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Musical Relativism is Pelagian

So says John Makujina in this lecture given at the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary Rice Lecture Series in 2005 and in this paper presented at the East Region Annual Conference of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2004. This is just one of several arguments he presents in support of a challenge to center the music debate, not in the field of orthopraxy (“right practice”), but as a serious theological issue.

He argues this because believing in musical relativism is a denial of man’s total depravity. Let me explain.

Defining Total Depravity

As a result of the Fall, the Bible teaches that every person is totally and completely depraved.

Genesis 6:5 “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Ephesians 4:17-19 “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”

Both man’s will and understanding are corrupt.

Titus 1:15 “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.”

The natural man cannot do anything good, nor can he understand spiritual things.

John 8:34 “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

1 Corinthians 2:14 “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

He does not and cannot seek God, nor does he desire to do so.

Romans 3:10-18 “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; 11no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ 13 ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ 14 ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ 15′Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16in their paths are ruin and misery, 17and the way of peace they have not known.’ 18 ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.'”

in consumes man’s body (Romans 8:10), mind (Titus 1:15; Ephesians 4:17-18), heart (Ephesians 4:18, Jeremiah 17:9), will (John 8:34, Ephesians 2:3), and emotions (Ephesians 4:17-19).

Thus man is totally and completely depraved. Total depravity does not mean that man is as depraved as he could be, but that all of man is completely depraved. No part of man escapes the reach of depravity.

Both Calvinists and Arminians agree on this point, except that an Arminian would limit the extent of depravity upon the human will. Nevertheless, proponents of both soteriological positions understand the whole of man, especially his judgment, to be completely depraved. For example, John Calvin said,

“We teach that all human desires are evil, and charge them with sin — not in that they are natural, but because they are inordinate.”1

Likewise, John Wesley said,

“‘God saw all the imaginations of the thoughts of his heart’ — of his soul, his inward man, the spirit within him, the principle of all his inward and outward motions. He ‘saw all the imaginations’ — it is not possible to find a word of a more extensive signification. It includes whatever is formed, made, fabricated within; all that is or passes in the soul; every inclination, affection, passion, appetite; every temper, design, thought.”2

Notice, in particular, the affect of depravity upon the judgments, affections, desires, and inclinations of man. It is total.

In other words, man cannot trust his own judgements; he must look outside himself for criteria to make right judgments.

Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Defining Pelagianism

Pelagius was a fifth-century British monk who denied the doctrines of original sin and the transmission of Adam’s guilt to his posterity. Those who follow his teaching deny that the human nature was ruined at the Fall and therefore deny that man is totally corrupt. They believe that every person has natural ability to do good and please God. Sin exists only in individual acts. Cairns explains:

“Pelagius taught that sin consisted only in separate acts of the will. To him, there was no such thing as a sinful disposition. In keeping with this, he held that Adam was not created positively holy, but with his will equally balanced between good and evil. He explained the fact of the universality of sin as the result of the imitation of the habits of other sinners.”3

Pelagianism, therefore, would deny that man’s judgments, affections, or desires are depraved. Man can, of himself, make moral judgments.

Pelagianism was opposed by Augustine of Hippo and rightfully condemned as heresy later in 418 and 431.

Pelagian Statements by Musical Relativists

If every part of man is corrupt, as the Bible teaches, then anyone who denies that musical choices can be corrupt are denying total depravity. Here are a few examples:

“With certain exceptions, arts and especially music are morally relative and inherently incapable of articulating, for want of a better term, truth speech. They are essentially neutral in their ability to express belief, creed, moral and ethic exactitudes, or even world view.”4

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all music was created equal, that no instrument or style of music is in itself evil—that the diversity of musical expression which flows forth from man is but one evidence of the boundless creativity of our Heavenly Father.”5

“Truly good music must be judged within a form by those who appreciate the form, not by those from without who neither understand nor enjoy the style.6

Truly good music must be judged within a form by those who appreciate
the form, not by those from without who neither understand nor enjoy the

The standard Evangelical (and, increasingly, Fundamentalist) view of musical judgments is that we cannot question an individual’s personal judgments or motives. Therefore, we cannot condemn any particular song or genre. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and “You can’t judge my tastes” are common mantras.

Makujina makes this striking charge about these kinds of sentiments:

“Consequently, it is impossible, in my judgment, to claim orthodoxy and yet maintain that artwork, art forms, and art appreciation cannot be inferior, cheap, and grossly perverted in that the very powers of the human consciousness that combine to form our aesthetic impulse are cursed with sin and alloyed with impurity.”

Answers to Objections

I can already hear a few objections to these claims, so let me address just two of them quickly.

Objection 1: Christians are not totally depraved.

