Instrumental Music in Worship: Commanded or Not Commanded?
The purpose of this article is to ascertain the answer to one question: Is it the will of God that musical instruments be used in our worship today? Or is the use of musical instruments in worship contrary to God’s revealed will?
I. The Regulative Principle
To even ask such a question — and ask it in this way — is, of course, to assume two things. It is to assume (1) the basic Protestant principle that the written word of God is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. It is also to assume (2) the special application of this general principle in what is commonly called the regulative principle of worship, which has never been stated more clearly than in the Westminster Confession of Faith. “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men . . . or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.” (XXI.i)
We do not intend to devote this article to a defense of this principle. This has been done already.(1) But we do emphasize the importance of this principle. For the fact is that many who profess adherence to this principle (as stated here, and in other Reformed Confessions) show only too clearly that this principle has lost its hold upon them. We cite one example. In a sermon entitled “What’s worship?,” Dr. Joel Nederhood dealt with the problems raised by “avant-garde liturgists who insist that worship must include all kinds of strange events.” We all know that jazz orchestras, folk singers, rock operas, and even religious dancing have been used in the worship services of the modern church. Very properly, then, Dr. Nederhood says: “If we want to know what worship is, we are aging to have to turn to God and say, ‘You tell us, please, what worship is’.” As he truly says, “Worship is not what turns us on, necessarily, but it is what turns God on, if we may speak that way about Him.” This is excellent: it comes very close to expressing the regulative principle. Yet, sad to say, Dr. Nederhood appears to take it all back as he continues. “Surely, there must be change” he says, “and innovation as such is not evil. Worship can take many forms. All of us must allow for that. And we must be very broad-minded on the subject.” Surely the contradiction is manifest. A thing cannot be commanded by God, and — at the same time — mere human innovation or invention. If it is our duty to turn to God to ask Him what He wants us to do in worship, then that very duty rules out innovation and invention. To make room for innovation and invention — and to be “very broad-minded on the subject” is simply to nullify the regulative principle. And when this happens one of two things will have to follow: either the church will decide what is, and what is not, allowable — or, the individual will do what is right in his own eyes. It will, then, be either tyranny or anarchy, neither of which is attractive. That is why we make no apology whatever for defending this much-neglected — and much-misunderstood — principle. For the fact is that the one thing that can preserve us from these two great evils — tyranny and anarchy — is the regulative principle. If my church truly honors this principle, then no one will be required to do anything in worship that God has not commanded! There is no tyranny where God alone commands the conscience. He has the sovereign right to command. But neither will there be anarchy in my church if it maintains this principle. For how can every man do that which is right in his own eyes, if he is subject to the disciplinary authority of a church which is ruled by God’s command?
The fact is that the church today, in most of its branches, has departed from this regulative principle. It is also a fact that in some of these branches tyranny has resulted. By mere human authority men are required to observe man-made sacraments, and holy days, and many other things not commanded in the Bible. And it is equally evident in other branches of the church that anarchy has come. For in some denominations there is no uniformity in worship, and there is all manner of innovation. Is it too much to say, then, that what the church needs as much — if not more than — anything else, is to return to the regulative principle? True worship is worship commanded by God. What is not commanded by God in worship is therefore forbidden. Upon this foundation our entire argument will stand.
II. The Teaching of Scripture
Does the Bible command us to use musical instruments in worship? This is the question. And to this question many would no doubt answer yes! without any hesitation. “Doesn’t the Psalmist himself say that we should praise God with organs?” is the common remark. Ps. 150:4 is probably quoted more than any other verse in the Bible in defense of musical instruments in worship. Yet how obvious it is — upon a little reflection — that such superficially plausible proof texts do not really settle the question at all. It is easy to see this if we simply read the entire Psalm again.
