29 October 2012

Answering Questions #20- Restorationism (4) Stone-Campbell and Musical Instruments

The Stone-Campbell Movement, Biblicism, and the example of musical instruments.
What does this Restorationism I propose look like? Usually when people speak of Restorationism they think of the Stone-Campbell movement, better known as the Churches of Christ. This group is worthy of much admiration. I greatly appreciate their Biblicism, their determination to adhere to the text of Scripture. Many of their positions are akin to my own though we often arrive in a different manner.
For example, they refuse to use musical instruments in their worship services or meetings. This position is in accord with historic Reformed theology[i] and one with which I agree.
But why? I would argue musical instruments are not found in New Testament worship and appealing to the Old Testament represents a hermeneutical error. This claim or charge is not due to some kind of hostility or rejection of the Old Testament. I believe there are many points between Old and New that exhibit a strong continuity, or as it might be put, a unity in substance. However, there are stark differences in form.
For example the Old Testament employs types and shadows, forms and symbols which according to the New Testament have been fulfilled in the person and work of Christ. What are some of these types? They're numerous. The sacrificial system, the land, the offices of prophet, priest, and king and many more.
Musical instruments were part of the temple apparatus and they were played by Levites thus granting them a sanctified status and role. Now if someone were to suggest that we should offer sacrifices in New Testament worship they would rightly be criticized as not understanding the person and work of Christ. They would be accused of failing to grasp what the sacrifices pointed out and why they are no longer necessary or even desirable.
To suggest that we need to return to expiatory (or otherwise) sacrifices would demonstrate a misunderstanding or even a denigration of Christ's work on the cross and at the very least is a rejection of his pronouncement that 'It is finished'.
The veil of the temple was rent at the death of Christ and it is rightly argued this signified the termination and fulfillment of the Old Testament order. Though God in his mercy allowed for another forty or so years until the entire order was literally and physically swept away, theologically and in terms of Redemptive History (the history of Salvation) the Old Testament ended at the cross.[ii]
The Old Covenant operated as an integrated unit ordained by God through mediators. The system stands or falls as a unit. We can't go back and selectively extract liturgical elements we wish to re-use or re-cast for Christian purposes. This is a key component to Roman Catholicism. They are consistent in that they go ahead and re-use and re-cast the whole Old Testament system.
Their Church buildings are indeed temples. Their leaders are a priesthood, garbed in holy vestments, performing sacrifices on an altar[iii], and they bring all the elements forward, from thrones to candles and incense etc...
Many Protestants have adopted the Lutheran position which says we ought to retain good traditions and only reject that which is harmful or brings about theological contradiction and confusion. This is against the position of the Reformed who argued against all traditions and demanded the Bible alone as the sole authority. This led the Reformed to seriously question and revise the means and methods of worship. Statues were ripped down, altars removed, crosses and crucifixes were put to flame and many an organ was met with an axe.
Today many Protestants will simply argue musical instruments are helpful for ambiance or something to that effect. They're a key part of the Church's ministry. Those a bit more thoughtful will detect problems with this argument and instead will try and argue they're circumstantial rather than elemental. That is to say, instruments are simply aids to help us sing, like chairs to rest our legs, or a building to keep the rain off of our heads. They're not 'elements' of worship, specific sensory items that are sanctified...such as the elements of the Lord's Supper, the water of Baptism, prayer, the Word etc...
I would argue against this and say that that's not how the Old Testament viewed them. If instruments are okay, then so is incense, so are candles, so are vestments. But I would also say, we have a problem....where can we find Levites to play these instruments?[iv] Their use was tied in with the Old Covenant system. If it's permissible or desirable to go through and extract portions of the Covenant, to borrow mere elements...then why stop there?
This is not to say that we can't enjoy music and musical instrumentation. I assure you that I am a big fan of music, but that's not the issue here. Zwingli also enjoyed music and was proficient musician but these skills (I do not call them talents) were not employed within the Church meeting.[v]
What does this matter? Why am I focusing on something as unimportant as musical instruments? Is this what makes the Church? Of course not. While I'm against musical instruments being employed in New Testament worship it's certainly not a mark of the Church and I'm not going to leave or abandon a congregation over this issue.
But.... it's interesting because this question provides a window into larger issues concerning the application of the Bible, how we think, and to what degree the Scriptures govern our conduct as a Church. And it also touches on one of the great theological questions of all time.... How does the Old Testament relate to the New?
Look at the massive focus of today's church on the issue of music. Aside from all the so-called music ministries, the issue is considered one of the primary questions each congregation needs to wrestle with. Music is tied in with worship, its validity, weight, and worth and it's considered essential in terms of evangelism etc...
