In contemporary Church of Christ thought, worshipping God with instrumental music is sinful because (a) it violates the Regulative Principle, that is, because it lacks authority in the scriptures, and (b) the history of the Christian church shows a uniform rejection of the instrument for its first 1,000 years.
I thought it would be interesting to investigate the reasons given by the early church for rejecting instrumental music. Do they agree with the Regulative Principle?
AQUINAS “Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize.” (Thomas Aquinas, Bingham’s Antiquities, Vol. 3, page 137)
The Jewish synagogues were also a cappella, and had been from before the time of Jesus. Aquinas’ knowledge of Judaism was limited to his reading to the Old Testament, which describes the temple service as including instruments. Aquinas does not treat the choice of instrumental music as from God but as a choice made to draw a contrast between Christianity and Judaism — when in fact both the Christians and Jews worshipped a cappella!
AUGUSTINE “musical instruments were not used. The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.” (Augustine 354 A.D., describing the singing at Alexandria under Athanasius)
Augustine describes the absence of instruments as coming from “prejudice” arising from the use on instruments in heathen cults and other “degenerate” practices. Thus, his argument is built on culture.
CHRYSOSTOM “David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. He had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre with a different tone indeed but much more in accordance with piety. Here there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body. For when the flesh no longer lusts against the Spirit, but has submitted to its orders and has been led at length into the best and most admirable path, then will you create a spiritual melody.” (Chrysostom, 347-407, Exposition of Psalms 41, (381-398 A.D.) Source Readings in Music History, ed. O. Strunk, W. W. Norton and Co.: New York, 1950, pg. 70.)
Chrysostom’s argument leans toward Gnosticism, as he wants Christians to be “mortifying the members of the flesh,” as though the flesh were inherently evil.
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.” In short, his argument seems to be that the instrument is wrong because the instrument is used by the military and the uneducated.
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 flight 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 imaged 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 the voice is appropriate for worship because the body is made by Jesus, whereas instruments are made by humans.
CYPRIAN “Instruments were permitted in the Old Testament for the sake of their [the people’s] weakness, to stir up their minds to perform their external worship.” (240 A.D.)
Again, we see prejudice against the Jews, with the author assuming instruments were used in the temple worship solely due to the weakness of the Jews and ignoring the several hundreds of years that the Jews worshipped in the tabernacle without instruments.
EUSEBIUS “Of old at the time those of the circumcision were worshipping with symbols and types it was not inappropriate to send up hymns to God with the psalterion and cithara and to do this on Sabbath days… We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living cithara with spiritual songs. The unison voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. Accordingly in all the churches of God, united in soul and attitude, with one mind and in agreement of faith and piety we send up a unison melody in the words of the Psalms.” (commentary on Psalms 91:2-3)
Eusebius argues that it was the Jews who used instruments on Sabbath days, and so Christians should sing in unison, symbolizing their unity. Of course, we in the Churches of Christ rarely sing in unison. We prefer four-part harmony, and often have part-leads, that is, we have different voices sing different words at different times. Eusebius would not approve.
Eusebius, like Aquinas, was ignorant of Jewish worship practices. They used instruments at the temple — and not just on Sabbaths. The synagogue was actually a cappella.
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.
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.
TERTULLIAN “Musical concerts with viol and lute belong to Apollo, to the Muses, to Minerva and Mercury who invented them; ye who are Christians, hate and abhor these things whose very authors themselves must be the object of loathing and aversion.” (200 A.D.)
Tertullian argues that instruments are used in the worship of idols and so are inappropriate to the worship of God.
There’s not a hint of the Regulative Principle in these quotations. There’s not a word about authority or the lack thereof.
There is a clear desire to be unlike the Jews — but in such ignorance of Jewish practice that the Christians actually worshipped on Sundays much as the Jews worshipped on Saturdays!
There’s a desire to flee any association with the military or with the licentiousness of pagan society. And there’s some Platonic thought, associating instruments with the corruption of the flesh and the voice with the purity of the human spirit.
And so, the Churches of Christ have adopted the Patristic position while rejecting the Patristic rationales. But we really can’t have it both way, can we? I mean, if these uninspired writers are affirming an apostolic teaching, surely they’d also be affirming the apostolic reasoning, but there’s not a hint of the Patristics’ logic in the scriptures.
Indeed, if we were allowed to use the Patristics to confirm our scriptural conclusions, we’d have to also conclude that our reliance on the Regulative Principle is in error, as the Patristics do not remotely support that inference.