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My reply to Dan Phillips’ approach to the worship music debate

Over at Pyromaniacs, Dan Phillips offered a series of points for discussion regarding worship music. He and a few others encouraged me to head over to engage the conversation, so I did. I thought I’d post my response here as well for the sake of our readers:

Dan, the points you make are very common, but the issues are, of course, far more complex than you make them seem.

The comment section of a blog is hardly the medium for a thorough treatment of the issues. I have two books and many articles dedicated to the subjects. A few sound bites will hardly answer the questions you raise.

However, I will attempt a fairly short answer to a couple of your points with the hopes that you and your readers will take the time to engage with the ideas at more depth elsewhere.

First, a couple points regarding the sufficiency of Scripture. The sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that if we cannot find “a syllable dictating what style of music, meter, or instruments NT churches must or mustn’t use,” this must mean that is doesn’t matter what we do. You can’t really believe this, can you?

Can you find a syllable dictating whether you should take marijuana recreationally, whether you should drive on the right side of the road, whether you should plagiarize, or whether you should use church money to buy up a bunch of your books to get it on the NYT best sellers list?

No, the sufficiency of Scripture means that no matter what the issue, even if you can’t find an explicit syllable about it, the Bible is sufficient to equip us to make a decision that will please God.

Christian maturity is having our senses of discernment trained to distinguish right from wrong (Heb 5:14; this implies that sometimes we will need to do this in the absence of explicit syllables). It is having our minds transformed by Scripture to the degree that we will be able to prove God’s good and acceptable will (Romans 12:2; the implication there is that God has a will that must be discerned, even if he has not explicitly syllabatized it). It is being able to use sound judgment to discern “things like” what God has dictated we avoid (Gal. 5:21).

READ
Do we need to dumb down hymn language in order to be comprehensible?

But even more than that, although there may be no syllable that dictates musical style, the Bible itself addresses aesthetic form through its form. Since I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture, I believe that not only did God inspire the ideas in Scripture, he inspired the very words, including the way those words were arranged into aesthetic forms.

Since the Bible comes to us, not as a systematic theology or mere prose (in most cases), there is authoritative weight even to the aesthetic presentation we find therein.

Now, aesthetic form doesn’t dictate in the same way as discursive propositions. It dictates through shaping the moral imagination and the affections of the readers. This is the power of all aesthetic forms including poetry and music.

So not only does the Bible give us principles that should influence our decisions regarding worship music, it also informs us through the very forms of Scripture themselves.

How it informs our decisions is a task for more thorough discussions and should be the goal of good local pastors’ luncheons. :) I invite any who are interested to visit www.religiousaffections.org or pick up one of my books, where you will find more explanation and direction toward other sources as well.

[character limit reached…part 2 coming]

This leads me to address the final point you make in your post. Ironically, I am in the middle of a multi-post series at Religious Affections that addresses the very issue you raise: whether the Psalms borrowed from Ugaritic poetry.

Again, this is a far more complex issue than you portray it to be. I’ll briefly summarize what most conservative scholars would say to such an assertion, but I invite you to engage with the full series at Religious Affections.

READ
Recordings: Choral Psalms

There is no question that there are similarities in a few places between the wording of a couple of Psalm phrases and Ugaritic poetry. But what Allen Ross (Recalling the Hope of Glory), John Oswalt (The Bible Among the Myths), and John Currid (Against the Gods) point out, among mangy others I cite in the series, is that in these few cases what is clear is that the biblical authors are using such parallels as a polemic against the false religions. They are not borrowing forms for the sake of borrowing; they are mimicking some of the language of the Canaanite people as a way to mock them. “You think Baal rides upon the storm? He’s nothing; Yahweh is the one who created the storm!”, etc.

Do you really think that Hebrew worship forms were like those of their pagan neighbors? Are you really saying that the only difference between Hebrew worship and pagan worship was the content and intent? Just look at 1 Kings 18, likely the most clear side-by-side comparison of Baal worship and Yahweh worship. There is no similarity in form.

Any careful study of Scripture, ancient texts, and other historical sources will reveal that the pagans used different instruments in their worship (primarily percussion and double reeds) than the Hebrews (primarily strings), their music was pathocentric rather than logocentric, their forms were ecstatic and orgiastic rather than modest and driven by theological texts.

