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The Power of Beauty to Educate the Emotions

sunlight-plays-with-nature-beautySanctification is a lifelong process for a believer. Although a Christian is freed from the power and penalty of sin, he still must deal with the presence of sin around and within him. If, as stated in 1 Corinthians 10:31, man’s chief end is to glorify God, then the essence of sin is failing to accomplish this purpose. Indeed, Romans 3:23 defines sin as falling short of the glory of God. Piper’s explanation of what this means will shed some light on the connection between sin and beauty:

What does it mean to “fall short” of the glory of God? It does not mean we were supposed to be as glorious as God is and have fallen short. We ought to fall short in that sense! The best explanation of Romans 3:23 is Romans 1:23. It says that those who did not glorify or thank God “became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” This is the way we “fall short” of the glory of God: we exchange it for something of lesser value. All sin comes from not putting supreme value on the glory of God—this is the very essence of sin.[1]

So sin is essentially failing both to apprehend and to take pleasure in God as supreme beauty. Romans 3:10-12 emphasizes the sinfulness of men, “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.”

The London Baptist Confession correctly summarizes the doctrine of human depravity when it states that sinful man is “wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body”[2]— that is, mind, will, and emotions. This doctrine of total depravity implies that man is completely unable to apprehend the beauty of God. When we were converted, we were given “new life” and the ability to apprehend God for who He is.

However, our sensibilities still remain partially corrupt, and the remainder of our lives on earth is occupied with sanctification, the process through which the Holy Spirit of God progressively restores the purity of man’s soul—mind, will, and emotions. Thus, a Christian is constantly aware of his need to be improved and seeks, through the power of God in accordance with His Word, to progress further toward purity. The pursuit of purity includes the realm of his mind (his ability to distinguish truth from error and believe only in what is true), his will (his ability to discern right from wrong and act accordingly), and his emotions (his ability to apprehend rightly and to delight in the beauty of God). Thus, “The Christian is well aware that his tastes may be lower than his best judgment or his conscience might dictate.”[3] This is a problem for the Christian, because if someone has the ability to appreciate and take pleasure only in inferior beauty, he will not be able to appreciate rightly God’s superior beauty. For this reason, earthly beauty—right reflections of divine beauty—can accomplish a sanctifying work whereby a Christian’s aesthetic sensibilities are improved so he might be better equipped to apprehend and delight in God. As Augustine states, “Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.”[4]

For instance, if someone were to claim that a sunset were ugly, we would charge him with being dishonest and not giving proper acclaim to God’s beautiful creation. People may differ on whether they prefer to watch a sunset, but to deny its beauty is to deny the beauty of God. Christians must strive to make correct judgments with regard to beauty just as they should when judging truth or goodness.

The Sanctifying Work of Beauty

The concept of the sanctifying work of beauty is common in theological writing. For instance, Herman Bavinck notes that “[beauty] deepens, broadens, and enriches our inner life, raises us momentarily above the horizontal, sinful, and sad actuality, and in a purifying, liberating, and saving manner affects our bowed and disconsolate hearts.”[5] Likewise, Brown remarks, “There is something about beauty, when it is appreciated rightly, that already begins to have a kind of sanctity and that points to a higher level of reality, beautiful in itself.”[6]

Furthermore, theologians have specifically linked beauty with the Holy Spirit, the person of the Trinity primarily involved with the work of sanctification. Edwards adds his voice to this subject as well. He highlights the beautifying of the world as one of the Holy Spirit’s primary functions and cites Genesis 1:2 in support, which he paraphrases as “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters . . . to bring it . . . into harmony and beauty.” He also quotes Job 26:13, drawing upon the Hebrew word play between “breath” and “spirit” to translate it, “God by his Spirit garnished the heavens.”[7] Edwards points to sanctification as another of the Holy Spirit’s primary functions, and he sees a close relationship between the two functions of sanctifying and beautifying. One statement from a sermon will summarize Edward’s thinking on this point: He says that the light of the Holy Spirit, which is “a kind of emanation of God’s beauty,” gives a “sense of the heart” whereby Christians discover “the divine superlative glory” of God.[8] He asserts, therefore, that all true beauty can “enliven in us a sense of spiritual beauty.”[9]

How this sanctifying work is accomplished through the beauty of music certainly warrants deeper investigation. To answer this, we must remember music’s emotional connection. For instance, American composer Leonard Bernstein theorized that music exists as “heightened speech” and that this heightened speech is essentially “intensified emotion, . . . certainly the deepest [universal] we all share.”[10] Of course, Bernstein is not the first to see a fundamental connection between music and emotion. We noted in chapter 6 that even the Bible relates music’s power to its ability to express emotion.

