Footnotes to previous posts

In previous posts, I wrote about the singing of Psalms and the absence of musical instruments in church worship in the New Testament church. I argued that the Psalms were and are the church’s song book, and that use of instrumental music in worship was and should still be regarded as Judaizing; that is, the introduction of Old Testament ceremonial practices into the New Testament Church.

Since writing those posts, I’ve come across some footnotes that relate to them.

In The Baker History of the Church Vol 1: The birth of the Church (AD 30-312), 2004, Ivor Davidson makes the following observation:

There was also singing of “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19-20; Col. 3:16). The Jewish [sic] Psalter was the primary songbook, and believers found clear images of their Lord, his suffering, and his exaltation in the Psalms … Psalms were read aloud as well as sung, as they were in Jewish worship, and singing in general would almost always have been undertaken without any kind of instrumental accompaniment. Indeed, in later Christian writers there would be a great deal of polemic against musical instruments, which were strongly associated with worldly entertainment (p.118, see also endnote 12, p. 378)

In volume 2 (AD 312-600) of the same series, A Public Faith, 2005, Davidson wrote as follows:

About the actual music of Christian worship we know a lot less then we might wish. So far as we can tell, singing remained unaccompanied virtually everywhere, but the absence of musical instruments did not mean that the aesthetic qualities of worship were treated lightly (p.267).

I’d only add that there is no evidence of the use of musical instruments in the NT itself, and musical instruments were shunned in the early church for that reason, and not only because of pagan usage. The use of instrumental music in worship was regarded as part of the Levitical service that had been abolished in Christ. John Chrysostom, for example explicitly referred to it as being of the ‘child’ phase of the church that Paul mentions in Galatians 3:24-25 when he was speaking against the use of OT practices in the NT church.

The Psalms were and should still be sung because they are God’s word, they speak of Christ (Eg., Luke 24:44 and Hebrews 1-3), and as such they constitute His praise rather than ours.  It is His praise that we are to sing. We should sing the Psalms in our church worship with grace in the heart, unaccompanied by anything but the Holy Spirit who speaks by and with His word.


“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 17th 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.


  1. (accessed 1 June 2016)
  2. (accessed 3 June 2016)
  3. Clement p. 216.
  4. Basil,, pp. 285-287.
  5. Basil, pp. 534 & 536.
  6. Chrysostom, pp. 601, 604 & 560.
  7. Augustine, pp. 311-313.
  8. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, [II-II, Q. 91, Art. 2]. See Objection 4 and Reply.
  9. Erasmus, Opus Omnia Tom V. 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.
  12. John Wilison, p.189.

Aaron’s golden calf and New Testament practice

In writing to the Corinthians, Paul had a number of problems to deal with. Although the church held to the gospel teaching of the apostles, it was nevertheless out of control in serious ways.

By the time the tenth chapter is reached, Paul had addressed their divisions, spiritual pride, open approval of sexual immorality, their willingness to sue one another and their unwillingness to deny themselves for the sake of weaker fellow Christians.

At the tenth chapter, Paul brings a warning: don’t presume that you are a Christian simply because you are a church member and enjoy the outward benefits of a gospel ministry.

To illustrate his point, Paul refers to the church in the wilderness — the church that was established when God saved the children of Abraham from Egyptian slavery by the Passover event, and He then brought them through the Red Sea by miracle. God then kept them alive in the desert by means of ‘manna’ and water produced from a rock, which also were saving miracles.

All these events, though real and historical, point those who read of them to that great rescue that Jesus provided when he came as a human being to live for his people, die for his people and rise again for his people.

Paul indicates this by referring to some of these Old Testament events in New Testament terms. The crossing of the Red Sea he likened to baptism. The eating of the manna and drinking the rock-water Paul likened to the Lord’s supper. These Old Testament events, implies Paul, were Covenant affirming events. Further, the implication is that the Old Testament and the New Testament churches were in fact one church whose shared hope was the covenant of God.

In Genesis 3 God promised fallen Adam and Eve a saviour who would re-establish a right relationship between God and human beings, which relationship Adam had messed up by his sin. God’s covenant was that He would act to reclaim a people for Himself, and that the people whom He saves would acknowledge Him as their God and live as His people.

Back to the church in the desert. They had been saved from the Angel of Death by the blood of a lamb, they had been brought safely through the Red Sea, and they heard God’s law that was for his people. They were publicly associated with God by several outward ties, but many of them were not pleasing to Him.

Many were not pleasing to God because they rejected Christ, whom Paul says ‘followed them’. Only Jesus Christ lived a human life that was pleasing to God. Those who trust Jesus Christ are associated with him by the new birth. These people become pleasing to God when they trust Christ.

