How Relevant is Bach to the Contemporary Church? Pt 1
The following is part of an article I wrote for ByFaith magazine with the premise, What can Bach teach the 21st century Church about music and worship:
Johann Sebastian Bach was a musical genius, an intellectual giant, and a gracious man. Bach’s achievement in the area of music is one of the greatest tour de forces in the history of the world⎯on par with, or surpassing, that of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Dante, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Milton, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas. Bach was that great and significant. Even more compelling is the fact that he consciously and deliberately wrote all of his music from a Christian perspective and for the Glory of God.
Bach functioned on a multiplicity of levels: he conserved past styles and musical elements but innovated new forms and styles; he crafted his art and brought it to the highest imaginable summit while creating timeless works of beauty; as an artisan, he perfected his art with almost scientific precision while remaining lively and accessible to average listeners; as a communicator, he clearly conveyed a message while simultaneously embedding layers of symbolism⎯musical and extra-musical⎯that require studious inquiry to uncover.
As Hans Rookmakker once wrote, we must bring the Gospel to bear in the time in which God has placed us. Trying to return to a former musical epoch is chronological arrogance—whether it is the 18th century or the 1980’s. However, whether or not you ever sing his music in your church, Sebastian Bach still has much to teach us concerning the role of worship leader as well as a biblical approach to the arts. The principles of his application of the timeless Gospel to the how, why, what, and when of worship are just as appropriate, and needed, today.
Firstly, Bach was a theologian who clearly and firmly understood the Gospel. Bach’s personal understanding of biblical truth resonates throughout his music as he presents sound and weighty doctrine in a manner that challenges the listener to consider issues of the faith. The margin notes he wrote in his personal Bible testify to the depth of Bach’s knowledge and study of scripture and clearly indicate he was a thorough student of scripture—especially as it related to his specific calling. That fact should come as no surprise considering the careful and instructive manner in which he set scripture texts to music and used scripture to comment on other texts.
Bach preached musical sermons of theological complexity that explored the problem of sin and need for redemption as well as the path of grace and the way that Christ has made to fulfill the law and bring true freedom. His are no vague and sentimental works of dubious religiosity, but rather a firm assertion of the doctrines of grace as outlined in Reformation teachings. At the time of securing his position in Leipzig, Bach freely signed a statement indicating that he subscribed to the beliefs of sola Scriptura, sola gratia and sola fide and none other. Bach expressed a real and profound hope in eternal life and the resurrection of Christ. He readily identified himself as a sinner in need of God’s grace and mercy, he looked expectantly for redemption, and he expressed these beliefs through music.
In addition to the gospel-centered content of his vocal music, Bach’s faith and knowledge gave him the courage to stand against the erosion of biblical theology by the ideas of the Enlightenment. This struggle caused him decades of turmoil and strife, but he refused to relinquish his belief in the authority of scripture. After all, as a child of the Reformation, sola Scriptura was the bedrock of his faith—scripture alone as the rule and guide for all of life.
Bach was aware of the cultural trends and ideas of his day that demanded more subjective sensation in music, but he rejected those ideas based on his understanding of scripture.
Principle #1: A worship leader should be a student of Scripture who is constantly seeking to reform their ideas, worship, and aesthetics to the Word of God. God is the standard of beauty and excellence—our worship should seek after biblical excellence and objective beauty, goodness, and truth.
Principle #2: A worship leader should seek to understand the role of music and liturgy in worship in teaching doctrine—not only on a week-by-week basis but in the macrocosm of the life of the church.