Music and the Church Fathers

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

As I’ve been reading Saint John Chrysostom’s On Marriage and Family Life, one of the things that strikes me is how concerned he was about the deleterious effects of pagan music into the Christian household.

Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) was not the only church father to have this concern. In his book A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church, Calvin Stapert shows that an abiding concern among many of the church fathers was music. This naturally included a desire to encourage the church to glorify God through hymnody, but it also involved warnings against the spiritual harm of pagan music.

This concern is not surprising. After all, the early church lived in a world where the line between Christianity and paganism was very real, very distinct and very palpable. One of the chief areas where the tentacles of paganism was felt was in popular music.

The difference between their world and ours is not that paganism no longer makes inroads into the church through music. The difference is that many Christians today no longer think that music is an area where we need to exercise discernment.

If you don’t believe me, try this little experiment. Go up to a Christian friend and start criticizing the type of music his or her church chooses to play for its worship. Nine times out of ten, the response you will get is not that your criticisms are false, but that it is based on a category mistake because this is a realm regulated by pure subjective taste.

Earlier in the year I was talking to Douglas Wilson about this. He observed that in most areas of life, Christians will agree with non-Christians that certain types of music are more suited to various activities than other types of music. It is only when it comes to the activity of worship that we make an exception and say that any type of music is just as appropriate as any other type.

Here are some examples of what I mean. If you were to ask anyone to suggest a type of music to create a festive atmosphere, or a melancholy mood, to hype someone up before a fight, to create an atmosphere appropriate for seduction or a barbecue or a birthday party, we could all name certain styles and probably even certain specific pieces. But when it comes to worship music, many Christians are hesitate to suggest that one style might be more appropriate for worship than another.

Now worship music probably shouldn’t be where we begin when we talk about music. One of the reasons why Christians are so confused about music on Sunday mornings is because they haven’t first understood about music from Monday to Saturday.

Partly this is because we haven’t understood how important music really is. It is commonly assumed among Christians that it is only the words that make a song good or bad. We’ve failed to take seriously the warnings of Plato and Aristotle on the formative power of melody, harmony and rhythm.

It is beyond the scope of this post to even begin to outline a proper theology of music. However, I do want to close by pointing to some helpful resources that can guide us to developing a musical discernment: