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Loud Clanging Cymbals

In the Nick of Time

In the last issue, I wrote about a speaker who deviated from his topic to deliver certain remarks—apparently extemporaneously—in defense of contemporized worship. I am not interested in indicting the speaker, but I am interested in evaluating the soundbites that found their way into his address. Last issue I discussed his suggestion that we are required to sing new songs. Now I wish to examine the next soundbite. Here it is:

What’s God’s Word teach about worship?… My Bible says “Choose the loud clanging cymbals.” Guess what we do? We obey God’s Word—do you?

The argument implicit in this jibe seems pretty straightforward. The Bible commands the use of loud cymbals. Churches that do not use loud cymbals are not obeying God’s Word. Churches that worship to rock-and-roll, which does use loud cymbals, are.

The text that the speaker had in mind was probably Psalm 150, which is an interesting and important passage. In the poem, the psalmist asks for the Lord to be praised with representatives of virtually every then-known family of musical instrument. The exhortations of this text require us to ask two questions.

First, how should Psalm 150 be brought to bear on the worship of the church? It is, after all, part of Israel’s Psalter, written in an Old Testament context for use in Israelite worship. There are interpreters (such as Peter Masters in Worship in the Melting Pot) who believe that the worship of the church is so exclusively regulated by New Testament precepts that Psalm 150 does not apply to local church worship today.

Masters and others who take this approach argue from a perspective known as the Regulative Principle of Worship. What the Regulative Principle says is that the church in its present form is an exclusively New Testament institution, and Christ alone is its head. Consequently, Christ has the right to stipulate what the worship of the church must look like. Christians must not make up new forms of worship on their own initiative, and then must not bring Old Testament patterns forward unless those patterns are specifically authorized by Christ’s apostles in the New Testament.

While I affirm the Regulative Principle, I nevertheless wish to take the side of our unnamed speaker. I think that most (though not quite all) of Psalm 150 should apply to the church. To explain why requires a couple of logical steps. We need to recognize that the church is specifically authorized to employ music in its worship. We also need to realize that the Greek participle psallantes in Ephesians 5:20 implies that this music may be instrumental (specifically, strummed) as well as vocal. If both vocal and instrumental music are authorized, then we have to ask what instruments we ought to use. I think that Psalm 150 answers that question.

Why turn to Psalm 150? For two reasons. First, it is all about praising the Lord, which is worship. Second, its exhortations apply to “everything that has breath.” In other words, the teachings of Psalm 150 apply to any and all living beings engaged in the worship of the Lord. Ephesians 5 tells the church to worship with music, and specifically with musical instruments. Psalm 150 tells absolutely everyone, including the church, what instruments are appropriate. We have plenty of reason here to believe that God really does wish to hear cymbals used in worship, at least some of the time.

He also wants to hear horns, woodwinds, and both plucked and strummed string instruments. The text does not mention bowed instruments, which had not yet been invented in the ancient world, but the breadth of its requirements would hardly exclude a good string quartet from worship. The psalmist was naming every category of instrument known in his day, which probably implies that every subsequent category of instrument is also included.

That observation leads to the second question: what kind of cymbal playing (other than “loud”—and are cymbals ever really quiet?) does God want to hear? You can hear loud cymbals in Tchaikovsky’s Overture Solennelle. You can hear loud cymbals in Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. You can hear loud cymbals in Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)—especially the versions that feature Gene Krupa on percussion. In each case, however, the musical composition uses the loud cymbal to emphasize something different. Cymbal players can say different things and accomplish different kinds of goals with their instrument.

The same can be said of other percussion instruments. The question is not whether drums are appropriate in church. The question is rather how those drums are going to be used. Tympani are essential to the Brahms German Requiem, and especially to the “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras.” John Bonham’s drum kit was essential to Led Zeppelin’s Moby Dick. Both Brahms and Bonzo relied on percussion for musical power, but they used it in different ways and for different ends.

What about guitars? If any musical instrument is biblically authorized for use in the worship of the church, it is the guitar (see psallantes above). But should it be the guitar of Christopher Parkening playing Bach’s BWV 1006 Prelude, or should it be the guitar of Jimi Hendrix playing Purple Haze? Each is superior after its kind, and each guitarist a virtuoso, but the two guitars are obviously saying different things.

At the end of the day, the real question is not what instruments we can have in church. The real question is how we should expect them to be played. The answer to that question has to be gauged by what the particular way of playing—the musical form, style, idiom, or individual composition—is saying. For worship, meaning determines suitability.

Suggesting that Psalm 150 requires the regular use of all categories of instruments is probably an overstatement. Not many churches can put together a real orchestra. Most cannot field a band, or even a piano trio. Better to say that all instruments—including loud cymbals—are authorized for use in worship. Acknowledging that fact, however, does not answer the question of how they ought to be played.

As with last week’s soundbite, the real question is whether every musical form or idiom can be used to express Christian truth, or whether some forms and idioms actually contradict Christian sensibility and are therefore incompatible with loving God as He ought to be loved. And as with last week’s analysis, my purpose is not to answer that question, but simply to point out that this week’s soundbite assumes the answer to this question without defending it. The whole business about playing loud cymbals ends up being a tactic that distracts us from the real issue—namely, what the music means.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Come, All Harmonious Tongues
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

Come, all harmonious tongues,
Your noblest music bring;
’Tis Christ the everlasting God,
And Christ the man, we sing.
Tell how He took our flesh,
To take away our guilt;
Sing the dear drops of sacred blood
That hellish monsters spilt.

Alas! the cruel spear
Went deep into His side,
And the rich flood of purple gore
Their murderous weapons dyed.
The waves of swelling grief
Did o’er His bosom roll,
And mountains of almighty wrath
Lay heavy on His soul.

Down to the shades of death
He bowed His awful head;
Yet He arose to live and reign
When death itself is dead.
No more the bloody spear,
The cross and nails no more;
For hell itself shakes at His name,
And all the heav’ns adore.

There the Redeemer sits
High on the Father’s throne;
The Father lays His vengeance by,
And smiles upon His Son.
There His full glories shine
With uncreated rays,
And bless His saints and angels’ eyes
To everlasting days.

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

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