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Standards for Music. Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:18-20
A lot what I am teaching runs counter to what has become popular over the last 20-40 years. It is interesting to witness the trend because a lot of this is just following certain trends that seem to be popular at the moment and then there is a shift. It is pleasing to note that several new scholarly, well-constructed books have been published that are continuing to lay the case for why the church needs to have good, excellent, quality music, sacred music, within the church for the worship of God, and that the trend that began in the late sixties and early seventies is really antithetical to Scripture.
And this is not a welcome message for some people because it challenges what they think is just a matter of personal taste. Because our culture has said there is no real absolute, especially when it comes to areas of art, areas of beauty, areas related to what is technically known as aesthetics. To them this is a matter of personal taste. This is encapsulated in a saying that has been around for about 200 years: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." We all understand that people have different tastes and different personal preferences, and so this saying seems to have resonance with people and they say, 'Oh, yes, I can see where that is true.' This is because in some sense there is a relative, subjective sort of standard for beauty, for excellence, for what we like.
Ultimately if we are believers in what the Scripture teaches, that God as the creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, that God is the ultimate source of excellence, and we put it that way, everybody nods their head and says, well of course. But a word that is always related scripturally and in the context of this discussion is the word "beauty." This is the big word under which all of these others fit because that is the word that relates to this term aesthetics. Aesthetics is really part of the curriculum, we might say, for these topics of philosophy; and philosophy is usually broken down into the basic categories of metaphysics (what you think the ultimate reality is in the universe). Philosophy tries to answer these questions apart from any kind of revelation and so it starts with the question: how do we know what is eternal? That is foundational. Then the next issue is: how do we know anything?
Then the next issue is really an issue of once we know things, how do we know what is right and what is wrong? That gets into the area of ethics. So we go from the area of metaphysics—what is the ultimate reality in the universe? Is their an ultimate person, or ultimately is the universe impersonal? It has to do with issues related to creation, evolution, the existence or the non-existence of God or gods; all of these things tie into that issue of metaphysics. Then we get into the next area known as epistemology: how do we know? How can we evaluate our knowledge? Then that logically goes to the next topic of ethics, which is how do we know which is right or wrong?
Historically, the issue of aesthetics or beauty was grounded in ethics because the classic Greek thinkers, going back to the ancient world, understood that when we use terms like beauty, excellence, and say isn't that wonderful, that embedded in all of these words was a value judgment. And a value judgment is inherently no different from looking at something and saying: that is good, or that is bad. Or looking at something and saying that it is evil or wrong.
When we talk today in the context of our post modern world of cultural relativism and moral relativism, often when we talk with unbelievers we can sort of have a little chess manoeuvre as we discuss things with them because their assumption is there is no ultimate God, everything is impersonal because of evolution; therefore there are no absolutes, what one person thinks is right or wrong, that is their view, that's great. But they don't have a right to impose that on another person who says that just the opposite is right or wrong, because everybody has their own view. And what this has led to in our relativistic culture is something called multiculturalism—every culture is equally valid whether it is a developed western European culture influenced by Christianity or whether it is a matriarchal, stone-age culture deep in the rain forest somewhere; every culture is equally valid.
What is interesting is that over the last 20-30 years with the rise and development of multiculturalism there has been a lot of push-back on this from conservative thinkers, especially conservative Christian thinkers. We don't believe that multiculturalism is correct. The only culture that is correct isn't American culture or western culture but a culture that is based on biblical truth. All other cultures are really deteriorations of that as a result of the corruption of sin. As people reject the truth of God in unrighteousness, as Paul says in Romans 1:18-19, they substitute creation based value systems for biblically based value systems.
But there is one area that seems to have missed the attention of evangelicals, and that is the area of music. And what we often find in the discussion out there is that in all other areas of life there biblically correct and biblically incorrect views, but when it comes to music, music seems to be in a neutral zone where you can't say there is good music or bad music. Our contention is that within God's creation if there is any one area that isn't addressed ethically from the righteousness and holiness of God, then nothing is addressed from the righteousness and holiness of God. Because God created everything "good"—Genesis 2:4.
