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Accepting sola scriptura and arguing musical style

This is a little intro piece that I’ve written for some friends who have asked for a basic defense of musical conservatism. It hardly gets us to full-blown conservatism, but at least offers the structure of why I think the Bible, while not addressing musical style, still gives us a standard for musical style.


Here’s the quick outline of my argument on music; it’ll be something to get the conversation started, as we can then have specific claims to discuss. I’ll also say this: I find that these conversations are much better in person than in pixels. There are reasons for that, but given the circumstances, I am happy to do whatever you think would be helpful.

1. In any given passage of Scripture, we can ask what the passage is saying. This is basic hermeneutics.

2. However, I would also contend that every passage of Scripture not only has a what it is saying, but a how it is saying it.

3. I would further claim, then, that faithfulness to the Word of God means that our re-presentation of the text (whether in sermon or song) must accord not only with the what of the passage, but also with its how.

A quick example that I used at our church: I read to them Revelation 21–22. Then I had them sing “I’ve Got a Mansion Just Over the Hilltop.” My point is that, even if every phrase of that song were true, the focus of the song and the triviality of its poetry and tune are such that it is utterly incompatible with the content of John’s vision of the final making right of all things in Christ. The longing created by that song simply is not the longing created by the text of Scripture. It might say what John says, but it doesn’t come close to saying it how John says it.

Another example: a pastor could preach a message that faithfully states Paul’s teaching of justification in Romans. If he does so, however, in the manner of a stand-up comic, I would say that he has not been faithful to how Paul has told us about justification, and is therefore liable to criticism. An obvious modern example of this kind of preaching is Mark Driscoll. Another obvious example would be a great many fundamentalist evangelists, even on the occasions when they did get the doctrine right.

As I say, this is the core of my argument, and it does not give direct and precise applications. Music and poetry do things; that is not disputable. It is disputable what a particular piece of music or poetry is doing. That is to say: even if you agree with the idea that Scripture has a how it is saying, it doesn’t mean we’re going to agree that any given song matches the Bible’s how.

This, to me, does not undermine the basic argument, because of the parallel notion of the what and the how of a passage. Christians do not always agree what the text is saying. Consider the diversity of positions on the end times, etc.

The fact that Christians do not always agree about what the text is saying does not allow us to conclude, however, that there is no what it is saying. Furthermore, there are disagreements about what it is saying that are significant enough to break levels of fellowship. It may be that differing eschatological views are sufficient to hinder some cooperative ministry. However, if someone denied a literal return of Christ altogether, that person would be so far from the what Scripture says as to be outside the bounds of any real Christian fellowship.

I would say that the same thing is true about the how Scripture says. Christians disagree in their reading of how a thing is said in Scripture; this does not allow us to conclude that there is no correct understanding of the how. Further, it may be that two well-intentioned, Christ-loving Christians come to sustained differences in their understanding of the how of Scripture. This is no mere triviality: it has to do with their understandings of what God is like, in a manner beyond the propositions of systematic theology. And so it may be that these Christians find their ability to cooperate strained in some way. If the differences are great enough, they may come to the conclusion that, while their propositions are largely in agreement, their views of God and his revelation are so different as to cause them to suspect that the other person is not loving God rightly at all. The claim here is that there is, in addition to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, such a thing as orthopathy, and that the standard for all three is the Word of God, and that disputes about the contents of each are not sufficient to undermine their existence.

Again, I have not yet made the case that a trap-set is on the other side of a line for me. What I want to establish, before we might even begin to discuss application, is that these issues of right affections have an objective standard for evaluation in the Word of God.

The Bible doesn’t tell us about our style of worship. The Bible shows us its style of worship, and we must submit to that.

About Michael Riley

Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.

6 Responses to Accepting sola scriptura and arguing musical style

  1. Great article! Excellent thoughts. All are important: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. I have been challenged recently to preach in such a way that not only gives orthodoxy, and encourages orthopraxy, but also to preach in such a way that communicates and leads others to have the right orthopathy. I have much to learn, but I know it is important.

  2. Would a doctrinally and affection-ally orthodox musical composition from 1720 Leipzig and from 1878 Raccoon Holler Tennessee sound distinct? Could they have entirely different sounds and still both be appropriate offerings to the Lord?
    If such a scenario is possible, what prevents a 2013 musical composition from Compton or Philly being an acceptable offering as well? If man is totally depraved, and all his endeavors are stained with sin and need God’s grace; how do we know when we have cleaned up our music enough to be acceptable? Or at least acceptable enough for God’s grace to make up the deficiencies?
    In my mind, few compositions can match the gravity and terror of the Lord’s return quite as well as Verdi’s Requiem. But for obvious reasons, that is not really going to be a part of any of our worship services. But given the choice between so many end-time waltzes in the hymnals or some of the more contemporary “musically aggressive” songs about Christ’s return…I would ditch the hymnal.
    I agree with the basis of your argument. Scriptural worship should match the ethos of the Scripture it is based on. So how do you respond to recent comments that hip-hop and rap are appropriate forms to communicate some of the lament, brokenness, chaos, etc. of Scripture?

