For most church kids, the first theology they ever learned came in the form of song. Maybe it was the “B-I-B-L-E” or “Jesus Loves Me,” but there was a theological truth communicated through song. For much of the history of the church that was, in fact, the way that many people learned theology. In fact, an entire book of the Bible aims to teach theology through song; Psalter is a book of hymns intended to ingrain the truths of God’s person and activity into the minds of its singers. But worship isn’t just a powerful way of teaching theology, it’s a dynamic way of confessing theology. Worship is confession with conviction.
I love a good doctrinal statement. I have made a career out of reading theology and philosophy and so I don’t mind navigating the depth and beauty of a good confessional statement. I have whole volumes on my shelf dissecting the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, and Luther’s 95 Theses. I enjoy reading and meditating on these impressive statements. Yet, I recognize that there is something unique to confessing my theology through the power of worship songs.
Music does something to us, it stirs us. Some of this can actually be related to our biology. So, research reveals that music can affect the bodies natural chemistry, increasing melatonin and decreasing cortisol (see, L. Heslet, “Our Musical Brain”). Music can also provide emotional release. At other times the impact of music is directly related to our bodily engagement with it. We don’t merely recite songs, we feel them inside of ourselves. James K.A. Smith has observed:
Singing is a mode of expression that seems to reside in our imagination more than other forms fo discourse. Partly because of cadence and rhyme, partly because of the rhythms of music, song seems to get implanted in us as a mode of bodily memory. Music gets “in” us in ways that other forms of discourse rarely do. A song gets absorbed into our imagination in a way that mere texts rarely do. Indeed, a song can come back to haunt us almost, catching us off guard or welling up within our memories because of situations or contexts that we find ourselves in, then perhaps spilling over into our mouths till we find ourselves humming a tune or quietly singing. The song can invoke a time and a place, even the smells and tastes of a moment. The song seems to have a privileged channel to our imagination, to our [heart], because it involves our body in a unique way. (Desiring the Kingdom, 171)
Songs impact us in powerful ways. They connect with our emotions – bringing joy or sadness associated with the melodies, lyrics, rhythms, and general aesthetics. They connect with our bodies – by engaging us in singing along, exercises our vocal chords, stomach muscles, lungs, tongues, and mouths (and for some hands and feet). They connect with our memories – drawing out associations, recalling experiences associated with the song, reminding us of people and places. They connect with our minds – repeating words, ideas, and doctrines again and again so that we don’t even strain to remember them. We can learn truths about God, Bible verses, and encouraging words through song. Music does something powerful to us.
As we express music, then, we are expressing something with power. When we worship, truly participate in singing truth, we are confessing something with passion and conviction. We sing louder or softer to communicate an aspect of the truth – solemnity or excitement respectively. We are driven by beats and tempos to respond with joy or internal reflection. We are emboldened to say in poetic terms what we would struggle to say in everyday speech. So, we sing, “Our God reigns,” takes what is a statement of fact and turns it into an anthem cry. Yes, our God reigns is a true propositional statement. When sung it becomes more than just true, it becomes powerful in my life. It gives hope and encouragement to the tired soul. It invites excitement and anticipation of the full realization of this truth. To sing our theology is to make true statements powerful in our immediate experience of them. We may say and believe these statements otherwise, but when we sing them we say them with a level of conviction that goes deeper into our soul.
Music is powerful! Many throughout church history have known this. Martin Luther, himself an accomplished musician, once wrote:
Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions [ . . . ] which control men or more often overwhelm them [ . . . ] Whether you wish to comfort the sad, to subdue frivolity, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate or to appease those full of hate [ . . . ] what more effective means than music could you find.
Likewise Jonathan Edwards, who was known to preach often on the subject of music, said:
[T]he duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections. (see Rob Smith, “Music, Singing, and Emotions: Exploring the Connections” in Themelios 37:3. 2012)
Music has held a place of high esteem in the church. We should not be quick to dismiss it today or downplay its significance. Worship is a form of theological confession. But it is a form that takes confession and pumps it full of conviction. We sing our theology, then, not simply because it is true doctrine, but because in singing true doctrine we believe it more deeply.