Sing. Play. Edify.

Instruments and the regulative principle: a review of “A Cappella Music in the Worship of the Church”

December 31, 2017

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A Cappella Music in the Worship of the Church
Everett Ferguson
Desert Willow Publishing, 2013 (Revised ed.); 142 pages

Alexander Pope famously wrote that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” By this he meant that there is always a fresh supply of young recruits eager to tackle some vast and daunting subject that has exhausted wiser and better men. That’s how I feel about the subject of the regulative principle in worship. Countless trees have died under the pens of its defenders and challengers. Even if I had the requisite scholarship and understanding to address it fully (which I don’t), such a study would require a book—or several—and not a blog post. Despite these caveats, the entire exercise for me has been immensely helpful—and challenging—and I think it’s an essential consideration for all those who plan and lead corporate worship.

The initiating claim in question, presented by Everett Ferguson in his book A Cappella Music in the Worship of the church, is that instrumental music in corporate worship is contrary to the expressed will of God, and therefore should be rejected. Ferguson is a Harvard scholar and offers an articulate defense of a cappella music in the church, but he is not the practice’s progenitor. Its adherents include the Churches of Christ (representing 1.3 million members in the US alone), some Prebyterian groups, a majority of Anabaptists, and most Greek Orthodox congregations.

The typical evangelical reaction to such a view may be dismissive incredulity (as mine was initially), but that’s really a poor response. The position Ferguson represents deserves serious consideration. His book is based upon two claims: first, that instruments are absent from New Testament worship; and second, that for nearly the first thousand years of its existence, the church rejected the use of instruments in worship.

No follower of Christ—especially no church leader—should base his practices merely on what is comfortable, pleasing, or familiar. Scripture is our authority and church history our example, and both are being called as witnesses here. Although I ultimately reject Ferguson’s conclusion, I benefited from his book, and I was challenged to reaffirm the centrality of singing over instruments in corporate worship (Note: since the salient points of Ferguson’s book appear to be identical to the line of reasoning set forth by other apologists for exclusive acappella music, my interaction with Ferguson’s book is intended as an interaction with the position as a whole).

Ferguson makes two assertions:

  1. References to music in New Testament worship are exclusively vocal.
  2. The early church fathers universally and unequivocally condemned instrumental music.

The first point is largely incontrovertible. Ferguson begins by focusing on the correct translation of psallo, used in Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19, and James 5:13. In antiquity the connotation of psallo was clearly instrumental, and in Byzantine and modern Greek it was clearly vocal. Ferguson goes to great lengths to demonstrate that this lexical shift was tied to its usage in the early church, and therefore that all such occurrences in the New Testament text are expressly vocal. Here my ignorance of the original languages doesn’t allow me to contribute anything original, but a brief consultation of the standard lexicons largely confirmed Ferguson’s claim. Psallo in its New Testament context appears to be exclusively vocal in its meaning. This wasn’t a paradigm shift for me; in fact, I found the debate almost entirely one-sided, as I could find no historians or linguists who argue for an instrumental connotation in the context of the New Testament. Advocates for acappella worship, however, seem to pursue the etymology of psallo with almost feverish urgency. On this point I appreciated Ferguson’s thorough scholarship and gracious tone. Few things are more odious in a debate than straw men, and on this topic there is a robust supply to be found across the internet. But Ferguson avoids uncharitable assertions, relying instead on extensive scholarship to present his case. Indeed, his writing as a whole is succinct, gracious, and refreshing. Would that more authors followed his example!

A subset of this first point is the question of how worship in the Old Testament relates to worship in the church. Here Ferguson drives a wedge between the testaments in two ways: he conflates Old Testament music with the sacrificial system (since the latter is made obsolete in Christ, therefore the former is as well), and he identifies with the hermeneutic of the Alexandrian school to allegorize Psalm 150. I disagreed with both these points, which I’ll address below.

The second assertion Ferguson presents is that the early church fathers condemned instrumental music. This claim may be met with more surprise than the first, but here again, the evidence is clear. With a few scattered exceptions, the ante-Nicene fathers had nothing favorable to say about instruments. They were sometimes indifferent, occasionally hostile, and generally unfavorable. Again, Ferguson quotes extensively from their writings to support his claim.

These two points constitute the majority of the book. Ferguson is a scholar of the early church, and he defends these points admirably. Rather than contest them, I merely wish to make three counter-assertions to show that Ferguson’s conclusion doesn’t follow from his premises.

