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Preserving the Truth in our Worship

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series

"Preserving the Truth in our Worship"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

My argument in this series will be that conservative worship is essential to the preservation of truth for this reason: we will have preserved truth successfully only if it is truth rightly imagined, and our imagining truth rightly depends heavily on the forms of worship that we employ.

What is Truth?

We must first clarify what it is we aim to preserve. In its most basic definition, a statement is true if it corresponds with reality. The truth we wish to preserve—the truth of which the Church is the pillar and support (1 Tim 3:15)—has been revealed to us through the written Word of God. Everything contained within God’s Word corresponds rightly with reality, and it is our responsibility to pass that truth on to future generations (Acts 20:27). What we find there is truth about God, man, sin, salvation, the world, and so much more. Therefore, the truth we wish to preserve can be no less than doctrinal.

But what we have been given through Scripture, and what we are charged with preserving, is more than brute theological facts compiled in abstract statements. Truth is no less than facts in statements to be sure, but it is more. I am not arguing for another kind of truth, but a component of truth that exists beyond mere factual correspondence.

Truth in the Bible

Modernism has led us to equate truth with factuality alone. Truth is no less than factuality, but it is deeper than that. I am convinced of this primarily because I believe in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible does not come to us as a collection of propositional statements or a systematic theology. As Kevin Vanhoozer observes, “The Bible is more than divine data.”1

Instead, God’s revelation of truth comes to us in various literary forms, most of which are not merely didactic or propositional. James S. Spiegel helpfully summarizes the various literary genres that God chose to communicate his truth:

. . . the books of the Bible are, in the main, works of literary art. From Genesis to Revelation we find epic narratives (tragic and comic), proverbs, poems, hymns, oratory, and apocalyptic literature whose artistic tools include allegory, metaphor, symbolism, satire, and irony. Comparatively little of the biblical material is strictly didactic, and where this is the case, such as in the book of Romans, the logical rigor itself is elegant (an aesthetic quality). Finally, Jesus’ own preferred method of instruction, the parable, is an aesthetic device. And even when not using parables, his language tends to be heavily laden with metaphors and symbolism, a fact that exasperated the disciples.2

These forms provide a way of communicating God’s truth that would be impossible with systematic statements of fact alone. These aesthetic forms are essential to the truth itself since God’s inspired Word is exactly the best way that truth could be presented. Clyde S. Kilby observes, “The Bible comes to us in an artistic form which is often sublime, rather than as a document of practical, expository prose, strict in outline like a textbook.”3 He asserts that these aesthetic forms are not merely decorative but part of the essential presentation of the Bible’s truth: “We do not have truth and beauty, or truth decorated with beauty, or truth illustrated by the beautiful phrase, or truth in a ‘beautiful setting.’ Truth and beauty are in the Scriptures, as indeed they must always be, an inseparable unity.”4

To reduce God’s truth, then, only to doctrinal statements does great injustice to the way God himself has chosen to reveal truth to us. Vanhoozer articulates this well:

There are other types of precision or clarity than the scientific. It has been said, for example, that poetry is “the best words put in the best order.” Similarly, because we are dealing with the Bible as God’s word, we have good reason to believe that the biblical words are the right words in the right order. . . . To interpret the Bible truly, then, we must do more than string together individual propositions like beads on a string. This takes us only as far as fortune cookie theology, to a practice of breaking open Scripture in order to find the message contained within. What gets lost in propositionalist interpretation are the circumstances of the statement, its poetic and affective elements, and even, then, a dimension of its truth. We do less than justice to Scripture if we preach and teach only its propositional content. Information alone is insufficient for spiritual formation. We need to get beyond “cheap inerrancy,” beyond ascribing accolades to the Bible to understanding what the Bible is actually saying, beyond professing biblical truth to practicing it.5

Most evangelicals, however, view the Bible—and by extension truth—as merely propositional.6

To most, whatever aesthetic aspects are present in Scripture are incidental at best and for many a distraction. Truth is simply something to believe and perhaps get excited about. But there is a reason the Bible calls God a “king” rather than simply asserting the doctrinal fact of his rulership. There is a reason the Bible calls God a shepherd, fortress, father, husband, and potter rather than simply stating the ideas underlying these metaphors. These images of God paint a picture that goes far beyond mere doctrinal accuracy.

The Aesthetic Component of Truth

Now to be clear, I am not arguing against the propositional nature of truth. This is the postmodern position, one of which I am as equally critical as I am of the modernist view. Truth can—and indeed often must—be summarized in propositional statements. What I am arguing is that truth is more than that. Again, Vanhoozer explains:

Without some propositional core, the church would lose its raison d’etre, leaving only programs and pot-lucks. At the same time, to reduce the truth of Scripture to a set of propositions is unnecessarily reductionist. What the Bible as a whole is literally about is theodrama—the words and deeds of God on the stage of world history that climax in Jesus Christ.7

Nor am I arguing for two kinds of truth, one propositional and the other not; I am arguing that truth is always both propositional and aesthetic.

Thus what we are charged with preserving is not only a collection of propositions that correspond to God’s reality, but also ways of expressing these ideas that likewise correspond to God’s reality. We are committed to preserving not just intellectual facts, but “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Faith is more than facts; faith is right facts combined with the affection of trust; faith is right facts felt rightly.

