Erasing Arguments for Using Instrumental Music in Worship: Psalm & Psallo
Author’s Note: The arguments discussed in this and other blog posts of similar nature may be found in many different books. I wish to thank all those who have gone before who have debated and upheld the truth concerning these questions. Much of the following information can be found in Foy E. Wallace’s book, The Instrumental Music Question. For a much more thorough discussion, I encourage you to study this book yourself.
As we come to the third major argument for the usage of instrumental music in worship to the Lord, we will deal with the “Psalm/Psallo” argument.
The Psalm Argument
It goes like this:
- The word "psalm" in 1 Corinthians 14:26 refers to the Old Testament Psalms,
- The Old Testament Psalms were played with musical instruments,
- Therefore we may use mechanical instruments today.
There are a couple of problems with this argument.
- The major premise is not true. The “psalm” is not a reference to the Old Testament Psalms.
- Those making this claim would also have to prove the following:
- Which psalms were specifically referenced in 1 Corinthians 14,
- That those psalms were actually played with instruments
- Which instrument was played with each psalm (cf. Psalm 81:2; 149:3)
How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.(1 Corinthians 14:26)
This verse is in the middle of a passage discussing miraculous types of teaching. It seems quite clear that the "psalm" mentioned here is a miraculous psalm, given by direct revelation from God. Matthew Henry says concerning this Psalm:
You are apt to confound the several parts of worship; and, while one has a psalm to utter by inspiration, another has a doctrine, or revelation...
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown explain this psalm as
a psalm--extemporary, inspired by the Spirit, as that of Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna (Luk 1:46-55, 67-79; 2:34-38)"
In the context of this passage, we see that the early Christians were not using God’s gifts appropriately. But the point for us is that the psalm mentioned is clearly one of these miraculous things. Therefore, this passage has nothing to do with using musical instruments. But even supposing it did, proponents of this musical instruments in worship would still have to prove which exact psalms were being sung, and prove that those specific psalms were sung with instruments. This is something they have never proven.
In addition to this, when viewed in light of the discussion of "voices," the overall passage is clearly discussing the usage of the voice, not instruments (see vs. 9-11). I dare not base my salvation on something as unclear and unreliable as this weak argument.
And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. (Romans 14:23)
The "Psallo" Argument
Much could be written, and much has been written on this argument in the past (Please see M. C. Kurfees' book on this subject for a full examination of this, as well as the Boswell/Hardeman discussion.) What follows is a short, very general overview of the argument.
The argument is based upon some Hebrew and Greek words, namely the Hebrew word zamar, and the Greek words ψάλλω (psallō) and ψαλμός (psalmos). It is claimed that these words carry within them the idea of playing a mechanical instrument. And since these words are found in the New Testament, musical instruments are therefore authorized by God, according to the argument.
Now, before we examine this argument, let us look at the reasoning behind it and what is disregarded in the process.
One flaw in this reasoning is that because a word meant one thing at a certain time in history, that word never changed in meaning, and still means the same thing that it once did.
We might as well conclude, therefore, that since the word “gay” at one time meant happy, that every single homosexual living today is happy. This is a logical conclusion using that same reasoning. If not, why not?
If a sermon was preached about “gay Christians” in the 1940s, we would have understood that the word referenced meant "happy," and we would condone that sermon. However, if we heard a sermon in 2016 about “gay Christians,” it would certainly be condemned. Why? Because the word "gay" has changed in meaning, and no longer means "happy."
This really is a simple and silly argument, and one that also completely disregards how the first-century Christians understood this word. When they heard Paul commanding them with the word psallō, they sang. They understood this word exactly according to their everyday language. And their reaction to the psallō command was to sing.
But now it seems that folks 2,000 years later understand the word better than the first-century Greek speakers did! Two thousand years from now, if the world is still standing, someone might argue that since "gay" at one point meant happy, then homosexuality is the true path to happiness. But we know better. Why? Because we understand that that word has changed, and in our modern language it does not lead to true happiness.
It is worth mentioning that in Classical Greek, the words psallō and psalmos did carry the connotation of instrumental accompaniment. But as we have already shown, just because the word once had that meaning, this does not mean that it still had that meaning in New Testament times.
