Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

Pushing Back a Little on Andrew Wilson’s Worship Rant

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Andrew Wilson has a post up today at Think Theology in which he rants against some of the worship music going around churches these days. Good points all around, and I generally agree with him. I would like to concur on some of his points and push back on some others:

1. Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs. Wilson say that songs with “I love you” or “you are more beautiful than ever” statements to God that can simultaneously be said to one’s spouse are out of place in worship. I agree with this point wholeheartedly. In my experience as a worship leader and as one who evaluates new songs about every week, I think this type of language has a lot to do with the age group writing our contemporary worship songs. Most of them are very young, and in our worship culture we tend to prefer that young, beautiful people lead us from the stage rather than seasoned, older pastors. And so the ones leading every week are also the ones more prone to author new songs for the congregation. The songs are marketed by agencies who want to put young, beautiful people on album covers and in concerts and in interviews, and thus the songs they have written become mainstream. The problem isn’t really with young, beautiful people as much as it is with personal experience: most of these songwriters have very little experience as a Christian from which to draw when they write songs. They struggle to empathize or even communicate what they feel. And a bigger point is that most do not know how to express love to/for God in a biblical way because they’re not trained in the Bible. And so their worship songs sound a lot like Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop songs: cliche-driven and devoid of meaning. The result is “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. This does not meant that there isn’t a gem from time to time that is written by a young, beautiful person. I can think of several. But it’s rare. (As an aside I might also ask: doesn’t the modern, contemporary gathering itself—with its lights and its youth and its ambiance—give way to this sort of songwriting that emphasizes boyfriend-Jesus songs and that lacks theological depth?)

2. Random lists of superlatives. Wilson says that listing superlatives about God (you are so glorious, wonderful, powerful, etc.) brings about a flat sense of diminishing returns to those of us who are singing. But isn’t this what the psalms do over and over? Isn’t this what Moses sang in Exodus 15? How many times do the psalms say that God is “my fortress” or “refuge” or “rock” or “salvation”, or that he is “glorious” and “mighty”? Several times, I would say.  I don’t think Wilson can stress this point because the testimony of the Bible over several millennia gives us people who continue to pray and sing superlatives about God. Songwriters should write songs in the stream of the biblical songwriters and authors. As a worship leader, I have no problem choosing songs that stress these aspects of God’s character because God stresses these aspects of his character. 

3. Lack of Trinitarianism. Wilson argues that our modern worship songs lack praise of all three persons of the Trinity. They are functionally binitarian or unitarian. But this point assumes that these songs are sung out of context. You could argue that the Book of Psalms are unitarian in that they primarily offer praise/lament to God the Father. But the context of Scripture demands that a greater meaning should be applied to the psalms. Similarly, in the context of a church service—where the people of God, redeemed by God in Christ, are joining together in the power of the Spirit to glorify God—the songs are thicker in meaning due to that context. When we praise “God” we likely mean “Father and Son through Holy Spirit.” The context demands more, just as the context of the Old Testament can be understood now only in light of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, and of his sending of the Holy Spirit for the mission of the church. 

I would also push back on the notion of praise to the Holy Spirit. I understand the need for holistic worship, but where does praise to/for/of the Holy Spirit take place in the New Testament? Anywhere? Is this the example we have from the apostles, to offer praise to the Holy Spirit? No one ever addresses the Holy Spirit in prayer, or bows down to the Holy Spirit, or ever serves the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit is never the object of worship in the Bible. Philippians 3:3 states that we “worship by/in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus.” And yet I understand the tension here, that Father, Son, and Spirit are all equally divine in one essence and so should be worshiped equally. This is theological deduction, but is that deduction warranted in the New Testament? The New Testament is adamant that we worship in the Spirit, through the Spirit, and by the Spirit, but it knows nothing of worship “of the Spirit” (see also Block, “For the Glory of God” on this point). 

So I don’t think the element of Trinitarianism is missing in modern worship songs, if by that we mean addressing or worshiping the Holy Spirit. What is missing in my opinion is accurately describing the Triune God in our our liturgies, the prayers, introductions, confessions, etc., or especially in the arc of the service. Worship leaders would be wise to make their leading more theological and trinitarian, yet without the worship of the Spirit. 

