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Music: a Theological Orphan

Quentin Faulkner’s analysis of the impact of Romantic aesthetic philosophy on the church and its music is enlightening (pun intended) and helpful:

The nineteenth century was the era of Romanticism, particularly in music. It was also the period in which Chrisianity began to reassemble and regroup its forces after its first disastrous encounter with Enlightenment ideas. Romantic views and attitudes thus had a considerable amount to do with the churches’ struggles for revival and with the ideas about music that these struggles promoted. The Romantic era was by and large favorably disposed to religion in general and Christianity in particular; a certain dimension of the Romantic attitude seemed to vibrate in sympathy with medieval Christian ideas. It was not the speculative, constructivist aspect of medieval thought that was reborn and that thrived, however, but the mystical, the other-worldly, the visionary. Religion as espoused by romantics was frequently an unorthodox, emotional, highly personalized form of Christianity; in it the composer found a place, elevated to the level of a demi-god.

Two characteristic attitudes of Romanticism strongly imprinted themselves on nineteenth-century ecclesiastical revivals and thus had an enormous impact on church music. The first was historicism, a respect and a longing for the past, in particular for the Middle Ages. Because the church was the central institution during the Middle Ages, this affinity for the medieval particularly affected nineteenth-century religion. Historicism was not at heart an objective, scientific inquiry, but rather a spiritual and artistic movement. It gave birth to the nineteenth-century gothic revival and to the renewed interest in music of past ages. The second attitude was aestheticism, the worship of beuayt as an end in itself. Aestheticism in relation to Christianity led to equating the beautiful with the divine. While both of these attitudes are well documented as influential movements in the churches during the nineteenth century (and well into the twentieth), it should be noted that neither of them was or is well grounded biblically or theologically. Thus when they came to be scrutinized by the more dispassionate, prosaic twentieth century, both of them appeared to be like the proverbial house built on sand.

Attempts at ecclesiastical revival in the wake of the Enlightenment followed two general directions:

1. The traditionally liturgical churches (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican) centered their revivals around a renewal of their historic liturgies–in effect an attempt to reassert the centrality of cultic celebration for Christian faith and life. Solesmes eventually took the lead for Roman Catholicism; the Lutheran revival was marked by the issuance of ever more historically based Kirchenagenden, or orders of worship; the Anglican revival was led by the Oxford and Ecclesiological Movements. It was in these attempts at liturgical revival that the romantic characteristics of historicism and aestheticism were most clearly evident. They were marked by a strong reassertion of the by-now hallowed ideals of church music, and by a renewed and intensive cultivation of Gregorian Chant and Renaissance polyphony (especially Palestrina)–though now conditioned by a spirit of quietism: “Protestant church music must take care to remain within the venerable bounds of a distinctly prayerful mood. Under no circumstances should it express passion; it must exude divine calmness and peaceful consecration” (Julius Smend, c. 1900). The traditional churches increasingly designated early music (or music conceived to some degree in the spirit of earlier styles, e.g., motets of Anton Bruckner such as “Christus factus es” or “Locus iste”) as the music most proper for Christian worship. It was only during this period, and in circles concerned with the restored vitality of Christianity, that the opposition and tension between sacred (i.e., early music or the revival of early styles) and secular (i.e., music in a contemporary style) became heated and confused.

The restoration of church music of the past, therefore, was largely initiated and conditioned by forces outside of the church (that is, historicism and aestheticism). Church music had lost its place as leader and had to be content to follow the trends set by contemporary secular music. That secular musical ideas should condition the practice of church music was inevitable, given the continued disunity, internal weakness, and confused self-image of Christianity (despite sporadic internal revivals). Churchmen often ignored music or took it for granted; church musicians were largely ill-prepared and poorly paid. To be sure, the situation was better in certain areas and churches, bu this must be attributed to a peculiar affection for church music on the part of the populace in those regions, rather than to any vital theological conception of music’s role in worship.

