Last week I offered a brief synopsis of the standard evangelical progressive philosophy of culture and worship. Today, I’d like to offer a simple counterpoint to that view. This conservative philosophy, of course, is a central focus of much of what we write here at Religious Affections, and this post is not meant to be an exhaustive explanation and defense. I’d encourage you to take a look at A Conservative Christian Declaration or David de Bruyn’s book The Conservative Church for a much more thorough explanation. However, this post is meant to be a simple summary of a robust, consistent conservative philosophy of culture and worship.
Conservatism has, of course, a long tradition in the history of Western philosophy. From the perspective of the history of Western thought, Christian conservatism might be considered a subset of classical conservatism or “Realist Conservatism.” Classical conservatism is built upon two core pillars, which provides a helpful structure through which to explore Christian conservatism.
Belief in Transcendent Absolute Principles
First, Realist Conservatism holds that there is an absolute order of universals that defines the nature of things and exists apart from human perception. Defined this way, Christianity can be no less than Realist, affirming an absolute and unchanging reality that governs all nature and reveals its meaning and value. As T. David Gordon observed, “Christian Theism is unabashedly Realist, and that so from the opening words of the Bible.”1 Generally speaking, classical conservatives divide the absolute order of universals into three “Great Ideas” by which we judge meaning and value in the world: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Where Christian realism progresses further is in rooting such transcendent, absolute principles in the sovereign will of the self-existent Creator. These principles are revealed to us in creation (Ps 19), in our consciences (Rom 1), and mostly perfectly in the written Word of God (2 Tim 3:16–17.
God as the source. Belief in these transcendent principles is rooted in a conviction that God is the source, sustainer, and end of all things. The Bible clearly proclaims that God is self-existent and self-sustaining, and all things come from him (Rom 11:36). There are no such things as brute facts apart from God; they are facts because God determined them to be so. Moral standards are not merely conceived out of convention apart from God; actions are moral or immoral based on how they compare to the moral character of God. And in the same way, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; something is beautiful because it reflects God’s own beauty. With this in mind, Christians as image-bearers of God must be committed to thinking God’s thoughts after him, to behaving in certain ways that conform to God’s moral will, and to loving those things that God calls lovely. Conservative Christians are therefore concerned with orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy.
Scripture as the expression. Conservative Christians also believe that Scripture itself communicates absolute truth, goodness, and beauty, not just discursively, but aesthetically through its various literary forms and devices. This belief is rooted in the doctrine of verbal-plenary inspiration. The Holy Spirit of God inspired every word in the original autographs of Scripture. This implies that while the word choices, grammar, syntax, poetic language, and literary forms were products of the human author’s writing style, culture, and experiences, we must also affirm that these aspects of the form of Scripture are exactly how God desired his truth to be communicated. Kevin Vanhoozer is helpful here:
It has been said . . . that poetry is “the best words put in the best order.” Similarly, because we are dealing with the Bible as God’s Word, we have good reason to believe that the biblical words are the right words in the right order.2
Those who hold to verbal-plenary inspiration rightly insist that what words biblical authors chose are important, as are how those words were put together into sentences and paragraphs, as well as literary forms, and how we interpret the meaning of biblical passages is directly dependent upon our understanding of the historical, grammatical, and cultural context. Verbal-plenary inspiration, therefore, requires that we understand the nature of truth expressed in Scripture as more than correct doctrinal statements condensed from God’s Word. Rather, truth includes particular sentiments, affections, moods, and imaginations that God communicates through the aesthetic forms he inspired.
These aesthetic forms of Scripture provide a way of communicating God’s truth that would be impossible with systematic statements of fact alone. Since God is a spirit and does not have a body like man, since he is infinite, eternal, and totally other than us, God chose to use particular aesthetic forms (to the exclusion of others) to communicate truth about himself that would not have been possible otherwise. These aesthetic forms are essential to the truth itself since God’s inspired Word is exactly the best way that truth could be presented. Thus, the truths of Scripture are not Scripture’s propositional content that just happens to be contextualized in certain aesthetic forms. Truth in Scripture is content plus form, considered as an indivisible whole. Clyde S. Kilby asserts that these aesthetic forms of Scripture are not merely decorative but part of the essential presentation of the Bible’s truth: “We do not have truth and beauty, or truth decorated with beauty, or truth illustrated by the beautiful phrase, or truth in a ‘beautiful setting.’ Truth and beauty are in the Scriptures, as indeed they must always be, an inseparable unity.”
To reduce God’s truth, then, only to doctrinal statements does great injustice to the way God himself has chosen to reveal truth to us. The Bible itself uses forms of beauty to express God’s truth and moral standards in a manner that accurately shapes the way in which people perceive the truth. Most true Christians desire to preserve God’s truth and moral standards as expressly stated in the Word of God. Where conservative Christianity goes a step further is to also commit to preserving the way in which the Bible expresses truth and moral standards—in other words, conservative Christians do not consider the aesthetic aspects of Scripture as merely decorative or simply cultural contextualizations; rather, the aesthetic forms of Scripture are just as inspired and authoritative as the theological ideas contained therein, and thus they, too, must be conserved as the truth of Scripture is translated and re-expressed in new cultural forms.
How do conservative Christians propose to preserve the way the Bible has expressed God’s truth? This leads to the second pillar of conservative Christianity.
The Importance of Form and Tradition
The second pillar of conservatism is a commitment to conserve those cultural institutions and aesthetic forms that best reflect a recognition and respect for the universal, transcendent order.
Affirmation of this second pillar is why conservative Christianity places a weighty emphasis upon tradition and insists on discernment when employing cultural forms from outside Christian tradition to express biblical truth. Conservative Christianity recognizes some forms of expression were designed to communicate transcendent truth, goodness, and beauty, while other forms were by nature designed to do something entirely opposite. What art forms are chosen to express God’s truth—in corporate worship or in other contexts—are of utmost importance since they express not just theological facts, but those facts imagined in certain ways. What is at stake here is the very knowledge and worship of God. If works of art express particular ways of imagining God, then it is quite possible to express through art an imagination of God that does not correspond to how he chose to communicate himself in Scripture, even if the propositional content of the work of art is technically accurate.
Thus, the kinds of imaginative forms God chose to communicate his truth should shape our cultural forms. Choices of what cultural forms we will use to express God’s truth and worship him are not merely about what is pleasing, authentic, or engaging; what forms we choose for our worship must be based on the criterion of whether they are true—whether they correspond to God’s reality as it is imagined in his Word. Conservative worship is essentially a desire to preserve the kinds of aesthetic forms contained in Scripture in our worship. We accomplish this goal by fostering the cultural traditions God’s people have modeled on Scripture and nurtured through the centuries rather than simplistically adopting the cultural traditions of the unbelieving world in the name of relevance, contextualization, or authenticity.
So, at the core of conservative Christianity is a belief in absolute, transcendent principles of truth, goodness, and beauty and a commitment to preserve those values and pass them on to future generations. And it is a recognition that certain ways of expressing those transcendent principles are better at preserving and accurately passing them on than others, particularly those forms nurtured within Christian tradition, which most correspond to the kinds of aesthetic expressions that God inspired in his Word.