patristics (coc denomination church fathers) arguing that there shouldn’t be music?

  4. Trent Tanaro says:

    Great research, thanks!

  5. Anonymous says:

    The Pharisees knew Scriptures that told them about the Christ and didn’t know who Jesus was and is and decided in their own opinion He wasn’t the Messiah. Same as the Patristics decided not by Scripture but in their own opinion to take away instrumental music.

  6. Rich says:

    All history and Bible tells us the apostles sang acapella while worshiping God.

    It might be a separate issue on whether it's binding or not, but let's not change the facts.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Rich, please give the Scripture that says the apostles sang acapella only.

  8. Rich says:

    I plan a more comprehensive post after reading the book referenced here. Basically, in multiple places, Paul tells us to sing with our heart (intentional contrast with commands to use instruments in the OT). They worshiped in the Synagogues(already established by Jay as being acapella).

    The patriistics did not take away the instrument.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Rich, Where does the Bible say the synagogues didn't have instrumental music please give the Scripture? And sing with our hearts doesn't say sing without music, so again please give the Scrpture that says the apostles sang acapella music only?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Rich,

    1Chronicles 16:8-10, “Oh, give thanks to the LORD! Call upon His name; Make known His deeds among the peoples! Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him; Talk of all His wondrous works! Glory in His holy name; Let the hearts of those rejoice who seek the LORD!”

    David used the word sing a couple of times but he never mentions music. So did David mean for them to sing “only” without music, or is that something someone would assume in their own opinion?

    A person who says they heard someone sing a really good song, does that mean the person sang without music?

  11. Anonymous says:

    You are nitpicking but I will rephrase my questions. And would like them to be answered please.

    1Chronicles 16:8-10, “Oh, give thanks to the LORD! Call upon His name; Make known His deeds among the peoples! Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him; Talk of all His wondrous works! Glory in His holy name; Let the hearts of those rejoice who seek the LORD!”

    David used the word sing a couple of times but he never mentions instrumental music. So did David mean for them to sing “only” without instrumental music, or is that something someone would assume in their own opinion?

    A person who says they heard someone sing a really good song, does that mean the person sang without instrumental music?

  12. Larry Short says:

    The old argument was the Hebrew has no word for acapella, therefore any OT singing could (or not) be without instruments. The commom sing Greek word of the NT is usually acapella, another could have been used to mean with instruments.
    I have read some 50 1-3 century AD historical comments, which indicate that the major practice in the churches was acapella. The reason for the practice when given perhaps 9 times, is to not copy the pagan practice of great noise. I do not beleive there is any NT or early history reference saying acapella was chosen by Jesus or apostolic revelation.
    Years ago, at a family dinner, one young wife was complemented on her roast. She said her secret was from her Mom, by cutting the smaller end off before cooking. Others doubted that that made much difference, and since the Mom was there lets ask her. Finding her, and explaining the previous, she said that all she knew is that's how her Mom did it. Well, they decided to call Grandma and ask. She said that she always had to cut ends off roasts because her over was so small. Perhaps, the NT church musical practice was best fit of what they had, probably small meeting rooms (homes) and few musicians.
    So, if no NT or early reference that this was done because it please God, maybe the style is optional. Now, that we can set the option, may I suggest the lucky tradition of acapella. Why? Because I wish for worship to a participating, shared experience. I don't want the best concert possible but the best of the worshipers. I have attended fine music with major pipe organs and choirs, and almost no others singing. Even with just a guitar, or fute, it seems most listen not participate. Acapella encourages us to join in. I'm even sad that the audience Amen to the preaching has faded. We are the saints, the priesthood, the chorus of God, let the redeemed of the Lord say so! Forget those practices, that encourage an audience and performers.
    Lastly, lets not say anyone who does otherwise is Hell bound. Lets be proud that we have a tradition that encourages the participation of all the worshipers. You can buy, download, or TV watch and listen to concerts all the time,(including gospel music) but here we want to sing together the praises of the Lord.

  13. Anonymous says:

    The Bible never says the apostles sang without instrumental music, there is no Biblical support to make any such statement.

    I'm sure there are some churches where not many sing during worship accapella or IM. I have always had good experiences where mostly everyone sings in the worship services that have instrumental music.

    People who sing with instrumental music are singing their best together letting their hearts rejoice praising the Lord.

  14. Larry Short says:

    This comment is not meant to nitpick but just like to most of the world the church is a building & should be the people; music is tune, timing, harmony, etc. all of which occurs acapella. Correctly, you cannot sing without music, instead you would be reciting a poem. For clarity, please say with instrument(s) or without.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Where does the Bible say the synagogues didn’t have instrumental music please give the Scripture? And please give the Scripture that says the apostles sang without instrumental music?

