A Capella Objections Answered


A Capella Objections Answered

In our first post we began with practical observations. The second post made the positive case for exclusively vocal,  a capella praise in corporate worship. And our previous post was a list of quotes from church history about the rejection of instrumental music in the church. In this final post we will respond to common objections against exclusively vocal music in the church.


There is no explicit verse which states that instrumental music is abrogated.

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.

2. There are explicit statements abrogating animal sacrifices and dietary laws, but there are also additional ceremonies that no one denies are abrogated, yet have no explicit Scriptural statement, such as the burning of incense, mixing of fibers, 7 year sabbath and Jubilee year, Levitical priesthood, Urim and Thummim, ordaining by anointing with oil, ceremonial cleansing, worship and prayer facing towards the Temple/Jerusalem, etc. We normally recognize, without much thought, that it necessarily follows from the fact of the abrogation of the ceremonial law as a whole that the parts thereof are also abrogated—without needing an explicit enumeration of each part. On this point, Alexander Blaikie remarked:

“New Testament writers tell us what observances God requires under the gospel, not what institutions were abrogated. They teach us that the Lord’s Supper is to be perpetually administered, but do not say the Passover was no longer to be observed; they do not expressly say that instrumental music must be silenced in worship, but they direct and command us to “offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name;” to “sing with grace, making melody in our hearts, the word of Christ” contained in the Book of Psalms (Heb. 13:15; James 5:13).” [1]

The Sabbath, and the covenant sign and seal being given to infants, for example, carry over into the new covenant without explicit statement because they are moral and covenantal particulars which must come together with the moral law and the Covenant of Grace, respectively. But temporary and ceremonial ordinances, such as those of the Temple or those pertaining to the peculiarity of national Israel, do not have a moral or covenantal character in and of themselves in this manner. cf. Are Only Explicit Scripture Proofs Valid?


If instrumental music is abrogated then so is singing, because they occurred together in the Old Testament.

Dr. Candlish gives two reasons this objection does not hold:

“…first, singing was not as peculiarly connected with sacrifice as was the blowing of trumpets; secondly, that the use of instruments was peculiar to the temple service, whereas singing was not. The argument only holds in regard to the specific and temporary elements of worship, not to the generic and permanent.” [2]

Thomas Ridgeley likewise observed that instrumental music was “particularly adapted to that [old covenant] dispensation” because it was “typical of that spiritual joy which the gospel church should obtain by Christ;” while, on the other hand, singing praise is not a duty peculiar to old covenant Israel, but “remains a duty, as founded on the moral law.” [3] He continues:

“Though we often read of music being used in singing the praises of God under the Old Testament, yet if what has been said concerning its being a type of that spiritual joy which attends our praising God for the privilege of that redemption which Christ has purchased be true, then this objection will appear to have no weight, since this type is abolished together with the ceremonial law. And it may be farther observed that though we read of the use of music in the temple service, yet it does not sufficiently appear that it was ever used in the Jewish synagogues; wherein the mode of worship more resembled that which is at present performed by us in our public assemblies. But that which may sufficiently determine this matter is that we have no precept or precedent for it in the New Testament, either from the practice of Christ or his apostles.”

He concludes also, that this objection would prove too much, if consistently applied to other typological adjuncts to moral acts of worship:

“It might as well be objected that because incense, which was used under the ceremonial law together with prayer in the Temple (Luke 1:9-10) is not now offered by us, therefore prayer ought to be laid aside; which is—as all own—a duty founded on the moral law.” [4]


Instrumental music is an aid to congregational singing and is a circumstance of worship, therefore its use does not violate the Regulative Principle of Worship.

This has been fully answered by Girardeau (cf. Circumstances of Worship & Musical Instruments), but we will briefly summarize the response here also.

1. This application contradicts the original intent of the Confession on circumstances (WCF 1:6). To apply this principle to instrumental music in public worship would be “to maintain that in that one utterance [the Westminster Divines] contradicted and subverted their whole doctrine on the subject.” [5] Further, instrumental music does not meet the criteria of a circumstance of worship.

