Ramblings on Sola Scriptura and Church Music

I’ve read some material recently that critiques the apparent disconnect between the affirmation of Sola Scriptura and its sufficiency for Christian living on the one hand and the dependency of extra biblical material when it comes to the formation and application of one’s philosophy of music on the other hand. 

The topic of church music has been on my mind over the last several weeks which is why these pieces caught my attention.  Discussions about church music are ubiquitous.  Frankly, I’m not usually all that interested in following them.  These discussions tend to generate more heat than light; very little sharpening takes place.  I think it comes down to this.  If you read church music philosophies from one conservative evangelical church to another there will be very few, if any, major differences.  The difference from one congregation to another is how the philosophy is applied.  A music philosophy is like a fence within which certain music may run freely.  However, the particular music that is welcomed into the fold is really what comprises the difference(s).   

Some time ago I was discussing this issue with my former pastor, a man for whom I have great respect and admiration.  He mentioned the importance of an exegetically driven music philosophy.  Some may think this is extraordinarily difficult because of the dearth of information about music in the Bible (though music itself is found throughout the Bible).  One of the articles I read recently was written by Chris Anderson.  He argues that in fact we do have a very helpful music guide in the divinely inspired hymnal, the Psalms.  Moreover, he also addresses the problem I initially mentioned: the relationship between Sola Scriptura and church music.  Chris observes,

However, we who champion the centrality of the Scripture in Christian worship are, I fear, a bit careless about actually making them our “only rule of our faith and practice” when it comes to music discussions. I think we get a bit squishy in our commitment to “Sola Scriptura” when we address worship. Even respected expositors are noticeably less exegetical when addressing music than when addressing other issues.

Chris then footnotes a quote from John Frame who similarly contends,

These aesthetic and historical criteria are often used in place of Scripture, leading to the condemnations of practices that Scripture permits and commanding of practices that Scripture does not command. That, too, in my judgment, violates the principle of sola Scriptura, the sufficiency of Scripture (John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 237–38).

Scott Aniol posted a review of his book Worship in Song (WiS) on his Religious Affections blog yesterday.  The review was written by Ken Brown and published in the Detroit Baptist Theological Journal.  Brown appears to fairly assess the book’s strengths and weaknesses (I have not read WiS myself).  The pertinent weakness Brown mentions is the tension between the sufficiency of Scripture and extra-biblical data.  Brown says,

WiS does have some weaknesses as well. While Aniol clearly wants to help us make God-honoring choices for music and worship based on biblical sufficiency and authority, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, for him, our choices in this area are not only informed by extra biblical data, but they are sometimes dependent on such data. In the chapter on “Beauty and Glory,” Aniol says, “This leads us back to the important question, ‘How can we discern what is beautiful?’ I think Mortimer Adler’s answer is biblically acceptable, ‘The judgment about the beauty of an object in terms of its admirability for intrinsic excellence or perfection is the judgment of an expert, with special knowledge and skill in judging specimens of a certain kind’” (p. 119). And, following a presentation of much very helpful information that stimulates thinking in these areas, it nevertheless appears that what we need to know is out of our reach: “It would be nice if music were a black and white issue with a clear line distinguishing bad music from good music. Unfortunately, it is not that easy. We must affirm, however, that this is the case in the mind of God.  In His mind there is a line” (p. 138). Although the preceding chapters contain much profitable material regarding biblical sufficiency and authority, and many direct citations of Scripture, yet at the crucial point of practical application many will still be left to wonder how the quotations above (and others like them) can be squared with these words from the very first page: “The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture…contains all the words of God we need…for obeying him perfectly.”

Another observation from Brown’s analysis is Aniol’s approving citation of Adler,

The judgment about the beauty of an object in terms of its admirability for intrinsic excellence or perfection is the judgment of an expert, with special knowledge and skill in judging specimens of a certain kind (emphasis mine). 

The average reader is left with the impression that one cannot judge the acceptability of music without extensive training in the realm of aesthetics.  Incidentally, employing a citation like this is why the label “elitist” (wrongly or rightly) is applied to those who embrace this approach to judging church music.     

My question basically boils down to this: Is the Bible truly sufficient for all matters, including judging church music?  If it is, do we undermine our claims of being “biblical” when we look to aesthetic and historic disciplines to assess church music?  It seems problematic to me to claim that Scripture is sufficient to evaluate church music with one side of our mouth and then cite extra-biblical support with the other.


