Instruments in Worship?

Tony Sig

One of my favorite bloggers is an Eastern Orthodox priest in Cuba.  OrthoCuban spent some time as an Anglican missionary but eventually made his way into the Eastern tradition.  This previous experience, including his “western” and “protestant” theological education makes for his presentations of Orthodoxy to be intelligible to Evangelical ears.

He recently wrote a multi-part series( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)  on why the Orthodox do not use instruments in worship.  I have to admit to sneaking away to Eastern churches when I get a chance.  The Divine Liturgy truly does provoke one to awe and gratitude to the Creator (does anyone know of a parish that does a Rite I sung Eucharist? I’d like to come visit).  Which is why my own response should be seen as deeply sympathetic to what Tradition has wrought in the East.

Despite this sympathy, I found myself disagreeing with the theological justifications provided for the ‘superiority’ of instrument’less worship.  Of course Fr. Ernesto never uses this phrase, but it could possibly be implied by the fact – which demonstrates his theological integrity I think – that he never says instruments should be banned; just that acapella worship is more ancient (which in Eastern Orthodox terms means better 😉 ) and should therefore be preferred.

Questions on the Early Church

Fr. Ernesto points to some of the Church Fathers to make his point.  Though certainly the Fathers travel along a trajectory, they are not monolithic.  Several of the quotes, both in the Early Church and in the Reformers make what seems to me to be an important reason why they do not use instruments in worship.  A reason that does not, it seems to me, remain morally relevant in most contexts of which we here blogging might be a part of.  The bolded sections are my own highlights.

“ST. THOMAS AQUINAS: “Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize.” (Thomas Aquinas, Bingham’s Antiquities, Vol. 3, page 137)” – I know, he’s not an early Father but he is used as an example

ST. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO: “Musical instruments were not used. The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.” (Augustine 354 A.D., describing the singing at Alexandria under Athanasius, yes THAT Athanasius.)

JEAN CAUVIN (JOHN CALVIN): “Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, the restoration of other shadows of the law.”

CLEMENT “Leave the pipe to the shepherd, the flute to the men who are in fear of gods and intent on their idol worshipping

And the list could go on.  But here we see that for them, musical instruments were associated with Judaism and the idol worship of the pagan temples. We no longer directly associate the use of instruments with either of these, neither do we associate them with immorality.  Then, could we perhaps rightfully ask whether or not this interpretive paradigm need hold to infinity?

*          *          *          *

There is another reason often used in some Fathers, and is used several times throughout Fr. Ernesto’s posts, both by himself and by a guest contributer in the 5th post, which it seems to me is an improper dichotimization between the “spiritual” and the “worldly” or the “flesh” or the “man-made’edness” of instruments.

The writers I am going to point to are not speaking about ‘musical instruments’ at all.  But they are very concerned with how our contingent and even ‘fleshly’ world and history are the necessary grounds for growth and sanctification; made so by the Incarnation of Jesus.

I am not going to pretend to reconcile the two emphasis’.  In fact I think that the two strains have been obvious in Christian tradition from very early and it persists to the present day.  I’m not going to pit “biblical” spirituality vs “platonic” spirituality.  I want the Catholic tradition, and so I choose not to choose…

“Flesh” vs “Spirit” – the false dichotomy

The arguments I have often heard for “Gregorian” vs “Folk,” “Instruments” vs “Not,” “Contemporary” vs “Traditional Hymns”  etc… to infinity, is that one “feeds the spirit/soul” and one is “fleshly,” such as dancing (except in those cultures where it’s not) or drums/guitar/organ/piano/etc…

We see have seen this in many  comments from our faithful Roman Catholic commentator Quickbeamoffangorn to some of the Church Fathers:

CHRYSOSTOM “David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. He had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre with a different tone indeed but much more in accordance with piety. Here there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body. For when the flesh no longer lusts against the Spirit, but has submitted to its orders and has been led at length into the best and most admirable path, then will you create a spiritual melody.” (Chrysostom, 347-407, Exposition of Psalms 41, (381-398 A.D.) Source Readings in Music History, ed. O. Strunk, W. W. Norton and Co.: New York, 1950, pg. 70.) – certainly one of my favorite Fathers

CLEMENT “Leave the pipe to the shepherd, the flute to the men who are in fear of gods and intent on their idol worshipping. Such musical instruments must be excluded from our wingless feasts, for they arc more suited for beasts and for the class of men that is least capable of reason than for men. The Spirit, to purify the divine liturgy from any such unrestrained revelry chants: ‘Praise Him with sound of trumpet,” for, in fact, at the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise again (ah, St. Clement’s famous allegorical interpretations used to get around the inconvenience of texts he didn’t like)…

The general thrust is that it is the “soul/spirit” that is toward God and the “flesh/physical” that needs to be suppressed in order to become more sanctified or whatever.

