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We hold our worship views firmly, but not as firmly as clear statements from Scripture

My post on Sola Scriptura from last week certainly generated a lot of discussion here, on Facebook, and in my e-mail box. Reviews were quite mixed. For example, a seminary professor e-mailed me and said,

Just a quick note to thank you for your latest post on sola Scriptura. . . . But I just thought you’d be encouraged to know there are a number of us in agreement with you. The music issue is a difficult one, but we should at least be arguing about the right things!

But, of course, there were many who disagreed with what I said, or at least they disagreed with what they thought I said, so that’s why I’d like to offer one final summation.

Let me begin by stating with clarity that none of the authors at this site believes that our views are infallible. We hold some of them firmly to various degrees, but we welcome debate and disagreement about what we write. Our views are our best attempt as finite sinners to actively apply the sufficient Word of God to every single decision we make, including how we conduct worship, but we recognize that we could be (and often have been) mistaken with regard to particular applications.

What we do not welcome are those who wish to stifle any discussions by claiming a “higher view” of Sola Scriptura, and so a few concluding words about this important doctrine.

I firmly believe that the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is a critical one and one that must be defended against any who would claim God-inspired authority in any other source than the 66 canonical books of God’s Word. For example, Phil Johnson’s recent diatribe against Mark Dricsoll and his visions is exactly the kind of issue Sola Scriptura speaks directly to. (You know, as a side note, it’s interesting to me how many young evangelicals cry “Sola Scriptura” when anyone says anything about music, but when it comes to continuationism they’re “cautious but open.”)

But when it comes to application of the Bible to contemporary moral situations, crying Sola Scriptura doesn’t do anything helpful to advance the discussion since both sides of a given debate think they’re being faithful to the doctrine.

For example, with music, those with a more progressive view insist that Sola Scriptura means that since the Bible doesn’t say anything about musical style, we cannot and must not say anything authoritative about it either. This view fears legalistic Christianity.

On the other hand, those like me who are more conservative insist that Sola Scriptura means that the Bible speaks to absolutely any issue we’ll face, and so we must actively seek to understand as much information about the matter at hand so that we can apply the all-sufficient Word of God to it. As I was reading the comments on my previous post, for example, I couldn’t help thinking over and over, “These people really don’t believe the Bible is sufficient for their musical choices.” This view fears lazy Christianity.

My deepest wish is that people would engage the issue on its own terms, that they would be willing to actually dialoge about how the Scripture addresses things like our musical choices in worship. Instead, the entire discussion is stalled by those unwilling to make any dogmatic statement unless that statement can be found in black and white in a verse of Scripture.

To put it bluntly, I believe that kind of approach is naive and lacks any support either biblically or historically. The Bible itself, which these folks say they are defending, does not portray itself that way, nor has any significant defender of Sola Scriptura claimed this either.

Even leading evangelicals don’t interpret the sufficiency of Scripture this way. I’ve quoted John Piper on this before, but he’s worth quoting here again because of his clarity on the matter and because of his respected status among the very kind of people I’m addressing:

The sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that the Scripture is all we need to live obediently. To be obedient in the sciences we need to read science and study nature. To be obedient in economics we need to read economics and observe the world of business. To be obedient in sports we need to know the rules of the game. To be obedient in marriage we need to know the personality of our spouse. To be obedient as a pilot we need to know how to fly a plane. In other words, the Bible does not tell us all we need to know in order to be obedient stewards of this world.

The sufficiency of Scripture means that we don’t need any more special revelation. We don’t need any more inspired, inerrant words. In the Bible God has given us, we have the perfect standard for judging all other knowledge. All other knowledge stands under the judgment of the Bible even when it serves the Bible. For example, the English language serves the Bible by making it accessible to readers of English. But even as English does this, it stands under the Bible and is governed by the Bible. So the English word “yes” cannot translate the Greek word for “no.” The Bible is sufficient to prevent that misuse of English.

