Recent Posts
A good theologian once drew me a diagram of the progress of Christian doctrine and [more]
We began this series by making the claim that Pentecostalism has quietly (or not so [more]
Pentecostal worship places great emphasis on intensity. By intensity, they mean a strongly felt experience [more]
A polarized debate goes on between different stripes of Christians over the place of experience [more]
I am very pleased to announce that I have accepted a position with G3 Ministries  [more]

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.

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.

  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. []