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Truth and Worship Forms

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series

"Preserving the Truth in our Worship"

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

I have argued to this point that preserving the truth must include not only the preservation of right doctrine, but also the preservation of right imagination. As we have already seen, the imagination is shaped and cultivated through aesthetic forms. We have focused most specifically on literary forms since this is what we find in the Bible, but all art forms shape the imagination in some way. This leads us to the next point of my thesis, namely, that conservative worship is essential to the preservation of truth, for it is in worship that the imagination is most powerfully cultivated.

Cultivating Imagination in Worship

What art forms are chosen in worship is of utmost importance since they present to the congregation not just theological facts, but those facts imagined in certain ways. John Mason Hodges explains the power of worship forms in this regard:

Our musical and liturgical choices in worship can display an aspect of God that is often ignored. We must ask ourselves, how can we whet the congregation’s appetites now for the satisfactions that will be theirs in God for eternity? One way would be to commit ourselves to the pursuit of God’s beauty made manifest through his creation and ours, and value that beauty highly when making decisions for worship.1

Most evangelicals today view worship forms as simply pretty packaging for truth or at best a way to “energize” the truth. Music is just a way to make truth interesting and engaging in worship. But imaginative forms are not incidental to truth—they are essential to the truth, as Spiegel explains: “At its best, liturgical art is not merely consistent with sound doctrine but serves positively to illuminate biblical teaching, making imaginative expression or application of biblical truth.”2 Therefore, worship forms help to express the imaginative aspect of truth in ways that propositional statements alone cannot; they communicate not just the what of biblical content, but also how that content is imagined. And the kinds of imaginative forms God chose to communicate his truth should inform our worship forms. Art in worship is more than incidental; it is God-ordained because of its power to express rightly imagined truth: “Surely the fact that God himself chose an artistic medium as his primary vehicle of special revelation ought by itself to persuade us to place a special premium on the arts.”3 Conservative worship is essentially a desire to preserve the kinds of aesthetic forms contained in Scripture in our worship.

The Function of Form

Aesthetic form shapes propositional content; just like a liquid takes the shape of its container, doctrinal facts take the shape of the aesthetic form in which they are carried. This is accomplished in worship music through poetic devices, melody, harmony, rhythm, performance style, and many other musical elements.

Consider this example of how just the propositional content of a song text can be shaped by its form: suppose I want to communicate the idea that God is all-powerful, that he promises to protect us, and that we should trust in him. Here are four different ways to communicate that content through poetry. Notice how the form shapes the content:

1. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing;
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.4

2. How strong and sweet my Father’s care,
That round about me, like the air,
Is with me always, everywhere!
He cares for me!5

3. God is bigger than the boogie man.
He’s bigger than Godzilla, or the monsters on TV.
Oh, God is bigger than the boogie man.
And He’s watching out for you and me.6

4. Draw me close to you
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear you say that I’m your friend
You are my desire
No one else will do
‘Cause nothing else could take your place
To feel the warmth of your embrace
Help me find the way, bring me back to you
You’re all I want
You’re all I’ve ever needed
You’re all I want
Help me know you are near.7

In each of these poems, the basic idea is the same: God is great, and we can trust in him. On the propositional content level, each of these poems is saying something that is true. But when we get to the level of form—what words are chosen and how they are put together—the idea in these poems is imagined very differently. Add the musical elements and performance style, and the imagination is even more significantly shaped.

The problem is that since most evangelicals understand truth to be only right knowledge of right facts, they view worship as a time to impart only right facts with some enjoyable music to make such transmission interesting or engaging. Yet while theological facts must be transmitted in worship, this misses the whole point of worship, as Bryan Chapell astutely observes:

The negative impact of turning the sanctuary into the lecture hall is training believers to become merely reflective about the gospel in worship and tempting them to believe that right worship is simply about right thought. As a consequence, the worship focus becomes study, accumulating doctrinal knowledge, evaluating the Sermon, and critiquing the doctrinally imprecise. Congregational participation, mutual encouragement, heart engagement, expressions of grief for sin, and joyous thanksgiving may increasingly seem superfluous, or even demeaning.8

Thus most theologically conservative evangelical worship services are filled with good doctrinal teaching but worship forms that do not express an imagination of that truth that rightly reflects biblical imagination. They view the purpose of worship music as making truth “engaging” rather than its deeper purpose of shaping imagination in profound ways. With this view, it matters not what kind of music a church uses as long as it is “passionate” and resonates with the worshipers.