There has been a lot of contention: what does it mean "it is good"? In some creationist literature some say this is an ethical term, and it means that God is saying that everything is righteous. There may be some ethical overtones in some passages to the word tob, but there is a real problem contextually in Genesis chapter two if we look at this Hebrew word tob and say it has an ethical connotation there, because in the very next chapter God says it is not good for man to be alone. Think about that. If good means righteous, which is how some people take it when God says all of His creation was good, then it is unrighteous for man to be alone. That doesn't work. Te word tob has a range of meanings, one of which is everything is according to the perfect design and plan, and in that sense it is used to describe beauty. And in many places in the Hebrew Scriptures the word that is translated into English correctly is this word tob; it is used to describe that which comports to an ultimate standard and is beautiful. So there is this reality in Genesis chapter one that God created everything, and at the end He said it was beautiful, excellent. Because from within His own character He has established the ultimate standards for everything.
But we all know what happened when Genesis chapter three came along. Adam sinned; what happened to the creation? The creation became corrupted by sin. Not only did the human race fall into sin; not only did Adam and Eve die spiritually at that instant; but we know from Romans chapter eight that the entire creation suffers and groans under the curse of sin. It changed the laws of physics. We don't believe that the second law of thermodynamics, which is everything moves from order to disorder, went into effect until the fall. That second law of thermodynamics is directly related to the fall of Adam and the corruption that came into the entire universe. So everything became corrupted at that point.
The problem we have when we start talking about aesthetic absolutes is that we are looking at it from the post-fall corruption, externally of the world and internally of the human heart (Jeremiah 17). So the starting point for everything in understanding what is true, what is righteous, and what is beautiful must be the character of God. The Scripture really does establish an objective standard for what we are calling beauty as a summary of these various terms that are used as synonyms in the Scripture for this. The reason this is important is because ultimately this comes back to helping us understand that there truly are biblical standards for music. An important part of the debate is that words and lyrics of many contemporary songs are just not very good, not theologically accurate.
But that is not the only area of evaluation. Music is a language and music communicates something, and so the trappings that surround the words are also as important as the words. Music communicates and teaches something, and so just as a frame may not be the focal point of a piece of art that frame is important because it points to and must be consistent with that which it frames so that it brings out the artist's intentions within the art work, and that the frame is not running counter to the art work itself. So the music that we sing acts in a similar way to art work.
Music is radically impacted by worldview. Whenever the worldview of a culture changes, the music changes; and because that happens that in and of itself ought to tell us that music is not philosophically or theologically neutral. If you change the belief system the music always changes. So there is an inherent belief system in all music. Whether we understand this or not is irrelevant. A lot of this comes just from education, training, knowledge, experience with music; but people who really know music and really study music understand this.
It is interesting to talk to people who are trained musicians and they analyse things. It is amazing what they are hearing that we have no clue about because we are not educated in it. The problem is that people say that doesn't really matter. It should matter of we are pursuing excellence in worshipping God.
Sacred music (e.g. The Messiah) is different from good congregational music. Since the time of the Reformation and the influence of Martin Luther and others it was recognised that good congregational music not only fits certain standards musically but it is also music that is accessible—in other words, singable—by a congregation. Not all excellent music is necessarily accessible to a congregation, so that is part of the criteria.
In Colossians 3:16 the command is to "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you." We are sort of exemplifying what this means by this series because there is a lot being brought out in this series related to music that most people don't see when they read the Scripture. That is because of the level with which we often read the Scriptures. Every time we go back through something in the Word we go deeper. We see implications and applications that were not readily apparent initially, and the more we probe the depths and implications of Scripture the more we come to realise its impact in every single area of our thought. It should impact every area of thought, and there is no asterisk there that says, except music, or except anything else. It addresses everything in God's creation. And remember, the angels were singing in heaven before Satan ever fell. So singing and music and the use of instruments in music, was present even in heaven prior to any sin. That tells us something: that there was some sort of external pattern that was considered by God to be right as apposed to wrong in heaven.
