Psallo and the Instrumental Music Controversy

By Wayne Jackson

For more than a century the advocates of the use of instrumental music in Christian worship have contended that one of the stronger arguments in defense of that practice is to be found in the Greek word psallo. This term, found only five times in the New Testament, is rendered by the English terms “sing” (Rom. 15:9; 1 Cor. 14:15; Jas. 5:13), and “make melody” (Eph. 5:19).

It has been alleged, however, that psallo embraces the use of a mechanical instrument. In classical Greek the word meant “to strike,” as, for instance, “striking” the strings of a harp. And so, it is claimed, this concept is transferred into the New Testament.

The History of Psallo

Words have histories, and linguistic history often reveals that terms are altered in their meanings as they pass through the centuries. So it was with psallo.

The history of the Greek language extends back about fifteen centuries before Christ. The era called the “classical” period was from around 900 B.C. (the time of Homer) to the conquests of Alexander the Great (c. 330 B.C.). During this time psallo carried the basic sense of “to touch sharply, to move by touching, to pull, twitch” (Liddell, p. 1841).

Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.), the Greek playwright, used the word of “plucking hair” (Persae, p. 1062). Euripides (480-460 B.C.?), another Greek writer, spoke of “twanging” the bowstring (Bacchae, p. 784). Psallo was used of “twitching” the carpenter’s line so as to leave a mark (Anthologia Palatine, 6.103). Finally, in Plutarch the verb also could convey the sense of “plucking” the strings of an instrument (Pericles 1.6).

Surely it is obvious that in these various passages the object of what is “touched” was supplied by the context.

Scholars are aware, however, that languages change with time. In 1952, F.F. Bruce wrote: “Words are not static things. They change their meaning with the passage of time” (Vine, 1997, p. vi). This concept must be understood if one is to arrive at the meaning of psallo as used in the New Testament.

The Septuagint (LXX) is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that dates from the 3rd century B.C. In this production, psallo is used to represent three different Hebrew words. The term may be used to denote simply the playing of an instrument (1 Sam. 16:16). It may bear the sense of singing, accompanied by an instrument (as certain contexts reveal – cf. Psa. 27:6; 98:5 – Eng. versions). Or, the word may refer to vocal music alone (cf. Psa. 135:3; 138:1; 146:2).

After a detailed consideration of the use of psallo in the Greek OT, Ferguson affirms that “what is clear is that an instrument did not inhere in the word psallo in the Septuagint” (p. 7 – emp. orig.). He contends, in fact, that the “preponderance of occurrences” of psallo in the LXX refer simply to “vocal music.”

In a study of the transitional uses of psallo across the years, one thing becomes apparent. The task of the conscientious Bible student must be to determine how the verb is used in the New Testament. This is the only relevant issue.

Incidentally, if one is going to quote the classical usage of psallo, or that conveyed in the LXX (as defenders of instrumental music commonly do), then he could well argue for the playing of instruments as a pure act of worship – with no singing at all – because that sense is clearly employed at times in those bodies of literature.

Language Authorities

J. H. Thayer (1828-1901) was Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at the Divinity School of Harvard University. He also served on the revision committee that produced the American Standard Version of the New Testament.

In 1885 A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament was published, which reflected Thayer’s translation, revision, and enlargement of an earlier work involving the labors of C.G. Wilke and C.L.W. Grimm. In its day, Thayer’s work was the finest lexicon available, and still is of considerable value.

In discussing psallo, after commenting upon the word’s use in classical Greek, and in the Septuagint, he notes that “in the N.T. [psallo signifies] to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praises of God in song” (p. 675).

The first edition of W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words was issued in 1940 in four volumes. In 1952 a one-volume edition was published. F.F. Bruce, Head of the Department of Biblical History and Literature at the University of Sheffield, wrote the Foreword for that production. Therein, Prof. Bruce praised Vine’s work. He stated that the “Greek scholarship was wide, accurate and up-to-date.” He noted that the author had a “thorough mastery of the classical idiom,” a “close acquaintance with the Hellenistic vernacular,” and an awareness of the influence of the Septuagint upon the New Testament.