“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.” (New American Standard Bible)
It ought to be evident to anyone that this Psalm commands the use of the organ no more than it does the trumpet, harp, lyre, timbrel, dance, stringed instruments and loud cymbals. However, few people who quote Ps. 150:4 in defense of the organ are at all prepared to see all these other instruments used in their worship. Thus we see an interesting thing today in some Reformed denominations. The older generation has long quoted Ps. 150:4 in order to justify the organ. But now the younger generation quotes the same verse to justify the guitar, and the rest of the Psalm to justify a great deal more. Is it not evident, then, that this question demands more than an off-hand quotation of a few plausible texts? It is for this reason that we will seek to present a summary, below, of the unfolding revelation of God in Scripture concerning the use of instrumental music in worship.
From Adam to Moses
Little is known about Adam’s worship in paradise. But it is perfectly certain that there were no musical instruments. We know this because the invention of musical instruments is attributed to one of his descendants (Gen. 4:21). We may observe that it was the unbelieving descendants of Cain who led in the advancement of culture and technology before the time of the flood. This does not reprobate these inventions as such. And it is clear that the people of God made use of them at a later time (Gen. 31:27, Job 21:12). The more impressive, therefore, is the total silence of Scripture concerning any use of musical instruments in the worship of God during the patriarchal period. When we later see that God’s displeasure was clearly manifested whenever anything was offered to Him in worship which He had not commanded (Lev. 10:1-2) — and that musical instruments were never introduced until God’s express command had been given — we cannot but conclude that they were not used at all during the time from Adam to Moses.
From Moses to David
It is not even certain that musical instruments were used in worship in the period of time extending from Moses to David. It is true that we read of timbrels and dances in Exodus 15. But was this public worship, or was it a patriotic celebration? The fact that men alone, and not women, were appointed to lead in the entire worship of the tabernacle service (Num. 3:5-11) would seem to require the second alternative. For it was Miriam and the women who played the timbrels and danced after the crossing of the Red Sea. When we go on to read (Exod. 25:40, Heb. 8:5) that the whole form of worship that God required of His people in the wilderness was revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai, we are strengthened in this conclusion. For in this revelation we find but one thing that could be classified as an instrument of music. God commanded the making of two silver trumpets (Num. 10:1-10), and only the sons of Aaron were to use them (v. 8). They were to be used, furthermore, only for certain specified purposes: the calling of assembly (v. 2), sounding an alarm of war (v. 9), and as an accompaniment of the sacrifices in the tabernacle (v. 10). There is no indication that they were ever used to accompany congregational singing, so it may be doubted that these trumpets were intended as musical instruments. The function of trumpets in the Bible (Exod. 19:16-19, Mt. 24: 31, I Cor. 15:52, Rev. 8, etc.) rather appears to be to announce something of great importance, and to warn! If this be the case — and these trumpets were used only to announce and warn — then musical instruments were not yet authorized in worship. But even if one holds that these trumpets were used, in some sense, as instruments of music in worship, it would still be true that this was only by divine command. If this be the beginning of the use of instruments of music in worship, in other words, then it is noteworthy that it was a commanded beginning.
We find musical instruments in use in what is often called the “school of the prophets” (I Sam. 10:5, II Kings 3:15). But precisely what this use was is not easy to demonstrate. To say (as some critics do) that they were used to induce prophetic ecstasy is without foundation. We know from the inspired Scriptures that holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit, not as they were moved by music (II Pet. 1:21). But it is equally gratuitous to assume that these instruments were used in worship. There is no proof of it. But even if these prophets did use musical instruments in worship, this would not authorize their use in congregational worship. Just as the priests and Levites were authorized to use the trumpets, while the members of the congregation of Israel were not, so it may not be assumed that what the prophets did was normative for those who were not prophets. The conclusion to which we are driven by the evidence, then, is this: 1) true and acceptable worship was long rendered to the Lord without the use of any musical instrument; 2) we have found no proof that they were used even until the time of David as a part of congregational worship; and 3) even where there may be an element of uncertainty (as, for example, in the precise function of the trumpets) it is still true that nothing was introduced into the worship of God except by the express command of God.
