Stapert, Calvin R. A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.
a review by Brian Collins
Historical theology provides a great service to the church, especially when applied to matters that are fiercely debated among God’s people today. C. S. Lewis, in his famous celebration of old books, observes that the errors of older writers “are not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing.” Calvin Stapert’s, A New Song for an Old World, provides this service to the present-day debate over church music. By ushering them into the old world, Stapert hopes to give readers a fuller perspective on their own.
Stapert begins by extending Lewis’s argument. He first provides a more theological reason for understanding the thought of earlier Christians: obedience to the command to honor one’s father and mother—applied here by extension to our spiritual forebears—of necessity involves understanding what these spiritual parents thought. In addition to this (and here Stapert gives some specificity to Lewis’s practical observation), the Enlightenment has so influenced Christian thought on music that a pre-Enlightenment perspective on music becomes important for Christians. Stapert’s point is not that all post-Enlightenment music or thought on music is problematic. His point is Lewis’s: Christians will find it more difficult to evaluate post-Enlightenment music and thought without knowing the earlier views.
The body of the book begins with a survey of New Testament musical teaching and example. Stapert highlights two major themes in biblical song: rejoicing and triumph balanced by sorrowful cries for mercy. He also distinguishes biblical song from pagan songs which were used to summon divine beings. Christian songs call upon God, but they have no magical power. New Testament songs also have two audiences: God and other believers. Finally, Stapert notes that the emphasis on the unity that characterized New Testament and early church practice of teaching and singing. Singing together with one voice made audible the unity of the church.
The core of the book surveys early church thought on church music from the second through the fifth centuries. A survey of the second and early third centuries is followed by more detailed studies of Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian. This pattern is repeated with a survey of the late third through fifth centuries once again followed by two more detailed studies: Ambrose and Chrysostom. Two chapters then summarize the findings. Positively, the fathers urged their people to sing songs and hymns to familiarize them with sound doctrine and to guard them against heresy, to calm negative passions to raise their affections toward God, and to praise the Creator and Savior. Negatively, the fathers polemicized against pagan music. They did not target all music of unbelievers; they “aimed no polemic at the nobler art music or the folk music of their day” (145). Their critiques were “aimed at a few well defined targets: the music of the popular public spectacles, the music associated with voluptuous banqueting, the music associated with pagan weddings, and the music of pagan religious rites and festivities” (145). They described the music they rejected as “licentious, voluptuous, frenzied, frantic, inebriating, titillating, scurrilous, turbulent, immodest, and meretricious” (54, here describing Clement of Alexandria’s writings). They were concerned that his music would deform a person’s character and would arouse deformed passions that were governed by neither reason nor love (55, 86-90). Interestingly, this view of music remained constant despite the variety of views about pagan culture. The critique of pagan music existed in both Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian.
Stapert concludes the body of the work with a chapter on Augustine and inordinate loves. Augustine warns that beautiful sacred music can be dangerous because it draws the mind from God to the music itself. This is a sin, not because such music is not to be loved, but because no earthly thing is to be loved for its own sake. All earthly goods are to be loved as vehicles to love God. Stapert shares the concerns of those who wish to guard against an asceticism which shirks from taking delight in God’s good creation, but he also thinks that Augustine’s discussion of ordering loves contains important insights from which modern readers will especially benefit.
Though Stapert’s work is primarily historical, he does not write for mere antiquarian interest. He believes the contemporary church needs to recover the musical insight of the early church. His concluding chapter, a postlude he calls it, asks what the early church can teach the present-day church. Positively, Stapert hopes for four things: (1) a recovery of the centrality of the psalms in worship, (2) the incorporation of the best patristic hymn texts in our worship, (3) contemporary hymns modeled on ancient hymns—”texts that address God communally in language that is simple yet dignified, poetically excellent, and redolent with scriptural vocabulary, stories, sentiments, and imagery” (194), (4) a recovery of psalm and hymn singing as a part of the Christian’s daily life. Negatively, Stapert hopes that modern Christians will follow the church fathers in rejecting pagan music. He especially hopes the father’s reasoning about music will puncture three modern myths: (1) “It’s just a song”—and therefore no ethical concerns should be raised, (2) music is a creation of God and therefore no ethical criticism may be mounted, and (3) “if we wish to see the church grow, we must adopt the music of the ambient culture” (199).
A New Song in an Old World is a work of scholarship aimed at serving the church. It deserves a wide reading in the hope that it would make a small contribution toward Christians singing together with one voice that makes audible the unity of the church in Christ by the Spirit.
Brian Collins recently completed a Ph.D. in theology at Bob Jones University and is currently employed at the Bob Jones University Press.