31 October 2023 |
One of the topics that divides congregations and acquaintances is the use of music in worship. Many avoid the discussion altogether so as not to disturb the status quo, while some debate the use of various instruments.
In my study of the history behind Christians’ use of music, I’ve found two things, going back to the beginning of Christianity, that may have influenced us: gnosticism and antisemitism.
Gnosticism & music
One of the foremost philosophers of the age was Plato, a student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle. He is recognized as a founder of Western philosophy, who also influenced Western religious thinking. Platonism, as would be coined by his students and admirers, fueled the dualism of those who came to be known as gnostics.
Gnosticism is “the thought and practice, especially of various cults of late pre-Christian and early Christian centuries, distinguished by the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation comes through gnosis.” Gnostics tended to have a dualistic view of the world, with anything material viewed as corrupt, while anything to do with the spirit was good. It was difficult for them to accept that God could have come and occupied a fleshly body, and retained such a body in heaven.
New Testament writers understood the subtle influences of this group and contended with them. The apostle John may have been battling the influence of gnostics when he spoke of those who didn’t believe that Jesus Christ came in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3). Their influence was of such a nature that Christ rebuked the Nicolaitans in Revelation 2:6 for possibly their distortion of grace and law. Paul also countered the influence of gnostics as seen in his emphasis that in Jesus dwells “the fulness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 2:9).”
Plato saw music as secondary to philosophy. It was simply a tool that might bring order to a person’s thinking. He expressed annoyance and concern about the influence the flute could play on the mind.
Plato’s teachings were widely embraced by the Romans; in Roman culture, even more so than Grecian, music was a tool and not a life essential. The Hellenization of Rome meant that early Christians were dealing with not only a government of formidable strength, but a philosophy that muted dissenting voices.
As Christianity became more pronounced in Rome, Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) leaned considerably on Plato’s teachings, and he, too, appears to have relegated music to a secondary function. Augustine only considered music good if it did not captivate his desires or overcome the words it was meant to adorn.
His acceptance of platonic teachings may have also affected his thoughts on other issues such as celibacy and sex, which influenced the priesthood for hundreds of years.
Today much of our approach to music may have followed the cerebral posturing of Plato and other early influencers. Many of our discussions on harmony, rhythm, and ethos may be rooted in platonic models.
This line of thought would have the potential to erode the confidence we have in David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and others in Scripture who embraced worship music.
Antisemitism & music
As early as the first century the sentiments of the early Christians reflected the growing resentment towards Jews that characterized Roman culture. Under Emperor Hadrian the practice of the Jewish religion was banned, and Sabbath observance, Passover, and circumcision condemned.
Is it possible that in seeking to be distinguished from the Jews, the Christians may have adopted different worship styles? Clement of Alexandria, one of the Ante-Nicene fathers (2nd and 3rd centuries) stated that
the one instrument of peace, the word alone by which we honor God is what we employ. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery, the cymbal, the flute….
…the Church does not make use of musical instruments, such as harps and psalteries, in the divine praises, for fear of seeming to imitate the Jews. Therefore in like manner neither should song be used in the divine praises.
The Catholic Encyclopedia says that
Josephus tells of the wonderful effects produced in the Temple by the use of instruments, the first Christians were of too spiritual a fibre to substitute lifeless instruments for or to use them to accompany the human voice. (Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 10, pp. 648-652)
It appears clear that the sentiments against instruments from some in the early church stemmed at least partially from hostility towards the Jews.
Protestants & music
The Reformation did little to change feelings against instrumental accompaniment. Calvin, Zwingli, John Wesley, and others were suspicious of musical instruments—and some of these reformers also held antisemitic views.
For hundreds of years Gregorian chant filled the worship cathedrals and was sung in a manner that the congregation could not repeat or sing, as it was in Latin. Though Martin Luther (1483-1546), was antisemitic (his statements would later influence Hitler and other fanatics), Luther differed from his fellow reformers on the use of instrumental accompaniment. He employed the organ and composed songs in the language the people could understand and sing. He wrote,
…After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.
The turn towards congregational singing and the use of instruments was a dramatic shift for the protestant movement.
Ellen White & music
Although John Wesley (1703-1791) said of musical instruments, “I have no objection to instruments of music in our worship, provided they are neither seen nor heard,” Ellen White, one of the founders of our church and a former Methodist, didn’t agree. She said at the 1905 General Conference Session,
I am glad to hear the musical instruments that you have here. God wants us to have them. He wants us to praise him with heart and soul and voice, magnifying his name before the world.
On another occasion, possibly for the General Conference Session in 1909, she shared that
In the meetings held, let a number be chosen to take part in the song service. And let the singing be accompanied with musical instruments skillfully handled. We are not to oppose the use of instruments of music in our work. This part of the service is to be carefully conducted; for it is the praise of God in song.
Some still believe that Ellen White was against the use of instruments. This comes from a letter she wrote in 1900 addressed to Stephen Haskell concerning the fanatical Holy Flesh movement whose worshippers believed that working themselves into a frenzy with wild music would lead to perfection. (After she addressed the issue, the president of the Indiana Conference and those associated with him in promoting such a fanatical stance resigned.)
Some have continued to use Ellen White’s statements in that private letter to contradict her public statements to the world church in 1905 and thereafter. Clearly, her public pronouncements proved that her stance on instruments was a marked departure from her Wesleyan upbringing.
In regards to antisemitism, we find that Ellen White confronted injustices against Jews and said that the Jews should not be despised.
So how do we move this suspicion of instruments, or any other music that appears emotional or lively, to an understanding grounded in Scripture?
I would like to appeal that we get back to the Bible. Can we honestly say that music was not integral in the life of ancient Israel? Can we truthfully preach the sanctuary message without hearing the musical celebration in each phase of the activities (1 Chronicles 15,16, 26; 2 Chronicles 5-7; 29)?
We cannot truthfully read the Psalms and ignore its call for us to praise God with singing (Psalm 95:1,2) and instruments (Psalm 150). We should not rely on early Christian scholars’ embrace of gnosticism and latent antisemitism to suppress emotions in worship.
If Miriam, David, Solomon, or Hezekiah should come and lead out in some of our services today, would we usher them outside? If you answered yes, then you must ask if you’re being faithful to Scripture, or conforming to Western philosophy and the prejudices of our Christian ancestors.
I suspect our inability to break from a long history of tradition to praise God actively and emotionally speaks to the dominance of Western philosophy in muting our praise. God may be calling us to get back to Scripture so that our hearts and voices are free at last to worship him in Spirit and in truth.
Shaun Brooks, DMin is the Disabilities Ministries Coordinator for the Georgia-Cumberland Conference, and also serves as senior pastor for the Atlanta All Nations SDA Church. Shaun is an author, writer, and motivational speaker who loves his family and enjoys sharing the gospel.