Some people will insist that although unbelievers are totally depraved, believers have been changed, their desires have been renewed, and they have the Holy Spirit to lead them in their judgments.

This is certainly the case. New creatures in Christ have made made new. They are no longer slaves to sin. The Holy Spirit indwells them.

Nevertheless, even believers still struggle every day (every moment?) with the influences of remaining depravity. Perhaps one of the strongest biblical examples of this is Paul’s testimony in Romans 7:

Romans 7:15-25 “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”

Even believers cannot fully trust their own judgments without clear guidance from God. True, the Holy Spirit indwells believers, but He does not somehow supernaturally lead them to right decisions. The Holy Spirit leads us through His Word. We must study it and apply its teachings to every situation in our lives, even our musical choices.

Objection 2: Things are neutral; uses are moral.

Others will object that there is nothing moral about notes and rhythms; there is nothing moral about songs. They are merely neutral objects like knives or hammers or guns. How we use them is what matters.

The argument goes something like this:

A gun is a neutral object. If I use that gun to shoot a deer to feed my family, I have used that neutral object in a moral way. If I use that gun to kill my neighbor, I have used that neutral object in an immoral way.

A song is a neutral object. If I use that song with a text about God and his goodness, I have used that neutral object in a moral way. If I use that song with a text about sex and violence, I have used that neutral object in an immoral way.

The problem with this kind of argumentation is that it relies on a significant category error. They are right to say that objects are neutral and uses of object are moral. Anything a human being does is either moral or immoral.

But here’s the important fact: a song is the product of human action! It has already entered the “use” category. Songs don’t exist in a vacuum; they are products of human communication. And any action of a human is either moral or immoral.

So this is where total depravity and Pelagianism come into play. If we deny that a human action might possibly be sinful, then we are dangerously close to the Pelagian heresy.

Instead, we must judge every human action, including music produced by humans, based upon criteria outside ourselves. Particularly principles from the Word of God and comparison to God’s creation.

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.

  1. Institutes 3.3.12. []
  2. Original Sin, I.2, 1759. []
  3. Dictionary of Theological Terms, 262, 1998. []
  4. Harold Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 42. []
  5. Contemporary Christian Music, November 1988, 12. []
  6. Steve Miller, The Contemporary Christian Music Debate (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1993) p. 55. []

44 Responses to Musical Relativism is Pelagian

  1. Scott, I agree entirely with your view that we must judge everything by God's criteria as given in the Bible, and that what we do, as Christians, can be sinful. I wish people would look at their actions more closely as there are many aspects of western consumer society that do not measure up to God's standards.

    But there are two points we need to consider here. Firstly, applying the Bible to music is not straightfoward, given that there is not an unchanged christian music tradition going back 2000 years. So different christians will have different interpretations of what the Bible says on this subject. Secondly, the fact is that the majority of bible-believing christians do not feel that contemporary music is universally unbiblical.

    There's no denial that the possibility of sinfulness exists, as we are all sinners and will remain sinners until we reach heaven.

    But here's an interesting point – how do we know that any other piece of doctrine isn't the result of sin – what about the concept of separation, much beloved of fundamentalists. How do they know that their interpretation of the bible in this regard isn't sinful, and refusing to associate and fellowship with other believers is a sin in my view.

  2. Scott, here's another thought – are you prepared to accept that your views on contemporary music could themselves be sinful? By your own admission, that has to be a possibility! In other words, total depravity cuts both ways!!

  3. I certainly agree that applying the Bible's principles about communication to music (a form of human communication) is very difficult, and I'm willing to admit that I may be wrong in some areas and that various people will come down on different sides of the issue. But again, that's not in view here.

    What is in view is the fact that many (most?) evangelicals (and many fundamentalists) are unwilling to even admit that any one musical style may be (universally) wrong. They won't even allow the question.

    So by denying that music may be wrong, they are denying that a form of human communication may be wrong, and that is Pelagian.

  4. Interesting, I don't think I have ever come across anyone who would refuse to consider if something like a musical style might be universally wrong. If anything, it's those who take a critical view of modern music who are less willing to examine their preferred musical styles in light of the Scriptures.

    On a different note (unintended pun), given the huge amount of environmental damage caused by cars, I've often wondered whether owning a car is compatible with good stewardship of God's creation. Another concern is business ethics – few people ask how the workers who produce all the cheap chinese goods are treated, and suggesting that maybe we should be a lot more careful where we shop will get you some very strange looks. Likewise, being overweight has proven health risks and is not treating your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. All these are virtually taboo subjects amongst Christians and the failure to question them could be considered Pelagianism.

    So your point certainly applies to more subjects than music.

