Friday, April 23, 2021

A cappella singing, bits of history

Singing in the churches is “as ancient as the apostles,” as proper as preaching, and as sure as the scriptures. Instrumental music in churches, however, is a more recent and tentative innovation. Below are random comments regarding singing and musical instruments that I have run across and collected.

Novatian (circa AD 200–258) did not countenance musical instruments (perhaps not even outside worship): “Even if these things were not consecrated to idols, faithful Christians ought not to frequent and observe them, for even if there were nothing criminal about them, they have in themselves an utter worthlessness hardly suitable from believers.” (Novatian, “De Spectaculis,” as quoted in various writings online) 

“Plain singing is not childish, but only the singing with lifeless organs, with dancing and cymbals, etc. Whence the use of such instruments and other things fit for children is laid aside, and plain singing only retained.” (Pseudo-Justin, Answers to the Orthodox)

Clement of Alexandria (circa AD 150–215) appears to spiritualize the Old Testament musical instruments for New Testament purposes. “‘Praise Him on the chords and organ.’ Our body He calls an 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 Him 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 amours, or rousing wrath.” (Clement, Paedagogus, or The Instructor, Book II, Chapter 4)

Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 269–339) from his commentary on Psalm 91:4, writes: “When formerly the people of the circumcision worshipped through symbols and types, it was not unreasonable that they raised hymns to God on psalteries and cithara, and that they did this on the days of the Sabbath, thus clearly violating the required rest and transgressing the law of the Sabbath. We, however, maintain the Jewish law inwardly, according to the saying of the Apostle: ‘For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly,’...and it is upon a living psaltery and an animate cithara and in spiritual songs that we render the hymn. And so more sweetly pleasing to God than any musical instrument would be the symphony of the people of God, by which, in every church of God, with kindred spirit and single disposition, with one mind and unanimity of faith and piety, we raise melody in unison in our psalmody.” (as quoted in Music in Early Christian Literature, edited by James McKinnon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 97-98)

Sing praise to the Lord on a lyre, with the voice of a psalm ([Psalm 98] v. 5). You can see this law constantly fulfilled in the churches: we strike up the divine music on the spiritual lyre. We turn our bodies into rational lyres, and use our teeth for strings and our lips for an instrument, while our tongues moves more keenly than any plectrum and produces the harmonious sound of the plucking, the mind moving the tongue like a musician skillfully observing the intervals. Such a lyre is more acceptable to God than a lifeless one; he himself bears testimony [to this] in crying out to Jews through the prophet, ‘Take away from me the sound of your songs, I shall not listen to the sound of your instruments.’” (Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Psalms, 73-150, Theodoret of Cyrus (circa AD 393-458/466), translated by Robert C. Hill. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2001, pp. 137-138)

Mosheim describes certain “mystics” in England (circa AD 1060) who “declared the use of instrumental music in the churches, and other religious assemblies, superstitious and unlawful.” (An Ecclesiastical History, Antient and Modern, Volume II, John Lawrence Mosheim, translated by Archibald MacLaine, London: T. Cadell, p. 584)

Thomas Aquinas, circa 1270, answering the objection that under the law God was praised with musical instruments, but in his church they did not, agreed that they did not use them. He thought instruments move the soul to pleasure, were carnal, and ultimately figures of something else. (“Question 91,” The Summa Theologiæ, Thomas Aquinas, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Second and Revised Edition, 1920)

“And if these knackeris [musicians?] excuse themselves by the song in the old law; then see that Christ, who best kept the old law as it should be afterward, taught not nor charged us with such bodily [carnal] song nor any of his apostles, but with devotion in heart and holy life and true preaching, and that is enough and the best. But who should then charge us with more, over the freedom and lightness of Christ’s law?” (John Wycliffe (circa AD 1330-1384) in “Of Feigned Contemplative Life” in The English Works of Wyclif Hitherto Unprinted, edited by F. D. Matthew, London: Trübner & Son, 1880; spelling modernized, rlv)

Adam Blair cites a book against the Waldenses (dated 1395) which claimed “the Waldenses reprobate the songs, the chanting, organs, and musical instruments of the churches, and quote Ephesians v. 19.” Blair further notes that the author answered the Waldenses with verses from the Old Testament, but that “the Waldenses only objected to the use of the instruments under the New Testament.” (History of the Waldenses, Volume I, Adam Blair, Edinburgh: Adam Black, 1832, p. 441)

“If the apostle justly prohibits the use of unknown tongues in the church, much less would he have tolerated these artificial musical performances which are addressed to the ear alone, and seldom strike the understanding even of the performers themselves.” (Theodore Beza (1519-1605), as quoted in John Girardeau’s Instrumental Music in the Worship of the Church, Chapter 5, Richmond, VA: Whittet and Shepperson, 1888). Girardeau gives as the source “In Colloq. Mompelg.,” that is, The Mompelgard Colloquium)

John Bunyan (1628-1688) saw the old instrumental worship under the law as a type of the singing done in the churches, with spirit and understanding. “These songs were sung with harps, psalteries, cymbals, and trumpets; a type of our singing with spiritual joy, from grace in our hearts. 1 Ch. xxv. 6; 2 Ch. xxix. 26-28; Col. iii. 16.” (The Works of John Bunyan, Volume 3, George Offor, editor. Glasgow: Blackie & Son, p. 496)

“make use of all these musical instruments in singing, and so make an agreeable melody: these were used in the times of the Old Testament, and were typical of the spiritual joy and melody in the heart, expressed by vocal singing, under the New Testament” (John Gill, in his commentary on Psalm 81:2; see also “Of Singing Psalms, As A Part of Public Worship” in A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, Volume 3, pp. 714-715, 1796)

“In my earliest intercourse among this people [Baptists, rlv] congregational singing generally prevailed among them...The Introduction of the Organ among the Baptists. This instrument, which from time immemorial has been associated with cathedral pomp and prelatical power, and has always been the peculiar favorite of great national churches, at length found its way into Baptist sanctuaries, and the first one ever employed by the denomination in this country, and probably in any other, might have been seen standing in the singing gallery of the old Baptist meeting house in Pawtucket, about forty years ago, where I then officiated as pastor; and in process of time, this dernier resort * in church music was adopted by many of our societies which had formerly been distinguished for their primitive and conventicle plainness. The changes which have been experienced in the feelings of a large portion of our people has often surprised me. Staunch old Baptists in former times would as soon have tolerated the Pope of Rome in their pulpits as an organ in their galleries, and yet the instrument has gradually found its way among them, and their successors in church management, with nothing like the jars and difficulties which arose of old concerning the bass viol and smaller instruments of music.” (Fifty Years among the Baptists, David Benedict, Boston, MA: Gould & Lincoln, 1860, Chapter XXII, pp. 281-283)

dernier resort means a last resort or expedient.

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