In this way the Bible is served by our extra-biblical knowledge in many ways. For example, the word “ant” occurs twice in the Bible (Proverbs 6:630:25). It is never defined. The Bible expects us to know what an ant is from our experience. But if we say that the lesson of the ant is that we should all be lazy, the Bible is sufficient to prevent that error.

So it is with language in doctrinal disputes. Non-biblical language serves the Bible by ruling out some meanings and including others. The word “trinity” and the phrase “one substance with the Father” are extra-biblical terms. But they contain essential biblical truth. To affirm with extra-biblical language that God is “one essence in three persons” (=trinity) and that the Son is “one substance with the Father” is more biblical than to use biblical language to call Christ God’s creature. The sufficiency of Scripture does not dictate the language we use to interpret the Bible; rather it governs the meaning of the language we use. For that it is wholly sufficient.

Or take another example from Ed Stetzer on missiology:

While I affirm sola scriptura and privilege the authority of biblical revelation in our missiological reflection, these convictions do not preclude us from gaining favorable insights from the history of the church, philosophy, a community of believers, the social sciences, and other sources where God’s truth about the world and the people who live in it may be discerned.

Furthermore, who is it that insists that along with studying Scripture, we must exegete culture in order to correctly contextualize the gospel message, otherwise it will not be understandable to contemporary listeners?

You see, there is so much inconsistency, lack of biblical or historical support, and obfuscation on the matter that continuing to focus on this one issue is unhelpful to the discussion in my opinion.

So that’s where I plan to leave it. If you do not believe that anything dogmatic or authoritative can be said by anyone about anything that does not have word-for-word chapter-and-verse support, then this site really is not for you. I welcome you to visit often and dialogue as often as you’d like, but please don’t try to argue against what is said here on the basis that it fails your interpretation of Sola Scriptura. We just don’t believe your interpretation is correct biblically or historically. We actually think we are working out a more robust, biblical view of Sola Scriptura.

However, if you’d like to disagree with something said here, please do! Our views are not Scripture, and although we hold some of them with various degrees of dogmatism, we would never claim that anything we say has the same level of authority as Scripture. So we welcome disagreement and debate as long as it is about the issue itself.

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.

4 Responses to We hold our worship views firmly, but not as firmly as clear statements from Scripture

  1. Scott:

    First, let me say that I think that we have much more in common than one could imagine. I worship in a traditional style. I love hymns. I graduated from a fundamentalist college and am finishing graduate work in a fundamentalist seminary. Some of my best friends teach at fundamentalist schools that adhere to some of the aspects of what you espouse. I have read substantially from your blog articles and have posted on only a handful of them. I’ve read your books. I’ve attended conferences that you have attended. That said, there are many things I would agree with you on. I agree that the church must always be reforming and that her worship must also be moving to greater depths of doctrine that must grip the whole man. I believe that worship should be doxological. I believe that worship is grossly misunderstood by a decent number of congregants.

    I appreciate that you desire not to be perceived as legalistic by adding to Scripture. In these two posts, you have demonstrated that you earnestly desire to discuss ethical implications of Scripture and to pursue logical constructions outside of structure in order to attain a full-orbed ethic that is God-honoring. I believe that this is your desire. I don’t believe that you have some sort of hidden motive of enslaving fundamentalism (again) to legalism on this doctrine of music in worship. I appreciate that you surround yourself with the advice of wise men (theologians, musicians, philosophers, etc.) as you discuss these matters. Sadly, few have taken this course and have spiraled into gross legalism.

    I say this because I want you to know that I discuss this with you as a brother that is deeply concerned for the future of fundamentalism. I am deeply concerned that we turn from a past of legalism and towards the Gospel. I want chains to be broken and for dialogue to resume between fundamentalists and evangelicals. I want fundamentalist seminary students to be able to tell their professors that they will be attending evangelical institutions without fear that they will not receive a letter of recommendation. I’m sure that you can identify with these struggles and it is because of these struggles that I see the direction that you are heading and find cause for alarm. I fear that your arguments are simply being parroted by those who would seek to keep fundamentalism captive to a list of do’s and don’ts codified in the 1940’s that will enslave fundamentalism as a movement of purely external significance. Note that I did not say that this is your desire; however, I do believe that this is the desire of many who are now using your arguments and reading your books.