This could be a result of “platonic” influence, it could be a misunderstanding of St. Paul’s use of “spirit” and “flesh;” whatever it is I think that two core Christian doctrines in particular contradict drawing the hard and fast line between the two.  Let us examine (briefly) these two doctrines, especially in light of two particular Church fathers.  I believe that by looking at them, and looking at “spirituality” in light of them, may overcome this problem.

In St. Irenaeus and St. Ignatius, we get a different sort of theological anthropology.  St. Irenaeus in particular I think, because of the nature of his works, lays out a Scriptural story that is among the greatest of all the Fathers.  In their works, both in the picture (quite Pauline) in Ignatius of Christ’s work being perfected in his suffering and martyrdom, and of the physicality and historical contingency of the Incarnation in Irenaeus against early ‘gnosticism,’ we see how in fact, salvation is not the imparting of ‘spiritual’ information, nor of the taking up of our ‘soul’ to ‘heaven;’ but spiritual growth and sanctification, even ‘salvation,’ is given shape by the humanity of Christ, both in the union of God with Humanity (Irenaeus) and the physical sufferings of Christ (Ignatius).  No body/soul, physical/spiritual dichotomy here.

Besides the Incarnation, we mights also point to the Resurrection.  Jesus is not raised a spirit/soul, gladly rid of his ‘flesh;’ instead Christ is raised, bodily and transformed,  ‘physical’ enough that his wounds are still visible and he is able to eat.  The picture in the NT is that of New Creation.  What God had made good, and which had been distorted, will be remade, his ‘realm’ and our ‘world’ will be united, and the picture of salvation as such is one of incorruptible physicality.  In Eastern language, even Theosis will involve the physical.

Indeed, I hope I’m not the only one to see the deep irony of an Eastern Orthodox Christian protesting the use of “man made” items to enrich/enhance worship.  The same people, after all, who are absolutely passionate about Icons for prayer and worship!

I hope I might be forgiven for appearing to go off the topic of music for a moment.  But I think it is important because of the emphasis in the posts, that “man made” instruments somehow make for less “spiritual” worship.  Because, of course songs are “man made.”  We create songs by verse and music, a skill or craft.  Perhaps, if songs are “man made” we should do away with them as well and focus on the “spiritual.”  Where does the line fall and who says where the line is?

Voice as “Catholic” Instrument

In the fifth post, Mr. Nathan Speir says this:

“3) The voice is a Catholic instrument. Their is no other man-made instrument that maintains a historical or cultural universality as the voice. Really, the creation of other man made instruments has many diverse mythologies, histories, and applications. Choosing additional instruments for the Church simply interrupts the Catholicity of the Church.”

I wanted to touch on this as a last point.  To what extent should “Catholicity” be pushed to mean “uniformity?”  Catholicity has much more to do with being united to Christ, and perhaps united to the Bishop, perhaps being united by common worship (though there are “Western Rite” Eastern Orthodox, etc…), but united by the use of the same instruments?  I would need to see that more clearly in Scripture and Tradition before I conceded to what seems to me to be an arbitrary line.  I mean no offense by that, but this is the same line of thinking that “Latin only” Roman Catholics use and it is one I have never felt squared with the reality of natural and unpurposeful diversity in the Christian body.

I wonder why stop there?  Why not use the same melodies?  Melodies are just as “historical” and “cultural” as an instrument inasmuch as they are constructed or “man made.”

*          *          *          *

If then, the Church Fathers had various reasons for not endorsing instruments in worship, and if an instrument being “man made” is no obstacle to theosis (or “spirituality” or whatever), and if Catholicity is more about Christ than it is about arbitrary lines of uniformity; then I wonder if perhaps one “doth protest too much” about instruments.

Peace Father Ernesto.



  1. “The Divine Liturgy truly does provoke one to awe and gratitude to the Creator (does anyone know of a parish that does a Rite I sung Eucharist? I’d like to come visit).”

    Ours does, at 8:00 am every Sunday, and it is only a short drive. ;0)


  2. Great essay, thank you. A few thoughts:

    Concerning Stumbling Blocks

    Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
    — 1 Cor 8:9

    I have heard this quoted against instruments in service also. The implication was that instruments, as Augustine rightly stated (and it still applies today), in secular life are often associated with “wild revelries and shameless performances”. And there are theories of music linking its development in humans to sexual attraction instincts much as songs in birds. So at its base, music is “fleshy”.

    I had to look up “stumbling block” and was humored to find this Leviticus passage and could only imagine nasty little town urchins in Israel playing evil little jokes on the blind folks walking through town. So to stop such tomfoolery, God decide to make a law about it.

    Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.
    -Leviticus 19:14

    Concerning “Fleshy”
    OK, this may seem like a weird question, but have any of you ever experienced ‘astral projection’ — or what someone else would tell you was ‘astral projection’? Any of you ever feel like your spirit left your body? Of course this is begging the question of the separation of the two, but let’s say there is not separation, I could ask, “Have you ever had the illusion of your spirit leaving your body?”

