Trinity Tuesdays – The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity

The Shield of the Trinity From Wikimedia Commons

The foundational doctrine of the Bible is that there is one true and living God. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This prayer, called the Shema (from the Hebrew word for “hear”), was the central confession of Israel.

But just as surely as the Bible teaches there is one God, it also teaches that there is a three-ness to God – that God is the Father, Son, and Spirit. Astonishingly, one of the primary proof texts for this claim is Israel’s ancient creed in Deuteronomy 6:4.   In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, the apostle Paul says:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

According to Paul, the “LORD our God” refers to the Father (“one God”) and also to Jesus Christ” (“one LORD”). This elaboration of the Shema is profound. It says that the one LORD who is God that Israel has always worshiped is the Father and the Son.

And just a few verses earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul asks, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). Temples were dwelling places of god in the ancient world. By describing the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, Paul is clearly identifying the Holy Spirit as God. Putting the two passages together, Paul is saying that the Lord God is the Father, Son, and Spirit.

What is so striking about this is that the context of these passages is pagan worship – temple prostitution in chapter six, and idolatry in chapter eight. Yet within a context in which Paul is determined to reject the idolatrous practices of ancient polytheism and assert the primacy of the one true God, he at the same time identifies that God as Father, Son, and Spirit. For the apostle Paul, jealousy for the oneness of God and adoration of the Father, Son, and Spirit as God were not mutually exclusive, but necessarily inclusive.

So what word can we use to describe this one God who exists as Father, Son, and Spirit? How can we encapsulate this threefold nature of the Lord God? If only we have a word that meant something like “three-ness”! Well, we do – it is the word Trinity (from the Latin trinitas, “state of being threefold”).

I have sometimes heard well-meaning Christians express skepticism about using the term Trinity. After all, the word is not found in the Bible, and we should “speak as the Bible speaks.” I’ve even seen editions of  the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy that remove the phrase “God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.”

But these same earnest believers frequently use terms and phrases that are not explicitly found in Scripture (like “speak as the Bible speaks”) because they believe such terminology expresses biblical teaching. So the real issue is, does the biblical teaching about God reveal a three-ness about Him? And the answer to that question is clearly affirmative. And since that is the case, Trinity is as good a word as any to convey a richly biblical idea.

When I was younger, I used to think of the doctrine of the Trinity as a riddle to be solved. “Okay Shane, here’s a doctrine – there is one God in three persons. Now, go find a prooftext to demonstrate it!” But that is not at all how the subject should be approached. Instead, the doctrine of the Trinity is itself the solution to a biblical riddle. How can God work “through” God, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:6? How can God be sent “from God”, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19? The only way to make sense of these passages (and many others) is that within the life of the one God there is a three-ness, Father, Son, and Spirit.

Over the next few weeks I want to explore this teaching with you. Here are some of the questions I want to examine:

  • Is the doctrine of the Trinity illogical?
  • How can there be a three-ness to God without compromising His one-ness?
  • Are there any good analogies of the Trinity?
  • What is the relationship of the Son and the Spirit to the Father?
  • Was the Trinity “broken” when Jesus died on the cross?

I hope you will drop back by over the next few Tuesdays as we look at these issues!





Leviticus in the Big Picture

Good morning from Southeast Texas! I am preaching this week in Mauriceville, Texas, which is why I haven’t been posting very much. But I have discovered a delicious Cajun delicacy called boudan! I recently had a pleasant Facebook discussion with a friend who does not come from the same perspective as I do regarding religion in general, and certain moral questions in particular. In the course of that thread, he raised the various unusual laws of Leviticus, joking that he hopes Christians will not decide to take them seriously!

Leviticus does indeed sound strange to our ears. Prohibitions against shellfish? Mixing fabrics? Sowing different sees together? In our culture these prohibitions seem bizarre at best. However,  Jesus’ classic teaching, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a quotation from this book (Leviticus 19:18). So it isn’t completely weird!

The thing to bear in mind is that the Bible is a very big story, with a huge narrative arc. So you always have to ask yourself, “Where are we in the story?” In some parts of the story, God is calling out the nation of Israel to be distinct from other nations. This is why there are certain laws that emphasize Israel’s distinct identity (through things like circumcision, dietary laws, holy days). That’s even why there are obscure laws about keeping things separate (like different kinds of seed, or clothing material). They served as visual reminders of Israel’s distinct identity. But in the larger story arc, it was not God’s intent for Israel to remain separate forever. Through Israel, God brought the Messiah into the world, and for the whole world. So then at THAT point in the story line, those laws that kept Israel distinct were no longer needed (you can read a nice summary of this big picture in Galatians 3:16-4:7).

