Thursday, August 11, 2011

Charles Garside on Calvin's view of Psalmody pt.2

B.B. Warfield once made the pithy and insightful observation that the very genius of Calvin’s reforming activity is that upon finding Protestantism an unruly mob, he organized it and turned it into a disciplined army. Perhaps Warfield was reflecting on Calvin’s 1537 Articles when he made that statement. Several months after accepting Farel’s call to serve Geneva and to lead the Reformation there, Calvin submitted a set of ordinances to the city council of Geneva for their approval and implementation. These ordinances were designed to order and regulate both church and society, marking the first concrete steps toward structuring Geneva’s civic and church life according to the gospel. Four proposals formed the backbone of Calvin’s attempt to bring order to Geneva: church discipline, psalm-singing in public worship, catechizing the youth, and reform of marriage statutes.

Much could be said about the each of these four areas of emphasis. Of particular interest for our purposes is the second ordinance which institutes the singing of psalms in public worship. Standing on its own, this ordinance gives the impression that congregational singing of the psalms is of the well-being of the church. On further analysis, it would appear that it is all of that and more. Garside quotes from Calvin where he gives expression to the rationale of this ordinance:

Furthermore it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing psalms in the form of public prayers by which one prays to God or sings His praises so that the hearts of all may be aroused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love.

Commenting on Calvin’s commendation of congregational psalm-singing as “a thing most expedient for the edification of the church,” Garside says that for Calvin, psalm-singing is not “an indifferent matter” rather, it “was essential for public worship.” In other words, psalm-singing is of the essence of public worship, apart from which, God cannot be rightly worshiped. This foundational conviction, Garside explains, is the origin of Calvin’s theology of music.

In the next post, we will examine Garside’s analysis of Calvin’s remarks found in the 1536 edition of his Institutes.


Steve_Mac said...

Pastor John,

When Calvin said "it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing psalms in the form of public prayers by which one prays to God," what do you think he meant by "in the form of public prayers?"

John Sawtelle said...

Well, if I understand your question correctly, Calvin saw worship song as a form of public prayer. In the Institutes, commenting on Acts 2:42, he says, "thus it became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Supper, and almsgiving (4.17.44)." It is interesting that Calvin made a very similar statement many years prior, in the preface to the 1542 Geneva Psalter entitled, "The Form of Prayers and Songs of the Church." Here Calvin says, "there are three things which our Lord has commanded us to observe in our spiritual assemblies. These are the preaching of his word, public and solemn prayers, and the administration of the sacraments." To clarify beyond all doubt that congregational singing falls under the category of prayer,Calvin, a bit further on in the preface to the Psalter says, "As for the public prayers, they are of two sorts: some of them make use of speaking alone, and the others are with singing."

In Calvin's judgment, these public prayers (congregational singing) had to be strictly regulated by two principles: dignity and sincerity of feeling. Congregational singing that did not conform to these two principles, argued Calvin, inflamed the wrath of God against the whole congregation (3.20.31). Therefore, in an attempt to conform the form of public prayer to these principles, he proposed the a capella singing of the Psalms and other inspired songs. At this point, I cannot resist adding this one last quote from the preface to the Psalter because it spells out the principles behind Calvin's intentional selection of the Psalms as the form of public prayer that conforms to his regulative principle of song:

For these reasons the present book...must be especially commended to each who desires to rejoice honorably before God, with regard to his salvation and to the benefit of his neighbors...the world should be so well advised that in the place of songs of a vain and frivolous sort, some stupid and dull, some coarse and vile, and consequently evil and harmful, it should accustom itself hereafter to sing these divine and heavenly songs with good King David.

Steve_Mac said...

Ok, that's certainly helpful. So, to clarify, he did not view prayer and song as two separate "elements," rather one element, the element of prayer, which has two "forms," speaking and singing. That helps. I was looking at his quote assuming he held prayer and congregational singing as separate elements as taught in the WCF (and many P&R).

John Sawtelle said...

Calvin viewed prayer and song as one element. It is interesting that this construction has had a long lasting impact, at least in practice, as the old Trinity Hymnal ends each "hymn" with an "amen" to signal the "prayer" has concluded. I am not sure when the elements began to be more sharply distinguished. I know some to this day some only distinguish two elements of worship, word and prayer. Sacraments go under word, and prayers and singing fit under "prayer." To my thinking, this is not helpful since clarifying the differences in the elements helps the church apply the regulative principle more accurately.

Vic said...

May the Psalms then be used as public prayers without the necessity to sing them aloud at all?

John Sawtelle said...

Good question, and the answer is an unqualified "Yes!" I used to employ Psalm 51 as a confession of sin in the place of written prayers of confession.

In my view, any time the church wants to use the Psalms in worship, it is absolutely pleasing to God, because God has inspired them and placed them in holy scripture so that they would be used in His worship.