Results tagged “music” from Reformation21 Blog

Critiquing Art and Music


In Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer offered four necessary categories that we need to consider if we are seeking to adequately critique a work of art. He wrote:

"What kind of judgment does one apply, then, to a work of art? I believe that there are four basic standards: (1) technical excellence, (2) validity, (3) intellectual content, the world view which comes through and (4) the integration of content and vehicle."1

Schaeffer employed the idea of form and content as a means of artistic understanding and critique. However, when utilized with songs, lack of musical understanding generally applies this grid insufficiently and erroneously. Too often music is thought about as if the notes are the form and the lyrics are the content. In actuality, the lyrics have form and content, the music has form and content, and the marriage of text and notes have another layer of form and content.

For example, when thinking about music for worship services, do we give due attention and diligence to both the lyrics and the music? When we consider the text, do we evaluate not only its expression of truth, but how artfully it expresses that truth? Is it possible that awkward wording, intentional misuse of grammar for rhyming purposes, a series of non-sequitur allusions, and empty syllables of "yeah," "hallelujah," and "glory" actually work against the meaning and truth of the text?

To use Schaeffer's categories, does the composition of the lyrics exhibit technical excellence? With regards to validity, not only should the content be theologically accurate, but is it internally consistent and are the scriptural allusions used correctly with the context and intent of the biblical original? Does the literary vehicle integrate with the content? For example, while not technically impossible, it is unlikely that the form and meter of a limerick is a suitable structure to discuss the doctrine of the atonement--the lightness of the form crumples beneath the weightiness of the content.

Let's turn our attention to music. When was the last time you heard someone talk about a song by saying that the lyrics were filled with biblical truth, but because of the lack of beauty, truth, or goodness in the music it ought not to be sung or used in congregational worship? It might have a place in other arenas of Church life, but Lord's Day worship is not one of them. When making musical selections, is the music critiqued for its excellence, its ability to be sung by a congregation, its goodness and truth?

This is where a degree of musical knowledge becomes important in evaluating compositions on something other than emotional reaction or popularity (either nostalgia or current trends). Using Shaeffer's standards again, does the music evidence technical excellence, validity, and intellectual content? In other words, well-crafted music has a sense of repetition and variety, melodic contour, harmonic interest, an accessible excellence, a worship aesthetic, a congregational understanding, a successful development of the inherent musical qualities of the source material.

The final piece of this puzzle is the combination of the text and the music. These elements should match in tone and form, in weight and character, in beauty and longevity. What we sing and how we sing it has a formative role in developing the affections and spiritual life of a congregation. This aspect of spiritual formation goes beyond the intellectual assent to the truthfulness of lyrics but rather holistically weaves a slow-working miracle of redemptive transformation of our heart's desires and rightly ordered loves.

1. Francis Schaeffer Art and the Bible (Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006) p. 62

The Zwinglian Option


You will have heard of the "Benedict Option" for coping with the culture wars. I would like to propose to Reformed Protestants the "Zwinglian Option" for ending the worship wars: eliminate all music from our public services. Zwingli, the outstanding musician among the Reformers, removed all music from the church in Zurich. We wring our hands over our worship divisions. The two ends of liturgical spectrum endlessly annoy each other. Think about it. Take away the music and we have little left to fight about. No more arguments about instrumentation. No more fights about types of songs. No more conflicts about the amount of time spent singing. Take it all away. No more music. No more songs. No more singing. This would be a very painful option for me personally. I love metrical psalmody. What is better than worshipping with a congregation that knows the Trinity Hymnal version of Psalm 51 to Redhead ("God Be Merciful to Me") or Psalm 146 to Ripley ("Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah") or Psalm 23 to Crimond ("The Lord's My Shepherd")? It would be an equally painful option because I love classic hymnody. What is more moving than a full house of worshippers singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" to Nicea, or "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" to Hamburg.

The loss would be significant, yet the gains would be abundant. No more heartburn for traditionalists when the bongo drums and tamborines are unleashed. No more inward groans when we sing a mediocre modern tune with mediocre lyrics as led by unordained "worship leaders." For the other side of the spectrum, we'd have to give up today's favorite contemporary praise songs and modernized hymnody. But think of what we'd gain: no more dreary old hymn tunes to dampen the spirit. No more funeral dirges to inflict on otherwise celebratory services. Remove all music and nothing is left to distress anyone.

Unity in worship

What would be left? Only that upon which we can all agree. Reformed worship in all its beauty and simplicity would remain:

  • a full-diet of biblical prayer (praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercessions, illumination, and benediction)
  • lectio continua readings of Scripture, or at least substantial readings
  • expository preaching, hopefully of sequential texts, taking congregations through books of the Bible, but at least of texts selected topically
  • regular administration of the sacraments

Who possibly could object to these slimmed down services? Can you not envision the happy result for those who move from one community to another, or those on vacation, as hither to unknown Reformed churches are visited, and nothing is found to complain about at the services?