4. Assuming shared experience. Wilson seems to imply that we shouldn’t sing certain songs that assume that everyone singing those songs have had the same experience, a “come to Jesus” moment, as it were. Wilson says “this cultivates an unhelpful sense of inferiority or exclusion amongst a group of people.” I disagree. This gets to ecclesiology, but in my view the worship service is a gathering of believers, and thus the first-person narratives in some of our hymns (Amazing Grace, When I Survey, And Can it Be, etc.) have rich meaning in a corporate setting because we’re repeating the gospel to one another. The shared experience of worship—and in particular singing—is what Paul encourages us to do in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. We “sing to one another” and “make melody in our heart” because we have and assume a shared experience. Even if my experience is not in line with “I awoke, the dungeon flamed with light,” I resonate with that experience because it expresses what happened in my soul when I was redeemed. Additionally, I can glory in the cross of Christ by turning to my brother or sister and hearing her sing of that experience even if I don’t share it exactly how he/she does. Contrary to Wilson’s point, I think in singing some of these songs and in hearing the testimonies of God’s people actually helps unify the church instead of cultivating exclusion. So perhaps we should ask, what do we actually gain from hearing/singing dramatic binary stories? Do we actually gain something from reading or singing David’s account of his repentance in Psalm 51? What about the desperate longing for God that David writes about in Psalm 63? Is that intended to be only about David and for David? I don’t think so. Worship leaders and/or songwriters aren’t asking their congregations to sing lies. I hope that what they are doing is writing under the influence of biblical songwriters like David. Isn’t that what they should do?  

Wilson’s post is good, I would just disagree on some of the things he stresses. His overall point, however, is well-said: worship leaders must think hard about what they write and about what they lead people to say or sing. It’s not a frivolous affair, something to toss off like it has no importance. The worship gathering is a display of God’s glory. So we should give due diligence in our preparation/songwriting/song-choosing so that the glory of God in Christ through the work of the Spirit is our aim and the end result. 


Written by Josh Philpot

October 7, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Posted in Theology, Worship

What We Get Wrong about Worship | RELEVANT Magazine

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My friend Matt Damico (Worship Pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church) has a good post at Relevant Magazine on the misconception that Christian worship should be private: 

Occasionally, someone asks me for a worship song recommendation, or I need someone to listen to a song for some reason. When that happens, I do what any good person does: go to YouTube. I can find a song, grab the link, send it off, and nobody has to buy or download anything. It’s great.

Even though I look for a simple, basic video to pass along, I inevitably run across multiple videos for songs full of stock Christian images, like a slideshow set to music. These videos make a couple things clear: first, some people have too much time on their hands. Second, wrong ideas about worship are all over the place.

These wrong ideas come out in the all-too-common pictures of someone standing alone in a field, or on a mountain, or in an empty church, with their hands held high. You’ve seen these pictures, and not just on YouTube. The Christian bookstore or blog nearest you surely features similar shots. The implication in these images is that true worship, our most sincere moments with God, come when we’re alone.

Read the rest here: What We Get Wrong about Worship | RELEVANT Magazine

Written by Josh Philpot

August 13, 2015 at 1:46 pm

Posted in Worship

The Pastor-Theologian

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Recently I joined the Third Fellowship of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and I’m preparing for and looking forward to my first symposium with CPT this August. To get an idea of what CPT is all about, Justin Taylor posted four brief video clips of Kevin Vanhoozer—Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the co-author of a forthcoming book—The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision—speaking to CPT about the concept:

Why Are Pastor-Theologians Necessary?

What’s the Harm if Pastors are Not Theologians?

What Led to the Separation of Pastors and Theologians?

What Might Happen If the Church Had More Pastor Theologians?

Written by Josh Philpot

June 24, 2015 at 12:06 pm

Behind the Bow Tie: A profile of Dr. Robert Plummer

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Here is a nice video profile of my former hermeneutics professor, Dr. Robert Plummer, a New Testament professor at Southern Seminary. I loved going to class with Dr. Plummer. He is friendly, engaging, and well-loved on the seminary campus. His hermeneutical approach is outlined in a book released by Kregel a few years ago, “40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible.” It’s an excellent book and I commend it to you. In addition he hosts a website called “Daily Dose of Greek” in which someone can learn how to read the Greek NT from the ground up. I watch Dr. Plummer’s Greek video updates every day, which is a great way to keep my Greek fresh.

Written by Josh Philpot

May 30, 2015 at 3:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama King

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Over at Christian Today, Wesley Hill has a fascinating bio of theologian Kevin Vanhoozer that is worth your time: 

Formerly a senior lecturer at Edinburgh University, now a longtime research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, Vanhoozer is one of the biggest names in academic theology. The author of six books and the editor of at least a dozen more, his sessions at the annual American Academy of Religion and Evangelical Theological Society meetings are always overflowing.

