INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC IN THE NEWTESTAMENTCHURCH
T. PIERCE BROWN
This article is intended to deal primarily with the question: “If it is true, as some `authorities’ say, that when the word `psallo’ was used in the Jewish community they understood it to mean `singing to the accompaniment of an instrument’, why can we not conclude that the Jews of the early church so understood it?”
That the use of the word may have been so understood, we do not deny. But we do deny that the word had that MEANING, either in the Old Testament or in the New, and from some of the considerations mentioned below, (as well as many other reasons) we conclude that neither the Jews, nor anyone else in the early church so understood its meaning, nor did they practice its usage.
Let us use an illustration to clarify a point of significance. If one were to speak to the average Methodist, Baptist, or almost any other denomination today and say, “I enjoy our church music”, he would probably be UNDERSTOOD at this time and context in those denominational communities to be REFERRING to the singing of songs with instrumental accompaniment–or even just to the playing of the mechanical instrument. He would even say to a member of the Lord’s church, “I understand that you do not believe in music in the church.” The fact that he misuses the word “music” in those contexts does not prove that the word “music” MEANS “singing with instrumental accompaniment.” In fact, it does NOT!
When the Jews “psalloed” they often did so accompanied with a harp or other musical instrument. Thus, under the Jewish dispensation, when one used the term, he would, in many contexts be understood as referring to “psalloing” with a harp when the word actually did not mean that, either then or now.
We deny that the word “psallo” means, “to sing with a mechanical instrument of music” for the following reasons–and more:
1. NO translation of ANY kind, in any language in ANY version so translates it as far as we can find.
2. Every Greek-English lexicon of which I am aware agrees with Thayer that the basic meaning was in the Old Testament “to pluck or twang.”
3. The instrument, or thing plucked did not inhere in the word. As Thayer says on page 675 concerning “psallo”: “a. To pluck off, pull out. b. To cause to vibrate by touching”. Vine, in his EXPOSITORY DICTIONARY OF NEW TESTAMENT WORDS, page 58, under the word “melody” says: “psallo” primarily to twitch, twang, then to play a stringed instrument with the fingers, and hence, in the Sept. to sing with a harp, sing psalms, denotes, in the N. T. to sing a hymn, sing praise”.
4. The truth that Thayer and Vine expressed is indicated by the fact that when the inspired writers of the New Testament wanted us to know of “harpers harping with their harps” as in Rev. 14:2, they used “kitharizo”, not “psallo”.
5. As far as we have been able to find, NO HISTORIAN of any religious persuasion or practice has documented evidence that ANY mechanical instrument was used in the early church until the 6th century. The fact that it caused controversy when it was introduced is ample evidence that it was not commonly accepted. The following is a short, but representative list of what ALL the historians which I have checked have said: Hugo Leichtentritt, “MUSIC, HISTORY AND IDEAS”, page 34, “Only singing, however, and no playing of instruments was permitted in the early church.” Earl Nauman, “THE HISTORY OF MUSIC”, Vol. 1, p. 177, “There can be no doubt that originally the music of the divine service was everywhere entirely of a vocal nature.” When you multiply this by the dozens, and realize that some of the greatest leaders of various denominational groups such as Spurgeon and Clark refused to use them because they thought them unscriptural or improper, it seems practically impossible for a logical and unbiased mind to conclude that the word “psallo” meant “to sing with musical accompaniment on an instrument.”
6. It is even more outstanding that when David said in Psalm 144:9 (and many other places of like nature, “I will sing a new song unto thee, O God; upon a psaltery and an instrument of ten strings will I sing praises unto thee,” nobody questions the instrument used, for the instrument on which he “psalloed” is specified. In such passages as 2 Chronicles 23:5 and Psalm 150:1-4 God specified such things as “Praise him with the sound of the trumpet; praise him with stringed instruments and organs.” There is no question either among scholars or common men about the matter.
So it is in the New Testament that the instrument is specified. When Paul and Jesus referred to instruments of music in 1 Corinthians 15:52, 14:6-9, Matthew 11:16,17 and other places there was no question as to the instrument. Neither should there be any question about the instrument specified in Ephesians 5:19. The heart is the instrument specified!
In conclusion, let this important fact be noted: If the word “psallo” in New Testament times either allowed or demanded the use of mechanical instruments, it is amazing beyond belief that neither in the New Testament, nor in ANY historical record of either friends or enemies of the church there is any indication of ANY kind that the Apostolic church ever used the mechanical instrument.
