Hesitant debate… A Capella

In the past, when I’ve strongly debated with Dr. R. Scott Clark, I eventually found myself agreeing with him. It is with this in mind that I hesitantly approach the subject he has recently been discussing on his blog and spoke of in his good book Recovering the Reformed Confession.  Since the RPW is a topic of interest within Reformed circles, and since he addresses some of the questions I’ve posed, I wanted to point out a couple logical problems I see with one of his arguments.

Firstly, instrumental worship remains a difficult issue, and the arguments supporting exclusive a capella worship seemingly amount to arguments from history, arguments based on worship in the New Testament, and fulfillment of type and shadow.  I recall my grandparents, who belonged to the Pelagian group Church of Christ, argued similarly (there are no instruments in the New Testament), but one has to remember that the anabaptist Campbellite cult has no real understanding of covenantal structure, much less worship and argues against Paedobaptism on the same basis.

Dr. Clark writes:

It is often asked (as I myself asked Bob Godfrey 23 years ago), “Why do you want us to sing Psalms but you won’t let us do what they say?” (i.e., play instruments). After all, Psalm 150 lists a number of instruments.

Yes, exactly. Doesn’t it seem odd that we sing God’s commands while simultaneously denying them? I recall holding a similar view in regards to the Sabbath not too distantly. I couldn’t consistently read the ten commandments, sing about, and worship God on the Sabbath while denying it’s ongoing nature in the New Covenant era. I think one needs to parse these arguments carefully.

Clark’s answer is:

 The difficulty that the Reformed saw with this line of reasoning is that it proves too much. They were convinced that the period of types and shadows had been fulfilled in Christ. This is why, in the new covenant, the church did not seek to kill the Canaanites. That commission ended with the death of Christ. In the “once for all” (Heb 7:27) death of Christ the bloody sacrificial ministry of the Levitical priesthood ended. 

While this is true of specific commands, why does it apply specifically to something commanded in the very Psalms we use to worship?  Again, the issue is about the Regulative Principle of Worship, not “killing Canaanites”. If the Bible commands specific actions in worship, then they are to be followed unless they’re typified by Christ and fulfilled therein or expressed in some other manner in the New Covenant. Where do we find in Scripture the usage of instruments to worship YHWH fulfilled by Christ?

Clark continues:

In the “once for all” (Heb 7:27) death of Christ the bloody sacrificial ministry of the Levitical priesthood ended. Jesus’ priesthood was greater than Aaron’s and Levi’s. Those priests had to sacrifice for themselves. Jesus did not. His sacrifice was for us.

Amen, and yet, the Psalms were sung as part of the temple liturgy, so why are they still used?  Were not their usage also done away with by Christ’s sacrifice? Quoting Paul here doesn’t change the question, even though Paul said we are to worship with “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”, and though Clark presents a good case for all three of those terms relating to specific portions of the Psalms, the argument could be made that Paul is referring to new psalms etc.  (I don’t necessarily buy it, but my point is, if Christ’s sacrifice fulfilled it, why are we singing it?)

An argument from history is then presented:

The Reformers knew their history, that the early church accepted these principles and worshipped without musical instruments for the first 7 centuries—8 if we count the Apostolic church.

This argument is however flawed. Firstly it suggests that the early church didn’t use instruments because they believed the type fulfilled, but in reality the early church wanted to distance themselves from the pagan worship around them. They saw “the use of instruments in Jewish worship as a “childish” weakness, less glorifying to God than words of praise.” 

We must be careful not to emulate the early church or the Reformers simply for the sake of being historically correct, but like the Reformers we should evaluate their practices with Scripture as our authority and reform when necessary.  We should be very careful in regards to the possibility of gnostic thinking when it comes to how we approach things.  Just because the pagans do something, doesn’t make it automatically unChristian.

As for exclusive Psalmody, in the footnotes to his post, Clark acknowledges that the Reformers did in fact sing non-inspired texts (a major portion of the argument for exclusive psalmnody) when he writes:

The Strasbourg Psalter of 1545 seems to have included some non-canonical songs. The songbook used in Heidelberg in 1563 and 1573 seems to have contained non-canonical hymns. I investigating whether non-canonical songs were sung in public worship. The Apostles’ Creed was the only non-canonical song sung in the Genevan liturgy but it was sung in place of the reading of the Word or as a summary of the Word. When the conjugation responded to the Word they also prayed or sang the Word. The Church Order of Dort (1619) provided for the singing of a song that may have been a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer or it may have been a non-canonical song. It is lost.

So as early as 1545, Reformed congregations were singing non-inspired songs including the Apostles’ Creed.  The fact that it was sung instead of read doesn’t change the fact. Plus, the fact that none less than the Church Order of Dort provided for a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer should put the “Reformers did it” argument to rest, in that there was clearly a variety of opinion on the matter.

On another post, Dr. Clark replies to a comment:a

[This] seems to assume a couple of things, e.g., that 1 Tim 3:16 is a hymn. It may be. It also seems to assume a different relation between the canonical and post-canonical periods than I do. The church did things, under the direct inspiration of the Spirit, that we do not do in the post-apostolic age. In the apostolic age the NT Scriptures were in the process of formation.

So, the whole “how they worshiped in the New Testament church” argument is hereby undone.  If the New Testament church sang new inspired hymns and they were even written in Scripture (and I’ll grant that Clark says “may”), then the claim that EP is a return to New Testament worship is baseless.

I’m very thankful for Dr. Clark. His work on the nature of the New Covenant and paedobaptism was instrumental in pushing me over the fence. That said, the portion of Recovering the Reformed Confession that focused on psalmnody and instrumental worship was a major speed bump in what was a fantastic treaty on confessional Christianity, it stuck out like a sore thumb.  (I also feel the same about Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s fantastic book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey Into Christian Faith. She also took a major sidetrack into the discussion.)

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