Contact Us

Use the form on the right to contact us.

You can edit the text in this area, and change where the contact form on the right submits to, by entering edit mode using the modes on the bottom right. 


123 Street Avenue, City Town, 99999

(123) 555-6789


You can set your address, phone number, email and site description in the settings tab.
Link to read me page with more information.

IV. Argument from the Presbyterian Standards.


IV. Argument from the Presbyterian Standards.

James Dodson

IN arguing against the use of instrumental music in public worship from the Presbyterian standards—that is, the formularies of doctrine, government and worship of the Presbyterian Church—I desire it to be distinctly understood that they are not viewed or treated as an authority independent of the inspired Word of God. All the authority which they possess—every whit of it—is derived from that Word. Apart from it they have none. In the first place, as human compositions they may or may not exactly accord with the Scriptures and faithfully represent their meaning. So far as they do, and only so far as they do, they are clothed with the authority of the divine Word itself, and as every Christian admits that the authority of that Word is binding upon all men, they, to that extent, confessedly exercise a controlling authority upon all men. In the second place, the members, and especially the. officers of that church of which they are a directory of faith and practice, are, over and beyond this general obligation which rests upon all men, under a special obligation resulting from their voluntary acceptance of these standards as a true interpretation of the Scriptures, and from their covenanted agreement with their brethren of the same faith and order to be governed by them as the constitution of their church. It is, therefore, with reference to them, not exclusively, but in a very special sense, that, in the construction and development of this particular argument, the appeal is made to the Presbyterian standards. I speak as unto wise men; let them judge what may be said in relation to this venerable tribunal.

Let it be also noticed that, in pursuing this particular line of argument, it is by no means claimed that new material proofs are derived from these formularies. The proofs have already been presented from the Scriptures, both of the Old Testament and of the New, and the conclusion which they justify has already been reached and enounced. The present appeal is to the standards as clearly summing up the scriptural proofs and definitely enforcing the conclusion, and as having a peculiar authority for those who, in the conflict of religious opinions, have adopted them as, in their judgment, a correct statement and exposition of the law of the Lord. But in addition to this, let it be remarked, these standards clearly define the limitations upon such discretionary power in the sphere of worship, and in every other sphere, as is to be conceded to the church. They define it both negatively—declaring what it is not; and positively—declaring what it is; and it is in this especial regard that the reference to their authority is invested with interest and importance.

1. Instrumental music is, by good and necessary consequence, excluded from the public worship of the church by the exposition which the Catechisms furnish of the Second Commandment. In the citation of their words, only such will be adduced as bear upon the subject of worship and are relevant to the question in hand.

“What,” asks the Larger Catechism, [1] “are the duties required in the second commandment?” “The duties required in the second commandment are the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his Word . . . . Also, the disapproving, detesting, opposing all false worship, and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it.”

“What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?” “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are: All devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving any religious worship not instituted by God himself; . . . all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; . . . all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.”

“What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment, the more to enforce it? “The reasons annexed to the second commandment, the more to enforce it, contained in these words, For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me: and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments; are, besides God’s sovereignty over us and propriety in us, his fervent zeal for his own worship, and his revengeful indignation against all false worship, as being a spiritual whoredom; accounting the breakers of his commandment such as hate him, and threatening to punish them unto divers generations, and esteeming the observers of it such as love him and keep his commandments, and promising mercy to them unto many generations.”

The Shorter Catechism [2] thus condenses these statements of the Larger: “The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing and keeping pure and entire all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word.” It “forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his Word.” “The reasons annexed. . . . are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship.”

Let us attentively consider the features of this commandment which are signalized by these formularies:

(1.) The zeal and jealousy, fervent and lasting, which God manifests touching everything that concerns his worship. This is suited to arrest our notice, and to alarm and restrain those who assert their right to decree rites and ceremonies, and to regulate divine worship according to their own judgment and taste as to what is fitting and decorous in the services of the Lord’s house. He himself stands guard over his own sanctuary, and, armed with bolts of vengeance, threatens with condign punishment the invaders of his prerogative, the usurpers of his rights. We have seen how awfully this lesson was enforced under the old dispensation, how swiftly, like lightning, his judgments flashed against rash and insolent assertors of their own will in regard to the mode in which he was to be worshipped, and how severely he dealt with his own choicest and holiest servants for departures from his prescriptions in this matter. This vehement zeal and jealousy of God for the purity of his worship should deter us from venturing one step beyond the directions of his Word. Who, for the sake of the ornaments of art and the suggestions of fancy, would unnecessarily challenge the visitations of his wrath? In this dispensation he is patient and forbearing, but who will coolly elect to go, with the unexpunged guilt of encroaching upon the sovereignty of God over the worship of his house, to the tremendous bar of last accounts?