The Period of the Monarchy
During the period of the monarchy the service of worship was made much more elaborate. When David began his reign he soon determined to restore the ordinances of worship in Israel. “So David gathered all Israel together . . . to bring the ark of God from Kirjathjearim” (I Chron. 13:6) to Jerusalem. This journey was completed in two phases because the first ended with a manifestation of God’s displeasure (13:10). From the sequel we discover that this was because they had not acted “after the due order” (13:13). They had failed, in other words, to do precisely what God commanded while refraining from everything else. Thus in the second phase care was taken to observe the requirements of the law of Moses (15:13-15). The more impressive does it become, therefore, when we note that in both phases of this journey musical instruments were used (13:8, 15:27). In the second phase, at least, this included “the singers, and Chenaniah the master of the song with the singers” (v. 27). Now at first glance, this might seem to justify the use of musical instruments in worship even when it is not a part of the ceremonies of the temple. Indeed, if there is any place in the whole Bible that would seem to give a plausible ground for such, this would be it. However, when we observe that only the Levites played the instruments (15:16) — and that sacrifices and offerings were made as they brought the ark back to its appointed place in the tent (16:1) — it will soon become evident that this was still ceremonial worship. Since there was, at this time, no tabernacle or temple, the ark itself was the sole symbol of God’s appointed place of worship. That is why the worship performed in connection with it was (during the second phase) carried out with such care. The worship here performed in connection with the ark was never, after the restoration of the ark to the tabernacle, performed elsewhere. And in any event what was here employed in the worship of God during the journey from Kirjathjearim to Jerusalem was later performed by express command of God as a permanent part of temple worship. For “David gave to Solomon his son the pattern” of that worship which he had received “by the Spirit” (I Chron. 28:11-12). “All the work of the service of the house of the Lord” (v. 13) was given to David “in writing from the hand of the Lord” (v. 19) and by “commandment of the Lord by his prophets” (II Chron. 29:24).
In this more elaborate temple worship several things are to be noted. Only the Levites were allowed to play the musical instruments (I Chron. 16:4-6). While so employed they were “arrayed in white linen” and “stood at the east end of the altar” with “cymbals and psalteries and harps” (II Chron. 5:12). With them stood “an hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets.” All told, there were “four thousand (who) praised the Lord with the instruments” of music (I Chron. 23: 5), being divided into twenty-four courses, each consisting of one hundred sixty musicians. Most important of all, we note that “when the burnt-offering began, the song to the Lord also began with the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments” (II Chron. 29:27). “All the congregation worshipped, and the singers sang, and the trumpets sounded,” we read, “until the burnt-offering was finished” (v. 28). Then, “when they had made an end of offering” (v. 29) the people bowed to worship, and sang praises to the Lord without musical accompaniment. Since the Scripture expressly states that the musical instruments sounded “until the burnt-offering was finished” the congregational praise which followed must have been a capella.