  5. The logic of Scott's argument can't be overturned from a Christian perspective that includes an affirmation of total depravity. I would argue that one of Scripture's pre-eminent commands that includes music is that all things in worship be done in a fitting or appropriate way (I Corinthians 14:40). This command from the Apostle Paul must apply to the music that's chosen to support the text. If the music cannot be demonstrably shown to fit the text from a bioacoustic perspective (which Makujina shows is Scripture's implied perspective regarding musical communication) then that music is not fitting for worship and in violation of Paul's command.

  6. Tim, I share your approach. I'm not sure Paul was necessarily focussing on music when he wrote I Cor 14, but I would agree that the principle in verse 40 is applicable to all aspects of worship. However, I see this principle as supporting contemporary music, not condemning it. I'm not saying anything goes, I'm simply saying that there are plenty of contemporary worship songs which are compatible with what the Bible says.

  7. Anastasis,

    How do you make the argument that I Cor 14 supports pop/rock music? (Contemporary is a misnomer; the music we are speaking about falls into the broad category of pop/rock. Much music is being written that is contemporary, but not all of it is pop/rock.)


  8. Tim,

    First, let me clarify that I'm thinking specifically about congregational worship, as this is the context of 1 Cor 14. Whilst it is debatable whether most contemporary worship music is in the pop or rock genres, I don't see those musical styles as necessarily meaning that a song isn't compatible with 1 Cor 14:40. In fact my experience over many years is that contemporary worship music (including songs in a pop/rock style) can very easily be sung "decently and in order" by a congregation in a manner which glorifies God, builds up the church, and reaches the lost. Again, I have to stress that I'm not advocating anything goes, just careful selection of appropriate material.

    Here's a challenge for you or Scott… You can view the CCLI top 25 songs at this link: This will give you a good idea of the most commonly-used contemporary worship songs at the present time. Firstly, consider how many of those could be considered as "pop/rock". My feeling is no more than half, although obviously the definitions of those terms are a bit flexible. Secondly, for those songs (pop/rock or other) that you feel are somehow incompatible with 1 Cor 14:40 (or any other scripture), provide a reasoned explanation why you've come to that conclusion. As this thread is about musical styles, can we stick to to an analysis that is primarily musical and not get sidetracked into matters of lyrical content/theology or associations of the composers. I should also add that perhaps one third of the songs on that list (mainly outside of the top ten) are not particularly notable (in my view) and I could be rather critical of them myself.

  9. Dear Anastasis,

    I listened to every one of the first ten; they are all pop/rock music. None of them belong in worship. A brief summary of the musical characteristics of the first three includes:

    How Great Is Our God
    excessive melodic syncopations
    extended and minimalistic harmonies and harmonic rhythms
    breathy, intimate soloistic performance style
    implicit but tacet backbeat through (heard in the piano accompaniment), but manifested in the final chorus

    Blessed Be Your Name
    excessive melodic syncopations
    extended and minimalistic harmonies and harmonic rhythms
    distorted electronic timbres
    sensual backbeat

    Here I Am to Worship
    excessive melodic syncopations with
    extended and minimalistic harmonies harmonic rhythms
    sensual backbeat
    breathy, intimate soloistic performance style

    The sound constructs of these songs bioacoustically manifest sensuality, in some cases rebelliion, physical intimacy, in some cases the sex act itself (pardon my bluntness), and in some cases agitation. I do not expect that you will agree with this assessment, but that is likely because you desensitized to the bioacoustic signifiers. The syncopations of the melodies are agitation, the backbeat strongly suggests sex (any rock and roller will tell you this) and the electronic distortions of tone are rebellion. These signifiers come directly from this sound tradition; the Christian church has appropriated these sounds from a culture of sex and rebellion where the sounds are well-understood, attached the words of the Gospel to them, and called them sanctified.

    It just doesn't fly.

    Desensitization to the sounds is the most reasonable explanation that accompanies most denials of the above musical facts and their affects .

    If you have a specific one or two titles that you believe are not pop/rock, please list the names of those songs, and I'll provide a detailed analysis of the tunes.

  10. By the way, I should add that the prolonged harmonies found in your examples are used by many Eastern religions for trance-inducing meditation.

    The minimalistic and excessively repetitive compositional features of each of the songs you listed are not the musical firstfruits of the Christian church of the last 2,000 years.

  11. 1. Makujina(sp?)is not God nor did he write Scripture. Neither are/did we.

    2. Who created music (including rhythm,harmony, etc.)? Let's neither abuse nor ignore what God made. To do either would

    3. If repetition is wrong we had better not use hymns, chatechisms, and even several passages of Scripture.

    4. If extended minimalistic harmonies are wrong than we had better not use any hymn that does not use intricate and shortened harmonies.