Remember that beauty is fundamentally an emotional apprehension. Therefore, sanctifying a Christian’s ability to apprehend beauty in music is essentially sanctification of his emotions. The idea of sanctifying or educating the emotions through music may seem quite remarkable. While admitting that it may sound novel, Leonard Meyer softens the blow by comparing it to educating the mind.

It sounds perfectly reasonable to argue that reasoning can be educated in quality and depth and breadth and that we have the means to do so in education by using the forms of cognition appropriate to conceptual thinking—languages and other symbolic systems. The parallel claim being made here, that feeling can be educated in quality and depth and breadth, and that we have the means to do so in education by using the form of cognition appropriate to the affective realm—music (and the arts)—sounds remarkable or even radical.[11]

Meyer argues that this use of music to enhance the depth of what we feel is literally an “education of feeling.”[12] He explains the importance of such unique education:

If the only means available to humans to help them explore their subjective nature were ordinary language, a major part of human reality would be forever closed off to our conscious development. The subjective part of reality—the way life feels as it is lived—cannot be fully clarified or refined in our experience solely through the use of ordinary language.13

Christians should be concerned to sanctify not only their minds and wills but also their emotions. Thus humans need music, and perhaps this is one of the reasons the Bible stresses the importance of music for believers. This need is further illustrated in the writing of music education specialist Bennett Reimer. He explains that our ability to articulate how we feel is limited when we use only words to describe our emotions.[13] This weakness in mere words is because “our affective experiences are seldom if ever discrete; instead, our feelings mingle and blend in countless, inseparable mixtures that the words of language cannot begin to describe because they are inherently not designed to do so.”[14] The answer, according to Reimer, is that music is able to bring our feelings to “the level of awareness” by which we may “[know] through experiencing what ordinary language cannot express.”

What music does, then, is to make available for awareness, in how its organized sounds move and interrelate, the infinitely extendable, infinitely subtle, infinitely “complexifiable” possibilities of the feelings we are capable of having and so crave to have to fulfill our capacities for consciousness and cognition.[15]

In other words, music’s ability to express emotion through use of symbols allows man to know experientially what is normally frustratingly elusive and to make value judgments about his feelings based on something external to himself. Thus man’s emotions can be educated or, in religious terms, sanctified. Adler could not find any foundation for absolute “admirability” in the realm of beauty other than possibly the judgments of experts. However, he did acknowledge that the only way one could mandate taking pleasure in certain objects for their intrinsic properties is through “educational prescription.”

We think that education should result in the formation of a mind that thinks as it ought, judging correctly about the truth and falsity of propositions. We think that education should result in the formation of a virtuous moral character, one that desires aright or chooses, as it ought with regard to good and evil. To carry this one step further, from the spheres of truth and goodness to the sphere of beauty, we need only say that education should result in the formation of good taste so that the individual comes to enjoy that which is admirable, and to derive more enjoyment from objects that have greater intrinsic excellence or perfection.[16]

If Adler believed in God, he would have discovered an absolute foundation for the admirable. But the Christian has no excuse. If he is determined to have a true appreciation for divine beauty, he must be willing to cultivate and refine his tastes to appreciate the demonstrably admirable—what rightly reflects the ultimate Admirable. By exposing himself regularly to the most beautiful forms of music, a Christian can actually sanctify his emotions to appreciate true beauty. This enables him to more rightly glorify God.

How Music Can Sanctify the Emotions

The manner in which music may help to sanctify the emotions, and thus improve man’s ability to rightly apprehend God’s beauty, is by expressing only good, right, and wholesome emotions. Philosophers and theologians have always believed that music can affect human character. For instance, Plato held that music had a powerful impact upon the soul and could either ennoble people or debase them, depending upon whether the music correctly reflected universal harmony.

