Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
December 8, 1955

Brother McGarvey On "Instrumental Music"

John W. McGarvey (Apostolic Times)

We publish this week another article from Bro. W. L. Hayden, in defense of instrumental music in Christian worship. All of his article except the last two paragraphs is occupied with an attempt to defend his strange position in regard to the book of Psalms. He has yet to learn the well settled distinction between the Old Testament and the New, and his present article shows even greater confusion on the subject than the one to which we have already replied. But to follow him through his tortuous arguments on this subject would require more time and space than we can now command; and fortunately for us it will not be necessary thus to follow him in order to refute him; for we can show in a few words that he refutes himself. He says, in regard to the revengeful sentiments which abound in the Psalms:

"These Psalms state the fact that David expressed these sentiments, but they do not teach us to say or sing them."

This is true: and for precisely the same reason, the psalms which speak of praising God with instruments of music and in the dance, state the fact that David praised God thus, and exhorted his people to do so, but they do not teach us either to dance or to use instruments in the praise of God. David's example and his precepts in the one case are no more authoritative with us than in the other; for David has no authority in the Christian congregation.

But Bro. Hayden introduces, at the close of his article, another argument in favor of instrumental music, which takes us by surprise; that is we are surprised that a man of his intelligence has adopted an argument so ill-founded, and one which no scholar even on his own side of the question has been willing to employ. Indeed, if we are not mistaken, the Christian Standard not long since published an editorial refutation of it. Here is the argument as employed by Bro. Hayden:

Let us look a moment at this criticism on the original. If the fact that the participle in question "means primarily to touch or play on an instrument," is to be applied in this connection, it must be because the word is supposed to have this meaning in this passage. Let us, then, give it this meaning, and see how it harmonizes with the context:

"Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing upon an instrument in your heart to the Lord."

This is at least a very harmless interpretation; for if the instrument is in the heart, and the playing is in the heart, it is certainly neither a wind instrument nor a stringed instrument. nor one of human manufacture; nor can we object to it as an innovation. Nor is this all that can be said in its favor; for if the instruments which Christians are to play on are in the heart, it follows that cabinet organs, grand organs, cornets, etc., are not included in the precept, and Bro. Hayden will have to go against them.

But this, perhaps, is not exactly what Bro. Hayden means. After stating the primary meaning of the word, he seems to assume that in this passage it has a figurative meaning: for he says, "By a common figure it signifies such feeling as is produced by an instrumental accompaniment." If we adopt this as the meaning in the passage, we suppose we would have to express it about thus: "Singing and having in your heart the feeling to the Lord produced by an instrumental accompaniment." That is, they were to have, not the feeling produced by the singing, nor that produced by the sentiments of the songs, but the feeling produced by "an instrumental accompaniment." Or, if we are to infer without an express statement, that they were to have the former two feelings, they were at least required to have the last. We confess that this is clear enough; but we are puzzled about the practicability of it; for it is a fact which Bro. Hayden will admit, that the early Christians used no instruments with their singing; and the wonder is, how they could have the feeling produced by an instrumental accompaniment when there was no instrumental accompaniment. Were they to content themselves with imagining that there was one, and then feel accordingly? If so, let Bro. Hayden and those who agree with him do the same, and there will be no trouble.

But, to be serious about this matter, the criticism in question is another example of the danger of a little learning. It is true that the word psalmos, rendered psalm, originally meant a touch, and that its verb meant to touch, or pluck. Then it acquired the meaning, to play on a stringed instrument, because this was done by touching the strings. In precisely the same way our English word "touch" is used in the one-popular love-song which contains the line:

"Then awake while I touch my guitar."

But in singing, the voice touches the notes as the fingers do in playing; and consequently the word acquired the meaning to sing; and finally, by a continuation of the same process of change, it came to mean, to make music or melody either with the fingers or with the voice. In the passage cited from Ephesians it is, as Bro. Hayden says, used figuratively; for it is neither with an instrument nor with the voice that the music was to be made, but "in the heart." "Singing," or making music with the voice, and "making melody in the heart to the Lord." This rendering expresses the real meaning of the passage; and you may as well try to find pitchforks in it as musical instruments.

Our word lyric has a history similar to that of the Greek word psalmos. It originally meant a poem sung to the lyre; but it has long since come to mean a poem suitable for singing either with or without an instrument If some German or Frenchman, in translating into his own language an English book containing this word, should conclude from the etymology of this word that the singing of lyrics implied always the use of musical instruments, he would make the same mistake into which Bro. Hayden has been betrayed.

Finally, the well attested historical fact that instrumental music was never employed in a Christian assembly until the 8th century, is at once conclusive proof that no words used by Paul were intended to favor it, and equally conclusive proof that it was deliberately omitted from Christian worship by the apostles. For these men were born and reared under the Jewish religion in which the use of instruments was authorized by their Bible and was common in their temple worship; but though they held their first great meetings in that very temple, they never used there or elsewhere in their worship any instrument of music whatever. Here is not only silence in regard to the practice, but a silence which signifies the deliberate and intentional disuse of it.