    5. Where does Scripture teach that syncopation is sinful (assumed by the excessive)?

    If you don't appreciate something and are convinced that it doesn't please God then please don't use it. Enough of our own ridiculous arguments that can be turned up on our own and all music. Let's be convinced in our own hearts about what we should do before God (Romans 14-15).

    P.S. Does anyone volunteer to go through every song in the world and tell what is acceptable?

  12. Great discussion here! A couple thoughts:

    I don't mind that the discussion has moved to talking about how music communicates or what it communicates. That's great. But that's not really in view in this post. What is in view is the position that says that musical styles cannot be judged good or bad except in how they are used. That, in Makujina's view (and mine) is Pelagian.

    Which leads to Brian's 2nd point. He said:

    "Who created music (including rhythm,harmony, etc.)? Let’s neither abuse nor ignore what God made."

    This is exactly the kind of category error that I mentioned in the post above. Brian, you're correct that God created music as theory. That's the neutral object.

    But He didn't give us any songs. Had he given us songs, of course we could never judge them as immoral.

    Who creates songs? Humans do. And anything a human creates has the potential of being immoral.

    To deny this is to fall into the Pelagian heresy. That's the whole point of this post.

  13. What Tim is discussing so masterfully is how we may judge a song or style immoral, and I think that's very helpful.

    i think that kind of debate is very helpful.

    It's those who refuse to even discuss it that I'm concerned about.

  14. Dear Bryan,

    There are logical, scriptural arguments behind the posts above. I would urge you to read Scott's article thoroughly, and study Makujina's book carefully before responding emotionally. No one is claiming to be God or claiming that anyone else is God.

    As Scott says above, though the raw elements of music are given by God (timbre, duration, frequency, and amplitude) music as we think of it is the product human creativity and subject to the sin and the Fall. It must therefore be evaluated under the scrutiny of scriptural principles. Anastasis asked for a musical analysis and that's what I provided in brief. In fact, vain repetition is condemned by Christ himself (Matthew 6:7) Much music is sung prayer. The music Anastasis provided for analysis is full of vain repetition at every musical level (rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic structures). It is not good music from the perspective of compositional craftsmanship (Phil 4:8).

    In answer to your rhetorical question above, I think, yes – EVERY piece of music used in worship should be subjected to biblical scrutiny for the doctrine it carries, the excellence of poetry, the excellence of the compositional craft of the music, and the congruity of the musical affect for its fit in carrying the biblical text (I Cor. 14:40). Additionally, and this may be controversial, I think Scripture implies that our music should be examined for its holiness – its 'set-apartness' (Psalm 29:2, 96:9, etc.) Music used for worship should not sound like the world's music. Calvin said that there is a great difference between the tunes used for worship and that used for entertainment.

    And I think you're right – some 'traditional' hymns wouldn't hold up under this scrutiny and should be removed from the church's use. We should always be reforming our practices to scripture.

  15. Bryan,

    One last thing in response to your question – where does Scripture forbid syncopation. The answer is, of course, that it doesn't. But syncopation, as a musical communication device, is used in specific ways. It is syncopation because it is apart from the norm, and as such may be used to communication surprise, shock, agitation, anger, urgency, and other emotions along these lines. The interpretation of its meaning is, of course, analogical and depends on many other musical contextual signifiers. But its use for carrying the Gospel is specific and pretty narrow, given its affective range. Its excessive use, as in the examples Anastasis provided, is mannered and cliche; its use is driven not by the text, but rather by a musical style that is copied from the world. In these settings it provides unnatural text inflection and impedes, rather than supports the text.

    When I say a multi-syllable word such as 'syllable,' it has particular accentuation patterns. In this example the first syllable is stressed. Rhythms that do not support these natural speech patterns distort the text, makes the text less understandable, and in essence subordinates the text to a musical style (compare by saying syl-LA-ble). Endless syncopation is a prominent feature of pop/rock music and as such, subordinates the textual content of the Gospel to the music. Well-written songs will take account natural spoken inflection when setting texts and position rhythms, melodic interval choices, and harmonies to support the text in its original language – not contradict it.

    I hope this helps to understand part of my objection to excessive syncopation.

  16. Guys, I'm rather busy today, but want to say a big thank you to Tim for his responses to my challenge.

    Scott, if you follow the train of thought, what I was saying is that I agree with your basic premise that music should be tested (eg against 1 Cor 14:40) and I am more than willing for the question to be asked. I said that I feel much CWM passes such tests, Tim disagreed, and I suggested looking at some specific examples.

    Will try to come back later, but I've got work to do.

