Notes on the Theology of Music and Liturgy

Sacred Music Retreat
St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary
Fr. Anthony Perkins
11 June 2017

Here is the audio of the talk:

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. (John 1:1)

God brought creation into being ex nihilo.    It was undifferentiated, “without substance or form”.

It was a chaos of unlimited and ungoverned possibilities.  Tohu and bohu.  It was powerful, but undisciplined and overpowering.  It is the madness of infinity.  It has no patterns.  It is all noise and no signal.  (Or rather, it is every signal possible, which is the same thing.)

As such it is a reflection of the ineffability and power of its Creator but lacks the possibility of communication and harmony.  So while this undifferentiated creation reflects God’s power and incomprehensibility, it is also in important ways completely unlike God.

This is a great mystery.  God is uncreated and beyond all things.  Because of this, He is able to be both incomprehensible and harmonious; unlimited but loving and lovable.  Creation is not like God.  It must be patterned to allow for understanding; it must be differentiated to allow for harmony; it must be bounded for there to be love.

In other mythologies, this chaos predated the gods and they subdued it; tearing it into pieces so that it could become something useful.  For example, Marduk defeated Tiamat and create the earth and sky from its divisions.  The tie in is not just mythological; the word “tohu” (chaos, a thing that lacks function or form) is derived from the word “Tiamat”!  But note that in the “myth that is true” (i.e. Christianity) it is God Himself that makes the chaos out of nothing.  It is not something that He has to battle with, but something that exists to be given function and form (for specific purposes).  The Psalmist describes it this way (Psalm 103: 25-26; from our Vespers service);

 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
    which teems with things innumerable,
    living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
    and Leviathan which thou didst form to sport in it.

The True God created the chaos, in this case described as “Leviathan”, so that it could sport in the waters (which themselves are stand-ins for chaos; not that much of Psalm 103 describes the control God has over the water, as well)!  It was not something that was a threat to God, but something that was put there specifically so that meaning could be drawn from it.  The first chapter of Genesis describes this process.  It is not a (flawed) materialist blow by blow description of the history of how everything came into being, but a poetic description of the function and meaning of all things.

What does this have to do with music?

Music is a fractal of creation.  The story of the creation of the cosmos is the story of music, writ large.

[Time for audience participation.  Think of your favorite bit of music that praises God.  Sing it to yourself, without making any noise.  Now, when I give you the downbeat, let’s all sing our favorite songs of praise out loud.  When you are finished, just wait quietly.  The moral to this?  Music is not automatic.  It does not happen by itself.  Not we will look at how music can be brought from noise.  We’ll be using what happened as an example for much of the below).]

A Retelling of Creation (using music as a metaphor for functional creation):

In the beginning, God created sound, and it was a cacophonous  tohu and bohu of undifferentiated noise all jumbled together; and the Spirit of God moved over the sound.  And God said let there be tone, and let there be tone and God saw that the tone was good; and God separated the tone from the silence.  And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (v.1-4)

And God said, “Let there by harmony within the tone, and let the octaves above the tonic sound above it and none below it.” And it was so.  And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. (v. 6-8). 

And God said, “Let there be various tones with their own octaves above their own tonic below, each according to its kind.”  And it was so.  And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning, a third day. (v. 9-13).

And God said, “let there by time as a precondition for notes and rests; and for music that will have beginnings and endings and all manner of movement in between.”  And it was so.  And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening, and there was morning, a fourth day.  (v. 14-19)

And God said, “let there be chords that can provide harmony according to their kind.  And let these harmonies be fruitful and fill the space with their beauty.”  And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.  (v. 20-23)

And God said, “let there be melodies as tones work their way the time and the heavens; and let there be counter-melodies each according to their kinds, and chords with their progressions each according to their kinds.” (v. 24-25).  

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in Our own Image, after Our Likeness; and let them have dominion over the tones, and the chords, and the melodies with their beginnings and ends and everything in between, and over the counter-melodies, and the rests, and the chords with their progressions.”  So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.  And God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and turn the noise of the world into music, using your dominion over  the tones, and the chords, and the melodies with their beginnings and ends and everything in between, and over the counter-melodies, and the rests, and the chords with their progressions.”  And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.  And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day. (v.s 26- 31)

Here is Another Retelling (from C.S. Lewis)

“In the darkness something was happening at last.  A voice had begun to sing…it seemed to come from all directions at once…Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself.  There were no words.  There was hardly even a tune.  But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard.  It was so beautiful Digory could hardly bear it.”  C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew.

And Another (from J.R.R. Tolkien) 

“And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.
     Then Ilúvatar said to them: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’  
     But when they were come into the Void, Ilúvatar said to them: ‘Behold your Music!’ And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it. And as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew.”  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (pps 3-4).

And This (from Dostoyevsky)

“Beauty will save the world.”  Fyodor Dostoyevsky,  The Idiot.

The First Chapter of Genesis IS Worship:

  • The Lord made the world in a Liturgy “He spoke and it was created” (Psalm 33:5).
  • He made us the “royal priesthood” of this creation and the Liturgy.
  • The Liturgy defines, sustains, and – because it is a realization of the Incarnation of Christ – perfects the world (and us)
  • This is necessary because there are other forces that tryd; to redefine and tear down the world and us
  • We work within the pattern to extend it into the chaos
  • Through Christ we can turn the desert places into farmland; make the rough places smooth; bring light into darkness and love into loneliness

Music is a HUGE part of this process; by looking at how music works, we can get a better feel for how all these things work.

How Doing Music Well Patterns Us towards Perfection:

  • Listening (how else can we love if we do not know the other?  How can we serve it?  What heppens when we do not listen?)
  • Matching pitch and tempo; without serviving with skill, our work is noise – no matter what our intent!
  • Harmonizing.  Balance between roles; what is our role?  How does it fit in to the overall work?
  • Submission (tempo, key, needs) … and expressiveness.  There is no creativity without some order… but there is stagnation without creativity
  • Offering our best; participation in beauty, harmonious unity, and perfection

The Harmony of Spheres: How Music Witnesses to the Perfection and Beauty of God

  • The beauty of (pregnant and anticipatory) silence
  • The Overtone Series: the stamp of the Logos on every sound
  • Built-in Harmony: we are ever really alone… and others bring out the best in us
  • The need for shared symbols and stories (no harmony without it); we MUST have tradition (not just dogma)
  • The interplay of order and fecundity

But There’s More:  Worship is Incarnational

  • Music is the Logos; prophetic of His nature, purpose, and His Trinitarian context
  • The Words describe the Logos … and celebrate His salvific presence among us
  • Put the words to the music… and have a group of Christians sing them in praise of God!!!

Additional Reading

Jeremy S. Begbie.  Theology, Music, and Time (Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine).

David Bentley Hart.  The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.

Calvin R. Stapert.  A New Song for an Old World; Musical Thought in the Early Church.

John H. Walton.  The Lost World of Genesis One. Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.



  1. Kenneth P Donhauser says:

    Enjoy hearing you speak June 12, 2017, in Bound Brook. Thank You.

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