Paraphrase: "You must let the Word of Christ make itself at home abundantly and generously in every aspect of your thinking and life with the result that you teach and admonish each other by singing songs, hymns and spiritual songs in all wisdom" (that phrase, "in all wisdom," doesn't modify the first part, it modifies the two participles teaching and admonishing) "singing with grace in our hearts toward God" (that has to do with our motivation; the mental attitude that we are to have when we are singing overtly).
We do it with the result that we teach—didasko [didaskw], that is part of instruction. As we read those words that are based on Scripture, the meditations of someone who has let the Word of Christ dwell in their life were taught—and we also admonish one another. We can be corrected, reminded and corrected by these words that we sing. Colossians 3:16 lists this as the first result of someone who really lets the Word of God impact their thinking. Ephesians 5:18-20 lists this as one of the first results of manifestations of someone who has really been filled by means of the Spirit. We have seen the parallels between the chapters: that Colossians 3 is telling us what we are filled with and Ephesians 5 is telling us that it is the Holy Spirit who fills us; but part of what this relates to is singing. It is not something that is an elective in the Christian life, it is not something that is optional in the Christian life; it is something that is a vital part of the Christian life and will be on into heaven.
As we look at some of these issues related to the so-called worship wars today, there are some popular fallacies that we will run through. The first thing is: it is not about the beat; it is not about syncopation. It is not about when it was written; it is not about old versus new. That is one of those myths that always come out very quickly in this discussion: well, you just want to sing those old songs because that is your generation. But we understood that we had a remnant of the belief that there was a difference between what we would call secular music and sacred music: that the culture of the church has its own music, and the music of the church should not reflect the cultures outside the church. The values of the world are not to come into the church. Today we have such fuzzy thinking on the church: Oh the reason you meet on Sunday morning is to bring unbelievers. But the purpose of the church in Scripture is to mature and edify those who are already believers. The music isn't a tool in Scripture to attract unbelievers. In this whole church growth movement that has developed over the last 30-40 years what we often hear is: we just won't get the yo0ung people there if we sing old hymns because that is not their kind of music.
People who say that are usually culturally ignorant, historically ignorant and are thinking at the depth of a millimetre of water. That is not mean to be personally insulting to people, but if we think about 2000 years of church history this is the only generation that has had the arrogance to say we want our own music. What they are saying is: we want music that sounds like the music of the world because that is what makes us comfortable, and we are not comfortable with the distinction between the kind of music you sing in the culture of Christianity and the kind of music we sing in the culture of the world. There has been some excellent material been written in the last 50 years but it is not typically well known and there is not a lot of it, because it is not popular.
The next assertion: It is not about the theological associations of the writer. "Faith of Our Fathers" was written by a Roman Catholic. When he said "faith of our fathers" he was not talking about the Protestant Reformation and grace alone in Christ alone faith. He is talking about what he believes to be the historic foundational faith of Scripture. But we can still sing that even though his theology was a little off, and that is true for some other hymns as well.
It is not about how it makes me feel. All music stimulates emotions, it is inherent. It is how it is used. Does it put emotion ahead of what is being sung? It is the words that should drive our emotion. The music should complement that but it ultimately should be the thought of the words that is creating the emotional response.
Some positive things: It is about the worldview of the music, not just the words. This is talking about music as music because music changes when worldview changes, so it is about the worldview that produces this kind of music. The kind of music that has characterised contemporary Christian music over the last forty years would not have come out of a 19th century British evangelical culture; it never would have happened. It is inherently a contradiction. There had to be other changes that took place.
It is about the content of the lyrics and how those lyrics developed.
It is about the beauty and aesthetics of the music. There are absolutes that we can go to to evaluate good music.
