Correcting Categories, Part 1 – Biblical Authority
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.
Now the assumption in this task is that the Bible has something to say about our musical choices, and this leads me to the first category of thought I’d like to address: moral application of the Bible to issues about which it is essentially silent.
Some believers assume that if the Bible is silent about a particular issue, then we may not make authoritative applications of the Bible for that issue. If there is no explicit command or prohibition about a particular issue, then Christians have liberty to act according to the dictates of their consciences. They argue that this is a correct understanding of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. A representative example of this may be found in Charles Swindoll’s, The Grace Awakening:
Any specified list in Scripture is to be obeyed without hesitation or question. That’s an inspired list for all of us to follow, not someone’s personal list. . . . But when questionable things aren’t specified in Scripture, it then becomes a matter of one’s personal preference or convictions.1
This position essentially views the Bible as an encyclopedia of commands and prohibitions that govern the Christian life. The problem with this view, however, is that it essentially limits the authority of Scripture to the times and cultures of the original readers rather than extending it to contemporary issues. This view ends up destroying the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture that it claims to be protecting. 2 Timothy 3.16-17 argue that the Bible is sufficient to “thoroughly equip” men of God for “every good work.” Does that sufficiency not apply to contemporary issues that the original readers never faced?
Rather than presenting itself as an encyclopedia of prohibitions, the Bible demonstrates itself to be a window into the mind of God — a revelation of a worldview that should encompass every choice and action for the Christian. For instance, many of the vice lists in the New Testament are clearly representative rather than exhaustive, ending with phrases such as “and things like these” (Galatians 5.21), and the mature Christian is one who has his “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). The Bible is not something to look at as we seek to apply it; the Bible is something we look through.
As we seek to apply the Bible to contemporary issues, then, we must contextualize scriptural principles to modern contexts, and this is a two step process. First, we apply a historical-grammatical hermeneutic to read the Bible as the original audience would have read it and extract timeless principles. This step requires understanding of the original readers’ contexts and presuppositions, and sometimes this may require consultation of extra-biblical sources including language tools, lexicons, histories, and archeological studies. Second, we apply those timeless principles to contemporary issues. This step requires understanding the nature of the contemporary issue, and again, this may require the consultation of extra-biblical sources. Students of the Bible use extra-biblical sources of truth regularly as they interpret the Bible. Why, then, do some refuse to use extra-biblical sources as the apply the Bible?
As we consult extra-biblical sources in both of these steps, we recognize that our ultimate source of authority is the Word of God, which authorizes all of our knowledge. But we also recognize that the Bible itself testifies to the real authority of general revelation as a source of truth (Romans 1.20). In other words, although the Bible is our supreme authority and source of truth, real truth exists outside its pages, and that truth informs our presuppositions as we approach the task of application.
There is probably no clearer example of this than with the issue of whether abortion is morally wrong. The Bible certainly condemns the murder of humans, but it does not explicitly assign the status of human to the unborn. In order to connect termination of the unborn to murder of humans, we must prove that the unborn are indeed humans. Traditionally, Christians have made this connection in two ways. First, we may cite several examples where biblical statements seem to imply that the unborn are human. For instance, David says in Psalm 22 that God has been his God from his mother’s womb. Jeremiah says that he was known and set apart before he was born. John the Baptist leapt for joy in his mother’s womb. These biblical statements imply that unborn infants are human. Second, we may draw from empirical evidence that seems to lead to similar conclusions. This evidence must be filtered through and authenticated by the Bible, and never must we confirm a clear biblical statement with scientific evidence, but it is real, helpful truth nonetheless. Being thus convinced that the unborn are humans, we may then assert an authoritative application that abortion is morally evil.
The Bible does not explicitly tell us what kind of music pleases the Lord or what kind of music does not or even if such categories exist. The Bible does not explicitly tell us how music works or how we relate to music. But this does not mean that our musical choices are left to mere whim or preference. Just like with abortion, we may draw certain implications from biblical statements about music and examples of music, and we may look to extra-biblical informational authorities to gain necessary understanding of music so that we may apply the Bible’s clear principles to it. We must “test everything” and “hold fast that which is good” (2 Thessalonians 5.21).
So, if our goal is to apply biblical principles to issues related to music, it is my contention that we must have at least a cursory understanding of how music works and how we relate to music. If you want to make good decisions in the Bible translation debate, you must understand something of translation philosophy and the history of Bible translation. If you want to make good decisions regarding whether a Christian today should consume alcohol as a beverage, you must understand the nature of alcohol and the cultural conditions of the Ancient Near East. The same is true for music. As you will see, this does not mean that you must understand music theory or be a practicing musician. But you must have certain categorical understanding of the way music communicates if you are going to apply the Bible’s principles about communication to this medium.
This is especially true for pastors and others desiring to lead in the Church. Martin Luther said, “Neither should we ordain young men as preachers, unless they have been well exercised in music.”2 Luther was scornful of those who “want to be theologians when they cannot even sing.” He recognized the power of music and the need for pastors to be equipped to help their people apply Scriptural principles to the issue.
My contention is that the authors of Scripture wrote with certain category assumptions that in our day have been warped by Modernism and then Postmodernism. It is therefore much more difficult to apply the Bible correctly in these areas when other foundational issues are so misunderstood. It is like trying to convince someone that euthanasia is sinful if their thinking has been influenced to believe that humans are animals. You have to correct the more foundational first line of thinking before you can address application to a contemporary issue. I am convinced that if we correct our thinking in a few important foundational categories of thought, it will go a long way to providing us with the necessary tools to make God-pleasing applications with regard to music.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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.