In his popular work, Vine, in commenting upon psallo (under “Melody”), notes the classical sense, the Septuagint usage, and then says: “in the N.T., to sing a hymn, sing praise” (1997, p. 730).

In another book, Vine explained the matter more fully.

“The word psallo originally meant to play a stringed instrument with the fingers, or to sing with the accompaniment of a harp. Later, however, and in the New Testament, it came to signify simply to praise without the accompaniment of an instrument” (1951, p. 191 – emp. added).

In 1964. the prestigious Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (edited by Kittel, Friedrich, and Bromiley) issued from the press. The article which dealt with psallo was written by Gerhard Delling. Relative to Ephesians 5:19, Delling contended that the literal use of psallo, as “found in the LXX, is now employed figuratively” (Kittel, et al., p. 499).

In an abridgement of this work, published in 1985, Bromiley expressed it this way: “psallontes does not now denote literally playing on a stringed instrument” (p. 1226).

In the revised edition of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, David Howard of Bethel Theological Seminary, commented upon psallo.

Psallo originally meant to play a stringed instrument; in the LXX it generally translates zimmer and ngn. In the New Testament it refers to singing God’s praises (not necessarily accompanied by strings)” (p. 314).

In the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Balz and Schneider write: “In the NT psallo always refers to a song of praise to God” (p. 495).

In his popular work, Word Meanings in the New Testament, Ralph Earle comments on psallo in Ephesians 5:19.

“‘Making melody’ is one word in Greek, psallontes. The verb psallo meant first to strike the strings of a harp or lyre. Then it meant to ‘strike up a tune.’ Finally it was used in the sense ‘to sing’” (p. 333).

It is important to remember that these men were affiliated with denominational groups that employ instrumental music in their worship. They have no motive for misrepresenting the facts of this issue. Their testimony, therefore, is compelling indeed.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge that a few scholars have set aside the historical evidence, being swayed by their own theological prejudices. They assert that psallo in the New Testament embodies the idea of “playing” a musical instrument. Liddell & Scott, as well as Edward Robinson, in their respective works, listed the term “play” as the significance of psallo in Ephesians 5:19.

The best example of unwarranted lexical liberty in recent times is the Baur-Arndt-Gingrich production. In the first edition (1957), William Arndt and F.W. Gingrich defined psallo as follows: “in our literature, in accordance with OT usage, sing (to the accompaniment of a harp), sing praise … Rom. 15:9… Eph. 5:19”

What most did not realize at the time, however, was that the phrase “to the accompaniment of a harp” was not in Baur’s original work. It was added by the subsequent editors. Following the death of Arndt, Frederick Danker joined with Gingrich for yet another revision (2nd Ed.). At the time, Danker apparently was unaware of the “tampering” by Arndt & Gingrich. When he learned of it, he admitted that the earlier editors had made a “mistake” in their rendition. He promised to try to remedy the error in a future revision.

Gingrich later acknowledged that the added phrase was only his interpretation. In the 2nd edition (1979), the phrase was deleted. However, this comment was added — obviously to placate someone.

“Although the NT does not voice opposition to instrumental music, in view of Christian resistance to mystery cults, as well as Pharisaic aversion to musical instruments in worship … it is likely that some such sense as make melody is best here [Eph. 5:19]” (p 891; see McCord, pp. 390-96).

One might have hoped for something better in the 3rd edition, over which Danker had control. But such was not to be. The editor initiated a “departure” from earlier formats by offering an “expanded definition” of words. And so the “sing, sing praise” of the 2nd editon becomes “to sing songs of praise, with or without instrumental accompaniment” in this latest edition.

However, both 2nd and 3rd editions suggest that those who render psallo by the word “play” in Ephesians 5:19 “may be relying too much on the earliest meaning of psallo [i.e., the classical meaning].” And yet, this is precisely what Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker have done. They imported the classical sense into the New Testament, when their lexicon was supposed to define words according to the “New Testament and other early Christian literature” usage.