Two things stand out in all this. On the one hand there is the sheer magnitude of it all. Imagine what an impressive spectacle this must have been — with the chorus, orchestra, and trumpets all sounding at once! On the other hand we observe that all of this was heard only during the offering up of the burnt-sacrifice (II Chron. 29:27). It was at the precise time of this offering that the singers, orchestra and trumpets were heard. Is it not evident, to the thoughtful reader, that there was something typical in this? Even the historical account informs us that these musicians were appointed to “prophesy with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals” (I Chron. 25:1). And we know what “the sum” (Heb. 8:1) of this prophecy was. For the whole system of ceremonial worship served as a “shadow of heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5). It was “a figure for the time then present” (9:9), but a figure of something better in the future. In plain words, here was enacted symbolically the drama of redemption. We use the word drama because this Old Testament ceremonial worship was only a representation of the real redemption which was to be accomplished, not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with the precious blood of Christ. That is why this impressive assembly of musicians was needed. In a similar way, a motion picture depicting some great love story is a pale thing in comparison with our own experience of love. That is why sound effects, and a musical background, are so important: it helps us to feel a synthetic representation as if it were real. So God, under the Old Testament administration of the covenant of grace, was pleased to use such “weak and beggarly elements” to help his Old Testament people (as children under age — Galatians 4) feel something more in these animal sacrifices than was actually there. So, as the sacrifice was offered, the hearts of God’s people were stirred by this great cacophony of music. Yet all was strictly on a ceremonial level. “It is important to bear in mind” then “that all music of the temple . . . was nothing but an accessory to its sacrificial ritual. Without sacrifice the music loses its raison d’etre.”(2)
From the Exile to the Advent
We have not been able to determine the time when synagogue worship began. The synagogue — or something similar to it — must have existed from a very early time. The weekly Sabbath was surely observed in some way by pious Israelites who could not have come to Jerusalem more than a few times a year. No doubt such believers gathered together in order to read the word of God so that they could at least think about the ceremonial worship in Jerusalem when they could not be present. Since the use of instrumental music was, by divine command, a priestly and Levitical function — and strictly a part of the sacrifice of the temple — it comes as no surprise that synagogue worship from the earliest known times was without musical instruments. Even if the synagogues came into existence at the time of the captivity this would come as no surprise. As Psalm 137 indicates, it was no thought of pious Israelites to presume to duplicate the lost glory of the temple worship in a strange land! As Calvin says, the Psalmist here (Psalm 137) “deplores the suspension of the songs of praise, which God had enjoined in the temple. The Levites were set over the department of singing, and led the way among the people in this devotional exercise. Is it asked how they had carried their harps with them so far from their native land? We have in this another proof mentioned by the Psalmist of their faith and fervent piety, for the Levites, when stripped of all their fortunes had preserved their harps at least as a piece of precious furniture, to be devoted to a former use when opportunity presented itself. We may suppose that those who truly feared God put a high value upon the relics of his worship, and showed the greatest care in preserving them, till the period of their restoration.”(3) It is interesting to note in this connection, that when the captives returned with Ezra, the singers are mentioned (Ezra 2:41). But a search had to be made to find Levites who could play the instruments of music (Neh. 12:27). In any event, it is well known that instruments of music were not used in synagogues until modern times. Orthodox Jewish synagogues still do not use them because, as they still testify, this “serves to distinguish the synagogue from the temple.”(4)
The New Testament
It is sometimes said that the New Testament is silent about the use of musical instruments. This is true if we mean that it gives no evidence of their use in the apostolic church. About one thing, however, the New Testament is not silent. It is not silent about the termination of the ceremonial worship of the Old Testament. Our Lord himself announced that true worship would henceforth require no visible geographic center (John 4:21). Soon men would be able to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (4:24). What did He mean? Clearly, He did not mean that Old Testament ceremonial worship had been false. No, the contrast here intended is a contrast between two types of true worship, one of which was now passing away and the other of which was now coming into existence. True worship had previously been in the temple and in types: but now it would be in Spirit and in truth. “For the law” (that is, the law expressed in these Old Testament ceremonies and ordinances) was “only a shadow of the good things to come” (Heb. 10:1). And the coming of these very good things themselves of necessity terminated the anticipatory shadows!