As far as I can tell, most of those who are now writing and talking of the propriety of worshiping with mechanical instruments admit that there is no evidence in or out of the Bible that the early church used such. More and more seem to be taking Don DeWelt’s position that there is also no evidence that the congregation was authorized to sing. At the risk of adding nothing really significant to the large body of literature on the subject, I want to make a point that I have not heard anyone else make. Some “authorities” say that when the word “psallo” was used in Bible times, it was understood in the Jewish community that the practice was “singing to an accompaniment of an instrument.” That statement, properly understood, I do not at this moment deny. But that does not mean that the word, “psallo” HAD THAT MEANING, either in the Old Testament or New. Let us use this illustration to clarify that point. If one were speaking to an average Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian and said, “Church music is not as beautiful as it once was,” he would probably be understood at this time and context in those denominational communities as referring to the singing of songs with instrumental accompaniment. But that does not at all prove, or even indicate, that the word “music” or the words “church music” MEANS “singing songs with instrumental accompaniment.” It, in fact, does NOT! We have often been asked, “Do you have music in the church?” and our answer is, “Yes!” When the Jews “psalloed” they often “psalloed,” accompanied with a harp or other musical instruments, and by those who are not as precise as they might be with the language, it is said “They ‘psalloed’ WITH the harp.” To some, that would mean the “psalloing” was what the harp was doing rather than that which accompanied it. In any case, under the Jewish dispensation (or at least part of it) if one used the expression, “psallo,” he might be understood as REFERRING to “psalloing” accompanied by a harp. But that the word “psallo” MEANS “sing accompanied by a mechanical instrument of music,” I deny, for the following reasons (among others): First, as far as I have been able to find, NO translation of ANY kind in ANY language in ANY version so translates it. Second, EVERY Greek-English Lexicon of which I am aware agrees with Thayer that the basic meaning was in the Old Testament “to pluck or twang.” Third, the INSTRUMENT, or thing plucked did NOT inhere in the word. As Thayer says on page 675 concerning “psallo”: “a. To pluck off, pull out. b. To cause to vibrate by touching.” The fact is that the context and the usage at the time indicated what was being plucked, twanged, or vibrated. It might be a hair of the head, a whisker, a wire on a fence, or a string of a harp, or, figuratively the strings of the heart. Vine, in his EXPOSITORY DICTIONARY OF NEW TESTAMENT WORDS, says on page 58, “psallo” means “primarily to twitch, twang, then to play a stringed instrument with the fingers, and hence in the Sept. to sing with a harp, sing psalms, denotes, in the NT to sing a hymn, sing praise.” Note the point that I previously made, IT CAME TO REFER TO playing a stringed instrument with the fingers, but this was not ITS MEANING. Just as “church music” came to REFER TO “instrumental music” in denominational circles, but that is NOT the MEANING of the term. Fourth, the truth that Thayer and Vine expressed can be indicated by the fact that in the New Testament when the inspired writer wanted us to understand that “harpers were harping with their harps,” as in Rev.14:2, he used the word “kitharizo,” not “psallo.” Fifth, as far as I have been able to find, NO HISTORIAN of ANY religious persuasion has documented evidence that ANY mechanical instrument of music was used in the early church until about the 6th century. The following is a short, but representative list of what ALL historians of which I have checked have said: Kurt Pahlee in Music of the World, page 27, “Many centuries were to pass before instruments accompanied the sung melodies.” Hugo Leichtentritt, in Music, History and Ideas, page 34, “Only singing, however, and no playing of instruments was permitted in the early church.” Earl Nauman, The History of Music, Vol. 1, p. 177, “There can be no doubt that originally the music of divine service was everywhere entirely of a vocal nature.” In fact, the term “acapella,” of ancient Latin derivation, has to do with “music used in chapel” which was and is singing without instrumental accompaniment. When you multiply these historical references by the dozen, then notice what the great leaders of denominational groups such as Spurgeon, Clark, Wesley and others said in their refusal to use the mechanical instruments, you can scarcely keep from being impressed with the fact that it NOT merely a hermeneutical problem — an argument from silence — but a HISTORICAL FACT that mechanical instruments were NOT used in the early church, and that although “psallo” to some Jews might REFER to singing with instrumental accompaniment, it did not have that MEANING, either in Old Testament times, nor in the New.