A Response to “Redeeming the Arts”

by John M. Frame

[This article was published in Creative Spirit 4.2 (Nov., 2005), 19-21, and is used here by permission.]


In the paper “Redeeming the Arts,” I liked the Trinitarian emphasis of the document described in the Prologue: education, discipleship, transformation.1 So the arts, as all areas of human life, must be subject to God’s revelation, must proceed from a godly character, and must be fully engaged in the world God has made.

I was also pleased by the document’s broad understanding of art (Prologue), “a creative activity that calls for skill and imagination.” On this definition, of course, there is “art” in many human activities other than “the arts.” But this is to say that art is an aspect of all human culture. That counters the tendency to identify art with “high art” and thereby deals a blow to elitist viewpoints.

I also agree with the document’s broad understanding of redemption (Act 1, Scene 3). In the categories developed by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture,2 RA is “transformationalist:” Christ is the transformer of culture. In this respect it differs from those who adopt what Niebuhr called “Christ and culture in paradox” (historically typical of Lutheranism) and “Christ above culture” (historically typical of Roman Catholicism). These last two views put a heavy emphasis on the sacred-secular distinction, which RA sets aside (Act 1, Scene 3; Act 2, Scene 2). The “Christ and culture in paradox” or “two kingdoms” position3 tends to reduce the role of the church to preaching and sacrament. But RA wants the church also to be “patron of the arts” (Act 2, Scene 2)! So it insists that the work of the church is broader than evangelism, narrowly considered (Act 3, Scene 1). Art is not evangelism per se, but neither is it a merely secular discipline, irrelevant to the work of the church. It can “’bear witness’ to truth” in its own distinctive way, allusive and indirect (Act 3, Scene 2), and the church should encourage the arts for this purpose. This does not mean, of course, that the only purpose of art is to support the preaching of the gospel. The church should also support artists who work primarily in the marketplace, rather than in the church itself (Act 3, Scene 4).

What stands in the way of such a wholesome relationship between the church and the arts? RA rightly draws attention to the neglect of imagination in many Christian circles. “Imagination is the ability to look beyond what is immediately present, to what might be…. To clarify, the role of the imagination is not to take us away from reality, but to expose us to new ways of seeing things.” Scripture itself communicates mainly through narrative and poetry, rather than propositional instruction—nearly the reverse of the pattern in church teaching today (Act 2).

Well, then, why has the church done injustice to the imagination? Act 1, Scene 1 focuses on three factors: (1) the “Jewish prohibition of idolatry,” (2) the church’s sympathy for Plato’s disparagement of the arts as “mere imitation,” and (3) Augustine’s fear that the arts were dangerous to the spiritual life, and (4) the secularization of the arts in the modern period.

It seems to me that we should take notice also of the emphasis on the “primacy of the intellect” that came to dominate especially the Reformed branch of Protestantism. The Reformation was largely a scholars’ movement, and Protestantism tended to appeal to the better educated. Zwingli eliminated music from worship altogether and turned it into a teaching meeting. Bucer, Calvin, and others did not take this drastic step, but they too insisted on the primacy of preaching and restricted the use of music largely to unaccompanied Psalm-versions. The Puritans held a good balance between intellectual rigor and “religious affections,” but one had to have strong intellectual interests to sit through long Puritan sermons and to benefit from them. In the twentieth century, partly in reaction against the anti-intellectualism of some fundamentalists, Gordon H. Clark and J. Gresham Machen presented theological and philosophical defenses of the “primacy of the intellect,” the view that God’s revelation always addresses the intellect first, and that the intellect then processes the information and distributes it to the will and the emotions. This emphasis is historically understandable, but profoundly unscriptural. If God addresses the intellect first, why does the Bible contain so little propositional instruction? In fact, the Bible does not even distinguish sharply between intellect, will, and emotions. It addresses the whole person, together with all his or her faculties. Intellect, will, and emotions are equally fallen and equally redeemed. None rules the others, but all are to be ruled by God’s word, enriching one another.4

These sorts of observations fit well and supplement the picture given in RA. The church, especially its Reformed branch, needs to frankly admit that intellectualism is an error to be corrected. Only then will it be in a position to serve as a patron of the arts. And only then can it effectively reach people with different educational, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds.5

I also wish that RA had done more to correct the “fear of idolatry,” to which it attributes some of the church’s suspicion of imagination and art. The prohibition of idolatry is not merely “Jewish.” It comes from the second of the Ten Commandments and many other passages of Scripture accepted by Jews and Christians alike. The New Testament also condemns idolatry in strong terms (Acts 17:16, 1 Cor. 5:11, 6:9, 10:7, etc.) So this issue is not merely a Jewish concern. But we should correct common misunderstandings of the biblical texts. The first sentence of the second commandment, “you shall not make for yourself a carved image,” appears to exclude any art work whatsoever. But that interpretation is unlikely, for no other passage in Scripture disparages art as such, and God expressly commissioned art for the tabernacle and temple. Rather, we should take that sentence together with what comes later, so that the commandment tells us not to make art objects for the purpose of bowing down to them—i.e., as objects of worship. So the commandment does not forbid art, nor the use of art in a worship area, nor even representations of God, for that matter. Art can be idolatrous, when it replaces God in our affections. But Scripture does not justify any general suspicion of art among Christians.

I was asked specifically to focus on Act 1, and although it is generally excellent, I would tweak a few things:

1. The paragraph on the fall of man in Act 1, Scene 2, ends by saying “the fall is one reason for creation’s orientation to the future—a future when all things will be made new.” This is true, but taken by itself the sentence might suggest that the fall brought some benefit to us. It seems to me that a deeper reason for creation’s orientation to the future is found in creation itself. For creation, by its very nature is temporal. Even before the fall, Adam and Eve looked ahead in time: to the replenishing and subduing of the earth (Gen. 1:28), to the end of God’s probation (Gen. 2:16-17), to a progressively deeper experience of God’s presence.

2. I would not say that art is “amoral” (Act 1, Scene 3). This is true if we consider art as an abstraction. But every individual work of art is the act of a human being or community. And every human act either glorifies God or fails to (1 Cor. 10:31). So art, considered concretely, is a deeply moral activity. Of course, the authors of RA are certainly aware of this fact, as is indicated by the overall emphasis of the document.

3. It seems to me that the solutions offered to the problem of cultivating Christian imagination (Act 1, Scene 4) focus too much on the academic. I agree that it is good to encourage educational organizations to teach the arts and the importance of the arts. But the solution ought to begin with Christian families and the church. The church, especially, needs to quell the “fear of imagination” by making better use of the arts in its ministry and especially in its worship.



1 This is very similar to the threefold structure of my own Theology of Lordship volumes, such as Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishers, 1997), and my forthcoming Doctrine of the Christian Life from the same publisher. “Education” in RA corresponds to my “normative perspective,” “discipleship” to the “existential perspective,” and “transformation” to the “situational perspective.” In my books I suggest that this Trinitarian approach is a useful way of approaching theology generally, and I’m happy that RA here applies it to the arts.

2 NY: Harper, 1956.

3 As in Michael S. Horton, Where in the World is the Church? (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1995, 2002).

4 I have discussed this issue more fully in Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.

5 RA includes a strong emphasis on the role of the arts in the church’s mission (Act 1, Scene 2).


Sign up to receive new posts via e-mail