My counter-assertions are these:

  1. Musical worship forms in the Old Testament are not necessarily rendered obsolete by the new covenant in Christ.
  2. In the absence of clear prohibitions or restrictions, the practices of the early church should be understood in their cultural context as descriptive, not prescriptive.
  3. The regulative principle, while useful, should not be viewed as absolute and comprehensive.

The challenge is that each counter-assertion really demands extensive study. The first deals with the matter of continuity-discontinuity, which is often the sole subject of a semester-long course at the seminary level. The second delves into early church history. And the third pokes the sleeping giant that is the debate over the regulative and normative principles. The prospect alone is exhausting, so you can see by now that Pope was right about fools and angels. What follows is merely my attempt to introduce the key arguments.

How much discontinuity?

Ferguson is right that music in the Old Testament was closely associated with the sacrificial system. But he makes the relationship an exclusive one: “When the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial cultus were abolished, naturally its accompaniments were too” (41). The conflation is invalid, however, because it fails to take into account music’s transcendent function as a gift from God to His creation, meant to be returned back to Him for His glory. Ferguson reveals a strong stance for discontinuity that separates the testaments. While the founding of the church in Acts 2 certainly signifies the inauguration of “our” time, we should not cast aside all gifts and practices of the Old Testament, any more than we would categorically dismiss the Sermon on the Mount as being “for a different time.”

Consider Psalm 150:

Praise the LORD! Praise God in His sanctuary; Praise Him in His mighty expanse.
Praise Him for His mighty deeds; Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.
Praise Him with trumpet sound; Praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe.
Praise Him with loud cymbals; Praise Him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD!

A plain reading of the text demonstrates that a wide variety of instruments are used—with apparent commendation—in the praises of God. Moreover, these instruments are not only a companion to praise, but are themselves a means of praise, e.g., “Praise Him with stringed instruments.” It is inconceivable that God should devote nearly an entire psalm to instrumental praises, and then reject such offerings as unacceptable.

The typical treatment of Psalm 150 by acappella-only adherents is to allegorize it. As the figurehead of the Alexandrian school, marked by its allegorical hermeneutic, Clement’s interpretation of Psalm 150 is worth quoting at length:

The Spirit, distinguishing from such revelry the divine service, sings, “Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet”; for with the sound of trumpet he shall raise the dead. “Praise Him on the psaltery”; for the tongue is the psaltery of the Lord. “Praise Him on the lyre” by the lyre is meant the mouth struck by the Spirit, as it were by a plectrum. “Praise Him with the timbral and the dance” refers to the church meditating on the resurrection of the dead in the resounding skin. “Praise Him on the chords and organ.” Our body he calls as organ, and its nerves are the strings, by which it has received harmonious tension, and when struck by the Spirit, it gives forth human voices. “Praise on the clashing cymbals.” He calls the tongue the cymbal of the mouth, which resounds with the pulsation of the lips. Therefore he cried to humanity, “Let every breath praise the Lord,” because he cares for every breathing thing which he hath made. For man is truly a pacific instrument; while other instruments, if you investigate, you will find to be warlike, inflaming to lusts, or kindling up armors, or rousing wrath. (Instructor, II.iv.41,4 – 42.1)

The liberal use of allegory when convenient is a practice hardly limited to Clement. Another approach is to present instrumental worship in the Old Testament as a God-appointed compromise with a nation coming out of idolatry. Theodoret writes, “[God] allowed the use of instrumental music, not that he was delighted by the harmony, but that he might little by little end the deception of idols” (On the Healing of Greek Afflictions, 7.16). In his commentary on Psalm 150, he says, presumptuously, “‘Praise his with psaltery and harp…’ These instruments the Levites formerly used when praising God in the temple. It was not because God enjoyed their sound, but because he accepted the purpose of their worship… He used the lesser evil in order to forbid the greater, and used what was imperfect to teach what was perfect.” Not to be outdone, Jerome identifies the ten-stringed instrument as hands uplifted in prayer.

This is eisegesis par excellance, but such interpretational gymnastics are necessary precisely because, in the face of such divine approval, the inauguration of the new covenant alone is not sufficient reason to reject wholesale the use of instruments.

Historical context

Every generation bemoans the moral degradation of its culture, but it’s difficult for most of us to understand how profoundly wicked the Roman culture was that surrounded the early church. Pertinent to the issue at hand is the observation that in the Roman culture three things were inextricably linked: orgiastic revelry, pagan cultus, and instrumental music. It’s little wonder, then, that the early church should distance itself from instruments—not merely in corporate worship, but altogether. Ferguson writes that Tatian’s diatribe against instruments “is typical of the ancient church fathers, who go beyond the New Testament in pronouncing a negative judgment on musical instruments. They give an explicit condemnation to instrumental music” (88).