This can be seen in the particular shadowy ordinance of instrumental music, if we compare the form of expression found in the Old Testament and the New. In the Old Testament, Levites are called to worship in the temple with instruments of music (II Chron. 5:11-13, Pss. 81:1-3, 98:4-6, 149:2-3). In the New Testament, believers are called to worship in the Spirit with heart and lips (Heb. 13:15, and cf. 12:22-23, Eph. 5:18-19, Col. 3:16). Much of the argument in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 7, Galatians 3, Hebrews 7-10) is in order to show that Old Testament ceremonial worship is abolished. Thus there were many things in tabernacle and temple that were not a part of worship in the apostolic church. There were images (Exod. 25:18-19, 36:8), priests (Exod. 40:13-15), incense (Exod. 30:8), candles (Exod. 25:31), etc. All of these were given, as the New Testament informs us, as “a figure for the time then present” (Heb. 9:9). They were “imposed” (by divine commandment) “until the time of reformation” (Heb. 9:10). They were “patterns of things in the heavens” (9:31), which things now belong to us because of the finished work and present intercession of Christ (9:24, 12:18-24). Thus, as Calvin once said, “when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated the shadows of the law, and taught us that God is to be served in simpler form, it would be to act a foolish and mistaken part to imitate that which the prophet enjoined only upon those of his own time.”(5) It would only “bury the light of the gospel” if we should “introduce the shadows of a departed dispensation.”(6)
Here, at least, the premillennialist Christian is more consistent than many who profess to be Reformed. The premillennialist speaks of a rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, and thus takes seriously the fact that this Old Testament ceremonial worship was commanded by God. If we are going to revive ceremonial worship, in other words, then let us at least be careful to restore it exactly as it was commanded. Let us not pick and choose as we will. That the premillennialist is mistaken, however, in expecting a restoration of that which is passed away is perfectly plain. For the one place in the New Testament in which the Old Testament types and symbols reappear is in the book of Revelation. Here we read of the ark (11:9), the lamb (5:6), trumpets (4:1, 8:2, etc.), temple (11:19), harps (5:9), incense (8:4), etc. Yet how evident it is that none of these are to be taken literally. The incense (in the Greek text of 8:4) is called the prayers of the saints. The trumpet is not a literal trumpet, but the sound of a voice compared with the sound of a trumpet (4:1). Similarly, the music that John heard (14:2, Greek text) was not the sound of harps. It was the sound of human voices likened unto harpers harping with their harps. The very employment of these ceremonial symbols — taken, as they are, from an abrogated system — further confirms the fact that they were not any part of New Testament worship.
The conclusion to which we are driven is this: God has not commanded us to use musical instruments in New Testament worship. We have seen that God did not authorize (command) the use of musical instruments until the time of Moses (even if we consider the trumpets used in the tabernacle to be instruments of music). When they were authorized (commanded), they were clearly a part of the shadowy ceremonial system. And even in the Old Testament period, worship (except that which was performed by the priests and Levites at the temple in Jerusalem) was commonly offered without musical instruments. Worship in the ancient synagogue was always devoid of such. So was the worship of the early church. Never in the New Testament do we find mention of their use. What we do find is an abundance of teaching to the effect that the whole system of tabernacle and temple worship (shadowy and typical in nature) has been abolished. It follows, therefore, that the use of musical instruments is not authorized in the worship of the church today.
III. The Testimony of History
The Bible is our only infallible rule of faith and practice. It needs — and allows — no supplementation from history or tradition. Nevertheless, there is value in the testimony of history. If our understanding of Scripture is correct, we will often find corroboration here. And the interesting fact is that church history also testifies that musical instruments were not originally used in the worship services of the Christian church.
“As the Christian church rests historically on the Jewish church, so Christian worship . . . rests on that of the synagogue, and cannot be well understood without it.”(7) From as far back as the time of the Babylonian Captivity, synagogue worship was worship without instrumental music, and so it has been until modern times. As one authority has put it, “a dispersed Jewry was a sorrowing Jewry, and in synagogues that were now to be found almost everywhere in the known world, an abstention from instrumental music served as a lasting reminder of the glories of the temple worship of the past, which should, it was confidently believed, after a period of patient waiting some day be renewed.”(8) In the Apostolic period, at least some of these synagogues became Christian churches (Acts 17:10-12). Thus it comes as no surprise to find no musical instruments in the worship of the early Christian church. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the witness to this “rejection of all musical instruments is consistent among the Fathers.”(9) And so deeply was this contrast between church and temple understood, that even to this day the Greek (or Eastern) Orthodox Church “disapproves the use of organs.”(10) “The Latin (or western) Church introduced it pretty generally, but not without the protest of eminent men, so that even in the Council of Trent a motion was made, though not carried, to prohibit the organ at least in the mass.”(11) Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian of the Roman Church, still spoke of musical instruments as illegitimate in worship. The first recorded instance of the use of such was in the eighth century, but they did not become common until the thirteenth. Thus the history of the church, prior to the time of the Reformation, is eloquent. It loudly proclaims the fact that musical instruments in worship were a late innovation.