Let's walk through such a service. A strong opening prayer of praise might be offered, followed by a chapter read from the Old Testament. A prayer of confession of sin with thanksgiving for pardon might come next. Perhaps a baptism might follow. Then the sermon text might be read followed by the sermon. Prayers of intercession followed by the benediction might end the service. What do we have? A simple, substantial, spiritual service. No one is jockeying for "their" music. No one is upset because the service is too light and frivolous or too heavy and serious. No one is uncomfortable because of the emotional restraint and staid postures of the old-schoolers or the emotional excesses and bodily movements of the new-schoolers. Our congregations are unified and at peace. Our denomination is unified at that most vital of times, the hour of worship. Everyone knows what to expect when he or she visits one of our Reformed churches. The solution to the worship wars easily is solved by the Zwinglian Option. No more music. No more singing. No more songs. Nothing remains to divide us. Music has become an idol that divides the church. Let us then smash it.

Genevan option

Is the "Zwinglian Option" too severe? I suspect many will consider it so. Let me then modify my solution to the worship wars by offering a second option, a tweaked version of the first: the "Genevan Option." The Genevan Option would be less stringent and more palatable for many. Let's restore the singing. However, we'll continue to eliminate the instrumentation as in the Zwinglian Option. No more musical instruments. All singing would be acapella. There, isn't that better? Don't for a moment think that this is unworkable. Reformed Protestants worshipped without instruments for nearly 300 years, which, by the way, is longer than we have worshipped with them. Our friends at the RPCNA will assure us that unaccompanied singing is the most beautiful of all church music. The human voice, after all, is the most beautiful of musical instruments. We'll get used to it, and for most people it will beat the Zwinglian Option. Unconvinced? You are thinking that we'll still fight over the types of songs that we'll sing? My answer is, yes and no. Without instruments to carry the song, the two extreme ends of the musical spectrum will quickly be eliminated. The contemporary music that is more suited to performers will prove unsingable for congregations without instrumental support, as will overly complicated classical music. This will push our song selection into the middle of the spectrum where consensus is more likely.

Or, we could go a step further with the Genevan Option and eliminate hymns along with instruments. This would not be my preference. Yet if we're going to argue about whose songs get sung, let's settle the issue by limiting our songs to the Psalms, metrical psalms. Again, this is not unprecedented. After all, this is all that Reformed Protestants sang in their public services until Isaac Watts and his contemporaries gained widespread acceptance in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Surely it would not be onerous merely to return to the dominant practice of our forefathers for the better part of 300 years.

There. We've done it. We have a way forward. We can reunite our divided churches by one of two paths, the Zwinglian Option or the Genevan Option. Plenty of latitude remains: we may or may not utilize the Creeds and the Ten Commandments ("lawful oaths") in our orders of services; we may administer the Lord's Supper weekly, monthly, or quarterly; a wonderful variety continues in our prayers, readings, and preaching. Plenty remains in our services to thrill the heart and feed the soul. They will continue to be God-centered, gospel-structured, word-filled, church-aware, and Spirit-dependent. The path ahead for us is clear. All we need do to restore church unity is give up our songs or at least our instruments, or at least our instruments and hymns. Surprisingly easy, isn't it?

The Origins of a Great Christmas Hymn


One of my favorite hymns of the Advent and Christmas season is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel because of its rich use of biblical imagery to recount the prophetic references to the coming Christ. The Latin text for this hymn is found in a 1710 German publication but its roots go back to the early days of the Church. The familiar tune for the hymn, Veni Emmanuel, is a 15th century French melody that was paired with these texts in the 1851 publication of Hymnal Noted.

The text has its origins in the "O Antiphons"--a series of refrains sung on each day from December 17-23 during the evening Vespers service. Each one focuses on a different name of Christ in anticipation of the Incarnation. They occur as follows:

December 17--O Wisdom (O Sapientia)

December 18--O Lord (O Adonia)

December 19--O Root of Jesse (O Radix Jesse)

December 20--O Key of David (O Calvis David)

December 21--O Dayspring (O Oriens)

December 22--O King of the Nations (O Rex Gentium)

December 23--O With Us is God (O Emmanuel)

Boethius, who lived between 480-524, referenced these lyrics thus attesting to their use in the early 6th century. The beauty of these texts is their systematic combining of a descriptive name for Christ while referencing a prophetic passage from Isaiah that points towards the coming Messiah.

Following are the texts of the original antiphons as the influence for the later hymn text along with some of the Scriptural references:

December 17

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Isaiah 11:2 says, "And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord." As Wisdom that comes from the mouth of God, Christ as the incarnate Word is also referenced (John 1).

December 18

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Isaiah 11:4-5 says,

"But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins."

December 19

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

In Isaiah 11, verses 1 and 10, we read,

"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit..."

"...In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples--of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious."

December 20

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Isaiah 22:22 says,

"And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open."

