A Van Tilian Philosophy of Music & Art
For the final paper for my "Essentials of Music & Art" class at Master's University, we had to write a short paper on a Christian philosophy of music and art, so naturally, I quoted Van Til, Kuyper, and Schaeffer (who we were actually assigned for the class, so that was cool). Anyways, I really enjoyed writing the paper. Here it is:
Philosophy of Music & Art
The great Dutch theologian and former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper, once famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!”1. He understood well that there is no realm of human life that is neutral to the God of the universe. To be a human is to be subject to God and every aspect of our nature is to be brought into submission to Him. In the words of the Christian philosopher Cornelius Van Til, “the God of Christianity makes such prodigious claims. He says the whole world belongs to Him, and that you are His creature, and as such you are to own up to that fact by honoring Him whether you eat or drink or do anything else”2. Part of the human experience is the reality of art and of music. From the dawn of civilization, humans have always sought to express creativity through the means of music and of art. The creative expression of beauty is found in every culture, as it is part of what it means to be human. Indeed, man’s very first recorded words were a poem in honor of his wife (Gen. 2:23). In all that we do, we must remember that what we do, we do before a holy and perfect God, so that every aspect of human existence, from eating and drinking to the production of music and art, is no neutral affair in the eyes of God. To quote Van Til once more, “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication”3. In that spirit, I will proceed to attempt to articulate a philosophy of music and of art, using the Bible, God’s inspired Word, as my ultimate authority.
Music has been a part of the human experience at least since the seventh generation from Adam, when we are told that Jubal “was the father of all those who play the lyre and the pipe” (Gen. 4:21), the first mention of any musical instruments in the Bible. While, like all creations of man, music can be used for evil things, such as pagan festivals, in the right context, the Bible commends the use of music. Psalm 150:3-5 states, “Praise Him with trumpet blast...with harp and lyre...with tambourine and dancing...with stringed instruments and pipe...with resounding cymbals; Praise Him with clashing cymbals”. So, we see that the use of instruments in the worship of God is not only tolerated but commended by the Psalmist. But must music be limited to spiritual matters in order to be pleasing to God? Is it sin to venture into the secular? I would suggest that to even ask such questions is not to understand that there really is no such thing as the purely secular. In all that we do, “whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corin. 10:31), as we have already seen Van Til allude to. Consider the words of Francis Schaeffer that, “when you begin to understand this sort of thing, suddenly you can begin to breathe, and all the terrible pressure that has been put on us by making art something less than spiritual suddenly begins to disappear”4. Schaeffer understood well that creating beauty is an end in itself when considering the worship of God, as when we create that which is beautiful, we are imitating our Creator who does all things well, and so each day of God’s creation, He proclaimed it “very good”. Thus, I believe that we would do well to understand that if our Creator may proclaim His works to be “very good”, then we, as His analogs created in His image (Gen. 1:27), may also proclaim our works to be good, so long as they are done with a mindset geared towards considering “whatever is true, whatever is dignified, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable...any excellence and...anything worthy of praise” (Phil. 4:8). It would further seem to me that so-called “secular” music is then good in itself when it is beautiful. All unbelievers remain created in the image of God (James 3:9), and as such “naturally do the things of the Law” (Romans 2:14), because they are, by the common grace of God, still attracted to beauty and goodness5. For this reason, I would argue that, apart from lyrics, you would not be able to tell the worldview of a great unbelieving composer from that of a believing one. The believer may have every motivation more than the unbeliever to work hard to produce excellent and beautiful music, but in the end, he will be outdone by any unbeliever with a genius the likes of Mozart. This is, not, however, to say that what the unbeliever does he does because of his worldview; quite the contrary, he is only able to produce such beauty in spite of his professed worldview, because “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, both His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20)6. All beauty that he is able to create is borrowed capital from God due to His common grace.
Next, I turn now to consider questions relating to beauty in art in more detail. I believe that beauty is objective and that its aesthetic value brings glory to God because God Himself is beautiful. Indeed, many older theologians tended to speak of God as Beauty itself. To quote Augustine at length, “All creaturely beauty is...not beautiful in itself but by participation in a higher, absolute beauty...The pinnacle of beauty, the beauty towards which all creatures point is God. He is supreme being, supreme truth, supreme goodness, and also the apex of unchanging beauty. ‘Who is it that made these changeable things beautiful if not the unchangeably beautiful One?”7. I believe that Augustine has captured an important truth here, namely that God stands back of the beauty in the world, so that the creation, which declares the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), reflects and images the One who created it. Similarly, Schaeffer recognized that “God exists and has a character which is the law of the universe. There is therefore an absolute in regard to morals. It is not that there is a moral law back of God that binds both God and man, but that God himself has a character and this character is reflected in the moral law of the universe”8. In the same way, we may say that God is the absolute standard of beauty, and His beauty is reflected on a finite level in the things of creation. Is beauty not then, “in the eye of the beholder”, as we are so often told? This is a difficult question, and I do not think I have yet sufficiently come to an answer on it. On one hand, I think it is enough to say that beauty is in a sense absolute and objective because God is Beauty itself, and that furthermore, we can see this fact played out and evidenced in that all people would recognize Michaelangelo’s “David” as objectively more beautiful than their home trash can. On the other hand, it is certainly true that not all people see the same amount of beauty in the same things; I am sure that husbands find their wives to be more beautiful to them than other women are (hopefully). So, I do not claim to have solved all questions relating to beauty and to be able to deduce it all to scientific formulas, in fact, I think if you were able to do that, you might have to get rid of the very idea of beauty altogether. If beauty is, as I have argued, a finite expression of a truth about an infinite God, then we should expect there to always remain something very mysterious about it. If we are to say anything definitively about beauty, it should be that it demands an explanation for its existence in this world, and that explanation can only be found when we see that all beauty in the world exists to point us back to Beauty Himself.
Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Eerdmans, 1998), 488.
Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, ed. Greg L. Bahnsen (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1998), 127.
Art and the Bible, Francis A. Schaeffer (InterVarsity Press, 2006), 43.
I, of course, do not mean to suggest that they are sinless in these desires and in their actions, because “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) and “and those who are in the flesh are not able to please God” (Romans 8:8).
Van Til would often express this same idea by saying that the unbeliever can count, but they cannot “account for counting” (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, 407). Similarly, an unbelieving musician or artist can create beauty, but they cannot account for the beauty that they create.
Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 2: God and Creation, Herman Bavinck, ed. John Bolt and translated by John Vriend (Baker Academic, 2004, 254). Bavinck cites this as an example of Neoplatonic influence on Augustine and recommends using the term, “Glory”, instead of “Beauty” for God against the scholastics. I, however, cannot see Augustine’s words and the scholastics’ terminology as anything other than basic Christianity.
Art and the Bible, Francis A. Schaeffer (InterVarsity Press, 2006), 84-85.