Vern Poythress

Why Is There Beauty in the World?

We are naturally attracted to beauty. It has a fascination, and we wish somehow that we could be one with it or enter into it or enjoy it even more. This attraction is a subtle message reminding us of the attraction of God himself, and the satisfaction and joy that we can find only by knowing God and having communion with him.

Why is there beauty in the world? Why is a flower beautiful? Why is a hummingbird beautiful? Why is light beautiful? And what is beauty? People dispute about it. Herman Bavinck associates beauty with “harmony, proportion, unity in diversity, organization, glow, glory, shining, fullness, perfection revealed.”[1] All of them together make something beautiful—strangely attractive and splendid and wonderful.[2]
Is God beautiful? The Bible indicates that beauty traces back to God. God is supremely beautiful. His beauty is reflected in the world he made and sustains. We find that in searching for the source for beauty, we encounter ultimate reality, the reality of God himself.
Some theologians, as far back as Augustine, have said that God is beautiful.[3] Others have cautioned against ascribing beauty to God, wanting to avoid a confusion between God and things in the world that are beautiful. So which is it? God is distinct from every created thing; in addition, God’s character is displayed in the things that he has made (Rom. 1:20). So the short answer is that created things that are beautiful reflect God but are not identical with God. Beauty in created things relates to God by “analogy, not identity.”[4]
Beauty In the Tabernacle and the Priests, Reflecting God
Psalm 27:4 describes God as beautiful:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORDall the days of my life,to gaze upon the beauty of the LORDand to inquire in his temple.
According to this psalm, the beauty of the Lord is displayed in “the house of the LORD,” “his temple.” We know from other parts of the Bible that the temple is a kind of small-scale version of the big dwelling place of God, which is the whole universe (1 Kings 8:27).[5] The whole universe also displays the beauty of its maker (Pss. 19:1; 104:1-2).
In the same verse in Psalm 27, the psalmist says that he seeks the presence of God; it is the “one thing” that he asks for:
One thing have I asked of the LORD,that will I seek after:that I may dwell in the house of the LORDall the days of my life…(verse 4)
In seeking communion with God, the psalmist is also seeking the beauty of God. We naturally seek beauty, as something attractive. So Psalm 84:1-2 says:‍
How lovely is your dwelling place,O LORD of hosts!My soul longs, yes, faintsfor the courts of the LORD.‍
Let us consider the tabernacle of Moses, which was the predecessor for Solomon’s temple. In Exodus 25-27 God instructs Moses about the building of the tabernacle. The tabernacle is supposed to be a tent dwelling with symbolic significance. It symbolizes that God dwells in the midst of his people Israel: “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8). The tabernacle displays beauty, because it represents the splendor of God, who is the great king of the universe.
This splendor anticipates and foreshadows the greater splendor that belongs to Christ, as the climactic revelation of God: the Bible speaks of “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). The preceding context in 2 Corinthians 3 explains the analogy and contrast between the glory of God revealed in Moses’s time and the glory of the new covenant:
For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation [through Moses], the ministry of righteousness [given to Paul in the new covenant] must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.2 Corinthians 3:9-11
‍Read More
Related Posts:

Does Science Really Contradict Scripture? Eleven Principles for Apparent Tensions

ABSTRACT: Thoughtful Christians familiar with the claims of modern science recognize apparent disagreements between the Bible and scientific claims. Many of the biggest tensions, however, arise not from the findings of science but from the philosophical assumptions of non-Christian scientists. For the tensions that remain, Scripture offers principles for wisely navigating them in ways that honor God’s revelation. In the end, because God is consistent with himself, all apparent disagreements are just that: apparent. And until we find their resolution, God has told us all we need to know in order to trust him.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Vern Poythress, distinguished professor of New Testament, biblical interpretation, and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, to offer principles for navigating apparent disagreements between Scripture and science.

Apparent disagreements between the Bible and scientific claims trouble some people, and understandably so. Three areas of apparent tension quickly come to mind.

What about evolution?
What about the days of creation?
What about miracles?

How do we tackle these questions?

Question of Miracles

The third area of tension, about miracles, can serve as a useful place to start. Did God speak in an audible voice from the top of Mount Sinai, as described in Exodus 19–20? Did Jesus multiply the loaves and the fish to feed five thousand men (Matthew 14:13–21)? Did Jesus cast out an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21–28)? Do evil spirits even exist? Did Jesus raise Jairus’s daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18–26; Mark 5:21–43)? Did Jesus himself rise from the dead (Matthew 16:21; 28:1–10)?

Quite a few people in our day would say that “science has shown us” that miracles are impossible. It is true that some scientists would claim that miracles are impossible. But other scientists, especially scientists who are Christians, would say that miracles are possible and that the miracles described in the Bible actually happened.