  16. Todd says:

    Historically the question of whether the early church was accapella or not is clear – there is no evidence that they used instruments. Historically it is also clear that no clear, defined, doctrinal reason for their not using the instrument was preserved for us. The reasons we see in surviving records are at least a hundred years later and reflect societal mores, not doctrine. In truth the statement was made by the early fathers (and has been repeated in several of our numerous discussions on this point) that IM can not be doctrinally wrong because it is a practice God approved in former times. (You know, that old God who never changes issue.)

    If it mattered to salvation, they would have said so. They didn't. So it doesn't.

    And here is where I have had a bit of bother with the whole discussion. I disagree that our position on IM is based on that found in the Patristics.
    1. The Patristics provide absolutely no support for a doctrine on IM based upon scripture. (We can't use them to back up our proof-texts since they didn't see those passages as saying what we say they say.)
    2. The CoC that I grew up in maintained(s) a deep suspicion of all material not produced by our own thinkers and as the Patristics represent the "early stages of the great apostacy" they were not given any creedence at all. Even now when I mention something found within these writings to illustrate how an earlier age viewed their faith I still get strange looks.
    3. The Patristics actually favor a more grace filled perspective on doctrine. Before Constantine made them legal they emphasized the role of the Church in blessing the society around them much more than they emphasize doctrinal stances and issues. Frankly the Patristics offer much more support to the "progressive" side of our debate than they do to the "traditionalists."

  17. Anonymous says:

    Historically the patristics were arguing that there shouldn't be instrumental music, there wouldn't be any argument if musical instruments weren't being used.

    The Bible is clear that people worshiped with instrumental music. God never ever said we are to no longer use instrumental music.

  18. "Because I wish for worship to a participating, shared experience. I don’t want the best concert possible but the best of the worshipers." – Larry

    These are not mutually exclusive. There are some churches that have concerts that encourage non-participation, 'tis true. But there are many more acapella congregations whose musical abilities – let alone their religious dogma – encourage a quick exit from the building, with little or no proof that worship is a preview of heaven on earth, and no glory to God is spread to others.

    There is an unspoken question in your assertions: "How do we encourage people to participate in worship?" The question is a bit awkward, since if you know what we have been saved from, you should have no trouble engaging in worship. Worship, after all, is about God, and if you know Him, worship flows naturally.

    But there are elements that help people engage, so I understand the unspoken question. Even the Instrumental Music haters have their favorite songbooks, right? So each one is wired to approach the Throne in a personal way.

    The simplest answer that would help no matter where you are: sing songs in the native musical language of the worshiper.

    If I go to Germany, it will be difficult for me to engage in worship, not because the people around me aren't worshiping, but because I can't connect with the language and/or culture. Singing a hymn from the 1940s that has been obviously altered to allow it to be sung acapella (like I'm sure the apostles did :^) is neither my language or culture, nor is it the culture of the nation, state, or city that I am in.

    If I speak the gospel, I speak in Texan – my native language, and the language of those around me. If I worship, I worship (mostly) in alternative/contemporary christian, my musical native language. I attend a church of like-minded people, and no one has any trouble engaging or participating in worship. In fact, it's a lot more awkward for those who don't.

    In a couple of months, I will be moving from my city to a small town. The church I have connected with does not worship in alternative/contemporary christian, but 80s/90s contemporary baptist, if I had to name it (a huge step for a church that was established in 1901, I must say). I won't be complaining about it. On the contrary, I will bring my whole heart of worship to join their whole heart of worship and let God work out the rest. When we do that, God gets the glory, and joy overflows.

    That acapella has not been embraced by everyone as the Greatest Of All Worship Forms can be boiled down to two things: 1) It is not the native musical language of the majority of people on the earth and 2) the attitude of those who have pushed it as dogma has not reflected God's heart, undermining anything else they say. Just as some in the CofC won't kneel because that's what the Catholics do, there are many now who have had acapella ruined forever because of the hearts of those who condemn people to Hell over it.

    There is a place for acapella music. But it is not for every church around the world all the time. If it was, then I would have to ask why you sing in English, since neither the Apostles nor the early church fathers did? Was that not the best and most universal way to do things? If not, wouldn't God have commanded us to sing in English? Since He didn't, what do we do with the silence? (Etc. ad nauseum…)

    We all know what to do: be all things to all men, so that by all means we might save some. How about we drop the subject once and for all, and "go and do likewise"!

    (As an aside, I have always found it fascinating that musical churches will often break into acapella at different times. It would be interesting to see acapella churches reciprocate in a spirit of unity, however impractical that might be. :^)

  19. Alan S. says:

    Rich,

    The scriptures and most non-inspired records do not show worship with instruments (Clement's reference to singing with the harp like David is one exception). However, absence of an example of worhsipping with instruments is not the same as example of worshipping acapella only.

    Also, the NT contains several explicit references to instrumental music – Jesus, Paul, and John all make references. Most are illustrative in nature and neutral in opinion on use of instruments (neither pro nor anti), but none of the NT references are anti-instrument.