By the time of the New Testament, the Greek language had evolved into the form of Greek which is known as Koine Greek, and many aspects of the language changed, including this word psallō.
So does this word carry with it the idea of mechanical instruments of music? Notice what Thayer's Greek Lexicon has to say about it:
“Psallo: (a) to pluck off, pull out. (b) to cause to vibrate by touching, to twang; to touch or strike the chord, to twang the strings of a musical instrument so that they gently vibrate; to play on a stringed instrument, to play the harp: to sing to music of the harp;in the New Testament to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praise of God in song. James 5:13.”
Sophocles, who made a special study of the meaning of Greek words from B.C. 146 to A.D. 1100 (a time period which includes the time when the New Testament was written), gives psallō only one meaning, viz. “To chant, sing religious songs.”
Additionally, if this word actually meant "to play a mechanical instrument," why didn't the church include them in worship from the beginning? Why did 600 years pass before the first instruments were introduced, in the Roman Catholic Church?
Historically, instruments were not introduced into worship for hundreds of years after the New Testament was written. Let's take a look at some of this history.
1. The American Cyclopedia
“Pope Vitalian is related to have first introduced organs into some of the churches of Western Europe, about 670; but the earliest trustworthy account is that of the one sent as a present by the Greek Emperor, Constantine Copronymus to Pepin, king of the Franks, in 755.” Vol. 12, p. 688.
2. Chambers Encyclopedia
“The organ is said to have been first introduced into church music by Pope Vitalian 1 in 666. In 757, a great organ was sent as a present to Pepin by the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine Copronymus, and placed in the church of St. Corneille at Compiegne. Soon after Charlemagne‟s time organs became common.” Vol. 7, p. 112.
3. Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia
“In the Greek church the organ never came into use. But after the eighth century it became more and more common in the Latin church; not, however, without opposition from the side of the monks. * * * The Reform Church discarded it; and though the church of Basel very early introduced it, it was in other places admitted only sparingly and after long hesitation.” Vol. 2, p. 1702.
4. Fessenden's Encyclopedia
1. “Vocal Music. This species, which is the most natural, may be considered to have existed before any other. It was continued by the Jews and it is the only kind that is permitted in the Greek and Scotch churches or with few exceptions, in dissenting congregations in England. The Christian rule requires its use both for personal and social edification. Eph. v, Col. iii. The vocal music of the imperial choristers in St. Petersburg incomparably surpasses in sweetness and effect the sounds produced by the combined power of the most exquisite musical instrument.
2. Instrumental music is also of very ancient date, its invention being ascribed to Tubal, the sixth descendant from Cain. That instrumental music was not practiced by the primitive Christians, but was an aid to devotion of later times, is evident from church history.” P. 852, Art. Music.
5. London Encyclopedia
“Pope Vitalianus in 658 introduced the organ into the Roman churches to accompany the singers. Leo II in 682 reformed the singing of the psalms and hymns, accommodating the intonation of them to the manner in which they are sung, or performed at the present day.” Vol. 15, p. 280, Art. Music.
6. Encyclopedia by J. Newton Brown (Baptist)
“That instrumental music was not practiced by the primitive Christians, but was an aid to devotion of later times, is evident from church history.”
7. Neander's Church History
“From the French church proceeded the use of the organ, the first musical instrument used in the church.” Vol. 3, p. 1
Psallō and the Scholars
Now, it is not my intent to give you every single scholar from all the world, throughout all history, that ever concerned themselves with this word. But we shall list a few. We note these individuals, not to say that they are the authority, but rather to show that, historically, the consensus has overwhelmingly been that instruments were not included in the word psallō.
1. O. A. Carr, in a letter to J. S. Warlick, Jan. 31, 1898:
“As in the Old Testament the word circumcision was used to mean that which was outward in the flesh, but in the New Testament the very same word is used in contrast with its Old Testament use and refers to that which takes place in the heart, so the word psallo in the old covenant—literally, to twang, or pluck a string got to mean to play a musical instrument, designating the instrumental accompaniment; but in the New Testa-ment the very same word is used in contrast with its Old Testa-ment use and refers to that which takes place in the heart.”
