Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Charles Garside on Calvin's view of Psalmody pt.4: the Articles of 1537

The rise of twitter signaled a massive shift in 21st century communication theory and practice with its implicit declaration that if one cannot say what they think in 140 characters,  then what they have to say is probably not worth saying in the first place. A similar shift in the theology of Reformed church music took place in 1537 when Calvin took only 146 words to lay the foundation for his conception of the role and significance of the psalms in public worship. As noticed in a previous post, just a short year earlier, in 1536, Calvin had little to say about the role of music in worship. At most, Calvin could only conceive of a small role for song as a part of the observance of the Lord's Supper. This very underdeveloped and embryonic conception of worship song marks the point of departure for evaluating Calvin's maturing views on congregational singing.

It is clear however that by 1537, the place and role of song in worship had grown much larger in Calvin's thinking. While in1536 song had a minor, if not optional role in public worship, by 1537 the psalms took on a significant and even necessary role in public worship. That massive leap forward in Calvin's thinking about the place of psalms in public worship is expressed in the following 146 words contained in the Articles of 1537:

The other matter is the psalms which we wish to be sung in the church as we have it from the example of the ancient church and also the testimony of Saint Paul, who says that it is good to sing in the congregation with mouth and heart. We are not able to estimate the benefit and edification which derive from this until after having experienced it. Certainly at present the prayers of the faithful are so cold that we should be greatly ashamed and confused. The psalms can stimulate us to raise our hearts to god and arouse use to an ardor in invoking as well as in exalting with praises the glory of His name. Moreover by this one will recognize of what advantage and consolation the pope and his creatures have deprived the church, for he has distorted the psalms, which should be true spiritual songs, into a murmuring among themselves without any understanding (10).

 Expounding on Calvin's views expressed here, Garside explains that, "In the space of a mere 146 words Calvin presented the council with a statement which constituted nothing less than the foundation for his theology of music" (10). 

Several items are worthy of notice and some elaboration. First, Calvin grounds the use of psalms in worship on the model of the ancient church. He does not elaborate on the practice of the ancient church, he merely asserts it, as if it were a matter of common knowledge, and in need of no defense whatsoever. Second, in just a breath later, Calvin commends the psalms for use in public worship since they are commended by the by the apostle Paul himself. Of particular interest in Calvin's appeal to Paul is that he has in mind Paul's remarks in Colossians 3:16. That much is evident from the claim that Paul urged psalms to be sung with "mouth and heart"indicating that he has in view the Pauline admonition to sing "with grace in the heart to the Lord."This appeal to Colossians 3:16 is intriguing since most contemporary Reformed opponents of exclusive psalmody argue that this passage has in the first instance nothing to do with public worship, and in the second, based upon Calvin's commentary on Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, that Paul is actually prescribing man made compositions which have a mere spiritual quality. It is clear from Calvin's remarks here that these contemporary advocates of hymnody and praise songs have not read Calvin in sufficient breadth or depth. Third, Calvin advocates for the use of psalms because they glorify God by promoting profound spiritual edification: the psalms can stimulate us to raise our hearts to God and arouse us to an ardor in invoking as well as in exalting with praises the glory of His name (10). This remark echoes and builds on views already expressed in the 1536 Institutes where Calvin insists that acceptable and pleasing prayer to God must join heart and mouth together lest prayer degenerate into mere Pharisaical lip service. Fourth and finally, Calvin takes a thinly veiled swipe at the use of papal choirs in public worship when he says that the singing of psalms by the congregation will expose the "advantage and consolation the pope and his creatures have deprived the church (of), for he has distorted the psalms...into murmuring among themselves without any understanding." Garside illuminates this statement by Calvin as he explains that Calvin is taking aim at the singing of priests in Latin during public worship. In other words, Calvin is seeking to restore congregational singing to the church by returning the duty of praise to the congregation from the hands of the professionals and by requiring the psalms to be sung in the native tongue of the worshipers.

With these four distinct developments in view, it is not hard to see how these remarks in the Articles of 1537 mark a watershed moment in Calvin's theology of music and song in public worship. These 146 words signal that a reformation in worship is afoot in Calvin's thought and they portend the peculiar character of Reformed worship which prevailed in the churches for the next few hundred years until the riches of this Reformed birthright was traded in for a mess of revivalistic pottage.  For the moment however, it is good to imbibe the spirit and quality of this robust theology of worship and song.

In the next post, we will examine the influence of Bucer on Calvin's developing view of song in worship.


Oscar said...

Pastor John,

Thanks for these excellent posts. They impact me on the more personal side (conviction), in terms of a distracted and disconnected heart from God when singing. What a great reminder. However, regarding the argument for exclusively using Psalm singing a capella for worship, please shed some light on 1 Cor. 14:26 where the context appears to involve worship, and I wonder if the one that has a hymn is bringing a psalm to worship or his own song of praise unto the Lord?

John Sawtelle said...

That is a common question and I think a fair one. Maybe I should start by clarifying that when we use the term "psalmody" I mean by it, inspired canonical psalms. That means, any song in scripture, which was inspired by the Holy Spirit, is suitable for public worship.

With respect to your question, I think that the answer is a dead heat between 2 distinct interpretations: "a psalm" refers to a psalm from the Book of Psalms, or, a psalm composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is tough to make a decision on this, but either way, the psalm in view must be inspired. That much is clear from the fact that psalm, in v26, as well as the whole context, stands in continuity with tongues and prophecy which are both of the Holy Spirit. In other words, given its position in the text, it can no more refer to a song composed by an individual out of his own imagination, than a tongue or prophecy could conceivably be composed out of the human imagination alone. Since the latter are clearly given in a supernatural way by the Holy Spirit, so the former must be as well.

Oscar said...


Inspired song makes sense: So if I understand you correctly, the individuals were bringing songs written (inspired) somewhere in Scripture, and thus not necessarily from the Book of Psalms.

John Sawtelle said...

That is correct, they were either bringing a canonical song to worship or they were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and were receiving one directly from Him. In that case, the song would be on the model of the tongue or prophecy which was being received in the flow of the actual worship service. The main problem with this view, is that we simply have no other evidence from scripture that this kind of thing was happening during the apostolic age, and there is no discussion of it in the early fathers.