The difference in viewpoint here is not due to the results of scientific investigation. It is due to differences in people’s view of God and the world — to differences in worldview, we might say. If you believe in a personal God who can do whatever he wishes, you also believe that he can work in an exceptional way any time he wants. In other words, he can work a miracle. On the other hand, if you do not believe in God at all, you probably expect that there are no exceptions. You think that the laws of the universe are just mechanical and impersonal.

So the deepest question is about the nature of the world. Are the roots of the world ultimately personal or impersonal? God is personal. He made the world with personal purposes. And every day he continues to govern the world with personal purposes, even down to every detail (Psalm 104:14; Proverbs 16:33; Matthew 10:29–30).

Regularities (‘Law’)

The regular processes that scientists study are processes controlled by God. The regularities exist only because God exists. “He makes his sun rise” (Matthew 5:45; see Genesis 8:22). He causes “the grass to grow for the livestock” (Psalm 104:14). Science is possible only because there are regularities. And the regularities are there because God is consistent with himself. He has a plan, and he is faithful day by day in carrying it out.

But because God is personal, there may also be exceptional cases, which are due to his personal purposes. For example, the resurrection of Christ is highly exceptional. People in the first century did not have the findings of modern science that we have, but they knew just as clearly as we do that people do not rise from the dead. In other words, they knew right away that the resurrection of Jesus was an exception to normal experience.

So how is such an event possible? If God is God, he can make exceptions. No one can say to him, “Oh, by the way, you are not allowed to do that!” And in the case of the resurrection of Christ, we can see some reasons why God did it. It was not an irrational, meaningless exception. No. Through the resurrection of Christ, God not only brought the body of Christ to resurrection life, but accomplished deliverance from death and damnation for all who belong to Christ (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:45–49). The whole of it makes sense, provided that you believe in God.

Let us consider God’s rule over the world in greater detail. God governs the world by speaking. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). It is God who spoke and specified that plants reproduce “according to their kinds” (Genesis 1:11–12). It is God who rules the weather by speaking: “He sends out his word, and melts [the snow and ice]” (Psalm 147:18). When scientists seek to discover scientific laws, they are actually looking for the word of God that governs the processes they are studying. If they think they understand a specific regularity, they may call it a “law”: Newton’s laws of motion, Newton’s law of gravitation, Kirchhoff’s laws for electric circuits. These laws are human summaries of the actual law — namely, God’s word, his speech, which governs motion and gravity and electric circuits and everything else.

“Scientific investigation depends on God, day by day.”

It should be clear, then, that scientific investigation depends on God, day by day. It could never show the impossibility of miracles. Scientists discover what some of the regularities are. But they cannot tell God that he cannot act exceptionally.

Science Then and Now

The history of the rise of modern science confirms this principle. Many of the early scientists, like Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton, were Christian believers themselves, or were heavily influenced by a Christian worldview. It was the Christian worldview that gave them the incentive to study the world and look for regularities. Because they believed in one God, who was the source of all rationality, they knew that the world itself was governed rationally. There was hope for understanding it. This hopeful situation contrasts with what happens in polytheistic religions. If there are many gods and if they fight with each other, the world itself is semi-chaotic. It may seem to be hopeless to find in it a consistent order.

The early scientists also knew that man was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). So there was hope that the human mind could be fundamentally in tune with the mind of God. Even though our minds are limited, there was hope that, with God’s help, we could begin to understand some of his ways in governing the world.

By contrast, in our day many people understand science as a discipline radically at odds with God. Scientific laws are thought to be an impersonal mechanism. It is this assumption about an impersonal origin, rather than the details of scientific experiments, that is the source of religious skepticism. In other words, when some people do work in science, they bring in an assumption about an impersonal origin, before they ever start. They bring that assumption into whatever science they study. Even Christians who engage in science may unconsciously absorb the assumption. It is inevitable, if they follow that assumption consistently, that they will not allow exceptions. They will deny the possibility of miracles.

This assumption of impersonalism helps to explain why there is so much conflict about evolution and the days of creation. The standard mainstream approach to evolution says that new plants and animals originate only by very gradual, unguided processes that go back to the first cell, and even before that (so-called “chemical evolution”). The framework of assumptions includes the assumption that God did not in a sudden way miraculously create any new species or any family of living things. People also hold this assumption when they come to the subject of the origin of humanity. Before ever looking at genetic information or fossil bones from apes, the mainstream scientist assumes, as a given, that humanity must have originated by gradual processes from earlier kinds of creatures. And the most likely predecessors are apes. (Even before the rise of Darwin’s theory, biologists who classified animals into larger groups saw that on anatomical grounds the natural larger group for human beings was the primates.)

