“The Early Church and Today,” by Everett Ferguson, Part 4 (The Argument from History)

EarlychurchWe 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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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15 Responses to “The Early Church and Today,” by Everett Ferguson, Part 4 (The Argument from History)

  1. Price says:

    Are you suggesting that the tendency toward proof-texting extends to the ECF’s? Say it isn’t so. –
    I thought Charles’ comments yesterday were exactly on point. Why in the world would a denomination aggressively separate itself from 98% of the body of Christ over something like accompanied worship in a particular building at a particular time ?? My wife grew up Presbyterian.. She said that the common thinking was that there were many denominations but the CoC was something different.. More cultish than church.. Having lived the better part of my life in it and now looking back…. it was, and in many instances remains to be, rather opposed to unity unless one surrenders entirely to EVERY creed, tradition and teaching. Odd way to evangelize if you ask me.

  2. John says:

    Yes, indeed. We picked what we wanted from history, ignored what did not suite us and adopted practices, like four part harmony, without any research as to when it began. Another would be the pitch pipe. The defenders of a cappella as doctrine can try to defend the pitch pipe until the cows come home, but a toot is a toot, and one toot is as good as a thousand. And another, and I probably find myself alone with this one, is a song leader waving his or her arm in time (and I am one who learned to direct time at six years of age). As far as I am concerned, directing time is a distraction from the praise and prayer of the hymn. But that’s just me.

  3. Why should being selective in what we select from history surprise us when we are selective in what we take from scripture? And what we do take from scripture often receives a meaning that we impose on it. In normal language, “sing” does not mean “sing accapela,” yet that is the meaning we assign it in Eph 5:19 and elsewhere. It was only recently that I realized Paul took his expression “sing and make melody” from the psalms when I began reading in the ESV where that expression appears several times. This surprised me, so I checked it in the LXX. Lo and behold, the words there are the precise words Paul used in Eph 5:19! Are we to believe that Paul wrote Ephesians using a phrase used in the psalms several times in contexts that included musical instruments to teach that we should not use instruments – without ever directly mentioning instruments?

  4. laymond says:

    “The Case for A Cappella Music in the Christian Assembly.”

    Jhn 4:22 Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.
    Jhn 4:23 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.
    Jhn 4:24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

    It seems to me anyway, we don’t have to belt out “when the role is called up yonder”
    in order to worship God in spirit, it seems to me anyway that Jesus was speaking of a truly spiritual worship, worship God with everything within you. everything you have.
    Worship God every day he gives us the opportunity to do so.

    Are the people growing weary of waiting for their leader to return, so they accept anything in worship to add some excitement ? seems this is not the first time .

    Exd 32:1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.

    Are people today, turning worship into a party, because they don’t know what happened to their leader. are people loosing faith that Jesus will ever return?
    When Jesus does return, will he be disappointed as Moses was? Probably so.

  5. laymond says:

    “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!”

    I hope you are not saying God changed his mind over those three hundred years. Maybe the people did, but God didn’t.

  6. Laymond,
    I believe that Jay’s point depends on the possibility that the people did change their understanding of early practice.

  7. laymond says:

    “The defenders of a cappella as doctrine can try to defend the pitch pipe until the cows come home, but a toot is a toot, and one toot is as good as a thousand.”

    So John, you suggest that we don’t need a song leader, or if we do he should not prepare to lead.
    How about the preacher, do we need him? and should he prepare to preach.?
    I believe I have heard crowds like that, they were at ball games.
    getting in tune is preparing to sing, not singing praises. everything I say God may hear, but I am not always speaking to him.

  8. John Randy Royse says:

    Doesn’t Paul, in our favorite Eph 5:19 passage, ‘authorize’ the use of the Psalms in our practice? And He know what Psalms he’s talking about, he has already quoted from two of them in the letter. And if you read the whole Psalms he has quoted from, they are both contain instrumental references.

    See Eph 4:8 which quotes Ps 68 and Eph 4:26 which references Ps 4.

  9. John says:


    I have heard many beautifully sung hymns started from the pew.

    Also, many who attend a church with an instrument see it as an aid, as you would a pitch pipe. To them it is an aid that moves them in spirit the same way a cross on top of the communion tray would take their mind back to what the communion represents; or the way a Jordan River scene painted on the wall of a baptistry takes the heart beyond the church house walls. These may seem trivial to some; but, the fact is they are used to move the mind and heart.

  10. Mark says:

    You are getting close to frescoes and stained glass. Yes, the stained glass windows which have all but disappeared from newer churches usually teach a lesson or show a scene from the Bible.

  11. I have tried the axiom we universally embrace at church (“The more ancient you are, the more right you are”) on my own children, to demonstrate once and for all the superiority of MY opinions and practice over theirs. This has met with no little skepticism. Eusebius is not helping my case at all.

  12. Jay Guin says:

    John RR,

    The case you make is stronger than that. Paul is paraphrasing Psa 108 in EPh 5:19 —

    (Psa 108:1-4 ESV) My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being! 2 Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! 3 I will give thanks to you, O LORD, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. 4 For your steadfast love is great above the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.

  13. mark says:

    Laymond, as long as the congregation knows which verses to sing, the arm-swinging is not really necessary.

  14. Larry Cheek says:

    I know many congregations where a man stood in front of the congregation to lead the singing not having an ability to start a song, therefore one of the gifted sisters sitting in the pews began every song. It was done in this fashion because the sisters were not allowed to lead the singing because that would be usurping authority over the male members of the congregation. The man in the front of the congregation was given credit for an ability that was not his.

  15. R.J. says:

    Seems like the ECF’s synchronized a form of Platonic Philosophy with Christian Dispensationalism. Worshiping God with Shadows and types were forbidden simply because they were symbolic material and thus not spiritual.

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