Music in the Bible and the Contemporary Music Styles Debate (Part 5)

Gregg Strawbridge continues his series about contemporary music styles in the church.

Toward a Truly Christian Aesthetics of Music

The Biblical Foundations

As has been demonstrated, music in the Bible is both emotive and fluidly connected to language. Yet Scripture strongly indicates the role of music in life and ministry, even apart from the function of the propositional word. The beauty of skillful music itself can remind us of the beauty of the Lord. Beauty without utility was ordained by God in worship (Exo 28ff.). In fact, the first person recorded as being filled with the Holy Spirit is not filled to give a verbal message in prophecy or teaching, but to create works of art (Bazelel, Exo 35:30ff.). The Psalmist reminds us, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth” (50:2).

The beauty we perceive in this fallen world is merely a dim reflection of the “perfection of beauty, God.” The Psalter’s term, “Selah,” seems to even indicate times for musical, non-lyrical, expression. Thus, music as a non-verbal art can minister (1Sa 16:15-23) and can reflect the beauty of God (Psa 27:4).

The Aesthetic Problem

Throughout much of the history of music in the church, music has been harnessed to a mere expression of the spoken word. The watershed in church music history was when plainchant moved from being Syllabic (on note per syllable) to Melismatic (multiple notes per syllable).1 As soon as music is freed from the constraint of directly corresponding to the spoken word (a non-intrinsic property to music), the floodgates are open.

Music, like the drive of life in the film, “Jurassic Park,” will find a way to transgress such boundaries. Most of church history (excluding Biblical-times music) illustrates the attempt to beat music into conformity to the propositional word (lyrics). Certainly music is a powerful transport for the propositional word and such usage is clearly sanctioned in Scripture (Col 3:16, Eph 5:19). The power of music to carry words into our memories is undisputed. But there is no Biblical reason to confine music to that role.

Popular criticisms of CM and even traditional church music often focus on the semantic correspondence of music to the meaning of the text. E.g, a hymn is bad when the sense of the lyric is not (somehow) conveyed in the music. Conversely, Christians rejoice in the artful delivery of truth in music in which words and their meaning wedded musically (e.g., insert you favorite hymn here _____________). The difficulty is not with music’s conformity to the propositional word - but with confining music exclusively to such a role. Evangelicals tend to relegate music to this closet.

Jeremy Begbie insists we need a “complementation” model, rather than a “conformance” model. Music, as complimentary, is freed from being merely the beast of burden for “the words.” Music can, as Begbie says (in technical Cambridge language, no less), “fill in the gaps” and interact with words. Does this purpose of music have any Biblical support? Actually, I think that may very well be intended by the musical term, “Selah.” The term is found 74 times in the Old Testament (71 in the Psalms and 3 in Habakkuk). Among other possibilities, it may mean “the lifting up of instrumental music in an interlude or postlude.”2 Observing its usage seems to affirm this point.

  • The Lord shall count when He registers the peoples, “This one was born there.” Selah. Then those who sing as well as those who play the flutes shall say, “All my springs of joy are in you.” (Psa 87:6-7, see also Psa 3:2, 4, 8)

Music’s interaction with the spoken word need not merely be Syllabic or Neumatic (more than one note per word, but not florid movement). Music need not compete for the place of words. Nothing about music and words are mutually exclusive. Music, freed from its confinement to direct word-support, emerges in a myriad of relations to words - representative, illustrative, parallel, analogical, contrasting, dialogical, and who knows what else.

The Theological Solution

Upon theological reflection, Christian musicians must have a paradigm of equality for both unity and diversity. And it is the unique Christian view of God as Trinity which provides a philosophical basis for the equal ultimacy of unity and diversity. It might even be argued that non-Trinitarian world and life views will be unable to even account for the “one and the many” in thought, art, and experience.3 The application of this truth to aesthetics is transforming, to say the least. Thinking Christianly about music and its aesthetic dimensions will provide the foundation of a non-competitive complementation model.