Worship choices, then, are not merely about what is pleasing, authentic, or engaging; what forms we choose for our worship must be based on the criterion of whether or not they are true—whether or not they correspond to God’s reality as it is imagined in his Word.

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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. John Mason Hodges, “Aesthetics and the Place of Beauty in Worship,” Reformation and Revival Volume 9 (2000): 73. []
  2. Spiegel: 51. []
  3. Ibid., 44. []
  4. Martin Luther, 1529. []
  5. Anonymous, ca. 1929. []
  6. Veggie Tales, 1992. []
  7. Kelly Carpenter, 1994. []
  8. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 67. []

12 Responses to Truth and Worship Forms

  1. A glacier floating in the ocean and some ice cubes in a glass of pop are and are not the same thing.

  2. Applying aesthetics (perceptions of culture, excellence, beauty, etc.) to worship:

    "My fear was lest excellence in reading and writing were being elevated into a spiritual value, into something meritorious per se; just as other things excellent and wholesome in themselves, like conjugal love (in the sense of eros) or physical cleanliness, have, at some times and in some circles been confused with virtue itself or esteemed necessary parts of it" (CS Lewis, Christian Reflections, 28). Aesthetic good not to be confused with moral good.

    "I assume at the outset that nothing should be done or sung or said in church which does not aim directly or indirectly at glorifying God or edifying people, or both. A good service may of course have a cultural value as well, but that is not what it exists for; just as, in an unfamiliar landscape, a church may help me to find the points of the compass, but it was not built for that purpose" (Ibid, 94). Purpose of worship is not aesthetic.

    "For all our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which the father values indeed, but values only for the intention" (Ibid, 99). Worth determined by intention not by aesthetics.

    "Excellence in all dimensions of worship expression, including music, must not simply be defined by cultural standards of sophistication, but by the ability to strengthen, deepen, and develop faith" (Bryan Chapel, CCW, 140). Excellence judged by spiritual impact not by aesthetics.

  3. Hi Phillip, I don't disagree with the quotes you present per se. But I think you're not quite on point. While it may be true that aesthetic good can not be equated with moral good, that does not negate the fact that moral good, whether in action or proposition, has an aesthetic quality intrinsic to it. And though the purpose of worship is not merely to achieve an aesthetic accomplishment, the worship ought be offered with/in an aesthetic that matches the content which, by turn, ought to match the aspect of God being to which that worship responds.
    And I'm willing to concede even our best attempts fall short, but we ought always attempt to better our best.
    Lastly, I think the key to the Chappel quote is the word "simply".

    I agree with the overall point that beauty is not an end in itself, though.

  4. Yeah…I agree that they were a little random. They apply more generally to this argument based on aesthetics, culture, etc. My point is simply this:

    Until we reject premises such as these:
    – Traditional Arguments Like the Argument Above: Worship ought to be offered that matches my cultural perspective on biblical aesthetics (good goal, but faulty).
    — This argument is commonly built on this supposed doctrine of aesthetic morals (Scripture on this please?). I've argued in the prior posts (especially on this series), that such a view has minimal backing in arguments based on perceptions of aesthetic beauty in Scripture.
    — This argument is commonly built on a supposed standard of excellence which is the measure by wich worship is accepted by God. That which falls short is not accepted. My point from Lewis and Chapel is that worship is accepted based on its intention (as opposed to aesthetic beauty) to glorify God and edify saints (e.g. the point of Chapel's argument).
    – Contemporary Arguments Like: Worship ought to be offered so that unbelievers may see our testimony and be saved (once again a good goal, but faulty).

