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Ancient Praise

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   March 16, 1991   |  Type: Articles

“I just like to sing the old hymns of the faith.” All of us have probably heard a statement like that. Many of us may have said something like it. The irony is that often the “old hymns” on close examination are actually hymns written in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. What was the song of the church like long ago - say 1800 years ago? What was the ancient praise of the church?

The praise of the ancient church is not easy to reconstruct. Beyond the writings of the New Testament the evidence of the earliest centuries is scarce and ambiguous. For example, did the ancient church sing only or primarily the Psalms of David or did it sing hymns of its own composition? The evidence to answer such a question is very limited and not really clear. If we read in an ancient writing that the church sang a psalm or a hymn, do we know with certainty what that means? Actually, the words psalm and hymn are used interchangeably in some ancient writings and in the New Testament. In Matthew 26:30 we read that after the Last Supper Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before they went out. That hymn was almost certainly Psalm 118. In I Corinthians 14:26 the reference to a psalm is most likely a song inspired by the Spirit in the Corinthian church.

Scholars can be very divided in evaluating the limited evidence that we do have. Ralph Martin in "Worship in the Early Church" stresses the role of hymns composed by early Christians in New Testament worship. Michael Bushell in "Songs of Zion" argues that only the Old Testament Psalms were used.

What can be said with certainty is that the early church in many ways followed the pattern of worship of the synagogue. The synagogue certainly made significant use of the Psalms of David in worship, and it is clear that the early church did also.

Testimonies to the value of the Psalter are plentiful in the ancient church. Athanasius, the great champion of Christ's eternal divinity, wrote, “I believe that a man can find nothing more glorious than these Psalms; for they embrace the whole life of man, the affections of his mind, and the motions of his soul. To praise and glorify God, he can select a psalm suited to every occasion, and thus will find that they were written for him.” And Basil of Caesaria declared, “The Book of Psalms is a compend of all divinity; a common store of medicine for the soul; a universal magazine of good doctrines, profitable to everyone in all conditions.”[1] Many monks in the ancient church memorized the entire Psalter and gloried in reciting it in full during a vigil.

Another feature of ancient praise which is rather certain is that the ancient church did not use musical instruments in its worship services. That may come as a major surprise to most modern Christians, but the evidence is very strong. For example, Clement of Alexandria wrote around 200 A.D., “When a man occupies his time with flutes, stringed instruments, choirs, dancing, Egyptian krotala and other such improper frivolities, he will find that indecency and rudeness are the consequences. Such a man creates a din with cymbals and cult.... Leave the syrinx to shepherds and the flute to superstitious devotees who rush to serve their idols. We completely forbid the use of these instruments at our banquet.”[2]

The ancient fathers seem to have had three reasons for opposing the use of instruments. The first is clear in the quotation from Clement. The fathers feared that instruments would overstimulate and make worship too emotional, leading to sexual immorality. The second reason is that musical instruments were closely linked to the pagan sacrificial worship. The fathers linked instruments with idolatry. The third reason is that instruments were linked to the worship of the Old Testament temple. Some fathers believed that the use of instruments would “Judaize” Christian worship.

Only in the late ancient or early medieval period did the use of instrumental music in churches develop in the western part of the church. The organ, developed in the eighth century, remained a controversial instrument for church use for centuries. The Eastern Orthodox churches do not permit the use of instrumental music in their churches to this day.

The ancient praise of the church - focused on the Psalms and sung without musical accompaniment - must have been simple, spiritual and reverent. The function of that music was not so much to raise the emotions as to lift the heart and mind to God. Calvin learned that lesson from the ancient church. In the Genevan church the praise of God came almost exclusively from the Psalter and was sung without instrumental accompaniment.

The modern evangelical church has wandered far from its ancient and Reformation roots. Is the church better off?

[1] Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion, Pittsburgh, 1980, p. 94.
[2] From the Paedagogus, cited by J. Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity, Washington, D.C., 1983, p. 61.

Previously published in The Outlook, December 1990 by Reformed Fellowship, Inc. Used with permission.

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