Thursday, July 24, 2008

Augustine On: Church Music

I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know from experience, can accrue from singing. Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.
- St. Augustine, Confessions, A.D. 354-430


  1. I feel this way too a lot of the time

  2. Stay tuned. More about this tomorrow.

  3. The apostles sang when in prison Acts 16:25

    Believers are supposed to sing according to Ephesians 5:19

    During the Lord's Supper, they sang according to Matt. 26:30--including Jesus, most likely.

    James 5:13 tells us to sing when we are cheerful

    In Corinthians 14:15, we read about Paul who prays and sings in the spirit and with the mind as well.

    And Psalms are basically worship songs composed mostly by King David.

    I could go on, but you have your own concordances and bibles. No where is there any caution or warnings that singing is a "grievous sin".

    I don't know what kind of temptations Augustine was experiencing with first century church music. And I'm not saying that he is wrong. I don't understand. How can singing itself be more moving than the truth it conveys when the truth of the song is the reason for the song?

    Perhaps, this is why I can never finish "Confessions". Augustine drives me bananas.

  4. One can have a "religious" experience without ever encountering God.

    I think Augustine was referring to the difference between performance and worship, i.e., when the performer is more the focus of attention than the song.

    Also, I'm not entirely sure he was referring to congregational singing. One way to read this is that there was one singer who was being listened to. I don't know enough about church music in the 4th Century to be able to say for sure.

  5. Oh yeah, 4th century, :). Thanks. I've talked to a variety of musicians and choir members about their experiences while serving in worship services. A few, the exceptions, do feel as though they are truly worshipping while performing--they tend to be the ones who persue music as a profession, ironically. And I can tell that they are genuine, since their worship easily leads others into worship. The rest honestly admit to me that they have trouble focusing on God while they sing or play, and my feedback is always is that that should quit. Which never happens, by the way.
    Our church has two worship teams that trade off, led by godly men who are about worship, not performance. One teammember is mentally disabled, but is welcomed on the team despite the fact he doesn't sing nor play an instrument. Another teammember told me that prayer time lasts just as long as rehearsal.
    I think that the distraction from worship by the beauty of the music can be overcome by the joint effort of both listener and the listened to. But I do agree with Auggie that no matter what century that we are in, it is an issue.

  6. St. Augustine also famously said,
    "He who sings, prays twice."

    Sounds like we may have a paradox.