We’ve seen in this series that contemporary worship music has become dominated by songs modeled on romantic, experiential, subjective musical expressions. We’ve further seen that , though such songs are a legitimate stream of Biblical worship expression, they have been historical and Biblical worship models (such as the Psalms or the Book of Revelation) held in balance with objective, doctrinal song content.
We then began to investigate how and why such an imbalance has occurred in arriving at such an experiential overemphasis. We began by seeing that the deep alienation between God and mankind engendered by the Fall leads men to see the world dualistically, as split between the “pure” spiritual realm and the flawed and imperfect physical world, a view which is a result of the simultaneous and inescapable knowledge that men have rebelled against their Holy Creator while they attempt to suppress that inescapable knowledge (Romans 1: 18-32).
This split was institutionalized in Platonic thought, which hugely influenced monastic thought, which shaped to a certain extent the way the Medievals viewed Reality, resulting in a Late Medieval and Renaissance perspective which located emotion and instinct in a “religious” zone, while reason and normative life were seen as belonging to the “secular” sphere.
Christian reactions to the rationalism of the Enlightenment fused with Victorian and pietist viewpoints to produce a feminized, experientially-fixated Evangelicalism whose worship music institutionalized these attitudes for that branch of the Church. This was all the easier because there is a legitimate strand of subjective and emotional aspects included in Biblical worship paradigms (for instance, in Psalms 51, 56, 3, 6, etc.).
We also saw, as well, that the Tri-Unity of God speaks to all aspects of the life of the Image-Bearers of God, humanity, including their worship of the Lord, which is to enact both objective and subjective thanksgiving, and to express both change and continuity as the Church gathers before her Maker and Redeemer.
There are further implications for worship in the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus, Who, as the Scriptures and the Creeds teach, was both Fully God and Fully Man simultaneously. As we’ve seen before, this Fact has massive implications for the expressions of continuity and change in our worship. His Simultaneously Divine and Human Person, as we’ve seen, means both that our worship is to be both physical and spiritual (as He Himself is both Spiritual in His Divinity as well as His Created Human Spirit, and Physical in His Body) and that our worship should enact both continuity (as Jesus is Eternally Unchanging in His Divinity) and change (as He is also Human, having undergone human mutability until His Resurrection), so that, in both these implications, our worship correctly images the Natures and Persons of Christ.
This last implication, that continuity and change should shape our worship, we’ve also seen as a corollary implication of the Holy Trinity (Continuity in the Undifferentiated Unity of the Essence of God and Change in the Diverse and Variegated Perspectives of the Three Persons of God). These Aspects of the Trinity and the Incarnation are, of course, to be held in balance in our worship, just as they are in the Reality of the Trinitarian Godhead and the Incarnate Lord Jesus.
And therein lies the difficulty for us contemporary worshippers, who have been so influenced and conditioned by our modern culture, that we overvalue the new (change) and de-value the old (continuity), resulting in an imbalanced worship which distorts its reflection of the Triune God and the Incarnate Christ we are to worship, and consequently misshape the worshippers (which is to say, ourselves).
The great scholar and apologist C. S. Lewis, in his introduction to Benedicta Ward’s translation of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word of God (which, for anyone interested in a greater Biblical understanding of Christ’s Incarnation, is the place to begin), made the observation that, if we ignore the perspectives of the believers who came before us (and Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation in the 300’s A.D., almost 1700 years ago), we will inevitably be trapped in the perspective of our time, with all its blind-spots and incorrect prejudices, by not having been exposed to the very different ideas and outlook of believers facing historical situations very different from our own, as we see how our spiritual forebears applied the Scripture to their times, and learn expanded concepts of how to do so in the present.
This idea applies not only to theological writings, but to poetry, sculpture, paintings, architecture, and, to the point of this series, music and songs. The current Evangelical worship model, dominated as it currently is by experiential, subjective-oriented songs, ignores to its spiritual peril the worship songs of prior centuries, with their much more massively balanced combination of objective and doctrinal content with experiential and personal themes, as a corrective to our present imbalance.
God is the Lord not only of the present and the future, but also of the past, which, as a record in its teaching, artistic expressions (including its worship music), and practices, is a corrective template for today’s Church, to be overlaid upon our contemporary approaches as a Trinitarian and Incarnational balancing reorientation.
To despise the past is to despise the record of how the Holy Spirit interacted with His People before us, a history which belongs to all of us in the present as a heritage, a tradition we will continue into the future, as a part of the history of God’s People, the Church of Jesus Christ. We must not despise the lessons to be learned from those who have come before us, valuating their actions by the Eternal Standard of Scripture (which, to our great surprise, we will find in many ways more faithful to that Standard than those of our own time), and adopting those actions to our own time.
In the next column, we will continue to consider the implications of Jesus’ Incarnation for our worship.