Last week I argued that if we believe in verbal-plenary inspiration, then the meaning of the aesthetic forms we employ in our contemporary worship must accurately correspond to the meaning Scripture’s aesthetic forms had in their original context.
What we need to concern ourselves with is what both Kevin Vanhoozer and Nicholas Wolterstorff call “fittingness.”1 Wolterstorff defines fittingness as “similarity across modalities.”2 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 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, by the way, Wolterstorff also cites studies that show that these kinds of judgments are consistent across culture as well.
We can also recognize 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.
This 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 had for their original audience, 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 understand that a healthy understanding of aesthetics was necessary for biblical interpretation, biblical preaching, and biblical worship.
Seminaries today expect their graduates to have a thorough grasp of the grammar and historical context of Scripture in order to correctly interpret, explain, translate, and apply it to contemporary Christianity; why do we not also expect pastors and Bible scholars to understand the aesthetics of Scripture? And I mean more than a cursory discussion of how to preach various biblical genres. I mean giving careful consideration to what the Bible’s poetic forms, narrative structures, literary devices, and rhetorical strategies mean. We also teach pastors how to best preach and explain the meaning of Scripture and apply it to contemporary life; why do we not also equip them with how to parse the meaning of contemporary art forms and make judgments about what art forms today express sentiments similar to what the art forms of Scripture express?
Next week will conclude this series!