September 22, 2017

What Have Religious Leaders Said About The Instrument?

By Steve Wolfgang

The assignment to discuss the comments of various religious leaders regarding instrumental music has raised several questions in my own mind which will no doubt occur to readers of this article as well. I would like to consider some of these questions by way of introduction to their comments.

What Does It Matter?

Though I have more than a passing interest in church history, it appears to me that there is little utility in discussing the opinions of religious leaders on this or any other subject. As interesting as it many be to study the views of past generations, we must never forget that they in no way provide a basis for authorizing (or condemning) any practice. This is not to argue that there is no value whatsoever in discovering that there were many leaders in various denominations who did oppose the instrument - it is simply to remind us that a doctrine or practice is authorized or condemned only on the basis of what the Scriptures teach. The reverse of this principle is even more salient to our study: even if we could find no religious leader of the past (or present) who opposed the use of instrumental music, it would yet stand condemned, lacking scriptural justification despite the opinions of religious leaders pro or con.

How Reliable Are These Quotations?

This raises at least two separate questions. I have given diligence to check the accuracy of these quotations in their original sources (insofar as is possible, some of them being rather obscure). I have on occasion quoted from a secondary source, of which several can be recommended. These include M. C. Kurfees, Instrumental Music in the Worship, and James D. Bales, Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship, both excellent overall studies of these (and other) aspects of the instrument question; Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak and A Capella Music, for the views of the "church fathers" and early church figures; and John T. Lewis, Voices of the Pioneers on Instrumental Music and Societies, for quotations from "Restoration" figures.

A second aspect of this question pertains to the integrity of the men themselves. Men do change their opinions, being human, and it is entirely possible to find quotations from the same man on opposite sides of one issue. That is not the case, insofar as I can ascertain, for the men quoted in this article, but is entirely possible that any of them, or any other men, may have written strongly in favor of the instrument at one time, and then later may have changed his mind and subsequently may have written equally as fervently against the practice, or vice versa. Even then it is possible, as M.C. Kurfees so often does in his landmark work cited above, to quote a fatal admission from a man openly arguing in favor of the instrument - using the man's own admissions to capsize his case. This simply further underscores the futility of establishing any religious practice or doctrine on the shifting sands of human ideas, regardless of the brilliance of the human or our esteem for him.

What Have Religious Leaders Said About Instrumental Music?

We turn now to a brief sampling of some comments of religious leaders, including:

John Calvin: "Calvin is very express in his condemnation of instrumental music in connection with the public worship of the Christian church . . . In his commentary on the thirty-third Psalm he says: `I have no doubt that playing upon cymbals, touching the harp and viol, and all that kind of music, which is so frequently mentioned in the Psalms, was part of the . . . puerile instruction of the law. [But for believers now] musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise, but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostle is far more pleasing to him.'

"In his homily on 1 Sam. xviii. 1-9, he delivers himself emphatically . . . on the subject: What therefore was in use under the law is by no means entitled to our practice under the gospel . . . . Instrumental music, we therefore maintain, was tolerated only on account of the times and the people, because they were as boys, as the Sacred Scriptures speaketh"' (John L. Girardeau, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church, pp. 163-165).

Ulrich Zwingli, who "had read some of Luther's writings, had become convinced that the New Testament was above all other authority and that the church should be thoroughly purged of everything which did not square with its teachings. Far more than Luther, he wanted to break with the Roman tradition, and to reestablish the church squarely on apostolic foundations . . . . the silence of the Scriptures . . . for Zwingli . . . tended to be a prohibition. Therefore, under his preaching, . . . such Roman practices as Mass, the veneration of images and relics, the confessional, . . . fasting during Lent, clerical celibacy, and the use of organs, were abolished as having no warrant in Scripture" (Richard M. Pope, The Church and Its Culture, p. 355).

John Wesley: "I have no objection to instruments of music in our chapels, providing they are neither heard nor seen" (quoted by Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, IV, 684).

The above quotation (as well as others below front Clarke) are some of the more frequently seen comments and raise again the questions of reliability of the sources. Though having some exposure to the Wesleyan tradition, I have been unable to document this often-quoted statement anywhere else, and would be indebted to anyone who can provide verification. The source, Adam Clarke, a Methodist commentator, is himself often cited from his remarks made at several places in his Old Testament commentaries, such as:

"Moses had not appointed any musical instruments to be used in the divine worship; there was nothing of the kind under the first tabernacle. The trumpets or horns then used were not for song nor for praise, but as we use bells, i.e., to give notice to the congregation . . . But David did certainly introduce many instruments of music into God's worship . . . and it was by the order of David that so many instruments of music should be introduced into the Divine service. But were it even evident, which it is not, either from this or any other place in the sacred writings, that instruments of music were prescribed by Divine authority under the law, could this be adduced with any semblance of reason, that they ought to be used in Christian worship? No: the whole spirit, soul, and genius of the Christian religion are against this, and . . . these things have been introduced as a substitute for the life and power of religion . . . . Away with such portentous baubles from the worship of that infinite Spirit who requires his followers to worship him in spirit and in truth, for to no such worship are those instruments friendly" (Clarke's Commentary, II, 690-691, @ 2 Chronicles 29:25).