Origin of the Universe

Similar influences from assumptions confront us when we look at scientific theories for the origin of the universe. The usual mainstream approach assumes from the beginning that there are no miracles, no discontinuities in the normal operation of physical causes. The reconstruction of the past history of the universe assumes that the past history operates in line with the same system of physical regularities that scientists can test today in the laboratory. It is an assumption. No one proves it. Indeed, no one can prove it, because we cannot literally transport ourselves into the past with a time machine. For all we know, God may have governed the universe differently in the past. God is a personal God, not a set of mechanical rules.

The key role of assumption becomes vividly evident if we consider briefly one of the theories that Christians have suggested, to show the possibility of harmony between the Bible and the current state of the universe. There are a number of such theories, and several of them have some merit. This particular theory, called the theory of “mature creation,” observes that God created Adam and Eve as mature (Genesis 2:7, 21–22). Neither of them was a helpless baby when God first created them. But if God created them mature, is it not possible that he created the entire universe mature? And could it not have been coherently mature, so that it coherently looked billions of years old? Let us suppose that Adam looked about 24 years old. So the universe could have looked 14 billion years old, at the end of the period of six days during which God created it and brought it to maturity.

Not everyone is fond of this theory. To some, it may feel like a trick. But it illustrates the fact that scientists do not actually know for sure how old the universe is. They cannot say to God, “You can’t do it that way.” God is God.

Difficulties with Mindless Evolution

Ironically, severe difficulties for scientific explanation arise not in a Christian approach, but in an atheistic approach. How? Most forms of modern atheism say that human beings arose by mindless evolution from random motions of atoms and molecules. According to these conceptions, we are a cosmic accident. Our origin is thoroughly impersonal. There is no personal plan from God. There is no special reason for expecting that human beings with their distinctly personal qualities would arise from the evolutionary goo. In the end, we are just blobs of goo. We just happen to have some peculiar and unaccountable abilities to be conscious and to think about truth.

“The theory of evolution fails to provide a basis for believing that it is true.”

But then can we trust our own minds? All that an atheistic theory of evolution requires is that we would be fit to survive. It cannot guarantee that our consciousness makes any difference (because survival is all about the proper firing of neurons, not consciousness). So there is no reason to believe that our minds are in contact with the truth. And if that is so, there is no reason to believe that the theory of evolution, which is a product of our minds, is in contact with the truth. The theory of evolution fails to provide a basis for believing that it is true.1

Guiding Principles for Dealing with Difficulties

Now, let us begin to list some of the guiding principles that can help us deal with apparent discrepancies between the Bible and science. In such a short space, of course, these principles are not a comprehensive treatment of such a large topic. For readers interested in learning more about the relationship between Scripture, science, and how God works in the world, I would recommend Reijer Hooykaas’s Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, John Piper’s Providence, and my own books Redeeming Science and Interpreting Eden.2

Principle 1

Our basic assumption: God rules the world.

We need as our basic assumption the truth that God created the world and that he rules it. God is our personal God, not a set of mechanical rules. God can act in exceptional ways (“miracles”) if he chooses. This assumption sets the stage for all the detailed study of the Bible and of the world.

Principle 2

God is consistent.

“There is no actual discrepancy between the Bible and the facts about the world.”

God is consistent with himself. Since he is consistent with himself, what he says in the Bible and what he does in ruling the world are consistent. There is no actual discrepancy between the Bible and the facts about the world. The discrepancies that come up are apparent. Because we are finite and God is infinite, we do not know everything. We cannot guarantee that, within one lifetime or many lifetimes on earth, we will be able to solve completely to our own satisfaction all the apparent discrepancies. There is hope that we might solve at least some of them, if not many of them, because the discrepancies are only apparent. But we cannot guarantee beforehand when a solution will arise.

We must be patient and trust God. He knows what he is doing, even when we do not. These are fundamental aspects of Christian living. Everyone in his individual life confronts events that seem inexplicable and frustrating and painful. The events may seem to be incompatible with God’s goodness and with what we expect him to do. (Think of Job.) The same kind of dissonance that happens in our personal life can also happen when we try to compare the claims in the Bible with the claims made by modern scientists.

Principle 3

The Bible is the word of God.

The Bible is what God says. God has put his word in writing, through human authors whom he raised up and directed. So what the Bible says is fully trustworthy. What the Bible says is true.

Whole books are devoted to showing that the Bible is the word of God.3 We cannot repeat all the arguments here. Let us mention only a few verses, in order to remember that the Bible makes this claim for itself. The most famous verse for showing that the Bible is the word of God is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” Similarly, 2 Peter 1:21 says, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Jesus affirms the divine authority of the Old Testament in a number of places (Matthew 5:17–20; 19:4; John 10:35). These verses are the tip of the iceberg.