It is about the correct form for expressing the content. Some music is appropriate to certain words and it is not appropriate to other words. The music of Immortal Invisible God Only Wise is not appropriate to (aside from issues related to rhythm and meter) Redeemed, How I love to proclaim it. That is such an upbeat joyous song but the music of Immortal Invisible God Only Wise is designed to slow us down a little bit and think about the seriousness of the attributes of God and to focus upon Him. So the music needs to relate to the content appropriately.
It is about glorifying God through utilising our very best creativity. Creativity is not without absolutes; creativity has to be within biblical boundaries.
When we think about aesthetics we think about something. We use words like this to express excellence. There are some people who can't tell the difference between bad music and good music other than how it makes them tap their toe or wiggle in their seat. Some people don't even have that. Some think that when you talk about excellent music you are thinking in terms of classics; it has to be on the level of a Bach, a Beethoven, or a Handel. But that is not what is being said. Simple music and simple tunes can be excellent music and excellent tunes. Classical music is not necessarily what is good congregational music. Good congregational music is music that a congregation can sing well.
We started dealing with the issue that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Taste, preference, is in the eye of the beholder; but beauty as an intrinsic absolute quality is located objectively in God. The Bible uses a variety of terms to express this idea—splendid, glorious magnificent. We choose to use the one word, beauty, as an overall summary of this. These terms establish God as the standard of beauty. Thus God possesses intrinsic beauty. There are two options: either God possesses intrinsic beauty or He doesn't. If God doesn't, then beauty is a relative concept and it is only in the eye of the beholder. If God possesses intrinsic beauty then beauty has an ultimate absolute reference point that anything that is beautiful must relate to. That means even in music, and that there are certain qualities that make music beautiful and conform to an ultimate absolute, and other qualities that don't. The difficulty is when we get into the middle of that spectrum and defining where that line is. There is a line and our job should be to glorify God to the highest, which means not asking the question: how close can I get to the line?
Intrinsic beauty is this beauty that is inherent in something independent of a response produced. God is beautiful whether there is a creature to recognise it or not, or whether a creature feels it or not. That beauty is objective. A response produced in a creature relates to the subjective aspect that may be tainted by corruption in a fallen world and a fallen culture. Think about this. Maybe we like some of the music we like because we have been influence by the values of a fallen culture in a fallen world that has appealed to our fallen nature-controlled soul. And maybe we need to learn and redeem that in our own souls. That word "redeem" is used, for example, in Ephesians 5:17 "redeeming the time"; in Romans 8, the creation will be redeemed when Jesus Christ returns. So that there are elements in our soul that need to be sanctified—that would be another term—and our taste for some things needs to be changed; we need to have a re-education. We have certain tastes in music that are often shaped by our culture and our sin nature, and that needs to be sanctified by learning what good music is.
Mortimer J. Adler: "We call an object beautiful because it has certain properties that make it admirable. It has those properties whether or not it is having them results in its being enjoyable by you or me." What he just said is: Beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder. Some thing is beautiful whether we think it is or not because it fits certain standards.
What we need to remember is that our concept of beauty, our concept of saying whether music or something we sing to glorify God, is worthy of that or not all involves some criterion. Is that criterion ultimately located in the soul of the creature or in the essence of the creator? What is the ultimate reference point? If the ultimate reference point is in the creator then we have to think seriously—this is part of letting the Word of Christ richly dwell within us—about how that impacts our view of music. What we want to have in our worship is music that reflects the excellence of God that we can all sing and sing well together, because that is what glorifies God. It is part of the application of redemption or sanctification in our own lives, recognising that because of sin in the universe everything gets corrupted, and the process of the spiritual life and spiritual growth is dealing with those elements of corruption that still hang over in to our post-salvation life.
Christ died not just to give us salvation in terms of justification and an eternity in heaven but in order to give us the foundation to begin the process of removing the tyranny of sin and corruption in our own lives. Christ died to redeem us from sin, and that is both a positional as well as an experiential reality.