The Handmaiden of Theology

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hyms and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

- Colossians 3:16

Continuing our study of music and the criteria thinkers use to judge the beauty of a particular composition, we start our discussion today with a look at jazz music. Many would likely say that jazz, with its improvisational style, can be beautiful music even though it violates the standards of proportionality, harmony, simplicity, and complexity. Assuming that this evaluation is right, we would have to say that these criteria are arbitrary, since we have an example of beautiful music that does not meet these aesthetic standards.

It is quite a leap, however, to say that jazz fails to meet the four aesthetic criteria simply because it contains improvisation. There is a significant difference between improvisation and chaos. In fact, improvisations work and sound pleasing to our ears only when they are constructed within the boundaries of proper rhythm, harmony, and so on. Good jazz musicians do not violate the standards of proportionality, harmony, simplicity, or complexity; rather, they obey the “laws of music” as they play riffs that enhance but do not violate the music as it is written.

Without a doubt, jazz is far more complex than most of today’s popular music, which tends to repeat a few chords and show little tonal progression. Many churches have adopted such popular tunes into worship as “contemporary praise music.”

Since all church music was contemporary when it was first written, the use of contemporary tunes is not in itself wrong. Nevertheless, we must be careful about how we adopt popular music in the church. Although things have been improving in some circles, a lot of the contemporary music from the past few decades has reflected simplistic doctrine. Of course, church music should evidence some simplicity in its basic composition to facilitate corporate singing and understanding, but it should never be simplistic. As we are called to maturity in Christ (Heb. 5:11–6:3), we should long for the multifaceted beauty of biblical doctrine. When we jettison more “traditional” hymns altogether, we lose the rich theological reflection that time-tested hymnody conveys so well.

Ultimately, our goal should be to have good music in the church, not necessarily music that is “old” or “new.” Luther said music is theology’s handmaiden, leading us to glorify our Lord more fully. Let us use the music that best suits this purpose.

Coram Deo

Not every traditional hymn is good simply because it is old, and not every contemporary song is unfit for worship simply because it is new. There are bad traditional songs, and there are edifying contemporary songs. Our goal in worship should be to sing those songs that cause us to ponder the greatness of God, glorify Him for His salvation, and help us understand His Word. Let the songs we use for public worship and private devotion do all these things.

Passages for Further Study

2 Samuel 6
2 Chronicles 29
Pss 81:1–3; 92:1–4; 150
Revelation 5

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