(2.) The great principle is here brought out and emphasized, that not only is what God has positively commanded to be obeyed, but what he has not commanded is forbidden. The law is, not that we are at liberty to act when God has not spoken, but just the contrary: we have no right to act when he is silent. It will not answer to say in justification of some element of worship that God has not expressly prohibited it; we must produce a divine warrant for it. The absence of such a warrant is an interdiction. The exposition of the second commandment enforces the obligation, not only to receive, observe and keep pure and entire all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his Word, but also not to devise, counsel, command, use and any wise approve any religious worship not instituted by God himself. The instance, already commented on, of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, God’s venerable high priest, is exactly in point. They were visited with summary judgment, as we are explicitly told, for performing a function in worship which God had not commanded. We cannot without guilt transcend divine appointments. No discretion is allowed the church to introduce into public worship what God himself has not instituted and appointed. He has not constituted her his vicegerent or his confidential agent. She is entrusted with no powers plenipotentiary. She acts under instructions, and is required to adhere to the text of her commission.

The application to instrumental music in the public worship of the church is plain. It was permissible, as has been shown, only when God commanded it, and he commanded it in connection with the typical and temporary services of the temple. He did not command it to be used in the ordinary Sabbath worship of the synagogue, and accordingly it was not employed in that institute. The Jew obeyed the divine will in that respect. God did not command it to be introduced into the Christian church, and in conformity with his will it was not employed in the apostolic or the early church. It was not known in the church for centuries. It was, as will be shown, a late importation into its services—an importation effected without divine authorization, and therefore in the face of the divine will. If our exposition of the second commandment is valid—and we acknowledge it to be both valid and authoritative—we violate that commandment when we employ instrumental music in public worship, because we devise, counsel, command, use and approve a mode of “religious worship not instituted by God himself.” That God did not institute it, either in connection with the Jewish synagogue or with the Christian church, has been irrefragably proved.

These things being so, we cannot, in accordance with the requirements of this commandment, acquiesce in the employment of instrumental music in the public worship of the church. No “title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever,”' will justify or excuse us. It will not avail us to plead that we found it in use, and are not called upon to urge or enact revolutionary measures. We are bound to disapprove, detest, oppose all false worship, and as this is in that category, to disapprove, detest and oppose it. The argument to prove its want of divine warrant must be overthrown before the position of inaction and acquiescence can be conscientiously maintained. Nor will it do to say that we have not examined the question—that we do not know. We ought to examine, we ought to know, for as Presbyterians our standards plainly expound to us the divine law on the subject, and as Christians we have no right to be ignorant of the teaching of Scripture in regard to it. “To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to them, it is because there is no light in them.”

The principle, thus strongly emphasized by the exposition of the second commandment, that a divine warrant is required for everything entering into the worship of God, is also enounced and enforced in the following utterances of the Confession of Faith: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith and worship.” [3] “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.” [4] In these words the Confession declares, that the conscience is left free to reject the teaching of any doctrines and the authority of any commandments which are beside the Word of God in the matter of worship; and that it is not permissible to worship him in any way not prescribed in the Scriptures. If, as has been evinced, instrumental music in public worship was in the Old Testament only prescribed as an appendage of the temple, and was not prescribed in connection with the synagogue, and is not prescribed in the New Testament, it is obviously beside the Word of God, destitute of his authority, and therefore to be rejected.

2. Instrumental music is excluded from the public worship of God’s house by the declarations of the Confession of Faith and the Directory for Worship concerning singing.

The Confession of Faith, in enumerating the “parts of the ordinary religious worship of God,” specifies “singing of psalms with grace in the heart.” The Directory for Worship thus speaks: “It is the duty of Christians to praise God by singing psalms.” “The proportion of the time of public worship to be spent in singing is left to the prudence of every minister.”

(1.) These provisions of the Confession of Faith and the Directory for Worship exclude instrumental music from the public worship of the church which acknowledges them as its formularies, in accordance with the legal maxim, Expressio unius est exclusio alterius: the express statement of one alternative is the exclusion of the other. If two men were supposed, upon probable grounds, to be chargeable with the same offence, the indictment of only one of them would be the exclusion of the other from the indictment. No formal naming of the person not included in the indictment is necessary. If of two acts, which might be performed under given circumstances, one only is commanded in a statute to be done, the other is excluded—it is not commanded. And so, if of two acts which might be done under given circumstances, one only is by statute permitted, the other is excluded from the permission—it is forbidden. To apply the principle to the case in hand: the singing of psalms or hymns and the performance of instrumental music are two distinct acts which may be done at one and the same time. The ecclesiastical law commands only one of these acts to be done in public worship. It follows that the other is excluded—it is not commanded. But does this, it may be asked, rule out the other? May it not be done, although not commanded? The answer is to be found in the great principle, already established by scriptural proofs, that what Christ has not commanded to be observed, men have no right to introduce into the worship of his church; and those who acknowledge the ecclesiastical law which is now appealed to, as correctly representing or rather reproducing the divine law, are bound to hold that what the ecclesiastical law does not authorize cannot be legitimately introduced into the worship of the church. We have seen that it is not true that what is not forbidden is permitted, but on the contrary, what is not commanded is forbidden. It follows that, as the law in the Presbyterian standards does authorize singing and does not authorize instrumental music, the latter is excluded. It is extra-legal, and therefore contra-legal.

