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The Importance of Form

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series

"That They May Be One: Conservatism, Cooperation, and the Center of Christian Unity"

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That They May Be One

Last week I briefly summarized what I consider the first pillar of conservative Christianity–affirmation of transcendent truth, goodness, and beauty–and spent a bit of time on absolute beauty since it is the transcendental often overlooked. The purpose of explaining these principles is that I will later ask the question of whether these issues are important enough to affect ecclesiastical cooperation. Stay tuned to this series for my answer to that question. But first, I need to briefly explain what I think is the second essential pillar of conservative Christianity.

The second pillar of conservatism is a commitment to conserve those cultural institutions and aesthetic forms that best reflect a recognition and respect for God’s transcendent order rooted in the nature and character of God as expressed in his creation and in his Word. Commitment to the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture implies that God inspired the Bible’s ideas, words, and forms, and this demands a commitment to preserving not just the ideas of truth expressed in the Bible but also the way those ideas are imagined through Scripture’s various aesthetic forms. 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. To use a perhaps simplistic illustration, to recontextulaze “the Lord is my Shepherd” from Psalm 23 into “the Lord is my pig farmer” to be more relevant or authentic would be a failure to capture the aesthetic truth of the original biblical metaphor.

Most evangelicals today view cultural forms as simply pretty packaging for truth or at best a way to “energize” the truth. Worship music, for example 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, expressly because they are fundamental to the way Scripture expresses truth. Therefore, art 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.

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 or not they are true—whether or not 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.

This means, then, that conservative Christianity is interested in the preservation of certain cultural forms to the exclusion of others. Such an assertion that some cultural expressions are better than others may sound elitist until we remember that culture is never created in a vacuum. Unlike those with a progressive philosophy, conservative Christians do not believe culture is neutral. Culture, according to Roger Scruton, is “a shared spiritual force which is manifest in all the customs, beliefs, and practices of a people”; it is “a demonstration of a belief system.”1 This follows closely T. S. Elliot’s classic argument that “no culture can appear or develop except in relation to a religion.”2 Cultural forms are nurtured in value systems as ways of expressing those values. All of the various cultural institutions, forms, artistic expressions, media, languages, and systems of thought are what they are today based on hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years of nurture and development within particular value systems, and therefore they are products of human imagination intended to propagate that particular imagination.

This understanding becomes no more important than when we attempt to preserve the absolute, transcendent values of God’s character and nature. We have been given a truth deposit to protect (and remember, “truth” involves more than mere propositions), we are the pillar and support of that truth (1 Tim 3:15), and it is our responsibility to pass those values and ideas to future generations (Acts 20:27). The way in which we accomplish this goal is by fostering the cultural traditions God’s people have nurtured through the centuries rather than simplistically adopting the cultural traditions of the unbelieving world in the name of relevance, contextualization, or authenticity.

Ironically, conservative evangelicals agree with this perspective when it comes to doctrine. With the difficult doctrines that are not necessarily systematically explained in Scripture—truths like the Tri-unity of God or the hypostatic union of Christ, we do not attempt to “reinvent the wheel” in our explanation of those doctrines to each new generation or ethnic group. Nor do we try to “repackage” those doctrines using contemporary idioms or categories developed in pop culture. Since the early Christian councils, we have and will likely always explain the Trinity in terms of God being one in essence and three in persons. We have and will likely always explain Christ as one person with two natures. We do not get these categories (essence, person, or nature) from Scripture itself; these categories have been nurtured within the Christian tradition in order to explain Christian doctrine.

This actually came up a few years ago when Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald wanted to affirm T. D. Jakes as an evangelical Christian even though Jakes prefers to describe the Trinity in terms of “manifestations” rather than “persons.” MacDonald wanted to give Jakes a pass because the language of “persons” came from creedal statements rather than from Scripture itself. In response to this line of thought, D. A. Carson and Tim Keller acknowledged that the terminology of “persons” is not “directly used in Scripture.” However, they rightly argued that it would be unwise to casually dismiss church tradition in this important matter of doctrine.3

And the same is true for our Christian culture and worship. Those who want to preserve God’s truth will build upon the tradition of the historic Church; they will learn the essence of that tradition and then seek to preserve and continue to cultivate that tradition.

I am not arguing for a view of tradition that places its authority on the same level of Scripture, but rather a perspective that sees Christian tradition as the most faithful propagation of biblical truth rightly imagined. Nor am I arguing that these traditions, customs, and forms will never change or differ depending on context. A valid response to tradition is continued cultivation of the tradition; culture will change through time and context, and we should desire to add new cultural forms to our tradition. But the changes and new additions will not be of an entirely different form but one of further nurturing. Nor does this mean that we will never reject a particular part of the tradition that has been handed to us. Tradition is fallible because the humans who have cultivated it are fallible. Tradition, just like anything else, must be evaluated based on what values it carries. We may sometimes see the need to reject a particular part of the established tradition because we find that it does not express the transcendent absolutes that we are trying to preserve and pass on.

But what a conservative Christian insists is that if we intend to preserve the truth, we must never completely reject the tradition we have been given in favor of other non-Christian traditions in the name of relevance or “contextualization.” We must not throw away the customs, expressions, and forms that have been nurtured for thousands of years in order to express transcendent values in favor of customs, expressions, and forms that were created by pagans to express pagan values to other pagans. We must never favor novelty for novelty’s sake; we must not reject our tradition merely because it is tradition.

Instead, if we are intent upon preserving the truth handed down to us from Scripture, both its doctrinal content and the way the truth is imagined, conservative Christians believe we must continue to preserve, cultivate, and add to what we might call the Judeo-Christian tradition.4 We have at our fingertips a rich heritage of cultural forms that have grown within the biblical value systems of Judaism and the historic Christian Church—forms that were cultivated with the goal of expressing transcendent biblical values. A conservative Christian believes that a commitment to nurturing such tradition is the best way to preserve God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. This is the only way we will come to truly know God as he has chosen to express himself and thus the only way we will truly worship and glorify him as he desires.

So this is the essence of conservative Christianity. It 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 that most correspond to the kinds of aesthetic expressions that God inspired in his Word. Whether these beliefs should affect our ability to cooperate with those who do not hold these principles will be the subject of next week’s post.

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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. Roger Scruton, Modern Culture (New York: Continuum, 2005), 1, 286. []
  2. T. S. Elliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1949), 100. []
  3. []
  4. Space does not allow the full explanation of the development of the Judeo-Christian worship tradition. For a more thorough exploration, see my paper, “The Hymnody of the Christian Church: Two Roads Diverged.” []