Josh Philpot

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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. 

 

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Written by Josh Philpot

October 7, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Posted in Theology, 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

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

The Word of God in Our Mouths | Doxology and Theology

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Over at the Doxology and Theology blog I have a post on The Word of God in Our Mouths. Here’s an excerpt: 

The task of worship planning is a pastoral discipline. I say pastoral because the planning and leading of worship services is a matter of teaching good theology. Like any good pastor, we should desire to get the Word of God into our people at every point of the service, which means that we’re doing more than leading songs for our congregations: we’re putting words in their mouths. We’re causing our people to actually say specific words and to respond in specific ways. So what we do has great influence.

We’re giving our churches categories of understanding for doctrine and response. Through our liturgies we’re teaching them the gospel, the true nature and work of Jesus, and how we take part in the story of God reconciling all things through Christ. In this sense, our worship leading has more to do with formation/sanctification than it does with affection. There are some who plan services around what affects them emotionally. But our affections do not always change our actions. The truth of God does.

Read the rest here

Written by Josh Philpot

November 11, 2014 at 3:14 am

Posted in Theology, Worship

Chiastic Structure of Daniel

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In Jim Hamilton’s new book, “With Clouds of Heaven,” he proposes the following structure for the book of Daniel:

1, Exile to the unclean realm of the dead
     2, Four kingdoms followed by the kingdom of God
          3, Deliverance of the trusting from the fiery furnace 
               4, Humbling of proud King Nebuchadnezzar
               5, Humbling of proud King Belshazzar
          6, Deliverance of the trusting from the lions’ den
     7–9, Four kingdoms followed by the kingdom of God
10–12, Return from exile and resurrection from the dead

Hamilton then attempts to give the message of Daniel in one sentence: “Daniel encourages the faithful by showing them that though Israel was exiled from the land of promise, they will be restored to the realm of life at the resurrection of the dead, when the four kingdoms are followed by the kingdom of God, so the people of God can trust him and persevere through persecution until God humbles proud human kings, gives everlasting dominion to the son of man, and the saints reign with him” (83).  

Hamilton, James M., Jr. With Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology. New Studies in Biblical Theology 32. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014.  

 

Written by Josh Philpot

August 21, 2014 at 9:25 pm

Posted in Old Testament, Theology

Farewell Gungor

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Yesterday, an article was published in World Magazine about the uber-hipster artists Michael and Lisa Gungor and their drift from biblical orthodoxy in their music. Michael Gungor in particular seems to have “lost” his traditional faith at some point along the road, choosing to express in his music a spirituality mixed with some form of doubt. Apparently, Gungor has teamed up with the king of doubt, Mr. Rob Bell himself, to write poetry for a few new EPs, also collaborating with Rachel Held Evans in expressing how “God is mother.” 

The drift from traditional biblical orthodoxy is evident in Gungor’s earlier songs too, and anyone with a keen theological sense could probably see where Gungor was headed. In his 2013 song, “Yesternite,” Gungor writes, “Yesternite the gods they disappeared from sight / the angels flapped their wings and took their songs to flight / the shadows lift their hands and praise the light.” The article in World Magazine points to Gungor’s description of these lyrics on his blog, where he uses “gods” as a general mythological construct to represent the stories that “we thought were true, but no longer are. Stories that we lived by, defined ourselves with, but can no longer believe in.” Regarding Adam and Even or the biblical account of the flood, Gungor admits that he has “no more ability to believe in these things then I do to believe in Santa Claus.”

The news is very disappointing and sad, especially since Gungor’s music is so rich and creative from a musical standpoint, even if Gungor’s lyrics are ambivalent on the theological issues he addresses in his songs. Gungor’s most popular song, “Beautiful Things,” is often sung in churches:

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

I guess all of this is now in doubt from Gungor’s perspective. But we should be wary of doubt as a spiritually helpful way to evaluate our convictions and traditions. Jesus counseled his disciples with regard to his real nature and his power over the sea, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt 14:31). Gungor may not perceive what he is doing, but he’s actually teaching people doctrine with his ambiguous language and, in my view, belittling God by casting doubt on God’s word. This reminds me Matthew 15:8-9. Quoting from Isaiah 29:13, Jesus says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” 

Our convictions should rest in Jesus, whether we find him hard to believe or not. But the good thing is that Jesus is convincing, and he has given us the true story of the world and of our God. God does indeed make beautiful things out dust, and makes hope spring around us, and calls light out of chaos—through Jesus. And we should have faith in him and his word. His commandments are true and righteous altogether. Let’s not depart from them as Gungor has. 

Written by Josh Philpot

August 4, 2014 at 5:57 pm

Posted in Music, Theology, Worship