  3. Brad,

    Let me start with one question you asked, because my answer to this is more important than anything else I might add. There is no sense in which my acceptance before God is in any way predicated on the degree to which my music has been “cleaned up.” Not at all, in no way. My acceptance before the Father is wholly on the merits of Jesus Christ. I do not contribute to that acceptance in justification or in sanctification.

    I would also reiterate my closing point: good Christian folk are likely to disagree as to the specifics of the what a given passage of Scripture would sound like. I still do not believe that the mere existence of such disagreement indicates that no style is better suited than another; it simply means that none of us get it perfectly.

    As to your other questions: I (and most of the other writers on the site) would want to contend that the music of Raccoon Holler likely represents a degradation of worship, at least to some level. This is not to suggest that the believers at Raccoon Hollow didn’t really love the Lord; I suspect they did, and that they were sincere, etc.

    Can I sketch out a parallel example? In my post, I compared right doctrine and right affections. I think this is a legitimate parallel; others may not. But if it is, consider the following question: “Would a doctrinally orthodox creed from 1600 Geneva and from 1878 Raccoon Holler Tennessee have distinct wording?” Allow me a gratuitous assumption here, that these two creeds have some really substantial differences, not least of which are their conflicting positions on the relationship of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

    Now, I would (probably) concur that both creeds are orthodox, in the broad sense of that term. They both point to the same Triune God, and both highlight the necessity of salvation by grace through faith. And yet they do so in such tremendously different ways that, while I can respect the sincerity and piety of both groups of believers, I can’t in any way think that their expressions are of equal value. One doctrinal statement is better than the other. It is more accurate, more conducive to sound teaching.

    In my estimation, a similar call must be made when we speak of the music of Geneva and Raccoon Holler. Both might broadly be within the realm of orthodoxy, but one of these is more sound, more conducive to right affections than the other. One better captures the feel of the biblical truth it is intended to convey.

    Again, I’ve done nothing here to defend why I think one might be superior to the other (except to establish that Scripture is the authority for these judgment calls). All I’ve wanted to do is establish the principle that, even within the framework of orthodoxy, reasonable and meaningful questions of discernment arise, and those charged with leading the churches need to consider how they answer.

  4. Michael,

    Thanks for the reply. As far as grace and acceptance, I was only addressing God’s acceptance of our worship. I certainly do not think that “sincerity” is the basis of God’s acceptance of worship, but are those who do not know any better and have no reasonable way of knowing any better guilty of unworthy worship? Are the good ol’ folks of Raccoon Holler commanded to love the Lord with J.S. Bach’s heart, John Calvin’s heart, or their own heart?

    You state, “…their views of God and his revelation are so different as to cause them to suspect that the other person is not loving God rightly at all.” I think these are the kind of statements that give ammunition to those who speak against some of the work on this site. Are we to assume the products of 19th century Appalachian culture did not love the Lord as fully, or worship the Lord as well as those in Leipzig or Geneva?

    But perhaps I am asking for too much too soon. You have just set out to begin a conversation and I am not doing much to let it breathe. I am looking forward to reading some of the hashing out of how “right affections have an objective standard for evaluation in the Word of God.” It would be very helpful if these objective standards of right affections could be pointed out.

    I really identified with a couple of your illustrations. When I was leading a choir I mentioned “Glory to His Name” as an inferior song that should not be sung since it sings of the cross and repentance in a rather glib way. That night in the service we took requests and one of the first songs asked for was of course “Glory to His Name.” I heard several chuckles from the choir behind me!

    I personally enjoy most of what Nathan Clark George composes, but I have used his recording of “The Devil Ain’t Lazy” as another example of singing of something true in a biblically unfaithful way.

    All that to say, I am sympathetic to your argument. But I also see some things to at least consider in some of the counter-arguments. Thanks for suffering long!

  5. Brad,

    I think your illustrations are really good and useful. When you cite “Glory to His Name,” I would take that as stereotypical of the music at Raccoon Hollow. Would you agree? (Again, we’re obviously using stereotypes here.)

    My point is to say that the folks in Raccoon Hollow, or your church, or my church, who all love “Glory to His Name” are, undoubtedly, sincere and truly pious saints. I am also happy that we agree that their sincerity is not sufficient to make anything and everything acceptable. But this is precisely what I mean when I say that, for the folks for whom “Glory to His Name” represents something of the essence of their affections for God, their love for God is quite disordered.

    I hardly fault them for this. I would compare my evaluation of these folks to those, for instance, who have been taught that the KJV is the only legitimate English translation. For those who propagate this error, especially those who do so knowingly, I have immense disdain. For those who have merely been ensnared in the error, I have deep sympathy and great patience. What won’t do, however, is simply to say that it’s no error.

  6. […] Accepting sola scriptura and arguing musical style – Religious .This is a little intro piece that I've written for some friends who have asked for a basic defense of musical conservatism. It hardly gets us to full-blown conservatism, but at least offers the structure of why I think the Bible, while. […]

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