How did these Old Testament people reject Christ? Many took the outward benefits without the inward change of regeneration. They did not see themselves as lost sinners. They did not believe God’s word. They did not look beyond the outward ritual of the sacrifices that they brought to God. They were playing ‘church’ rather than trusting the saviour who was represented to them in the sacrifices that God had instituted.

Paul’s warning to the Corinthians was that they too might possess all the outward benefits of a church (gospel preaching, the sacraments, fellowship, prayer) and yet not really be trusting the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered in the gospel. They too might be playing church while rejecting Christ.

Paul then gives a number of negative examples from the church in the desert that the church in Corinth would do well to avoid. He refers to them all as exhibiting the reality of evil desires. The first evil desire was Idolatry. I’ll just talk about this one today.

To illustrate the danger of idolatry, Paul refers to the Old Testament incident of the golden calf. Moses was away receiving the law that was to guide the church to Christ. Aaron had a crowd pressing him to give them gods (Exodus 32:1 and Acts 7:40) to lead them because Moses, to their mind, had abandoned them. So Aaron causes a golden calf to be made.

Two separate things seem to be happening here. The people wanted ‘gods’ (elohim), which might imply gods other than the covenant God of Israel. This was contrary to the First Commandment that the people had already heard from the God who had rescued them from Egypt.

Aaron, however, was aiming to bring the people to focus on Yahweh, the true God by means of the calf. When the calf was finished, Aaron said, ‘This is your God (Elohim) who brought you out of the land of Egypt’ and he appointed a feast to Yahweh for the following day. This broke the Second Commandment which forbids the worship of the true God by idols.

The Hebrew language uses the same plural word to mean ‘gods’ or ‘God’ depending on the context. The people wanted ‘gods’, and Aaron used the same word to point them to ‘God’ who revealed Himself to Moses as Yahweh.

Idolatry is a two-edged sword. It can be the worship of false gods. It can also be the worship of the true God by inappropriate means.

Aaron’s aim in using a golden calf was perhaps ‘noble’, but making a calf to direct people to Yahweh was utterly wrong. We could say that Aaron was trying to be ‘seeker-sensitive’, and he thought that the calf would be an aid to worship. But, to introduce matter into the worship of God contrary to His word simply because it is appealing to people in the church (to keep them there) and might be attractive to people outside, is wrong.

We are not to be inventive in managing the public worship of God. God’s worship is His. It is His word, not our changing preferences, that ought to determine the content and means of worship. The golden calf incident was a failure of leadership on Aaron’s part. It is a failure that the New Testament church needs to avoid if things are not to end badly.

Psalms in worship …

As I’ve already said, I believe that the book of Psalms is the only legitimate song book of the church. I believe this because I see this as the consistent teaching of the Bible. Some people have suggested to me that this view is simply the 16th-17th century puritans’ reaction against the abuses of the mediaeval church, but that isn’t the case. For example, I was reading the introduction to John Owen’s Commentary on Hebrews (he was explaining the meaning of the word ‘canon’ as a collective term for the books that are included in God’s written word), and he provided the following quotations from the early church fathers as illustrations of the use of the word:

Council of Laodicea (AD 363–364) said this, “That no private Psalms ought to be said or read in church, nor any uncanonical books, but only the canonical books of the New and Old Testaments”.

Note: ‘private Psalms’ are non-Bible songs that Christians create. These, according to this council, are not to be sung in church. Also note that the word ‘said’ in the quote refers both to speaking and singing. Bible itself regards these activities as fulfilling the same task of communication — see the title of Psalm 18 and Ephesians 5:19.

Augustine (AD 354–430) said this, “Let them demonstrate their church, not by the rumours of Africanus, but by the prescriptions of the law, the predictions of the prophets, the songs of the Psalms, that is by the canonical authority of the holy books of scripture.”

Augustine aligns the characteristics of the true church not only with the doctrine of the Psalms but also with the singing of them.

Worship: sound preaching

Preaching might be regarded as an unpopular activity these days. The Bible idea of preaching is making known true-truth in an authoritative way. This truth comes to people in an old book, a book that needs to be read and studied and thought through with care and attention. This truth needs to be declared with authority. Again, the truth that is to be preached concerns the Lord Jesus Christ; how he has acted to bring us back to our creator God, to the God we have offended by our sin, to the God who will judge all people according to their deeds, to the God who loved the world in a particular way. God’s love comes to people only through the life, death and rising of Jesus Christ. These truths only come to us from the Bible, and they must be shown to be true from the Bible.

Many people today don’t like to be told. We are all wise enough for ourselves. We prefer stories with ambiguous endings. We like to keep our options open. We don’t like to engage in hard thinking.

