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The Conservative Philosophy of Culture and Worship

Last week I offered a brief synopsis of the standard evangelical progressive philosophy of culture and worship. Today, I’d like to offer a simple counterpoint to that view. This conservative philosophy, of course, is a central focus of much of what we write here at Religious Affections, and this post is not meant to be an exhaustive explanation and defense. I’d encourage you to take a look at A Conservative Christian Declaration or David de Bruyn’s book The Conservative Church for a much more thorough explanation. However, this post is meant to be a simple summary of a robust, consistent conservative philosophy of culture and worship.

Conservatism has, of course, a long tradition in the history of Western philosophy. From the perspective of the history of Western thought, Christian conservatism might be considered a subset of classical conservatism or “Realist Conservatism.” Classical conservatism is built upon two core pillars, which provides a helpful structure through which to explore Christian conservatism.

Belief in Transcendent Absolute Principles

First, Realist Conservatism holds that there is an absolute order of universals that defines the nature of things and exists apart from human perception. Defined this way, Christianity can be no less than Realist, affirming an absolute and unchanging reality that governs all nature and reveals its meaning and value. As T. David Gordon observed, “Christian Theism is unabashedly Realist, and that so from the opening words of the Bible.”1 Generally speaking, classical conservatives divide the absolute order of universals into three “Great Ideas” by which we judge meaning and value in the world: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Where Christian realism progresses further is in rooting such transcendent, absolute principles in the sovereign will of the self-existent Creator. These principles are revealed to us in creation (Ps 19), in our consciences (Rom 1), and mostly perfectly in the written Word of God (2 Tim 3:16–17.

God as the source. Belief in these transcendent principles is rooted in a conviction that God is the source, sustainer, and end of all things. The Bible clearly proclaims that God is self-existent and self-sustaining, and all things come from him (Rom 11:36). There are no such things as brute facts apart from God; they are facts because God determined them to be so. Moral standards are not merely conceived out of convention apart from God; actions are moral or immoral based on how they compare to the moral character of God. And in the same way, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; something is beautiful because it reflects God’s own beauty. With this in mind, Christians as image-bearers of God must be committed to thinking God’s thoughts after him, to behaving in certain ways that conform to God’s moral will, and to loving those things that God calls lovely. Conservative Christians are therefore concerned with orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy.

Scripture as the expression. Conservative Christians also believe that Scripture itself communicates absolute truth, goodness, and beauty, not just discursively, but aesthetically through its various literary forms and devices. This belief is rooted in the doctrine of verbal-plenary inspiration. The Holy Spirit of God inspired every word in the original autographs of Scripture. This implies that while the word choices, grammar, syntax, poetic language, and literary forms were products of the human author’s writing style, culture, and experiences, we must also affirm that these aspects of the form of Scripture are exactly how God desired his truth to be communicated. Kevin Vanhoozer is helpful here:

It has been said . . . 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.2

Those who hold to verbal-plenary inspiration rightly insist that what words biblical authors chose are important, as are how those words were put together into sentences and paragraphs, as well as literary forms, and how we interpret the meaning of biblical passages is directly dependent upon our understanding of the historical, grammatical, and cultural context. Verbal-plenary inspiration, therefore, requires that we understand the nature of truth expressed in Scripture as more than correct doctrinal statements condensed from God’s Word. Rather, truth includes particular sentiments, affections, moods, and imaginations that God communicates through the aesthetic forms he inspired.

These aesthetic forms of Scripture provide a way of communicating God’s truth that would be impossible with systematic statements of fact alone. Since God is a spirit and does not have a body like man, since he is infinite, eternal, and totally other than us, God chose to use particular aesthetic forms (to the exclusion of others) to communicate truth about himself that would not have been possible otherwise. These aesthetic forms are essential to the truth itself since God’s inspired Word is exactly the best way that truth could be presented. Thus, the truths of Scripture are not Scripture’s propositional content that just happens to be contextualized in certain aesthetic forms. Truth in Scripture is content plus form, considered as an indivisible whole. Clyde S. Kilby asserts that these aesthetic forms of Scripture 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.”