20 thoughts on “Ramblings on Sola Scriptura and Church Music

  1. Pastor Roman,

    It seems that your questions are broader than simply the topic of music. If Sola Scriptura commits us to using nothing but the Bible as a source of information, then there are certain things that we cannot determine:

    1. That salvation is available to you, Doug Roman, or to me, Kevin Bauder.

    2. That feeding someone arsenic until they die is displeasing to God.

    3. That looking at Penthouse Magazine (e.g.) is a sin.

    Each of these conclusions depends upon two things. First, it relies upon a premise drawn from Scripture. In order to make the application to a specific situation, however, each conclusion also relies upon a premise drawn from outside Scripture. This “second premise” cannot be justified by any appeal to the biblical text.

    Without appeals to such “second premises,” virtually no teaching of Scripture is applicable to real life. We employ them so constantly and transparently that most of the time we are not even aware of doing it.

    Of course, because second premises are not drawn directly from Scripture, they do not carry biblical authority. They can be challenged and argued. Not infrequently, Christians rely upon second premises that are flawed. Such premises should be rejected.

    What cannot be rejected is the legitimacy of appealing to second premises. If we cannot appeal to second premises, then our ability to apply Scripture in the real world simply evaporates. In fact, our assurance of salvation is illusory.

    By the way, an elitist is not necessarily someone who possesses or relies upon special knowledge. If specialized training and knowledge makes someone an elitist, then every competent expositor of the Word is an elitist–as any number of populist exhorters will be happy to point out.

    An elitist is broadly someone who presumes the right to impose a requirement by virtue of standing and authority. Appeals to second premises are never elitist per se. They only become elitist if someone insists that the second premise is above question.

    I don’t know of anyone on the genuinely conservative side of the music debate who is saying “Take my word for it.” Nor do they rely upon arcane expertise. They are more than willing to illustrate their extra-biblical premises in ways that are readily comprehensible by ordinary people.

    The question in the music debate is meaning. Does music mean? If so, what meaning is communicated by different musical expressions? Whether the meaning that we are parsing is musical or textual, we are going to have to resort to some extra-Scriptural help in discerning it. Even verbal meanings send us to lexica and grammars.

    Rather than worrying about considerations of Sola Scriptura, it would be far better to engage in the music debate at the level of the second premise. Those who cannot or will not do this are doomed, I think, to a kind of anarchy of meaning that results in a liturgical free-for-all, the end result being the sheer assertion of appetite.

  2. Pingback: The Sola Scriptura trump card | Religious Affections Ministries

  3. Pastor Roman,

    I hope you’re doing well. We continue to uphold you and your family in prayer.

    I for one am always encouraged to more fully apply and live out the Scripture in my life from the commands of the New Testament Apostles. In my own life, I am encouraged to “work out my own salvation with fear and trembling” in ways that go beyond the letter of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible, for example, does not tell me how to live with my wife in understanding, (1 Pet 3:7), but it tells me I had better do it. This requires me to reflect on good husbandry (I’m sure there’s a better word for it) and how to better support my wife. I am often rebuked when I consider ways that I have violated this command (and many others), even though the Bible itself has not mentioned them.

    I also see Paul’s great desire for the Philippians believers to have discernment to “prove the things that are excellent” (1:9-10), and to “think” on the “lovely” and “excellent” things (4:8); or for the Romans to “discern what is the will of God” (12:2); or for the Ephesians to “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (5:10); or even for the Colossians to have “spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.” Again, as I see this, I am encouraged, as a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, to bring a thorough rearrangement to my life, submitting it all–even the things the Bible does not mention–to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that it seems like the importance of discernment concerning extra-biblical practice is itself mandated by Scripture. If anything, this calls us to more fully take up the cross of Christ and love the Lord with our mind, considering all these things, even if the matters are difficult or confusing, which music often can be.

    I hope we can together affirm the importance of this.

    Your brother, who rejoices that you preach Christ-crucified,


    • Hey Ryan,

      Thanks for your continued prayers and for stopping by. Yes, we can affirm the importance of discernment concerning extra-biblical practice. I totally affirm this with you. I simply wonder how much authority second premise arguments should have, especially when we talk about church music.

      By the way, it’s a great time to live in NC!