But the New Testament has next to nothing to say about it. Nowhere do any of the Apostles put weight or emphasis on this issue. It's foreign to the New Testament. We're told to sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in our hearts and there's a reference to a congregant bringing in a psalm or hymn to sing.
Music is indeed quite powerful and therefore it needs to be treated with great carefulness and caution....especially within the church meeting, in terms of how we approach God.
As Bible believing Christians, the totality of our lives are governed by Scripture, and our conduct is to be determined by and evaluated by His Word. However as I've argued elsewhere, if I hear a folk song on the radio that's one thing. I'm evaluating that for what it is....lost people singing about the world. Sometimes it can be moving, sometimes it can be insightful. Sometimes I can (to some degree) participate in and share feelings with the lost, though my perspective will always be different. Sometimes it's all a waste of time and I shut it off.
But now throw the words 'Christian' or 'Sacred' in front of music....now I have to evaluate it in different terms. My criteria is different. The lost folk singer may mix truth and error when it comes to speaking of love or loss....but if I'm going to sing or in any way employ music when it comes to worshipping God....then it had better be right hadn't it? My criteria is different and much more severe.
While I'm against the notion of 'hedging' and arguing (as many do) that the safer road is 'avoidance' rather than to wisely consider the pro's and con's, to sometimes partake and to sometimes reject...when it comes to this issue of music within the Church, I want to rely on the Bible itself.
I'll leave it to individuals to determine the right and proper role of music in their daily lives. Whether they wish to listen to secular, 'Christian', both or none is up to them...but within the meeting, within the gathering of the saints, our conduct, our approach to God must be regulated by His Word alone.
For me the issue is Redemptive-History and the question of Biblical Authority. Redemptive-History does not call for New Testament saints to use musical instruments within our meetings. We sing hymns, a form of corporate prayer and praise...but we're not there to be entertained nor do we want instrumentation to help us create 'a mood'.[vi]
I would argue the Bible itself defines and regulates our worship and our Christian life. We need to rightly understand the types and symbols of the Old Testament and their fulfillment in Christ. And if we understand the Authority-claims of the New Testament then we must reject attempts to improve or innovate what is given to us.
That's my approach to these questions. What does this have to do with Restorationism? This about thinking through the Bible and learning how to reject tradition. I'm looking at the issues in terms of Redemptive History and the history of the Church. For the denomination known as the Church of Christ, it's much more simple. It's not in the New Testament...period, full stop.
They don't spend a lot of time working out all the implications. They wish to simply follow the New Testament. I would probably wish for a bit more depth and sophistication. Their position is unable to rightly interact with and understand the relationship between the Old and New, the overarching unity of the Bible itself. But....I still appreciate their fidelity to the text and their willingness to follow through on the issue.
They're much the same when it comes to issues like Christmas. It's patently not in the New Testament and thus they reject it.... in the Church. If you walk into a Church of Christ meeting in mid-December, there's no evidence that it's the Christmas season.[vii] We have certainly visited them during the holidays as a respite, a breath of fresh air in order to escape the religious and social crush brought on by the holidays.
Now if you talk to the congregants they all celebrate Christmas, but they know that since it's not in the New Testament it has no business being introduced within the Church meeting. Some critics might rightly point out some of their inconsistencies, but again....I appreciate the attempt at being faithful to the mandates (or lack thereof) and structure of the New Testament.
This doctrinal trend extends beyond just this one issue. It plays out in their views of the Lord's Supper. The theology is undeveloped but they have Communion every week as clearly the New Testament worshippers had it every time they met.[viii]
It plays out in how they formulate their doctrines of Baptism....they don't shy away from the salvific language used in the New Testament.
They reject Justification by Faith Alone (Sola Fide) because the New Testament never formulates the doctrine in that way and there are many other verses which speak of justification applied through instruments other than Faith. Again, this doctrine is largely undeveloped and we might wish for more synthesis and the harmonization of texts...but that raises other issues doesn't it?
That said, the Churches of Christ as much as they would like to be in accord with the New Testament are not free from the same Enlightenment Rationalism that has penetrated every aspect of our thinking. At times they too employ rationalistic arguments and Enlightenment notions of 'fairness' and 'common sense' when it comes to issues like Free Will and Predestination.[ix] When it comes to the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and issues regarding violence and the state.... they've proven to be nothing more than mainstream Americans.[x]
I appreciate their commitment to Biblicism, Restorationism, and non-Denominationalism...but they're not perfect. They are however a facet, a window into part of the equation I am arguing for.