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. The Bible itself uses forms of beauty to express God’s truth and moral standards in a manner that accurately shapes the way in which people perceive the truth. Most true Christians desire to preserve God’s truth and moral standards as expressly stated in the Word of God. Where conservative Christianity goes a step further is to also commit to preserving the way in which the Bible expresses truth and moral standards—in other words, conservative Christians do not consider the aesthetic aspects of Scripture as merely decorative or simply cultural contextualizations; rather, the aesthetic forms of Scripture are just as inspired and authoritative as the theological ideas contained therein, and thus they, too, must be conserved as the truth of Scripture is translated and re-expressed in new cultural forms.

How do conservative Christians propose to preserve the way the Bible has expressed God’s truth? This leads to the second pillar of conservative Christianity.

The Importance of Form and Tradition

The second pillar of conservatism is a commitment to conserve those cultural institutions and aesthetic forms that best reflect a recognition and respect for the universal, transcendent order.

Affirmation of this second pillar is why conservative Christianity places a weighty emphasis upon tradition and insists on discernment when employing cultural forms from outside Christian tradition to express biblical truth. Conservative Christianity recognizes some forms of expression were designed to communicate transcendent truth, goodness, and beauty, while other forms were by nature designed to do something entirely opposite. What art forms are chosen to express God’s truth—in corporate worship or in other contexts—are of utmost importance since they express not just theological facts, but those facts imagined in certain ways. What is at stake here is the very knowledge and worship of God. If works of art express particular ways of imagining God, then it is quite possible to express through art an imagination of God that does not correspond to how he chose to communicate himself in Scripture, even if the propositional content of the work of art is technically accurate.

Thus, the kinds of imaginative forms God chose to communicate his truth should shape our cultural forms. Choices of what cultural forms we will use to express God’s truth and worship him 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 they are true—whether they correspond to God’s reality as it is imagined in his Word. Conservative worship is essentially a desire to preserve the kinds of aesthetic forms contained in Scripture in our worship. We accomplish this goal by fostering the cultural traditions God’s people have modeled on Scripture and nurtured through the centuries rather than simplistically adopting the cultural traditions of the unbelieving world in the name of relevance, contextualization, or authenticity.

So, at the core of conservative Christianity is a belief in absolute, transcendent principles of truth, goodness, and beauty and a commitment to preserve those values and pass them on to future generations. And it is a recognition that certain ways of expressing those transcendent principles are better at preserving and accurately passing them on than others, particularly those forms nurtured within Christian tradition, which most correspond to the kinds of aesthetic expressions that God inspired in his Word.

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.

  1. T. David Gordon, “Finding Beauty Where God Finds Beauty: A Biblical Foundation of Aesthetics.,” Artistic Theologian 1 (Fall 2012): 17. []
  2. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 48, no. 1 (2005): 96, 100. []

9 Responses to The Conservative Philosophy of Culture and Worship

  1. Scott

    As always, I am completely at loss as to the use of term “conservative” Christian. There is only one kind of Christian – those who are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ – resurrected, seated at the right hand of God. That is neither conservative or liberal – or whatever other worldly, non-Christian terms someone chooses to conjure up.

    Why not take a strictly Christian viewpoint – and throw off all those silly adjectives??

  2. Actually “classical conservative” thought is monarchial… Up for going back under the king??? Who is in for divine right of monarchs??

  3. Dr. Anoil,

    I have a few questions I would love to get your take on. First, I am rather confused about which forms are being discussed here and which of these are nurtured within the Christian tradition and which are not. I would love some examples so I might better understand. Coming from the school of thought of those like Best and Kauflin, I am having difficulty digesting the idea of absolute beauty but am open to exploring the idea further.

    Second, you previously wrote “We can determine the meaning specific aesthetic forms or devices in Scripture had for their original audience, and then discern aesthetic forms—literary and musical—in our current cultural context that are fitting to Scripture, those that have similarity in meaning.” ( I am failing to see how this is contradictory to the progressive philosophy of culture and worship. Is this to say that the conservative philosophy is discerning in its use of contemporary forms while progressive philosophy is completely open to all forms of any culture sans discernment?

    It seems to me that there is a middle ground to be considered. I would assert that there is a place for those who are discerning of both form and content, seeking to preserve the forms of the historical Christian traditions and truth of inerrant Scripture, while also seeking to utilize and establish the best forms of modern culture as a part of Christian tradition. I am certain you are well aware that all was once new and the best of those worship practices are what we now consider to part of the Christian tradition, a process guided by God and a process we can be sure that He will continure to guide and accomplish with the best of our modern practices. As an example, I think of Keith and Kristen Getty who use the traditional hymn form combined with contemporary genres. If I am off the mark and the Gettys fall under one of the established philosophical categories, which would you consider them to be? Or am I re-stating the conservative philosophy?