      • Hmmm. What authority would “second premise arguments” really have though? They are simply true or false. The authority comes from the Scripture. If the Scripture is true and authoritative, then it is simply a matter of whether the second premise is true. The second premise is not authoritative in and of itself. If the second premise is true, the conclusion is authoritative in a derived sense. It is the application of Scripture that must be obeyed.

        The Bible says that I should not speak “filthiness or foolish talking or crude joking” (Eph 5:4). That is authoritative. I might conclude that four-letter obscenities fit one of those three categories–that is not authoritative; it is simply true or false. But if that statement (about four-letter obscenities) is true, then it is on the authority of Scripture that I abstain from such words.

        The Bible says that I should not slander, and it is says it authoritatively to me as the inspired word of God. But the fact of whether or not a joke about the President of the United States is slander is not authoritative. If it is truly called slander, then it is on the authority of the word of God that I do not tell that joke.

        So I don’t look at second-premise argument as having any authority in and of themselves. They are simply true or not true. Men today, it is true, disagree on whether the meaning of music can be parsed or not. But this debate is not about the authority of Scripture.

  4. Dr. Bauder,

    I appreciate your helpful definition of an elitist. I also affirm the legitimacy and necessity of second premise arguments for Christian living. Pastoral ministry would be near impossible without them. You also contend (rightly so) that the consideration of music should be at the level of meaning. My main concern is that it sometimes appears that more authority is attributed to second premise arguments than is warranted when we discuss church music. My intent is not to approach this topic simplistically; I recognize these are difficult waters to navigate. We need sharp thinkers to help us navigate these difficult waters. That’s where you come in and I exit stage left. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Isn’t there a sense in which what we are rejecting is not the second premise arguments (i.e. Scripture says not to lust, our culture, our heart, etc. implicitly believes Penthouse magazine to incite lust, therefore we abstain), but more the use of “third” premise arguments (i.e. Scripture says to avoid sensuality, a brother analyzes some data about dying plants and 2/4 rhythms, this data and other data is presumed to indicate something about sensuality in certain types of music, therefore we are urged to abstain)? The first example (and other examples such as body mutilation, drug use, killing someone with arsenic etc.) is one which is clearly understood in our cultural context as taboo and sinful. The second example is one which the link is not clear and relies on a subjective “third” premise. While the second premise finds its source in Sola Scriptura, the “third” premise finds its source in some sort of extra-biblical source (aesthetics, scientific data, etc.). If we are right to urge some degree of caution in applying second premise arguments to others (i.e. binding others to my applications of biblical principles), then we are most certainly right to caution the use of these “third” premise arguments altogether.

    Note also that this “third” premise does not negate our use of lexicons and tools to understand the culture of the biblical text. For we almost implicitly understand our own culture, but we struggle to understand the culture and language of a text that was written over 2000 years ago so that we can apply it to our own context. We do not question the validity of legitimate attempts to understand the cultural milieu of the biblical text (and possibly even our own), what we reject are attempts to radically reinterpret items either in our own cultural context (i.e. reading sensuality into a 2/4 beat) or even within the biblical context (i.e. NPP, Lightfoot’s understanding of the Colossian heresy, etc.). In conclusion, what we question is not the use of the second premise arguments grounded in Sola Scriptura, what we do question is the third premise that is grounded in questionable interpretations of extra-biblical data.

    • Philip, your stated conclusion really gets at the heart of this discussion in this way. Our conclusions require an evaluation of what we church music we employ and what church music we reject (I recognize the second premise argument is is broader than church music, but to limit the discussion I’ll keep it at the level of church music). If the evaluation for church music was abundantly clear it would be an open and shut case. Clearly, it is not that easy. Everyone comes with significant intellectual baggage (admittedly some baggage is more profitable than others). This is why the church music issue always generates robust discussion. And unfortunately, sometimes we end up talking past each other because our second premises are so near and dear to us. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Ryan, you said it better than I could have. But here’s the rub. The Biblical text has intrinsic authority. A second premise does not. But the conclusion, as you stated above, has derivative authority. This why the second premise is so critical in the discussion about church music. Because by the time we’ve arrived at our conclusion, we’ve assigned our conclusion derivative Biblical authority. I’m not saying this is wrong, I’m simply stating the obvious, namely that every one of our second premises are inescapably freighted with presuppositions which is why 1) secon premises vary, since we do not all share the same presuppositions and 2) our second premises may lead to a faulty conclusions that we say are “Biblical”. So we need to be careful about posturing ourselves as Bibilcal and those who do not share our view as unbiblical in this discussion. I’m not saying anything goes, I’m primarily saying that it would be the height of arrogance for someone to say they have a corner on the truth when it comes to church music. Thanks for the helpful illustrations in your reply.