Principle 4

God gave human beings dominion, so scientific investigation is legitimate.

As we saw earlier, the people responsible for the early steps in the growth of modern science operated with assumptions in tune with a biblical worldview. The truths about God and about their being made in the image of God actually encouraged their scientific explorations. The same should be true today. Scientists work more robustly if they can come back to serving a personal God, rather than imagining that laws are impersonal mechanisms.

Principle 5

Scientists’ formulations are not the word of God, but human reflections concerning evidence in the world.

Scientific formulations are not parallel to the Bible. The Bible is infallible, because it is the word of God. It is composed of words and sentences that God crafted (through human authors) in order to express the truth and communicate it to us. We can trust what it says.

By contrast, all the work of modern scientists is human work. God gives them gifts. God gives them insights. God gives them energy for their labors. But it is all fallible. Scientists may say many true things, but because they are fallible, we cannot merely assume that what they say is true. It has to be tested. And of course, when sciences are operating in a healthy way, the first line of testing is through other scientists. Experiments may be repeated, under varying conditions. Alternative hypotheses may be tried out.

Sometimes a particular scientific theory settles in. Scientists have growing confidence in a single theory, which the majority see as the right explanation, fruitful in further research. Newton’s theory of gravity became one such theory. It seemed to many scientists that it was a kind of final answer about the working of gravity. Knowledgeable people felt that it was destined never to be superseded. But it turned out, even then, that it was not the final theory. It was eventually superseded by Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity and theory of general relativity.

Normally we have confidence in established theories, because they have borne the test of time. But even here, we should remind ourselves of several cautions.

Even well-established theories are fallible in principle.
Even well-established theories may have exceptions, because God is a personal God who can work miracles.
Even well-established theories, such as Newton’s theory of gravity, can be superseded in surprising ways by a later theory.
Even well-established theories can have deep difficulties and call for suspicion, if they rely on hidden assumptions that are false. For Darwinism, one such assumption is that biological development is unguided (purposeless).
Theories about the past require assumptions about the continuities of lawful regularities in the past. They are intrinsically on a less firm basis than theories that can be tested in the present (such as Newton’s theory of gravity, or Kirchhoff’s laws for electrical circuits).

We must therefore distinguish two kinds of scientific investigation. Historical science tries to reconstruct the past. It includes theories about the origins of kinds of plants and animals; theories about the origins of the geologic strata; theories about the origin of the moon, the planets, the comets, and the asteroids; and theories about the origins of galaxies. Nomothetic science studies the regularities of processes that are currently taking place. Nomothetic science is more firmly established, because it rests on repeatable experiments. Historical science has to deal with one-of-a-kind events in the past. Some of these events may have been miraculous. Nomothetic science avoids the difficulties of the miraculous by relying on repetition. A single anomalous event would eventually be excluded from a formulation that describes regularities.

Principle 6

Though the Bible is infallible, all later human interpretations of the Bible are fallible.

We must distinguish what the Bible says from what we or other human interpreters think it says or implies. The basic teachings of the Bible concerning salvation are clear. But not all the details of its affirmations are equally clear. The Westminster Confession of Faith gives a balanced summary concerning the clarity of the Bible:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (1.7)

Because not everything is equally clear, and because even the parts that are clear can be twisted in people’s minds because of sin, all merely human interpretations are fallible.

Principle 7

Apparent discrepancies between the Bible and science are discrepancies between fallible human interpretations of the Bible and fallible scientific pronouncements, based on fallible interpretations of evidence from the world.

The source of discrepancies lies in human fallibility, which extends both to interpretations of the Bible and to everything in modern sciences. There is no discrepancy in God himself. There is no discrepancy between what the Bible actually affirms and what is true concerning the world.

Principle 8

An apparent discrepancy needs further investigation.

When we find an apparent discrepancy, we do not immediately know whether it is due to a mistake in biblical interpretation, a mistake in scientific reasoning, or both. We should continue to trust that God is true, and wait patiently while we try to find the sources of mistakes.

Principle 9

The Bible has a practical priority, because of its design by God.

God designed the Bible to function as our guide in life (Psalm 19:7–11; 119:105). It is wisely tailored to our need for guidance and the need for a comprehensive remedy for sin. Moreover, it is completely true. It is a verbal expression, unlike the nonverbal evidence found in the created world. We should trust what it says. But we should also beware of trying to force it to provide answers about technical scientific details, which lie beyond what it actually says.

Principle 10

When there is an apparent discrepancy, we should see whether there are competing explanations from scientists or from Bible interpreters.