Now, again, there were certainly similarities. Pagans had sacrifices, priests, temples, and music. But where there existed such similarities, it was because the pagans had “borrowed” from elements of worship God himself had established all the way back at Creation.

READ
Music in the Home

Every time Israel borrowed anything for worship from their pagan neighbors, the results were disastrous.

The conclusion, then, is that our worship music doesn’t need to be different for difference sake alone. If the pagans around us happen to produce something that is noble and beautiful because they borrow from our worldview and values, then our worship music may just sound like theirs in those cases.

But to imply that we have biblical warrant to borrow worship forms from the pagans is simply not true, in my judgment.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

9 Responses to My reply to Dan Phillips’ approach to the worship music debate

  1. Scott, I was just about to send another reply on the “We worship together because God is worthy” comment section that goes right along with what you just posted. I’ll post here instead after interacting with your post. Concerning the sufficiency of Scripture, what you leave out of the equation is that God did actually choose to explicitly address music/song in Scripture and how it should be used in worship. Therefore, we take what God has given us and determine whether our music fits His mold. I did that with a David Crowder song in the “We worship together…” comment section. Note that this can be done on an individual song level.

    You seem to want to take it further and add your own stipulations to what God has already given us, which is why the sufficiency of Scripture is addressed. This is where I go back to what I was addressing before…you take it further than Scripture by declaring certain music to be sinful. We both agree that Scripture doesn’t explicitly address this. Thus, the next step is to ask whether principles of Scripture address this. You laid out a paragraph above of how you believe that looks by pointing to Hebrews 5:14, Romans 12:2 and Galatians 5:21. How does this work on a practical, song-by-song level?

    Since you didn’t respond in the other comment section when I asked you to apply your principles to an individual song, I spent the last couple of days reading extensively on your site. I even watched videos of you speaking at different venues, searching for where you apply these principles on a practical, individual song level. Unless I’ve missed something, I cannot find where you have ever done this. Please direct me if I missed it. If music can be sinful and unacceptable in God’s eyes, we must be able to determine if the first song we hear on Sunday morning is sinful or not. Are you able to do that?

  2. Hi, Rick. The reason I am hesitant to do this sort of this in a public venue (although I have done it; remember the rap debate??) is that unless there is agreement on the more fundamental issues, no one is going to agree on the area of application.

    Furthermore, I absolutely do believe that there is room for disagreement in applications, and that making determinations about what is good will be based on a whole lot of individual factors.

    So, yes, I make determinations all the time for myself, my family, and my church, but I do not see it as my responsibility to do that for others.

  3. Sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt anything here but wondered about a possible parallel (btw, well written, Scott – I think you made your case well above):

    It seems to me that the idea of modernizing music is analogous to modernizing the Scriptures. An argument that I hear sometimes is that “nobody talks like this anymore” or “this sounds too old-fashioned and newcomers and our youth will be put off”.

    Now what about SoS 4:1 – “You are beautiful, my darling, beautiful beyond words. Your eyes are like doves behind your veil. Your hair falls in waves, like a flock of goats winding down the slopes of Gilead.”

    I purposely took the New Living Translation here since my comparison is not about archaic language but about style and form. Although the words are all clearly intelligible here, anyone can see that nobody today would compare the hair of the object of their affection with goat hair!

    If we would follow the same logic, then, we should either modernize this section by using completely different comparisons (change the words) or discard the entire book from the canon because it is so old-fashioned.

    Of course nobody follows that same logic to both church music and the Bible. One obvious reason is we believe it is the inspired word of God, but leaving that aside for a moment, isn’t what we do to church music the same as rejecting Bible passages that just don’t sound right today?

    Rather than engaging with hymns written some time ago (not excluding the use of modern hymns), many pastors simply exclude them categorically only because they are old and don’t sound like the music in the radio. If what you wrote about biblical form teaching and informing our writing of worship music is right then maybe seemingly old-fashioned music is actually quite adequate even today (although we may want to avoid references to goat hair).

