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The Enlightenment's impact on church worship music

The Enlightenment's impact on church worship music

Unsplash/Zac Durant

One important philosophical shift that occurred as a result of the Enlightenment and had significant impact on broader culture was the emergence of the naturalistic category of “emotion.” When theologians and philosophers prior to the Age of Reason spoke about human sensibilities, they used nuanced categories of “affections of the soul,” such as love, joy, and peace, and “appetites (or passions) of the body,” like hunger, sexual desire, and anger. This conception of human faculties appears all the way back in Greek philosophers, who used the metaphors of the spankna (chest) to designate the noble affections and the koilia (belly) for the base appetites. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul employed such categories as well, urging Christians to put on the “affections” (splankna) of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col 3:12) and describing enemies of Christ as those whose “god is their belly (koilia)” (Phil 3:19).

This way of understanding human sensibility dominated Christian thought and philosophy from the Patristic period through the Reformation. The affections were the core of spirituality and were to be nurtured, developed, and encouraged; the appetites, while not evil (in contrast to Gnosticism), must be kept under control lest they overpower the intellect. Theologians believed that the Bible taught a holistic dualism where material and immaterial combined to composed man; thus, while the body and spirit are both good and constantly interact and influence one another, and physical expression is part of the way God created his people, biblical worship should aim at cultivating both the intellect and affections as well as calming the passions.

With music in worship, for example, second-century theologian Clement of Alexandria argued, “We must abominate extravagant music, which enervates men’s souls, and leads to changefulness — now mournful, and then licentious and voluptuous, and then frenzied and frantic.” Rather, the church’s hymnody should employ “temperate harmonies.” Likewise, Augustine later insisted that while the affections were at the core of Christian religion, the passions must be controlled by reason, Thomas Aquinas likewise maintained a distinction between the soul’s affections and the body’s passions, and sixteenth-century Reformers such as Calvin agreed, considering worship to consist centrally of pious affections, while yielding entirely to “fleshly desires” was sin.

In contrast to this premodern way of thinking, the purely naturalistic environment of the Enlightenment created a new psychological category philosophers called “emotion”—non-cognitive, purely physical, involuntary feelings.

This new psychological philosophy of emotion, combined with increasing secularism, affected the culture broadly and the church specifically, including their view of art and music. Premodern thought, understanding music to be directly connected to the heart, and understanding a distinction between the affections and passions, consequently understood a distinction between kinds of music. Some music inherently targets the spirit—the mind, the affections, and the will, while other music is designed simply to artificially create a physical experience of the senses. Augustine and the Reformers used the biblical terms “spiritual” and “carnal” to describe this distinction, while non-Christians have used the terms “classical” and “romantic.”

After the Enlightenment had taken hold, Friedrich Nietzsche used the labels “Apollonian” and “Dionysian.” Both Dionysus and Apollo were mythological Greek gods associated with music. Apollo was the god of reason and logic and was considered the god of music since the Greeks thought of good music as a great expression of order and pattern (a la Pythagorus and Plato). Dionysus, on the other hand, was the god of wine and revelry and was worshiped with loud, raucous music accompanied by pipes and drums. Nietzsche used these names, then, to describe the distinction that had been made in the past between kinds of music.

The difference between Apollonian and Dionysian music is basically what it targets in man. Apollonian music targets the spirit of man — the mind, the affections, and the will. Once the spirit is moved by such music, it may often result in some kind of physical sensation, but that is not the target; it is a result. Dionysian music targets the passions of man — the physical feelings themselves for their own sake. It artificially stimulates such feelings.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, Dionysian music rose to dominance — the goal of music in the broader culture became to excite human passions rather than calm them, and this gradually impact music in worship as well. This is not to say that theologians prior to the Enlightenment saw no connection between worship, music, and the heart; indeed they certainly did. However, losing the older distinctions between “affections” and “appetites,” lumping both together in a nebulous category of “emotion” or “feeling,” led to a reality in which, as Quentin Faulkner notes, “music’s historic anchors to the church and its worship — carrying praise, prayer, the story, and proclaiming the Word— were obscured or removed.”

Scott Aniol, PhD, is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He founded Religious Affections Ministries and has written several books, the most recent being By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture. He can be found on Twitter @ScottAniol, and you can listen to his podcast here.

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