  17. Anastasis,

    Concerning your first post:

    Concerning the tradition of Christian music, you are correct in assuming that there is no unchanged tradition. Without delving deeply into music history, it was not until the 1800's that the idea arose to start using music in a utilitarian manner rather than for it's own sake. People, such as William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) sought to use "relevant" musical forms to reach out to the lost. Although this line of thought is not new, it has been the prevalent view of "Christian" music for the past century. I believe that music ought to be used to worship and please God alone, and not to please man. As for the bulk of bible-believing Christians not feeling contemporary music to be wrong, it would not be the first time in history for a majority to be wrong. (Consider the state of the church before Martin Luther's reformation, etc.)


    Concerning your response to Anastasis's challenge, while I would agree with your observations concerning these songs, I would approach the situation differently. Many people approach music like a potato. When peeling a potato, we always cut out the "eyes." Filtering through each musical element individually is like cutting out the eyes of a potato. I would say, however, that popular music itself is like a rotten potato. Poking out the eyes still leaves behind a mushy, soggy potato and cutting out elements of popular music that are unsuitable does the same. Instead, why don't we just reject the potato altogether because it is a bad potato? Popular music is simply unfit for worshipping a holy God. There may be parts that are worse than others (like sensuality, etc.) but the philosophy behind popular music (appealing to man) is incompatible with Christianity, which should seek to appeal to God alone.

    As for trance-induction, this is one of my favorite pet-peeves. I am driven mad when I hear certain songs. Whether I'm shopping at Wal-Mart or at work where I can't control the radio and hear a repetitious tune, I struggle for a while afterwards to properly connect my thoughts because of the dullness of mind that the repetition brings forth. Psalm 136 is an example of a repetitious text. However, one must not forget the first halves of the verses. The first halves develop a thought. Christian music should never lack development, even in hymns, though the development will be minimal in shorter songs than in longer. Bottom line: If you're done saying what you have to say, don't repeat it any more.


    1. Makujina did not only not write Scripture, but he also didn't intend to. His book was thorough and scholarly, however.

    2. Obviously God created music. However, it was evident early on that music was distorted by the fall. (That is, I believe the point of this article.)

    3. Repetition itself is not wrong. No one here would assert that. The difference in hymns, catechisms, and Scripture is a difference both in approach/philosophy, and in degree. While hymns, catechisms, and Scripture do repeat themselves, they also develop ideas along with the repetition. The repetition, when present, is for emphasis. If you repeat a catechism often enough, you are very likely to forget what you are saying. This is a danger in any repetition and the reason for coupling repetition with development. Contemporary music's repetition seems to seek to get stuck in the ear of the listener and infect the hearer with petty cliché' maxims.

    4. I'm not sure exactly what you mean by this. If you repeat the chorus of a song once per verse, that is probably more than sufficient. If you feel the urge to repeat it more than that, perhaps you ought to have listened better the first time around. God is not deaf or hard of hearing. If we are worshipping Him, we shouldn't need to repeat something several times for him to hear us.

    5. No where. However, excesses are obviously wrong for the believer in any area. The Christian should be known for moderation.

    No one is judging you. What we intend to do is to examine all things and hold fast to that which is good.

    I, for one, will not have the time to examine every song. Thus, I think it is sufficient to group them by underlying philosophies.

  18. Jeremiah,

    I agree with everything you've said above. Pop/rock advocates always want to know in particular what's wrong with this or that song. Particularizing is simply a means of answering these critics. The potato is indeed rotten. There are a handful of musical genres that have consistent enough musical characteristics song-to-song to dismiss the entire genre out of hand; I believe pop/rock is one. The musical analyses of these songs sound very similar from one to another because the songs themselves contain the same characteristics.
    The musical characteristics DEFINE the style.

  19. Another thought about the Pelagian twist that this discussion often takes:

    Music is an emotional language. It's purpose is to move the heart. Once a person's affections have been moved by music, the experience endears the music to the individual as a mover of the heart. This experience is at least two pronged as it contains both a sentiment for the past and a knowledge that this same music has potential to move the heart again in the future. Sometimes the endearment is powerful beyond the intellect and beyond rationality. Often, the fervent defense of a song or a style is motivated by an emotional loyalty to a particular music's ability to move the heart. Persuading the heart is very difficult under these circumstances – as Scott has said elsewhere on this site – more difficult than persuading the intellect.

    Defenses motivated by emotional loyalty can lead to making claims contrary to orthodox Christianity, as evidenced by those who would defend the notion that a man-made art such as music is free from the effects of sin and the Fall, and therefore immune from evaluation and criticism.

  20. Tim, I've been listening to the three songs you analysed and I can understand a bit of what you say. Could I ask what albums or websites you listened to them from, as obviously there are multiple recordings available. I'd hear to hear the same versions that you commented on.

    The two songs in the CCLI top 25 that stand out as definitely not (in my view) being pop/rock are In Christ Alone and How Great Thou Art. What do you make of those?

