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A Biblical Theology of Music (part five)

Excerpt from my doctoral dissertation on the Theology of Music, written at Dallas Theological Seminary 2011.


Doctrine of Imago Dei

This leads to the fifth element to build a biblical theology of music: to realize that humans are to be creative as God is creative. This is possible because of the doctrine of the Imago Dei—humans are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). The Imago Dei is concerned with the inner nature of the musician, and the creation mandate is concerned with the command for continuing creation. Dorothy Sayers tries to define the exact meaning of the Imago Dei when she asks:

Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.[1]

God is the supreme Artist, and the human artist reflects him. God as creator has given creative gifts to humanity: God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing, and it is good. Humans, on the other hand, cannot create ex nihilo and therefore rely upon God and the created order for the raw material to create. It is a privilege to develop and expand this creative potential from God and to create with artistic excellence. Schaeffer points out, “Creativity is a part of the distinction between man and non-man. All people are to some degree creative. Creativity is intrinsic in our mannishness.”[2] Pope John Paul II expresses this truth:

Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God,” and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power…That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their “gift,” are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise.[3]

On the other hand, certain independence is needed to create works of art. The Creator gives individuals, whom he creates with a free will, aesthetic freedom and responsibility to create on their own. The artist has the anticipation of something new, fresh, and unique to emerge. Freedom is necessary for creativity. The musician’s free decisions in composing brings into being music that has not existed before. The composer cannot create in the primal sense, since the 12-tone scale originates from God. Yet he composes a work that is sui generis, completely original, because the composer’s particular combination of the twelve tones has never existed before. In this limited sense musicians seem to be independent and to create uniquely, while being dependent on preexistent stuff. Yet the decisions the creative acts require show the need for independence. Humans must rely both on God and on themselves. They are dependent yet independent. Astley, Savage and Horn expand the possibilities of musical creativity:

Music-making itself brings order out of chaos, and utilizes skills of selecting, shaping, adapting and combining raw materials. All creation is grounded in the expression of value, and the creative musical choices made by the composer reveal a great deal about what is “beautiful,” “striking,” “meaningful” and “interesting” in the world of sound.[4]

Calvin M. Johansson divides the doctrine of the Imago Dei into two main parts: the broad Imago Dei and the narrow Imago Dei.[5] The broad aspect of the Imago Dei teaches that the human race, made in the image of God, did not completely lose God’s image in the fall. The image, though tarnished and imperfect, is still there. The narrow aspect of the Imago Dei teaches that the image cannot be fully restored unless Christ redeems it. This is important for Christian musicians, because if God’s image was lost in the Fall, they would not be able to create any music that reflects the goodness, truth, beauty, freedom and hope found in the perfect character of God. But realizing the beauty of the image, Christians welcome the world instead of withdrawing from it so that they can present to it the full meaning of being made in the image of God. New birth makes new creatures commissioned to glorify God in his image while becoming more like the image.[6]

Though the fall has tarnished the image, people can rise to new heights of creativity when they are redeemed because there is an intensification of creative potential through a direct link to Christ, the source of all creativity. Edith Schaeffer argues this point:

It is true that all men are created in the image of God, but Christians are supposed to be conscious of the fact, and being conscious of it should recognize the importance of living artistically, aesthetically, and creatively, as creative creatures of the Creator.[7]

Music should be one of the highest manifestations of the creative gift. To be created in God’s image and then reformed into his image through Christ is to have an evangelistic reason for setting forth a higher and nobler image of God through music. Christian musicians, then, are responsible for music that sets forth the Imago Dei to the world. In this way they care for God’s creation and fulfill the Great Commission.

