A Concise Case for A Capella Worship

A Concise Case for A Capella Worship

Statement of the Question.

Is instrumental music acceptable in new covenant worship? To answer this question we must be precise about what we are trying to investigate. The question is not whether instrumental music may be enjoyed in private, nor whether it may be used in secular, non-ecclesiastical social gatherings. It certainly can, and is a great blessing in those contexts. However, as John Calvin believed:

“We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit…” [1]

The question is specifically whether instrumental music in the public worship of the church is justifiable. Is it God’s will that instrumental music be used today in corporate worship? This essay will argue for the negative.

Main Argument.

Our main argument, in summary, is:

P1. Old covenant ceremonial worship has been abrogated and is no longer part of public worship in the new covenant.
P2. Instrumental music is part of old covenant ceremonial worship.
C. Instrumental music has been abrogated and is no longer part of public worship in the new covenant.

Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).

At the outset, it is crucial that we recognize the principle Scripture teaches by which corporate worship is to be regulated. When it comes to doctrine, worship, and church government, we must not ask “what may we do?” we must ask “what must we do?” How does God desire to be worshiped? God’s Word teaches that every part of corporate worship requires authorization from Scripture, either from explicit statements or by good and necessary consequence deduced from Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith 21:1 defines the RPW like this:

“The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited to his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 4:15-20; 12:32; Mat. 4:9-10; 15:9; Acts 17:25; Col. 2:23).”

It is not enough that something is expedient, that it promotes devotion or any other virtue, that it is lawful, or that it is indifferent, neither good nor bad in itself—none of these grounds are sufficient authorization or warrant from Scripture to introduce something into God’s worship. It must be commanded by God’s Word. As Samuel Rutherford wrote, “whatever is beside the Word of God is against the Word of God,” and in acts of worship, for God “not to command is to forbid.” [2]

John Girardeau made an excellent and concise case proving the RPW from many didactic statements of Scripture as well as from several concrete instances recorded in Scripture which graphically illustrate the principle. We have posted that section in full and thus will not argue for the RPW any further here. But we will assume that the reader has an understanding of the categories and biblical basis for it as we continue. cf. The Regulative Principle of Worship Proven From Scripture.

Instrumental Music in Scripture.

Now let us examine the history of instrumental music in public worship throughout redemptive history. In this brief survey we will see how God commanded instrumental music to be used in old covenant ceremonial worship, and how he abrogated it in the new covenant.

Patriarchal Period.

The first musical instruments were invented before the Flood by one of Adam’s descendants (Gen. 4:21), but they were not instituted by God for public worship at that time. We later find musical instruments being used by God’s people (Gen. 31:27; Job 21:11-12), but again, not in corporate worship. Considering Scripture’s silence about instrumental music in worship during the Patriarchal period, we cannot conclude that it was authorized by God during that time.

From Moses to David.

Even in the time period from Moses to David it is not certain that instrumental music was instituted for ordinary congregational praise. When the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Make thee two trumpets of silver…” (Num. 10:1-2), he specifically designated when and how the trumpets should be used: “for the calling of the assembly and for the journeying of the camps” (v. 2), sounding an alarm of war (v. 9), to mark the appointed holy days, and the beginning of each month, and to accompany the sacrifices and offerings of the Tabernacle (v. 10). This was positively commanded by God, and the Levitical priests were the only ones ordained to use them, “And the sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow with the trumpets; and they shall be to you for an ordinance for ever throughout your generations” (Num. 10:8).

Although in this early stage of the institutional Church we see musical instruments accompanying ceremonial elements of worship, such as the “solemn days,” burnt offerings, sacrifices, and the peace offerings, these trumpets were not designed to accompany congregational singing. In this sense, they were not intended to be used as musical instruments per se. Even if they could be considered proper musical instruments, God commanded what to do with them, when to do it, how to do it, and by whom it should be done. This is a clear example of a positive and ceremonial regulation concerning the people of Israel, as a Church under age, rather than something applicable to the ordinary religious worship of God under the Gospel.

Timbrels and Dancing.