Scientific opinion is often divided. There is often one or even several minority opinions, as well as a majority opinion. Majority opinion tends to get amplified by social pressure and in the popular press.

People who are not scientists themselves may feel that they are not competent to evaluate the claims of specialists. But frequently, scientists make claims far outside of their specialty, and in that kind of case they have no special competence beyond anyone else. Even when they make claims within their specialty, there may be competing viewpoints and competing claims that they do not want to mention. We do well to be aware that the actual work of science has a social component, and that healthy science includes healthy disagreements, which sometimes extend even into the middle of major theories. (There are to this day competing interpretations of the meaning of quantum mechanics.)

If an ordinary person wants to be well-informed about a particular special issue, he should be careful not merely to do his reading within a single circle of opinion, even if it is a Christian circle (other Christians may disagree).

Principle 11

The Bible gives us sufficient instruction for the next practical step in obeying God, even when we have many unanswered questions about the apparent discrepancies.

God is faithful, and he understands the limitations of our knowledge. He has given us enough to know him, through Jesus Christ, and to walk in his way.

How Should Christians Think about History?

The Bible tells us about the beginning of history by giving an account of the creation of the world (Gen. 1–2). It tells us about the goal of history by telling us about the new heaven and the new earth to come (Rev. 21:1–22:5). We ourselves, and all the things and events around us, dwell in the time in between. The events in the in-between times have significance. That significance comes from God. Events unfold from an origin shaped by God. And they all have purposes, because they lead forward to a goal shaped by God. Each event happens in accord with God’s plan (Isa. 46:9–10; Lam. 3:37–38; Eph. 1:11). Each event is known by God from all eternity, because it is planned by him.

Is there a distinctively Christian approach to history? And if so, what does it look like in practice? How should we think about history? How should we write about history? How should we read critically the historical accounts of the past? How should each of us think about his own personal history and the history of relatives and friends?
Everyone participates in a single large historical stream of events, traveling from past to future. So does it make any difference what one believes about the events? As we read the Bible, we find that there are several ways in which God guides us to think in a distinct way about history.
Our beliefs about history make a difference because everyone wants to find meaning in history. If there is no God, if each of us is just atoms in motion, there is no overall meaning. All of it is “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”1[1] Out of his own mind, each person can still try to invent his own personal meaning for himself and for his surroundings. But deep down he is aware that it is his invention. It signifies nothing, ultimately, because in the end we are all dead. Such a picture is bleak.
By contrast, the Bible indicates that events have meaning, given by God. We ourselves are human beings created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27). We have significance as persons. God is personal, and he has created us as persons. We are to live in fellowship with him.
The Bible tells us about the beginning of history by giving an account of the creation of the world (Gen. 1–2). It tells us about the goal of history by telling us about the new heaven and the new earth to come (Rev. 21:1–22:5). We ourselves, and all the things and events around us, dwell in the time in between. The events in the in-between times have significance. That significance comes from God. Events unfold from an origin shaped by God. And they all have purposes, because they lead forward to a goal shaped by God. Each event happens in accord with God’s plan (Isa. 46:9–10; Lam. 3:37–38; Eph. 1:11). Each event is known by God from all eternity, because it is planned by him.
In sum, we can have meaning in our lives because God gives meaning. Christians, unlike many other people with different views, believe in a God of meaning. This is important even when we cannot presently discern the meaning.
God’s Control
One primary principle is that God is in charge of events, both big and small.
[God] removes kings and sets up kings.—Dan. 2:21
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.—Matt. 10:29–30
His rule is comprehensive:
Who has spoken and it came to pass,unless the Lord has commanded it?Is it not from the mouth of the Most Highthat good and bad come?—Lam. 3:37–38
As a result, Christians have a source of security. The universe is under the control of our loving Father. His control is thorough and meticulous. We need to acknowledge his sovereignty and to give him thanks: “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18).
History involves events, persons, and the meanings that belong to them. All three—the events, the persons, and the meaning—come from God. All fit together into a coherent whole, because there is only one God who rules over all (Ps. 103:19).
God’s Purposes
If God is involved in everyone’s life, in all circumstances, what are the implications? The first implication is to acknowledge his presence and to be aware of his presence. But how? There are two extremes to avoid.
Overconfidence about Purposes
One extreme is to be overconfident that we can know and discern God’s purposes in the details of events. The Bible tells us about God’s overall goal and his overall purpose, to “unite all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). It also indicates that a prime means for moving toward that goal is the spread of the gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . . . ”(Matt. 28:19). But what about the particulars? People sometimes make confident pronouncements. For example, Job’s friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—thought that they knew the reason for the disasters that befell Job. They said that the disasters showed that God was punishing Job for some particular sins for which he needed to repent. But the book of Job as a whole shows that they were wrong in their supposition. Likewise, when the disciples inquired in John 9:2 about the man born blind, they supposed that either he or his parents had sinned and that the calamity was the result of the sin. But Jesus answered that it was “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (Job 9:3).
God’s purposes are deep. We are not God. We need to recognize that, although God always has his purposes, many of those purposes in their details are hidden from us.
Read More

Singing That Builds Up

How might leaders make the best decisions that contribute to the best congregational singing? That is not an easy question to answer. It involves paying attention to the broad principles for worship, which are based on the authority of the Bible. But it also involves application to many congregations and many circumstances.