  7. I agree with you on both points. “Careful” is the operative word. But I hope this does not keep us from applying Scripture in many areas, including the music we consider reverent for corporate worship of our holy God.

    I appreciate the interaction, brother.

  8. Pastor Roman,

    Isn’t it nice to know that what you publish in your blog gets so widely read?


    There is another category that you’ve left out. Ultimately, of course, every second premise is true or false. Our apprehension of that premise, however, may not produce certainty in one direction or the other. In other words, we have to deal with second premises that are more or less probable. That, I think, is where the problem arises. One person thinks a second premise is more probable, while another thinks it is less probable. At that point, the argument must shift from the second premise to its backing.


    What you’re after is not a distinction between “second premise” and “third premise” arguments. What you’re after is a distinction (to use Stephen Toulmin’s categories from THE USES OF ARGUMENT) between “Warrant” and “Backing.” Second premises function as warrants for the application of biblical principles. Ultimately, the strength of those warrants, and therefore the strength of the applications themselves, rests upon the backing for the warrants.

    Take the warrant, “Penthouse magazine incites to lust.” You suggest that the backing for this warrant resides in our culture and in our own heart. But suppose someone asserts that it is not so–he looks at Penthouse (he says) to study the use of light in the photography. Is your backing strong enough to reject his challenge to your warrant?

    In any account, you are not in the territory that you regard as “third premise” argumentation. It’s not. Structurally, it is exactly the same as the argument over music.

    Most thoughtful conservatives would agree that data about dying plants and 2/4 rhythms is pretty shabby backing. In fact, they are likely to be way out in front of you in decrying such flawed argumentation. That does not mean, however, that a good argument is not possible. The discussion needs to focus upon the legitimacy of the warrant in view of the strength of the backing.

    [Everybody should read Toulmin on the layout of arguments.]

    What we cannot do is to treat “Sola Scriptura” as if it is an ethical “Get Out of Jail Free” card. If someone is applying a biblical principle, and you think they have a weak warrant, then the answer is not to cry “Scripture Alone!” The answer is to show the weakness of the warrant. This will be done by evaluating its backing.

    I’ve rambled enough.

    Doug, may God grant you great services this Lord’s Day.

  9. Hi, Doug. I meant to greet you at Central on Monday or Tuesday, but somehow we lost each other in the crowd. I’m really looking forward to hearing you speak out here in April.

    Here’s something that might be of interest:

    In that video, Kauflin states well the argument that aesthetic judgments are extrabiblical and therefore disallowed — and then unwittingly demonstrates the fallacy of this argument. (By the way, I did correspond with Kauflin about this. He was gracious in taking time to respond and in his civility toward me.)

    • Hi Todd, thanks for the clip. I was on the phone during the long break on Pastors’ Day so didn’t get a chance to connect with you. Look forward to our time in April.

      I’m curious about the gist of Kauflin’s response. Did it deal with aesthetic judgments/second premise arguments?

      • Kauflin replied, “The difference is that in one case you’re talking about a moral issue, and in the other it’s a cultural issue. Happy/sad isn’t morality. Evil/good is.That’s not to say that we don’t make cultural associations with music that can affect our perspective on what music ‘means.’ But that doesn’t mean a beat, style, or sound is inherently evil.”

        I think he side-stepped the point. The point is this: the Bible says nothing about the particulars of musical composition, yet we can still know the meaning of music. He proved that with his argument about the minor key.

        Therefore, we can also know the meaning of a “beat, style, or sound” (though not everything is as obvious as the example he astutely chose to prove the veracity of extra-biblical knowledge). If music communicates inordinate happiness or inordinate sadness (using his categories), then it is worldly music.

        I would hasten to agree with Kauflin in part — it is hasty to catalogue a list of musical devices as “bad.” That’s the easy way out (at best). But we can, with exclusively extra-biblical knowledge, discern the meaning of music, hard as it is.

      • @Todd: It’s the weakness of extra-biblical claims of “inordinate sadness” and “inordinate happiness” making music sinful that cause many to push the debate back to Scripture.