What about Miriam and the timbrels and dancing? “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” (Ex. 15:20). Is this an example of instrumental music in public worship without having been instituted by God? Does it indicate a normative pattern for congregational worship? No. John L. Girardeau gives two reasons why such an argument would prove too much:

1. “If from this instance the legitimacy of employing instrumental music in the public worship of the Jewish Church is to be inferred, so may the legitimacy of its use by women in that worship. But the history of the appointments of that worship [Ex. 25:40; Heb. 8:5] furnishes no evidence of the tenableness of the latter inference. The contrary is proved. Women were excluded from any prominent, at least any official, function in the services of God’s house in the Mosaic dispensation [Num. 3:5-10].” 

2. “If the word rendered ‘dances’ is correctly translated. It would prove that religious dancing was an element in the prescribed worship of God’s people. The consequence refutes the argument.” [3]

Further, this occasion, and several others like it, are most accurately understood as theocratic, civil or secular events, rather than normative, continuing patterns for corporate worship. Girardeau writes,

“What the state as such did, the church as such did not do, and vice versa. And if this be so, it follows that the same thing holds in regard to the people. What they did in a national capacity they did not necessarily do in an ecclesiastical. When, then, Miriam and the women with her [Ex. 15:20], the women who welcomed Saul and David returning home in triumph [1 Sam. 18:6], the daughter of Jephthah celebrating her father’s victory [Judges 11:34], and the mass of people who accompanied the ark in its transportation to Jerusalem [2 Sam. 6:5], played on instruments of music, they were commemorating national events with appropriate national rejoicings. They were not acting worship as the church or as the members of the church.” [4]

Lastly, we must recognize that this occasion was extraordinary and temporary. It had a special prophetic purpose, outside of the ordinary religious worship of God. As a prophetess, Miriam evidently had divine warrant for her use of the timbrel, just as Scripture records other prophets doing (1 Sam. 10:5; 2 Kings 3:15). It was an extraordinary and spontaneous, prophetically led, occasion of civil celebration and praise. It was temporary and not prescriptive as a continuing form of public worship—not for the old covenant Church and certainly not now.

“As prophetess and sister of Aaron she led the chorus of women, who replied to the male chorus with timbrels and dancing, and by taking up the first strophe of the song, and in this way took part in the festival; a custom that was kept up in after times in the celebration of victories (Judges 11:34; 1 Samuel 18:6-7; 1 Samuel 21:12; 1 Samuel 29:5).”[5]

Summarizing the use of instrumental music during the period from Moses to David in redemptive history, G.I. Williamson writes,

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.” [6]

Davidic Monarchy and Exile.

The first instance of instrumental music prescribed by God for ordinary public worship was not until the time of King David. Old covenant worship became more elaborate in this period. God had brought his people to the promised land, given them rest from their enemies, and began to establish his dwelling place in Zion, and expand upon the ceremonial worship which he had instituted through Moses (1 Chron. 23:25-26). Summarizing David’s doxological role in this period of God’s unfolding plan for his Church’s worship, Professor Bruce Waltke writes, “David transformed the Mosaic liturgy into opera. David was Israel’s Mozart, a consummate genius…With David, the Mosaic liturgy comes to life, reaching its aesthetic zenith.” [7]

1st Chronicles 13-16 describes David bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem in two phases, the first attempt having failed due to not being “after the due order” (1 Chron. 15:13), that is, not in accordance with the command of God, in violation of the RPW. The second attempt succeeded in bringing the Ark back to Jerusalem because it was done according to God’s Law (1 Chron. 15:13-15). Instrumental music was used to accompany the Ark in both instances (13:8; 15:16). The Ark of the Covenant was the symbol of God’s presence and his appointed place of worship where “they offered burnt sacrifices and peace offerings before God” (1 Chron. 16:1). Its transportation into Jerusalem was accompanied by Levitical “singers with instruments of musick, psalteries and harps and cymbals, sounding, by lifting up the voice with joy” (1 Chron. 15:16). Only the Levites were permitted to play the musical instruments (1 Chron. 16:4-6). These ceremonies would later become permanent parts of Temple worship.