We are not surprised, then, that Reformed churches returned to the ancient simplicity of worship. In Geneva — and then in the Calvinistic churches influenced by Geneva — musical instruments were rejected. They were not, indeed, “forbidden . . . in private . . . but they [were] banished out of the churches,” according to Calvin, “by the plain command of the Holy Spirit,” because Paul (in I Cor. 14:13) “lays it down as an invariable rule that we must praise God . . . only in a known tongue.”(12) This fact is well known. “The history of music in our denomination,” said one writer recently “is a story of how the organ and choir, exiled by Calvin, gradually re-entered the Reformed [worship] service.”(13) The same could be said of virtually any Reformed or Presbyterian church. And one of the things that has greatly impressed us, in our historical research, is the way in which this re-entry took place. No church of Jesus Christ has ever been perfect. This statement also applies to the church at the time of the Reformation. Thus we may never argue that a thing is right merely because “that is the way it was at the time of the Reformation.” It is significant, however, that the Reformers rejected the use of musical instruments in worship because they understood the Scriptures to require this. They were also able to give a clear and convincing statement of their reasons. But was this true in later times when the organ was reinstituted in the churches? Did the ministers (and theologians) of that time first show that they understood this to be a thing commanded by the Lord in Scripture? Did they present a convincing argument from the Bible? The answer to these questions is, sad to say, emphatically no!(14) Like so many retrograde changes that have been made in Calvinistic churches since the Reformation, this was simply by way of concession to popular demand. As Professor Slenk says — reviewing briefly the history of this concession in Holland — “Although Calvinist consistories of the sixteenth century wanted no organ music, they could not remove the organs from the premises because church buildings were the property of the city. The city councils realized the value of the great Dutch organs and wanted people to enjoy them. They appointed city organists (stadsorganisten) to play frequent recitals. A convenient recital time was Sunday morning, just before and after the service.” But then “prominent pamphleteers like Constantijn Huyghens insisted that if the organ was to be used on Sunday, the organist should play psalms and hymns and lead congregational singing as well,” and “Calvinist consistories gradually and grudgingly accepted the organ as a musical instrument for use in church.”(15) So it was concession that dictated the change: not principle. And from Calvin’s day to this, “no synod or classis in the Reformed tradition has addressed itself to this problem, or outlined the proper liturgical role of organ music in worship.”(16) Or, to put the matter in our own words, no one has ever justified on a Biblical basis the great change that has been made.
It is at this point that we must again recall the regulative principle of worship. True worship is commanded worship. What is not commanded is not true worship. This is the clear — and consistent — teaching of the great Reformed Confessions and Catechisms. Yet how clear it is that this principle has long since lost its hold on many who have professed adherence to these documents. In 1881 the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church of North America voted on a memorial asking that the article in the Directory for Worship banning the use of musical instruments be repealed. The overture was carried by a majority of 8. The interesting thing, however, is that the change was made with the following resolution: “that this decision is not to be considered as authorizing instrumental music in the worship of God, but simply as a declaration of the judgment of the church that there is no sufficient Bible authority for an absolutely exclusive rule on the subject.”(17) Those with discernment will clearly see that the change was not made because it was shown that the Bible commands the use of musical instruments. No such proof was offered, nor (so far as the record shows) even asked by the General Assembly. The change was simply that a majority (as the resolution clearly shows) did not any longer believe that the regulative principle is correct. Without realizing it (no doubt), these men had moved from a Reformed view of worship (what is not commanded is forbidden) to a Romish view of worship (what is not forbidden in Scripture is allowable).
