Friday, July 06, 2007

Reflections on the Church of Christ: Instrumental Music in Worship

(Note bene: as I've continued to poke around for recent commentary on church of Christ theology, I've come to realize that the more progressive elements within that church already admit to what I say. My posts then constitute not a novel attack upon the traditional church of Christ. Rather they constitute my attempt to work through a certain theology that I imbibed (literally) at my mother's knee, a theology that no doubt stills colors much of what I write.)

The church of Christ (cofC) is, from the perspective of one ignorant of its practices, quite quirky. For instance, there is, at least in the traditional cofC congregations, no instrumental music. Congregations sing, but they sing a cappella.

I came across this explanation of why the church of Christ eschews instrumental music in worship. It comes from Instrumental Music in Public Worship by John L. Girardeau.

A divine warrant is necessary for every element of doctrine, government and worship in the church; that is, whatsoever in these spheres is not commanded in the Scriptures, either expressly or by good and necessary consequence from their statements is forbidden.
Let us concentrate upon worship. The view expressed by Girardeau is characteristic of churches of Christ. Indeed it is their fundamental liturgical principle. (It is of course closely allied to the principle of Biblical Positivism. It is, as it were, Biblical Positivism's liturgical correlate.) In worship nothing is permissible unless it is either expressly commanded in Scripture or follows of necessity from something expressly commanded in Scripture.

I intend to prove that this principle (and let us call it "L" for short) suffers from severe logical defect. I'll state the argument as pithily and forcefully as I can. It seems to me utterly decisive.

How is it that L functions in the cofC condemnation of instrumental music in worship? Instrumental music is nowhere condemned in Scripture, but from this it does not follow that the cofC must endorse it. Rather the sole relevant premise is this: nowhere in Scripture is the use of musical instruments in worship either expressly endorsed or endorsed by necessary inference. Thus L is taken to imply that musical instruments should not be used in worship.

But there is much done in worship that is not commanded in Scripture. (From here on, when I speak of what's commanded in Scripture, I mean both what's expressly commanded and what follows by necessary inference from what's expressly commanded.) In the cofC of my youth, the pews were padded (thank goodness). Now, are padded pews commanded in Scripture? Of course not. Should we then say that they are not permitted? L would seem to require that we say just that.

What is a good cofCer to do? Surely it would be silly to throw out the pads. The only choice, then, is to restrict the scope of L. L shouldn't be taken to imply that just anything not expressly commanded is forbidden. Only certain things are forbidden if not expressly commanded.

But how is the cofCer to distinguish those things to which L applies from those to which it does not? How is the cofCer to distinguish pew pads from musical instruments? Look again at the passage from Girardeau. It entails that the cofCer must rely solely upon the pronouncements of Scripture to distinguish those things to which L applies from those to which it does not. However, she will search in vain. Scripture gives no guidance in this regard.

Our conclusion is that, in the attempt to apply L, we must look outside Scripture. But the cofC expressly forbids this! It tells us that we may never look outside Scripture to determine whether any object or act is permissible in worship. This is our reduction to absurdity. The cofCer must do - indeed invariably does - what she tells us that one may never do. She tells us that we may never look outside Scripture, but in that application of that very doctrine to liturgy she must look outside Scripture.

My argument is not novel in all respects. See here and here for variants that I endorse.

(As you might guess, I'm not at all troubled by the conclusion that one must look outside Scripture to resolve issues to do with liturgy, doctrine, governance, etc. Why would one think that the Spirit is so limited in power that it guides us only in interpretation of Scripture? Surely the Spirit is at work at other times as well. Indeed I've argued for just that conclusion here.)


Mark said...

The Byzantine rite (Byzantine catholic and Eastern Orthodox non-Western rite churches) also have no music (singing a capella) and the liturgy is all sung even the readings except for the homilies.

They trace the reason to an ecumenical council (I'm not sure which one, but google probably knows) forbade instruments in worship.

Might the cofC trace their rejection of instrument to that council and the council's reasons?

Franklin Mason said...

I'll have to do a bit of research. But I do know that the cofC would not explicitly reference any council. Their reasons might be the same (though I'm a bit skeptical). For the cofC, the sole reason is that instrumental music is not explicitly endorsed in Scripture. I doubt that any Catholic or Orthodox Christian would adopt such an exegetical principle as that - it leaves no room for the authority of tradition.

jdavidb said...

The Church of Christ wouldn't trace their reasoning back to a council, because it is a product of the Reformation. It does, however, trace its reasoning back to the Reformation, because almost every single Reformation-spawned church rejected instrumental music, at first. It's possible the reasoning is the same as the Orthodox council (I presume this was a council after the Great Schism? Mark, if you can find out what council it was supposed to be, please share!), but who knows?

I never heard that the Orthodox had a council on the subject. I only heard that they accepted that the Bible in Greek said sing and that this did not allow for an instrument. To me this doesn't sound like an opinion strong enough to conflict with Sola Scriptura; just a church tradition that tries to explicitly codify something that could be considered to be ambiguous. I've also heard that some Orthodox churches are beginning to use instrumental music, and that this is making some of the members unhappy.

Within the Church of Christ, in addition to the reasoning that instruments are not authorized, you also have this stronger reasoning: singing is commanded, therefore the type of music is specified, therefore the command may not be altered; if it said "music," then that would allow for instrumental music, even though instrumental music would not be explicitly authorized.

jdavidb said...

btw, interestingly enough I am listening this morning to a capella Gregorian chant of the Psalms (KJV, apparently, though it took me a couple of days to figure that out) produced by a group of Lutherans, and the reason I started listening is because I've greatly increased my reading of the Psalms lately as I have begun reading through them on the Orthodox and Byzantine rite schedule (although in six weeks so far I've only had one perfect week; usually I miss at least one kathisma somewhere).

Franklin Mason said...


I'd love to hear. What's its name?

jdavidb said...

Oh, it's not an album; it's a website. :) Actually it's a set of MP3 recordings put out by a group that published a Psaltery/Prayer book.

Main site is here; recordings of the Psalms and canticles are here.

jdavidb said...

And information about the Orthodox practice of praying through the Psalms is here and here.

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