2. Circumstances are necessary and essential to the performance of the commanded acts of worship. Instrumental music is not necessary for the act of singing praise nor for the decent and orderly performance of the act, therefore it is not a circumstance. It is an imposition upon the act, not a necessary concomitant to the orderly performance of the act. History bears this out by the simple fact that for the vast majority of the Church’s history it has not used musical instrumentation. Girardeau asks,

“How then can its necessity to the singing of praise be maintained? Can a circumstance be necessary to the performance of an act, when the act has been performed without it, and is now continually, Sabbath after Sabbath, performed without it? To say that instrumental music assists in the performance of the act is to shift the issue. The question is not, Is it helpful? but, Is it necessary?” [6]

3. Circumstances must not directly affect the elements of worship. Time, place, apparel, posture, etc. have no direct influence on the elements of corporate worship nor how they are done. Circumstances are not parts of the acts themselves, rather they are necessary conditions surrounding them. This cannot be said of instrumental music. As John Owen said in general about such pseudo-circumstances:

“These are not circumstances attending the nature of the thing itself, but are arbitrarily superadded to the things that they are appointed to accompany. Whatever men may call such additions, they are no less parts of the whole wherein they serve than the things themselves whereunto they are adjoined.” [7]

4. Circumstances are not determinable from Scripture. True circumstances, such as time, place, apparel, posture, etc. are not specifically addressed by Scripture. The Bible does not have the street address to your church, nor does it prescribe the time of your church’s worship services, what specific type of clothing is appropriate in your culture, whether it is common to sit or stand at certain times, etc. These things “are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence” (WCF 1:6). But Scripture does address instrumental music, and clearly teaches that it was once a prescribed element of worship but is now abrogated, as we’ve seen. Furthermore, it is contradictory to claim instruments are a circumstance of worship while also appealing to e.g. Psalm 150 or Revelation 5:8.

5. Circumstances are also “common to human actions and societies. Circumstances of worship, Girardeau explained,

“are conditions which are not peculiar to the acts of any particular society, but common to the acts of all societies. They cannot, consequently, be peculiar to the acts of the church as a particular society. But instrumental music is a condition peculiar to the act of singing praise in some particular churches. The conclusion is obvious. Let us take, for example, the circumstances of time and place. They condition the meeting and therefore the acts of every society. None could meet and act without the appointment of a time and a place for the assembly. This is true alike of the church and an infidel club. In this respect they are dependent upon the same conditions. Neither could meet and act without complying with this condition. This is a specimen of the Confession’s circumstances which are common to human actions and societies. It is ridiculous to say that instrumental music is in such a category.” [8]


John’s vision of heavenly worship includes musical instruments (Rev. 5:8; 14:2; 15:2-4). Therefore the New Testament does prescribe or permit them in worship.

1. The musical instruments are not literal. Since Revelation is an eschatological vision, much of it is highly figurative and draws heavily on old covenant ceremonial types and shadows. G.I. Williamson explains:

“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 (5:8), 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.” [9]

Taken literalistically, one might ask, how are the twenty four elders able to play their harps and hold vials of incense while bowing and worshiping the Lamb? G.K. Beale explains that such a literal and pictorial way of looking at John’s vision is inappropriate, rather, throughout Revelation, “the piling up of metaphors not completely consistent with one another is not intended to portray a nicely systematic picture but to give cognitive emphasis.” [10] Beale remarks that the Old Testament background of the book of Revelation is crucial to understanding the concepts it invokes. The “four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment” wearing “crowns of gold” (4:4) according to Beale, “is perhaps based on David’s organization of the cult of temple servants into twenty-four orders” in 1 Chronicles. This background may be the best explanation why the elders perform mediatorial functions (e.g., 5:8) and participate in a heavenly liturgy in a cultic temple setting throughout Revelation (Rev. 4:10; 5:11–14; 11:16–18; 19:4).” [11] The twenty four elders playing harps “are partially modeled on the twenty-four orders of Levites, who were commissioned to ‘prophesy in giving thanks and praising the Lord’ by ‘singing’ to the accompaniment of ‘lyres, harps(!), and cymbals’ (1 Chron. 25:6–31; cf. Josephus Ant. 7.363–67).” [12]

The Geneva Bible notes that the golden harps are “the symbols or signs of praise, sweet in savor, and acceptable unto God.” Hanserd Knollys (1599-1691) comments on Rev. 5:8, ‘Having every one of them harps;’ that is, hearts filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18-19; 1 Cor. 14:14-15), prepared to pray and praise the Lord.” Wilhelmus à Brakel likewise observes:

“They have harps and vials. In the Old Testament, where religion was carried out with more external instruments, they praised the Lord with harps, musical instruments of sweet melody. They also had golden censers, in which they kindled spices of sweet odor, expressing the thanksgiving to God. Thus the congregation is equipped here, which means that they are singing, thanking, and praying, which is signified by harps and vials. Their prayers are called odors here, for the pleasantness thereof to God.” [13]

And again on Rev. 15:2:

“Their heart was ready to praise Him, which is shown through the harps. These harps are said to be the harps of God, because of the sublimity of their joy, and their inclination to praise God, and because God had given them the cause of singing and the harps into their hands.” [14]