But there are some principles that permeate all phases of the story arc. And from a traditional Christian point of view, this includes male-female complementarity in marriage. Jesus rooted this understanding in the fabric of the created order itself (Matthew 19:3-9). This is why Christians are concerned about male-female complementarity in marriage, but happily enjoy shrimp, which I intend to do in robust fashion here in southeast Texas!


St. Paddy’s Day Friday Favorites!

So much good stuff this week! But before I begin my list of favorite links, here is a special commercial message. Some time ago I told you about a fantastic company that is producing amazing, high quality videos of the land of the Bible. The folks at Appian Way are raising funds to complete this project. Check them out and consider helping them with this effort.

Now, to this week’s links!

How to Jump from a Speeding Car. You never know when this might be handy!

A Perspective on Worship vs Performance. Great thoughts that track along with a piece I recently wrote.

The GOP Health Care Plan. These numbers don’t look good, especially to those of us on the ACA plan.

Bobby Knight’s Sad Legacy. Hate can destroy a person.

My Favorite Babylon Bee of the Week!

Need Help Managing Passwords? Check this link out.

Follow-Up to the Debacle at Middlebury College. I am heartened to see more and more academics from a liberal perspective stand up to the intolerant social justice warrior crowd.

Heartwarming March Madness Story. Read this great piece about the Michigan Wolverine’s dramatic run to the Big Ten Tourney title.

Weekly Communion. This Baptist writer’s take on weekly communion is worthy of consideration (it also happens to be what I think the Bible teaches).

St. Paddy’s Day Music Special! Enjoy the Acoustix quartet’s version of “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.” This is a clip from their gold-medal winning performance in the 1990 international competition.


The Intolerant Future of Post-Christian America

A good Facebook friend pointed me to an article by Peter Beinart in The Atlantic that I think is vital reading for Christians. Actually, for everyone. The article is called “Breaking Faith,” and the subtitle spells out its thesis: The culture war over religious morality has faded; in its place is something much worse.

The basic premise of the article is that Christianity is on the decline in the US. Sure, the vast majority of Americans identify as Christians, but those numbers are declining. More significantly, the level of regular church attendance is dropping across all demographics, even among self-professed “evangelicals.” I’ve heard the old excuse that “going to church doesn’t make you a Christian.” That’s like me saying, “I’m a member of the YMCA, but I don’t have to go regularly to stay fit.” You can see the results!

According to Beinart, the impact of this sharp decline in church involvement is greater intolerance. He sees this happening all across the political spectrum. For instance, “conservatives” who don’t go to church regularly are content to tolerate (or even eager to support) progressive social causes like same-sex marriage, but they are much more likely to see the world in terms of racial or tribal interests.

“Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation.”

This is why, according to Beinart, many “alt-right” conservatives embrace people like Milo Yiannopoulos, hardly a paragon of traditional Christian virtue, but a virulent proponent of the “blood and soil” white nationalism of the alt-right.

Beinart also sees the same trend on the Left. Liberals tend to be more secular in their outlook anyway, but church attendance is dropping in that demographic as well. This is especially true among African-Americans, who historically have attended church more frequently than whites. The result is the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which does not value the virtues of “love, forgiveness and reconciliation that empowered black leaders such as King” (in the words of civil rights activist Barbara Reynolds).

Beinart discusses the decision of Patrisse Cullors, of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, to renounce Christianity in exchange for an ancient African religion:

“In a move that faintly echoes the way some in the alt-right have traded Christianity for religious traditions rooted in pagan Europe, Cullors has embraced the Nigerian religion of Ifa. To be sure, her motivations are diametrically opposed to the alt-right’s. Cullors wants a spiritual foundation on which to challenge white, male supremacy; the pagans of the alt-right are looking for a spiritual basis on which to fortify it. But both are seeking religions rooted in racial ancestry and disengaging from Christianity….”

Last month I wrote a post about the tribal morality that is inherent to atheism. The Christian worldview offers a coherent grounding for the dignity of all people, regardless of border, race, or tribe. Atheism does not. And what we have in America right now is a practical sort of atheism. Sure, most people still give lip service to Christianity, but fewer and fewer Americans known what Christianity actually teaches. Instead, we have been living on the fumes of Christian ethical teaching. The distant echoes of sayings like “love your neighbor” still faintly resonate while the theological commitments that undergird such teachings are long forgotten. In another generation, when those echoes disappear, all that will be left are the parochial concerns of race and tribe.