    I think a small percent of the population has this experience at sometime. I wonder if it is genetic predisposition or what? Nonetheless, having the experience, I am sure, would influence one’s philosophy/theology about the issue whether it was illusion or not.

    Finally, you have got me interested in visiting an Eastern Orthodox service. I have never been to one. Thanks.

    I wrote you about the links but you didn’t fix them so I thought I let the other guys know. Your links for your contributors odd. Reeds link goes to Shawn and Shawn does not have a link.
    — Sabio


  3. Sabio,

    Reed’s link works fine. The first post about Shawn was written by him, so it shows up under his authorship.

    Shawn doesn’t have any posts yet as he just joined a couple days ago. When he posts his first post he will get is very own link.

    I do appreciate the concern for our sites integrity though.


  4. I enjoyed your post. It was thoughtful and provided a good “counter” other than simply quoting the psalms and saying that we had the right to do what we wished.

    And, it is a very good point. We now use Yule Logs and Christmas trees and have weekdays that are named after mythological gods and yet do not worry about it (Monday = Moon’s Day; Wednesday = Woden’s Day; Thursday = Thor’s Day, etc.). So, could it be that the cultural changes now permit us to use that which we could not safely use before?

    On the other hand, I must admit that what keep troubling me is the very long list of Christians from every background who opposed instruments for so many centuries. And, I am also troubled by the current movement towards anything goes in worship. (I am here defining worship as just the “praise” or hymns part of Sunday morning.) If anything, some of our contemporary use of multimedia, praise bands, etc., seems to point towards the very dangers about which we were warned.

    I do not have great answers. So, if I err, I tend to err towards a much more “conservative” position on instruments. But, as I commented, some Orthodox parishes use an organ or piano simply as a means to keep the choir on key. Among us they are the strong minority, but they do exist.


  5. Fr. Ernesto,

    Thank you so much for visiting! I thought you were on a blogging hiatus. I do pray that you heal and recover well.

    For the record I don’t endorse anything goes kind of ad hoc “worship services” either. I believe in “lex ordandi lex credendi” and so I think that liturgy should truly be “the work of the people” and not “of the individual”


  6. I agree with your point to a point;>)

    Its not the instrument that is bad, but how the instrument is generally used in a given culture. I think you missed the point when you chose to a false dichotomy btwn the flesh and spirit. The body is not evil, but it does have to be submitted to the spirit. There is a hierarchy within the person. If you permit the body to rule the spirit you in fact lower the human to that of an animal. So I certainly not mean to imply support for a gnostic, but frankly I don’t see how one could read the majority of the monastic movement in either the eastern or western traditions without acknowledging that spiritual growth comes by a health subjecting of ones body in the service of ones spirit in which the whole person is then subject to God’s will.

    The human voice is always an acceptable form or instrument if I may call it that.

    or here with Africa instruments

    However this is totally unacceptable at least during a Catholic liturgy in the modern western world

    for reasons I stated elsewhere.


  7. Quickbeam,

    I know that there is a strain of Tradition that pits “spirit” against the “body.” But I don’t find it in any hierarchical sense anywhere in Scripture. And there are other strains of Tradition which lean toward a more wholistic understanding of the person. Like Irenaeus, Ignatius, Gregory of Nyssa, and even Augustine; each of whom in their own way acknowledge the goodness of the body, or desire or what have you.

    Let me ask you a question. What traits are ‘purely spiritual’ and in what ways is the body opposed to them?


  8. I think perhaps I’m failing to get my point across. The body and spirit are not two separate natures, they are one and I think I’ve left you the impression that I thought it was the former rather then the latter. They are one human nature.

    So to answer you I can’t think of a trait that is either purely spiritual or physical.

    In return why do we fast?


    1. Quickbeam,

      I’m trying to communicate that I have noticed there are several strains in the Christian ascetical tradition. Certainly a predominate vein is that which pits “spirit” against “flesh” or body or whatever. And I understand to a point what that gets at and I agree that there are parts of us that need sanctifying or taming and some of them are physical like lust or what have you.

      So while there are plenty who would say we fast for reasons of purification or training, I tend to agree with the idea that fasting is a response to a traumatic or powerful experience in life and/or with God. That certainly seems to be how it is in Scripture more often than not.

      Let me ask a return question. Even if there is one human nature, how is it that we tend to think of the “spirit” as good, and many of the things wrong with us are physical or merely physical?


  9. Oh,

    And I know that you feel this “dancing” is inappropriate for Western Roman Catholicism, but I was raised with stuff like this. Sure I thought it was cheesy at times, but us Pentecostals never saw anything morally amiss in it.


  10. Oh I don’t care if they want to have it prior to or after the liturgy, but its simply not acceptable during the latin liturgy. The only thing that comes to my mind when I see this is the Blues Brothers. Its not that its morally good or bad its neutral as far as that goes, but I do think the focus is on the human rather then on the Divine when I view it.

    Hats off to those who see the creator in the creature when they view it.


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