Biblical Counterpoint

The sixth element to build a biblical theology of music is to understand the concept of biblical counterpoint. Johansson argues that since God as Creator has planted humanity’s creativity, Christian musicians are to promote harmony and order in everything they perform and create.[8] The musician, however, also has a role in revealing and displaying the ugliness and disorder of a fallen world. Johansson agrees with this as he argues for the musical term, “counterpoint.”[9] Though it is a musical term, in musical theological purposes, the term can reflect simultaneous interplay and strife between good and evil, darkness and life, and life and death in this world. This battle is in daily circumstances and consciously or unconsciously, people long for rest without ever finding it. The reality is that people exist in this tension, and Christian musicians have a great opportunity to use their music to demonstrate that heartfelt counterpoint. They should represent both lines in the counterpoint in the whole of God’s creation. With this in mind, it is important for musicians who want to engage in their culture as light and salt for Christ to have a solid understanding of how a biblical theology applies to their musical involvement in culture.

There is a temptation for Christian musicians to swing their pendulum between aestheticism and pragmatism.[10] It is easy for any musician to fall to one of these extremes. One who falls into the aesthetic influence will fail to connect the reality of God’s goodness, truth, beauty, freedom and hope through Christ to a suffering culture through music. On the other hand, musicians who fall in to the pragmatic influence will be so concerned about getting the reality of God’s goodness, truth, beauty, freedom and hope through Christ to a suffering culture that they will have no concern for the quality and aesthetic standard of the music. The wisdom of a biblical and theological understanding of music is, however, to find a balance between them. This is where the concept of biblical counterpoint has an important role. It points out a balance of an aesthetic and pragmatic way of life. Both are important, and it takes wisdom and skill to bring it all together. Christian musicians, being independent yet dependent, relying on self yet on God, and creating in freedom yet being bound, living in a fallen world yet redeemed, are caught in the tension between humility and exaltedness. The balance achieved in the creative application of these opposites will give a proper perspective to life and music. [11]

Aesthetic Beauty

This leads to the seventh and last element to build a biblical theology of music: to understand the mystery of aesthetic beauty. Musicians who are in an intimate relationship with Christ will develop and promote aesthetic beauty. There is a direct parallel between aesthetic beauty and the way a Christian lives.

Albert Mohler gives beauty meaning in his article, A Christian Vision of Beauty. He argues that a Christian understanding of beauty runs directly into the wisdom of the age by suggesting that the beautiful is simultaneously that which is good, true and real. He writes how beauty ultimately shows the truth and reality of the cross of Christ:

The Christian understanding of beauty explains why the cross is beautiful and not tragic. Here redemption comes full circle, and our conversation about beauty is directed towards the One who is beautiful and His beautiful cross… Beauty is for us an evangelistic mandate, a missiological purpose. We are the people who know what beauty is—not that we have seen it yet with our eyes, but we have seen it in a foretaste, and we have been promised it with an assured promise. In this life, we live amidst the pretty, the corrupt, and the artificial. We live among those who do not believe beauty exists, and among those who think beauty can be manufactured. In such a context, we are the ones who have to say we know beauty, and it is none other than Jesus Christ the Lord.[12]

“Beauty” is not a word the Old Testament uses. “Glory” is used instead. Throughout the Bible, the beauty of God is most commonly described as his glory. C.S. Lewis’ sermon, The Weight of Glory, is a wonderful explanation of the beauty of God’s glory and man’s relationship to it. He argues that as human beings are made for heaven, the desire for it is already in them. Humans are not yet there, and everything called beautiful on earth is a false or imperfect object that will not truly satisfy. People are not to look for earthly beauty to satisfy their longings. It will not satisfy. Rather, they are to rejoice in the beauty that their Creator loves them and that they can share in his glory. That is true biblical beauty. Lewis writes:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited…I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us…The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work of a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain…Glory as Christianity teaches me to hope for it, turns out to satisfy my original desire and indeed to reveal an element in that desire which I had not noticed…We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it…Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects.[13]

All the beautiful things on earth are reflections of God’s eternal beauty. Beauty in life is the wonderful truth that the Creator loves people, who marvel at the ugly, yet beautifully breathtaking, work on the cross. Jonathan Edwards describes the beauty of Christ:

Every new discovery [of Christ] makes this beauty appear more ravishing, and the mind sees no end; there is room enough for the mind to go deeper and deeper, and never come to the bottom. The soul is exceedingly ravished when it first looks on this beauty, and it is never weary of it.[14]

When there are not enough words to describe beauty, music comes to the aid to bring out something in the soul too wonderful and deep for words. A musical composition has aesthetic beauty and harmony. This is what makes it possible for the Christian musician to sing songs about the “beauty” of the cross. How is it possible to call something so ugly and gruesome beautiful? This is only because the incarnation is a demonstration of God's beautiful love, and the one who was born in Bethlehem’s manger was a beautiful babe who later would walk faithfully out to the cross to fulfill God’s plan of redemption for all who believe in his Son (Isa 53:3; 2 Cor 4:6). Then one day he will take them home to the place where the longing of their hearts have been from the day they were born—that place is God’s glory (Rev 21-22). This is the true meaning of aesthetic beauty.

These elements are the foundation on which to build a biblical theology of music. The musician’s responsibility is to promote this worldview in their culture.

This biblical theology and worldview can be summarized in this way: Under the Lordship of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit and created beautifully by God the Father, musicians who are in a communal relationship with God have been gifted with creative craftsmanship and are called to reflect the image, character and aesthetic beauty of God through their music to draw people to Christ, to bring them delight, and to glorify God as they live in the counterpoint of life.


[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (Cleveland, OR: Word Publishing, 1956), 142.

[2] Schaeffer, Art in the Bible, 51-52.

[3] Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists, 2.

[4] Astley, Savage and Hone, Creative Chords: Studies in Music, Theology and Christian Formation (Herefordshire, UK: Gracewing, 2000), 239.

[5] Calvin M. Johansson, Music and Ministry: A Biblical Counterpoint (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publications, 1998).

[6] Ibid., 36-38.

[7] Edith Schaeffer, Hidden Art (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1972), 32, 28, quoted in Johansson, Music & Ministry, 35.

[8] Johansson, Music and Ministry, 36.

[9] The word “counterpoint” comes from the Latin punctus contra punctum, meaning point counter point, or musically, note against note, melody against melody. It is used to describe music in which independent melodic lines (themes) are combined so as to affirm their dependence on one another (Johansson, Music and Ministry, 146). It is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in countour and rhythm, and interdependent in harmony. It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyhpony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is “counterpoint.”

[10] The musician who is an aestheticist will be concerned primarily with the artistic worth of music. It is natural for a musician to be occupied with the beauty and soul of music because without it, music would not be worth listening to. However, a preoccupation with beauty and artistic expression for its own sake can lead to snobbery, pride and an ungenerous desire for praise. The problem is not the beauty or artistic expression of a particular piece of music but the blindness that fails to see in music anything of transcendental value. An all-consuming passion for great art, first and foremost, puts God and art on the same plane, and thus music becomes an idol.

For the musician who is pragmatic, function is everything. The overriding concern is achieving a predetermined result. The result (end) justifies the use of music (means) as long as the anticipated result is worthy. A pragmatist does not judge music itself to be either good or bad. Its worth lies in its ability to bring the results assigned to it. Its worth is thought of in terms of the results it brings.

[11] Johansson, Music and Ministry, chapter 9, 138-168.

[12] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., A Christian Vision of Beauty (edited transcript address, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington D. C., November 14, 2005), (accessed on June 23, 2010).

[13] Clive S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (lecture, Church of St.Mary, Virgin, Oxford, June 8, 1942): published in Theology, November 1941, and by the S.P.C.K, 1942.

[14] Henry Rogers, The Works of Jonathan Edwards: With an Essay on his Genius and Writings, vol. 2 (London, UK: William Ball, Paternoster-Row, 1839).

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