1 Chronicles 23-25 records David’s inspired ordering of the maintenance and worship of the Temple. These things were not done according to David’s fancy or whim, rather it “was the commandment of the Lord by his prophets,” that is, by the inspiration of God unto David, Gad the Seer, and Nathan the Prophet (2 Chron. 29:25). As part of this elaborate Temple cultus, King David, as a type of Christ, sitting “on the throne of the Lord” (1 Chron. 29:23) instituted “musical instruments of God” (1 Chron. 16:42), “instruments of musick of Jehovah” (2 Chron. 7:6). David did this according to “the pattern of all that he had by the Spirit…All this, said David, the Lord made me understand in writing by his hand upon me, even all the works of this pattern.” (1 Chron. 28:12 & 19). The Levites were assigned to all the various services of the Temple (1 Chron. 23:28-32), four thousand of which were employed as musicians to praise the Lord with the musical instruments (1 Chron. 23:5, 30). These musicians (divided into 24 orders, 1 Chron. 24-25) were appointed to “prophesy with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals” (1 Chron. 25:1). They were “arrayed in white linen, having cymbals and psalteries and harps, stood at the east end of the altar, and with them an hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets” (2 Chron. 5:12). The divine history of Hezekiah’s reformation gives us more detail about how these instruments were used:

“And when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord began also with the trumpets, and with the instruments ordained by David king of Israel. And all the congregation worshipped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded: and all this continued until the burnt offering was finished. And when they had made an end of offering, the king and all that were present with him bowed themselves, and worshipped.” (2 Chron. 29:27-29).

From this description, it is evident that instrumental music was instituted to accompany the animal sacrifices. G.I. Williamson observes, “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.” Instrumental music was inherently tied to old covenant ceremonial worship.

As the sacrifices were offered, the Levitical chorus thundered praise while the brass and orchestra played; it was undoubtedly an indescribable and overwhelming experience to behold. The bloody sacrifice being consumed in fire upon the towering altar, the pungent smell, the delicate harmony of the psalteries and harps, the roar of the all male choir, the regal boldness of the trumpets, the cacophonous crashing of cymbals—this was surely a dramatic representation of spiritual realities, “a shadow of heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5), “a figure for the time then present…imposed on them until the time of reformation” (Heb. 9:9-10).

The remaining godly kings and priests in Judah after David until the Babylonian Captivity continued or restored these ordinances, including the four thousand Levitical musicians in the Temple service: e.g. Solomon (2 Chron. 8:14), Asa (2 Chron. 15), Jehoiada (2 Chron. 23:18), Hezekiah (2 Chron. 29), and Josiah (2 Chron. 34:12, 35:4).

The Babylonian Captivity, the diaspora, and destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C. is the beginning of the period some scholars would date the origin of the Jewish Synagogue. However, some form of it likely began much earlier than that (Lev. 23:3; 2 Kings 4:23; 2 Chron. 17:7-9; Ps. 74:8; Ps. 87:2; Acts 15:21). [8] Whenever it began, it is well known that instrumental music was not used, as G.I. Williamson explains:

“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!…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.‘” [9]

The “chiefs of the fathers of Israel” (Ezra 4:3) who oversaw the return from captivity to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple, also restored the ceremonial ordinances, including the instrumental music: e.g. Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, Jeshua the priest (Ezra 3:10), and Nehemiah (Neh. 12:27, 35-36). While many Jews had returned to the land of Israel from exile, many others were still scattered throughout the Gentile nations, and continued to worship in synagogues without instrumental music.

From this brief survey of the use of musical instruments in the Old Testament, it is evident that instrumental music in the public worship of God was an instituted ceremony tied to the Levitical offices, sacrifices, the Ark, Tabernacle, and Temple worship of the old covenant economy. But this ceremonial worship was merely “a shadow of good things to come” (Heb. 10:1) and would be abrogated in the New Testament.

Ceremonial Law Fading Away.