    Until we accept that glorifying God and edifying our brothers are the ONLY requirements of biblical worship we are still on the wrong path. Forasmuch as we castigate the decrepid "Church Marketing Movement" for its focus on the secondary niceties of worship (emotional joy, evangelism, etc.), we too have failed by elevating tertiary foci to the forefront ("excellence," and aesthetics). Is it nice when our worship is aesthetically pleasing? Sure. Is it awesome when our worship results in evangelism? Yep. But we construct a faulty view of worship when we make peripherals the purpose or the standard ("ought to") for right worship.

  5. Philip, you wrote:

    "…glorifying God and edifying our brothers are the ONLY requirements of biblical worship…"

    I'm not going to speak for Scott, but it seems to me that he argues for a worship that fully glorifies God in its aesthetic quality (which he doesn't seem to limit to the creative output of "dead white guys", as the phrase goes).

    As for scriptures, Philippians 4:8 springs immediately to mind. As does Psalm 96:9.

    Are intentions all that matter anywhere else but worship, in your opinion? We can intend to drive without hitting crosswalkers, be faithful to our wives, love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, but ultimately these require something concrete, no?

  6. Brother David,

    Once again, I question the necessity of even bringing aesthetics into the equation of worship (just as you and I would rightly question bringing evangelism into it). Whether or not the limitation is to the "dead white guys" remains to be seen, but some of the points here seem to head that direction (i.e. some of the recent articles on culture that elevate the aesthetic acumen of Western "Christianized" culture as showered with "more common grace" than that of other cultures); however, I don't wish to put words in anyone's mouths, so I will simply critique what is before me:

    Scriptural Evidence for a Call to Normative Aesthetics:

    Philippians 4:8
    The question before us is whether the passage mandates moral virtues, or aesthetic virtues, or some blend of the two. In order to discern this, we must list and define the key terms:

    – True (G. alethes): the standard word for truth in the GNT and LXX. In this context, the word indicates the moral virtue of being honest (BDAG).
    – Honest (G. semnos): a rare word in the GNT, but more prevalent in the Fathers, occurs often to connote one who is “above reproach” in his moral character (TDNT).
    – Just (G. dikaios): the standard word for righteousness in the GNT. Often refers to God’s standard of morality (Thayer).
    – Pure (G. hagnos): an unusual adjective that is used in the GNT to indicate “moral purity” (TDNT).
    – Lovely (G. prosphiles): a hapox legomenon that is a compound of the “facial” (i.e. the turning of the head) preposition “to/towards/with” (G. pros) and love/like (G. philos). The picture is of that which one turns and faces towards because it is loved or admired. This term in and of itself could indicate the pursuit of that which man finds admirable or that which God “admires” – moral purity (Fee).
    – Good Report (G. euphemos): that which is reputable or “praiseworthy” (BDAG). Could possibly be construed to imply attractiveness or morality.
    – Virtue/Excellence (G. arete): indicates “moral excellence” (BDAG).

    In conclusion, although two of these virtues (prosphiles and euphemos) could possibly imply some sense of beauty in an aesthetic sense, the overall context mitigates for a moral understanding (i.e. that which pleases God – not necessarily man). To take these words in the opposite direction would lead us to accept the premises of the Greek philosophers of Paul’s day who treasured aesthetic beauty more than moral beauty. Ultimately, this moral excellence is only found through “Christ Jesus” (v. 7). Only in the Gospel do we find the ability to think rightly, for it is only as we are ruled in our minds by Him that we find our thoughts consumed by moral excellence.

    Psalm 96:9
    The oft repeated “beauty of holiness” (hadrat qodesh) is by no means an easy phrase to understand. I will likely side here with the understanding of TWOT, which understands the phrase to indicate that the presence of God in His holiness provokes awe (e.g. Isa. 6). There is likely no aesthetic sense to the word translated here as “beauty” (hence the disparity of the modern versions, especially the NASB).

    In conclusion, neither passage is conclusive on the matter. Even if two of the seven terms in the Epistle to the Philippians are to be taken as aesthetic, I will offer a possible counterpoint in my summary.

