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Paul, Plato, and Calvin on Music

Portrait_john_calvin_reverseIn 1 Corinthians 14:7-8, Paul says, ”If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” 1 Cor 14:7-8 (ESV)

The “flute,” I’m told, was a woodwind instrument more akin to a pipe. The “harp,” or lyre, was a stringed instrument that often accompanied singing. If these instruments through either poor construction or unartful playing fail to produce music, they do no good! When no distinct notes are played, then music fails to accomplish its most basic purpose. Paul’s second example, the trumpet, was often used to gather people together or to lead men into battle. What is true of the flute and harp is true of the trumpet. If a trumpet gives an indistinct, confused sound, men won’t know how to respond. The instrument has failed to have a reason to exist.

These illustrations come amidst Paul’s great renunciation and corrective of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12-14. I believe that Paul, in his remarks, believes (if he doesn’t assume for the sake of argument) that the Corinthians were speaking in intelligible foreign languages (just as in the book of Acts). This was clearly a sin against love and nature of corporate worship (cf. 1 Cor 13; 14:1, 5). His point for this remark about musical instruments is given in verse 9: “So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?”  If we demand musical instruments be used properly in their playing, how much more should we expect that men speaking in church utter speech that is intelligible?

The illustration as a whole hinges on a key point. Paul believed, as did many in his time, that music communicates. The instruments are failing at the very reason of their existence. The word “lifeless” really drives this home. Paul is using an argument from lesser to greater. We demand intelligibility in soulless, inanimate objects, so how much more should we demand intelligibility in men who possess a living soul? Foreign langues are unintelligible, and so they provide no benefit to the people of God.

John Calvin also deftly picked up on Paul’s point. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 14:7-8, Calvin observes,

Finally, we know from experience how great a power music has for moving men’s feelings, so that Plato teaches, quite rightly, that in one way or another music is of the greatest value in shaping the moral tone of the state.1

In a society that has for nearly a century indulged itself in popular music that glorifies sexual immorality, violence, and rebellion, and given that that society today brazenly embodies such themes, is there any doubt that Paul, Plato, and Calvin are right?

Dare we ignore what the music of popular culture is evidently communicating and employ it in the worship of God?

Be careful what you listen to.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John W. Fraser (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1960), 289. []