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My reply to Dan Phillips’ approach to the worship music debate

Over at Pyromaniacs, Dan Phillips offered a series of points for discussion regarding worship music. He and a few others encouraged me to head over to engage the conversation, so I did. I thought I’d post my response here as well for the sake of our readers:

Dan, the points you make are very common, but the issues are, of course, far more complex than you make them seem.

The comment section of a blog is hardly the medium for a thorough treatment of the issues. I have two books and many articles dedicated to the subjects. A few sound bites will hardly answer the questions you raise.

However, I will attempt a fairly short answer to a couple of your points with the hopes that you and your readers will take the time to engage with the ideas at more depth elsewhere.

First, a couple points regarding the sufficiency of Scripture. The sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that if we cannot find “a syllable dictating what style of music, meter, or instruments NT churches must or mustn’t use,” this must mean that is doesn’t matter what we do. You can’t really believe this, can you?

Can you find a syllable dictating whether you should take marijuana recreationally, whether you should drive on the right side of the road, whether you should plagiarize, or whether you should use church money to buy up a bunch of your books to get it on the NYT best sellers list?

No, the sufficiency of Scripture means that no matter what the issue, even if you can’t find an explicit syllable about it, the Bible is sufficient to equip us to make a decision that will please God.

Christian maturity is having our senses of discernment trained to distinguish right from wrong (Heb 5:14; this implies that sometimes we will need to do this in the absence of explicit syllables). It is having our minds transformed by Scripture to the degree that we will be able to prove God’s good and acceptable will (Romans 12:2; the implication there is that God has a will that must be discerned, even if he has not explicitly syllabatized it). It is being able to use sound judgment to discern “things like” what God has dictated we avoid (Gal. 5:21).

But even more than that, although there may be no syllable that dictates musical style, the Bible itself addresses aesthetic form through its form. Since I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture, I believe that not only did God inspire the ideas in Scripture, he inspired the very words, including the way those words were arranged into aesthetic forms.

Since the Bible comes to us, not as a systematic theology or mere prose (in most cases), there is authoritative weight even to the aesthetic presentation we find therein.

Now, aesthetic form doesn’t dictate in the same way as discursive propositions. It dictates through shaping the moral imagination and the affections of the readers. This is the power of all aesthetic forms including poetry and music.

So not only does the Bible give us principles that should influence our decisions regarding worship music, it also informs us through the very forms of Scripture themselves.

How it informs our decisions is a task for more thorough discussions and should be the goal of good local pastors’ luncheons. :) I invite any who are interested to visit or pick up one of my books, where you will find more explanation and direction toward other sources as well.

[character limit reached…part 2 coming]

This leads me to address the final point you make in your post. Ironically, I am in the middle of a multi-post series at Religious Affections that addresses the very issue you raise: whether the Psalms borrowed from Ugaritic poetry.

Again, this is a far more complex issue than you portray it to be. I’ll briefly summarize what most conservative scholars would say to such an assertion, but I invite you to engage with the full series at Religious Affections.

There is no question that there are similarities in a few places between the wording of a couple of Psalm phrases and Ugaritic poetry. But what Allen Ross (Recalling the Hope of Glory), John Oswalt (The Bible Among the Myths), and John Currid (Against the Gods) point out, among mangy others I cite in the series, is that in these few cases what is clear is that the biblical authors are using such parallels as a polemic against the false religions. They are not borrowing forms for the sake of borrowing; they are mimicking some of the language of the Canaanite people as a way to mock them. “You think Baal rides upon the storm? He’s nothing; Yahweh is the one who created the storm!”, etc.

Do you really think that Hebrew worship forms were like those of their pagan neighbors? Are you really saying that the only difference between Hebrew worship and pagan worship was the content and intent? Just look at 1 Kings 18, likely the most clear side-by-side comparison of Baal worship and Yahweh worship. There is no similarity in form.

Any careful study of Scripture, ancient texts, and other historical sources will reveal that the pagans used different instruments in their worship (primarily percussion and double reeds) than the Hebrews (primarily strings), their music was pathocentric rather than logocentric, their forms were ecstatic and orgiastic rather than modest and driven by theological texts.

Now, again, there were certainly similarities. Pagans had sacrifices, priests, temples, and music. But where there existed such similarities, it was because the pagans had “borrowed” from elements of worship God himself had established all the way back at Creation.

Every time Israel borrowed anything for worship from their pagan neighbors, the results were disastrous.

The conclusion, then, is that our worship music doesn’t need to be different for difference sake alone. If the pagans around us happen to produce something that is noble and beautiful because they borrow from our worldview and values, then our worship music may just sound like theirs in those cases.

But to imply that we have biblical warrant to borrow worship forms from the pagans is simply not true, in my judgment.

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.