December 17, 2017

Values and Music: A Theological Perspective (Part 1)

Gerald Priest, Ph.D.

This article is part of a larger article by Dr. Priest, divided into five parts.

I want to express briefly my own theology of music and the values related to it. I am not a musician, but then most Christians are not. But we are musical, and therefore should have a Christian world view which includes a perspective on music. I am a teacher in historical theology and have studied the effects that both doctrinal and cultural changes have had on the church. I have seen repeatedly how seemingly incidental decisions have led to major, often disastrous, consequences for Christendom. The nose of the camel in the tent appears harmless until gradually it occupies the entire tent. The camel is the world; the tent is the church. While the nose seems to pose no danger, the issue is the camel. What business does any part of a camel have in the tent? Camels don’t belong in tents. But let someone cry out, “There’s a camel entering the tent!” he is labeled an alarmist. “Are you kidding? What harm is there in a nose?” And so evil enters subtly.

Music is often a tool to make worldliness appear more palatable. The problem comes in identifying music as worldly because of its cultural diversity. Every society has its own music, and everyone has his or her own preferences. Therefore it is difficult to treat it objectively because of its subjective nature. Yet, there are guidelines, there are values and principles we can follow that will aid us in our preferences and practices of music. I would suggest a better, even the best, starting point—divine preference, a theological perspective, if you please. I should add that, while many of my comments can and should apply to the fine arts in general, I am treating specifically the type of music we offer to God in the context of worship. This allows me the opportunity to discuss the subject theologically. I am convinced that our music bears witness to the kind of God we worship.

I think part of the difficulty in discussing the role of music for worship in the Christian community is that the approach is misguided. The focus should be theological or doxological, not personal or cultural: literally, what brings pleasure to God. What pleases me, what pleases you, or what pleases any given culture is beside the point. My “proof texts” are mainly Philippians 4:8 (a general paradigm), and Hebrews 13:15 and Ephesians 5:18-19 (a specific paradigm).

It is the natural man’s inclination to pursue that which gives him pleasure. He is a hedonist at heart. Personal happiness is the summum bonum [chief good] in life. The acquisition of knowledge is a deliberate attempt to free the mind from divine restraint. In philosophy, this pseudo-freedom is the means of happiness. Its futile pursuit is indicative of the end times (2 Tim 3:4). It is no accident that the first and most insidious heresy against the church was Gnosticism. It is an incipient form of this satanic system that Paul addresses in Colossians. We will pursue what we love. Paul’s prescription is love Christ, not knowledge (Col 2:8); the former is the pleroma [fullness] of wisdom; the latter can lead to empty deception. This, of course, is the fundamental difference between the unregenerate and the regenerate: the one seeks to please himself; the other, to please God. It is the great dichotomy we see everywhere addressed in Scripture. My point is the spiritual man will do what pleases God.

To be continued.


Gerald Priest served many years on the faculty of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. He is now retired and lives in Greenville, SC.

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