December 21

O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Isaiah 9:2 says,

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.

December 22

O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.

Isaiah 9: 6 reads,

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

December 23

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Isaiah 7:14 says,

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

With these texts as a guide, poets began to paraphrase these words as hymn lyrics. One of the earliest known versions is the 8th century poem by the English poet Cynewulf. Other versions occurred in the following centuries, but the one that is most familiar is the text published in Germany on 1710. This version changes the order by placing the "O Emmanuel" verse first and adding the refrain, "Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel will be born for you, O Israel." The republishing of the text in another German hymnal in 1844 brought these words to the attention of John Mason Neale, the great translator of hymns who wrote the familiar English text most commonly in use today.

In 1851, Thomas Helmore paired Neale's text with a 15th century French tune and published them together in his Hymnal Noted. In 1861, Hymns Ancient and Modern, the highly influential and popular English hymnal, republished this pairing of text and tune and ensured the enduring use and popularity of this hymn. While several other melodies are used in various parts of the world, they tend to be German tunes that set different translations of the text.

The beauty of this hymn is the careful, systematic, and concise presentation of the prophetic witness to the coming of Christ and the expectation of what He will bring. As the Word Incarnate, He will fulfill the Law of God, bring justice and righteousness, deliver the people, reign as King, bring light to the darkness, save His people whom He created, and be Emmanuel, our God with us. This is the promise of the first and second coming of Christ, and for this we hope, wait, prepare, and pray.

Hymns Ancient and Modern,1861,

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav'nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Adonai, Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Addition of the other two O Antiphons by H.S. Coffin (1916)

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven's peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Greg Wilbur is the Chief Musician and Liturgist at Cornerstone PCA in Franklin, TN. He is also the Dean of the Chapel, Senior Fellow at New College Franklin, a Christian classical college in Franklin. Greg has written numerous articles about worship, the arts, and education. You can find our more about his work at

The Christ-Haunted Song


The Scriptures declare that the Lord fills the heavens and the earth (Jer. 23:24); and, that He who made the vast expanses of the starry sky gives to all men "life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:25). Since "all that borrows life from Him are ever in His care," all that we have and possess (including our ability to think and reason in the realm of metaphysical truth) is nothing other than "borrowed capital." John Frame so helpfully sets out the implication of this truth when he writes, "The truth is known and acknowledged by the unbeliever. He has no right to believe or assert truth in terms of his own presuppositions, but only on Christian ones. So his assertions of truth are based on borrowed capital." The truth is inescapable for the unbeliever, though he or she constantly seeks to suppress it in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). No matter how much men and women seek to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, however, the knowledge of God made known to all image bearers (Rom. 1:19) continually resurfaces in their consciences.

This principle is heightened in a culture in which biblical revelation has taken root. One can watch a nature show on television in which a naturalistic (i.e. anti-theistic) worldview undergirds the premises of the show; yet, the show's host refers to the animals on the program as "creatures." Another example is seen in the way in which revisionist attempts to do away with a calendar that centers on the Savior's coming into the world (i.e. B.C. and A.D.) fall as soon as they rise. This has been evident in the art and literature of the Western world, which has been so greatly impacted by Christendom; and, it is true in a special way in places where there has been a high concentration of Christian churches and biblical preaching, such as in Flannery O'Connor's Christ-Haunted South.

I have noticed this to be so to a high degree in much of the secular music that I have listened to throughout my life. For instance, John Lennon's song, "Imagine," encourages the unregenerate to try to imagine that there's no heaven or hell. The irony, of course, is that imaging that such places do not exist is the best attempt men have at suppressing the truth of their reality.

In the months leading up to my conversion in 2001, two songs in particular left me deeply "Christ-haunted." One was the song "Pickin' Up the Pieces" by the Athens, GA band Widespread Panic. It was especially their refrain, "Not wanting to meet my Savior, no not this way," that haunted me. The other song that haunted me at that time was "Faker" by the band Moe. The lyrics that plagued me the most while I was in dark rebellion were these: "I am a faker, pretending along; lost site of my Maker; I will die before I finish this song." Coming from the Christian home in which I had grown up, these words cut to the core of my conscience.

As I now listen to music as a believer, I continue to have the greatest of appreciation for the beauty, creativity and giftedness of so many secular artists; yet, always with an awareness of the "Christ-haunted" nature of most of it. There are times that I wish I could sit down with the numerous musicians whose music I love so much (e.g. John Moreland, J. Tillman, etc.) and talk with them about the Christ they have rejected and the truths of Scripture that they are singing about in overt and suppressive ways in their songs. I often wonder if they are "Christ-haunted" as I was, when they continue to sing their "Christ-haunted" songs. 

