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Review of Worship in Song by Paige Patterson

Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, by Scott Aniol. Winona Lake, IL: BMH Books, 2009.

Worship in SongWorship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, published by Scott Aniol in 2009, marks the advent of still another work in the conflicting genre of books on music and church. Aniol acknowledges the crowdedness of the field and faithfully notes the titles of many of these books on either side of the current issue in the preface to his volume. The initial question for Aniol concerns why then another book should enter the lists for the worship wars. Aniol provides two reasons for his entry. First, the initial rationale is provided by the need for careful distinctions to be made between secular music to which we listen on an everyday basis and sacred music. Second, Aniol believes that a new volume on the subject is needed because the church is in fact moving away from the foundations of music written by godly men, who could offer the next generation fresh biblical approaches. He hopes to encourage the remedy for that in this volume.

The underlying assumption of the book is that at its most basic point the issue at hand is theological. Aniol asks a series of questions. What do the Scriptures really teach? What is the nature of biblical sanctification? What is the importance of biblical affections? What is the biblical relationship between the glory of God and beauty? These are the kinds of queries that he seeks to answer in a meaningful and thoughtful volume that comprises almost 300 pages of carefully researched material. Several observations should be made at the outset.

First, Aniol has done his homework. The references cited in the book are extensive and eclectic and demonstrate a consummate familiarity with the field.

Second, and more important still, Worship in Song achieves something that I have not observed in the vast majority of the books I have read on this subject. The consideration of a theologian who also happens to be a top-level musician is apparent in this volume. Skilled in scriptural exegesis and thoroughly informed in theological investigation, Scott Aniol writes as a theological musician. The book is alive with biblical citations and the argumentation particularly of the entire first part of the book is intensely theological in nature.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section, containing five chapters, deals with foundational theological matters. The second section approaches the subject of music and lifestyle worship. The final section, with eight chapters, is devoted to music for those assembled for worship. This is followed by appendices, which include a plea to teach children hymnody, a brief listing of the classic hymns categorized according to doctrine, and a guide to building a library of classical and sacred music.

Aniol begins his discussion where a brief discussion of religious matters ought to begin and then be linked with Scripture. Two general positions, which he calls the encyclopedic position and the encompassing view of Scripture, are to be noted. He defines the two views but stakes out his own position with an encompassing view of Scripture. According to this view, Aniol notes that the Scriptures speak indirectly to every aspect of life even when there is no direct reference. Hence the principles of Scripture apply to the joys and performance of music, even when the specifics of contemporary music do not address such. He proceeds to discuss the concept of adiaphora. Many today argue that “things indifferent” (adiaphora) is a reference to the fact that if the Scriptures do not directly address the issue in a prescriptive way, then people are left free to develop this in whatever way they see fit. Aniol thinks that this is a misuse of adiaphora since many practices that are not directly addressed in Scripture are obviously harmful to human beings. The principles governing these, however, are in place and should be carefully noted.

Moving from a discussion of biblical authority in Scripture, Aniol proceeds to an analysis of the nature of biblical worship, the significance of sanctification, and the religious affections of the worshiper, which he describes at length. The second segment of the book deals with the nature of the question: Does music have a meaning and, if so, what is it? Questions about what constitutes beauty and what constitutes the glory of God are sensitively and thoughtfully considered. In some ways perhaps the most perceptive chapter of the book is chapter eight, “Sanctifying the Emotions.” In this particular chapter, Aniol deals with a subject almost totally avoided in most of the other books I have seen and that is the subject of how exactly, both positively and negatively, music affects the emotional responses of humans.

Section three of the book then moves directly to the subject of worship. Here Scott Aniol makes clear the need for what has traditionally been called “sacred music.” He insists as others have that the music be “God-oriented” but follows that with a less frequent theme, namely that music should be doctrinally oriented. Returning to an earlier theme of Christian affection, he then points out that the music must be the object of the expression of deep affections for God and for His plan and purposes in the world. Finally, he appeals to a congregation-oriented importance of music, emphasizing that the best choices for any church are those choices that involve the entire congregation in participation in the music.

There are two suggestions I have for future printings of this superb book. I would begin by saying that in every way Worship in Song is the most thorough and cogent consideration of issues in church music that I have seen anywhere. That Dr. Aniol accomplished the writing of this book in the midst of serving a church full-time and preparing for PhD studies and that it is established on firm theological footing is a tribute to him beyond anything that I could imagine. But I would add that this is a volume that must be read by any serious contributor to the conversation. That said, I believe there are two things that he could improve. First of all, I think he needs to put greater consideration on the impact of culture on music. For example, he lists Roger Scruton’s book Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. That book, along with Scruton’s other contributions to the issue of culture, probably merits a chapter, though I am sure Aniol was concerned at this point about the length of the book.

Second and more important, one of the reasons frequently provided by its advocates for the use of contemporary music is that it is evangelistically potent among the current generation of people 45 years of age and under. Further, the argument goes that if God is using this music to introduce people to Christ, it cannot possibly be wrong. This is a subject that needs to be addressed at some length because it contains truths. Advocates of sacred music in days gone by often considered sacred music synonymous with classical music as a genre. As a result there was precious little opportunity for the communication of the gospel in a way that the average man on the street could embrace the music, edifying a small percentage of the people but leaving many behind. I spent many of the days of my youth opposing this type of music. Furthermore, contemporary folks certainly tend, as all of us, to identify with what is part of their culture, and so they have responded at times to the pull of that contemporary music.

But this is not an open-and-shut case. What would be tremendously helpful in a subsequent volume would be a chapter focused simply upon evangelism. Granted that our music primarily should be a worship of God and a focus on His attributes and actions, a considerable case can nevertheless be made for the evangelistic function of sacred music and whether or not the contemporary scene hits that mark. My own thesis is that just as music fifty years ago, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. The point here is that the issue needs to be on the table and discussed.

Those two brief suggestions considered, Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship is by far the most thoughtful consideration of these elements that I have read. My reading, while not as extensive as that of Aniol, would not be far short as I have tried to deliberate with fairness on this subject. Consequently, there are several groups that I believe should read this book. First, obviously everyone who plans to be involved in leading Christians in musical worship needs to deal honestly with the superb insights of this volume. Second, every pastor who is responsible for leading the church in worship should have to contemplate this volume. The lack of reflection on the musical side of worship on the part of many pastors and the willingness to adopt whatever culture brings in the front door has created a disconnect between the church of the present and the past. That is not healthy. We must have contemporary music, fundamentally a reference to recently written music, which anyone ought to support. As I like to remind my students, there was a day when the Old Rugged Cross was a contemporary song. So what constitutes legitimate contemporary expression is important, and the pastor above all others ought to be cognizant of that discussion. Third, any worshiper who wants to please God with his worship ought to read this book. I believe that hearts and minds would be changed for the better. Scott Aniol’s Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship is a challenge from the Bible to the contemporary churches.

Paige Patterson
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX


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.