(2.) This interpretation of the law in the standards is confirmed by what we know of the mind and intention of its framers in regard to this matter. Before the Westminster Assembly of Divines undertook the office of preparing a Directory for Worship, the Parliament had authoritatively adopted measures looking to the removal of organs, along with other remains of Popery, from the churches of England. On the 20th of May, 1644, the commissioners from Scotland wrote to the General Assembly of their church and made the following statement among others: “We cannot but admire the good hand of God in the great things done here already, particularly that the covenant, the foundation of the whole work, is taken, Prelacy and the whole train thereof extirpated, the service-book in many places forsaken, plain and powerful preaching set up, many colleges in Cambridge provided with such ministers as are most zealous of the best reformation, altars removed, the communion in some places given at the table with sitting, the great organs at Paul’s and Peter’s in Westminster taken down, images and many other monuments of idolatry defaced and abolished, the Chapel Royal at Whitehall purged and reformed; and all by authority, in a quiet manner, at noon-day, without tumult.” [5] So thorough was the work of removing organs that the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” says that “at the Revolution most of the organs in England had been destroyed.” [6]

When, therefore, the Assembly addressed itself to the task of framing a Directory for Worship, it found itself confronted by a condition of the churches of Great Britain in which the singing of psalms without instrumental accompaniment almost universally prevailed. In prescribing, consequently, the singing of psalms without making any allusion to the restoration of instrumental music, it must, in all fairness, be construed to specify the simple singing of praise as a part of public worship. The question, moreover, is settled by the consideration that had any debate occurred as to the propriety of allowing the use of instrumental music, the Scottish commissioners would have vehemently and uncompromisingly opposed that measure. But Lightfoot, who was a member of the Assembly, in his “Journal of its Proceedings” [7] tells us: “This morning we fell upon the Directory for singing of psalms; and, in a short time, we finished it.” He says that the only point upon which the Scottish commissioners had some discussion was the reading of the Psalms line by line.

If anything were lacking to confirm these views, it would be found in what is known of the state of opinion in the Puritan party, the party represented in the Westminster Assembly, as well before as during the sessions of that body.

“Her Majesty [Elizabeth] was afraid,” says Neal, “of reforming too far; she was desirous to retain images in churches, crucifixes and crosses, vocal and instrumental music, with all the old popish garments; it is not, therefore, to be wondered that, in reviewing the liturgy of King Edward, no alterations were made in favor of those who now began to be called Puritans, from their attempting a purer form of worship and discipline than had as yet been established.” [8]

“Drs. Humphreys and Samson,” says the same historian, “two heads of the Non-conformists, wrote to Zurich the following reasons against wearing the habits.” After giving the reasons the writers continue: “But the dispute is not only about a cap and surplice; there are other grievances which ought to be redressed or dispensed with; as (1) music and organs in divine worship,” etc. [9]

He further says: “They [the Puritans] disallowed of the cathedral mode of worship; of singing their prayers, and of the antiphone or chanting of the Psalms by turns, which the ecclesiastical commissioners in King Edward the Sixth’s time advised the laying aside. Nor did they approve of musical instruments, as trumpets, organs, etc., which were not in use in the church for above 1200 years after Christ.” [10]

John Owen, the great Puritan divine, who was contemporary with the Westminster Assembly, says: [11] “Not only hereby the praising and blessing of God, but the use of those forms in so doing became a necessary part of the worship of God; and so was the use of organs and the like instruments of music, which respect that manner of praising him which God then required.” He speaks here of the temple-service in the Jewish dispensation. This venerable servant of Christ also says: [12] “And he [David] speaks expressly, in 1 Chron. 23:5, of praising God with instruments of music ‘which,’ says he, ‘I made.’ He did it by the direction of the Spirit of God; otherwise he ought not to have done it; for so it is said, 1 Ch. 28:12, when he had established all the ordinances of the temple, ‘the pattern of all that he had by the Spirit.’ And verse 19, ‘All this,’ said David, ‘the Lord made me understand in writing by his hand upon me, even all the works of this pattern.’ It was all revealed unto him by the Holy Spirit, without which he could have introduced nothing at all into the worship of God.”

