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?
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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.”
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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.