We are on the brink of a new Dark Ages.

The Inerrancy of Scripture and the Basis of Our Faith

In the fall of 1990 I engaged in a televised debate with a professor from Eastern Kentucky University over the question of the inerrancy of Scripture. Is the Bible without error in all that it teaches? I defended the affirmative. My opponent was a Southern Baptist who was outraged by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s recent shift toward belief in inerrancy as an expectation for its faculty. I was invited to participate in the debate because I penned a letter to the editor in response to an op-ed piece of his in the Lexington Herald-Leader. I don’t think I realized at the time that my opponent, Dr. James Robert Miller, was the head of the philosophy and religion department at EKU. I wasn’t even finished with my master’s degree! But young and foolish as I was, when the host of the tv program told me he had tried to get twenty other people to represent the inerrancy view and they declined, I felt like I should do it. Besides, the show was going to air really early on Saturday morning, so I figured that if I blew it, no one would know!

I was happy to defend inerrancy then, and I am glad to do so now. It is the view of Scripture implied by the testimony of Jesus in passages like John 10:35 – “Scripture cannot be broken.” Since Jesus is Lord, His word on the matter is authoritative.

But based on many, many conversations I have had with young Christians who are struggling with their faith, I believe that a lot of believers do not understand the place of inerrancy in the overall structure of Christian faith. I get emails and Facebook messages on a regular basis that go something like this: I am a Christian, but I am starting to doubt my belief in God because I think there is a mistake in the Bible. [insert alleged mistake] My faith is really shaken.

If we laid out this thinking in a logical series of steps, it would go like this:

  • Christianity rests on the inerrancy of Scripture.
  • I think the Bible contains mistakes.
  • Therefore, Christianity is false.

The problem here is that the premise that Christianity rests on the inerrancy of Scripture is simply false. That is not how the apostles presented the case for Christianity, and that is not how the best thinkers throughout history have argued for Christianity.* Inerrancy is the fruit of Christian apologetics, it is not the root.

The classical argument for Christianity begins with belief in God on the basis of the natural order. You can see the outlines of such an argument in Paul’s preaching to the pagans at Lystra –

Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:15-17).

The second step in the defense of Christian faith is to show how the true God has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. This move is based on the historical testimony of the gospels about the teaching, the miracles, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. You can see Paul shift from the argument for God to the truth of the resurrection of Jesus in his presentation to the philosophers of Athens –

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:29-31).

What sort of testimony did the apostles provide as the basis for faith in Christ? Contemporary eyewitness testimony. Here’s a sample of this kind of presentation – Peter’s sermon at the house of Cornelius –

You yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:37-43).

Now at this point I need to head off a common misunderstanding. I have often heard people raise this objection: You are using the gospels to prove that Jesus is Lord, but to do so you have to assume that the gospels are inerrant. But you’ve already said that you believe in inerrancy because Jesus is Lord. This is circular reasoning!

And indeed, if that was my approach, it would be circular reasoning. But that is not what I am saying at all. I do not urge people to consider the claims of the gospels because I am assuming that they are inerrant. I urge people to consider the claims of the gospels because they are historically reliable. Historical reliability is much different than the theological doctrine inerrancy. It is based on certain criteria commonly used by historians, such as whether the testimony is based on contemporary accounts, whether there are multiple accounts, and whether the accounts are credible (if you would like to pursue the issue of the historical reliability of the gospels, check out The Jesus Legend). 

So the first step in defending the Christian faith is demonstrating the existence of God on the basis of the natural order. The second step is to show that God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ on the basis of historical testimony. And the third step of the systematic defense of the faith is to look at what this historical testimony shows us the Lord Jesus said about truthfulness of Scripture. Inerrancy is a further step, a conclusion that I believe is reasonably drawn from what Jesus says about Scripture. But as you can see, inerrancy is the outgrowth of Christian faith; it is not the basis of it.

By now I hope it is clear that no one should ever question his or her faith in Christ simply because they fear some passage in Scripture may contain an error. Yet there are many people who have lost faith in Christ because of this very sort of fragile fundamentalism. This is a tragedy. Our salvation hinges on events that took place in history – NOT whether the gospel accounts of those events are completely free from error.