Go To Part 5

[i] Interestingly Eastern Orthodoxy also rejects the use of musical instruments.

[ii] Swept away by the Romans in the year 70 when the temple was completely destroyed. Sadly many are deceived into thinking we as Christians would somehow wish to see the temple rebuilt and sacrifices made once more. Some are motivated by a terrible misunderstanding of Biblical Prophecy wherein they believe the temple's existence a necessary element to their misguided prophetic chronology.

[iii] Transubstantiation is technically a bloodless sacrifice.

[iv] A similar problem arises with the tithe, something foreign to the New Testament

[v] Few realize that not only did Zwingli and Calvin reject musical instruments, a whole host of voices from Thomas Aquinas to Wesley...and the whole Eastern tradition can also be cited.

Instrumentation in worship arose specifically in the West, largely during the Carolingian era. Most Reformed Churches today have instruments and yet some of the smaller denominations still reject them. In mainstream Presbyterianism you only have to venture back a little over a century to find voices of protest at the introduction of organs which at that point where the only instruments anyone was considering. I'm with Dabney on that issue....organs do not evoke sacred feelings, instead I feel like I'm at a carnival. It's rather distracting. But a change in instrument does not resolve the larger issue.

Sure I've been in European cathedrals where the organ is being played. Hearing a Bach fugue in that context is very impressive but it has nothing to do with Christian worship. Neither the keys, pipes nor the building are in any way holy nor in any way can they 'assist' in our worship of God. If they do, then Sola Scriptura is a fallacy and I'm going to convert to some form of High Church Christianity for in the end that is what my flesh prefers. Personally I love 'high' worship....smells, bells, kneelers, candles, processions etc... See my 'Temptation of the Tactile'.

[vi] Some churches will use a simple keyboard to merely play the melody....to assist with keeping the tune. While I still disagree, I can appreciate that position a little more than what most Churches are doing today. Most Churches are engaged in entertainment or trying to create an worship-like atmosphere. But is that New Testament worship?

Years ago my wife attended an OPC which happened to have a professional pianist in the congregation. Her playing was beautiful but while she whipped through scales between stanzas and verses creating an impressive and rather grand ambiance I was often distracted....not focusing on the hymn and the object of the hymn, but on the pianist and what she was doing. I love piano and will often put on a YouTube video of Horowitz playing Rachmaninov or Chopin. I like not only to hear but to watch. There's nothing wrong with that but when I'm worshipping God and singing a collective hymn my focus shouldn't be on the music.

Even the congregation we recently attended was starting to fall into the trap. It's easy to do. They used a simple keyboard placed in the rear of the auditorium. Again, I appreciate the thought though I still disagree. But I noticed as time went on, when we would sing the last stanza the pianist would cease to play the melody and just hit the chords...changing the mood...kind of a feeling a drama, grand finality as we ended the hymn.

Again, no big deal. It's not something to get upset about or leave a Church over. But, it all points to questions regarding the Sufficiency of Scripture with regard to our gatherings and worship. Because if the ambiance being created by the chords was okay, then why not the rolling scales by the professional pianist? And if that's okay, then why not an orchestra? And if that's okay, under either the argument of Old Testament continuity or even just a sanction of innovation....aren't candles okay too? If an attempt to create ambiance is valid, if we can employ means to create a mood, if this aids our worship...then why not go further? I sure would.

I recall another time having this discussion with a pastor of a Bible Church. He insisted the candles they used were not part of the worship. They were just nice incense candles. But then week after week I noticed how they were always lit just before the opening music. I suppose in his mind that was better than having an acolyte march forward and light them, but ceremony or not....they were being used to create an ambiance, a mood....they were trying to augment the worship. And then for him to rail against Catholic innovations...was just absurd. At that point he's in principle agreement, the argument is over degree, style, taste and preference.

[vii] Apparently this is changing as the Church of Christ is starting to lose its identity in the face of cultural pressures. But the congregations I've attended would be in accord with what I'm presenting here.

[viii] In fact I would argue it's pretty much inconceivable that the New Testament Church met without having Communion. It was a central part of their meeting. Centuries of theological missteps have led most Protestants to a position of infrequent communion.