    For this reason I will respond. I have avoided the blog for some time now because I do not appreciate being mischaracterized as a pop worshipper, liberal, anti-doxological, evangelical (in not so few words). I find that our thoughtful discussions often fall prey to off-topic meanderings and accusations of impropriety. Although, I admit, I get frustrated at times with the circular paths our discussions often take, I can say that I’ve never intentionally tried to treat you in any manner undeserving of a brother in Christ. I had told myself that I would remain out of this discussion as it continued, but I was persuaded by some that I count as wise to re-engage in the discussion. So in this manner, I would like to offer several issues that I have with the argument that you have made in the post above:

    1. Contradictory statements: You admit to the possibility of being mistaken regarding particular applications in the current post (implicitly admitting that these applications do not hold sway as authoritative); however in the previous post, you stated that applications are either right or wrong (implicitly admitting the authoritative nature of those applications). Can you reconcile these two concepts?

    2. Straw Man Arguments:

    a. You take shots at "young evangelicals" for being open in regard to continuationism. Why is this implied to oppose Sola Scriptura? My estimation is that this argument is actually a red herring. Would you be arguing that Wayne Grudem does not believe in Sola Scriptura?

    b. You take shots at "progressive[s]" for fearing legalism, but really just being lazy with biblical application. I’m sure that Peter’s Jewish friends thought he was being lazy by not following the dietary restrictions, but nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, he was honoring God in an area where Christians were free to participate or not to participate (cf. Romans 14:2ff).

    c. You give props to "conservatives" for believing that "the Bible speaks to absolutely any issue we’ll face." You go on to describe this at the end of your post as a "more robust view of Sola Scriptura." The reality is that the progressives believe that the Bible speaks to every issue too. They just believe that there are some issues where God allows a breadth of practice in the Christian walk. In these areas, God has spoken as well to give us direction to be charitable, to understand the roles of the weaker/stronger brothers, and to deal with the needs of our brothers appropriately without diverting into legalism.

    d. You take shots at those who are "unwilling to make any dogmatic statement unless that statement can be found in black and white in a verse of Scripture." The reality is that we allow for statements to be made, but with (in your words) "varying degrees of dogmatism" depending on the degree to which biblical data supports the arguments or conclusion. In instances where the argument rests primarily on extra-biblical knowledge (i.e., arguments from regarding the universal negative effects or meanings latent in certain styles of music), we believe that the degree of dogmatism must remain at the bare minimum (or less).

    e. You give props to your position from an unrelated quotation from Piper. In the quotation, Piper argues that we must be willing to use language not found in Scripture to explain what is latent in Scripture (e.g., the concept of the Trinity, to use Piper’s analogy, is all through Scripture, but the term is not). This differs from using knowledge not contained in Scripture to explain something that is also not contained in Scripture (or tenuous, at best). In regard to the Piper and Stetzer citations, we have no problem with insights from church history, philosophy, etc., so long as those sources are recognized as human and only authoritative insofar as they rely on Scripture (see, for example, Calvin’s use of the church fathers).

    3. Arguing for what you are against: Especially in the closing arguments, you take a number of parting shots at those who oppose you. This lapses into almost a lecture mode as you explain that we do not understand the biblical or historical significance of Sola Scriptura. The approach is rather poor and, in essence, serves only as another method of doing what you accuse us of – playing a Sola Scriptua trump card. In effect, you use this same argument (viz., that you have a higher view of Sola Scriptura) to shut down all debate on this topic. Note that in the 4th paragraph of this article, you have criticized your opponents of doing the same thing.

    In conclusion, I hope you will appreciate the heart behind my response and that any improper responses done in haste of frustration will be forgiven. I want you and your ministry to bear fruit within fundamentalism and in broader Christendom. I wish the best for you and it is purely in that spirit that I close. May the peace and grace of God and our Lord Jesus be with you.