But in and through all the groundbreaking research and years of teaching, Vanhoozer views himself principally as one who practices the “care of words.”

“Theology is a bridging exercise,” he says. “We’re always trying to reach people.” The way Vanhoozer does it is by looking for the playful, visionary, creative angle from which to speak and write.

Read the rest here: Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama King | Christianity Today

Written by Josh Philpot

May 28, 2015 at 6:08 pm

Richard Hays on Gospel-Shaped Hermeneutics

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Last weekend I attended a lecture by Richard B. Hays at the Lanier Theological Library. I read Hays’ new book, “Reading Backwards,” last year and it’s excellent. This lecture was an overview of that book. The library usually posts their lectures for free here, but this most recent one is not up yet. The central thesis or aim of the lecture of the view that the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and—at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels. Or, as Hays reiterates over again, we learn to read the OT by reading backwards, and—at the same time—we learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT. In the lecture, Hays offered Seven Proposals for Gospel-Shaped Hermeneutics: 

  1. A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic actually requires us to “read backwards,” and the meaning of the narrative of the OT can only be understood in retrospect. Hays was careful to point out that this hermeneutic does not require the view that the OT authors knew the full implications of their words. 
  2. Scripture must be interpreted in light of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. 
  3. The diverse use of OT texts in the Gospels summon us to read their narratives creatively and not rigidly. 
  4. In the view of the Gospel writers, Israel’s scripture told the true story of the world, and thus we must give care attention to the large, narrative arc of the Bible. 
  5. Reading Israel’s story in retrospect (i.e. in light of Jesus) is not a negation of Israel’s history but a transfiguration and continuation of that history. 
  6. The diverse references and allusions to the OT are “metaleptic” (metalepsis), which Hays explains as the literary phenomenon that occurs when an author cites or alludes to a text in such a way as to bring the entire context of the citation into view. 
  7. The more deeply we probe the Jewish and OT world of the Gospel writers, the more we come to see that they understand Jesus to be the embodiment of Israel’s God. 

Hays did mention at one point that although he uses the term “figural” instead of “typological” he means essentially the same thing. He said that he avoids the term “type” so as not to add to the debate between typological and allegorical readings of the Bible. 

Written by Josh Philpot

May 26, 2015 at 11:49 am

Music in Wartime

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Peter Leithart posted an excellent essay today on how music helps the church in wartime, that is, when she is in immanent danger and under siege on all sides. He shows that in Scripture, music isn’t useless ornamentation. It is integral to warfare and to witness:

To warfare: Because kings make and play musical instruments. Because playing music is an extension of dominion over the world. Because David drove away evil spirits with his harp. Because God trained David’s sword-hand to fight and his harp-fingers for battle. Because David organized Levitical singers and players like an army. Because Jehoshaphat dispersed the Moabites and Ammonites with singers. Because we are filled with the Spirit of power to speak in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Because music disposes the soul to courage. Music makes happy warriors.

To witness: Because Miriam sang the song of the sea, testifying to the Lord. Because Moses sang the Song of Moses, testifying against Israel. Because exiles sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. Because David composed the Lord’s songs in a land of strangers. Because we sing to declare the Name of the Lord. Because Paul and Silas sang til midnight in a Philippian jail, singing the jailer into the kingdom. Because Jesus sings in the midst of the congregation.

At the beginning of Revelation 14, John sees the Lamb standing on Zion, surrounded by the 144,000 who have been sealed on the forehead for priestly service. Like Jesus, each is simultaneously priest and sacrifice, each offering himself. Before they shed their blood, they learn the song of heaven. Before they join the company of martyrs, they join the choir of angels. And by shedding their blood, these singer-martyrs seal the doom of Babylon.

When things fall apart, the church needs are courageous witnesses who obey the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus no matter what. As we offer the breath of our bodies to God in music, we are prepared to offer our blood too. As living sacrifices offering our reasonable worship, we are prepared to offer our dying sacrifices, pouring ourselves out as drink offerings on the sacrifice and service of faith.

Read the whole thing via Music in Wartime | Theopolis Institute | Bible. Liturgy. Culture.: “”

Written by Josh Philpot

May 19, 2015 at 7:27 pm

Posted in Music, Worship