The writer has often discussed this subject with others. Apart from mention of such texts as Ps. 150:4, little attempt is made to prove from Scripture that God has commanded the use of musical instruments in worship. Most arguments, in fact, are entirely negative: they seek to show either a) that God has not forbidden the use of musical instruments in worship, or b) that musical instruments are simply a practical necessity. To the first type of argument we have but one response: the plea that those who so argue will go back and study again the Scripture evidence for the regulative principle.(18) To the second type of argument we therefore proceed.
1) One of the most common arguments for the use of musical instruments in worship is simply the fact that they are thought to be a practical necessity. The argument runs something like this: There is no divine commandment that we should have church buildings, or pews, or Psalm books. Yet we do have these as a matter of practical necessity. Why then may we not also use musical instruments for the same reason? In answer to this argument it is sufficient to say this, that it assumes the very point at issue. The writer worships each Lord’s Day without the use of any musical instrument. In point of fact, then, musical instruments are not a practical necessity. It is necessary, however, to meet in some place. How can we obey the Lord’s command to assemble ourselves together, if we do not meet at some designated place (and in some building since the weather is often inclement)? Furthermore, how can we sing Psalms together (as we are commanded to do) without some kind of Psalm book? It may be argued, of course, that it is possible to memorize the Psalms — in a certain metre and with a certain tune — so that no book will be necessary. This is true. But then we merely have a memorized book. And whenever there is a revision of this Book of Psalms with music (as there ought to be from time to time) it will, again be necessary for a time for every one to have a book (whether individually, or collectively in the hand of an instructor). In other words, the argument fails. It can easily be disproved. It is disproved constantly by congregations that sing the Psalms of the Bible without musical instruments.
2) But is it not true, someone may ask, that even in such congregations there is someone who uses an instrument of a sort in order to get the pitch? To this, of course, the answer is yes, someone must establish the pitch, and (unless there is a person who has perfect pitch) it is often necessary to use a tuning fork or pitch pipe to do this. Well then, it may be said further, doesn’t this really show that there is at least some minimal necessity for the use of an instrument of music? And to this, too, the answer is clearly yes! If the tuning fork or pitch pipe be called an instrument of (or for?) music, then there is often a minimal necessity for its use. Then what is the difference in principle? If I use a tuning fork, or pitch pipe, or organ, or guitar, to get the pitch, isn’t it all the same? Once more the answer will be yes. And if that is all the organ (or tuning fork, or pitch pipe, etc.) is used for, no objections should be made. There is nothing sacred in even the most traditional method of finding the proper pitch, nothing whatever. But here again common practice contradicts theory. Many congregations do sing praises to God continually without benefit of any kind of mechanical means of setting the pitch. There are persons in most congregations who can learn to give the pitch with sufficient accuracy to eliminate such a need. But even where such a need exists, how simple it is to supply. If the organ (or anything else) is only used to give the proper pitch, then the sole test of necessity has been met. As it is, in most churches, this minimal necessity that has been used to justify all manner of violation of the regulative principle — so that we now have the prelude, the postlude, the interlude, and the mood music that often is played during the pastoral prayer. The writer often finds it necessary to have a glass of water at hand on the pulpit. A swallow or two of water is sometimes essential in order to speak. Now suppose that someone would argue, from this minimal necessity, that every pew should have a built-in fountain, so that drinking could become a ritual! Wouldn’t this be comparable to what has happened because of the abuse that has been made of the little tuning fork?
