Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Music of the Early Church

Ryan Martin points the way to some paradigm-shifting observations.


Bruce McKanna said...

I purchased and greatly enjoyed Greenberg's How to Listen to and Understand Great Music course last year. If you are a fan of classical music as I am, it is an excellent way to learn more about it.

While I do not debate his points, I am wondering at how early his "early church" is. I have to admit that I am not familiar with any writings of the Fathers on music, but Greenberg's points clearly are not taken from the first century, and are obviously also extra-biblical principles.

It is worth noting that the principles he mentions are consistent with and perhaps led to Gregorian chant. Is that where we think we should be?

Also, how do the "no choirs" and "no instruments" rules fit with the Old Testament?

One more thing... should we go to more minor key songs because the early centuries of the church thought them to be more appropriate, even though our culture hears major keys as being more positive? Or can we acknowledge at least some level of cultural relativism?

Ben said...


I think your observations are valid, particularly the possibility of some cultural relativism and the extra-biblical nature of Greenberg's observations.

The OT question is interesting. I think we need to pause before we import too much of the OT system into our church practices, not so much because of dispensational presuppositions as because of how little emphasis Acts and the epistles place on music. I'm not denying it's place, simply questioning whether it is far too great a priority today.

That's where I think this article challenges our paradigms. So much of the debate in the "worship wars" has focused on musical style without asking the more foundational question: Where should music fit in the priorities of today's church.

My opinion is that all camps--from traditional to contemporary--tend to make it far too high a priority. I think Greenberg's observations help us reconsider that foundational question, regardless of what we determine about appropriate styles in the context of changing cultural forms.

Bruce McKanna said...

In evaluating OT worship patterns, for me the primary question is, "Did Christ fulfill this?" Thus we can easily do away with sacrifices, priest, and temple (not that they are gone, mind you, just that Christ is all these things to us as New Covenant people). I don't see Christ's fulfillment in such things as choirs, musical instruments, and dancing in worship, but then again, none of these were ever prescribed in the Pentateuch. We see the Psalms calling for them (and we do not want to undervalue their exhortations), but I can still say that we can make some allowances for cultural differences. We may not raise our hands in prayer, and we may not use a lyre, but I have a hard time with someone who says that we can't do those things or something similar that is culturally appropriate.

I suppose one could argue that choirs, musical instruments, and dancing were okay for the Old Testament Israelites, but not for the Greeks of the first century because it was too closely associated with the worldly culture around them. The problem here is that we can see examples of pagan dancing and holy dancing almost side by side in the OT. See the song and dance of Miriam in Exodus 15:20-21 (note the percussion instruments) and the revelry at the golden calf in 32:19. It doesn't seem like the Israelites were unaware of the profane possibilities of dancing (and presumably, rhythmic instrumentation).

Lest you wonder, we don't dance in our church, and drums only make an appearance a few times a year, but even though I don't think it's the best way, I also don't want to make something wrong that isn't. So I guess I'm wondering if those "early church" principles mentioned weren't making too much of a distinction. They just sound a little closer to Catholic than apostolic practice to my ears.

But I agree with you, our culture and our time makes music far more prominant than it should be.