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.