[ix] I think they also exhibit a Rationalistic strain in their ecclesiology and how that plays out in terms of salvation. They reject the dynamic, dialectical structure of New Testament ecclesiology when it comes to the Already-Not Yet and typical of Baptistic theology they wish to create an Eschatological Church in the pre-consummate era. Some of this comes from the fact that the movement arose during the revivalist (experiential v. means) era of the 2nd Great Awakening which also generated many other sects....most less worthy than the Stone-Campbell movement.

[x] There's some interesting lectures available online about the relationship between the Stone-Campbell movement and the Mennonite theology of John Yoder.


cal said...

Ive been wrestling over this and the use of tradition. Tradition is not authoritative but a helpful aid in thinking through the issues.

Im inclined to allow things like candles or instruments, not as an act of worship or something sacred, but a common liturgy by culture. I cant expect every congregation to look the same by some autocratic conformity, like Rome.
The central elements of worship are sacraments of word and supper. I think the ethos of the Reform is not to destroy but purge when those things become more than an assist and become the means of worship. When the liturgy becomes a binding coord, just like traditional creeds and confessions. In my opinion for many congregations need that purge because the music has become the very means (most places call it strictly worship!)

Protoprotestant said...

I agree that cultures can vary in how they 'do' worship. That is to say, the circumstances of worship will differ depending on context.

However, some things overlap....there are some things that may 'seem' contextual but in fact become elemental.

There's not always an objective standard to determine this. Hearts and motives must be checked.

Why? is a question rarely asked. And if it were asked more, then people would be forced to conclude they do many things for the wrong reasons.

In some cases they have not understood Paul's identification of the previous system as weak and beggarly.

In other cases it's the flesh seeking to be pleased.

More often than not, they simply aren't thinking at all.

Obviously candles don't really matter. But as I said it points to larger issues and you can start to see how congregations begin to slip and head down a wrong path.

Many young people come up to pastors and say, "Why can't we have an electric guitar?"

To be quite honest, most pastors don't have answer. They've already crossed the line in terms of the principle. Now it just becomes an argument about style and taste. There can be something to that as well and though I disagree with the piano I'd rather attend a church with a piano than an electric guitar. But in principle they are one and the same.

Cal said...

Right and that's why it's difficult to act with wisdom. Luther kept many practices, contra the Reformed, out of respect for those who struggled to understand or leave them.

In one sense, there are aesthetics that are wired to who we are as material creatures. In another sense, it's idolatry. I mean in reference to liturgical practices.

It's all difficult because in one sense, I don't think either group (piano or electric guitar) are in the wrong for using them. However, when these become the means (as in the worship is considered deficient), then they need to be thrown in a fire and purged.

Ultimately it comes down to asking: what does worshiping God in spirit and truth really mean?

I'm not sure I really know. However, when it comes down to it, I think its important not to be consumed on this issue. The Lord desires mercy, not sacrifice; we can get carried away.

Protoprotestant said...


In the end it is the heart that really matters.

While on the one hand in terms of a principle...I can be pretty severe.

Practically speaking I go much further than many would. I've attended many an Anglican service in the past, as well as Lutheran etc...

These issues are not the essence of the Gospel but they are errors, and they open doors which can lead to bigger errors.

I'm not hedging and saying just because it leads to something else, we need to erect a wall. That would be equally wrong.

I'm agreeing with you that in the end a hyper-focus on these issues can become harmful. To me they become harmful when we start to not see the forest through the trees.

That said, it's one thing to put up with things/additions/errors for the sake of charity.

It's something else when you're being compelled.

For example if you were a piano player, but didn't think it belonged in church and your local congregation was lacking a player....what would you do? The pressure on you would be intense.

That's where I would say no, and I would resent the fact that it was being asked and pushed on me.

Same thing with choirs for instance. A friend of mine who has a nice voice was once pressured to join the fledgling and struggling choir. He refused out of principle.

Next thing you knew they were questioning his Christianity and berating him for 'wasting' talents and 'selfishly' refusing to 'serve' the Kingdom.

In that case black becomes white and white becomes black.

Actually I didn't mean to focus so much on the issue of instruments. What I wanted to do was use an issue that Restorationists have historically taken a look at and discuss why and how we get there.

Though we disagree a bit on this point I think our mutual understand of the real issues wouldn't present a problem if we were in a church setting. You know what I mean?

And as always, thanks for you comments. Always challenging and insightful and thus helpful. You provoke me(in a good way) more often than you might realize.