A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church

By Grimminger, Daniel Jay | The Hymn, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church


Grimminger, Daniel Jay, The Hymn


A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church Calvin R Stapert. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. 232+xiv pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-8028-3219-1. U. S. $18.00.

Documents discussing music in the early Church are vast. While there are only two early treatises devoted entirely to music, mention is made in other treatises, sermons, and commentaries. "Music was not something early Christians thought about in isolation. It was involved in their thinking on everything . . . ." (p. 3). Calvin Stapert, professor at Calvin College, has written a monograph capable of providing a thorough introduction to the subject.

Until now, there have been few volumes that have pulled together source material in English translation with commentary for students and scholars. James McKinnon's Music in Early Christian Literature and Oliver Strunk's Source Readings in Music History have served dieir purpose well in this regard; A New Song for an Old World, which is part of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies Series, goes in a different (theological) direction. The author states that society has disobeyed the fourth commandment by discarding the past and that this habit may be corrected by listening to "earlier voices" (p. 4).

The foundational chapter establishes Christian music as thankful response to the atoning work of Jesus as opposed to the music of non-Christian sects that was a form of epiclesis(calling down gods). Stapert guides the reader through some landmark Latin and Greek writings by Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Augustine. He recounts how music was a tool in spreading Christianity and in defending against heresies, interspersing excerpts of the ancient writers with his own commentary. He reexamines the use of music in secular society and shows that these ancient writers never denounced music itself. (p. 145)

Of special interest is the fourth century shift (p. 150) in which three centuries of earlier Christian hymn writing gave way to a renewed emphasis on psalmody, due to the rise of monasticism and the threat of popular heresies. Stapert believes that psalmodic practice was most likely adopted by the early Christians from Jewish home praxis (although this reception history is only probable).

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