As we saw previously, meetings for worship should be conducted for the glory of God, and for the purpose of building up the people, the Christian community. Everything in worship should be oriented to these goals. Building on the principles set out in Part I, we now concentrate on congregational singing, in distinction from performances. Congregational singing, like other elements in worship, should serve to glorify God and build up the people. That is what it means for it to be spiritually healthy.
Now, how might leaders make the best decisions that contribute to the best congregational singing? That is not an easy question to answer. It involves paying attention to the broad principles for worship, which are based on the authority of the Bible. But it also involves application to many congregations and many circumstances. The applications may vary with the circumstances. When it comes to application, people may sometimes sincerely disagree about how best to embody biblical principles.
Application calls for flexibility in a few ways. There are many cultures and languages in the world, and with the cultures come different kinds of music. This diversity holds not only with respect to cultures in different continents, but subcultures within the United States and subcultures in other countries. Music can be chosen with attention to the cultural setting. There is room for music especially suited for children, or for young people, or for people for whom English is a second language, or for multi-ethnic congregations, or for youth camps, or for evangelistic concerts, or for prayer meetings. Special music can be presented by soloists and choirs. Leaders may occasionally include musical styles that are less familiar or that appeal to the preferences of only some portion of the congregation.
But leaders need also to keep in mind what are the long-range goals. At its best, flexibility allows us space to choose the most effective path toward the goal; it does not mean ignoring the goal because we tell ourselves that we may do as we please.
So let us consider some features in song selection that promote healthy congregational singing in the long run. I offer these features as my opinions and as my suggestions. Others may disagree. Whatever conclusions different people reach, I want to encourage us to be thoughtful about why we make the choices we make.
Verbal Content
The first feature to consider in congregational singing is the verbal content of what is sung. That content should be orthodox in doctrine. It should set forth truths that are based on the teaching of the Bible. This principle follows from what Col. 3:16 says about teaching. In church, singing is a form of teaching. Singing is supposed to communicate “the word of Christ.” Since Christ is God, and the Bible is the word of God, the whole Bible can be the contents of Christian songs.[1] The contents are not limited to the recorded words of Christ while he lived on earth. But contents must be solidly based on the Bible, not on modern ideas.
Care should also be taken to see that the content is rich. We need to inspect the content, not only for orthodoxy, but for substance. Does the content predominantly set forth main themes of the Bible and main tenets of the gospel? In other words, are we majoring on majors, or only on minors? To major on majors means that we should not despise simpler and more elementary expressions of the central truths of the gospel. Simple they may be, but they also have depth. We should never tire of hearing what one song calls “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
In addition, content includes the riches of the Bible. So, complementary to our attention to the simplicity of the gospel, we should pay attention to the riches of the gospel. We may ask, “Does our song content at any point go deeper than the simplest expressions of truth? Does the content honor God, in his greatness? Does it honor Christ, in his compassion, his obedience, his righteousness, his suffering, his resurrection, and his present-day rule from heaven? Or does it merely focus on human feelings? Is the content too repetitious?”
We should also ask questions about balance. In the selection of words from week to week, do people get a balanced diet, so to speak? Is there adequate attention to darker topics, such as suffering, death, and the wrath of God? Or is everything tailored to create a superficial happy mood? Does the content reflect on the past, including the Old Testament? Does it reflect on the future (the Second Coming)? Or it is always narrowed focused on us as we live in the present?
There is much need for discernment. If a congregation is composed primarily of believers who are new converts, simpler content is desirable. If a congregation is composed primarily of believers who are much more mature, a diet of only very simple truths can be frustrating, as well as not maximally effective in using the opportunity for teaching. There is no simple recipe that will fit every circumstance. In all circumstances, we need to be guided by the long-range goal of glorifying God and building up the church, not simply by short-term preferences.
Read More

Singing with the Saints

The teaching takes place not only by hearing the message that people around us sing, but by singing the message ourselves. This benefit is confirmed by modern observations about how people learn. People learn more effectively and more deeply if they not only hear, but try to re-express what they learn. Getting one’s voice involved deepens one’s participation. Singing engages our emotions, and may help to make the message more memorable. People remember songs that they have sung repeatedly, and embrace them more deeply. Their active participation reinforces their memory.

