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What Did the Early Church Think About Music?

What Did the Early Church Think About Music?

When writing about church music, people often cherrypick early church leaders' words to support or not support a present-day practice or viewpoint.

It goes like this: “Shiny quote from Augustine. Therefore, do/don’t do XYZ in church.”

If you’re talking about How Church Music Should Be, it’s easy to pull soundbites from people like Basil the Great and Augustine because these men did have things to say on the topic.

But they didn’t necessarily say or think what you think they did. And, what they seem to say doesn’t necessarily translate to present-day issues.

Enter Music in Early Christian Literature. It's an excellent starting place to get a fuller picture on what leaders in the early church thought about music.

Music in Early Christian Literature by James McKinnon

It’s a comprehensive collection of the extant passages on music by early church leaders. In total, that's about 400 passages (originally in Latin, Greek, and Syriac). They range from the New Testament to the mid-fifth century. 

The book includes “virtually every passage” on liturgical psalmody and of “references to music as one of the liberal arts” (vii). 

This scope is important because “(t)he typical early Christian reference to music is an incidental remark made by a church father in some lengthy work on an entirely different subject” (vii). All these scattered references would be virtually impossible for non-experts to locate, but Music in Early Christian Literature gathers them together in one volume.

The book has two other features that make it useful. McKinnon’s translations prioritize musical accuracy, whereas other translations do not necessarily have accurate translations of musical terms. And the passages are presented with basic, factual introductions, not interpretations that argue a present-day issue.

Who was McKinnon?

James McKinnon (1932-1999) was one of the foremost musicologists of the mid-to-late twentieth century. He researched medieval and renaissance music, especially chant and other music used in Christian worship. He taught at SUNY-Buffalo for about three decades, then UNC-Chapel Hill for another decade. He also worked as a church organist and choir director. 

So, what did leaders in the early church actually say (or not say) about music?

Music in the Early Church lets you find answers to that question by organizing the chapters into 11 chronological and regional areas:
    •    New Testament
    •    1st- and 2nd-century (e.g. Clement of Rome and Justin Martyr)
    •    3rd-century Greek (e.g. Origen)
    •    3rd- and early 4th-century Western authors (e.g. Tertullian)
    •    4th-century Alexandria authors and desert monastics (e.g. Evagrius Ponticus)
    •    4th-century Asia minor: the Cappadocians (e.g. Basil the Great)
    •    Palestine, Antioch and Syria (e.g. John Chrysostom)
    •    Greek historians (e.g. Eurebius of Caesarea)
    •    Apostolic Constitutions, Egeria, and the Eastern Councils
    •    4th- and early 5th-century Western authors (e.g. Ambrose and Jerome)
    •    Augustine and minor western authors 

The book also has a thorough index, so you can explore it topically.

For example, the index shows passages referencing dance. But it also gives subtopics to make your reading more specific: allegorical exegesis of, at pagan banquets, choral, Gnostic Christian, heavenly choral, heretical, in Old Testament, of David, of prophets, of Salome, pagan. 

Some of the indexed topics that are particularly relevant for issues in today’s church music world are: singing in church services, women singing in church services, psalmody, and pagan music.

But does it matter what they thought?

And what do their views mean for music-making in 21st-century church services?

The answer depends largely upon your church’s or denomination’s perspective. Some groups accord great respect—even deference—to early Christian writings, especially of the authors considered Church Fathers or Saints. Others hold these writing more lightly—informative but of equal or lesser value than present-day views. And some may discount them almost entirely—interesting for historical purposes, for understanding “how we got to where we are today” but of no particular spiritual significance.

Of course, that's a simplification of denominational viewpoints. But the point is: the usefulness of Music in Early Christian Literature and its relevance to your work is largely contingent on what denomination or church you minister in. At the very least, it gives a comprehensive survey of viewpoints that influenced musical practices in the early church.

Today’s concerns about music in the church are nothing new, and Music in Early Christian Literature puts those concerns in a long historical perspective. 

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