Properly understood, diversity highlights aspects of both the atoning work of Christ (Rev. 5:9) and the economic Trinity (John 3:34-35). The former, in part, underscores the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20). It is, therefore, incumbent upon Christ's Church to take the Gospel to the nations. As we do, we will encounter people who are dissimilar aesthetically, culturally, generationally, politically, socio-economically, intellectually, and ethnically. Our cultural blind spots will be exposed, our preferences will be challenged, and our Christ-likeness will increase.

As the diversity conversations continue, there are many areas on which we can focus. How did we get here? That's partly an historical question. There are things in this nation's past that created the division that is clearly evident in the church today. How can we change? That is a strategic inquiry. We must examine our cultural assumptions, hospitality practices, variation within our relationships, and so on. Within the umbrella of that question, one area of supreme importance is that which concerns Lord's Day music. How does our church music promote or prohibit the inclusion of African Americans?

Before briefly examining church music selections, I want to dispel the notion that all one must do is preach the Gospel and leave the results up to God. Although I believe preaching the good news is paramount, no church merely preaches the Gospel. There are cultural accoutrements that may hinder the possibility of growing in diversity. Language (i.e., phrases, Clich├ęs, colloquialisms, etc.) and the ethos of one's church are two examples. If a minister, for instance, states from the pulpit, "We, as conservative Christians, believe that Jesus [insert the good news]," that could cause quite a stir for some African Americans. Like the word diversity, conservative is a buzzword that means different things to different people. In recent history, so-called conservative Christians did not allow African Americans to worship with Anglos on the Lord's Day. Professing conservative Christians helped institute the practice of redlining. Today, it seems that some conservative Christians are more concerned about life inside the womb than life outside of the womb. The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) requires both. (See WLC 135). Language, therefore, can hinder diversity within one's church, and we need each other to help uncover those areas that might prohibit those for whom Christ died from entering our Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. (For an explanation of the ethos element of our church cultures, here is a talk that I gave at the 2016 PCA General Assembly. It may be helpful).

What about our church music may promote or restrict the diversity within our congregations? As I write this, I'm specifically referring to areas that contain a high African American demographic. If the area in which the church building is stationed is predominantly one ethic group, the church-gathered should reflect that. Those areas are decreasing more and more, however. According to some reports, the United States will be a majority-minority nation by 2044. In the meantime, how should we be thinking about church music? Even within the realm of exclusive psalmody, our music can hinder or promote diversity.

One area we must tackle, as it relates to church music, is our assumptions. What do African Americans like and prefer? Based on numerous conversations and multiple Facebook posts, it seems that there is growing consensus, particularly among whites, that African Americans prefer gospel music. That genre of music has a rich heritage within many African American churches. Whether Baptist, Pentecostal, or African Methodist Episcopal, you can be certain that on the Lord's Day, your souls will be uplifted with a vibrant and biblical choral selection. However, simply because many black churches sing gospel music does not mean all black churches sing gospel music.

Recently, one of our elder candidates and I visited an African American church (an Independent Baptist church). Three things were notable. First, he was one of only about three whites in the entire building. Second, he knew more of the hymns than me. This man happened to be brought up in an Independent Baptist Church. Third, the congregation only sang hymns and they sang them at a slower pace than I'm accustomed to singing them in a PCA setting. You could neither clap your hands nor sway your hips to them! In short, African Americans are as diverse as the color of our skin. We do not have a preference for only one genre of music.

Among some blacks, there is a growing trend to rearrange hymns. The words, "Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace," sound quite different in standard measure on a piano than accompanied by a guitar and played with more of a neo-soul flavor. Consider also the modern hymn "The Power of the Cross" by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, Doxa recently rearranged it. You can clearly hear and feel the difference.

All of this is an extended way of saying that we must be careful--in our pursuit of fostering God-glorifying diversity by means of musical selection--not to presume that African Americans necessarily prefer a certain genre of music. Requiring complete cultural assimilation will work against you. Nevertheless, as you ponder potential musical changes in your Lord's Day service, it might be a good practice to speak with African Americans in your community. If they are a part of a congregation, ask them what kind of church music they are used to and/or prefer. Use that as a barometer for any changes you may consider making in your congregation. You can also speak with other African Americans in your denomination or federation. Receive general input from them. I'm certain it will be helpful to the process.

We have highly valued music since the start of our church plant. Not wishing to make assumptions about the genre of music preferred by those who were coming, I asked our members to submit the top 5 church songs that they would like to sing in worship (and, I continue to ask new members this question). From these lists, we then selected some of the songs that we believed were robustly biblical and that we could sing congregationally. In our context, this process has worked quite well. Members of our church feel that they have a hook on which to hang their cultural hats. Music is a terrific way to address--not to ignore--the preferences of the people and love our neighbors as ourselves.

A musical query

I have not been really keeping up recently, but I was interested to read Leon's musings on music in the church planting situation. Passing over a number of other stimulating threads, I should be interested to know the answers to a couple of questions, if he has the time.

First, how does he square his "dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation" with what I presume would be his embrace of the Regulative Principle of Worship. What drives the dream?

Second, might the reader inquire as to whether or not his bevy of players from "the music department at a local university" are all presumed to be members in good standing of a faithful gospel church, and - if not - how would he justify what I presume would be the paid employment of unconverted musicians to assist the saints in the spiritual worship of a holy God?

I look forward to the answers with interest.
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation
Crown and Joy Presbyterian Church, in Richmond, VA, celebrated its ninth Sunday on December 21, 2014. Time seems to be moving quite quickly. Before you know it, if the Lord wills, we will have finished our series through the book of Exodus. We average about 50 persons in attendance each Sunday. That includes people from various ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. It is quite a blessing to see what the Lord is doing in our church.

Since the first service, our liturgy has remained the same. We have several scripture readings, a confession of sin while kneeling, preaching of the word, administration of the Lord's Supper weekly while sitting around a table and partaking of a common meal, benediction, etc. You can view our liturgy here (sample_liturgy.pdf).  We hope to add the sursum corda next year. Interestingly, our liturgy is not entirely different from the most recent all black Baptist church I visited. Consider also the latest partnership between some Pentecostal and Anglican churches. What is my point? As I shared in parts 1 and 2, the liturgy is not what is keeping minorities away from Presbyterian and reformed churches.

In part 3, I began to introduce music into the equation. Is a certain genre of music keeping minorities away from our churches? Is it the way its sung? Here are some of my thoughts regarding those questions.
I wonder if what may be keeping minorities away from our churches is less about the genre of music that is sung and more about the way in which we sing it. In many of our churches, especially if they consider themselves, "old school," generally we know what to expect musically--hymns and psalms utilizing traditional tunes with very few instruments. As an aside, we sing hymns from the Trinity Hymnal at Crown and Joy. There is nothing wrong with these musical preferences, but what I have noticed more recently among churches that are increasing in ethnic and cultural diversity is that they are singing many of the traditional hymns using more modern tunes. Minor chords, more upbeat tempos, and choruses are utilized. These churches have attempted to contextualize the music, particularly as it relates to the tunes, while maintaining the rich and biblical lyrics associated with traditional hymns.

Depending on the church's context, this seems to help. Minorities, especially if they have a church background (see part 1), may feel more comfortable during the singing aspect of the Lord's Day service because the tune is more fitting to their previous church experience. (Here is one example). Unfortunately, in my opinion, not all churches are willing to do this. They are unwilling to alter this segment of their church service to help minorities feel more comfortable in an already foreign situation (i.e., reformed and predominantly white). 

I think if we consider our local congregations more as missionary establishments it may help us. In other words, it seems that missionaries, when thinking soberly, note their cultural context. They pay attention to the dialect, cultural practices, musical tastes, food, clothing, living arrangements, etc. This helps them minister to the locals in that community. If we adopted that mindset versus catering almost primarily to those already in our churches, or even those with similar preferences whom we foresee joining us, we might be more willing to change certain aspects of our music. As I write this, I also confess that I believe the church is for Christians, yet it is also a place for non-Christians to attend and be saved. What might those elect saints, who have yet to embrace Christ by faith, be listening to musically? Will taking that into consideration as well as implementing it, within reason and biblical standards, help them feel more comfortable in our midst? Regarding those who have a church background, will taking into consideration what those saints are listening to musically, who may later become reformed, help them feel more comfortable when they visit us? One African-American comes to mind, one who has been in a Presbyterian church for over 10 years and has a Pentecostal background. This person does not like the music at that particular Presbyterian congregation. What can we do for someone like that?

What about churches that are unwilling to adapt? If one's church will not change the tunes associated with many traditional hymns, are they hopeless? If they reside in diverse contexts and are unwilling to change their current musical practices, should they toss in the towel, so-to-speak, regarding diversity? Or what about those churches that are willing to change their music for the sake of ministry contextualization but do not feel equipped to do so? I hope to address those questions in other posts. 

It's well known that Calvin frowned upon religious images in churches and the use of musical instruments to accompany singing in the corporate worship of God. Religious artwork in churches served, he believed, to distract worshipers from those "pictures" of Christ and his redeeming work which God himself had placed in worship (that is, baptism and the Lord's Supper) and from the sermon, which in his view should set Christ crucified before the eyes of worshipers more vividly than any painting possibly could (cf. Gal. 3.1). His distaste for musical instruments in worship stemmed from his conviction that corporate singing is essentially an act of prayer; musical instruments, he believed, could only distract worshipers from that act, drawing their thoughts away from the Person to whom they were praying to the sounds and melodies emitted by whatever instrument -- in his day, the organ -- was employed to accompany the singing.

