Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
January 23, 1969
NUMBER 37, PAGE 1-3,5

Reviewing Tom Burgess' Book — "Documents On Instrumental Music"

Gene Lyles

Mr. Burgess' book, Documents On Instrumental Music, is recommended as one of the most outstanding in defense of instrumental music in Christian worship. Thus it deserves our most careful investigation. If the author proves his point without contradiction or conflict, one has no choice but to accept its conclusion. But if not, it is just another book to confuse people on this important issue. We shall now show that his book does not serve to clarify, but rather serves to confuse the issue under question.


Mr. Burgess introduces his book by quoting a statement made by M. C. Kurfees, an outstanding preacher of years gone by among churches of Christ which do not use instrumental music in worship. Kurfees had written a booklet in which he claimed that the Greek word "psallo" had entirely lost its earlier meanings before the beginning of the N.T. period. The etymology of "psallo" is as follows: "to pluck off pull out, to cause to vibrate by touching, to twang, to touch or strike the chord, to twang the strings, to play on a stringed instrument, to play the harp, to sing to the music of the harp, to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praise of God in song"

As all of us know, words change in their meaning where a language is in use. And as one can see from the etymology of "psallo," a definite change had taken place in its meaning from the time it first begin to be used until the New Testament was written. Kurfees claimed that it was not used in the New Testament or contemporary literature to include its earlier meanings. But in order to get authority for the instrument, Mr. Burgess wanted to go back to an earlier usage of the word, thus he took issue with Kurfees. It seems that the primary burden of Mr. Burgess's book is to disprove Kurfees' statement. But whether Kurfees was right or wrong in this statement is of little consequence. The important thing is what meaning did this Greek word have in the New Testament. One thing is certain! NONE of the major English translations render this word to agree with the position of Mr. Burgess. They do render it to agree with the statement made by Kurfees.

Chapter I

Because the major English translators of the New Testament did not include instrumental accompaniment in their translation of "psallo," Burgess inquired of three major dictionary publishers to see whether they intended to exclude instrumental accompaniment by their rendering the word "psallo" to mean "sing." The unanimous reply was that they did not intend to exclude instrumental accompaniment. From this Burgess concludes that since the dictionary publishers define "psallo" to mean "sing," and yet did not intend to exclude instrumental accompaniment, therefore the translators of the New Testament in rendering the Greek word "psallo" to mean "sing" did not intend to exclude instrumental accompaniment.

Mr. Burgess has just wasted his time here fighting a straw man, for we do not claim that the mere fact of rendering "psallo" to mean "sing" excludes instrumental accompaniment. We simply maintain that the word "sing" does not include it. If instrumental accompaniment had been a necessary part of "psallo," then the translators would have included that as a part of its meaning. Since they didn't, then it becomes an addition when the instrument is added. We claim it is excluded because the Lord nowhere included it. The Lord did not expressly exclude beef steak from the Lord's table. But the two elements He specified did not include it, thus it is excluded because the Lord nowhere authorized it; and it would constitute an addition just as the instrument does when added to the singing.

Also in this section please note this statement from The World Publishing Company — one of the authorities Mr. Burgess quotes on this matter: "They remain 'psalms' in any event, whether accompanied or unaccompanied." Hold this statement in mind, for in the next chapter we are going to see a contradiction between this authority and Mr. Burgess.

Chapter II.

In chapter II of his book, Mr. Burgess appeals to various Greek Lexicons to try to prove that "psallo" had not lost the meaning of instrumental accompaniment when the New Testament was written. He first claims that Thayer's Lexicon conveyed the meaning of instrumental accompaniment because Thayer, under synonyms for "humnos", quotes a statement from Bishop Lightfoot where Mr. Lightfoot indicated that the leading idea of "psalm" in the Old Testament was musical accompaniment. However, Mr. Thayer, in defining the Greek word "psallo" says, "in the New Testament to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praise of God in song." So actually Thayer did not help Mr. Burgess' position, but did give it no end of trouble.

After spending eleven and a half pages trying to explain away Mr. Thayer's New Testament definition of "psallo," Burgess next turns to Trench, whom Mr. Thayer also refers to under synonyms for "humnos," and quotes him as saying, "the song sung with musical accompaniment."He then concludes, "If every particle of doubt has not already been removed as to what Thayer meant by psalmos, Trench does that, and does it conclusively." To Mr. Burgess' satisfaction he proved beyond question that "psallo" means to sing with instrumental accompaniment, and cannot be done without it. Now notice the contradiction. His letter of proof from The World Publishing Company said, "They remain 'psalms' in any event, whether accompanied or unaccompanied." But Mr. Burgess says they must be accompanied. He is now in conflict with one of his authorities. This fallacy is quite noticeable throughout his book.

Before we leave Burgess' section on Greek Lexicons, we would like to notice an argument he makes on Eph. 5:19 to the statement "singing (adontes) and making melody (psallontes) with your heart unto the Lord." Kurfees had claimed that "psallontes" here refers to "touching the chords of the heart," which Burgess only scoffed at. But since Mr. Burgess says that "psallo" necessarily means to sing and play, let us see how he would have to construct this sentence to agree with his position. He would have to render it "singing (adontes) and singing and playing (psallontes) with your hearts unto the Lord." As any clear thinking person can see, Burgess' rendering is completely out of order, and obviously the translators recognized the absurdity of translating this verse as Burgess would have translated it.

Chapter III.

In chapter III of Burgess' book, he quotes various Commentators, Encyclopedists and Grammarians on their definition of "psallo." Needless to say that by following this line, one can prove just about anything on any subject, depending on which author he selects to quote from. One of the authors that Burgess selects is Dr. Robert Young. In his Analytical Concordance Young defines psallo "to sing praises with a musical instrument." But to show the unreliability of Young as a Greek authority, note that he defines the Greek word "baptizo" to mean "to consecrate (by pouring out on, or putting into)." Now is Mr. Burgess ready to use Young as an authority on baptism? If not, then why should he place so much confidence in his definition of "psallo." Other such fallacies could be shown from the other authors he quotes in this section.

Chapter IV.

In chapter IV of his book we come to the section where Mr. Burgess quotes various letters of reply which he received from Professors of Greek language in various Universities. First, let us notice Burgess' letter of inquiry which prompted these replies:

Dear Sir:

I am seeking your expert judgment. In the First Century, did the Greek word Psallo and its noun form Psalmos mean — to sing only, — or did they mean to sing with musical accompaniment? What, in your opinion is its meaning in Ephesians 5:19?

Please observe that Mr. Burgess in his letter did not specify New Testament Greek of the first century. Whether this was intentional or unintentional we cannot say. But it is certain that the Professors from whom he quotes would not necessarily confine their definitions to New Testament Greek, and it is a known fact that New Testament Greek (Koine) was not the same as Classical Greek of that same period. Therefore no valid conclusion can be drawn from the opinions given by these various Professors, for they might have been giving their opinions on Classical Greek. Also, notice the lack of "authoritative tone" from many of the Professors which we now give below. (Italics for emphasis.)

Mary G. Goggens, N.Y.S.C.T. — "Yes, I think psallo nearly always means to sing to the accompaniment of the harp and the noun means often a song sung to a stringed instrument, a psalm."

Aubrey Diller, U. of Ind. - "I can only refer you to the standard dictionaries."

Dr. Ruth Pavlantos, U. of Hawaii — "As nearly as I can make out psalmos means singing to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument."

Delvin L. Corey, U. of Conn. — "My feeling is that the singing was accompanied."

Name not discernible, U. of N. Dakota -- "To me it appears that it retains its original meaning in the passage you have sent to me."

John H. Kent, U. of Vt. -- "My impression is (though I cannot prove it).."

James W. Alexander, U. of Ga. — "It would seem that this word always suggests a musical accompaniment, that is specifically of the harp."

Dr. Lucy Turnbull, U. of Miss. — "I am not an expert in New Testament Greek, but I have consulted Dr. Allen Cabaniss, head of the history department here and a well-known New Testament scholar (note that he is not a New Testament Greek scholar,G.L.)he is of the opinion..."

Other of his Professors could be quoted who spake in the same tone, but these are sufficient to show that most of them did not count themselves as authorities in New Testament Greek. Perhaps this is "proof conclusive" to Mr. Burgess, but it doesn't carry much weight with those of us who want the facts.

Chapter V

In chapter V, Burgess gives the renditions of various New Testament translators of Eph. 5:19 which he felt agreed with his position. Please observe that he had to pick some translators which most people have never heard of, and only three out of eight of them lend support to his position. The following are the translators and their wording of "singing (adontes) and making melody (psallontes) in the heart." We have placed an asterisk before the ones that lend support to Mr. Burgess position, and in case he has forgotten. the term "music" does not necessarily suggest instrumental music.

Gerrit Verkuyl — "heartily singing and making your music..."

*J.B. Rotherham - "singing, and striking the strings with your heart..."

Helen Montgomery — "singing, and with all your heart making music..."

*W.G. Ballantine - "singing and playing the harp heartily..."

Amplified Version — "offering praise with voices (and instruments) and making melody with all your hearts..."

*W.F. Beck — "with your hearts sing and play music..."

James Moffatt - "praise the Lord heartily with words and music."

Translation of the Latin Vulgate — "as you sing and give praise to the Lord in your hearts."

We did not list the Amplified Version as agreeing with Mr. Burgess position because the placing of "and instruments" in parenthesis indicates that it was not a part of the original text, but was added by the translator. Also note that this insert was drawn from "adontes" whereas Mr. Burgess says it must be drawn from "psallontes."

Another source of proof Burgess gives in this chapter is a letter from Edgar J. Goodspeed addressed to Alger Fitch, Jr. Here is an excerpt from Mr. Goodspeed's letter: "There is certainly nothing at all to encourage the idea that the instrument is excluded. I refer such people to the last psalm the 150, vs. 3-6, where the psalmist calls for the horn, the lyre, the lute, the strings, the pipe, the cymbals to accompany the voices of all creation in praising God. What more can they possibly ask?"

