My goal in this series is to help believers apply the Bible to their musical choices in life and worship. My contention is, however, that believers today approach the issue of musical choices with certain errant foundational presuppositions that need to be corrected before they can rightly apply the Bible in this area. So my task in this paper is to address a few categories of thought that inform our approach when applying the Bible to music and suggest a few ways that we may need to correct our thinking.
Premodern thought, even non-Christian premodern thought, understood this distinction because it understood man to be a union of body and spirit. Secularism teaches that man is merely body, but the Bible teaches a holistic dualism where material and immaterial combine to compose man.1 Unlike Plato, who argued that the body is the inferior, undesirable “shell” of the true person, the Bible teaches that the physical body is a good, God-given part of human nature. In fact, believers will be given new, physical bodies after the resurrection. Even during the intermediate state, souls seem to have some kind of bodily form. In other words, human “persons” are complete only as a uniting of body and soul. Animals are only body; God is only spirit.2 But man was created out of the dust of the earth (material) and infused with the very breath of God (spirit). Thus man is a living soul.
The body and spirit constantly interact and influence one another. For instance, information that enters through the physical senses can then be processed by the immaterial mind. Or, something contemplated by the mind can result in physical feelings. Man is wonderfully designed by God as an interaction between the spirit and body.
Although the body and spirit do interact and affect one another as the totality of the human person, each part can be affected apart from the other. Just like animals operate completely on the basis of biological reactions to stimuli, so man can react on that basis alone. For example, if a child rounds the corner and his sibling shouts “Boo!” in order to scare him, the reaction the child has is purely physical — nothing had occurred in his spirit to cause him to jump. His brain gathered the data of a suddenly loud sound that produced certain feelings that created the impulse to jump.
This kind of purely physical, chemical process of causation is part of the biological nature of man. Appetite, fear, anger, sexual drive, sentimentality, and many other passions that produce feelings such as tears, increased heart rate, goosebumps, or exhilaration can be formed without thought by pure, physical stimuli. The physical response of laughing when tickled is an example of this purely physical causation. Adults, infants, and animals alike can experience this kind of response.
On the other hand, these kinds of physical reactions can also be created as a result of thought. This reveals the interaction between spirit and body. As the mind (a component of the spiritual nature) comprehends an insult, it produces the passion of anger accompanied by various feelings that move the person to action. Likewise, when a person laughs because he understands a joke, the same physical response occurs as when he is tickled, but it began in his mind, a component of spirit.
But just like the physical part of man can be affected apart from the spirit, so can the spirit operate apart from any influence upon the body. A man may have love for his wife because of his knowledge of her, but that love is not always accompanied by physical feelings. Love is an affection — something purely spiritual. It can, and often does, produce feelings, but it does not have to. Often those feelings are mistaken for the love itself, but if love were merely a feeling, then God would not be able to experience love, for He has no body.
The affections are part of man’s spiritual nature. They are products of thought and may or may not be accompanied by feelings. Furthermore, different people experience different levels of feeling as a result of possessing certain affections. Two people may both possess the affection of courage but may exhibit it through different physical feelings.3
This kind of distinction between spiritual affection and physical feeling must be maintained when discussing the nature of spiritual experience. A response of the affections — a spiritual inclination toward or away from an intellectual idea — may result in some kind of physical expression. It might be tears or exhilaration or goosebumps or increased heart rate. But that kind of connection varies widely from time to time or person to person, and therefore the physical feelings do not define the spiritual experience. One can experience the affection of love without anything happening physically to him. This is certain because God experiences affections, and he has no body. Or one can experience the affection of love and have a whole lot of physical things happen to him. That kind of spirit-body connection varies based on many factors, and what is important to note is that there is no consistent, universal connection between a certain spiritual experience and particular physical feelings or expressions. Two different people may both experience the spiritual affection of love, but it may affect them physically in completely different ways.
Furthermore, physical feelings can be artificially stimulated without any spiritual experience whatsoever. A person may experience a fast heart beat, goosebumps, and exhilaration as a result of the affection of joy, but those same physical feelings can be chemically stimulated by riding a roller coaster.
The essential point to recognize is that while physical feelings often accompany spiritual affections, those feelings do not define the spiritual experience. Unfortunately in our day, because such distinctions have been lost, spiritual experience is often defined by physical feelings or external expressions. Many Christians rightly insist that spiritual experience is essentially a component of the emotions, but because they recognize no distinction within the category of emotion, they define emotion by the physical experience.
Jonathan Edwards faced this very problem during and after the Great Awakening. As people were truly, spiritually converted, many did experience intense physical responses, and those physical responses came to define the Awakening. This created two extremes in how Christians viewed what was happening. Some believers who saw the physical responses as the defining characteristic of the event sought to recreate such experiences using means to manipulate physical feelings. Others rejected the validity of the Awakening altogether because they saw what was happening as merely excesses of emotionalism. Edwards’ reply was to emphasize the distinction between religious affections and physical response and define religion as consisting in the affections which may manifest themselves in external feelings.
In his Religious Affections, Edwards sought to correct this kind of thinking by asserting what was not a sign of spirituality and explaining the defining characteristics of the religious affections. Among things Edwards argued were signs of “nothing” were the following:
Instead, Edwards argued that true religious affections are characterized by the following:
What is very interesting is that after the Awakening, Edwards noted that the more genuine conversions were those, not accompanied by intense physical externals, but those characterized by “greater solemnity, and greater humility and self-distrust, and greater engagedness after holy living and perseverance.”4 In other words, Edwards’ conclusion was that true religious affections usually produced more subtle, modest physical responses rather than the intense emotionalism for which the Awakening is often known. And the only true evidence of affection is holy living.
Since that time equating physical feeling with spiritual experience became more and more common. Then historically, as thoughtful conservatives noticed the excesses of emotionalism within some circles of Christianity, they began to deny that emotion had any part in the life of faith. Yet it was not emotion per se that was problematic, it was lack of distinction between spiritual affections and physical feelings.
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.