  21. Anastasis,

    I listened to them from youtube, using the singers listed in the list you gave (with one exception where I couldn't find that same singer's name – but I forget which one it was).

    Which versions of "In Christ Alone" and "How Great Thou Art" do you want me to listen to?


  22. Aarrgghh, my comment got rejected for spam because of the YouTube links.

    Here's How Great Thou Art done on organ, as many churches would use it:

  23. Good, that worked.

    I had to search a load of videos of How Great Thou Art being performed before finding a version that is representative of how it is used in church.

    One thing I said on my comment that got lost is that you mustn't take too much notice of the arrangements on recordings, as they may be completely different to how a song is used in worship. Firstly, they will almost certainly be played by a load of professional musicians which churches tend not to have, secondly they are not recorded in a congregational setting, and thirdly they may be given a completely different style to how they are commonly used or the author intended

    For example, look at this and ask what JS Bach would think:

    In Christ Alone will have to wait…

  24. Dear Anastasis,

    I gather that you're talking about performance practice here, and performance practice does matter. (The famous example of this is the manner in which Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy Birthday" to JFK.) I would disagree, though that 'most' churches don't perform the music in the manner heard on these videos. Generally, people are not happy with the music until it comes as close as possible to replicating the version they're hearing on the radio. This is why churches move whenever possible to bringing in rock bands with electric guitars, synthesizers, and a trap set. The performances may not be as well done as in the videos, but churches that adopt pop/rock songs in the worship inevitably move in this direction (unless they enact some unbiblical prohibition against drums to keep the hymn-lovers from walking.)

    I will refrain from commenting on this particular performance of "How Great Thou Art," but generally, what you've provided to listen to here is an entirely different category of music with a different affect. The tune is originally a Swedish folk song and it lacks any of the musical characteristics that signify sensuality, anger, or agitation. Of course, it could be treated in that manner, but such a treatment would be an artificial superimposition of American pop/rock styles on the tune (such as in the Bach example you provided) and contradict the musical signifiers that are inherent in the tune.

  25. I agree fully with TimPSh.

    As for In Christ Alone, I would still classify it in the popular style, even though the style is different from some other popular styles. If you understand what the Getty's are after, it seems to be a "bridge" in between CCM and Fundamentalist styles. They use seemingly sound theology but combine it with simplistic and repetitious cliché' harmonies. Furthermore, the rhythm of the words as they are naturally spoken does not fit the tune very well. As a hybrid, I think it is still of the same essence as CCM with some conservative color.

    How Great Thou Art is a traditional Swedish tune combined with a fairly recent text. It is in my opinion a great song to sing while hiking and taking in the beauty of God's creation. I wouldn't classify it as a hymn and less as a psalm, but perhaps it could qualify as a spiritual song. Given the quantity of excellent older hymns out there, these would not be on the top of my list of songs to sing for worship .

  26. Jeremiah,

    You're spot on with the assessment "In Christ Alone." It's not worse, though, than much of the American gospel song repertoire, and better than some of the worst of that. Lack of attention to poetic meter and syllabic inflection are hallmarks of much amateur song-writing. Knowing how to set a text to support the words both in declamation and in affect requires training, something that many musically 'gifted' people spurn. Musical training and skill development are highly commended by scripture, though (I Chronicles 15:22, I Chronicles 25:6, Psalm 33:3).

  27. I'm finding your comments really helpful, haven't had time to write a substantial reply yet. It would be useful to have a few suggestions for songs/hymns that you feel are notable examples of "good" music that is suitable for worship. If they're not well-known, links (eg to YouTube) would be appreciated.

  28. Oh, and I just stumbled upon There's a player for a song on that page – I suspect it won't be something you approve of, but I'd be interested to know what you think, as it's a much more "modest" sound than the songs in the CCLI list.

  29. Dear Anastasia,

    The musical signifiers in the Teresa Muller tune you provide above are those of sensuality and are totally incongruent with the text. This example typifies pop/rock music. In the opening verse, the text speaks to the Lord regarding His attributes: rock, strength, hope, inspiration.

    Yet the prominent feature of the music is a rhythmically unstable, syncopated descending melody undergirded by an implicit backbeat in every one of the four phrases (which are nearly identical) that carries this text. The affect of the text of the poem is that of strength. The feeling of strength in human affection does not manifest itself with downward motion and rhythmic instability. The feeling of strength is accompanied physiologically by an upright posture, with an upward carriage. A person who is strong is upright and firm, not downwardly postured and unstable. This incongruity is easily overlooked by those who are accustomed to pop/rock styles.