        Two comments come to mind in regard to the emotions you have brought up: First, these emotions are not unbiblical in and of themselves. There were kings that offended people by their “inordinate happiness” and prophets that offended people by their “inordinate sadness.” In fact (I know that I’m going out on a limb here), I would challenge you to find a thread of Scripture that condemns any of the primary emotions that music may communicate in and of themselves (i.e. joy, surprise, anger, and sadness). There are two things that make emotions wrong according to Scripture (1) their object (i.e. joy in sin or joy in God) or (2) personal response (i.e. turning sadness into despair). The object of emotions is often set forward by the lyricist and the response is a reaction by the listener. The “beat, style, or sound” does not force the listener to have unbiblical responses. This is just another form of “the devil made me do it” attitude. In other words, the music I hear as I walk through the mall, shop at the grocery store, eat at a restaurant, and pump gas cannot make me sin. It is up to me whether I will respond positively or negatively to the neutral emotions conveyed by the “beat, style, or sound” of the music.

        Second, (even if we were to reject my argument above) the phrase “inordinate happiness/sadness” is a highly subjective judgment. For example, a minor key may make a song sound sad…but is it “inordinately sad”? Now we have removed ourselves far from the realm of Scripture and are now elevating my opinions (preferences?) of music as the arbitrating factor for whether or not it is worldly. My counterpoint is: can someone not live a life worthy of the Lord in all respects without the higher (extra-biblical) knowledge that we claim to have on this subject?

        In conclusion, I understand your argument as follows: (1) extra-biblical knowledge leads us to discern the presence of emotions (i.e. “meaning”) in the “beat, style, or sound” of music, (2) extra-biblical knowledge allows us to discern if these emotions are “inordinate,” (3) extra-biblical knowledge leads us to claim that these “inordinate” emotions are “worldly,” and (4) worldliness is condemned in Scripture. Of your propositions, I would partially agree (depending on definitions) with number 1 and totally agree with number 4. In other words, I would reject the bridge being built on extra-biblical arguments, but I accept the principle of Scripture as valid.

    • Hi Scott,

      Yes, the discussion is good. Kevin Bauder’s contributions are especially welcome for two reasons. First, it gets my small-time, obscure blog on the map, even if but for a moment. 🙂 Second, he really brings order to a discussion by helping us with categories. I’m always tremendously helped by his precise thinking.

      I have little doubt that you have done a really good job articulating some good thoughts in your book. The DBTJ review indicates this, as well those who reviewed your work on Google books. It is irresponsbile to pass judgment on anything without thoughtfully assessing it. My point was not to critique your book as it was to simply point out that there really is a tension when it comes to the claim of Sola Scriptura and church music–those pesky second premise arguments, which your reviewer touched on. Here’s the thing Scott. I have a feeling that you and I would agree more than we disagree on church music. Among conservatives the application of one’s philosophy of church music is less about Wesley vs. Christian grunge, it is usually more about Wesley and/or Getty or Reformation hymns and/or Sovereign Grace. To be perfectly honest, I think the out-of-hand rejection of their music falls short of our call to “prove all things.” Instead if it says Getty/Townsend, it’s out–automatically. See what I’m saying? I know this a general statement but what we cannot deny is that these are “controversial” names in conservative circles (Incidentally, I’ve read through your post on this subject.).

      • Thanks, Doug. I do understand where you’re coming from. You are the least of my worries. 🙂 I know from friends that you are a careful pastor and that you lead your people to worship thoughtfully.

        You’ll also know, having read my paper on the Sovereign Grace/Getty issue, that I’m not one to just throw everything out without careful consideration.

        I appreciate the discussion.

  10. @Dr. Bauder

    Thanks for helping me clarify my terms. I knew that there had to be some better way of stating my concern with the sound and fury of the music arguments that exist in our circles.

    I guess then that if I were to put my statement in your terms:

    What I question is not the use of the second premise arguments warranted primarily in Sola Scriptura, what I do question is the use of second premise arguments that are rely more on questionable extra-biblical material than on Scripture.

    In other words: When the emphasis is on the Scripture primarily and cultural application secondarily, I would have no inherent concern with the line of argument itself. When the emphasis is on cultural application primarily and tie in Scriptural principles secondarily, I would express an inherent doubt as to whether or not the line of reasoning is correct.

    So, is it really a question of Sola Scriptura? Possibly not, but more likely a question of Prima Scriptura.

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