The majority of Church Fathers between AD 100 and 500 did not accept the use of musical instruments in church and the Christians worshipped God with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in a chanting fashion. The Orthodox Church today would claim to follow this pattern based on the New Testament and early church tradition. Apart from the rejection of musical accompaniment during worship because they regarded it as being from the Old Covenant, they were also defensive about the possible influences of pagan music creeping into the Church and leading it astray.
In the pagan Roman Empire there were four styles of music: the magical use of flutes and drums to produce good omens (euphemia); the banging of gongs and drums to drive away evil spirits (apotropaic); music used to summon the pagan gods (epiclesis), and general entertainment at feasts and weddings which often led to drunkenness and licentious revelry. It was so bad at weddings that even Emperor Julian the Apostate (AD 331-363), who supported paganism, told his pagan clergy to leave before the musicians arrived. Not surprisingly church leaders gave the same advice to their congregations. Clement of Alexandria (AD 165-215) expressed this concern:
[Christians] having paid reverence to the discussion about God, they leave within [the church] what they have heard, and outside they foolishly amuse themselves with impious playing, and amatory quavering, occupied with flute-playing, and dancing, and intoxication, and all kinds of trash.
Even pagan Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who had a huge influence on the Roman Empire, were against certain kinds of music. According to Plato, Socrates said:
[Where there were] men of worth and culture, you will find no girls piping or dancing or harping.
Aristotle (384 -322 BC) was against flute-playing and wrote that the flute was:
Not an instrument that has a good moral effect… the ancients therefore were right in forbidding the flute to youths and freemen.
Some of the Church Fathers, like Basil the Great, thought that cithara (like a guitar) players should be excommunicated from the church, and Ambrose was concerned that if Christians turned from psalm singing to playing instruments they might lose their salvation, such was their anxiety of pagan influences. Basil wrote:
Of useless arts there is harp playing, dancing, flute playing, of which, when the operation ceases, the result disappears with it. And, indeed, according to the word of the apostle, the result of these is destruction.’
(Commentary on Isaiah 5)
Some of the Church Fathers tended to allegorise the use of musical instruments from the Old Testament, such as the following:
The musical instruments of the Old Testament are not unsuitable for us if understood spiritually.
(Pseudo-Origen, Selection of Psalms 32)
Clement of Alexandria goes to great lengths to spiritualise musical instruments:
The Spirit, distinguishing from such revelry the divine service, sings, Praise Him with the sound of trumpet; for with sound of trumpet He shall raise the dead. Praise Him on the psaltery; for the tongue is the psaltery of the Lord. And praise Him on the lyre. By the lyre is meant the mouth struck by the Spirit, as it were by a plectrum. Praise with the timbrel and the dance, refers to the Church meditating on the resurrection of the dead in the resounding skin. Praise Him on the chords and organ. Our body He calls an organ, and its nerves are the strings, by which it has received harmonious tension, and when struck by the Spirit, it gives forth human voices. Praise Him on the clashing cymbals. He calls the tongue the cymbal of the mouth, which resounds with the pulsation of the lips.
Some of the Christians became so ascetic in their approach to music that they even refused to sing out loud and believed that the purest form of worship was only in the heart – this was the allegorical interpretation from the Alexandrian School at its worst. Nicetas of Remesiana, mentioned before in his On the Benefit of Psalmody, goes to great lengths to persuade his readers that verbal singing is biblical. When the Council of Laodicea met in AD 363-4 the leaders there decided to even ban congregational singing, which meant that the gap between the priests and church members became increasingly wide, and the congregations became onlookers, rather than participators.
Were musical instruments completely banned from the Early Church?
It would seem at this point in my article that music had been removed from the church and that we are only left with singing. However, it was not so straightforward. Even Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), whom I have just quoted, saw that godly music had a place with God’s people:
And even if you wish to sing and play to the harp or lyre, there is no blame. You shall imitate the righteous Hebrew king in his thanksgiving to God.
Other Church Fathers also accepted music in a broader way. Hilary of Poitiers (AD 300-368) in his commentary on the Psalms distinguishes between four different techniques of music in worship, including instrumental playing and antiphony, but such references are very few. He called the psaltery (a harp-like instrument)
‘the most upright of all musical instruments.’