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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. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 5. []
  2. James S. Spiegel, “Aesthetics and Worship,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2, no. 4 (1998): 44. []
  3. Clyde S. Kilby, Christianity and Aesthetics (Chicago: Inter-varsity Press, 1961), 19. []
  4. Ibid., 21. []
  5. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 1 (2005): 96, 100. Vanhoozer’s opinion here is clearly rhetorical overstatement; neither he nor I would disparage the value of systematic theology. Yet the point is clear: systematic theology alone cannot fully encapsulate Christian truth. []
  6. For a helpful comparison between the typical evangelical view of the Bible and truth and one that sees the imagination as essential to truth, see Peter W. Macky, “The Role of Metaphor in Christian Thought and Experience as Understood by Gordon Clark and C. S. Lewis,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 24, no. 3 (1981). []
  7. Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” 100-101. []

4 Responses to Preserving the Truth in our Worship

  1. At the ground level, the argument that you are constructing is, at best, questionable. I do not question that biblical truth is presented aesthetically in Holy Writ. The Bible is truly a work of a vast array of genres. It's literary artistry on the whole is second to none; however, I think that the argument above misses two very important points:

    1) Does the evidence offered support the conclusion? Though the Word of God is revealed in manners that include aesthetically pleasing literary forms, not all of Scripture adheres to this principle. Take, for example, the Book of II Peter. For its incredible doctrine and practicality, the book entirely lacks in literary artistry. The book is the inspired writing of a common fisherman. No frills, no impressive literary genius, and not even a great deal of originality (depending on what relationship you see between II Peter and Jude). The grammar is poor and awkward at times. The style seems hurried and terse. For all its lack of aesthetic beauty, does this little book lack the divine stamp of inspiration? Surely if God desired all truth to be portrayed in an aesthetically appealing manner, He would have chosen Paul to compose the letter! Rather, God used the aesthetically unappealing book to convey His truth for His people.

    So, to say that the Bible is full of literary artistry is not wrong, but to say that it is entirely aesthetically pleasing is incorrect; therefore, to argue that truth is always propositional and aesthetic is questionable in light of the evidence.

    2) Does the conclusion match the argument? Essentially your argument runs as follows: a) the Bible is aesthetically excellent in form; b) the Bible is true/truth; c) therefore all truth is aesthetic. We have already questioned the evidence for the major premise, but we will assume it valid for the purpose of this question. If valid, our syllogism still is quite lacking in its argument. A similar syllogism would run as follows: a) the Bible is composed in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic; b) the Bible is true/truth; c) therefore all truth must be composed in ancient languages. Another example of this syllogism: a) my phone is on the Verizon network; b) my phone works; c) in order for a phone to work, it must be on the Verizon network. The logical fallacy is the fallacy of the shared characteristic, a form of an association fallacy. Though the conclusion of the syllogism may be probable, it is far from certain.

    In conclusion, the roots of this argument (i.e. the evidence and the logical construction) are weak, so I likely will not trust the branches.

  2. 1. I'll grant you, of course, that there are portions of the Scripture that are not of fine literary quality, but (a) that is not the majority, and (b) even those portions (1 Peter for an example) are nevertheless aesthetic to a certain extent. ALL literature is aesthetic; all literary forms (even didactic epistles) shape the basic content in aesthetic ways.

    And "aesthetic" means more than "pleasing," as you seem to imply, by the way.

    2. No, here's my argument: (a) truth is more than propositions; it is aesthetic; (b) in order for truth to be preserved, we must preserve the doctrinal content as well as the way it is presented aesthetically; (c) Scripture provides us with the models we need to do this.

  3. Yes…I am aware that aesthetic means more than pleasing; however, there are few senses in which a topic that centers on the concept of beauty and avoid using such terms.

    Your syllogism still needs to be reworked. The issue now is that your conclusion has become your ground. The ground (as set forth in the article above) is that Scripture sets forth a model of propositional truth in aesthetic form. Your conclusion is that we must preserve that content in the manner it was presented aesthetically. In order to prove the syllogism as stated above, you would need to posit the conclusion as grounds for your major premise, creating a circular argument.

    Even when reworked, we are back to the matter of whether or not Scripture actually provides a model for aesthetics (or was intended to do so – purpose of inspiration: I Tim. 3:16-17). Once again, if we accept your view on this, we are back to positing that the revelation of the Word of God in a form that can be analyzed on aesthetic grounds is the norm for all truth or doctrine.

  4. I use form in Scripture in two ways in this series (and I'm only half done):

    First, I'm simply using Scripture as an example. Form is inseparable from meaning, and this is illustrated by the ways in which God chose to present his truth.

    Second, I use Scripture as a model of the kinds of forms worthy to present truth.

    So my major premise is not that Scripture presents truth in aesthetic forms. The basis of my argument is that form in inseparable from content; truth is both propositional and aesthetic (and moral, I would add). I'm only using Scripture at this stage as an example.

    If it confuses the argument, forget Scripture for a moment. I could use other illustrations. No truth is every presented or believed without form, and that form shapes the content. That's my foundational premise.

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