Thomas Goodwin appraised the matter well in his Exposition of Revelation:

“The praisers who are of the sons of men are described as having (1) harps, and (2) golden vials: 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).” [15]

2. It is not intended to serve as a pattern for corporate worship on Earth. Even if the musical instruments in Revelation were literal and they will be employed by the Church triumphant in Heaven, it would not constitute sufficient warrant to include them in the corporate worship of the Church militant on Earth. Girardeau elaborates:

“All that the glorified saints will experience in heaven cannot, from the nature of the case, be realized on earth. They will not need to confess and deplore continually recurring sins, but we are obliged to do so below… They neither marry nor are given in marriage, but it would scarcely be legitimate for us to argue from their example to what our practice should be… They cannot be conceived as beseeching sinners to be reconciled to God, but we, should we imitate them in this regard, would ill discharge our duty to the unconverted souls around us. But enough. It is plain that the argument proves too much, and is, therefore, nothing worth. It tries to prove from the heavenly world what we have seen some endeavoring to prove from the Jewish temple. Both arguments burst from their own plethora. If God had commanded us to do what is done in heaven, we might make the effort to obey, whatever might be the success or failure attending it; but until such a command can be produced, we are not warranted to turn harpers and harp upon harps in the church on earth.” [16]

3. A consistent application here would lead to many absurdities.

Consistently drawing such inconclusive correlations would logically lead to many absurd conclusions. If instrumental music is justified in corporate worship simply by it being in John’s apocalyptic vision, then what is to stop one from also incorporating every other figurative element from the vision such as liturgical candles, golden censers, incense, elders wearing golden crowns (or mitres) and priestly liturgical vestments, thrones (cathedrae), a golden altar, celibate clergy (Rev. 14:4-5), etc.? That seems ridiculous, but why the special pleading? This consistent application to worship is what the Roman Catholic Church has in fact done. The Medieval Roman church justified many of its superstitious and idolatrous practices by drawing similar tenuous connections from Revelation. For example, based on Revelation 6:9 where the souls of the martyrs are depicted as lying under the altar, the Rhemists wrote,

“for correspondence to their [i.e. the martyrs] place or state in Heaven, the Church layeth commonly their bodies also or relics near or under the altars where our Saviour’s body is offered in the holy Mass: and hath a special proviso that no altars be erected or consecrated without some part of a Saint’s body or relics.” [17]

Roman apologist Scott Hahn’s famous work “The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth” argues in detail that the Roman Mass is “the interpretive key to the Apocalypse.” [18] If Christians are employing these types of fragile comparisons to justify musical instruments, there is no logical reason not to concede Dr. Hahn’s arguments and to incorporate all of the old ceremonial types and shadows reflected in the book of Revelation. The special pleading is obvious. It is not principled to literalistically apply one part of an apocalyptic vision while treating the other parts figuratively. This argument is nothing more than an ad hoc attempt to rescue a warrantless practice. Cotton Mather detected the true nature of such arguments and asked rhetorically:

“If we admit instrumental musick in the worship of God, how can we resist the imposition of all the instruments used among the ancient Jews?—yea, dancing as well as playing, and several other Judaic actions? or, how can we decline a whole rabble of church-officers, necessary to be introduced for instrumental musick, whereof our Lord Jesus Christ hath left us no manner of direction?” [19]


The Psalms repeatedly entreat us to worship God with musical instruments. Therefore we are required or permitted to use them in church.

1.  If we were to take this argument in light of the RPW, we would have to use precisely the same instruments in the same manner they were originally instituted. We cannot pick and choose nor substitute our own instruments, musicians, or other concomitants. If the Psalms do indeed authorize musical instrumentation in new covenant corporate worship, then it is a command we must observe precisely and exactly, not a suggestion or permission to adopt if we would like to.

If references to musical instruments in the Psalter are leveraged to suggest that they are not necessarily required, but that they are permitted, then that does not accord with the RPW. See our reply to the objection regarding circumstances of worship.