    At the end of the first verse we've heard precisely one phrase of music repeated four times. This built in repetition is a feature which pop song writers readily admit is used to create immediate familiarity in the first-time listener – a requirement for immediate like-ability and a necessity for the quick sell. We like that with which we are familiar and pop music uses this feature in all the elements (rhythm, melody, harmony) to guarantee that the listener likes it by the end of one verse. This is musical/emotional manipulation for the purpose of sales. Excessive repetition in the musical elements is what creates the threadbare quality of the music and permits it only a few weeks in the 'charts' before it wears thin.

  30. Finally, the musical setting of the words creates a poor and unnatural text inflection. Normally spoken, the primary text inflection would be as follows:

    You are the ROCK of my salVAtion
    You are the STRENGTH of my LIFE
    You are my HOPE and my inspirAtion
    Lord unto YOU will I CRY.

    The pop version takes advantage of some secondary inflections, emphasizing the first syllable of each line – an acceptable difference. However other differences are clearly wrong:

    YOU are the ROCK of MY salvation
    YOU are the STRENGTH of my LIFE
    YOU are my HOPE and my INspiration
    LORD unto YOU will I CRY.

    The inflection of the text in the pop song setting is driven by the musical style of the syncopations, requiring incorrect emphasis for multi-syllable words and highlighting unimportant parts of speech where the words are single syllable (personal pronouns).

  31. Here's an analysis of another great hymn:

    Others great hymns would include:

    Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
    A Mighty Fortress
    The Church's One Foundation
    Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven (Lauda Anima)

    Here's a of video of a congregation singing Praise, My Soul . . .

    I hope this helps.


  32. Tim, This is all really interesting, and I have to confess it is quite new to me. Do you have any examples of more recent compositions that you would regard as appropriate for worship ?

  33. Anastasis,

    There are marvelous new hymns by Paul Jones (Hymns for Modern Reformation), K. Lee Scott – a couple that come to mind right away. Scott also supports new hymn writers here on this website regularly.


  34. Scott,

    I'm thinking through your analysis of the second anticipated objection. Here's the rub for me: What about words? Words are obviously symbols used to express ideas. They aren't entirely like music since they express propositional ideas, but that doesn't mean they're entirely disassociated from the affections, does it? So words are a product of human actions and are connected to human meaning, like music. But we wouldn't argue that words innately possess meaning, would we?

    So words convey morality or immorality as they're shaped by human actions, right? But aren't words to some degree relative, in the sense that the same combination of letters can be shaped morally or immorally by human actions? It seems to me as though you and Makujina are confusing the morality of the human action with the morality of the language.

    That's not to say that ALL music is ALWAYS morally neutral. I'm saying that the notion of an objective, universal standard of beauty is to this point wholly unpersuasive to me. The morality is in the human actions in creation and response. In some scenarios, at least, identical combinations of words or notes may reflect morality or immorality. At least that's how it seems to me.

    Help me understand how I'm wrong.

  35. I think the confusion lies in the difference between  conventional meaning and intrinsic meaning, or (perhaps a better way to say it) conventional metaphor and natural metaphor. I think a lot of times when discussing meaning, we don't carefully distinguish between these two categories (I'm as guilty of this as anyone).

    With most words, meaning is merely conventional. There is nothing intrinsic in the sounds of (most) words that tie them to any sort of meaning. Meaning of words has to be learned.

    But with music, the actual sounds are at some level naturally tied to meaning (admittedly abstract, affective meaning) because they connect with natural human emotion. So that kind of meaning doesn't have to be learned. My children have responded to music since they were born (even in the womb!), long before they learned the conventional meaning of words.

    Now piled on top of that layer of natural, intrinsic meaning are all sorts of layers of conventional meaning that has to be learned, of course. And certainly any sort of propositional meaning connected with a song or style must be learned because music can't naturally communicate propositional meaning.

    But for me, that's where I would see the difference. Does that make sense, or am I off somewhere?

  36. I think I agree. I'm encouraged by your affirmation of some abstraction. After I posted my comment, I heard Makujina affirm some level of ambiguity. Of course, that mitigates, in my mind, your assertion that musical relativism is Pelagian. Absolute relativism may be Pelagian, but I don't hear either you or him arguing that ALL denials of absolute objectivity in EVERY circumstance are Pelagian. That's very important. Am I representing you fairly?

  37. Ah yes. Thanks. I can see now how I may have been unclear.

    We're not talking about disagreeing over what music communicates or insisting upon ambiguity in meaning.

    It is those who deny that music can every be wrong that sound Pelagian. The "all music is created equal" mantra of CCM Magazine, for instance.

  38. Right, I think. You and I might disagree over what music communicates in a particular example (and whether that message is moral or immoral), but I'm certainly not denying that it communicates. Meaning may be ambiguous in the sense that different people understand it in different ways. (Makujina acknowledged that.) But some sort of meaning is present, and it should be tested/evaluated.