  2. Philip,

    First, let me say that I note and appreciate the gracious tone of your comment.

    I don't intend to interact with your entire list of critiques of Scott's posts, but I do want to reply to point 1, especially subpoints c and d.

    Here's my thesis: I can maintain (1) that a position is wrong, and (2) that the same position might be right, and (3) that this same (wrong) position can be held in good faith by God-fearing people. And I don't believe that my sincere belief in (2) or (3) forces me to diminish my belief in (1).

    With specific reference to the worship/affections/etc. debate, I believe that acknowledging a certain kind of legitimacy for a variety of positions on this issue is not incompatible with believing that my position is correct, and consequently, that the position of the person who disagrees with me is wrong.

    Here's the parallel that I'd offer: there are good friends of mine, men whom I hold in the highest esteem, who are convinced Presbyterians. I think of one professor of mine in particular, whose piety and devotion I take as a model for my own.

    But this is just the point: I genuinely, sincerely, even forcefully (at times) think he is wrong about points of doctrine and practice. If I felt so compelled, I could write for a blog that opposes non-dispensational theology (or infant baptism, or Presbyterian polity, or whatever). But I would do so knowing that the opposing position is legitimate, in this sense: it does not put him outside the faith. The Presbyterian is a brother, and as his conscience is bound to the Word, he must follow what he believes that Scripture says.

    But I can insist that he's wrong all the same. And he should insist that I'm wrong.

    And so I can respect him, pray for him, pray with him, disagree with him, insist that he's wrong, teach against his views, rejoice in God's grace to him, wonder if maybe he's right. The waters are muddy, but I don't think this difficulty means that I'm caught in a contradiction. If you pressed me, I'd be inclined to attribute all of these difficulties to finitude.

    That's how I view our work on this blog. To invert the scenario: consider (note to Scott: consider registering :) ). While I obviously disagree with much on that site (as I would consider myself dispensational), inasmuch as the authors of that site believe that they are representing Biblical truth, it is legitimate for them to write what they write.

    I'm inclined to think that the differences between covenant theology and dispensationalism, as those differences relate to what is "clear" in Scripture, are relevantly similar to our own discussion.

    Perhaps, by bringing up other unclear controversies, I've merely made things worse. But if I've succeeded here at all, I think I've shown that it's possible for Christian brothers to insist that the other is wrong, even on points about which Scripture is less than explicit, without being merely factious (or self-contradictory).

  3. Michael,

    Thanks for the insight. I do recognize that the two statements are not of necessity contradictory if the meaning of "authoritative" is held in the sense that you hold it.

    I would take issue with your use of analogies to denominational divisions and eschatological/hermeneutical distinctions as analogous to the worship music debate. In the former, the discussion rages over long-standing interpretational difficulties latent within the text (i.e., interpretation of Christ's statements regarding the law, interpretation of passages on Baptism in Acts, etc.), whereas the latter is more a discussion of differences of opinion over information outside of the text (i.e., theories of meaning and communication in music apart from objective lyrics). Furthermore, in the latter case, both parties agree on the same meanings of the same Scriptures, but come to vastly different conclusions purely as a result of extra-biblical information. I do not think that point turns the entire discussion on it's head, but it should certainly give us pause as to whether or not we should elevate these argument to the same level as even denominational distinctions.

    I have two thoughts along these lines:

    1. If these decisions are nothing more than personal convictions (albeit, subjectively worthy of holding to), then is it really worth separating over them (as is the approach of modern fundamentalism)? I know that you hinted at an answer here, but I wanted to get a clearer answer.

    2. If these decisions are nothing more than personal convictions (albeit, subjectively worthy of holding to), is it really the best investment of our time to hold conferences, write books, and place at the center of our ministries? Reversing the concept, would you think it would be helpful for me to tour the country promoting the values of contemporary worship, devaluing the worth of traditional worship, holding contemporary worship conferences, and writing books extolling its values? This seems to be a bit of a stretch.

    Thanks again for your kind interaction. I look forward to further discussion along these lines.

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