The entire ceremonial system was always intended to be temporary (Dan. 9:27) because it was a type and shadow of what was to come in the new covenant (Eph. 2:15-16; Col. 2:14, 16-17). It was a “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (Gal. 3:24). It was “a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices…Which stood only in…carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.” (Heb. 9:9-10). The Levitical priesthood was imperfect (Heb. 7:11), but “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4), that is, the ultimate purpose for which the law was made to point to, and be fulfilled by, and Christ is “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 5:6, 6:20, 7:17, 21). John Owen, commenting on Hebrews 9:10, explains:

“All the laws concerning these things were carnal, ‘carnal ordinances;’ such as, for the matter, manner of performance, and end of them, were carnal. This being their nature, it evidently follows that they were instituted only for a time, and were so far from being able themselves to perfect the state of the church, as that they were not consistent with that perfect state of spiritual things which God would introduce, and had promised so to do.” [10]

Moses had “put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished” (2 Cor. 3:13). Daniel prophesied, using synecdoche, that the coming Messiah would formally put an end to their whole instituted system of worship: “and he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease…” (Daniel 9:27). Christ confirmed this to the woman at the well by saying that “the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father…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.” (John 4:21 & 23). The Lord taught that there would no longer be a specific place of worship, and that the nature of worship would no longer be carnal, but rather, spiritual. “The true worship of God under the gospel doth not consist in external pomp of ceremonies and observances, but is spiritual, simple, and substantial; for they shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” [11]

For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law” (Heb. 7:12). All of the ceremonies and ordinances connected with the Levitical priesthood must necessarily change along with the priesthood being changed. They are inherently linked together in one package. The entire ceremonial law, being a rule of worship for the old covenant Church, was made obsolete along with the Levitical priesthood. “In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). It began to decay when the Christ became incarnate and started to fulfill it; it waxed older when Christ commenced his public ministry; it began to die when Christ died for the sins of his people; it became quite dead when Christ rose from the dead, and although obsolete, it was suffered for the Jews as they transitioned into fully grasping their new Christian liberty (Acts 16:3; Rom. 14:5-6; 1 Cor. 9:20; Gal. 4:9; Col. 2:16-17); and finally, it became pernicious and deadly after God providentially and eschatologically removed the old covenant and all of its ceremonies with the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, as foretold by Christ (Mat. 24:1-2). [12] Not only would those “weak and beggarly elements” (Gal. 4:9) vanish away, the splendor of new covenant spiritual worship would be far more glorious: “For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious” (2 Cor. 3:11). In the New Covenant,

“No return to the old form of temple, priesthood, and ritual is possible. The perfections of Christ’s priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary of the new covenant can never be replaced or augmented by the weaknesses of the shadowy, temporally and spatially limited service of the old covenant…The priesthood of Jesus Christ in the heavenly temple of the new covenant is perpetual and eternal, and none of the earthly forms of the old covenant can replace or supplement it.” [13]

As we have seen, instrumental music in the worship of the Church was instituted by David, under divine direction. It was authorized for the Levitical priesthood in corporate worship. It was an accompanying appendage of the sacrificial system of the Temple. It was an inherent part of a system of worship that was always meant to be carnal, typological, and temporary. When all of that had served its purpose, it was fulfilled by Christ and thereby ceased. Animal sacrifices and dietary laws were not the only things abrogated, it was the entire ceremonial system of worship, with all of its outward services, rituals, and appendages. With the Ark, Tabernacle, Temple, sacrifices, and Levitical priesthood being abrogated in the New Testament, “all things according to the pattern shewed to [Moses] in the mount” (Heb. 8:5) as well as “the pattern of all that [David] had by the Spirit” (1 Chron. 28:12) were abrogated along with it, including instrumental music in corporate worship (1 Chron. 16:4-6; 23:1-5; 2 Chron. 7:6). [14]

“It seems to be acknowledged by all descriptions of Christians, that among the Hebrews instrumental music in the public worship of God was essentially connected with sacrifice—with the morning and evening sacrifice, and with the sacrifices to be offered up on great and solemn days. But as all the sacrifices of the Hebrews were completely abolished by the death of our blessed Redeemer, so instrumental music…being so intimately connected with sacrifice, and belonging to a service which was ceremonial and typical must be abolished with that service; and we can have no warrant to recall it into the Christian church, any more than we have to use other abrogated rites of the Jewish religion, of which it is a part.” [15]

If the old covenant ceremonial system is abrogated in Christ, then that would include every part of the ceremonial system, including altars, animal sacrifices, Levitical offices, the Temple, dietary laws, holy days, incense, instrumental music, etc.