For decades now, Christian congregations have had to deal with differences in musical styles in Christian worship. Some prefer “contemporary music.” Others prefer “traditional music.” The differences become a source of contention. Sadly, we now have the term “worship wars,” as a label to describe the extent to which music in worship has become a battleground.
We should not want more wars, especially within the bounds of the church. Therefore, a discussion of music and singing in the church must begin by recalling Christ’s command: Christians should love one another as Christ has loved us (John 15:12 ESV; see 13:34; 1 John 4:19). Loving one another is a central principle in the life of the people of God. We need not only to teach the principle, but to practice it. Any disagreement or tension in the body of Christ should be seen as an occasion to practice Christian love.
My purpose here is not to talk about Christian love, important as that is. My focus is rather on one specific element: congregational singing. I wish not to create tension, but to ask both pastors and musicians, both leaders and followers in the Christian faith, to approach the issue of congregational singing with wisdom and with balance. For the sake of the health of the church, we want congregational singing to contribute to that health.
How do we best do that? In this four-part series, I briefly set forth my own thoughts. Even if other brothers and sisters may not agree, I hope this may help lead the conversation in a positive direction.
As we have observed, one prime factor is love, and with love, patience. We should bear with other people in the congregation, and bear with decisions about singing with which we disagree. But now what else should go into the decision-making and practice of a Christian congregation?
Mind the Goal
What should be the long-range goal in congregational singing? Everything that we do in Christian worship and in all of life, we should do for sake of honoring God, that is, for sake of promoting the glory of God: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). The glory of God is primary and essential.
In addition, the Bible indicates that church meetings should have the aim of building up the church: “Let all things [that take place when the people assemble] be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26). The goal is that the people should grow in spiritual maturity, not only individually but as a body, as a community. Nearly the whole of 1 Cor. 14 is about the importance of building up the church, and how this goal regulates and guides the details of what happens during a congregational assembly. Likewise Eph. 4:1-16 has a focus on building up the church. According to Eph. 4, the goal is “the stature of the fullness of Christ” (verse 13). We are “to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (verse 15).
We have two goals before us: the glory of God and the building up of the church. These two goals are not two diverse goals that pull in opposite directions. Rather, each implies the other. Building up the church takes place properly only when we are serving God and seeking to please him. So we need to seek the glory of God in Christian worship.
We can also reason the other way, starting with the glory of God. Seeking God’s glory includes seeking to honor his commandment to love one another. This means we cannot seek God’s glory properly without attending to the goal of building up the church. Seeking the glory of God and seeking to build up the church are two sides of the same coin. The two aspects, oriented toward God and toward fellow Christians, are intended by God to work together harmoniously.
How do we build up the church? Much is involved. We need the power of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us and among us.
Read More

Let There Be Light

The basic guidelines for interpreting Genesis 1–3 derive from Scripture itself. If we follow the guide of Scripture, we will read Genesis 1–3 with understanding. We will not have all our questions answered, because Genesis 1–3 does not say everything that could be said about the details of how God did things. Much remains mysterious.

ABSTRACT: The beginning of the book of Genesis is not, as some claim, a mythical or poetic account of creation. It is historical narrative, telling the same story that unfolds in the patriarchs, the exodus, and the establishment of Israel. And, being from God, it speaks truly. Modern readers may not learn everything they would like to know about creation from Genesis 1–3, but they will find everything they most need to know. They also will find an account of creation unlike anything outside the Bible. Compared to the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors, Genesis stands majestically alone.
How do we interpret Genesis 1–3 in a sound way? It is not so easy to find out just by listening to and reading modern interpreters. There are many voices, and they disagree with one another.
I have only one main piece of advice. We learn how to read Genesis 1–3 wisely in the same way that we learn to read the rest of the Bible wisely. And how is that? By taking to heart what the Bible itself says. Several aspects of biblical teaching need to be taken into account.
Let us begin with a foundational issue: the nature of God.
Who God Is

