Cultural Conservatism, Styles and Accidental Meaning

A river in China features a warning sign for visitors. Thoughtfully, the authorities included this helpful English translation: “Take the child. Fall into water carefully.”

It is possible to intend one meaning and yet convey a very different one! In other words, a medium (vehicle of meaning) may “contain” meaning we do not realize is there. And use of that medium may also send a message we do not realize is being sent.

This phenomenon has important implications for the debate over cultural conservatism (“styles” or “forms” of music, dress, speech, etc.) and the sub-debate over the fitness of styles of music for worship. Many involved in the debate seem to reason that since they do not intend any meaning by the style they are using, and they are not aware of any meaning, therefore no meaning exists and none is being conveyed. Are they right?

The case of Corinth

Before we turn our attention to the implications of accidental cultural meaning, we should pause and consider another question: does the Bible teach that styles have meaning—intended or otherwise? It does, and 1 Corinthians 11 contains an example. In this passage, not only does a medium convey meaning, but the meaning conveyed is not what some of those involved intended.

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"The problem with much Christian worship in the contemporary world... it is not entertaining enough"

“Worship characterized by upbeat rock music, stand-up comedy, beautiful people taking center stage, and a certain amount of Hallmark Channel sentimentality neglects one classic form of entertainment, the one that tells us, to quote the Book of Common Prayer, that ‘in the midst of life we are in death.’” Carl Trueman: Tragi

2019 reads

On Having No Creed but the Bible

I just finished reading a marvelous little tome by Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, and cannot help but exclaim its merits. It is, in a word, an apologetic for the discipline of systematic theology, but more than this, an apologetic for publicly chronicled and shared systematic theology, subscription to which serves as the standard of ecclesiastical fellowship.

Carl Trueman is, of course, a Presbyterian, and he and I do not subscribe to the selfsame doctrinal standards. This does not detract, however, from his argument, because the creedal imperative for which he argues is not one of specific content, but one of principle. Trueman naturally favors his own creedal/confessional standards, but argues that even a flawed confession can be superior to none at all. To that end Trueman magnanimously appends to his work a bibliography of confessions and polity manuals from several ecclesiastical traditions.

That creeds are sometimes treated as independent, a priori sources of authority is an unfortunate reality. But this reality does not detract from their value as a posteriori summaries of biblical teaching. Indeed, Trueman argues, the development of such summaries is a matter both of (1) biblical propriety and (2) ecclesiastical necessity.

After spending a chapter detailing and dismantling the cultural case against creeds, Trueman establishes in his second chapter the philosophical and biblical foundation for creeds. It is here that Trueman makes his most preposterous claim, viz., that creeds and confessions are biblical, so it is well worth slowing down to summarize (and applaud) his argument:

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