The Instruments of Prayer

Various groups of Christians claim that instruments are not appropriate in worship, that the human voice alone and unaccompanied is the proper instrument of prayer. I first ran into this when worshipping with the Reformed Presbyterians, who base this belief on the twofold argument involving the Regulative Principle (only that which is “instituted” or “appointed” by scripture is allowed in worship) and a radical disjunction of the testaments (musical instruments are not mentioned in the New Testament and therefore are not allowed in Christian worship).

The Church of Christ also has similar strictures but I’m not privy to their theological ruminations. I suspect it’s similar to the RPCNA, but that’s just a hunch. The Orthodox Church also leans strongly in the direction of no musical instruments, although it’s not an absolute rule as it is among the Protestant groups. The Orthodox don’t approach it from the standpoint of a law or rule (like the Regulative Principle) but rather from a very practical and everyday bit of logic: The human voice is sufficient to pray (and music in worship is a form of prayer), while on the other hand, musical instruments do nothing to enhance prayer as prayer, and may even distract from it. (Remember, that music in worship should not be performance, but always prayer. But, let’s face it, whether it’s a Greek chanter, a first rate Russian men’s chorus, or a paid motet choir at the Tall Steeple Church downtown, church music always has an aspect of performance – we’re sinful, prideful humans after all.)

So even though the tradition of the Orthodox Church is no musical instruments, I’m skeptical of the proscription. Having been a pastor for over two decades I can tell you some dandy organist stories. (What’s the difference between a terrorist and an organist? You can negotiate with a terrorist. I heard that, among other places, in my seminary liturgics class.) But even with the fearsome reputation of organists, the thing that distracts from prayer more than an organist, is an a capella soloist (or worse, a “soloist” in a choir) who is supposedly just trying to enhance worship. Church singers who are absolutist about the purity of human voice without accompaniment and therefore belt it out are, in my opinion, more destructive to the sense of prayer in worship than even my two most notorious organists.

I am reminded of all this because we spent this weekend in Omaha, where among other things, we stopped by an art festival at the Countryside Village Plaza (an intimate outdoor mall at 86th and Pacific). The A. Cavallo violin store is located there. Cavallo sells hand crafted instruments and repairs damaged ones. It was closed when we were there but in the window one could see violins, violas, cellos, etc., in various states of repair and disrepair.

Looking in the window at Cavallo, in turn, reminded me of the Gibson mandolin factory in Bozeman, Montana. I have a relative (well, an ex-relative, but that may be too much information) who handcrafts mandolins for Gibson and he gave us a tour of the Bozeman facility. There is a sense of respect and even awe involved in the process of creating by hand an instrument that could rightfully be described as reverence or veneration.

Only God is Creator in the absolute sense of creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). But one facet of the divine image breathed into humans at Creation is creativity. The craftsmen at A. Cavallo and Gibson fulfill this aspect of the divine image when they create something new, beautiful, and awe inspiring from the stuff that God created and turned over to us (humans) to oversee. Being custodians of the stuff of creation demands that we don’t just bury it in the ground, awaiting the return of the master, but that we take it and transform it and multiply it (Mat. 25:14-30).

I will grant that there is something elegant and pure when Divine Liturgy is prayed with presbyter, deacon, chanter, and choir bringing their voices together in harmonious prayer. (Of course, even this is not yet an Orthodox experience, because the choir is there, not to sing the liturgy, but rather to lead the congregation in singing the liturgy – authentic worship requires full participation of all the priesthood and not just the leadership. I have yet to hear a congregation sing the liturgy, except in bits and pieces, here and there; they leave it to the choir. Can someone say, “Performance?”) But there is also something elegant and pure when a string quartet, a brass quintet, or a pipe organ leads a congregation toward prayer (and I would argue that prayer is bigger than words so that these instruments can also lead a congregation in prayer).

And it’s not just the music which comes into play when instruments are used in worship. But allow me to begin somewhere else in making this point. One thing the Roman Catholics managed to get wrong is their requirement of unleavened bread at the Eucharist. The elements of the Table have the mark of human creation on them. Both the grape and the wheat are transformed by human hands through fermentation and leavening. We start with one thing (grapes and wheat, or even grape juice and flour) but actually offer something rather different (wine and bread).

Why is this human role not only suggested but theologically vital? Salvation is a gift of God, but it is not a program imposed by God on us. Salvation is a two-way street that requires the primary divine input but also the secondary human input. (And just because it’s secondary, it’s no less important. Salvation cannot happen without the human input.) This is embodied in wine and bread in a way that is far more profound than words can say. Similarly, when we take the stuff God created (wood, copper, nickel, etc.) and turn them into something rather different (musical instruments), we are offering to God the fullness of ourselves, not only that which God created within us (vocal chords), but that which has been transformed by human creativity as gratitude to God.

Walking by the Cavallo workshop Sunday it was this divinely created raw material transformed into something different by human creativity hanging in the window, that brought me in mind of prayer and offering and what is appropriate in worship. I know I am at odds with much of the Orthodox Church on this one. But I’m sticking to my guns. While the Romans managed to miss the boat on the unleavened bread, I think they have a far more balanced and profound theology when it comes to music (at least pre-Vatican II theology – folk masses are a bit hard to stomach, but that’s another story).

Any church music, whether unaccompanied or accompanied, can be very bad, and both forms (accompanied or unaccompanied) can be gloriously beautiful and prayerful. It is also true that liturgical music badly rendered can be prayerful and powerful, shaking the very rafters of heaven (I wrote a song about this called Angels and Elders, by the way) while the most perfectly executed liturgy can fail to even rise above the chandelier because of the hard hearts of those going through the motions of prayer and praise. Forms are important because forms shape the heart. But the heart is not trapped by external forms and ultimately it’s the heart that matters. As J.S. Bach said, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

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One thought on “The Instruments of Prayer

  1. Pingback: A Clarification on the Use of Instruments in Church | Just Another Jim

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