The Simple Gospel
A Capella

Marc Smith

 


You can ask almost anyone what the definition of "a capella" is and they will say something like, "Oh, that just means to sing without using instrumental assistance." And while that is correct, very few people know that "a capella" is a Latin phrase which actually uses different words than we think when translated. Literally translated, "a capella" means "as in church." It is a term that comes down through history and into our language from the Catholic Church. The term was used to differentiate the kind of proper music that was used in Catholic worship for many centuries from all other types of music which had little to do with worship and mostly to do with entertainment. So we see that "a capella" was the use of the voice as the only appropriate music for worship in early Catholic history.

Did you know that although there are some references to the introduction of organs or harps, etc. as early as the 7th Century in Catholic historical documents here and there, it was rare and was so innovative as to be considered as heretical for nearly a thousand years after this? One fairly early, highly quoted and well known Catholic writer, Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 13th Century, "Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize" (Bingham's Antiquities, Vol. 3, page 137).

To further emphasize the view that most more careful Catholic scholars opposed the introduction of instrumental music in worship note the words of Erasmus, a beloved scholar of King Henry VIII of England in the 16th Century: "We have brought into our churches certain operatic and theatrical music; such a confused, disorderly chattering of some words as I hardly think was ever in any of the Grecian or Roman theatres. The church rings with the noise of trumpets, pipes, and dulcimers; and human voices strive to bear their part with them. Men run to church as to a theatre, to have their ears tickled. And for this end organ makers are hired with great salaries, and a company of boys, who waste all their time learning these whining tones" (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:19).

With this being the attitute of "the Catholic Church greats" of the time we need to think about this phrase in a new light, don't we? Let us think about "a capella" for a moment. We see how this phrase got into common usage in the Catholic Church, don't we? Obviously, when teaching music and directing a choral group it was taught that some music is appropriate for worship and everything else is not. Music fit for worship is to be "a capella," as music is done in church. Many in the Catholic Church tried for nearly a thousand years to enforce this view but eventually lost this battle in that denomination. It is interesting to note that the Eastern Orthodox (some think of it as the Eastern Catholic Church) which split from the Catholic Church in the 7th Century has never to this day allowed mechanical instruments of music in its worship. They are very strict traditionalists and staying faithful to tradition they have never bowed to the winds of change that most other denominations have. They still literally believe in music that is truly "a capella."

Of course, in our time it is popularly thought that instruments of music were always used in worship. Our friends among the denominations often reveal this as their common belief. It is eye opening for many to see just what early religionists thought about this subject. Listed below are a few quotes on the use of musical instruments in worship according to some of the earliest authorities:

(1) John Girardeau, a Presbyterian, said, The church, although lapsing more and more into defection from the truth and into a corruption of apostolic practice, had no instrumental music for 1,200 years (that is it was not in general use before this time); the Calvinistic Reformed Church ejected it from its services as an element of popery, even the Church of England having come very nigh to its extrusion from her worship. It is heresy in the sphere of worship" (Instrumental Music, page 179).

(2) John Bingham, Episcopalian, said "Music in churches is as ancient as the apostles, but instrumental music not so" (Works, Vol. 3, page 137).

(3) John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said, "I have no objection to the instruments being in our chapels, provided they are neither seen nor heard."

(4) Theodore H. Spurgeon, (1834-1892), one of the greatest preachers and most prolific writers of the Baptist faith, said, "...What a degradation to supplant the intelligent song of the whole congregation by the theatrical prettiness of a quartet, bellows, and pipes! We might as well pray by machinery as praise by it" (Commentary on Psalms 42:4).

(5) One more quote and this one is from Sir Richard Terry (Director of Music for nearly 25 years at Westminister Cathedral) who gives a little historical remembrance in the following quote from his native Scotland when this was written in the late 1920's: "The history of Scottish music is full of paradoxes. Most of us are old enough to have caught echoes of the furious opposition to instrumental music in the Kirk ("kirk" is Scot. for "church"). This was supposed to be a protest against 'Popish practices' and it is only in modern times that Scottish church music has ceased to be exclusively vocal" (quoted by Percy A. Scholes, The Puritans and Music in England and New England, Oxford at the Clarendon Press: 1934; reprinted 1969, page 220).

The point of giving these quotes from such persons is to show that instrumental music as used in worship is a relatively new thing and was always opposed when introduction was proposed. It took many centuries for it to gain final acceptance from even these religions that were originated by men. Yes, it did finally come to be accepted, as we all know into virtually every denomination but it is satisfying to us to realize that as an innovation it was at least resisted by many.

The truth is that the New Testament ONLY mentions VOCAL music. I would suggest that you read the following Scriptures: Mt. 26:30; Acts 16:25; Rom. 15:9; 1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Jas. 5:13; Heb. 2:12; and Heb. 13:15. Please notice specifically that only singing, i. e. vocal music is mentioned. It would be displeasing to our Lord to use any other means of musical expression than with the voices He created within each and every one of us. Eph. 5:19, "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (NKJ)


e-mail this author at mssquare@swbell.net

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