New Testament Silence.

Having considered this, we would then expect the New Testament to be silent on the use of instrumental music within the church. We find no command nor example of musical instrumentation in the worship of the new covenant church, only unaccompanied, a capella singing. Despite the New Testament’s detailed enumeration of spiritual gifts and church offices, we find no provision of something akin to the Levitical office “with instruments of musick, psalteries and harps and cymbals” (1 Chron. 15:16), or any gift, function, or office concerning instrumental music. On the basis of the Regulative Principle of Worship, Scriptural silence—explicit or inferred—regarding acts of worship is equivalent to a divine prohibition. We must have positive warrant—“either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence…deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1:6)—to include any substantial or significant actions in divine corporate worship. The external pomp of instrumental music was suitable for the sensuous, earthly, and ritualistic worship of the Church under age, but is not appropriate for the heavenly and spiritual worship of the new covenant.

Alexander Blaikie (1804-1885) summarized this point well,

“These [musical instruments] continued in the temple-service of Jehovah so long as ‘the first tabernacle was yet standing,’ and no longer. For so soon as the way into the holiest of all was made manifest (Heb. 9:8) the bondage (beloved by every Jew) of these ‘weak and beggarly elements’ was in the worship of God forever done away. He ‘in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily,’ took the whole ‘hand-writing of ordinances out of the way, nailing it to his cross.’ Instruments of music in the worship of God had there fulfilled their mission, in common with the blood of bulls and goats, and the ashes of heifers, and they finished their course when Jesus died. No blast of ‘rams’ horns,’ nor other ‘things without life-giving sound’ [1 Cor. 14:7] had any longer a place with acceptance in the worship of Jehovah. The ceremonial, sensual, and ritual in his worship there forever ceased to be appointed by and acceptable to God, when he who ‘spake as never man spake’ exclaimed, ‘It is finished.’” [16]

Typology of Worship.

In addition to the temporary and ceremonial nature of instrumental music in public worship, its role in accompanying the offerings and sacrifices, the abrogation of old covenant worship, and the absence of any positive warrant for it in new covenant worship, we also find typological and metaphorical language of such ceremonial worship presented as spiritual realities in the new covenant. Scripture often references old covenant ceremonial worship to typify new covenant spiritual worship. Many examples could be given, but we will briefly note a few.

Peter writes to new covenant believers, “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 2:5). The book of Hebrews analogically describes “the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name” as offering “the sacrifice of praise unto God continually” (13:15). This language is reminiscent of Hosea, “so will we render the calves of our lips” (14:2). And Jeremiah, “they shall come…bringing burnt offerings, and sacrifices, and meat offerings, and incense, and bringing sacrifices of praise, unto the house of the Lord” (17:26; cf. 33:11). Where “sacrifice of praise” is “a general designation for the praise and thanks which they desire to express by means of the offerings specified.” [17] Calvin further explains:

“Here by one word Jeremiah includes the chief thing in sacrifices, as we may learn from Psalm 50:14, 23, where it is said, ‘sacrifice praise unto God.’ God there rejects the sacrifices which were offered by the Jews without a right motive: he then shews what he required, commanding them to sacrifice praise. So now Jeremiah teaches us that the design of all sacrifices was to celebrate the name of God…So at this day this truth remains the same, though the types have been abolished: we do not offer calves or oxen or rams, but the sacrifice of praise, by confessing and proclaiming his benefits and blessings, according to what the Apostle says in Hebrews 13:15. But what ought to prevail among us apart from types, was formerly accompanied with types.” [18]

Similarly, David sings in Psalm 27:6, “therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord.” Puritan Hebraist Henry Ainsworth notes that “sacrifices of joy”:

“…hath respect to the Law which appointed over the sacrifices trumpets to be sounded (Num. 10:10), whose chiefest, most loud, joyful, and triumphant sound was called trughnah, triumph, alarm, or jubilation (Num. 10:5-7). So to other instruments this triumphant noise is adjoined (Ps. 33:3) and is applied sometimes to man’s voice or shouting (Josh. 6:5; 1 Sam. 4:5; Ezra 3:11; cf. Ps. 89:16, 47:6, 81:2, 100:1).” [19]

On the manner of worship, the Apostle Paul speaks of instrumental music analogically when entreating the Ephesians to be filled with the Spirit, speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart [ψάλλοντες ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ] to the Lord.” (Eph. 5:18b-19). To illustrate the manner in which we ought to worship, the Apostle evokes imagery of a harp being melodiously plucked like heartstrings in the depths of one’s soul while praising God. As Eusebius observed:

“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 cithara [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 (Rom. 2:28-29)… We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living cithara 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 citharas because the apostle teaches this saying, “in psalms and odes and spiritual hymns.” [Eph. 5:19] Otherwise the kithara might be the whole body, through whose movements and deeds the soul renders a fitting hymn to God. The ten-stringed psalterion might be the worship performed by the Holy Spirit through the five senses of the body (equaling the five powers of the soul).” [20]

Origen likewise understood this passage to refer to the manner in which we ought to worship: “He who makes melody with the mind makes melody well, speaking spiritual songs and singing in his heart to God [Eph. 5:19].” [21] In the first century, Clement of Rome urged, “Let us therefore give unto Him eternal praise, not from our lips only, but also from our heart, that He may receive us as sons.” [22] Similarly, Benjamin Keach wrote, Doubtless their singing of old, with musical instruments, was a figure of that sweet spiritual melody the saints should make from a well-tuned heart, and with united and melodious tongues together in the gospel days…” [23] The 173rd Synod of the RPCNA wrote that both Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19,

“include the commandment to sing praise to God from the heart. Colossians 3:16 directs us to be “singing in your hearts to God,” and Ephesians 5:19 says to be “singing and ‘psalming’ in your heart to the Lord.” The heart is the one instrument that the Lord is concerned to see properly tuned in his Church. It is the one instrument with which all believers can make music to the Lord, even the deaf or mute. The music that the Lord desires is that praise which comes from thankful hearts.” [24]

Thomas Goodwin recognized that the heavenly scene in Revelation 5:8 is,

“in allusion to the Levitical service in the temple, where they had musical instruments and incense in bowls or vials, which are called ‘the bowls of the altar‘ (Zech. 14:20). Not that musical instruments are to be in the worship of God now, neither incense: which, as it was the type of prayer and praises, ‘Let my prayer come up before thee as incense‘ (Ps. 141:2); so those harps were of that ‘spiritual melody,’ as the Apostle calls it, which we make in our hearts to God, even of ‘spiritual songs‘ (Eph. 5:19).” [25]

Instrumental Music was Typological of Spiritual Joy.

Many theologians have remarked on the typology of the ceremonial use of musical instruments. Some considered the use of musical instruments to signify, as David Dickson wrote, “the bending of all the powers of our soul and body to praise God.” [26] From a slightly different angle, others regarded instrumental music as a type of the spiritual joy and extraordinary effusion of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant.

Johann Caspar Suicerus (1619-1684) noted that Clement of Alexandria and Isidore of Pelusium “regarded the instrumental music of the Old Testament as typical of the joyful praise of the New Testament church for the rich benefits of an accomplished redemption.” [27] John Bunyan wrote, “These songs were sung with harps, psalteries, cymbals, and trumpets; a type of our singing with spiritual joy, from grace in our hearts.” [28] Thomas Ridgeley stated that instrumental music is “a type of that spiritual joy which attends our praising God for the privilege of that redemption which Christ has purchased.” [29] R.L. Dabney observed, For as the temple-priests and animal sacrifices typified Christ and his sacrifice on Calvary, so the musical instruments of David in the temple-service only typified the joy of the Holy Ghost in his pentecostal effusions.” [30] Girardeau explained that the instrumental music of Temple worship was,