From what has been said, it is evident that the provisions in the Confession of Faith and the Directory for Worship touching singing in public worship were intended to exclude the employment of instrumental music; and it follows that its use by those who accept these formularies is in violation of their constitutional law.

3. Instrumental music is doctrinally excluded from the public worship of the church by the Confession of Faith.

The passage which is appealed to in support of this position is as follows: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing is at any time to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the church common to human actions and societies which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”[13]

(1.) The whole preceding argument clearly proves that the Westminster Assembly could not have intended to include instrumental music in those circumstances concerning—not in, nor of, not implicated in the nature of, but concerning—the worship of God, the ordering of which it concedes not to be prescribed by Scripture, but to depend upon natural judgment and Christian discretion. Let us glance back at that argument. It proved: that the prescriptive will of God regulates all things pertaining to the kind of worship to be rendered him in his house; that nothing which is not commanded by him in his Word, either explicitly or implicitly, can be warrantably introduced into the public worship of his sanctuary; that man’s will, wisdom, or taste can, in this sphere, originate nothing, authorize nothing, but that human discretion is excluded, and absolute obedience to the divine authority imposed; that instrumental music was not commanded of God to be used in connection with the tabernacle during the greater part of its existence, and consequently it was not there employed; that God expressly commanded it to be used in the temple, and therefore it was employed in its services; that the temple itself, with all that was peculiar and distinctive in its worship, was typical and symbolical, and was designed to be temporary; that it did pass away at the beginning of the Christian dispensation; that instrumental music was a part of its typical elements, and has consequently shared its abolition; that instrumental music was not commanded of God to be used in connection with the synagogue, which existed contemporaneously with the temple, and was therefore not employed in its services; that the Christian church was, in its polity and worship, conformed not to the temple, but to the synagogue, as is admitted even by some distinguished Prelatists, such modifications and conditions having been added as necessarily grew out of the change of dispensations—the accomplishment of atonement, the copious effusion of the Holy Ghost, and the evangelistic genius and office of the new economy; that instrumental music in public worship was not one of these Christian modifications or conditions; that the New Testament Scriptures exclude that kind of music, and that it was unknown in the practice of the apostolic church, as is evinced not only by the teaching of the apostles, but also by the absence of instrumental music from the church for more than a millennium.

Now, this was the way in which the Westminster divines, together with the whole Puritan party, were accustomed to argue, and in addition to this method of argument from Scripture, they also condemned instrumental music as one of those badges of Popery from which they contended that the church should be purged. To take the ground, then, that in the single clause in regard to “the circumstances concerning the worship of God . . . common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence,” they meant to include instrumental music, is to maintain that in that one utterance they contradicted and subverted their whole doctrine on the subject. It would be to say that they made all their solemn contentions and cherished views upon that subject what the wise woman of Tekoah represented human life to be, “as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.” The thing is preposterous. It cannot for a moment be supposed. One might, therefore, close the argument just here. Whatever the Assembly meant to include in the category of circumstances falling under the discretion of the church, it is absolutely certain that it was not intended to embrace in it instrumental music. But inasmuch as, notwithstanding this obtrusive fact, the clause in the Confession of Faith touching circumstances concerning the worship of God is unaccountably but commonly pleaded in justification of the employment of instrumental music in church services, I will endeavor to vindicate it from that abusive construction.

(2.) Let us determine, in the light of the instrument that we are interpreting, what these circumstances are.

They are expressly defined to be such as are “common to human actions and societies.” It would seem needless to discuss the question. One feels that he is talking superfluously and triflingly in arguing that circumstances common to human actions are not and cannot be peculiar to church actions. It is certain that circumstances common to human societies cannot be peculiar to church societies. But these circumstances are declared to be common to human societies, to societies of all sorts—political, philosophical, scientific, literary, mercantile, agricultural, mechanical, industrial, military, and even infidel. Time and place, costume and posture, sitting or standing, and the like, are circumstances common to all societies, and therefore pertain to the church as a society. But will it be seriously maintained that instrumental music is such a circumstance? Is it common to human societies? These questions answer themselves. As instrumental music is not a circumstance common to all societies, it is not one of the circumstances specified in the Confession of Faith. It is excluded by the terms which it uses.