Isn't it strange that Mr. Goodspeed is supposed to be a scholar in New Testament Greek, but he gives as proof an Old Testament passage which was not even written in Greek, but Hebrew? And even if we grant the use of the Septuagint, we are not talking about the same language the New Testament was written in! Does Mr. Burgess expect us to accept Goodspeed as the final authority on this subject when he blunders like this?

Chapter VI.

In chapter VI of his book, Burgess compares early ecclesiastical and contemporary writings with the New Testament use of "psallo." All who know anything about Greek, know that the various endings of a term determine its use in a sentence. But Mr. Burgess simply selects words which have this Greek stem, and regardless of their endings, tries to make it appear that they meant the same regardless of form. Why, even the various forms of the word in the New Testament have various meanings!

Upon checking his references it was found that only three of the nineteen references he gives have the same spelling as any of the various forms found in the New Testament. This shows that Burgess was really "grasping for straws" to try to prove his point.

Of his references in this section, the first we found to have the same spelling of any New Testament form of "psallo" was "psalmo." found in Josephus Bk. 6. Sec. 214 Ralph Marcus translation. Mr. Marcus translates this as "harp." This word occurs only one time in the New Testament - Acts 13:33 and is translated "psalm." referring to the second Old Testament Psalm. His second two references which had the same spelling as a New Testament word was "psalmon," found in Josephus, Bk. 7, Sec. 80 and Bk. 9. Sec. 35. Mr. Marcus translates it "singing to the harp" in the first reference, and "playing of the harp" in the second. Even here observe the wide variation by which he renders the same word. This particular form of "psallo" occurs three times in the New Testament Luke 20:42: Acts 1:20; I Cor. 14:26 — and in each case is translated psalms or psalm, referring to the book of Psalms, or a writing, but in no case an instrument.

What Mr. Burgess did not take into consideration is the fact that these various writings had to be translated just as the Bible did. He gave no consideration to the fact that the translators of these works may often have been at fault in their translation. I happen to have a copy of Josephus which was translated by William Whiston. In Mr. Burgess' reference to Bk. 7, Sec. 80, Mr. Whiston translates "psalmon" as "singing of psalms." whereas Mr. Marcus rendered it "singing to the harp." Obviously both are not correct!


Many other fallacies could easily be exposed in Burgess' book, but these are sufficient to show that he offers no real help to the instrumental cause. Actually, he only heaps more problems upon them. For example, here is one problem they will never be able to overcome if they accept his conclusions. Mr. Burgess, with great pleasure, quotes a statement made by Lucian who wrote approximately 160 A.D. Lucian said, "It is impossible to pipe without a pipe or to PSALLEIN without a lyre or to ride without a horse."

Perhaps Mr. Burgess did not realize the consequence of that quote, and his subsequent agreement with it, but it simply means that one cannot "psallein" without also at the same time playing on the lyre! I doubt very seriously if Mr. Burgess can play the lyre, but even if he can, I know many of his brethren who cannot, so he really has them in trouble. All the saints at Corinth were told to have a psalm (psalmon) I Cor. 14:26. If we apply Mr. Burgess' meaning of this term, then each must sing and play a lyre. But his brethren do not practice this. So you see, he really has his brethren in serious trouble.

His Final Appeal

In the very last paragraph of his book, just before the appendix, Mr. Burgess makes this appeal: "I would like to plead with the members of the Church of Christ (non-instrumental) to stop making the body of Christ a haven for factions and splits by maintaining the spirit which puts every issue on an either/or, heaven or hell, fellowship and disfellowship basis."

We sincerely appreciate his appeal, but would like to remind him of the facts of history. Churches of Christ were not divided before the introduction of the Missionary Society in 1849. Those who introduced the Society charged the opposition with splitting the church. The church was further divided in 1859 when L.L. Pinkerton introduced instrumental music into the worship at Midway, Ky. Those who opposed this innovation were again charged with splitting the church. One innovation followed another until finally the First Christian Church was born. Today the First Christian Church is one of the most liberalistic, modernistic denominations in existence, with practically no respect left for God and His word.

Now if Mr. Burgess, and those who agree with him, will abide by his appeal, let them stop their opposition to the innovations of the First Christian Church which they do not now accept. Let them stop making the body of Christ a haven for factions and splits by their opposition. Can Mr. Burgess, and those who agree with him, not see that they are guilty of what they charge us with? If they are not willing to cease their opposition to some of the innovations of the First Christian Church, why should they ask us to cease our opposition to all of them. If they are unwilling to do what he suggests in some things, yet do not consider themselves responsible for divisions, splits and disfellowship, perhaps they can understand why we do not feel responsible for such when we do not cease our opposition to all the innovations which had their origin in the First Christian Church!

May we say in conclusion that it is these innovations which caused the division, splits and disfellowship. So we would like to plead with Mr. Burgess and his brethren to give up their unscriptural innovations, and stop making the body of Christ a haven for factions and splits by their insistence upon continuing to practice these innovations.

"Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls." Let them not be as Israel of old and say, "We will not walk therein." (Jer. 6:16).

— P.O. Box 711, Plymouth, N.C. 27962