“typical of the joy and triumph of God’s believing people to result from the plentiful effusion of the Holy Ghost in New Testament times…it pleased God to typify the spiritual joy to spring from a richer possession of the Holy Spirit through the sensuous rapture engendered by the passionate melody of stringed instruments and the clash of cymbals, by the blare of trumpets and the ringing of harps. It was the instruction of his children in a lower school, preparing them for a higher.” [31]

Yet, even if we cannot confidently identify the specific anti-type corresponding to instrumental music, this does not disprove its typological nature. D.W. Collins explains:

“Let it be understood in the outset, that if we fail to show to the satisfaction of the instrumentalists the particular thing typified by instrumental music, the argument for the ceremonial feature of it by no means fails. For we affirm that the definite meaning of many ceremonial rites and things has never been satisfactorily determined, either by modern Jewish, or Christian learning. Typology is a system of prophecy. Types ‘prefigure, while prophets foretell,’ the same things, and if the definite meaning of many prophecies cannot be ascertained, much less can that of many of the types.” [32]

John Cotton likewise argues that instrumental music was typological, but then states that even if it was not, it would still not warrant their use in new covenant worship:

“Or suppose singing with instruments were not typical, but only an external solemnity of worship, fitted to the solace of the outward senses of children under age (such as the Israelites were in the Old Testament, Gal. 4:1-2); yet now, in the grown age of the heirs of the New Testament, such external pompous solemnities are ceased, and no external worship reserved, but such as holdeth forth simplicity and gravity; nor is any voice now to be heard in the church of Christ, but such as is significant and edifying by signification (1 Cor. 14:10-11, 26), which the voice of instruments is not.” [33]

Conclusion.

None of this should cause those who follow the RPW and sing praises a capella to become haughty and contemptuous toward those who do not (Rom. 14:10). We should not presume that our worship is pure before God merely by an outward conformity to the RPW. As with all principles of Scripture, the Regulative Principle of Worship is “spiritual, and so reacheth the understanding, will, affections, and all other powers of the soul; as well as words, works, and gestures” (WLC 99). We must prioritize the things pertaining to worship the same way Scripture does, and remember the “degrees in the duties of God’s worship“:

“The first and highest degree of holy worship is prescribed in the first commandment, as to love, fear, and to rejoice in God above all, and to believe in Him, and all His promises. The second degree of holy duties is to love our neighbor as ourselves, to seek peace and reconciliation with them whom we have wronged or offended… The third degree consists in the outward ceremonial duties of God’s worship commanded in the first table, as the outward actions of God’s worship, and the outward solemnity of the Sabbath…” [34]

Despite the failings of genuine believers in worship—internally or externally,

“Christ maketh intercession, by his appearing in our nature continually before the Father in heaven, in the merit of his obedience and sacrifice on earth, declaring his will to have it applied to all believers; answering all accusations against them, and procuring for them quiet of conscience, notwithstanding daily failings, access with boldness to the throne of grace, and acceptance of their persons and services.” (WLC 55).

In sum, we saw how the Regulative Principle of Worship is the standard by which we should approach the question of instrumental music in the corporate worship of the church. Then we saw how instrumental music—as part of the ceremonial worship of the old covenant—has been abrogated and is no longer part of public worship in the new covenant. In our next post we will confirm this biblical interpretation by the overwhelming witness of church history, and lastly we will respond to common objections to a capella praise.



[1] John Calvin commentary on Ps. 71:22.

[2] Samuel Rutherford, The Divine Right of Church Government, pp. 119, 96.

[3] John L. Girardeau, Instrumental Music In The Public Worship Of The Church, p. 22.

[4] Girardeau, ibid., p. 25. We are misunderstanding what secular is if we think it has to be absent of anything remotely religious. Marriage is a civil ordinance, but it obviously has religious elements to it as well. Reformed theologians distinguish between ecclesiastical holy days (e.g. Passover, New Moons, and other feast days) and civil holidays. For instance, many recognized that Purim (Esther 9:26-32) was a civil holiday, as Gillespie says, “such as are in use with us, when we set out bonfires, and other tokens of civil joy for some memorable benefit which the Kingdom or Commonwealth hath received” (Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, p. 245). Nothing should be done without reference to God, but civil occasions of joy and celebration acknowledging God’s providential hand does not automatically make such occasions corporate worship. Especially in the context of a theocracy and when God “at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1).