And in light of their context, we can hardly blame them. Biblical separation in first– and second–century Rome meant, among other things, the careful avoidance of that which was overtly pagan. We must set the silence of the New Testament regarding instruments against its cultural context.

Here the biblical inerrantists may begin shifting uncomfortably in their seats. But the issue at hand is precisely one of biblical sufficiency. If Paul had been silent on the matter of women teaching in the assembly, for example, there may have been cause for a discussion on the topic. But he states plainly, I do not permit. This ought to be enough for us, but he further qualifies his injunction with an immediate appeal to Genesis 2, thereby making it clear that cultural nuances are not in play. Here the dividing lines of orthodoxy may be clearly drawn: either Paul’s statement is theopneustos, or it is not. But the point for us is that, despite the strong contemporary association of instruments with immorality and idolatry, the New Testament says nothing about instruments in the assembly. God in his omniscience knew what issues in the church transcended culture (the role of men and women) and which were dependent on context (musical forms and styles). Thus, a command to worship acappella is an argument from silence.

Regulating the regulative principle

Here the discussion regarding the regulative principle of worship has already begun to emerge. Much has been written on the regulative principle, both helpful and vapid, which I won’t try to distill here (that’s not a convenient evasion, but simply a recognition that the subject is too broad). I’ll just try to mention a few perspectives that I think help to put the regulative principle in its rightful place.

Tim Challies draws a helpful distinction between elements and circumstances in corporate worship. He defines the elements as the “what” of worship—the aspects of the corporate gathering that are expressly commanded:

  1. The reading of Scripture (Acts 15:21, Rev. 1:3)
  2. The preaching of the Word of God (2 Timothy 4:2)
  3. The hearing of the word of God (James 1:19)
  4. The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19, James 5:13)
  5. Baptism (Matthew 28:19)
  6. The Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23, Acts 2:42)
  7. The Collection of Offerings (Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 9:3-12)

D.A. Carson presents a similar list of activities that should be a part of corporate worship. Challies then describes what he calls the “circumstances”—the “how” of worship. He points out that, while the elements are non-negotiable, the circumstances that shape them allow some exercise of personal liberty.

Derek Thomas also addresses the matter of conscience and liberty:

It is important to realize that the regulative principle as applied to public worship frees the church from acts of impropriety and idiocy — we are not free, for example, to advertise that performing clowns will mime the Bible lesson at next week’s Sunday service. Yet it does not commit the church to a “cookie-cutter,” liturgical sameness. Within an adherence to the principle there is enormous room for variation—in matters that Scripture has not specifically addressed (adiaphora). Thus, the regulative principle as such may not be invoked to determine whether contemporary or traditional songs are employed, whether three verses or three chapters of Scripture are read, whether one long prayer or several short prayers are made, or whether a single cup or individual cups with real wine or grape juice are utilized at the Lord’s Supper. To all of these issues, the principle “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) must be applied.

Admittedly, the regulative principle is today probably more neglected than it is abused. As she plans the elements of her weekly gatherings, the modern church would do well to begin by asking, “What has God instructed us to do?” And yet, a slavish commitment to uphold the regulative principle in circumstances (Challies’ term) will lead to moralism, or even legalism. At least it will continually tempt its adherents to issue commands where God has not spoken, and so bind men’s consciences with burdens hard to bear (Matthew 23:4).

Final thoughts

Overall, I enjoyed Ferguson’s book immensely. He writes simply and clearly. Here is no academic posturing, only extensive research and plain speaking. Although I ultimately disagree with his position, I respect the care with which he arrives at it.

I actually found his third and final chapter the most compelling, brief though it was. He points out that corporate worship ought to be both emotional and rational; and while singing can accomplish both, instrumental music (without words) can only stir the emotions. In that sense—a sense that is limited, and yet central—instrumental music may be understood to be inferior to singing. As I read this section, I immediately thought of Psalm 19, where the wordless language of creation—glorious though it is—cannot compare to the authoritative revelation of God through his Word.

This point is profound, and it deserves our full consideration. Instrumentalists need not feel like second-class citizens, for Psalm 150 is their charge: “Worship him with stringed instruments and organs!” But we must always keep before us that singing is central to corporate worship, and instrumental offerings should never eclipse the voices of the Lord’s church. How we are to nuance this is a matter of conscience and wisdom. Believers may differ, but they should be united in their affirmation with the psalmist, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”


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