It is sometimes assumed that Calvin's reticence regarding artwork and musical instruments in churches reflected reservation on his part regarding the arts more generally. Not so. In his chapter on religious images in the Institutes Calvin unabashedly insisted that "sculpture and painting are gifts of God." Though ill-suited to capture "God's majesty, which is far above the perception of the eyes," these "gifts" undoubtedly serve "a pure and legitimate use." Calvin actually identified two discrete uses for artwork depicting "histories"/"events" and simple "images"/"forms of bodies" respectively: a didactic use ("teaching and admonition") and that quite simply of affording "pleasure" to the beholders. Significantly, he condemns neither use of art outside of worship.

Calvin's comments on the "legitimate use" of artwork in the Institutes find a parallel in remarks he makes regarding music and musical instruments in his commentary on Gen. 4.21. These remarks occur within a broader consideration of the "preeminent endowments" which God has entrusted to the unbelieving persons in Cain's lineage (Gen 4.20-23). Calvin has no doubt that persons in Seth's lineage were likewise busy in the "invention and cultivation of arts;" that Cain's descendants are specifically singled out for their artistic skills reflects God's enduring benevolence specifically to them. Calvin does, however, believe that "the heathen" have generally outstripped the church in the cultivation of "the liberal arts and sciences." Indeed, "we are... compelled to acknowledge that we have received astronomy, and the other parts of philosophy, medicine, and the order of civil government, from them."

The benefits to all men of these named sciences cultivated by "the heathen," as well as more practical skills like "the art of the carpenter," are deemed fairly obvious by Calvin. But what benefit is gained by "the invention of the harp" and "similar instruments"? Musical instruments (and, by implication, the music performed on them), he suggests, "minister to our pleasure, rather than to our necessity."

This is no word of censure on Calvin's part. Human pleasure "is not to be thought altogether superfluous; much less does it deserve, in itself, to be condemned." But Calvin is concerned to carefully qualify his approval of an art which primarily serves the end of pleasure. He acknowledges that lawful pleasure can become "foolish delight;" that is, a kind of unconstrained and selfish pleasure which ultimately "seduces men from better employments, and occupies them in vanity." What is ultimately required, then, is that the pleasure we derive from music be "combined with fear of God."

Calvin's point is not that any pleasure we derive from music ought to be mitigated by a certain anxiety about enjoying music too much; that is not what is meant by "fear of God" in this (or any) context. Calvin's point, rather, is that we should acknowledge God's incredible benevolence, even to those who spurn him, as we find pleasure in music (and every other good gift). In other words, the pleasure which music affords should lead us to God rather than from him. "Such is the nature of music," then, "that it can be adapted to the offices of religion, and made profitable to men." When Calvin speaks of "religion" here he means not corporate worship, but the entire life of a man or woman lived in concrete relationship to the Triune God. Music can, in short, serve -- that is, enhance -- that relationship.

There are echoes here of a distinction which St. Augustine drew centuries before Calvin between the enjoyment of something as an end in itself (frui; diligere propter se) and the enjoyment of something in relation to something greater than itself (uti; diligere propter aliud). Only God, according to Augustine (and, I think, Calvin) is meant to be enjoyed in and for himself. All other realities should be enjoyed because of the relation that they sustain to him. If we seek to enjoy other realities apart from God (i.e., without any sense for how they relate to him), our affections have become disordered; we have become idolaters.

The irony of this truth is that when we seek to enjoy music or any other reality which potentially brings us pleasure in conscience relation to God, our enjoyment of that reality is heightened, not decreased. Who, after all, enjoys a diamond ring more: the man who stumbles across it on the beach with the aid of his metal detector? Or the girl who receives it from the boy who loves her as a token of his affections and intention to marry her? Obviously the latter. For the girl, the ring points to a reality -- a value -- greater than the ring itself (someone's love for her), and this increases her enjoyment of the ring (which sustains the same exact monetary value in each scenario).

So too with music or any other gift that comes from God. When we acknowledge a fine musical instrument or the songs produced on it (or them) as gifts ultimately from God, who has entrusted to all men creative abilities of remarkable proportions, the pleasure we gain from the same increases. Every beautiful song, like every breathtaking piece of art, becomes a token of divine love and generosity, pointing us towards the Creator whose creative abilities men merely image, and his astounding affection for all men, especially his adopted children (to whom even greater gifts are given).

Calvin, then, hardly turns out to be the enemy of the arts, or for that matter pleasure, he is sometimes taken for. Indeed, he provides for us a method of hearing and enjoying music, or feasting our eyes upon the visual arts, that will maximize pleasure, insofar as he provides for us a method for enjoying the arts that will not distract us from God, but draw us directly into contemplation of God's staggering generosity to us.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

A Letter to Lecrae and Andy Mineo

Dear Lecrae and Andy,

We have never met, but I thought I would take the time to share some things with you. Your names have been floating around Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube quite a bit lately. As I am sure you know, not all of it is good. Apparently, it comes with the territory. The more one is elevated in the public sphere, the more one is susceptible to criticism. I hope in the midst of such criticisms, the Holy Spirit will sustain both you and your families.