    Logical Evidence for a Call to Normative Aesthetics:

    "Are intentions all that matter anywhere else but worship, in your opinion?" – Loaded question…so, yes and no. Soteriologically, all that matters in a sense is the declaration of righteousness (G. dikaios) in the eyes of God. Ethically, intentions are weighed higher than actions. Allow me to demonstrate:

    We know this from Scripture. We understand that sin begins as an intent of the heart (James 1:14-15 – "lust" = desire/intent/motive). We know that God values circumcision of the heart more than the blood of bulls and goats. We know that God looks on the heart, not the outward appearance. We know that His word discerns both our thoughts and our intents. Clearly God places a high value on internal piety. Give me a man like Daniel who intended in his heart to not defile himself and give me (I speak hypothetically here) 1000 Fundamentalist pastors, deacons, and churchgoers who have a chores they must do to keep God happy (mere external piety), and I will bet my Daniel against all these with their emphasis on the rules and regulations. For it is the intent, the heart, the soul in resonance with the Gospel, that makes all the difference. The law can make me obey, but only the Gospel can make me WANT to obey. Only in the Gospel are His good intentions (Heb. 1:9) exchanged for may bad intentions, thus enabling me to produce moral excellence. By failing to focus on the intent, we have failed to focus on the most powerful effects of the Gospel and thus offer a sub-Christian standard of righteousness.

    We know this naturally. You stated that, "we can intend to drive without hitting crosswalkers…" Intent here makes all the difference. In our own judicial system, intent or lack thereof makes the extreme difference (in this case) between manslaughter and murder! Ultimately, our own hearts (Rom. 2:15) tell us that our intent is really what is at stake here.

    Summary: Although I have taken a very strong stance against the creation of a supposed standard of aesthetics from Scripture, I will now will offer a suggestion as to how Scripture teaches aesthetics (albeit, objectively). I will argue with Lewis (Christian Reflections, 98-99) that there are two senses in which music and the arts (literature, art, etc.) glorify God:

    In the natural (unintentional) sense: All creation glorifies God, though broken by the fall, though tainted by sin, the roaring sea (Ps. 93:4), the souring eagle (Matt. 6:26), the glory of a flower (Matt. 6:28-29), and the performance of a violin solo all glorify God. They glorify God NOT by their intent, but by their exercise of their God-given traits. This aesthetic beauty brings God glory.

    In the intentional sense: The believer is enabled to especially glorify God because his intentions are freed from the effect of the fall and he may now worship in a manner which glorifies God for Who He is and edifies his fellow believer (Col. 3:16). These believers glorify God BY their intention. This intentional worship is what truly brings God glory! Their worship is not weighed by an aesthetic standard but simply on that of intention. As a father joyfully accepts the aesthetically distasteful creation of his child (cf. Lewis, 99), so our Heavenly Father accepts even our most mundane efforts to glorify Him (I Cor. 10:31) simply on their intention.

    One may object that we must not oppose one to the other, but I would argue that the difference between the two is as vast as the difference between natural revelation and special revelation. Just as trying to win souls by focusing primarily on natural revelation will result in failure, so will attempting to worship God with a focus on aesthetics. As I have stated before, is it nice when we can glorify God in BOTH senses? Most definitely. But is this the aim (or even AN aim) of Christian worship? Definitely not. For the "Christian-ness" of worship is found in the intention of worship and not in the aesthetic.

  7. Hi Philip,

    I appreciate your interaction on this subject, but due to responsibilites, etc, this may be my last comment, at least for a while. Feel free to offer a rejoinder, though.

    I just think we're missing each other at a basic level.

    For starters, I don't argue that we can please God, in the sense of earn merit, by offering more beautiful worship. I can't please God in that sense; I am a base and depraved creature. But since Jesus pleased God perfectly in my stead and bore the wrath that should have been poured out on me, and since God has given me grace and faith in salvation and so predestined me to be conformed to the image of Christ and even now works in me both to will and do of His good pleasure, I don't think I ought to respond merely by having the best intentions.