Let me illustrate the difference. My family is related to the McCoys of the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud. I have a book about the McCoy family, and in the back there is a genealogy. When I first got the book I was eager to trace out the Scott side of the family, so I immediately browsed though the genealogy. Sure enough, it listed my great-grandfather, Champlain Scott, and almost all of his children, with one glaring exception – my granddad! Does that mean Homer Scott didn’t exist? No. Did I suddenly pop out of existence? NO! Why not? Because there is a difference between an event in history and the record of that event.

Our salvation rests on the death and resurrection of Jesus. If the gospels contained mistakes (which I do not believe), that would not necessarily mean the events they described never happened. And with regard to the central tenets of Christianity (that Jesus died, that He was buried, that His tomb was empty, and that He was later seen by many people), the claims of the gospel accounts meet a high level of historical reliability.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that I believed there is a mistake in the Bible. Would that mean that God doesn’t exist or that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? Of course not – neither of those beliefs hinges on inerrancy.  At the very most it would mean that I drew an incorrect inference from Jesus’ statements about the Bible.

I’m not suggesting that the doctrine of inerrancy is unimportant. I believe it is vital for those who preach and those who are elders to have a very high view of Scripture. And I further believe that as Christians grow deeper in knowledge and learn to read the Bible in its ancient context rather than in light of modern assumptions, many of the alleged mistakes of the Bible dissolve.

But what I am saying is that we need to make sure young Christians understand that their faith in Christ doesn’t hinge on such alleged mistakes in the Bible as whether the robe placed on Jesus was scarlet or purple, or whether rabbits chew cud, or what year Quirinius’s census took place. Putting inerrancy in its proper perspective will give those struggling with such questions some space to breathe as they work out such questions in the context of a deep commitment to the risen Lord.

*There is a school of thought in apologetics called presuppositionalism that does begin with the inerrancy of Scripture. I believe its methodology is seriously flawed, but it does have some value in highlighting the unwarranted assumptions of the atheistic worldview. If you would like to read about various approaches to apologetics, here’s a great place to start.

Scarlet Robe or Purple Robe (and Why It Doesn’t Matter)

Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers, Édouard Manet

Yesterday a good friend of mine forwarded along an article about an alleged discrepancy in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. The apparent contradiction has to do with the color of the robe the soldiers placed on Jesus while they were mocking Him.

Matthew’s account says:

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand (Matthew 27:27-29).

Mark’s gospel says:

And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (15:16-18).

Finally, John’s account puts it like this:

Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robeThey came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands (19:1-3).

The article that my friend forwarded to me explained this difference by proposing that the gospel writers were describing the same thing, but that perhaps in the sunlight the colors looked different to them. Maybe what seemed like more of a scarlet color to Matthew looked more like purple to Mark and John. My friend was not satisfied with this explanation, though, since the gospels give no indication that Matthew, Mark, and John all witnessed this event. So if this explanation doesn’t work, how should we approach this problem?

Let’s take a closer look at the terminology used in the gospels. Matthew says that the soldiers adorned Jesus with a χλαμύδα κοκκίνην, chlamyda kokkinen. The first term, χλαμύς (chlamys), refers to  a loose outer garment worn by men, such as a military cloak. The second term, κόκκινος (kokkinos), means “red, scarlet,” and in this context refers to the red cloak worn by Roman soldiers, “a cheaply dyed garment in contrast to the expensive ‘purple’ garments” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, hereafter BDAG). Mark and John use  different terms. Mark says that the soldiers dressed Jesus in πορφύρα (porphyra), “purple,” and John says they clothed Jesus with ἱμάτιον πορφυροῦν (himation porphyroun), a cloak or robe of purple (BDAG).

Interestingly, BDAG goes on to cite at least one ancient source that used these expressions interchangeably. In Appian’s history of the Roman civil wars (written in the century after Christ), he refers to the cloak of a Roman soldier as ἡ πορφύρα (he porphyra) instead of the usual χλαμύς (chlamys). So it is possible that in the first century these terms were somewhat interchangeable.

But this is all really beside the point.

