For a couple weeks I have been developing the idea that in order to disciple people through corporate worship, our corporate worship must be shaped by the means God has given us for such transformation—Scripture. This means both that our liturgies must be shaped by Scripture and our music must be shaped by Scripture.
There has been something of a recovery in recent years of Scripture-formed liturgy, but Scripture formed music is still resisted. Sure, the content of our songs should conform to biblical teaching, but certainly there is nothing about the music itself (or poetry) that Scripture can shape.
On the contrary, last week I argued that since Scripture itself communicates truth, and thus forms believers, through various aesthetic devices, art matters to God. Certain aspects of Christian piety are expressed only through art as it shapes propositional content, and thus we must give careful attention that the art forms we employ today correspond to the art forms in God’s inspired Word.
What we need to concern ourselves with is what both Kevin Vanhoozer and Nicholas Wolterstorff call “fittingness.” Wolterstorff defines fittingness as “similarity across modalities.” Modalities are different forms of expression—literature, music, rhetoric, architecture, drama, visual arts, etc.
What he means by fittingness is that the character of one aesthetic expression can be similar to the character of another aesthetic expression, even across kinds of art forms. Far from being something only philosophers of aesthetics can do, we observe these kinds of similarities across modalities instinctively. This is why we can describe the character of music, for example, using terms more regularly associated with other art forms such as the visual (like color) or the tactile (like soft or hard) or qualities of taste (like sweet) or spatial measurement (high, low, short, or long). Music is not really blue or soft or sweet or low, but we naturally recognize similarities across these modalities.
And Wolterstorff also cites studies that show that these kinds of judgments are consistent across cultures. We can naturally recognize universal similarities with regard to emotional expression, mood, and tone. Because art communicates most naturally by reflecting common human experience, especially human physical expressiveness, with a bit of effort we can fairly instinctively discern what art forms across modalities similarly express joy, lament, sobriety, reverence, or fear, and even more nuanced meanings and moods that cannot be precisely defined with words.
As Felix Mendelssohn once said, what music expresses is not too indefinite to put into words, but on the contrary, too definite. Music, like all art forms, can embody imaginative meaning more precise than mere words. Poetry, music, architecture, and rhetoric each embody inarticulable meanings that through their use express those meanings. A story is told that once when Robert Schumann played a new composition and someone asked him what it meant, he simply replied, “It means this” and played it again.
Attention to cross-modal “fittingness”—what I like to call “aesthetic correspondence” is how we can take the character of aesthetic literary devices and forms in Scripture and compare them to the character of other kinds of art forms (like music) in contemporary culture. We can determine the meaning specific aesthetic forms or devices in Scripture embody, and then discern aesthetic forms—literary and musical—in our current cultural context that are fitting to Scripture, those that have similarity in meaning.
This kind of emphasis requires that biblical interpreters, pastors, and church musicians have both a thorough understanding of what various art forms in Scripture are expressing (or at least be equipped with resources to help them understand this) and a thorough understanding of the art forms of their current context so that they can make the proper judgments concerning correspondence. There is a reason aesthetics was part of the quadrivium in premodern education and Luther said he would not ordain a man to ministry who did not understand music. Theologians in the premodern era recognized that a healthy understanding of aesthetics was necessary for biblical interpretation, biblical preaching, biblical worship, and biblical formation.
This just scratches the surface of what I think needs to be a continued discussion, and it is something I hope to further develop in the days to come. There are some scholars, by the way, who are beginning to have discussions like these, although they are mostly looking at how the aesthetics of Scripture affect interpretation, translation, and preaching—we need others to extend the discussion to worship and music. Nevertheless, they are trying to carve out an evangelical position that does not fall into the traps of higher critical cultural-linguistic philosophy on the one hand or what Vanhoozer calls the “dedramatized propositonalism” that characterizes most forms of the historical-grammatical philosophy. For those interested, I would direct you to the work of Kevin Vanhoozer, Leland Rykan, Tremper Longman, and Abraham Kuruvilla, among others. These scholars are asking not just what does the Bible say, but also what does the Bible do, and how can we faithfully interpret and communicate that. We need church musicians who will ask the same sorts of questions.
If we understand the formative role of corporate worship in making disciples, and if we consequently recognize that such disciple-forming corporate worship must be formed by Scripture, then we must be sure that our liturgies and how we express God’s truth aesthetically in corporate worship is similar in meaning to how Scripture expresses God’s truth. Scripture must be the taproot of both the content and forms of our worship.