    Iit seems your view is that the positional realites and the intents of the heart nullify the need for any specific outward doings. My view is that the positional realities motivate and empower both proper intent and attendant deeds. Daniel's purpose of heart resulted in concrete actions. (Furthermore, intent in our legal system is ascertained by the actions of the accused, although the practice of the US justice system may not really bear on this matter.)

    But back to pleasing God. As I said, I agree no particular form of worship gains anyone favor with God (I may even agree that no worship offered by His true child is rejected by God because of the form it is offered via). The point this article makes is that some forms better or best communicate the content of that worship and reflect the moral beauty you see mentioned (prosphiles, euphemos, and perhaps arete) in Philippians 4: 8. If we can so do, why not do so? Does it not honor (as opposed to please) God more fully?

  8. Just one quick point, Philip. Perhaps you are misunderstanding my use of aesthetic. By aesthetic, I do not mean the postmodern concept of pleasing to people, as if man is the standard. What I am referring to is exactly what I highlight in this series: all art, including literature shapes the imagination. The broad category in which this falls is aesthetic, but it's more than beauty and certainly more than "pleasing."

    So maybe just ignore "beauty" or "aesthetic" even as you consider the argument. Just consider the fact that the Bible not only teaches truth to the mind, but it also shapes that truth in certain ways that influence my imagination of that truth.

  9. @David:

    You stated: "Iit seems your view is that the positional realites and the intents of the heart nullify the need for any specific outward doings."

    Where in my argument do you find this? I at no time argue for this concept.

    You stated: "My view is that the positional realities motivate and empower both proper intent and attendant deeds."

    And with this I would agree with you. Where we differ is that I insist that if this be the case, we then should elevate and give primacy to our intents/motives/purposes as they are the product of the deeds. On the other hand, many, I assume that you may already have, reject this emphasis for fear that it will lead to antinomianism. This is evident in your mischaracterization of my argument. I still remember my apprehension that if I walked away from emphasizing proper deeds and begin to focus primarily on intentions/motives/purposes, that those to whom I ministered would surely fall away from right conduct. In reality, the opposite was the case. As with my point on Daniel: a properly motivated believer WILL live righteously, while an improperly motivated believer WILL NOT (though he may reproduce the same actions for a time, since those actions lack right motives, they are sinful).

    As to reflecting the "moral beauty" of Philippians 4:8, in worship…this would be done by elevating God (the standard of morality) and edifying others to do the same while avoiding improper motivations to do so. Improper motivations are often legalistic (i.e. My music style makes God more happy with me than the "flock that rocks" down the road. OR: My music style does more to evangelize the lost than that stuffy church in the suburbs). I would argue that both ends of the spectrum should be avoided. As to aesthetic forms of carrying this out, I (following my understanding of Scripture) will not be the judge.

    @ Scott:
    I just would question whether or not the way in which Scripture shapes truth (already a very subjective matter) was ever understood as normative for the way all truth (including worship) should be presented. If you go too far down this road, you will just end up with the regulative principle of worship and will be forced to only sing The Psalms because they are shaped in the same manner as Scripture (because they are Scripture!). That is a road that I cannot follow. There is clearly a biblical basis for rejecting such an approach (i.e. should all prayer and preaching follow biblical forms alone, thus forcing us to rely simply on the reading of prayers from Scripture and the reading of Scripture for paeranetic purposes?). I believe that in your attempt to expand the import of Scripture to the aesthetic realm in the manner which you have, you have simply narrowed (whether you are cognizant of it or not) the true influence of Scripture. I also have serious doubts concerning your presentation of this argument (albeit unfinished) because I have never heard anyone purpose a theory so extreme (with the exception of some neo-orthodox views). As a theology professor once told our class: "Theology is the one field where ingenuity is always suspect."

  10. Hi Philip,

    Glad I misunderstood you, and I hope you understand I didn't purposefully misrepresent you. Sounds like its just exactly what the positionals should motivate and empower we don't quite agree on.

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