The Roman soldiers clearly intended to mock Jesus as “King of the Jews.” So they gave Him all of the accessories of a king. Normally, kings wore crowns made from precious jewels and metals. They gave Jesus a crown made from thorns. Normally, kings wielded a scepter made of expensive materials. They gave Jesus a scepter of  reeds.  And normally, kings wore purple. So just as the soldiers supplied a crown made of thorns, and supplied a scepter made of reeds, they gave Jesus “purple” – in the form of a soldier’s scarlet cloak. When Matthew tells us they gave Jesus a “scarlet robe,” he is telling is what they used to mock Jesus. And when Mark and John tell us they placed “purple” on Jesus, they are explaining why they did this – to parody the notion that Jesus is a king.

As Leon Morris commented:

Since this kind of cloak was used by military officers, there would have been no great difficulty in getting one, perhaps an old one, discarded by an officer. The point of it was apparently that the color was somewhere near purple, the color of royalty. By getting a cloak of a color not quite that of royalty the soldiers were mocking Jesus’ claim to be a king (The Gospel According to Matthew, IVP, 1992, p. 711).

When I was a child, I liked to pretend I was a super hero by tying a bath towel around my neck as my “cape.” Was I wearing a towel or a cape? Both. The towel was what was available, but its purpose was to serve as a cape. Similarly, was Jesus dressed in scarlet or purple? Both. The scarlet cloak was what was available, but its purpose was to parody the royal regalia of a purple robe. Except in Jesus’ case, this was not child’s play, but cruel mockery of one who was truly King of Kings.

The Most Important Quality for a Preacher Is…

This afternoon I enjoyed a wonderful lunch with two young men who are thinking about preaching. It was arranged by a good friend who preaches where they worship, and it included another dear friend who has preached for many years. The two young men asked us some excellent questions today about ministry in the word, and this post is the result of that stimulating conversation.

What would you say is the most important quality a preacher should possess? Let’s stipulate some qualities that should be givens, like genuine conversion to Christ, a deep love for God, and personal holiness. I don’t mean that we should take these virtues for granted – far too many preachers have proven to be wolves in sheep’s clothing for anyone to assume that all preachers are truly committed to the Lord. But surely we can agree that following Jesus with a pure heart and life is a baseline quality for preachers to possess. After all, a preacher is a Christian before he is a preacher.

So granting that a man is devoted to God, what attribute is absolutely vital to doing the work of preaching? We concluded that it is curiosity. Curiosity about the word, and curiosity about people.

Curiosity About the Word

This is not a thought that is original to me (as is the case with most of my thoughts!). Many years ago I was a summer intern at a congregation in Columbia, Tennessee, where my mentor was a wonderful man of God named Harold Comer. One day as we were discussing what it takes to be a good preacher, Harold said (as best I can remember), “A preacher doesn’t need to be academically gifted, but he does need to be curious.”

Preaching the word of God requires the hard work of digging into the text of Scripture. This means lots of long, lonely hours of study. Such work only happens when it is prompted by a curiosity to know what the word says.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

I have known lots of men who were not blessed with great education or sizzling intellects but who were perceptive students of the word because of an insatiable curiosity to know what God has said. They didn’t have sharp minds, but they did possess iron butts – a willingness to sit for long hours of study – because they thirsted for understanding.

Curiosity About People

But there is another aspect to this inquisitive impulse that is vital, and that is a curiosity about people. The goal of preaching is to share the fruit of the study of the text with other people in a way that they can understand, and with a view toward helping them grow into Christlikeness. This can only be done when a preacher knows his congregation, and this requires curiosity.

Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus contain many instructions about how to relate to all sorts of people.

Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers,  older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity (1 Timothy 5:1-2).

There are some men who are very studious, but they never learn how to relate to people very well. They are curious about books, but not about the stories reflected in the lives of the members where they preach. To connect the word of God with the hearts of people, we have to be interested in both.

You can see the concern for people and the word in passages like 2 Timothy 2:24 –

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil.

It isn’t always easy to know how to balance these priorities.  Just as it requires time to learn the word, it also takes time to know what’s going on in the lives of the people you teach. But without curiosity for the word and for people, preaching is ineffective, either lacking in substance or relevance. I hope today’s lunch was informative and encouraging to my new friends, but I know it was invigorating to me to be reminded of these commitments.

Friday Favorites for March 10, 2017

It’s March Madness time, so I have a few links about basketball among my favorites for the week.

College Basketball Managers. I was a manager in high school, so I have always been interested in stories that feature them.

Unlikely Friends. It is possible for liberals and conservatives to be friends – if they will work at it.

Looking for a Good Scanning App?

Most Underrated NBA Legend Ever? Check out the stats on Dirk Nowitzki!