2. The newer evangelical churches (e.g., Baptist and Methodist), building on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pietism, attempted to win back Christian losses by vigorous efforts at revival already begun during the eighteenth century, emphasizing emotional preaching leading to individual conviction of sin, repentance and conversion. While the roots of these movements were in Europe, most of their energy was generated in the United States. In its eagerness to use music as a tool in its missionary effort, evangelical Christianity was very receptive to new developments and ideas in music, especially devices that intensified music’s emotional impact. This often led to the sort of exploitation of music that Eric Routley describes so well in his book, The Church and Music (pp. 179-80).

The vice of Victorian music is often said to be “sentimentality,” and if sentimentality is emotional content backed by no solid truth, a show of feeling with no intention of consequent honesty, the description is an accurate one. Hence, at any rate, came the multitudinous drawing-room and salon music of the later Victorian era, and this music was “tool-music” at two levels: it was music composed and published in order to help the business of music-making along, and in that sense a tool; and it was music composed in order to create irresponsible emotion and an unreal sense of well-being, and in that sense also a tool.

But this music, the secular music of the salon, was not the final degradation. It remained for the church to debase music to the limit. For music designed to create mere natural emotions such as sorrow or pity, or peace of mind has at any rate what a celebrated broadcaster calls “animal content.” But the hack-music of the church. . . , music designed to produce not natural emotion but (save the mark) religions emotion–this was music at its lowest ebb.

It is important to recognize that there was often no strict dividing line between the two directions (popularly termed “high church” and “evangelical”). Various aspects of both mixed and mingled in many churches during the nineteenth century, and continue to do so even today. It is crucial to emphasize that neither direction produced a broad-based, comprehensive, coherent theological explanation of the significance and function of music in relation to the church. Music (for that matter, all the arts) had become a theological orphan. In fact, no important theological movement, either in the nineteenth or twentieth century, has concerned itself in any profound way with the significance of harmony, order, or beauty in Christian life or cult.

-from Wiser Than Despair: The Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and the Christian Church by Quentin Faulkner (187-98)


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.

12 Responses to Music: a Theological Orphan

  1. Faulkner states, “Church music had lost its place as leader and had to be content to follow the trends set by contemporary secular music.”
    When we reduce music in church to a marketing tool to get people in the door, we are forced to follow the popular route and abandon any idea of creativity, beauty or form outside of current trends.

  2. When music is denigrated to being a vehicle delivering a message rather than containing a message itself, the theologian’s only desire is for music is that is effectively communicates the message. What is forgotten is that the vehicle communicates a great deal about the contents of the vehicle. For example, when at an airport you spot two planes, one carrying the emblem of the US presidency and the other carry the logo of Spirit airlines you expect the first to contain the US president and important dignitaries and the second to contain people like myself searching for the cheapest flight possible. The vehicle is the same, airplanes or music, but their function is of vastly different purpose. I believe we can rest assured the president of the United States would never fly Spirit airlines and I am fairly certain I will never have a reason to fly on Air Force One. Although Spirit airlines may or may not get the president to a location just as effectively as Air Force One, such a scenario would never happen because of the message that would be sent by using such a low level budget carrier to transport such an important person.

  3. If we had a higher goal for the arts in worship than attracting people to come in and watch, we could apply Ephesians 2:10 and as God’s masterpiece, design artistically to His glory. The results would be up to Him and not an issue for us at all. What freedom that would be!
    We could apply Romans 12:2 and not allow ourselves to be squeezed into the world’s mold. Corporate worship should not have to be modeled after a specific style just to attract people to the service. How can we make it about God and not about our own preferences?

  4. It is very common that music is viewed not only as a theological orphan, but also an ill-treated “pet” in many ways. That is, when church leaders and scholars have neglected the theological side of music, they do not abandon music; on the contrary, music is used everywhere for church life and even mores so nowadays. However, the ways music is used and appreciated are somehow abused for lack of proper theological reasons and purposes.

  5. I like how this article pointed out that both historicism or aestheticism approaches of church music are like the proverbial house built on sand for their lacking of theological and biblical foundation. The fact is: church cannot come out of any of these “-isms” to work without proper grounding them with theologically and biblically.