As preaching is unpopular with people, so too are preachers tempted to shy away from it. To encourage people to gather at church, ministers think their churches must provide something attractive, something to compete with the wide, varying and shiny alternatives – something other than preaching.

It is interesting how the Lord Jesus fits, or doesn’t fit, into these thoughts. He was followed by large crowds, often because he showed love with extraordinary power – it seems to me that in the three years of Jesus’ ministry, more wonders were performed by him than are recorded in all the Old Testament. But Jesus, we are told in the Gospels, was focused on preaching and teaching the word with a particular emphasis on the good news. Jesus didn’t come in order to gain popularity, but to speak Bible truth about himself and his work of saving people from their sin. He spoke with great authority and purpose. Whenever his disciples got carried away by the popularity that Jesus seemed to enjoy, Jesus reminded them that he would be betrayed, rejected and crucified by these people and their leaders. It was only sometime after Jesus’ resurrection that these men got the idea.

In brief, the apostles were focused upon the teaching (doctrine) of the word, that written word we know as the Bible. This word reveals Christ Jesus, who is both Lord and Saviour. These men passed this emphasis on preaching to others who would continue this gospel work after the apostles died. Paul told Timothy to preach the word, when people like it and when they don’t. The preaching was for conviction, rebuke and consolation with all patience and doctrine (2 Tim 4:2). Again the aim is to make the good news of Jesus known from every and any part of the Bible. This requires teaching things about who God is, his purpose in creating us and the universe, the origin of our bad attitudes, what his relationship with Israel was like, but all these things are to be taught and preached so that we understand who Jesus is, what he has done, and what it all means for people like us.

Gospel preaching will only be popular when people come under conviction of sin and of God’s mercy to sinners in Jesus Christ. This conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit. We need, as members of Christ, to be in prayer for this convicting work amongst ourselves and the wider community. Preaching is a vital, a central, part of worship because of its focus on content (the Bible) and its application. Worship without content is mute, meaningless ritual.

Everything old is new again! Psalm 96

Oh sing a new song to the Lord! Sing to the Lord all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless His name;
Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.

I don’t know about things in your end of the world, but it’s been a long time since my church group has sung, deliberately and together, a Bible psalm. With all the singing done at church, the 150 songs of God’s composition seem to be ignored. It seems that the thinking behind this practice of not singing psalms has to do with wanting to sing new songs. Singing a ‘new song’ is surely a Bible idea, but I think the Bible’s idea of a new song is different from this modern practice.

First of all, the exhortation in Psalm 96 is to sing a new song, not to write one. The writing of Psalms was to be the work of people who had the designation of ‘prophet’. David, we are told, was a prophet since he foretold, for example, the resurrection of Jesus in Psalm 16 (Act 2:30). In fact, all the writers of the Psalms were prophets/seers (1 Chronicles 25:1-7), who spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20). In that case, these Bible Psalms were of no private interpretation; they were not merely the reflections of the human author but, as they are in truth, the Word of God and the songs of the Lord. We have no prophets of this type any more, the ‘new songs’ have been written. We now have the privilege to sing them.

So how can old songs be ‘new’? When we see them afresh in Jesus Christ. For example, when there was revival in the Old Testament Church during king Hezekiah’s reign, he commanded ‘the Levites to sing praise to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. So they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads in worship’ (2 Chronicles 29:30). When the Holy Spirit brings our focus back to the Gospel “the good news of His salvation”, these ‘old songs’ – then 300 years old — were sung with vigour and joy. They were made ‘new’ again because the Gospel had come to them again in newness and freshness.

Well, you might say, that’s very Old Testament. We live in the freedom of the New. We do things Jesus’ way. That’s fine. Jesus was a Psalm singer (the hymn of Matthew 26:30 was undoubtedly a Psalm), he told his disciples that the Psalms spoke of Him (Luke 24:44) and he enabled them to see things that way (Luke 24:45). The first three Chapters of the book of Hebrews alone makes it abundantly clear that the Psalms speak of Jesus. Again, Paul in Eph. 5:18-19 and Col. 3:16 urges the church to sing Psalms, Hymns and Songs Spiritual (the adjective applies to all three words). The word ‘spiritual’ usually indicates something that is particularly a work of the Holy Spirit. These songs are word-of-God songs, as the context implies: — ‘be filled with the Spirit’; ‘let the word of God dwell in you richly’. Further, in I Corinthians 14 Paul tells the church to bring a Psalm (note, ‘bring’ not ‘write’) for their community times of worship.  Because Jesus rose from the dead (Ps. 16), we have newness of life. The old songs become new again.

The New Testament church was a Psalm singing church, and they sang Psalms in worship of their risen Saviour Jesus, who is both Lord and Christ (Ps.2) . Why are we apparently so reluctant to do the same?