Last week, Danny Corbitt presented his work regarding instrumental music at the Abilene Christian lectures, called “The Summit,” based on his book Missing More Than Music. Today, I received the September 2010 issue of the Gospel Advocate, containing an article by Dr. Everett Ferguson attempting to refute Danny’s work: “Missing the Meaning: A Review of Missing More Than Music” (pp. 33 ff).
I’ll not attempt a comprehensive rebuttal, because one isn’t necessary. The question isn’t what Clement of Alexandria or Philo really meant. The question is whether it’s sin to worship God in the Christian assembly using an instrument. And Ferguson’s arguments fail because they are built on two seriously flawed premises.
But first, a little background. Dr. Ferguson, a professor at Abilene Christian University, is a widely recognized authority on New Testament backgrounds and the Early Church Fathers. He writes textbooks used in many seminaries. And he has long argued against instrumental music in the assembly, having written A cappella music in the public worship of the church, as well as a number of related books.
The first fatal flaw in Dr. Ferguson’s logic is shown by the following quotations:
The issue remains: Is there authority for instrumental music in church? … Opponents of instrumental music must have a text rejecting [sic] it; advocates of instrumental music do have to have a New Testament text commanding it or allowing it, and they still do not have one.
On page 37, Corbitt asserts that early Christian writers “never oppose accompaniment in praise.” However, no writer favors it either.
Contrary to what Corbitt argues on pages 80-92, the case is not that ado and ode require one to “sing only” but that they only say “sing” and never said anything else.
Plainly, Ferguson reasons from what is formally known as the Regulative Principle, the old Zwinglian/Puritan idea that scriptural silences are all prohibitions. Indeed, Ferguson writes,
An example is the insistence that no text says not to use instruments, which corresponds to our counterclaim that no text says to use them.
Ferguson imposes a legalistic interpretation on the scriptures, seeking to reach his conclusions by declaring silences either all permissive or all prohibitions, which is a classic false dichotomy. It’s just not necessarily true that either all silences are permissions or all silences are prohibitions. That is deeply flawed logic, because it’s entirely possible that some silences are prohibitions and some are permissions.
And as flawed as this logic is, even more mistaken is the idea of applying the Regulative Principle to the Patristics! In the second quote above, Ferguson actually insists on a prohibition inferred from the silences of the Early Church Fathers.
It’s not true that either all women are ugly or all women are pretty. Just so, it’s hardly necessary to conclude that either all silences are permissions or all silences are prohibitions. Rather than pulling our theology out of doctrines invented by Zwinglian and Puritan disputants over how to conduct the assembly, we should turn to the scriptures. The way to read the silences of the scriptures is in light of the narrative of the scriptures and God’s redemptive mission, culminating in Christ.
Can we seriously contend that God has been working across the centuries to honor his covenant with Abraham to the bless the nations — by demanding a cappella rather than instrumental worship? How on earth can we argue that God’s redemptive mission, fulfilled in Christ, rejects worship because it’s accompanied by a lute or a lyre? Is this truly the nature of a God who so loves the world that he sent his Son to die on a cross, revealing the self-emptying, loving, serving nature of God, Creator of the Universe?
No, Ferguson’s position fails, foremost, because it’s predicated on a legalistic God who makes up arbitrary rules, hidden amongst the silences and unrevealed hermeneutical suppositions. I reject that view of God and therefore that view of how to read silences.
Were Ferguson to address the Regulative Principle in the same manner as he addresses instrumental music, he’d ask whether the Early Church Fathers ever taught the Regulative Principle. And he asks no such thing, as he takes it as axiomatic — too obvious to require a defense — and yet it’s obviously not required logically.
And the Early Church Fathers never defend their opposition to instrumental music based on lack of authority or the Regulative Principle. And so Ferguson takes their conclusion and defends it on grounds foreign to their thinking — which is also seriously flawed analysis. If they are the experts, then we need to give heed to their stated reasoning, not to an interpretive principle that is only 500 years old.
And this leads to the second major, even more serious flaw in his argument. Ferguson writes on page 35 —
Brother Corbitt concludes his book with a strong call for unity. The reasonable historical and doctrinal ground for unity would be the practice of the church in the early centuries (continued until today in the various Orthodox and other Eastern churches), the practice of the Reformed and Anabaptist churches of the Reformation (continued today in such groups as the Reformed Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist churches and many Mennonites), and the practice of the churches of the Restoration Movement before division came (in part because of the introduction of instruments).
Under this logic, we should immediately merge with the Orthodox and other named churches. After all, they share with the a cappella Churches of Christ the essential ground of unity: a cappella singing on Sunday morning! But, of course, neither Ferguson nor the editors of the Gospel Advocate have any intention of urging merger with the Orthodox or a cappella Baptist, Presbyterian, or Mennonite churches. Rather, a cappella singing is just one of a very long list of required elements for unity.
A member of my congregation recently shared a meal with the preacher for another Church of Christ near here. The preacher assured him that the University Church of Christ (my congregation) was involved in many great works, doing much good for the cause of Jesus, but he — regrettably — couldn’t fellowship us. You see, in his eyes, we are only 95% right. We clap to the music during worship. And this 5% flaw makes us unacceptable. There are, of course, no New Testament passages authorizing clapping — by command, inference, or example — and therefore it is prohibited and therefore it destroys unity.
You see, I’ve seen the consequences of legalism, and it isn’t unity. Indeed, the scriptures speak plainly about unity, and not once is adherence to the Regulative Principle and the prohibitions inferred by so many — and yet so differently — made the basis for unity. Rather —
(John 17:20-21 ESV) 20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Whom does Jesus want to be one? “Those who will believe in me through their word.” Unity is for all believers in Jesus — not just all believers in the Regulative Principle.
Now, I’ve explained my views on unity at length several times here and at GraceConversation.com. Suffice to say that the Bible bases unity, not on a common understanding of how to conduct the assembly, but a common Savior.
(John 3:18 ESV) 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Christianity is about the Christ, because God’s redemptive mission — the story of the entire Bible — is fulfilled in Christ. And unity is found in Christ, by grace, through faith.