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Early Church Hymns

This entry is part 9 of 14 in the series

"The Hymnody of the Christian Church"

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The hymnody of the early church was naturally an extension of Hebrew hymnody.1 Therefore, we can expect the hymnody of the early church to have the same general characteristics of Hebrew hymns: Early church hymns were word-centered, modest, and distinct, and they continued to nurture the forms they inherited from Jewish worship. The only change would have been the addition of texts about Jesus Christ, some of which we have recorded for us in the New Testament.2

Like Synagogue worship, New Testament worship had no instrumental accompaniment at all, a practice that would have certainly continued as persecution heightened and churches were forced underground.

As the Church spread after the closing of the New Testament Canon, churches continued to nurture the hymn forms that had been handed down to them. And as Christians continued writing new hymn texts and cultivating poetic and musical forms, the three characteristics of Hebrew hymnody remained.

First, early Church hymns were text-driven. Church leaders continued to praise the use of Psalms in corporate worship, and the new texts they wrote were filled with robust doctrinal truth. Here, for example, is an example of an early hymn written by Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35 —ca. 107):

Very flesh, yet Spirit too;
Uncreated, and yet born;
God-and-Man in One agreed
Very-Life-in-Death indeed,
Fruit of God and Mary’s seed;
At once impassable and torn
By pain and suffering here below:
Jesus Christ, whom as our Lord we know.3

Their musical forms were borrowed from Hebrew forms and thus continued the tradition of melodies following the natural rise and fall of the text. Known as plain chant, this early form of singing was just a step above natural human vocal inflection. The forms would have developed little during this time however since the church was under considerable persecution.

Second, early Church hymns were modest. Church leaders were unanimous in their warnings against what they called “extravagant” music in worship. Consider this statement by Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150—ca. 215), for instance:

But we must abominate extravagant music, which enervates men’s souls, and leads to changefulness—now mournful, and then licentious and voluptuous, and then frenzied and frantic.4

Rather, Clement argued that the church’s hymnody should employ “temperate harmonies.”5

This emphasis was in stark contrast to the culture in which the Church lived, and thus, early Church hymns were distinct from the pagan culture around them. Greek and Roman culture of the first few centuries was far from benign. Stapert describes the character of Greek and Roman culture:

But most of them featured ecstatic, even frenzied and orgiastic, rites. Ecstatic rituals were not uncommon in Greek and Roman societies, going back centuries before the Christian era. The rituals associated with the worship of Dionysus or his Roman equivalent, Bacchus, are the classic examples of this type. Drunken revelry, wild music, frenzied dancing, and flagellation and mutilation were their hallmarks.6

Play an example of early Greek music

So like their Hebrew fathers before them, early church leaders soundly condemned the pagan musical forms of the culture in which they lived. This rejection of pagan musical forms also led most church leaders to renounce any instrumental accompaniment as well. Consider Clement:

When a man occupies his time with flutes, stringed instruments, choirs, dancing, Egyptian krotala and other such improper frivolities, he will find that indecency and rudeness are the consequences.7

They rejected instruments altogether for two reasons: First, they did not want to associate themselves at all with pagan worship practices. But even more importantly, they believed that the particular instruments used in pagan worship, for the most part, shaped the content in evil ways. Notice that Clement bases his argument not merely in associations, but in the fact that the sounds of such instruments intrinsically lead to “indecency and rudeness.” Remember, what Clement meant by “flutes” and other instruments should not be interpreted by our modern instruments or even the instruments of the Old Testament. These were instruments whose sounds, evidently, were incompatible with Christian affections. Nevertheless, these leaders did perhaps go a little bit too far in their rejection of all instruments whatsoever; yet we can understand why they did so with their pagan cultural conditions.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Richard Hoppin, Medieval Music (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1978), p. 30. []
  2. Examples include Philippians 2:6—11, 1 Timothy 3:16, 2 Timothy 2:11—13, John 1:1—18, Ephesians 1:1—11 and 2:14—16, Colossians 1:15—20, and Hebrews 1:3.See Wesley W. Isenberg, “New Testament Hymnody” in Carl Schalk, ed., Key Words in Church Music: Definition Essays on Concepts, Practices, and Movements of Thought in Church Music (St. Louis: Concordia, 1978) p. 184. []
  3. Epistle to the Ephesians, trans. Maxwell Staniforth; revised by Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 63. []
  4. Stromateis VI 11, 89:4—90:2, trans. In Skeris, Croma Qeon, p. 78 in Quentin Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair: The Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and the Christian Church (Westport,CT:Greenwood,1996),p.69. []
  5. Paidagogos 2, 4 (GCS Clem. I 184 Stählin) in Johannes Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (Washington, D.C.: National Association of Pastoral Musicians, 1983), p. 68. []
  6. Stapert, p. 135. []
  7. Paidagogos in Quasten, p. 61. []