  39. Absolutely. People probably don't believe this about me, but I care much less that people agree with me on exactly what certain music means than that it needs to be aggressively evaluated and that not all music is appropriate for Christians or worship. That's my primary concern.

  40. Scott,
    Toward the end of your Defining Total Depravity, you state "In other words, man cannot trust his own judgements; he must look outside himself for criteria to make right judgments." if my theology is correct, only the regenerate heart has the advantage of the Spirit's indwelling, and, therefore, something (One) outside himself for criteria. What, then, are the cirteria the unregenerate heart uses to compose music? More specifically, how does the concept of common grace fall into your argument? Can music composed by an unregenerate heart (a heart void of the necessary outside criteria) be used to worship? If so, how can this be? If not, why not? Does fallen unregenerate man have anything to offer God? What impact does man's "sinful disposition" have on his ability or inabilty to reflect his Creator?

  41. Hi, Kurt.

    When I say something outside himself, I mean some kind of objective standards with which to pass judgment. Certainly a believer does have the Holy Spirit within him, but I do not believe that the Holy Spirit "speaks" or "directs" a believer in some kind of mystical way. He speaks through his Word; he gives the believer wisdom to accurately apply the Word of God.

    However, in order to apply the Word of God with the Spirit's wisdom, some times we need other information about the issue at hand — in this case, music.

    So what I am saying is that we need to understand the principles of musical communication (the criteria outside himself) in order, with the Holy Spirit's wisdom, to apply the Bible's principles and commands about communication.

    And, yes, an unbeliever, through common grace, can also understand the principles of musical communication, and actually create something that communicates a wholesome message.

    My primary point was to say that we cannot base our judgment simply upon what we "like," and that every creation of man has the potential of being sinful. There will certainly be disagreements about what communicates and how it communicates. But someone who denies that there is such a thing as corrupt communication is denying the sinfulness of man.

  42. Scott,
    Thank you for the clarification. The extra bit about the Spirit not communicating outside the Word is also an important distinction and something that informs the music and emotion equation. The whole Western cultural move toward experiential living certainly has influenced the Christian worldview. We talk about the difference between head-knowledge and heart-knowledge in ways that lead folks to believe the Christian experience is primarily an emotional experience. The appeal of popular music is an emotional appeal. It follows, then, that if the Christian experience is primarily emotional and popular music styles are primarily emotional, the music that most immediately connects/parallels the supposed Christian experience is popular music. If one changes the equation and places the Christian faith in a more objective context, the music required to express that faith is now more objective/absolute. Faith is less of a feeling and more of an acceptance of truth. My relationship with Christ is built on truth as revealed in the Word. It is not based on nor built with feelings as experienced in earthly relationships. Biblical love is an act of the will. When I say I love the Lord, that love isn't accompanied by a feeling. It's accompanied by my daily, moment by moment, surrender of my will to His will. Yes, those surrenderings have emotion. Putting aside the self is an emotional undertaking. Those emotions, however, are not the emotions of love; they are the emotions resulting from the actions of love. This distinction is important. The distinction leads me to act on my love even when I don’t feel like it.
    Jumping ahead to the end of this reasoning, what we are left with is an indictment, not only of the music choices some are making, but of their understanding of the Christian faith/experience. Affirmation of this is made every time we connect touchy feely invitation music to spiritual decisions. Billy Graham’s signature “Just as I Am” is a wonderful example of how not to begin the Christian life. Yes, we are broken over our sin. Yes, we are humbled by the merciful love of the God of the universe. Yes, we are turning over our goals and aspirations. Yes, there are a lot of emotional realities that accompany an understanding of God’s truth. What persists, however, is the factual truth that informs all of our dealings with God. It’s that factual truth that worship music should mirror. The hymns Tim listed as being acceptable are examples of objective music. There is very little room for subjectivity/sentimentality when absolute truth is at the heart of an endeavor. Would that music used to worship an absolute God would err on the side of too much objectivity rather than too much subjectivity.
    Finally, in several psychology of music texts, there is a distinction drawn between emotion and feeling. Emotions are shallow, term communicable, sensations. Feelings are deep, art communicable, realities. Perhaps the eternal nature of the Christian experience is more appropriately pursued through feelings, as distinguished here, than through shallow emotions. If this is true, it gives us more reason to use music that goes far beyond popular styles. In a poetic sense, it is certainly easier to float with the popular; it takes work and training to soar with the eternal. Discerning the difference is, I believe, what you were trying to get us to think about as you clarified and responded to Pelagian thought. Because of the fall and subsequent totally depraved nature, a sanctified spirit is required to achieve this discernment. It is no understatement to say that "If it feels good, do it" has had more impact on Christianity that most of us acknowledge.

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