2. I. B. Grubbs, Prof. in the college of Bible, at Lexington, Ky., for a number of years, in a letter to J. W. Perkins, March 18, 1893:
“Dear Brother Perkins: — Your last was received a day or two since. Excuse my replying with pencil. I have no pen just at hand. You ask whether psallo, in Eph. 5:19, implies the use of instruments. I answer that if it does, the primitive church though guided by the apostles, disregarded their positive instructions, and that church continued to do so for eight hundred years; that only when it had pretty thoroughly apostatized did it obey the apostles‟ instructions in this particular. Can we believe that the apostles would lay a duty upon the church and require it themselves and allow the churches which they founded to do the same, and yet never obey it or ask others to do so? If the word psallo in the passage referred to, implies the use of instruments, then it is clear from the passage that such a use becomes a duty, and not a mere expedient or allowable privilege. What proves too much proves nothing.
3. M. C. Kurfees, Louisville, KY, one of the greatest logicians of modern times, in a letter to J. S. Dunn in 1893:
“Sophocles and Thayer, in their lexicons, show clearly that in the New Testament psallo never had a meaning that will allow the use of a musical instrument. They define the word for this period by terms that not only leave the instrument out, but actually exclude the instrument.”
4. J. W. McGarvey, who was for years Professor of Sacred History and Evidences in College of the Bible, Kentucky University, and Editor of Biblical criticisms on Christian Standard, published at Cincinnati, to G. W. Bonham in 1897:
“Dear Sir and Brother: At a recent public investigation of the song service in the church it was claimed that the Greek word psallo, when properly rendered, authorizes the use of instruments in the song service. Will you be kind enough to give me the authorities, the testimony of two or three standard lexicons, as well as your own opinion as a Greek scholar? I would be pleased to have your reply in your own hand, and I request you to please return this note along with your reply.
Your brother in Christ,
G. W. Bonham.”
“Dear Brother: The Greek word psallo originally meant to touch, then to twang a bowstring, or play a bow stringed instru-ment with the fingers, as in the expression: „Touch my light guitar. ‟ It meant to play a harp, and finally to sing. You can find this gradual progress in the use of the word in the Greek lexicons generally, and especially in Liddell and Scott, though in the last the latest meaning given is: „To sing to a harp. ‟ Sophocles, who gives the meaning of the Greek words from B. C. 146 to A. D. 1100, which includes only the latter use of the language, gives psallo only one meaning: „To chant, to sing religious songs. ‟ No first-class scholar or translator in the range of my knowledge takes the position of which you inquire.
J. W. McGarvey.”
This able critic, some years before this, concludes his answer to a similar query in the following words:
“This evidence derives additional force from the consideration that although in respect to both faith and practice the churches fell rapidly into corruption after the death of the apostles, their practice in this particular was so firmly fixed that they continued to worship without the use of instruments of music for about seven hundred years.
Nearly every item of the old Jewish ritual and the old pagan ritual which now helps to make up the ceremonial of the Roman Church was introduced before the return to the discarded use of instrumental music. The first organ certainly known to have been used in a church was put into the cathedral at Aix-la-Chapel by the German emperor, Charlemagne, who came to the throne in the year 768. So deposes Prof. Hauck, of Germany, in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, which you can find in some preacher‟s library in your vicinity.
The same learned author declares that its use met with great opposition among Romanists, especially from the monks, and that it made its way but slowly into common use. So great was this opposition even as late as the sixteenth century that he says it would probably have been abolished by the Council of Trent but for the influence of the emperor, Ferdinand. This council met in 1545.
Thus we see that this innovation was one of the latest that crept into the Roman apostasy, and that it was so unwelcome even there that a struggle of about eight hundred years was necessary to enable it to force its way to universal acceptance. The Lutheran Church and the church of England brought it with them out of Romanism; all other Protestant churches started in their course of reform without it, and so continued until within the present century; while the Greek Church and Armenian Church, both more ancient than the Roman Church, still continue to reject it.
“To sum up these arguments, you can now see that this practice is one of recent origin among Protestant churches, adopted by them from the Roman apostasy; that it was one of the latest corruptions adopted by that corrupt body; that a large part of the religious world has never accepted it; that, though employed in the Jewish ritual, it was deliberately laid aside by the inspired men who organized the church of Christ; and that several precepts of the New Testament implicitly condemn it.”