3) But aren’t you magnifying this one thing out of all proportion, someone may ask? Do you think that yours is the only true church because you sing Psalms without any musical instruments? The answer to this argument is that no church is as pure as it ought to be. Who can say which church, after all, is burdened down with more impurities? One church may excel in one way (such as faithful preaching), while lacking sadly in another (such as purity of worship). Another may sing only the inspired Psalms without musical instruments, and yet allow such human inventions as the altar call (and often an Arminian sub-gospel). Neither church would have any reason to boast. It may, under certain circumstances, be wise to attend the church that preaches the gospel most faithfully, even though (in doing so) one would have to lament the defective elements of worship. There is — in short — a point to this objection: and it is well taken. We have no right to boast, or feel self-satisfied, merely because of purity in one aspect of the life of the church. But still, we hasten to add, this takes nothing away from the intrinsic importance of the point at issue. The question remains one of moment: Has God, or has God not, authorized the use of musical instruments in worship? To see an element of value in the objection stated above, then, must not mislead us. It is no argument at all so far as the issue itself is concerned.
4) If I cannot use musical instruments, someone may say, then how can I go on singing the Psalms in which they are so frequently mentioned? Those who have followed our argument in this article will anticipate our answer. We should sing these Psalms with the same spiritualized meaning that we find in the New Testament itself, where we say “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” (I Cor. 5:7), and that we are come “to Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God” (Heb. 12:22). Just as we sing of the hyssop, altar, bullock, sackcloth, evening sacrifice, goats, cherubim, ark, new moon, etc. (Pss. 51:7, 43:4, 50:19, 69:31, 66:15, 80:1, 132:8, 81:3), so we sing of the trumpets, and lyre, and the loud cymbals. We can sing them all precisely because we see that they all have their heavenly counterpart in the glorious work of Christ and the spiritual worship that he has given.
5) Well, someone will say, I still love the sound of a great pipe organ — I just can’t help it — and I just can’t enjoy worship without it. This, in the end, is where most discussions cease. The marvel of it is that people who say such things seem to imagine that they have really said something of substance when they have said this. But consider these words again: is it not evident — painfully evident — that these are arrogant words? “Who cares what God wants,” such people say in effect, “so long as I have what I want! I am the important one!” This is the very antithesis of true religion. What we should say — first, last, and always — when we come to worship God, is this: “Lord, you show me the way, and then I will find rest and peace.” And this, in the final analysis, is the incredible thing. You leave behind these human inventions — the uninspired hymns — and the great emotion arousing pipe organ — and the incense, and candles, and pictures and images — and you begin to enter into the simple spiritual worship of our Calvinistic fathers. Then one day a strange thing happens. God himself enables you to see the beauty of holiness, and you suddenly realize that it surpasses the beauty of ceremonial worship as the light of day surpasses night. And you understand what a fool you were to think that you were giving up so much! You see now that you gave up nothing but weak and beggarly elements, in order to taste of the supreme delight of that worship which is in spirit and in truth. May our gracious and sovereign God bring His church again to glory in this worship.
1. For the best summary see William Young, “The Second Commandment,” Blue Banner Faith and Life, 27(1972):49. For a good bibliography, see the Minutes of the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, 1968, pp. 102-105.
2. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 2:459.
3. John Calvin, Commentaries, 2:1095.
4. Gilbert and Tarcov, Your Neighbor Celebrates (New York: Friendly House Publishers, 1957), p. 93.
5. Calvin, ibid, p. 723.
6. Ibid., p. 802.
7. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 1:456.
8. John O. Ward, ed., The Oxford Companion to Music, tenth edition, (London, 1970), p. 538.
9. New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill Book. Company, 1967), 10:106.
10. Schaff, ibid, 4:439.
12. Calvin, ibid., p. 636.
13. Howard J. Slenk, “Music in the Christian Reformed Church: History, Present Problems, and Future,” The Banner, 104(no. 37):6. The Banner is the official organ of the Christian Reformed Church.
14. For an example, see McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, 7:425-26. Consult also the Digest of the Principal Acts and Deliverances of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church of North America from 1859 to 1902 (Pittsburgh, Penn.: United Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1903), pp. 107-17.
15. Slenk, ibid.
17. Digest of the Principal Acts and Deliverances, p. 109.
18. See note 1.
This article is taken from The Biblical Doctrine of Worship, a collection published by Crown and Covenant Publications, 7408 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15208-2531. Reproduced by permission.