    Lastly, Paul quotes OT sources where instruments are referenced positively in the source. In fact, the "sing and make music" is identical to the same words the Septuagent uses in Psalm 57 which includes praise with instruments. From what I understand of the Greek of "sing and make music" – BOTH are in the heart. So to say that the "make music" uses the instrument of the heart (and not of any other instrument) means that the "sing" ALSO be with instrument of the heart (and not of the vocal cords).

    God bless

  20. Rich says:

    Anon,

    I was trying to show that instrumental music for worship was missing in both the New Testament and history.

    You made the following statement that indicates you know the apostles used instruments. Please provide your evidence.

    “Same as the Patristics decided not by Scripture but in their own opinion to take away instrumental music.”

    Rich.

  21. HistoryGuy says:

    Historical documents cannot be read like the Bible since we only have fragments. We don't know all the “fathers” thought or spoke about on a topic and at best we can only see a common thought among them. Therefore, while reviewing history, we should base our arguments from scripture.

    Mr. Corbitt conceded that the early church was a cappella and instruments were not in "worship". He relies heavily on Ferguson and McKinnon and both historians grant that “there is not enough evidence to explain the relationship between a cappella and the uniform vehemence of all church fathers against instruments.” All we know is that the two are present in their writings.

    Mr. Corbitt seems to be very genuine in his concern for unity. Unfortunately, the cultural argument [music preference of the day] presented in his book is grossly misrepresented. However, I believe it was a lack of sources and something done intentionally. While there was an influence for vocal music over some of the population, this was not the majority consensus. Both singing and playing instruments were still very prominent in Judaism and paganism during the establishment of the church and years after.

    In 1998, Everett Ferguson said the following at the Innman Forum in Lecture 4:
    Some argue that "Instrumental music was omitted in the early church because of its association with pagan worship and immorality." If this were the reason for its omission, then the early church would have omitted song from its assemblies as well. Pagan worship included singing as well as playing on instruments.

    Ancient authors, pagan as well as Christian, who criticized the contributions of music to immorality included songs as well as instruments in their strictures. This explanation overlooks the presence of instruments in the Jewish temple. There was a non-pagan instrumental religious music available to the early church.

    Various types of religious music were employed in New Testament times: Vocal music (Jewish synagogues and homes), instrumental music (pagan religions), and instrumentally accompanied singing (Jewish temple and pagan religions and society). The New Testament practice of only singing represents a choice out of the available options and therefore constitutes a rejection of the instrumental alternatives.

    The book of Hebrews presents a contrast between Christianity and Judaism. This very line of reasoning is seen in all the church fathers (even present day), though they express it with some individual creativity. It has been said there was an anti-Semitic or pagan biased. Perhaps it was Hebrews 10:5-6; 13:10 among other texts.

  22. HistoryGuy says:

    CORRECTION – 3d paragraph, 3rd sentence:
    I believe it was a lack of sources and NOT something done intentionally.

  23. Ken Sublett says:

    correction: Harmony developed after about 1250. And that was by the composers and idle monks after the organ let them use 10 fingers to "fiddle around." Harmony always demanded the ooos and uhhs etc

  24. Ken Sublett says:

    1. The Patristics provide absolutely no support for a doctrine on IM based upon scripture. (We can’t use them to back up our proof-texts since they didn’t see those passages as saying what we say they say.)

    I have posted most of the church theologians (patristics won’t come out of my mouth) and I assure you that they are filled beginning with Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr. Because no one saw outward singing as an ACT prior to about 373 and that divided the East and Western groups, one might expect that there would be no reason to diatribe against instruments. And yet they do very explicitely and based on the Old and New Testaments. They SPOKE the Biblical text as commanded for the church in the wilderness which also excluded “vocal or instrumental rejoicing” which would destroy the role of ACADEMY of the word.

    Many of them promote the superiority of Christianity and its quite study and meditation by contrasting it to all of the worship of the pagan “gods.”

    Not until after the Reformation when the confiscarted Cathedrals rocked with organ recitals and singing, was it POSSIBLE to sing any of the Bible in a metrical or tunefuly way. Many, like Justin, diatriibes against the metrical noise of the pagans which which would still not be “tuneful” to our ears.

    In order to shut down the disorder the Psalms (only) had to be radically rewritten to make simple unison singing possible. Later harmony which began to develop after about 150 was reluctantly permitted.

    I have posted some background to Danny’s book which lacks both Old Testament and historical accuracy. Let me say again since I doubt that the assertions about the lack of condemnation from a Biblical and a rational rests on any original reading with careful parsing and awareness of WHAT they all condemned.

    Vocal and instrumental rejoicing was OUTLAWED for the Qahal, sunagogue or church in the wilderness. Only the tribe of Levi participated in the “worship of the starry host” in the sacrificial system. The spiritual worship consisted of Rest, reading and discussing the Word of God. That never changed, Jesus exampled it, commanded it by the word ekklesia, Paul defined it both inclusively and exclusively using the “synagogue” words, and the church practiced it before “music was added with the pagans because it was common to all pagan cults.” CEncyclopedia.

    I look forward to this getting excised :-)

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