    I greatly appreciate your input as my SWTBS graduate friends hold you in high esteem and I eagerly await your next series on “The Holy Spirit’s Work in Worship”!


  4. Admittedly I’m lost – what does worship have to do with conservative or progressive???

  5. Not to speak for Dr. Anoil, but I would think that “conservative” and “progressive” have little to do with political movements that those words are associated with. I take their meaning to be closer to literal definitions of the words, “conservative” being the conservation or preservation of an idea or ideal in its original state with its original intended meaning and “progressive” being the move away or progression from an idea or ideal. In this case Dr. Anoil would be saying that there is an original intent for Christian worship that some people want to preserve and others want to progress from. “Conservative worship is essentially a desire to preserve the kinds of aesthetic forms contained in Scripture in our worship.” while the progressive would say “Christians must defend the unchanging theology of Scripture, while the contextualized cultural forms through which that theology is expressed remains relative.” Dr. Anoil can correct any of my errors.

  6. Kyle

    I appreciate your thoughts.

    The reality that these terms both service to deceive and obscure. OTOH they are now primarily used as propaganda points – means of demeaning other other human beings made in the image of God. OTOH – both are simply great words with a range of meanings – do we not want “progress”?? Did not Jesus bring us “progress” – and call us to do more of the same?? Yes – of course – and you and I writing here is the very result of “progress”. Indeed those seeking to “conserve” the past – the oppression of women, the oppression of blacks…etc. Or, we want to conserve our environment, our clean air and clean water and untouched land, etc. You see my point I am sure.

    I perceive these terms are being used politically here – not necessarily entirely related to civil political scene – but as a wedge tool – similar to what I reference above – even a tool of arrogance and condescension (which things are not “ideal” in a Christian culture).

    Why not use real words with real meaning? You used the phrase “original intent” (whatever the content of that might be) – that at least points us in the right direction of something that is genuinely meaningful.

    The equally sad reality is, of course, that none of what is typically labeled “worship” has anything to do with “worship” at all – which is a very simple act of recognizing authority – nothing to do with singing, etc.

    The other sad reality is that Aniol does not seem to have a depth of a back-ground in the vagaries of conservative, liberal and progressive minds – and how they have varied and changed…. which I addressed above….unless indeed he is desirous to return us to a monarchial, “civine right” system….. But he seems way too progressive for that…:-).

  7. Greg,
    I am unconvinced by your recent post. Many of the great controversies of history, especially American history, revolve around the ideas of conservatism and progressivism. In technology, we ask whether dangerous and morally dubious advances, such as cloning and gene therapy, should be continued or restrained. Politically, the debate of whether to interpret the constitution as the Founder intended or according to current culture is at the heart of the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Socially, we have made great strides in outlawing slavery and banning Jim Crow laws yet the confusion and debates over the LGTBQ community and transgenderism continues. Theologically, the conclusions of the great Christian councils and even the Protestant Reformation named movement away from the original meanings of the Scriptures as heresy.

    All of this is to say that progress for the sake of progress is not the answer. In all if these examples, either approach can be claimed. Historically we can see the answers early but it is far more difficult to see them when enrolled in the controversy as it rages. Careful attention and cautious weighing of the sides are called for here, hence why I asked Dr. Anoil for more clarification concerning forms and absolute beauty.

    Also, because all of the aforementioned examples have conservative and progressive anecdotes throughout history, one cannot fairly be called a universal conservative or progressive. So it is unfair to assume Dr. Anoil’s political opinions based on a theological argument. The two are not mutually inclusive. A person could can have progressive and progressive beliefs in different realms of thought, ie politically, theologically, socially, etc.

  8. Kyle,
    With respect, I think you’re allowing certain political agendas or some other presuppositions to color your reflection. As well engaging in reductio absurdem.

    Simple question was a New Testament progress from the Old Testament? Was that progress good or bad?

    To be clear I do not identify with any of these types of labels. I only have one label I identify with and that I understand followers of Jesus are to I identify with that is, Christ (Christ is the all things in all).



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