The primary critique that flashes across my Facebook newsfeed is that you have abandoned so-called Christian Hip Hop (CHH). From what I gather, your lyrics and some of your public comments are not saturated enough with the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some suggest, therefore, that you are compromising the essence of CHH. You are ashamed of the gospel. From my perspective, those critiques seem a bit harsh, but I am unaware as to what validates hip hop as Christian. Is it the amount of times you mention Jesus? Must the gospel be presented on every track much like a sermon? Here I reveal my ignorance.

Despite my lack of understanding as to the criteria that qualifies what is and is not Christian hip hop, I am a bit saddened by some of the criticisms I have read about your music. The tone and balance are unbecoming. People seem unnecessarily harsh and cynical. Many of the responses I have read lack grace, love, and gospel-edification. No one is beyond criticism, but when it comes, one must not only present law (i.e., this is what you are doing wrong), but also provide hope for change (i.e., in Christ, he restores and renews). At this point, I have not seen much of that. I would add that the best place for accountability, discipleship, and growth in Christ is the local church, not the public square. From what I understand, you brothers are connected and committed to a particular church. I would like to believe you are receiving the accountability required from your elders, deacons, and parishioners in your local congregation to help you along the way as you continue to produce music.

I hope Christians will be much more careful when offering comments, specifically negative ones, about your music. I, for one, am thankful for the music that I have heard from you. Some of the youth in my church listen to it; they are thankful as well. In God's providence, I can only imagine the doors that have opened for you as a result of your music. You have access to people with whom you can share the gospel and talk about the glories of Christ's Church that I will likely never have the privilege to talk to. I praise God for that! He is presenting different venues for his message to be shared. I only hope that as opportunities present themselves the Spirit of the living God will strengthen you and grant you clarity of speech to share the beautiful truths of the gospel.

I know how hurtful people can be in their criticisms. Pastors are not exempt. However, I pray God will continue to preserve you and your families in the faith. While I know your faces are in the spot light, your families are affected as well when charges are leveled. Whatever happens from this point on in your ministry, I pray the Lord bless you and keep you, may his face shine upon you and give you peace.


Pastor Leon Brown

Asking the right questions

At the risk of being trampled by the ireful in the latest slanging match over rap and hip-hop, I wonder if I might interject? It seems to me, watching from a distance and not trying to read every contribution, that the debate quickly escalates into absolute and swingeing declarations that fail to take account of the various issues that ought to come into play. I may be wrong, but I hope I can lob a few thoughts into the debate.

I suggest that there are at least three questions that ought to be asked in assessing not just rap and hip-hop but other musical genres and forms.

First, and most generically, in what ways can a Christian appreciate, enjoy and embrace either a form or genre of music in and of itself, or a particular instance of that form? There are issues here of taste, excellence and morality, all of which need to be taken into account. Can and/or should a Christian enjoy certain forms of the musician's art, taking into account the manifestation of God-glorifying skills (even in the realm of common grace and some expression of the image of God remaining in man), the cultural context and baggage of a certain form or genre, the deliberate or unintended communication of certain moral perspectives and messages, and the appetites and tastes of the person who is listening?

It is at this point where, for example, we might say that we can recognise the cultivated excellence involved in a given form or genre, or a particular expression of it - the skills of the rapper, the voice of the tenor, the talents of the guitarist - while mourning and rejecting entirely the unmitigated moral filth that those skills have been prostituted to communicate. I am not suggesting that we can or should simply filter out the wickedness and enjoy the excellence - the former might so thoroughly compromise the latter that the whole package needs to be put away. For example, a singer with a fantastic voice might sing a thoroughly lewd piece from a highbrow operetta. I might recognise and in that sense appreciate the quality of the voice but I cannot truly enjoy it or embrace what it is communicating. At that point the vehicle and its contents are so closely intertwined that I cannot take the one without the other and must therefore give both a pass.

Likewise, we might recognise or believe that there is little discernible or negative cultural or moral baggage in something that we feel free to enjoy. I do think we have to be careful about simply assuming that what we quickly call high culture is good and that - at the other end of our spectrum - low culture is bad. There might even be a genuine intent to glorify God in something but - once exposed to it - we would wince at the misguided and miserable attempts to do so in a form or genre in which the participant(s) have no real capacity or skill. Sometimes there is nothing remotely joyful about the noise being made. So we might say that, even though the intent and content appear purer, it is such a terrible effort that we simply cannot appreciate it.

Between these various extremes there might be some middle ground, and that might be different for different Christians as a matter of trained conscience, personal experience or particular sensitivity. I know some believers who can appreciate the artistry of a certain song or piece of music and who experience no pressure from or attribute no weight to its particular content and context; other Christians, hearing the same piece, cannot even begin to contemplate listening to it. That might be because either party (or both parties) need to be better instructed, or it might be that something which is sin to one is not sin to another (and that is not situational or shifting ethics). Neither am I at all suggesting that there is a neutrality to culture here, considered either as high or low. Every Christian needs to think through these matters for him or herself, and to be aware of what they are imbibing and what it carries with it, whether we are listening to Bach or Tupac, Einaudi or Eminem, Rieu or Rihanna, Beethoven or Bon Jovi, Jay Z or Joe S (as Johann Strauss was known to the other chaps in the neighbourhood), or their equivalents across the genres (or the 'real' artists to whom aficionados turn with disdain for the big names in the mainstream who are, by definition, no longer true to their roots or rootz, depending on how cool you are being). Philippians 4.8 really means something here: "Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy - meditate on these things."