5. Silas Jones, of Eureka (IL) College, to W. J. Roberts, Ripley, lA, Jan. 8, 1908:
“My Dear Brother: President Hieronymus has asked me to answer your question in your letter of December 23, 1907. Thayer‟s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines psallo thus: (a) to pluck off, pull out; (b) to cause to vibrate by touching, to twang, to touch or strike the cord, to twang the strings of a musical instrument so that they will vibrate gently; and absolutely, to play on an instrument, to play the harp. In the New Testament—TO SING A HYMN, TO CELEBRATE THE PRAISES OF GOD IN SONG.
There is no command in the New Testament to use instruments of music in worship, and there is no command not to use them.
Very truly yours,
6. Sherman Kirk, of Drake University, Des Moines, lA, to W. G. Roberts, Dec. 25, 1907:
“My Dear Sir: Your letter to the president of the university was handed to me to answer. The word psallo means, primarily, to cause to vibrate by touching; to twang; to touch or strike the cord; and in the New Testament it means to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praise of God in song. (Jas. 5:13). This is taken from Thayer's Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament. I think the New Testament does not authorize instrumental music by the word psallo or psalmois, or any other word.
(Remember Silas Jones and Sherman Kirk represented schools run by our brethren who use the instruments. They certainly would have said something in its favor if they could).
7. Thomas Aquinas
Surnamed the Angelic Doctor, one of the most learned scholastic doctors produced by the church of Rome in the thirteenth century, and a voluminous writer, says: “Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize.” Bingham‟s Ant., Vol. 3, p. 137.
8. Erasmus (Desiderius)
A contemporary of Martin Luther and the most renowned classical scholar of his age, who is represented by high authority as “the most gifted and industrious pioneer of modern scholarship” says:
“We have brought into our churches certain operatic and theatrical music; such a confused, disorderly chattering of some words as I hardly think was ever in any of the Grecian or Roman theatres. The church rings with the noise of trumpets, pipes, and dulcimers; and human voices strive to bear their part with them. Men run to church as to a theatre, to have their ears tickled. And for this end organ makers are hired with great salaries, and a company of boys, who waste all their time in learning these whining tones.” Com. on I Cor. 14:19.
9. John Calvin
The founder of the Presbyterian denomination, says:
“Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, and the restoration of the 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 apostles is far more pleasing to him. Paul allows us to bless God in the public assembly of the saints, only in a known tongue (I Cor. 14:16) * * * What shall we then say of chanting, which fills the ears with nothing but an empty sound?” Com. on Psa. xxxiii.
10. Theodore Beza
The great Genevan scholar and translator, who was a friend and coadjutor of Calvin, says: “If the apostle justly prohibits the use of unknown tongues in the church, much less would he have tolerated these artificial musical performances which are addressed to the ear alone, and seldom strike the understanding even of the performers them-selves.” Girardeau's Ins. Music, p. 166.
11. Joseph Bingham
The well known author of “Antiquities of the Christian Church” and said to be one of the most learned men the Church of England has ever produced, says: “Music in churches is as ancient as the apostles, but instrumental music not so.” Works, Vol. 3, p. 137.
12. Lyman Collman
An accurate scholar and Presbyterian author, says:
“The tendency of this (instrumental music) was to secularize the music of the church, and to encourage singing by a choir. Such musical accompaniments were gradually introduced; but they can hardly be assigned to a period earlier than the fifth and sixth centuries. Organs were unknown in church until the eighth or ninth century. Previous to this, they had their place in the theater, rather than in the church. They were never regarded with favor in the Eastern church, and were vehemently opposed in many places in the West.” Primitive Church, pp. 376, 377.
13. Prof. John Girardeau
A Presbyterian and Professor in Columbia Theological Seminary, says:
“The church, although lapsing more and more into defection from the truth and into a corruption of apostolic practice, had no instrumental music for 1, 200 years (that is it was not in general use before this time); * * * the Calvinistic Reformed Church ejected it from its services as an element of popery, even the Church of England having come very nigh to its extrusion from her worship * * * It is heresy in the sphere of worship.” Instrumental Music, p. 179.
14. John Wesley
“I have no objection to the instruments being in our chapels, provided they are neither seen nor heard.”