Now don’t we say that all music is representational and imitative? Yes . . . Then those who are looking for the best kind of singing and music must look not for the kind that is pleasant but that which is correct: and as we have said, an imitation is correct if it is made like the object imitated, both in quantity and in quality.[17]

Plato believed that since music had such a powerful potential to affect men’s souls, its primary use should be for the formation of good character. He believed strongly in the use of music for the education of young people, not just academically, but spiritually.[18] Augustine also believed strongly in a distinction between objectively good and bad music and that good music could actually improve people. Faulkner notes,

Thus Augustine conceives of music in terms of mathematics, like Plato and other Pythagoreans. This becomes even more evident in the key words that Augustine uses throughout the treatise [De Musica]: for example, numerositas, the quality that good poetry and good music exhibit, by which the hearer may perceive that they are in agreement with universal truth (i.e., cosmic harmony); or numeri, the various means or faculties by which humans are enabled to apprehend that harmony. (There are five of them: in the sound itself, in hearing, in pronouncing, in memory, and in the intellect.) Augustine indeed subscribes to the idea that music is a means of apprehending cosmic truth and perfection through the number and measure inherent in it.[19]

In Martin Luther we find perhaps the clearest articulation of how good music can sanctify. Luther knew that words alone were deficient as emotional enrichment; he needed music to encourage true piety and religious fervor. He believed that “notes bring the text to life.”[20] Here he interprets Platonic thought through the eyes of Scripture and forms a basis for a theological philosophy of music. Since music can enhance the emotions and ennoble the soul, it can—when united with sound theology — provide adequate means for expressing right piety for God. “After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming it through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.”[21]

Luther turned to the words of the Bible for examples of music’s power in this regard. The book of Psalms itself, when set to fine music, “helps greatly to produce this effect [of encouraging piety], especially when the people sing along and do so with fine devoutness.”[22] Luther referenced men such as Elisha and David as biblical examples of using music to enrich the emotions.24[23] Luther’s sermons and other writings are replete with advice to use music as a means to encourage right emotions such as “a calm and joyful disposition.”[24] To an organist in Freiberg, Luther wrote,

When you are sad, say to yourself, “Come! I will strike up a song to my Lord Jesus Christ on the regal, be it Te Deum Laudamus or Benedictus, for the Scriptures teach me that He rejoices in glad song and the sound of strings.” So with renewed spirit reach for the claves and sing until your sad thoughts are driven away, as did David and Elisha.[25]

This kind of emotional enrichment drew Martin Luther to relish fine music for use in the church, because he saw music as a gift from heaven, “an endowment of God, not a gift of men,”27 to be used “in the service of him who has given and created [it].”[26] Luther had no patience for those who would not submit themselves to the benefits of musical enrichment for the betterment of the soul. He called them “stumps and blocks of stone.”[27]

In Luther’s mind, this power of music to stimulate right emotions and elevate the soul created better people. Luther noted that good music developed “people of wondrous ability, subsequently fit for everything,” for “he who knows music has a good nature.”[28] That is why he believed so strongly that young people should be educated in music, so they “might have something whereby [they] might be weaned from the love ballads and the sex songs and, instead of these, learn something beneficial and take up the good with relish, as benefits youth.”[29] Luther wanted good people, rightly conformed to the teachings of Scripture in knowledge and affection, and he found in music the perfect gift from God for this task.

In summary, only well-crafted music, because it is demonstrably beautiful, can educate the emotions and ennoble character. It can do so exactly because good creations of beauty are a reflection of divine beauty and help to cleanse sinful affections and make one more able to appreciate what he should. Plato’s philosophy presents a clue as to how this sanctification takes place. He insisted that music be not merely “pleasant” but “correct,” and by correct he means that it must correspond rightly to “cosmic harmony.”[30] The Christian interpretation of such thinking is found in Augustine who tied that “cosmic truth” with God’s perfections.[31] And so it is to the cosmos— nature—that a Christian must look if he is to rightly represent divine beauty. I have shown that creation itself is beautiful in that it comes from the hand of Beauty Himself, and so, as Kilby notes, man-made “art may rightly take its cue from God’s own practice, for He tells us that the heavens declare his glory.”[32] In studying the beauty of creation and attempting to mimic its qualities in art such as music, a Christian may educate his tastes and prepare himself to be able to apprehend the beauty of God. Sherry summarizes this notion well:

In the case of aesthetics, Christian theologians, and indeed all theists, start from the assumption that the beautiful aspects of nature are properties put there by God as creator of all things (which is not to deny that beauty may be supervenient on other qualities); they may be led from there to explore the footsteps of the Creator, through scientific investigation as well as contemplation of nature and artistic activity, and to rejoice in his creation; many have gone further and seen the beauty of works of art too as created by God, though in this case indirectly, through his inspiration of artists as “secondary causes”; and many see both natural and artistic beauty as a reflection of, or likeness to,