Second, and a little more narrowly, to what extent is a certain form or genre an appropriate vehicle for the communication of distinctively Christian truth? Here we are focusing in on those things where there is a deliberate attempt being made to bring honour to God through the accurate and appropriate communication of divine truth, evangelistically or homiletically or in some other sphere.

It may be that a Christian says that they enjoy a certain kind of music and that they would rather listen to a Christian or Christianised expression of it than a worldly expression, raising questions about whether or not the music itself communicates something of moral weight and content, either in itself or by its usual associations. These are the murky waters in which all manner of claims for the redemption of certain genres are made. Here, we may be assured, are the death metallers who profess conversion and begin singing death metal praises to God, for example. Here are the personally godless classical artists who wrote religious music and lyrics of a high order. Here, I suppose with a shudder that is poorly expressed via the keyboard, is Cliff Richard. Here - to get to the nub of it - are those who rap high and full and careful theological truths. Here also are the testimonies of men and women who were exposed to the rich theology of certain lyrics from Christian rap or hip-hop and were either converted and/or instructed. Here too are those who say that certain genres or forms are beyond redemption. Here are all those middle-of-the-road soft-rock guitar bands or whatever else they might be 'updating' and 'improving' classic hymns by setting them to modern musical forms or writing their own stuff. And here are countless Christians who stick in their headphones, wind up their gramophones, turn on the wireless, bung a disc into the player in the car or plug in their MP3 players, stream a few albums, and make this their casual or consistent listening.

And here we must wrestle with the questions of the moral weight of both style and substance, defences and accusations and defences again about pragmatism, worldliness, separatism and fundamentalism, about babies and bathwater, and whether or not the baby has swallowed so much bathwater that you must either retain or reject both.

But third, and most specifically, is this question: is a certain form or genre a legitimate and appropriate means for the corporate worship of the gathered church? This brings us into a whole new realm, for it raises the issue of the artist and his or her audience and the distinctive dynamics of the saints of God gathered in one place for the purpose of worshipping God. The answers to these questions are sometimes assumed in the debate, but often they have been neither raised nor addressed. I have offered some thoughts on these matters before, so will not do so again in full. So we must take what is entirely proper and appropriate for a Christian's private enjoyment, or even legitimate and beneficial as an element of his private worship, and ask by what set of criteria it must be judged when it comes into the realm of the gathered church at worship. Is worship a performance with God (or, indeed, men) as the audience? For the record, preaching as performance is at least as inappropriate as singing as performance, if not more so. Is the worship of the gathered church a matter of what we imagine God enjoys or what we would hope that he appreciates? What role does excellence of form play? Is it simply a matter of our sincerity or are we arrogating to ourselves the right to employ our gifts, real or imagined? What questions should we ask: 'What will God allow?' or 'What does God prefer?' or 'What does God require?' I have my own convictions on these matters, and they are going to make a huge difference to what happens in those services of worship where I have been given a measure of responsibility and authority.

Whatever genre or form we consider, and whatever its context and content, when we come to the issue of worship in its more narrowly defined sense, we must bring it under the particular scrutiny of Scripture. Leaving all other considerations aside, I cannot see that this provides for an operatic solo any more than for a rap performance; it does not provide for a classical concert as the church's expression of her worship any more than it does a rock opera. At this point, it is not about my personal tastes and preferences, my experiences or lack of them, or what I might appreciate and enjoy at other times. It has to do with God's requirements, and the Scriptural demand for the whole participation of the whole congregation of saints in the sung worship of the gathered church.

When we have these conversations about music, we might still end up with very different and deeply-held answers. But let us at least acknowledge that the issue requires us to ask the right questions, and to ask them all the way back to first principles, ultimately out of a concern that the Lord God we serve be honoured in all things, but also as an expression of our concern to deal rightly and reasonably, accurately and carefully, with one another.

Classical Music


Last week, after ten or so years of wanting one, I finally bought a Bose Wave Music System. When I got it out of the box and tested it with various CDs, I have to admit that it just felt, well, wrong to play Springsteen or U2 on it. So, for the past week or so (this ought to warm Derek's heart), I've been listening to Joshua Bell play Vivaldi, John Rutter conduct Handel, Bach, and choral music and Copeland play Chopin. It has been a nice change of pace from my typical fare.

Which should last until January 27. When the new Springsteen album comes out (Sorry, Derek).