Music and Theology
“I will sing of steadfast love and justice; to you, O Lord, I will make music.”- Psalm 101:1
Not only was Martin Luther an accomplished theologian and beloved pastor, but he also had some gifting for music. He wrote many hymns, many of which are sung to this day not only by those in the Lutheran tradition but by other Protestants as well. Perhaps the best known is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which is based on Psalm 46. Luther well understood the power and influence of music. His understanding is well captured in his statement that “music is the handmaiden of theology.”
Like a handmaiden who assists her master, music serves theology and the teaching of God’s Word. And like a handmaiden, music can be a good servant or a bad servant. When music is a good servant, it provides the right setting for the teaching of God’s truth and for helping the people of God grasp the deep things of the Lord. Quality hymns and songs enrich our hearts and minds, driving home what God has revealed to His people. On the other hand, when music is a bad servant, it gets in the way of good theology. Poorly crafted music and lyrics promote error. As an art form, music always communicates something, and it can communicate either truth or error.
So many of the fights over music that occur in the church have been over whether we should have contemporary hymns and songs or stick to the classic music of the church. That debate can obscure the real issues. After all, the classic hymns of the church were contemporary music when they were first sung, and some of the music written in our day will undoubtedly endure as classic music for the people of God. No, the real debate is between good music and mediocre or poor music. A beloved hymn is not necessarily a good hymn simply because it is old, for there are many old hymns that teach poor theology. And a current song is not necessarily a bad song, for many current songs teach good theology.
At issue is whether a particular hymn or piece of music, in both the arrangement of notes and its lyrics, is able to convey biblical truth. Good worship music is able to convey something of the complexity of our Lord’s character, and it invites us to increase our knowledge. Simplistic songs often do not do justice to the full biblical truth they seek to express, and they often do not invite us to move deeper into God’s Word to learn more and more about Him. Our goal should be to find the music that is best able to convey God’s truth, goodness, and beauty.
The biblical psalms model the kind of complexity that good sacred music has to offer. Psalm 101, for example, is an extended meditation on the love and justice of God as well as His wrath and our responsibility before the Lord. Pick one of the psalms today and meditate on what it says about our great God.
Passages for Further Study
2 Samuel 6
2 Chronicles 29