By Bob Kauflin
I think I’ve interacted with enough Christian musicians over the past couple decades to make a general observation: Christian musicians rarely read theology books.
Now, I know that’s a broad statement. There are non-musician Christians who don’t like to study theology, too, and some Christians musicians who actually love theology. You’re the ones who took offense at my earlier comment. “What’s he talking about? I’m ALWAYS reading theology books!” If so, you’re to be commended. But you’re the exception.
When I’ve asked musicians what they’re reading, the response is often secular business bestsellers, novels, music magazines, or books focused on a particular interest, like history, biography or sports. Sometimes classics by A.W. Tozer and C.S. Lewis will make the cut. Rarely does anyone mention books like Engaging with God by David Peterson, The Cross of Christ by John Stott, or Knowing God by J.I. Packer. “Only for scholars.” “Too deep.” “Not enough time.”
I’ve had worship leaders tell me they’re not that interested in theology because it only causes divisions. They just want to help people worship Jesus. But how can we help others worship Jesus without a clear, compelling picture of who He is and what He’s done? How can we worship a God we don’t know? And how can we know Him without learning about Him? That’s theology!
Theology is simply the study of God. That’s why every Christian, musician or otherwise, is a theologian. The question is whether we’re a good theologian or a bad one. We’re a good theologian if what we say and think about God lines up with the whole of Scripture. We’re a bad theologian if our view of God is vague, unbiblical, distorted, or simply reflects our own opinions.
Some musicians claim that music speaks to them more clearly about God than words do. That’s why they spend more time working on their music than reading the Bible or books that help them understand the Bible. They insist that words restrict, box in, and limit, while music expands the mind, softens the heart, and opens us up to new ways of powerfully experiencing God.
We can appreciate the impulse to have a “living faith,” but that conclusion is terribly misguided. While music affects us in many ways, it can never communicate by itself the meaning of God’s self-existence, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, or the nature of the Trinity. Nor can music explain what role music is supposed to play in worshipping God. For that, we need to read our Bibles. And to know what the Bible says, we need theology. Good theology.
By God’s grace, I think there are an increasing number of musicians who are seeing their need, and are seeking to change. But theological ignorance among Christian musicians is still rampant. Today I want to share some reasons so many of us don’t.
1. We don’t understand the purpose of theology.
Theology informs our minds to win our hearts, so that we might love God more accurately and passionately. Some of us are suspicious of words like theology, doctrine, and study. We’d rather relate to God through stories, experiences, and feelings. We believe that all we need to get along is Jesus.
I remember a speaker inviting a crowd to shout out their denomination on cue. The result was cacophony. Then he invited us to say the name of the Savior together. When we all said “Jesus” he remarked , “See? Doctrine divides us, Jesus unites us.” Not helpful.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you want to tell me how much you appreciate my wife, Julie. You then go on to describe her as a 6 ft. 2 in. blonde who excels in math. I’d appreciate your enthusiasm, but tell you that you don’t know who she is. (She’s 5 ft. 4 in., brunette, and exceptional in many ways, but math isn’t one of them). Your “theology of Julie” would convince me that you didn’t know her very well. And I’m absolutely sure that the better you knew who she really was, the more you’d appreciate her.
So it is with God. The better we know who He has revealed Himself to be, the more we’ll love Him and seek to be like Him. Although some churches claim that “Our only doctrine is the Bible,” at some point we have to decide what God actually says about Himself and the world He’s created. That’s theology.
Although there are many kinds of theologies, two are particularly relevant for us. Systematic theology is an organized presentation of what the whole Bible teaches on any specific topic. It doesn’t claim to answer every question about God, but gives us helpful posts to hang our spiritual hats on.
Biblical theology, on the other hand, is the study of a topic that takes into account the unfolding revelation of Scripture and where the topic falls in redemptive history. Both systematic and biblical theology are important for understanding what we believe about God, His creation, and ourselves. (For more information on this, check out Bible Doctrine, by Wayne Grudem, ed. By Jeff Purswell).
2. Studying theology is harder than learning a new riff.
Surprise, surprise. Learning to play a guitar or the drums is a lot more fun that trying to understand how God can be triune, how we should think about suffering, and what actually happened when Jesus died on the cross.
Part of our problem is not understanding the goal of theology rightly. The end is not simply knowing more, but knowing God. When Americans were told in the 19th century that there was gold in California, people sacrificed untold amounts of time, energy, and resources to find the treasure. A greater treasure awaits us in God’s Word.
”My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” (Prov. 2:1-5, ESV)
3. Studying God takes time.
This is similar to the point I made yesterday about the study of theology being hard. We live in the age of instant everything. I still remember when there was no internet (much less wireless connections), e-mail didn’t exist, you had to wait a week to get your camera film developed, and microwave ovens were a novelty. My, how things have changed.
We want to know God NOW. We want to have life-changing 15 minute devotional times, are drawn to the “One-Minute Bible,” and get anxious if we haven’t read anything really gripping in the last two paragraphs. We expect God to fit into the time we allot to Him, because after all, He’s GOD.
When I entered Temple University as a piano performance major in the fall of 1972, my goal was to practice enough to be able to play any piece I desired when I finished school. Over the next four years I practiced an average of four hours a day, seven days a week. Now, when people come up to me and say, “I wish I could play the piano like you do,” I often reply, “You can! It just takes a little gifting, and practicing four hours a day for four years.”
We often admire the faith of pastors and Christian leaders, but think there can be a shortcut to obtaining the knowledge of and trust in God they exhibit. There’s no shortcut. Only a joyful, steadfast, time-consuming pursuit of our glorious God and Savior produces that kind of fruit.
4. We think we can know God better through music.
There’s a common assumption that music communicates to us in a way that is superior to words. If you really want to know God, you’ll have to forego words and experience Him through music. In his book, Unceasing Worship, Harold Best shares some wisdom about the difference between what art can do and what words can do.
“Even though it is true that every kind of nonverbal expression possesses uniqueness, it is likewise true that no form of nonverbal expression can do what words can do. A jazz riff can no more articulate a methodology for day trading than a Bach fugue can explain substitutionary atonement. So every form of nonverbal expression, instead of going beyond what words can do, simply goes its own way, just as words go their way in doing what no other form of expression can do. And since truth is the most important thing that we can articulate, and since words are a better vehicle for this than any other existing form of expression, the word remains preeminent among all other forms.” (p. 193)
This affects both the words we sing (as Craig Sterling mentioned in his comment to my previous post), and the things we study.
As Christian musicians we should know more than anyone that the joy music brings is only the faintest whisper of the superior joy we find in Jesus Christ. And we come to know Him most clearly and authoritatively through His Word. No fugue, guitar solo, piano sonata, jazz improv, or harmonic progression will ever speak to us more clearly about who God is and what He’s done.
That’s why every Christian musician should seek to be a good theologian. We should study the Word of God, read books that challenge us, and seek out authors that provide firm boundaries to our affecting, but often vague, thoughts about God.
I’ve wondered at times what would happen if church musicians sought to handle the word of truth as effectively as they handle their instruments. I can’t predict exactly what would happen, but I’m certain that the effect on the worship of God’s people would be very, very good.
By Bob Kauflin, director of worship development for Sovereign Grace Ministries (www.sovereigngraceministries.org), from the Worship Matters blog (www.worshipmatters.com). Copyright 2005 Sovereign Grace Ministries. All rights reserved. Used with permission.