Does God exist? And what kind of God is he? Is he a God who can create the world, in the way that Genesis 1 describes? Is he the kind of God who could fashion the first woman from the rib of Adam, as Genesis 2:21–22 describes? Is he the kind of God who can speak in an audible voice from the top of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:9–20:22; Deuteronomy 5:2–22)? Is he the kind of God who can multiple five loaves and two fish, so that they feed five thousand men (John 6)?
Most of elite culture in the modern Western world does not believe in a God like that. Rather, the culture is deeply influenced by philosophical materialism, which says that matter is the ultimate constituent of the world. If some kind of a god exists, he is not involved in the world in the way that the Bible describes. He is not a God who speaks or who works miracles.
In addition, some people are influenced by New Age mysticism. They believe in various kinds of spiritual influence. But their “god,” if they call it that, is an aspect of nature.
The issue of God is monumentally important. If God is not a God such as the Bible describes, then either the Bible is a lie or it has to be radically reinterpreted. And that is what people do. Much of the academic study of the Bible at major universities of the world takes place under the assumption that the way we read the Bible must harmonize with modern ideas about the world. Hence, this academic study corrupts the Bible. And then this corruption travels out into general culture.
But in fact, God exists — the same God that the Bible describes. Therefore, the elite people in Western culture are walking in the dark about God. It is the culture, not the Bible, that has to be radically reinterpreted. Genesis 1–3 is one text — a crucial text — that shows the massive difference between the Bible’s view of God and common modern Western views.
The first point, then, is that when we read the Bible, we need to reckon with who God is.
The Divine Authorship of the Bible

A second issue concerns the nature of the Bible. It is the word of God. It is what God says.
One principal reason for the diversity of readings of Genesis 1–3 is an underlying diversity of opinion about what kind of text the Bible is. Much of the academic study of Genesis takes place with the assumption that God is not the author of Genesis. In effect, academics deny the divine inspiration of the Bible. This denial follows directly from the prior assumption that God does not speak. According to modern Western thinking, either God does not exist, or he was not involved in the writing of Genesis in a special way. Or, if he was involved somehow, he deferred pretty much to the human author or authors. One way or another, these people discount divine meaning and search only for human meaning.
Clearly, the issue of divine authorship makes a difference in what meanings come out at the end, because a misjudgment about who the author is leads to a misjudgment about what he means. Or, according to some postmodern interpretive approaches, verbal texts and the readers who interact with texts float in a sea of meanings, more or less independent of either God or human authors. But this kind of multiplication of meanings is a mistake, because it discounts the unique authority of God to say what he means and to do so with unique authority.
So it is worthwhile asking whether the Bible teaches divine authorship. It does, in any number of places. Second Peter 1:21 says, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” This verse affirms a role for human authors: “men spoke . . .” But it emphasizes that the more ultimate and decisive author is God: “men spoke from God”; and “they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Jesus himself affirms the divine authority of the Old Testament in a number of places and a number of ways (Matthew 5:17–20; 19:4–5; 26:54; John 10:35). Interested readers can consult any number of books by evangelical authors, showing how the Bible affirms its own divine authorship and authority (2 Timothy 3:16).
Since God is a God of truth (John 3:33), his word is truth (John 17:17). He can be trusted. The Bible can be trusted, because it is his word. That must be our attitude as we read Genesis 1–3 — and every other passage in the Bible.
So here, in the fact of divine authorship, we have a second central principle in interpreting the Bible. We read and study it with respect and trust, rather than distrust. Just as we must reinterpret modern Western culture in its view of God, so, for the same reason, we must avoid imitating the distrust that the culture has toward the Bible. We avoid also the human temptation to pick and choose the meanings that please our prior preferences, or picking and choosing to believe only those parts of the Bible that line up with our preferences. That picking and choosing makes sense only for people who have already rejected God.
The Genre of Genesis

Next, let us ask what kind of a book Genesis is. In accord with the richness of who God is, what God says in the Bible includes a variety of forms or genres of literature. God chooses a variety of ways of communicating, in order that we may absorb what he says and grow in communion with him in a variety of complementary ways. The book of Psalms, for example, is a collection of poetic songs and prayers. In the Gospels, we find sermons of Jesus (such as the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5–7), parables, records of miracles, records of healings, and the record of the crucifixion. The Bible has prophetic books like Isaiah that contain exhortations, recollections of God’s past dealings, and predictions about the future. There are historical books, such as 1–2 Kings, that have a record of past events in the history of Israel.
Each literary section of the Bible was crafted by God, as well as by the human author (2 Peter 1:21). It is exactly what God designed to say, not only in its contents, but also in all its details, including the features of genre. If we respect God, then we should take into account how he chooses to communicate. It would be a mistake, for example, if an interpreter were to treat Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3–7) as if it were a prosaic nonfictional account that is merely about one shepherd and one sheep. It is a fictional story with a spiritual point. The point is indicated at the end: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Jesus also indicates near the beginning of the parable that it is hypothetical, rather than an actual case in real life: “. . . if he [the shepherd] has lost one of them [the sheep], . . .” (Luke 15:4).
Read More

Why Casinos Always Win in the End

Guest, Vern Poythress, explains why casinos don’t lose money.

Should We Flip a Coin to Find God’s Will?

Guest, Vern Poythress discusses chance and the sovereignty of God.

Scroll to top