I believe that Clarke has allowed his opposition to the instrument to lead him to an extreme position here (and elsewhere), though much of what he says is true. He cites in the above commentary (omitted here) the frequently abused passage in Amos 5 and 6, and we reproduce a portion of his comments on that passage below:

"I believe that David was not authorized by the Lord to introduce that multitude of musical instruments into the Divine worship of which we read; and I am satisfied that his conduct in this respect is most solemnly reprehended by this prophet; and I farther believe that the use of such instruments of music, in the Christian church, is without the sanction and against the will of God; that they are subversive of the spirits of true devotion, and that they are sinful . . . . Music, as a science, I esteem and admire; but instruments of music in the house of God I abominate and abhor. This is the abuse of music; and I here register my protest against all such corruptions in the worship of the Author of Christianity" (Clarke's Commentary, IV, 684, on Amos 6:5; see also comments on 1 Chronicles 23:5 in Vol. II, pp. 620-621).

Again, these quotations, while containing several good points, demonstrate some of the problems of relying on quotations from commentators to determine the truth or falsity of an issue. As another commentator (!) has observed, this passage

"did not refer to the instruments used in worship; nor can this passage be used as an argument against the use of such instruments in worship today as is done by Adam Clarke. They invented musical instruments to be used in the sordid revelry of their feasts . . ." (Homer Hailey, A Commentary on the Minor Prophets, p. 114).

This is not to argue that commentators and other leaders in the formulation of religious thought cannot and do not express many proper and appropriate ideas; as demonstrated by the following quotation, they often do so. It is simply to warn against placing too much stock in the remarks of any human commentator. From Conybeare and Howson:

"Let your songs be, not the drinking songs of heathen feasts, but psalms and hymns; and their accompaniment, not the music of the lyre, but the melody of the heart . . ." (W.J. Conybeare and J.S. Howson, The Life and Epistle of St. Paul, II, p. 408).

Another illustration of questionable use of commentators is a quotation sometimes seen from the pen of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, British Baptist preacher. It is reproduced in the following manner in a recent handbook of religious quotations (an otherwise excellent work):

"Praise the Lord with harp. Israel was at school, and used childish things to help her to learn; but in these days when Jesus gives us spiritual food, one can make melody without strings and pipes . . . . We do not need them. That would hinder rather than help our praise. Sing unto him. This is the sweetest and best music. No instrument like the human voice." (Spurgeon, Commentary on Ps. 42).

This quotation, probably lifted from a secondary source, is in fact taken from Spurgeon's Treasury of David, Volume II, p. 115. Commenting on Psalm 33:2, Spurgeon includes the following comments, often omitted when reproduced elsewhere:

"We who do not believe these things (instruments - SW) to be expedient in worship, lest they should mar its simplicity, do not affirm them to be unlawful, and if any George Herbert or Martin Luther can worship God better by the aid of well-tuned instruments, who shall gainsay their right?"

Further, after the phrase, "We do not need then," Spurgeon says:

"but if others are otherwise minded, are they not living in gospel liberty?"

We are not attempting here to be hypercritical of the excellent work of brethren in compiling useful quotations, but simply wish to counsel all of us (self included) to be extremely careful to check the reliablity of what we quote, if we must quote. When we do, let us attempt to do so accurately. Above all, let us turn our attention to the Scriptures themselves, and what they actually say, rather than depending upon the "think-sos" of the world's religious leaders, past or present.


  1. Is there any value to considering what religious leaders say about this or any issue?
  2. How much "weight" should be placed on what religious leaders say about a religious question?
  3. Discuss the differences in the reforming principles of Luther and Zwingli as revealed in their attitudes toward instrumental music.
  4. Can you find any indication in the Old Testament that instruments were unscriptural in the times of the Old Covenant?
  5. Discuss Amos 5:23 and 6:5 in this context.
  6. Did David sin by using the instrument in his day?
  7. Compare the quotations of John Calvin and Adam Clarke. In your opinion, who was closer to the truth on the use of instruments in the Old Testament?
  8. If one concludes that instrumental music was authorized or permitted in the Old Testament, does it follow that such instruments are permitted under the New Covenant?

Truth Magazine XXIV: 24, pp. 389-390
June 12, 1980