December 18, 2017

Values and Music: A Theological Perspective (Part 5)

Gerald Priest, Ph.D.

This is the fifth part of five.. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Part 1 points out that the first and most important criteria in making musical choices is theological: does my music please God?

Part 2 argues that music is moral since it originated in God and thus its purest forms communicate the image of God, not the corrupt image of carnality.

Part 3 reminds us that restraints are necessary because of the fall and the corruption of human nature. The Old Testament restraint was the Law, the New Testament restraint is the Spirit, motivating us by love, but still intent on restraining the flesh. It is our natural tendency to tolerate sin, the Spirit never does.

Part 4 argues that culture is corrupt and cultural expressions generally reflect that corruption. If there is corruption in culture, how can that not be expressed in its music? And why should that music become the music of the church?

Again, I would remind us that our principal consideration should not be what kind of music we like, but the realization that our music bears witness to the kind of God we worship. That which is inharmonious or out of sync with God’s character (and certainly God’s commands) can be harmful to us. This is true of all art forms—painting, speech, sculpture, architecture, and probably the most controversial, music.

One may ask, “How is it harmful?” Because, among other things, it harms our witness to the glory of God; it demeans Him, and therefore us in the eyes of the world. Why should we expect the world to accept our message if we use its sounds to convey it? Are we not cluttering it? Interestingly, the arts mentioned are all communicative. The question is what but also to whom do they communicate. The fallen man’s communication is always self-ward never Godward. Even in pagan sacrifice to false gods, the intention is appeasement for personal benefit. Man has corrupted and perverted every type of art form. Again, the indication of how we know this is the disharmony and discord of the form with the created order as a reflection of the character of God.

And so chaotic art forms are symptomatic of man’s corrupt nature, not God’s pristine character. This is illustrated in the difference between noise and music. Surely, as evidenced in the variegated species, music reflects variety, but it can be distinguished from mere noise: a robin singing is quite different from a frog’s croaking, but they both undoubtedly did this in Eden. And Adam could hear and note the differences in those sounds—the one undoubtedly pleasant, the other unpleasant to the ear. If he was created relatively perfect, he must have desired to sing to God using the most pleasing sound he could produce, that is, it would convey the aesthetic qualities of proportion, harmony, sustainment of melody and symmetry that distinguish music from racket.

That was Adam’s culture: lovely and pleasant in every way. All the animals produced various sounds, good in their peculiar way, because that’s what they were created to do. But man was created to sing. He is the only creature who has been given the capacity to produce melodic vocal music as sustained intelligent speech. God created him that way as a means of reflecting loveliness and goodness. That appears to be a natural distinction from man and the rest of creation.

Redeemed man is allowed freedom of choice in his musical selections, but always governed by the divine parameters of the divine order (general revelation) and, most importantly, by the divine Word (special revelation). God has spoken, and He has spoken about music. Violation or disregard of this fact reflects dereliction and results in confusion. The problem is that our sinful nature is disposed to accommodate what perfection would abominate.

I think most Christians have some kind of musical standard for the simple reason that they want to please God. If not, then the world has wholly set their standard, and they have allowed it to control their concept of pleasure; they have reverted to the fleshly from the spiritual life. They have forgotten Who indwells them and to Whom they are accountable. Serious believers who want to please God will want to draw a line somewhere. But where to draw it? Postmodernism says that you don’t need to draw it at all, because anything goes (and I don’t think we realize the enormous impact this antichristian philosophy has had on the church). At the least, I think we should draw it at worship, because the Bible clearly depicts this as a sacrifice, an offering to God.

If we think of the place of worship as the sanctuary (and not simply an auditorium), where the holy is in and the profane is out, this will help us to be more discerning in our choices. Not long ago, I heard a minister criticize the illustration of driving too close to the cliff. The focus is wrong, he said. It isn’t the cliff; it is Christ. This sounds very spiritual, but it is very wrong. (Someone may be looking intently at the lighthouse and fail to recognize the danger of huge potentially capsizing waves.) Yes, we look to Christ, and also build fences.

How often pietism trumps realism! And the history of the church is full of it. And so what does this mean for music? Leave the noises of the pagan, the discordant cacophonies of the world, outside. Bring into the place of the assembly of saints the harmonious melodies that reflect God’s attributes. A virtuous sound must compliment an orthodox symbol (the lyrics) and both be expressed by a devoted heart to a holy God for worship to take place. Then we will worship in the beauty of holiness. This Sunday morning, if Jesus were to enter your church service of regenerate believers, would He be pleased with what He hears and sees? The fact is, God is there in the person of His Spirit.

Admittedly, I am allowing dispensationalism to inform my view of music. I see it not only as the proper scriptural hermeneutic, but as a way of interpreting history. One of the premises of dispensationalism for this age is an increasing moral deterioration of society. Of course, the world has had some really rotten societies, compared to 21st century “civilized” America. But Satan has had thousands of years to perfect his strategy of corruption. His stock-in-trade is the counterfeit. How does he go about his work of deception? Once again, it is by making what is evil appear to be good. The great challenge for us is to discern the difference: what in the culture is harmless custom from what is corrupting? Satan will do everything possible to erase that distinction.

What many churches accept today would be abhorrent to Christians of one hundred years ago. Were they wrong and we are right? It’s not that simple. But what it does say is that culture dictates behavior, and the church accommodates itself in order to be relevant. But if Satan can get the church to accept more and more of the culture to the erosion of its identity as a sanctified people, then he has won a victory. Of course, we know Who will win the war. But that is just the point—the body of Christ in this dispensation is the church militant in anticipation of victory. And, pray tell, what are we battling? Why, the world, the flesh, and the devil! And we need to be constantly vigilant in combating them. But if we cannot even identify what they are (and, again, this is Satan’s strategy), then we are in a quandary.

Why should I even be concerned about a D. L. Moody or an A. C. Dixon (and many other early fundamentalists) who thought that Sunday newspapers were a great curse upon society? Why should I even care that Francis Wayland (a progressive Baptist educator of the early 1800s) denounced the theater as wicked a place as the tavern? (I mean, I like to read the Sunday comics and do my crossword puzzle, and I like attending a good play and watching a decent DVD movie.) Because these positions give us a benchmark of how much we have changed from a higher standard. It would be easy to dismiss them as merely legalistic, but perhaps it is more an indication of how antinomian and lax our churches and Christian homes have become. I believe these institutions have become increasingly worldly (even the secular sociologists are saying it), and their music reflects it. And we are doing a disservice to our young people by not warning them of the dangers.

Now, am I a voice crying in the wilderness? Perhaps, but every age has needed such voices. My fear is that they will become fewer and fewer. But let’s just say, for argument sake, that I am wrong and the hip church is right in allowing rock music in the assembly of saints (and throw in dancing and social drinking for the young, restless, and Reformed). I still have not lost anything of value. The new age advocates, on the other hand, have compromised everything.

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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