It may be said that, as all human societies have the right to order the circumstances in which their peculiar acts shall be performed, the church possesses this common right, and may appoint the circumstance of instrumental music as an accompaniment to its peculiar act of singing praise. How this relieves the difficulty it is impossible to see. For the Confession defines the circumstances in question to be common to human actions, and therefore common to the actions of all human societies. But it will not be contended that the action of singing praise in the worship of God belongs to all societies as such. If that action does not belong to them, no circumstances attending it can belong to them. The community of the action infers the community of the circumstances attending it. The ground of the objection is therefore swept away; there is no such action common to all societies as the singing of praise in God’s worship, and consequently no such circumstance attending it as instrumental music. The action and the circumstance vanish together. If the action of singing praise belonged alike to the church and all societies there might be some color of plausibility in the plea that the church may determine the circumstances which attend it as done by herself, so far, at least, as the terms of this particular clause in the Confession of Faith are concerned. If, however, the action of singing praise in God’s worship is peculiar to the church as a particular kind of society, the circumstance of instrumental music as attending it cannot be common to human actions and societies. It is therefore ruled out by the language of the Confession.

This argument is conclusive, unless it can be shown that instrumental music is a circumstance necessary to the performance of the action—singing of praise. A simple and complete answer to this is, that for a thousand years the church sang praise without instrumental accompaniment. How then can its necessity to the singing of praise be maintained? Can a circumstance be necessary to the performance of an act, when the act has been performed without it, and is now continually, Sabbath after Sabbath, performed without it? To say that instrumental music assists in the performance of the act is to shift the issue. The question is not, Is it helpful? but, Is it necessary?

To this it must be added that this particular provision of the Confession is to be interpreted in conformity with its catholic teaching and that of its sister standards. Both represent the singing of psalms as prescribed. Both are silent about the prescription of instrumental music. Now if it could be proved that the latter is necessary to the former, the prescription of one would logically imply the prescription of the other. But we have seen that there is no such necessity. We are obliged therefore to exclude instrumental music as illegitimate, in view of the express declaration of the Confession and other standards that we are forbidden to introduce anything into the worship of God which is not prescribed. Here is a circumstance which is neither necessary nor prescribed. It cannot, therefore, be among the circumstances legitimated by the Confession.

We have now seen that the action of singing praise in the worship of God is one peculiar to the church and not common to it with all other societies, and that instrumental music is a circumstance concerning this peculiar ecclesiastical action which, therefore, cannot be common to human actions and societies. Consequently, it is not one of those circumstances which are in the discretionary power of the church, precisely as they are in the discretionary power of all societies. No circumstance peculiar to and distinctive of the church, as such, can be one of the circumstances mentioned by the Confession of Faith.

The question then returns: What are the circumstances concerning the worship of God which the church has the right to order according to the light of nature and Christian prudence? Their proper definition is, that they are CONDITIONS upon which the actions of all human societies are performed,—conditions without which the actions of any society either cannot be performed at all, or cannot be performed decently and in order.

First, They are conditions which are not peculiar to the acts of any particular society, but common to the acts of all societies. They cannot, consequently, be peculiar to the acts of the church as a particular society. But instrumental music is a condition peculiar to the act of singing praise in some particular churches. The conclusion is obvious. Let us take, for example, the circumstances of time and place. They condition the meeting and therefore the acts of every society. None could meet and act without the appointment of a time and a place for the assembly. This is true alike of the church and an infidel club. In this respect they are dependent upon the same conditions. Neither could meet and act without complying with this condition. This is a specimen of the Confession’s circumstances which are common to human actions and societies. It is ridiculous to say that instrumental music is in such a category.

It cannot be overlooked, as has just been intimated, that instrumental music is a circumstance which is not common to even particular churches. Some have it, and some do not. How can it be common to all societies, when it is not common to churches themselves? How can the conclusion be avoided, that it is not one of the circumstances designated by the Confession of Faith?

Secondly, The circumstances indicated by the Confession are not parts of the acts of societies: they simply condition the performance of the acts. They are in no sense qualities or modes of the acts. If the proof of this position is required, it is found in the simple consideration that some at least of the acts of various societies are different acts—they are not common between them. It is therefore obvious that the parts of those acts fall into the category of the acts of which they are parts. But these circumstances are common to the acts of all societies. To recur to the example of time and place. These, it is needless to say, while necessary conditions of the acts of all societies, are, from the nature of the case, parts of the acts of none, The resolutions adopted by any society surely do not embrace in them time and place as integral elements, or qualities or modes. But instrumental music, although sometimes employed in churches by itself as a distinct act—in which case it stands confessed as not prescribed and forbidden—is generally used along with singing as a part of the act of church-worship. In these cases it certainly qualifies or modifies the act. As, therefore, it enters as an element into the acts of the church, as a distinctive society, and does not into the acts of all societies, it is ruled out by that fact from the class of circumstances indicated by the Confession.

Thirdly, These circumstances are conditions of actions as they are actions, and not as they are these or those particular kinds of actions. They condition all sorts of actions of all sorts of societies. The debates and votes of a secular deliberative body are as much conditioned by them as the prayers and praises of the church. It will scarcely be contended that instrumental music is a circumstance which conditions the debates and votes of a legislature or of a political meeting. But if not, it is conceded to be excluded from those circumstances which are pronounced by the Confession common to human actions and societies.