15. Adam Clark (Methodist)
An author of a very good commentary:
“I am an old man, and I here declare that I never knew them to be productive of any good in the worship of God, and have reason to believe that they are productive of much evil. Music is a science I esteem and admire, but instrumental 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 corruption of the worship of the author of Christianity.”
16. Charles H. Spurgeon
One of the greatest men the Baptists have ever produced:
“Praise the Lord with the 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. They would hinder rather than help our praise. Sing unto him. This is the sweetest and best music. No instrument like the human voice.” Comments on Psa. 42:4.
“David appears to have had a peculiarly tender remembrance of the singing of the pilgrims, and assuredly it is the most delightful part of worship and that which comes nearest to the adoration of heaven. What a degradation to supplant the intelligent song of the whole congregation by the theatrical prettiness of a quartet, bellows, and pipes! We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it.”
17. Alexander Campbell
One of the most powerful scholars in the Restoration of Primitive Christianity:
“The argument drawn from the Psalms in favor of instrumental music is exceedingly apposite to the Roman Catholic, English Protestant, and Scotch Presbyterian Churches, and even to the Methodist communities. Their churches have all the world in them—that is, all the fleshly progency of all the communicants; and being founded on the Jewish pattern of things—baptism being given to all born into the world of these politico-ecclesiastic communities —I wonder not, then, that an organ, a fiddle, or a Jew‟s harp, should be requisite to stir up their carnal hearts, and work into ecstasy their animal souls, else hosannas languish on their tongues, and their devotions die. * * * And that all persons who have no spiritual discernment, taste, or relish for their spiritual meditations, consolations, and sympathies of renewed hearts, should call for such aids is but natural * * * So to those who have no real devotion or spirituality in them, and whose animal nature flags under the oppression of church service, I think that in-strumental music would be not only a desideratum, but an es-sential prerequisite to fire up their souls to even animal devo-tion. But I presume, to all spiritually-minded Christians such aids would be as a cow bell in a concert.” (Millennial Harbinger, 1851, page 581).
18. Isaac Errett
In Harbinger of 1861:
“That melody in the heart is the great end to be sought, and that artistic excellence is only valuable as may conduct to that end. That the highest artistic skill in sacred music has somehow been generally associated with the lowest spiritual culture, and has been far more promotive of sensuous than of spiritual attractions. That the genius of this reformatory movement, like that of previous reformations, is not favorable to choir singing and instrumental music. Its sympathies are with bewildered and sin-oppressed masses, and it wants „music for the million. ‟ Its original power will be largely lost when the stirring melodies of its early days shall have been supplanted by stately artistic performances. As the church of Christ is the common home of all his people — „Barbarian, Scythian, bond and free, ‟ who are all one in Christ Jesus—and as singing is the only part of worship in which the great mass of Christians can personally participate, no choir singing or instrumental music should ever be allowed to interfere for a moment with this privilege and right of the saints.”
Again, we are quoting these individuals, not to say that they are the authority, but rather to show that historically the consensus has overwhelmingly been that instruments were not included in the definition of the word word psallō.
A logical dilemma concerning this argument
- 1. If one says the mechanical instrument is essential to obedience in this command, then he would be forced to admit that we are sinning in not using them. But proponents of musical instruments do not go that far—indeed, they claim that our practice is right, and that we do not have to use instruments.
- However, if someone says that the instrument is not essential to obedience to the command in Eph. 5:19, then down goes the contention that the word psalmos (translated "psalm"), contains the idea of instrumental accompaniment.
No one can logically believe that the word carries with it the essential idea of the mechanical instrument, and then argue that it is not essential to use mechanical instruments.
The "instrumental" brethren are asking me to disregard the historical testimony, throw out both history and logic, and simply overlook it. They tell me not to trust in the words of men (which is a correct idea), but then ask me to trust their own meager interpretations and studies, and conclude with them that instrumental music is authorized by the word psallō.
But God still says:
Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.
He does not say “assert some things, and hope that it is all good.” God still says:
And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
Shall I take some man’s word over God’s? I cannot; thus, I clearly see that God is pleased by my singing, and there is nothing proven that allows me to use the instrument. Certainly the word psallō does not accomplish this.
Come back next time as we conclude “The Psallō Argument” by showing that the instrument God wants us to use is named: The heart!