Israel Lurches Further Into Extremism. The right-wing coalition in Israel is destroying one of the rare democracies in the Middle East.

Bohemian Rhapsody Like You’ve Never Heard Before! This is really awesome!

Heroin Is Killing More Than Crack Ever Did. This is a crisis.

My Favorite Babylon Bee of the Week!

Nobody Likes the New House Health Care Bill. Here’s why.

Smile. Here’s a clip of a international championship quartet called Nightlife singing a beautiful arrangement of Charlie Chaplin’s most famous song. The baritone, Jeff Baker, just passed away a few days ago. Go with God my friend.

“The Dangers of Sophistication” in Barbershop Music and Worship Music

I live in two “worlds” – my church world and my barbershop world. Through preaching and teaching I have made many friends in churches around the world, and through the hobby of barbershop quartet singing I have made another set of friends around the world. Both of these circles of friendship are special to me and have given me great joy. Some of my closest friends are those who share the same overlapping circles.

But there is another sense in which these worlds intersect – music is vital to both. And in my own particular church background, the overlap is even greater, since our singing is done as four-part a cappella harmony, very similar to barbershop music. In this post I want to raise some concerns I have about music in worship that parallel concerns about music in barbershop.

The title of this article is inspired by an article written many years ago (“The Dangers of Sophistication”) by a barbershop music arranger named Val Hicks. In the article, Hicks lamented certain trends he saw in the barbershop style of music. As I reflect on music used in worship (at least in my church circles), I see some of the same dangers.

For you non-barbershoppers normal people, let me explain a little bit about the style of music called “barbershop.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, music in America was very much a participatory art. Many homes had a piano in the parlor, and for entertainment the family would gather around the piano and sing (some of you may have grown up in a home that preserved this tradition). The songs from that era were written with melodies that were easily singable, and the chord structure of the music made harmonies easy to improvise. So everyone could join in. And if you were some place that didn’t have a piano – like the barbershop, for instance – this style of music was so ear-friendly that one person could sing a familiar melody and three other people could create harmonies around that melody. An impromptu jam session!  And so “barbershop” music was born. From the late 1800s through the 1920s barbershop quartets thrived.

This era came to an end with the rise of several changes in technology. The mass production of cars enabled families to get out of the house and find entertainment elsewhere. Motion pictures (with sound!) gave people something to enjoy as spectators rather than participants. And recording technology – especially the microphone – enabled singers and musicians to perform far more sophisticated music than what was previously possible.

All of these trends came to a climax with jazz. The intricate rhythms and virtuoso improvisations of jazz were dazzling. They were also impossible for the average musician to emulate. And so participatory singing declined dramatically as music became a spectator event. This also meant the end of the barbershop quartet (until a group of men decided to revive the art form, but that’s a story for another time!).

So when Val Hicks wrote his article on the dangers of sophistication, he was warning that if the barbershop style becomes too sophisticated it will also become less participatory, i.e. the Barbershop Harmony Society will lose members. It is undeniable that since he wrote this article, the barbershop style has indeed become more sophisticated, and membership in the Society has indeed declined. Whether there is a correlation here is of course a matter of debate. But if Hicks was correct, then you would expect a Society consisting of more and more enjoyment of sophisticated music by fewer and fewer people….

I bring all of this up to share concerns over musical trends in my own church experience (yours may be very different for a number of reasons). Let me put my biases on the table. I am suspicious of any hymn written after 1800 (and I’m only sort of kidding!). In my opinion music from the time of hymnodists like John Newton, Isaac Watts, and Charles Wesley was much more biblically saturated and theologically rich than more current music. There are to be sure wonderful spiritual songs written by contemporary writers (like my friend Matthew Bassford). But if I had to pick between two hymns, and all I knew was that one was written before 1800 and the other was written after, I’m going with the oldies 10 out of 10 times.

But aside from my concerns over the substance of contemporary music, I am also concerned about the music itself. According to passages like Ephesians 5:19, singing has two dimensions, the vertical one (“making melody to the Lord with your heart”) and the horizontal one (“addressing one another”). Good music enhances these twin objectives by supporting the lyrics and enabling the worshiper to praise God and encourage his fellow worshiper.

