We next consider Ferguson’s arguments in chapter 21 of his The Early Church and Today, vol. 1 and vol. 2, edited by Leonard Allen and Robyn Burwell. This chapter is titled “The Case for A Cappella Music in the Christian Assembly.”
We begin by agreeing with Ferguson that the Christian assembly has always included congregational singing.
We don’t know a lot about the ancient song services, but we know that harmony, as practiced by the modern church, wasn’t invented for about 1,000 years. In fact, congregational four-part harmony was introduced by Martin Luther about 1,500 years after the time of Jesus.
Rather, as Ferguson argues, it appears that during apostolic times, the Christian assemblies sang in unison. Some of this singing was likely responsive in nature. A leader would sing a line and the church would repeat that line in unison. After all, there were no hymn books or PowerPoint.
The argument from history
In my experience, the argument for exclusively a cappella singing in the assembly that persuades the most people is the argument from history. The New Testament itself merely urges the church to sing, with no stipulations regarding instruments or not. But the writings we have of later, uninspired Christian writers are clear that the early church sang a cappella. However, there is a question as to just when, how, and why this practice developed.
Christian writers in the fourth century and after were not only explicit about the exclusively vocal nature of Christian music, but they also offered explanations for it.
(Kindle Locations 4966-4967). Now, pay close attention. Ferguson’s historical evidence goes back to the Fourth Century — circa 300 AD and later — nearly 300 years after Jesus and the apostles. That would be like arguing the nature of Christian worship practices in 1713 from the practices of 2013. And, quite obviously, a lot can happen in 300 years!
Now, for those readers who grew up on tract racks, as I did, we might remember the many arguments for a cappella singing based on quotations from Justin Martyr, the Christian author from the late Second Century. Although those quotes are still being used by some Church of Christ preachers, the fact is that it was concluded over 150 years ago that the texts were not written by Justin Martyr at all but by a much later author.
You see, the Churches of Christ borrowed their polemics against the instrument from the Puritans, a Calvinist sect that also follows Calvin’s Regulative Principle. Because the goal often was to win debates rather than to seek the truth with an open mind, it appears that no one bothered to check behind the claims of Puritan arguments from the 19th Century until Danny Corbitt did just a few years ago.
Ferguson, however, is no polemicist, and he so does not rely on unchecked sources. But that leaves him arguing from Fourth Century and later sources.
Ferguson relies on an extensive passage from Fourth Century Christian historian Eusebius —
I select only one [early Christian source] — from Eusebius of Caesarea, the church historian, whose wide acquaintance with Christian practice in his own and earlier times permits him to speak for many others.
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 [harp] and kithara [lyre] and to do this on Sabbath days. . . . But we in an inward manner keep the part of the Jew, according to the saying of the apostle. . . . (Romans 2: 28ff.). We render our hymn with a living psalterion [lyre] and a living kithara [harp], 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. We are accustomed to employ such psalmodies and spiritual kitharas because the apostle teaches this saying, “in psalms and odes and spiritual hymns.”
Otherwise the kithara [lyre] might be [understood as] the whole body, through whose movements and deeds the soul renders a fitting hymn to God. The ten-stringed psalterion [harp] might be the worship performed by the Holy Spirit through the five senses of the body (equaling the five powers of the soul).
(Commentary on Psalms 91.2, 3)
(Kindle Locations 4975-4977). I’ve added paragraphing to making the passage easier to read on the internet.
Eusebius was active during the time of Constantine, 300 years after Jesus. (I can’t recommend Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom too strongly for readers with a passion for history or who have an interest in a historical perspective on the recent movement in the evangelical churches against “Constantinianism.” A really interesting book in which we learn much about the role of Eusebius in the Fourth Century church, the Council of Nicea, and such like.)
Notice that Eusebius argues not just for a cappella singing but for singing in unison. In the quoted passage, he associates a theological purpose in unison singing (displays church unity) and not with a cappella. Why then are we supposed to honor his teaching on a cappella music but on unison singing?
Ferguson deals with this question in his preceding chapter —
Romans 15: 5, 6 is often overlooked in discussions of church music . Singing together symbolizes the one body in Christ. The “one voice” expresses the unity of the church. There was a great emphasis in the ancient church on unison singing. The difference of pitch of male and female, children and adult voices means this was not absolutely unison. The point was unity and harmony in which all participated. That is an important message for the church today.
(Kindle Locations 4917-4920). He is, of course, missing the point when he argues that modern harmony is somehow the equivalent of ancient unison singing. It’s quite a stretch to claim that we honor the early church teachings when we have alto, tenor, and bass leads, counterpoints, rounds, and all sorts of arrangements where not all the congregation sings at the same time.
Moreover, intentional singing of different pitches to accomplish harmony is a very, very different thing from the natural pitch variations among men, women, and children. No one would confuse four-part harmony with unison singing by men, women, and children.
In short, the modern church does not honor the early church teaching of unison singing, and yet this is taught by the very same early church fathers that we treat as authoritative when it comes to a cappella singing. Quite obviously, we are being very selective in our readings to justify a pre-existing tradition. We are plainly not taking our doctrine from the texts.
Second, notice Eusebius’s approach to exegesis. Eusebius treats Psalm 92 (Psalm 91 in the Septuagint, which is where Eusebius gets his numbering) as applicable to Christians. But it says,
(Psa 92:1-4 ESV) A Psalm. A Song for the Sabbath. It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; 2 to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, 3 to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. 4 For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
The explicit approval of instruments in the worship of God on the Sabbath causes Eusebius to interpret by allegory. Thus, he says that the lyre refers to the Holy Spirit acting through the body’s five senses and the lute refers to whole body.
Really? Where does Eusebius come up with these conclusions? Plainly, he just makes them up to be able to defend his insistence on unison a cappella singing. Anyone making such arguments today would be laughed out of the church and the academy. They are plainly absurd.
Finally, how on earth do we claim to practice sola scriptura (the scriptures only) and to “be silent where the Bible is silent” when we seek to impose as doctrine teachings from the Fourth Century church?
I’ve read many of the arguments about infant baptism and single bishops made by the Catholics and Orthodox, and they do the very same thing — selectively imposing teachings from uninspired early church fathers. And we quite properly object that they should not be allowed to build doctrine on the writings of Fourth Century church leaders.
Interestingly, while it’s certainly true that Fourth and Fifth Century Christian leaders objected to musical instruments in the assembly (and Third Century authors object to instruments at banquets), none argues his case from lack of authority. Rather, they argue for reasons that would not be at all persuasive today.
For example, Clement of Alexandria, writing in the early Third Century, argues against instrumental music at banquets based on their use by the militaries of various nations. He is a very early source of the church’s objection to instruments, but imagine what would happen if a Church of Christ preacher argued against instrumental music because it’s used by the American military! But that was exactly the logic of Clement.
In reality, man is an instrument made 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, 190 AD, “The Instructor,” Fathers of the Church, p. 130)
And so we take his statements against the instrument out of context and ignore his reasoning altogether, as though his conclusions could be treated as having authority regardless of how he reaches them.
In short, the argument from history requires that we (a) surrender our commitment to the scriptures only, (b) ignore the reasoning of the early church fathers while accepting their conclusions, and (c) selectively honor their a cappella tradition while rejecting their unison tradition.