[K:NWTS 22/2 (Sep 2007) 66-69]

Book Review

Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World, Musical Thought in the Early Church. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007. 232 pp. Paper. ISBN 978-0-8028-3219-1. $18.00.

When I was converted in college, we sang traditional hymns. After I finished seminary, I took a call to an old United Presbyterian Church (N.A.). This church used the United Presbyterian Psalter of 1912. We, therefore, sang only the Psalms. At first I wasn't sure what I had gotten myself into, but now I thank God for that experience. It was a great growing time when I was able to learn the Psalms and today I still believe very strongly in singing the Psalms. However, I never became an exclusive psalmist. I believe that Colossians 3:16-17, understood in its context, requires us to sing songs that reflect the fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ. This is seen in the phrase, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly," as you sing. This can only take place with New Testament revelation.

However, through my experience I have always been interested in the place of music in worship. Early in my ministry, I came across a doctoral dissertation from the Free University of Amsterdam entitled, Musical Aspects of the New Testament, by W. S. Smith. It had an excellent description of music in the New Testament, and I still refer to it today. Therefore, when I saw the title of this volume, I was very intrigued to learn more about music during the time of the early church.

The author of this book is Calvin Stapert, a professor of music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For many years, he has been interested in the early church. In chapter one, he draws a parallel between life in the Roman Empire and life in our world today. This is the basis for drawing a parallel between music then and now. He follows with a foundational chapter describing the main events of the second and third centuries. Then he takes two chapters to describe the life and teaching of Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian. Clement was Greek-speaking and more favorable to Greek ways; Tertullian was Latin-speaking and dead set against any part of the culture invading the church.

In the next three chapters, Stapert follows the same procedure as with the previous three, only this time he is covering the late third century through the earlier fifth. The two church fathers that he highlights are Ambrose and John Chrysostom. Again Ambrose is Latin-speaking and Chrysostom is Greek-speaking. Nevertheless, in this case they are both leery of their culture. He chose these two because of the many references to music in their writings.

Thus we have the first eight chapters of the book. I must say that they are more a history of the time and a description of the thought of the men then they are an understanding of the music of their time. However, just when I was tired of digging, I hit the mother lode. Chapters 9 and 10 make this book a treasure. In chapter 9, we have a detailed description of the use of music in the Roman Empire, describing what transpired in the theater, in the streets and in the homes. Don't worry, it doesn't get too graphic thus making it X-rated; rather it is just descriptive enough to give your imagination a pretty good idea of how bad things were. The music was raucous, sensual, and loud. Sometimes it was so bad that you could be in your home and not able to think straight. (It is interesting to make the comparison with our generation and its music.)

Chapter 10 is the real gem. It describes what church music was like from the time of the synagogue in the New Testament era up to the fully developed monastic orders. Some of the results of studying the evidences that I found interesting were:

(1) There is no evidence that the Jews sung the Psalms in synagogue worship. There is evidence that they sung Psalms at home, at weddings, at funerals, and at the Passover.

(2) From the New Testament era until the third century, the early church sang mainly songs that they composed about Christ and the Gospel.

(3) In the fourth century, the practice of singing the Psalms and Canticles (other parts of Scripture) came to full bloom. The reason for this is that the Gnostics and the Arians were converting many through their music and the orthodox church wanted to counter this with singing the Scriptures themselves.

(4) After the fourth century, the monasteries kept the practice of Psalm singing alive by singing up to thirty Psalms a day. In the course of their regula, they would cover all one hundred and fifty Psalms.

There is one more chapter that I would like to emphasize. It is chapter 12, "Postlude: What Can the Early Church Teach Us about Music?" In this chapter, Stapert returns to the parallel between the Roman Empire and our times. In doing so, he believes that we should take the same stance as the early church. "In our sensation-hungry, pleasure-mad society, we should be no less courageous than were the church fathers in holding and promoting counter-cultural views and practices. They did not hesitate to denounce the music of their society that they saw as pernicious, no matter how popular it was. We should be as ready to denounce what is pernicious in our own society" (196). He then talks about three arguments that are used against this stance. One, "it is just a song"; two, all things are the work of a good Creator and are, therefore, good; and three (adopted from the church growth movement), "if we wish to see the church grow, we must adopt the music of the ambient culture" (198). He then goes on to successfully demolish each of these arguments.

Although I found a great deal of the material in the first eight chapters to be more church history and philosophy than they were a discussion of music, nevertheless, the material in chapters 9, 10, and 12, is so important for the contemporary discussions of psalms vs. hymns and cultural accommodation vs. counter-culture, that I would, nevertheless, highly recommend reading this book.

—J. Peter Vosteen