“Judaizing” in the church

Paul warned the Galatian church against judaizing (Gal. 2:14), that is, the adopting of Old Testament Jewish practices, whether willingly or by force. This was not a racist warning, as Paul himself was an Israelite. The truth of the Gospel was at stake. Those Old Testament practices were suitable for the time before the coming of Christ. They acted as a tutor to a church under age (Gal. 3:24), and they pointed to the Saviour to come. But, when Christ finished his work of redemption, these practices were abolished. The issue with the Galatians was primarily circumcision. Paul said that if they adopted circumcision, they were bound to keep the whole ceremonial law (Gal. 5:3). Paul said, ‘Don’t do it!’  Christ has come and fulfilled those shadows.

Well, you might say, we don’t do circumcision as a religious thing in our Christian Churches. That’s fine, but how does this sound? For its first 18 centuries, the western church – with one significant exception – had seen the use of musical instruments in public worship as judaizing.

This is the Biblical picture. God established the use of musical instruments in temple worship in King David’s day (1 Chron. 16:4-5, 23:5, 25:1-7). The Levites alone were appointed to do this temple work (2 Chron. 8:14-15, 29:25, 30:21 & 35:15). After the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the temple worship was abolished. The letter to the Hebrews explains why the Levitical service had to end (Hebrews 7:12-16). There is now no valid use for a Levitical priesthood or its services in the Christian Church. When the Levitical priesthood was abolished, so was the use of musical instruments in public worship.

This is why there is no evidence for the use of musical instruments in the New Testament church. Read the apostles’ letters to the churches. There is no mention of instrumental music in association with church gatherings. The singing of Psalms is to be accompanied by melody made in the heart (Eph. 5:19). The only mention of musical accompaniment to worship is in the Book of Revelation (5:8), but its apocalyptic language and its temple imagery are no safe guides to New Testament church practice. The absence of any mention of musicians in respect of church worship – while administrators as well as pastors and teachers are spoken of (1 Cor. 12:28) – strongly suggests that musicians had no role in New Testament worship.

A further thing to consider is that western church history gives no instance of musical instruments in public worship until about AD 800 (a singular case), and the wide use of them is only attested from about AD 1300 (1). Before the 14th century, the western church had consistently regarded the use of musical instruments in public worship as judaizing. Furthermore, it appears that Greek Orthodox Church never has used musical instruments in worship (2).

Clement of Alexandria (3rd century) wrote that ‘the tongue is the psaltery of the Lord’ and ‘we no longer use the ancient psaltery, and trumpet, and timbrel and flute’ (3). Basil (4th century) had no time for musical instruments. Commenting on Ps 33:2, Basil interpreted the lyre as the Christian’s body, by which the Lord is to be praised, and the ten-stringed harp as representing the Ten Commandments, which Christians are to obey in the newness of the Spirit (4). Again, writing on Isaiah 5:12, Basil referred disparagingly of musical instruments, and noted that the end of such things is destruction (5). Chrysostom (4th century) commented on Ps. 149 and 143, saying that ‘musical instruments were only permitted to the Jews’, like the sacrifices, but ‘now, instead of organs, Christians must use the body [e.g. their good deeds] to praise God.’ He explicitly said that musical instruments were suitable only for the ‘child’ phase of the church (6). Augustine (4th century) also said that the instruments had only symbolic meaning for the Christian church. The church was not to use a literal ten-stringed harp as if it were a theatre, but was rather to show its love for the Saviour by keeping the Ten Commandments (7).

Thomas Aquinas (13th century) wrote that ‘the church does not use musical instruments to praise God, lest she should seem to judaize’ (8). In the early 16th century, Erasmus wrote of the babble of musical instruments that intruded upon the church services in his day, making the church look and sound like a theatre (9). At the reformation, musical instruments were removed from the reformed churches for biblical reasons. John Calvin regarded the use of musical instruments as wholly an Old Testament thing. It would, he argued, ‘bury the light of the Gospel, should we introduce the shadows of a departed dispensation’. (10). Even the Church of England, during the 16th century, ceased to employ musical instruments in worship and published a homily to explain why this was a blessing (11). John Willison, a Scottish Presbyterian, wrote in 1744 that the church was committed — among other things — to resisting the ‘Popish’ practice of using musical instruments in the public worship of God (12).

I offer this historical meander simply to show that the biblical teaching — that using instrumental music in public worship is judaizing — is not merely the result of post-reformation protestant prejudice.  Clement, Basil, Chrysostom, Augustine and Aquinas all wrote before the Reformation, and Erasmus was certainly not a rabid reformer.

The biblical teaching had been recognised in the west for about 18 centuries. The change that occurred in protestantism during the 19th century was not the result of faithful Bible teaching. It came at a time when the church’s confidence in the Scriptures was in decline. After the introduction of musical instruments, generations of Christians have grown up with the practice, and now even people with real confidence in the Bible accept this practice without question.

Paul said that the Christian church is not to judaize. The church to which I belong says plainly in its Confession of Faith that nothing is to be introduced into the worship of God except that which God has prescribed in the Bible (WCF 21:1). We most certainly are not to do what God forbids. The use of instrumental music was a Levitical and thus temporary feature of temple worship. It is now abolished along with circumcision and animal sacrifices. To continue to use these Old Testament shadows is to cloud the fact that Christ has come to bring salvation. That was part of Paul’s burden when he wrote to the Galatians urging them not to judaize (Gal. 2:14 and Gal. 3:23-25). Christ has come, and we have no further use for a school-master. I suggest, therefore, that the modern Church needs to reconsider its ways.

Notes:

  1. http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/when-did-churches-start-using-instrumental-music.html (accessed 1 June 2016)
  2. https://oca.org/questions/parishlife/musical-instruments (accessed 3 June 2016)
  3. Clement https://archive.org/details/writingsofclemen01clem p. 216.
  4. Basil, https://archive.org/details/p1operaomniaquae01basiuoft, pp. 285-287.
  5. Basil, https://archive.org/details/operaselecta01basi pp. 534 & 536.
  6. Chrysostom, https://archive.org/details/operaomniaquaeex05johnuoft pp. 601, 604 & 560.
  7. Augustine, https://archive.org/details/expositionsonboo01auguuoft pp. 311-313.
  8. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, [II-II, Q. 91, Art. 2]. See Objection 4 and Reply. https://ia600200.us.archive.org/34/items/summatheologicap18755gut/18755.txt
  9. Erasmus, Opus Omnia Tom V. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=VwnU9rhV3sMC&pg=PR58&lpg=PR58&dq#v=onepage&q&f=false pp. 731-732.
  10. See Calvin on Psalm 92:3, The Ages Digital Library Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 2, p. 179.
  11. Homilies (Oxford, 1802), pp. 293-294. https://archive.org/stream/sermonsorhomilie0a0chur#page/292/mode/2up
  12. John Wilison, https://archive.org/details/fairimpartialtes00will p.189.