[5] Keil and Delitzsch com. Ex. 15:20.

[6] G.I. Williamson, Instrumental Music in Worship: Commanded or Not Commanded?, The Biblical Doctrine of Worship, Crown and Covenant Publications.

[7] Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, p. 474.

[8] cf. Girardeau on Old Testament arguments for the establishment of the Synagogue, ibid., pp. 26-33; Campegius Vitringa (1659-1722), The Synagogue and the Church: Being an Attempt to Show that the Government, Ministers and Services of the Church were Derived from those of the Synagogue.

[9] Williamson, ibid.

[10] John Owen on Heb. 9:10, Works vol. 20, p. 252.

[11] George Hutchinson, The Gospel of John, p. 64.

[12] cf. Ceremonial Law Fading Away.

[13] O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, pp. 72-73.

[14] The Hebrew of 1 Chron. 28:12 “the pattern of all that he had by the spirit” seems to be ambiguous whether it is talking about David’s spirit/mind or the Holy Spirit. It is literally “the spirit with him.” Nevertheless, most commentators affirm that David was guided by the Holy Spirit in all of his directions regarding the Temple and its objects (especially when compared with v. 19), and many note the similarity between “the pattern” David had received (vv. 12 & 19) and “the pattern” Moses was shown on the mount (Ex. 25:9, 40; Heb. 8:5), even if it may not have been received in the same manner as Moses.

[15] Rev. Dr. Porteous, The Organ Question, pp. 87-88; cited in Girardeau, ibid., p. 51.

[16] Alexander Blaikie, The Organ and other Musical Instruments, as noted in the Holy Scriptures.

[17] Keil & Delitzsch, com. Jer. 17:26.

[18] John Calvin, com. Jer. 17:26.

[19] Henry Ainsworth, Annotations Upon the Five Books of Moses, the Book of the Psalms and the Song of Songs, p. 969.

[20] Eusebius, Commentary on the Psalms, 91:2-3; (Patrologia Graeca 23:1172D-1173A).

[21] Origen on Psalm 33:2; Patrologia Graeca 12:1304 B-C.

[22] Second Epistle of Clement 9:10, translated by J.B. Lightfoot.

[23] Benjamin Keach, The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship, p. 131.

[24] Minutes of the 173rd Synod of the RPCNA (2004), p. 106.

[25] Thomas Goodwin, Works, vol. 3, p. 13.

[26] David Dickson, com. Psalm 33:2-3.

[27] Girardeau, ibid., p. 49 citing Johann Caspar Suicerus, Ecclesiastical Dictionary, on the word ‘oργανον‘, p. 501.

[28] John Bunyan, Works vol. 3, p. 496.

[29] Thomas Ridgeley, Body of Divinity (1731), vol. 2, 2.433, p. 438.

[30] R.L. Dabney, Presbyterian Quarterly, July 1889, Review of Dr. Girardeau’s Instrumental Music in Public Worship.

[31] Girardeau, ibid., pp. 43-45.

[32] D.W. Collins, Musical Instruments in Divine Worship Condemned by the Word of God (1881), pp. 57-58. Collins cites Patrick Fairbairn:

“We are far from pretending to master every difficulty connected with the practical management of the subject, and reducing it all too clear and undoubted certainty. No one will expect this who rightly understands its nature and considers either the vastness of the field over which it stretches, or the peculiar character of the ground which it embraces.” (Typology of Scripture, p. 69).

[33] John Cotton, Singing of Psalms: a Gospel Ordinance, p. 6.

[34] William Perkins, An Exposition of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, Works, vol. 1, pp. 277-278.

4 thoughts on “A Concise Case for A Capella Worship

  1. […] 1. We have already demonstrated how instrumental music was inherently tied to the Levitical office and the ceremonial worship of the old covenant. If the New Testament abrogates the Levitical office and the old covenant ceremonial worship, then by necessary consequence, instrumental music is abrogated along with it. When a category is abrogated, then necessarily all of the particulars within that category are abrogated as well. cf. A Concise Case for A Capella Worship. […]

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