Fourthly, These circumstances are conditions necessary to the actions of all societies,—necessary either to the performance of the actions, or to their decorous performance. Let it be observed, that they are necessary not to the performance or the decorous performance of some peculiar actions of particular societies, but to all the actions of all societies. To take the ground that instrumental music is a circumstance in some way a necessary condition of the singing of praise in church-worship is to go outside of those circumstances which the Confession of Faith contemplates. A condition of this peculiar action of the church, however necessary to the performance of the action its employers may deem it, cannot possibly be a common condition of human actions and societies. It lies outside of that class, and therefore outside of the circumstances which the Confession has in view. Instrumental music is palpably such a condition, and cannot be justified by an appeal to this section of the Confession.

Fifthly, These circumstances, as conditions upon which the acts of societies are to be done, cannot be religious in their character. The reason is perfectly plain: they condition the acts of all secular societies, and it would be out of the question to say that they proceed upon religious conditions. But instrumental music when employed in the worship of God’s house is religious. Hence the plea for organs, that they have a solemn sound, and are on that account peculiarly adapted to accompany the singing of praise as a religious act. If it be said that they are a secular accompaniment of religious worship, it may well be asked, By what right is such an accompaniment to the worship of God employed, without a distinct warrant from him? And when the organ is played without the accompaniment of the singing of praise, is it then secular or religious? If secular, will it be justified on the ground that secular music may, by itself, be allowed in God’s house, and that he may be worshipped in a worldly manner? If religious, the question is given up; and then we are compelled to return to the assertion that the church has no discretion in appointing religious elements: they are not among the circumstances which are common to human actions and societies.

The foregoing argument has shown that instrumental music cannot, on any supposable ground, be regarded as a circumstance common to human actions and societies, and that it is therefore excluded by the Confession of Faith from the discretionary control of the church. Unless, then, it can be proved to be one of the things commanded by Christ and his apostles, it cannot be lawfully employed in connection with the worship of God’s house. In order to meet the criticism which may be passed upon the argument that it springs from a singular and contracted conception of the doctrine as to circumstances stated in the Confession of Faith, the views of a few eminent theologians will be cited in its support.

Dr. John Owen, in arguing against a liturgy, enounces the principles contended for in these remarks. “Circumstances,” he says, [14] “are either such as follow actions as actions, or such as are arbitrarily superadded and adjoined by command unto actions, which do not of their own accord, nor naturally nor necessarily attend them. Now religious actions in the worship of God are actions still. Their religious relation doth not destroy their natural being. Those circumstances, then, which do attend such actions as actions not determined by divine institution, may be ordered, disposed of, and regulated by the prudence of men. For instance, prayer is a part of God’s worship. Public prayer is so, as appointed by him. This, as it is an action to be performed by man, cannot be done without the assignment of time, and place, and sundry other things, if order and conveniency be attended to. These are circumstances that attend all actions of that nature, to be performed by a community, whether they relate to the worship of God or no. These men may, according as they see good, regulate and change as there is occasion; I mean, they may do so who are acknowledged to have power in such things. As the action cannot be without them, so their regulation is arbitrary, if they come not under some divine disposition and order, as that of time in general doth. There are also some things, which some men call circumstances also, that no way belong of themselves to the actions whereof they are said to be the circumstances, nor do attend them, but are imposed on them, or annexed unto them, by the arbitrary authority of those who take upon them to give order and rules in such cases; such as to pray before an image or towards the east, or to use this or that form of prayer in such gospel administrations, and no other. These are not circumstances attending the nature of the thing itself, but are arbitrarily superadded to the things that they are appointed to accompany. Whatever men may call such additions, they are no less parts of the whole wherein they serve than the things themselves whereunto they are adjoined.” He then goes on to prove from Scripture that “such additions to or in the worship of God, besides or beyond his own institution and appointment” are not “allowable, or lawful to be practised.”

In another place the same great theologian says: [15] “Whatever is of circumstance in the manner of its performance [worship], not capable of especial determination, as emerging or arising only occasionally, upon the doing of that which is appointed at this or that time, in this or that place, and the like, is left unto the rule of moral prudence, in whose observation their order doth consist. But the superaddition of ceremonies necessarily belonging neither to the institutions of worship nor unto those circumstances whose disposal falls under the rule of moral prudence, neither doth nor can add any thing unto the due order of gospel worship; so that they are altogether needless and useless in the worship of God. Neither is this the whole of the inconvenience wherewith their observance is attended; for although they are not in particular and expressly in the Scripture forbidden—for it was simply impossible that all instances wherein the wit of man might exercise its invention in such things should be reckoned up and condemned—yet they fall directly under those severe prohibitions which God hath recorded to secure his worship from all such additions unto it of what sort soever . . . . The Papists say, indeed, that all additions corrupting the worship of God are forbidden, but such as further adorn and preserve it are not so, which implies a contradiction, for whereas every addition is principally a corruption, because it is an addition, under which notion it is forbidden (and that in the worship of God which is forbidden is a corruption of it), there can be no such preserving, adorning addition, unless we allow a preserving and adorning corruption. Neither is it of more force, which is pleaded by them, that the additions which they make belong not unto the substance of the worship of God, but unto the circumstances of it; for every circumstance observed religiously, or to be observed in the worship of God, is of the substance of it, as were all those ceremonious observances of the law, which had the same respect in the prohibitions of adding, with the most weighty things whatsoever.”