    So is this a valid comparison = since we invest a lot of effort to explain old-fashioned passages in the Bible, we should also undertake the effort to teach congregants to appreciate more biblical musical expressions. Would you use that argument?

  4. Yes, I think there are a lot of parallels here. There’s no question that translation from one cultural context to another is necessary, but there are limits to translation. You can “contextualize” the metaphors, the images, and the language, but at some point you lose the original meaning if you go too far.

  5. I’m driving down the road and you tell me there is a fork in the road ahead. You state that one of them has a bridge that is out but I won’t be able to see this until I’ve driven over the edge. You know which fork in the road is the dangerous one, but simply tell me to choose the one where the bridge is not out and then say, “happy traveling!”

    You teach kids that there is sinful music and that it is all around them. You tell them about the bad affects it can have on them (inciting their lusts). You tell them the music is not pleasing to God. Then you leave them hanging…wondering exactly what music is deemed to be wrong. How can they know if they are sinning if they can’t identify the sinful music??? They search Scripture and it doesn’t tell them so they have to rely on someone else that is obviously more spiritually mature to tell them what is right and what is wrong. They search your website and listen to lectures to find the means of identifying sinful music. Amazingly, it isn’t there either. So what do they do?

  6. You keep using the word ‘sin’ with a binary definition in mind. Read through Leviticus chapters 1-8. Is sin a binary issue to God, or, and this is a big hint, are there degrees of culpability and complicity?

    Do you think, honestly, that every Israelite who worshipped YHWH at Bethel or Dan went to the Idolator’s circle of the Inferno merely because of the presence of the golden calves?! Do you think we think that? Have you ever read David DeBruyn’s articles on this site?

    God is gracious, kind, longsuffering, and “He remembers our frame, that we are dust.” That is a comfort to us, because we around here pretty much unanimously agree that we don’t have it all figured out yet. We are on a long journey (especially in my case), striving to be more faithful and less idolatrous in our Christianity, in our context, where the idols of our age aren’t stone and wood.

    Please. Enough with the false dilemma.

  7. Rick, along with Chris’s comments, which are true, I’ll make this point as well:

    These things are often much better shown over time in families and churches than lectured. My goal is to provide churches and families with the tools they need to rightly discern what is right and good.

    Having said that, I have many times, against my better judgments, evaluated specific songs as examples on this site. I did so in the rap debate last year several times, Timothy Shafer did so with several songs in a series a while back, etc.

  8. Thanks Scott. I did read your analysis of Shai Linne’s song, but that was simply based on emotions (which aren’t inherently bad). Plus you put your blessing on the song….I don’t see any analysis anywhere of a sinful song. Thanks for the reference to Timothy Shafer’s articles. Apparently a very learned guy! Think about this though…how on earth is a teenager in high school (or anyone for that matter) supposed to do that type of analysis to figure out if the music they are listening to is wrong?! Do you really think that’s what God intended?!

    I don’t need an answer to that as I’m dropping this due to the frustration of it! This just goes way beyond Scripture and I just think that’s a dangerous place. I know you have very good and honorable intentions, but I think you need to step back a bit and think about the results. Thanks for the great conversation, Scott.

  9. Scott,

    I appreciate your dealing with Dan at Teampyro. It’s generous of you. I believe men know. They suppress knowledge of God’s beauty. Apostasy starts, I believe, not from changing doctrinal statements, but altering affections. His first assessment should get his own attention:

    Some people insist that no yoots will come if we don’t change our music/worship style from X to Z. Hence: church’s sell-by date is coming due.

    If music/worship style don’t matter, how could they effect a truly converted person to leave a church? In other words, the church is using an acceptable worship style, since styles don’t matter, but the youths will leave, so the church changes the styles for them, so they won’t leave. They are going to leave (1 John 2:19) — they are saved, right? Or maybe they are just stony ground, the sun comes up (non-acceptance of worship style), and they leave because they have no root.

    Do the points of Calvin teach that worship style is a necessity for conversion? Is the music a church growth method? I thought scripture was sufficient?

    I heard John MacArthur say at the Strange Fire Conference that music style was the primary entrance into the Charismatic movement. Since style means nothing, I don’t know how that could be (speaking in jest). Everyone knows it matters “except for evangelicals” (who do really know).

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