If music abstractly expresses the aesthetic realities which are grounded in the beauty of the Triune Lord, music is thus inherently valuable within a Christian world and life view. In my opinion, evangelicals are in great need of an aesthetic overhaul. It ought not be the case that those who have the truth of the gospel, lack a worldview inclusive of beauty and goodness - or worse, only accommodate art as a tool of shallow propaganda.

The observant student will notice a larger role for music in Scripture than mere conformance. The reflective theologian will envision a grander and deeper basis for music’s value. And the imaginative musician will certainly demand a greater part for their cherished art. Music, under a sovereign, supremely incomprehensible Lord, Triune and wondrous, is to be an aural prism of truth, beauty, and goodness.

Concluding Suggestions for Contemporary Musicians

What follows practically for CM? How would we recreate a 21st Century Johann Sebastian Bach musically? Remember that Bach had several advantages:

  1. he lived at a time when Protestant worldview Christianity saturated his culture;
  2. all his family before him were diligent musicians (“Bach” was nearly synonymous with music);
  3. the music that surrounded him, from which he gained his beginning and even advanced skills, required high standards of dexterity, artistry, and robust in harmonic contrapuntal development (many melody lines woven for the harmony);
  4. he was in a church which breathed Protestant orthodoxy (both in Lutheran areas and the Calvinist court of Cothen);
  5. and he was personally committed to glorifying God with his musical gifts as his entire life ambition.

Since this inevitably arises, the following are a few suggestions for young and aspiring musicians who wish to be both contemporary and Christian -

  1. CM musicians as Christians should make themselves accountable to Biblically sound, spiritually vibrant, local churches in which the elders of the church can shepherd and oversee the individual spiritual growth of the musicians, ministry activities, the doctrinal content of the songs, and the effectiveness of music ministry.
  2. CM musicians as ministers (servants) should develop a Biblical philosophy of ministry under the oversight of the leadership of the local church. This kind of study could yield a purpose statement for a particular CM artist/ministry, if they are to use their talent for such purposes, which would be both theologically challenging and practical in clarifying the direction of the CM musicians.
  3. CM musicians as musicians should develop a Biblical theology of music, that is, the comprehensive way all the Scripture’s teaching relates to music. As a result, the music, message, and purpose of the CM musician(s) could be brought into conformity to the Biblical teaching; thus, clarifying what is absolute from that which is changeable. As a Biblical study, one should work through the musical implications of the Psalms and historical church music.
  4. CM musicians as visible/public representatives of the Christian community should develop a comprehensive and articulated Christian worldview, relating music and its purposes to other areas of life. A fully Christian view of music will be at least as comprehensive as our Elder Brethren in the Old Testament. Then, music’s role was much larger than a vehicle for the propagation of religious sentiments.
  5. CM musicians as servants of God should seek to serve in excellence, always being diligent to perform as well as possible to the glory of God. The growth of a musician in excellence is greatly facilitated by an appreciation and study of the great musicians/music of the past. Christian musicians of the highest caliber should be fluent in the great musical achievements of Western art music. Irrelevance is most often the result of historical ignorance.


Many criticisms of CM, especially in its “pop music” manifestations, may valid or even purifying. Ferreting the merits of such criticisms have not been the scope of this paper. The musical styles of the modern world are expressions of the modern world. Some kinds of expressions are rough and unsuitable for certain occasions. The Bible, a comprehensive display of human life, reminds us, “There is an appointed time for everything….[even] a time to dance…..He has made everything appropriate in its time” (Ecc 3:1, 4, 11).

Christian musicians must be called to a more diligent pursuit of (1) a thorough exegetical and Biblical theology of music, (2) an adequate consideration of the cultural ramifications of music or ethnomusicology, and (3) a well developed view of the larger issues of the relationship between Christ and culture.


1 For the substance of this discussion and the categories of “conformance” and “complementation,” I am indebted to the Rev’d Dr. Jeremy Begbie of Cambridge University’s “Theology Through the Arts” project and his presentation, “Thinking Theologically About the Arts” at the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts (January 15, 2000), Grand Rapids, MI.

2 Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, p. 324.

3 This thought has been notably articulated in the works of the late Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. For an example of the development of this thesis see, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy, R. J. Rushdoony (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn, 1978).

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