People need to realize that Greek lexicons are not inspired of God; they can be flawed at times. J.H. Thayer summed-up the issue rather candidly.

“The nature and use of the New Testament writings require that the lexicographer should not be hampered by a too rigid adherence to the rules of scientific lexicography. A student often wants to know not so much the inherent meaning of a word as the particular sense it bears in a given context or discussion … [T]he lexicographer often cannot assign a particular New Testament reference to one or another of the acknowledged significations of a word without indicating his exposition of the passage in which the reference occurs. In such a case he is compelled to assume, at least to some extent, the functions of the exegete” (p. VII).

Some scholars have clearly set aside the true significance of certain words and allowed their theological bias to flavor their definitions. This has happened with baptizo (immerse), when some suggest that “sprinkling” is encompassed in the verb’s meaning. Some theologians manipulate the meaning of the preposition eis (for, unto, in order to obtain) in Acts 2:38 in an effort to avoid the conclusion that immersion in water is essential to salvation. This is a sad but tragic reality within the theological community.

Translations

It must be a matter of some consternation, to those who argue that psallo necessarily includes the instrument, that virtually no standard (committee) translation of the English language (e.g., KJV, ASV, RSV, NEB, NIV, NASB, NKJV, ESV) provides a hint of instrumental music in any of the five texts where the verb is found in the New Testament. This should be dramatic testimony to the fact that the cream of the world’s scholarship has not subscribed to the notion that psallo inheres a mechanical instrument of music.

Post-Apostolic Testimony

In a thorough discussion of the topic, Prof. Everett Ferguson has shown dramatically that the writers of the first several centuries of the post-apostolic period employed psallo simply to denote the idea of “singing,” or else they used the term in its classical sense only metaphorically, e.g., in Ephesians 5:19, plucking the strings of one’s heart in praise to God (pp. 18-27). (Note: In his translation, Hugo McCord rendered this passage as “plucking the strings of your heart,” thus giving the “plucking” a figurative thrust.)

At this point we must add this testimony from McClintock & Strong’s celebrated Cyclopedia:

“The Greeks as well as the Jews were wont to use instruments as accompaniments in their sacred songs. The converts to Christianity accordingly must have been familiar with this mode of singing; yet it is generally believed that the primitive Christians failed to adopt the use of instrumental music in their religious worship. The word psallein, which the apostle uses in Eph. 5:19, has been taken by some critics to indicate that they sang with such accompaniments … But if this be the correct inference, it is strange indeed that neither Ambrose … nor … Basil … nor Chrysostom … in the noble encomiums which they severally pronounce upon music, make any mention of instrumental music. Basil, indeed, expressly condemns it as ministering only to the depraved passions of men … and [he] must have been led to this condemnation because some had gone astray and borrowed this practice from the heathen … The general introduction of instrumental music can certainly not be assigned to a date earlier than the 5th or 6th centuries” (p. 759).

An Ad Hominem Observation

An ad hominem (“to the man”) argument is designed to show the fallacy of an illogical position. It appeals to an erroneous proposition being defended, and demonstrates that, if followed to its logical conclusion, the idea manifests an unreasonable viewpoint. That this is a valid method of dealing with error is evidenced by the fact that Jesus himself occasionally employed it to expose false teaching (cf. Mt. 12:27). There is certainly a legitimate usage of this type of argument in the music controversy.

Several writers, who have argued the psallo position, have contended that an instrument of music is unavoidably inherent within the term. O.E. Payne alleged that if the Christian fails to employ the instrument in worship, he “cannot conform to the divine injunction to psallein” (p. 172). Others (e.g., Dwaine Dunning and Tom Burgess) have argued similarly (see Bales, pp. 97ff).

In view of this, let us consider Ephesians 5:19, where the inspired apostle commands the saints in Ephesus to practice “speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody psallontes with your heart to the Lord.”