2. We do not normally press for a strict application of such ceremonial references in the Psalms today, rather we understand that they should be applied to the new covenant Church typologically. For instance, when we sing, “bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar” (Ps. 118:27), we apply it figuratively, as John Brown’s Psalter devotional encourages us: “While I sing…Let me rejoice in [Christ’s] highness, and have myself, and all my services, bound with cords to his altar.” [20]

When we sing about the burnt offerings, incense, the Tabernacle, priests, worship facing towards the Temple, new moon festivals, the Ark, mount Zion, mourning in sackcloth, the walls of Jerusalem, Israel’s Canaanite enemies, evening sacrifices, bullocks, goats, rams, etc., we do not literally apply these things in the new covenant church. When we sing “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (Ps. 51:7), or “Blow up the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed, on our solemn feast day” (Ps. 81:3), or “Let the saints…[have] a two-edged sword in their hand; To execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people; To bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron…” (Ps. 149:6-8), etc. We understand that these were literal in the old covenant while still maintaining their typological and spiritual significance; whereas today, the ceremonial law is abrogated but still serves as a schoolmaster to teach us about its anti-types. R. Scott Clark concludes about these types of arguments:

“It is incoherent to appeal to the literal sense of the language of the Psalter in one case to justify the modern use of one old covenant, typological practice (the use of instruments) and to treat figuratively other practices in the Psalter (e.g., sacrifices and religious war). The tension is obvious. Those who defend instruments in this way are engaging in a highly selective use of the Psalter. All the language of the Psalter belongs to the old covenant; it is all part of the civil and ceremonial codes that have been fulfilled in Christ.” [21]


[1] Alexander Blaikie (1804-1885), Catechism of Praise, ch. 3.

[2] Dr. Candlish, The Organ Question (1856), pp. 87-88.

[3] Thomas Ridgeley, Body of Divinity (1731), vol. 4, p. 82.

[4] Ridgeley, ibid., pp. 86-89.

[5] John L. Girardeau, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church, p. 107.

[6] Girardeau, ibid., p. 109.

[7] John Owen, Discourse Concerning Liturgies, and their Imposition, ch. 7, Works vol. 19, p. 437.

[8] Girardeau, ibid., p. 110.

[9] G.I. Williamson, Instrumental Music in the Worship of God; Commanded or Not Commanded?

[10] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC), on Rev. 9:19.

[11] Beale, ibid., on Rev. 4:4.

[12] Beale, ibid., on Rev. 5:8.

[13] Wilhelmus à Brakel, Commentary on Revelation, on Rev. 5:8, p. 77.

[14] Brakel, ibid., on Rev. 15:2, p. 251.

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

[16] Girardeau, ibid., pp. 144-146.

[17] Quoted by Thomas Cartwright, A Confutation of the Rhemists’ Translation, Glosses, and Annotations on the New Testament (1618), p. 719.

[18] Here is a brief interview where he discusses this hermeneutic: Dr. Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper. See also this chart, which compares elements from Revelation with the Popish Mass: The Mass in the Vision of the Revelation of St. John by Michal Hunt.

[19] Cotton Mather, The Great Works of Christ (1702) vol. 2, p. 267.

[20] John Brown of Haddington, The Psalms of David in Metre with Notes by John Brown, p. 297.

[21] R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession, p. 267.

3 thoughts on “A Capella Objections Answered

  1. I’ve been enjoying this series, but am still very new to the issue. However, I have to ask what other things are not prescribed in addition to instrumental music. For instance, where does the New Testament instruct believer to consume bread and wine as the Lord’s Supper? Where does it tell us to dress up on Sunday or that the church is a building and the Lord’s house? Where does it say to listen to a sermon every week while sitting in a pew?

    If you do not do any of the things I suggest in my questions then please accept my apology as it was inappropriately directed to you. But if you do, perhaps there is more to look at than accompanied or unaccompanied singing – another series? Or maybe you’ve already addressed such things (I am a new visitor to your site).

    Thank you kindly and peace and grace to you.



    1. Hey Cory thanks for reading and commenting!

      You asked, “Where does the New Testament instruct believer to consume bread and wine as the Lord’s Supper?” Here are a few places that explicitly command the elements of the Lord’s Supper: Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 10 & 11.

      “Where does it tell us to dress up on Sunday or that the church is a building and the Lord’s house? Where does it say to listen to a sermon every week while sitting in a pew?”
      These things are called circumstances of worship, which I alluded to in objection #3. Here’s more on that: https://purelypresbyterian.com/2017/01/31/what-is-the-regulative-principle-of-worship/


      1. Paul,

        Thank you for your response. I reread your article and caught your response about dress in the main post. And I should have been clearer about the bread and the wine. I know the Lord’s Supper is commanded, so how should I phrase it?

        Jesus was observing the Passover with his disciples. From reading the OT, it seems to me that the Passover is a meal. Also, when reading 1 Corinthians, Paul seems to be talking about an actual supper, a meal, maybe even a feast. So why then, do most churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper exclusively with a morsel of bread and sip of wine (or juice, or eating a grape)? Why do they not have a meal together that is called the Lord’s Supper? Or why is the taking of the bread and the cup not part of a meal, but rather taken in isolation?

        I apologize for the length, but hope I have sufficiently made my questions clear.

        Peace and grace to you.


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