Consequently, in addition to the substantive lyrics of older hymns, I also prefer the music that accompanied them. The melodies of those songs were generally very easy for the average singer to enjoy. Quite often they were drawn from familiar folk melodies of the day (older hymnals often just placed the name of a well-known tune above the lyrics so the congregants who did not read music could nevertheless sing the song). The chord structures of older hymns were for the most part very ear-friendly, easy to harmonize with. And the rhythms were usually not intricate but simple to follow.

Many newer songs are much more sophisticated, though. They feature dissonant chord structures – all of which are very beautiful but also very difficult for the average singer to tune correctly. The use of rangy melody lines and syncopated rhythms only exacerbate the difficulty of the harmonies.

The “dangers of sophistication” in church music are the same as in other forms of music. Above all, worship in the New Testament is a participatory spiritual experience. “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). It is not relegated to the function of a handful of “professionals,” nor it is a performance to be observed by admiring spectators. More sophisticated music means greater expertise is required to participate. And in the context of worship, that is not a good thing.

Even in the temple services of the Old Testament, with its elaborate instrumentation and Levitical singers, worship was still a communal experience.

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
    let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
    that those who love your name may exult in you (Psalm 5:11).

Sophisticated music in the worship of the church can turn worship into performance. It can transform worshipers into spectators. And it can make music become an end in and of itself rather than the means to the end of honoring God and encouraging each other. Good spiritual songs should aim to invite and involve God’s people to participate in worship, with musical harmony that enhances and reflects deeper spiritual harmony.

Love, Marriage, and Commitment

Here’s a story about love in four songs.

First, a song from 1925 by Irving Berlin-

I’ll be loving you always

with a love that’s true always.

When the things you’ve planned

Need a helping hand,

I will understand always.


Days may not be fair always,

That’s when Ill be there always.

Not for just an hour,

Not for just a day,

Not for just a year,

But always.

What does “love” mean in this song? What was Irving Berlin saying to his wife? I commit to love you, even when times are difficult. And this isn’t just a fleeting emotion – I’ll be there always.

Now, a different view of love, from 1964-

You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips

And there’s no tenderness like before in your fingertips

You’re trying hard not to show it, (baby)

But baby, baby I know it

You’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’

Whoa, that lovin’ feelin’

You’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’

Now it’s gone…gone…gone…woah

What sort of “love” were The Righteous Brothers singing about? Certainly not the committed determination to do what is right toward someone. No, this sort of love is purely emotional, a mere feeling that can be lost.

So what happens when the loving feeling is lost? In the 1960s, the sexual revolution said, if you lose the feeling, that gives you the right to love someone else. So Luther Ingram sang this song that topped the R&B charts in 1972-

Your friends tell you there’s no future

in loving a married man

If I can’t see you when I want to

I’ll see you when I can

If loving you is wrong I don’t want to be right

If loving you is wrong I don’t want to be right

We determine what is right on the basis of reason, and we commit to it through our will. But if love is simply a feeling, no amount of reasoned reflection on right or wrong matters. The song goes on to ask-

Am I wrong to fall so deeply in love with you

knowing I got a wife and two little children

depending on me too

YES you are wrong!!! A thousand times, YES!!! But when a culture decides to privilege emotion over reason, feeling over commitment, then a man with a wife and children won’t even understand why it is wrong to abandon them for someone else.

The only thing that makes this perverse understanding of love worse is when the vicious betrayal is set to a great tune. One of the biggest hits of my senior year of high school was Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love for You. It has such a great R&B vibe I never even listened to the lyrics.

A few stolen moments is all that we share

You’ve got your family, and they need you there

Though I’ve tried to resist, being last on your list

But no other man’s gonna do

So I’m saving all my love for you

Gonna get that old feeling when you walk through that door

For tonight is the night, for feeling alright

A man with a family that needs him? That’s no match for “feeling alright.”

There are many factors that explain our culture’s decline into moral decadence. But at the root of the issue is the definition of loveMarriage in the Bible is built on love, but it is a vastly different version of love than what is understood by pop culture. It is love like God’s love, active and sacrificial and undeserved (John 3:16). It is love that can be commanded (Ephesians 5:25) and taught (Titus 2:3-4).  This kind of love is not merely emotional. You can’t teach or command sorrow or fear – those are instinctive emotions. But biblical love is something that can be learned and chosen. It is not just an emotion. It is a commitment.

It is very easy to hear only the music of a song but not pay attention the lyrics. Our culture is singing a much different tune about love than what God calls us to. The great challenge facing Christians is not to be so seduced by the pretty music of our decadent age that we embrace its lyric.