    Unfortunately, Music in Western world has developed into something that is too big for church to control or even to handle. When music has become the most important part of people’s life before they were saved by/through Jesus, when the market of church is too small for the recording industry, or when music education can no longer rely on public school, it is not church’s position to fix these “problems” or alternate the situations. Instead, church shall view music the same old standards and principles found in the Bible and treat it with proper theological interpretations and applications.

  6. Wen-Chuan, I think the problem is the modern church is in the business of fixing problems. If you are having trouble with your finances we have a class for that, have a rebellious child, there is a class for that to. Listen to music that has lyrical content that is decidedly anti-Christian, we will be happy to change the lyrics for you so you don’t have to change the style of your playlist, just its lyrical content. There are 7 laws or 5 steps to fix almost any problem that exists, but how many of those are really rooted in Scripture? We look to corporate America, educational psychology, and popular culture to find solutions to issues Scripture is sufficient to answer. So the problem is the church spends time fixing things while failing to teach truths from the counsel of Scripture which when applied would prevent the problems in the beginning.

  7. Scriptures provide church musicians not enough information associated with music. They do not talk about how to play instruments or what musical style is effective for worship, which many church musicians are most interested in. For this reason music has often been dealt with as a mere tool for ministry in spite of its excessive use in worship and evangelism.

    It is evident that, in most time of church history, music has been used as a significant part in the church. This proves that music at least retains unique characteristics, distinguished from other arts or tools, for effective ministry. In order to attempt to discover such a reason, church music scholars should receive help from other sources such as musicology, music history, psychology, phenomenology, biology, anthropology, etc.

    This type of study is related to so-called ‘natural theology.’ Natural theology is “the branch of philosophy and theology which attempts to either prove God’s existence, define God’s attributes, or derive correct doctrine based solely from human reason and/or observations of the natural world.” ( Thomas Aquinas is known as the most famous classical proponent of natural theology.

  8. To conclude, it is almost impossible to interpret music theologically only with the Bible, due to a lack of sources. Instead, through the observation of the natural world (including academic studies), music could be discovered, defined, and evaluated in theological perspective.

  9. Robert, that is a good point. There is actually a company (or maybe one individual) who makes Christian parodies of top 40 songs. “Pharoah, pharoah” anyone? Maybe at first glance this seems like a fun idea, but how damaging is it to the aesthetic tastes of our churches through such thinking?

  10. Quentin Faulkner’s article claims that Enlightenment brings Church ideas of an unorthodox, emotional, highly personalized form of Christianity and the Romantic attitude (historicism and aestheticism) forced the Christianity to assemble to form a revival of Christianity.

    Church music loses its place and all the arts (especially music) had become a theological orphan when human’s (Christians) flavor in Church is replaced with God’s flavor. The spiritual battle has begun since Adam and Eve. Church’s struggle SHALL not be external musical or aesthetic elements BUT be against the spiritual forces of evil. The world (e.g., the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Postmodernism, etc) has been trying to take our hearts away from God by utilizing external tools (arts), and by idolizing human as God as we see the very first temptation in the History-“you will be like God.” -Genesis 3:5 (NASB).

    “What music is most proper for Christian worship?” What is major differences between Christian worship music and contemporary secular music? Is it something to do with chords, style, texture, form, instruments, text, rhythm, quality of chords, etc? What makes music holy or evil? If the music brings emotional effects in worship, it becomes secular? God gave human heart, soul, and mind as a gift. Emotional worship becomes a big issue when emotion is not controlled by mind and it is not directed toward God.

  11. In our colloquium this past Wednesday, the post-lecture discussion included dialogue on why churches in America in the 60’s began using popular music in worship. It is interesting to note (from this discussion) that at least part of what contributed to this was a lack of a sense of propriety. It seems that, in addition to a utilitarian view of music, a lack of understanding in what is appropriate in worship caused a “why not?” mentality in many churches to the question of using popular music in worship services.

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