If the participle psallontes retains a literal, classical sense (to pluck), and therefore inheres the instrument, then the following conclusions necessarily result.

This command cannot be obeyed without the employment of the instrument.

Since each Christian is under the obligation to psallo, each person must play an instrument.

The instrument must be one capable of being “plucked” (e.g., the harp), which would eliminate organs, pianos, trumpets, etc.

This writer has never encountered an advocate of the use of instruments in worship who will stay with the logical demands of his argument in defense of psallo. That speaks volumes.

Recent History

Perhaps the most telling thing of all in this controversy over instrumental worship is the fact that in the recent history of our exchanges with those of the Independent Christian Church (with whom we’ve had most of our discussions), the psallo argument has been virtually abandoned.

One of the last major debates on instrumental music was between Alan E. Highers (churches of Christ) and Given O. Blakely (Independent Christian Church) in April, 1988. During the course of that encounter, Blakely never attempted to introduce the psallo argument. In fact, he “broke new ground” in that he argued that “authority” for what one does in worship is not even needed; worship is a wholly unregulated activity — a position wholly absurd!

Instrumental music in Christian worship is indefensible.

Interesting Quotes

“Although Josephus tells of the wonderful effects produced in the Temple by the use of instruments of music, the first Christians were of too spiritual a fibre to substitute lifeless instruments for or to use them to accompany the human voice” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 651).

“There is no record in the NT of the use of instruments in the musical worship of the Christian church” (Pfeiffer, p. 1163).

“Whatever evidence is forthcoming, is to the effect that the early Christians did not use musical instruments” (Smith, p. 1365).

“The foregoing argument [of this book] has proceeded principally by two steps. The first is: Whatsoever, in connection with the public worship of the church, is not commanded by Christ, either expressly or by good and necessary consequence, in his Word is forbidden. The second is: Instrumental music, in connection with the public worship of the church is not so commanded by Christ. The conclusion is: Instrumental music, in connection with the public worship of the church, is forbidden” (John J. Girardeau, Professor, Columbia Theological Seminary (Presbyterian), p. 200).

Sources/Footnotes
  • Bales, James D. 1987. Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship. Resource Publications: Searcy, AR.
  • Balz, Horst & Schneider, Gerhard. 1993. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 3. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI.
  • Baur, W., Gingrich, F. W., Danker, F. 1979. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. University of Chicago: Chicago, IL.
  • Bromiley, G.W., Ed. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament — Abridged. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI.
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia. 1913. The Encyclopedia Press: New York, NY.
  • Earle, Ralph. 2000. Word Meanings in the New Testament. Hendrickson: Peabody, MA.
  • Ferguson, Everett. 1972. A Cappella Music. Biblical Research Press: Abilene, TX.
  • Girardeau, John J. 1888. Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church. Whittet and Shepperson: Richmond, VA.
  • Howard, David. 1986. “Melody,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia – Revised. Vol. 3. G. W. Bromiley, Ed. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI.
  • Kittel, Gerhard, et al., Eds. 1964. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. VIII. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI.
  • Liddell, Henry and Scott, Robert. 1869. A Greek-English Lexicon. Clarendon: Oxford, England.
  • McClintock, John & Strong, James Baker: 1969 Reprint. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Vol. VI. Grand Rapids, MI.
  • McCord, Hugo. n.d. Fifty Years of Lectures. Vol. 2. Church of Christ: Atwood, TN.
  • Payne, O. E. 1920. Instrumental Music Is Scriptural. Standard: Cincinnati, OH.
  • Pfeiffer, C. F., Vos, Howard and Rea, John. 1998. Wycliffe Bible Dictionary. Hendrickson: Peabody, MA.
  • Smith, William and Cheetham, Samuel. 1880. A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities. Vol. II. John Murray: London, England.
  • Thayer, J. H. 1958. Greek-English Lexicon. T. and T. Clark: Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • Vine, W. E. 1951. First Corinthians. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI..
  • Vine, W. E. 1997 ed. Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nelson: Nashville, TN.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.