“There is nothing,” says George Gillespie, [16] “which any way pertaineth to the worship of God left to the determination of human laws beside the mere circumstances, which neither have any holiness in them, forasmuch as they have no other use and praise in sacred than they have in civil things, nor yet were particularly determinable in Scripture, because they are infinite; but sacred, significant ceremonies, such as [the] cross, kneeling, surplice, holidays, bishopping, etc., which have no use and praise except in religion only, and which, also, were most easily determinable (yet not determined) within those bounds which the wisdom of God did set to his written Word, are such things as God never left to the determination of any human law.”

He speaks more explicitly to the same effect in the following words: [17] “I direct my course straight to the dissecting of the true limits within which the church’s power of enacting laws about things pertaining to the worship of God is bounded and confined, and which it may not overleap nor transgress. Three conditions I find necessarily requisite in such a thing as the church has power to prescribe by her laws:

“1. It must be only a circumstance of divine worship; no substantial part of it; no sacred, significant, and efficacious ceremony. For the order and decency left to the definition of the church, as concerning the particulars of it, comprehendeth no more but mere circumstances . . . . Though circumstances be left to the determination of the church, yet ceremonies, if we speak properly, are not . . . circumstances which have place in all moral actions, and that to the same end and purpose for which they serve in religious actions—namely, for beautifying them with that decent demeanor which the very light and law of natural reason requireth as a thing beseeming all human actions. For the church of Christ, being a society of men and women, must either observe order and decency in all the circumstances of their holy actions, time, place, person, form, etc., or else be deformed with that disorder and confusion which common reason and civility abhorreth.

“2. That which the church may lawfully prescribe by her laws and ordinances, as a thing left to her determination, must be one of such things as were not determinable by Scripture on that reason which Camero hath given us, namely, because individua are infinita. . . . We say truly of those several and changeable circumstances which are left to the determination of the church, that, being almost infinite, they were not particularly determinable in Scripture . . . . . But as for other things pertaining to God’s worship, which are not to be reckoned among the circumstances of it, they being in number neither many nor in change various, were most easily and conveniently determinable in Scripture. Now, since God would have his Word (which is our rule in the works of his service) not to be delivered by tradition, but to be written and sealed unto us, that by this means, for obviating satanical subtility and succoring human imbecility, we might have a more certain way for conservation of true religion, and for the instauration of it when it faileth among men,—how can we but assure ourselves that every such acceptable thing pertaining any way to religion, which was particularly and conveniently determinable in Scripture, is indeed determined in it; and consequently, that no such thing as is not a mere alterable circumstance is left to the determination of the church?

“3. If the church prescribe anything lawfully, so that she prescribe no more than she hath power given her to prescribe, her ordinance must be accompanied with some good reason and warrant given for the satisfaction of tender consciences.”

“As a positive institution, with a written charter,” remarks Dr. Thornwell, [18] “she [the church] is confined to the express or implied teachings of the Word of God, the standard of her authority and rights, . . . as in the sphere of doctrine she has no opinions, but a faith, so, in the sphere of practice, she has no expedients, but a law. Her power is solely ministerial and declarative. Her whole duty is to believe and obey. Whatever is not commanded, expressly or implicitly, is unlawful. . . . According to our view, the law of the church is the positive one of conformity with Scripture; according to the view which we condemned, it is the negative one of non-contradiction to Scripture. According to us, the church, before she can move, must not only show that she is not prohibited, she must also show that she is actually commanded, she must produce a warrant. Hence we absolutely denied that she has any discretion in relation to things not commanded. She can proclaim no laws that Christ has not ordained, institute no ceremonies which he has not appointed, create no offices which he has not prescribed, and exact no obedience which he has not enjoined. She does not enter the wide domain which he has left indifferent, and by her authority bind the conscience where he has left it free.

“But does it follow from this that she has absolutely no discretion at all? On the contrary, we distinctly and repeatedly asserted, that in the sphere of commanded things she has a discretion—a discretion determined by the nature of the actions, and by the divine principle that all things be done decently and in order. . . . We only limited and defined it. We never denied that the church has the right to fix the hours of public worship, the times and places of the meetings of her courts, the numbers of which they shall be composed, and the territories which each shall embrace. Our doctrine was precisely that of the Westminster standards, of John Calvin, of John Owen, of the Free Church of Scotland, and of the noble army of Puritan martyrs and confessors.”

After quoting the statements of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the subject, he goes on to say: “Here the discretion is limited to some circumstances, and those common to human actions and societies. Now, the question arises, What is the nature of these circumstances? A glance at the proof-texts on which the doctrine relies enables us to answer. Circumstances are those concomitants of an action without which it either cannot be done at all, or cannot be done with decency and decorum. Public worship, for example, requires public assemblies, and in public assemblies people must appear in some costume, and assume some posture. Whether they shall shock common sentiment in their attire, or conform to common practice; whether they shall stand, sit or lie, or whether each shall be at liberty to determine his own attitude—these are circumstances; they are the necessary concomitants of the action, and the church is at liberty to regulate them. Public assemblies, moreover, cannot be held without fixing the time and place of meeting; these, too, are circumstances which the church is at liberty to regulate. Parliamentary assemblies cannot transact their business with efficiency and dispatch—indeed, cannot transact it decently at all—without committees. Committees, therefore, are circumstances common to parliamentary societies, which the church, in her parliaments, is at liberty to appoint. All the details of our government in relation to the distribution of courts, the number necessary to constitute a quorum, the times of their meetings, the manner in which they shall be opened,—all these, and such like, are circumstances, which, therefore, the church has a perfect right to arrange. We must carefully distinguish between those circumstances which attend actions as actions—that is, without which the actions could not be, and those circumstances which, though not essential, are added as appendages. These last do not fall within the jurisdiction of the church. She has no right to appoint them. They are circumstances in the sense that they do not belong to the substance of the act. They are not circumstances in the sense that they so surround it that they cannot be separated from it. A liturgy is a circumstance of this kind, as also the sign of the cross in baptism, and bowing at the name of Jesus. Owen notes the distinction.”

These great men concur in showing that the circumstances of which the Confession of Faith speaks as falling under the discretionary control of the church in the sphere of worship are not superadded appendages to the acts of worship, which may or may not accompany them as the church may determine, but are simply conditions necessary either to the performance of the acts or to their decent and orderly performance—conditions not peculiar to these acts of the church as a distinctive society, but common to the acts of all societies. Particular attention is challenged to the views cited from Gillespie, for the reason that he was a member of the Westminster Assembly, and of course accurately knew and expounded the doctrine of that body on this subject. He draws a clear distinction between what was determinable by Scripture and what was not. What was not so determinable was left to be determined by the church; what was so determinable was excluded from her discretion. Now it is certain that instrumental music was, under the Jewish dispensation, actually determined by the revealed will of God as an element in the temple worship. Need it be said that it was, therefore, not indeterminable? It might have pleased God to determine it as an element in the worship of the synagogue, and in like manner it might have pleased him to determine it as an appendage to that of the christian church. He did not, and consequently it is prohibited. This conclusively settles the doctrine of the Westminster Assembly. It intended to teach that instrumental music was not one of the circumstances indeterminable by Scripture and committed to the discretion of the church. As the question here is in regard to the meaning of the circumstances of which the Confession of Faith treats, this consideration is absolutely decisive. Instrumental music cannot, without violence to the Confession, be placed in the category of circumstances determinable by the church. As, then, it is not commanded it is forbidden; and they who justify its employment in public worship are liable to the serious charge of adding to “the counsel of God” which is “set down” in his Word.

[go to CHAPTER 5.]


[1] Questions 108, 109, 110.

[2] Questions 50, 51, 52.

[3] Chap. xx., sec. 2.

[4] Chap. xxi., sec. 1.

[5] Acts of Assembly of Church of Scotland, 1644.

[6] Art., Organ.

[7] Works, Vol. xiii., pp. 343, 344: London, 1825.

[8] Hist. Puritans, Vol. i, p. 76, Choules’s ed., New York, 1863.

[9] Ibid., p. 93.

[10] Ibid., p. 107.

[11] Works, Vol. xv., p. 37, Goold’s ed.

[12] Works, Vol. ix., p. 463.

[13] Chap. i. Sec. vi.

[14] Works, Vol. xv., pp. 35, 36, Goold’s Ed.

[15] Works, Vol. xv., pp. 469, 471, Goold’s ed.

[16] Works, in Presbyterian’s Armoury, Vol. i., Pref. p. xii.

[17] Works, in Presbyterian’s Armoury, Vol. i., p. 130.

[18] Coll. Writings, Vol. iv., p. 244, ff.