Theology’s Handmaiden

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).

- Colossians 3:16

Having demonstrated the difference between music and noise, we begin our study today with a discussion of jazz. Many might say jazz violates the aesthetic standards of simplicity, complexity, proportionality, and harmony, and yet it remains music. Therefore, some say, since jazz can transgress certain rules of beauty without being deemed noise, the four key components we have introduced are arbitrary and not real criteria for judging aesthetic quality.

But this deduction is not valid. Jazz contains improvisation, but improvisation is not chaos. These musicians obey the numerical relationships between tones that establish music. Their impromptu riffs only work because they follow the protocols of rhythm and harmony. Jazz virtuosos spontaneously increase the complexity of a piece as written while maintaining the rules of their craft.

The complexity of jazz sharply contrasts with much of today’s popular music. Most “pop” songs repeat only a few simple chords again and again. Since these tunes are so easy and popular, they have made their way into the church as “contemporary praise music.”

This is not necessarily troublesome in itself. After all, even complex, classical music was contemporary when it was first written. Yet it is hard to embrace contemporary worship music wholeheartedly because its simplistic choruses often betray simplistic doctrine. Simplicity says music can be beautiful without being complex, but there is a difference between simplicity and being simplistic. We must mature in our faith (Heb. 5:11–6:3), and this is something classical sacred music can help foster. Pondering the lyrical richness and tonal complexity of more “traditional” hymns and songs easily and readily lifts our hearts to consider divine beauty.

The issue is good versus mediocre, not old versus new. Simplistic music has a place with children, but as our knowledge of the Lord deepens, our love for music better reflecting His complexity should as well. Luther said music is the handmaiden of theology, leading us to a fuller appreciation of God. The richest and most harmonious tunes are usually those that best serve this purpose.

Coram Deo

Today’s passage affirms the importance of music in our relationship to God. As we grow in our love for our Creator and in our knowledge of Him, we should not be surprised to find ourselves breaking forth in musical praise of the Lord’s glory. When we do this, we will often find that the hymns that have stood the test of time best reflect the things we want to say about our Savior. Spend some time in worship today, singing a few traditional hymns.

Passages for Further Study

2 Sam. 6
2 Chron. 29
Pss. 81:1–3; 92:1–4; 150
Rev. 5

We Recommend

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: www.ligonier.org | Phone: 1-800-435-4343