God’s own beauty.[33]

So what, then, are those qualities that render music well crafted? What are those properties in nature that reveal God’s perfections of beauty—those qualities that composers should imitate if they want to create truly beautiful music as reflections of the divine or those qualities that the Christian listener should look for? For the answer to these questions, we must return to an observation of the qualities of perfection in the character of God and the beauty in His creation. A synthesis of the writings of men like Edwards, Kuyper, Aquinas, and Augustine will reveal three overarching categories of properties that render both God and His creation beautiful: (1) order (unity, regularity, harmony, uniformity, etc.), (2) proportion (symmetry and balance, etc.), and (3) radiance (effulgence, purity, clarity, etc.). Each of these qualities is used in Scripture to describe God.

Likewise, God makes aesthetic judgments about His creation or man-made art based on the same qualities. Recognition of such qualities should be significant for a Christian since failure to recognize these properties as those that comprise the beauty of God is to fail to bring Him the glory due Him. Furthermore, to call something beautiful or take aesthetic delight in something that does not possess these qualities reflective of God’s beauty is tantamount to sin. Therefore, if a Christian wants to glorify God and magnify His excellence by true beauty in music, he must reflect these properties of divine beauty—order, proportion, and radiance—in his craft. No magical formula exists to help the Christian evaluate music based on these criteria—this is the task of informed musical analysis. But all Christians must be willing to do the study necessary to understand what makes good music from an analytical standpoint and make decisions accordingly.

In summary, music has three primary functions: (1) By taking delight in those properties of music that mimic God’s perfections and thus making it beautiful, the listener affirms God’s beauty, bringing ultimate glory to Him; (2) Since every man is born seeking pleasure, finite pleasure gives the listener a small taste of what may be fully consummated only in God. This motivates the listener to seek after God, the source of true delight; and (3) Truly beautiful music can educate the listener’s emotions and help him grow to have a full appreciation for what deserves admiration, including God Himself.

[1] John Piper, Desiring God, 56-57.

[2] General Assembly, The Baptist Confession of Faith, 17.

[3] Kilby, 23.

[4] Augustine, Sermon 88.5.5, translated in Margaret Miles, “Vision: The Eye of the Body and the Eye of the Mind in Saint Augustine’s De Trinitate and Confessions,” Journal of Religion 63 (April 1983): 125-42.

[5] Herman Bavinck, “Van Schoonheid en Schoonheidsleer,” chap. in Verzamelde Opstellen (Kampen: Kok, 1921), 279; quoted in Begbie, 99.

[6] Brown, 58.

[7] Jonathan Edwards, An Unpublished Essay of Edwards on the Trinity, with Remarks on Edwards and His Theology, ed. George P. Fisher (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 90.

[8] Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” Works, Mark Valeri, vol. 17, Sermons and Discourses 1730-1733 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 408-26.

[9] Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, 52.

[10] Bernstein, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 15.

[11] Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 94.

[12] Ibid., 89. 13  Ibid., 85.

[13] Bennett Reimer, A Philosophy of Music Education: Advancing the Vision, third edition (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2003), 84.

[14] Ibid., 83.

[15] Ibid., 81-2.

[16] Adler, 119.

[17] Plato, Laws 668, in Barker, Greek Musical Writings, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 152.

[18] Plato, Laws 659; 664, in Barker, 147-148.

[19] Quentin Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair: The Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and the Christian Church (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996), 75.

[20] Tischreden 2345 in Friedrich Blume, et al, Protestant Church Music: A History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974), 14.

[21] Helmut T. Lehmann, ed. Luther’s Works, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1965), 321-324.

[22] Edwald M. Plass, gen. ed., What Luther Says, vol. 2 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1959), 981.

[23] Kings 3:15; 2 Sam. 1:17ff; See Paul Nettle, Luther and Music (New York: Russell & Russell, 1967), 16.

[24] Lehmann, vol. 49, 427.

[25] Nettle, 16. 27  Plass, 980.

[26] Martin Luther, Works: Spiritual Hymn Book, vol. 6, 284.

[27] Lehmann, Luther’s Works, vol. 49, 427-429.

[28] Ibid., vol. 45, 369-370; Plass, 980.

[29] Plass, 980-981.

[30] Plato, in Barker, 152.

[31] Faulkner, 75.

[32] Kilby, 30.

[33] Sherry, 47.

This article is an excerpt from Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship (BMH Books, 2009) by Scott Aniol.

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.