Monday, August 22, 2011

Charles Garside on Calvin's view of Psalmody pt. 5: the influence of Bucer

Thus far in our quest to understand the historical development of Calvin’s view of psalmody, led of course by Dr. Garside every step of the way, we have seen that a crucial pivot in Calvin’s views on song in worship occurred somewhere between the middle 1536 and early 1537. The baseline for dating and charting his rather significant change in thinking is the difference in tone and character of the remarks about song in worship in the 1536 Institutes, and the proposal of psalmody in worship to the Geneva Council in the Articles of 1537. Obviously whenever thinkers of Calvin’s caliber make large leaps in their thinking, it presents a problem for the intellectually curious to seek to unravel. In this installment of our series on Calvin’s view of psalmody, we are to going to walk through the unfolding steps in Garside’s analysis of Calvin’s developing views on song in worship in order to get a handle on what led Calvin to experience such a significant change.

At this time in the Reformation era (the 1530’s) there were essentially only a handful of serious players who could have exercised any substantial influence on Calvin’s thought, and, included among those, are Luther, Zwingli, and Bucer. Luther of course, had no objection to song in worship from the outset. It is safe to say that the Lutheran and the Reformed wing of the Reformation really had little in common when it came to public worship, except perhaps a shared common desire to rid worship of the most profane and idolatrous elements of Romish practice. Other than that, there is not much affinity in their respective positions on worship. That means, it is more than reasonable to rule out any influence of Luther on this area of Calvin’s view of song in worship.

Zwingli had for about the space of ten years made the most public noise about Reformation among those who would later become known as the “reformed.” Clearly, Zwingli was opposed to much of what passed as worship, at least as he understood Roman worship from his experience in the church. As early as 1519, Zwingli altered liturgical practice by making expository preaching the center piece of worship in Zurich. By 1523, he had come to the conclusion that song was to be subsumed under the rubric of prayer. Reasoning from Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees’ model of public prayer recorded in Matthew 6:6, Zwingli argued that prayer was to be silent. It is evident from his Apology on the Canon of the Mass that he found further support and confirmation of his view of silent prayer from Ephesians 5:19 where Paul commands prayer from the heart. His conclusion was that since song was to be made in the heart, then it certainly could not be audible (a view that Bucer will challenge). In 1525, Zwingli’s views on worship song were formally instituted in Zurich and the “barborous mumbling” (worship song) was removed from the churches (p.11).

Turning from Zwingli to Bucer, we see a slightly different understanding of song in worship. It is fair to say that Bucer was not too keen on Zwinlgi’s argument about silent prayer.  Instead, Bucer defended the role of song in worship as early as 1524 in his Justification and Demonstration from Holy Scripture. This work not only proposes suggestions for where song is to be appropriately used in the course of the liturgy, it also defends congregational singing in the final chapter. Bucer takes his stand on the Pauline corpus and argues that it would absurd for Paul to command Christians to edify one another by following prescribed rules in worship, if those very rules commanded worshipers to sing and pray silently in their hearts! Beyond that, the center piece of Bucer’s argument for singing in worship is found in his appeal to the model of Christ who sang the Psalms out loud with the disciples after instituting and partaking of the first Lord’s Supper. Scripture not only commended singing in worship, it virtually commanded it since Jesus established the New Covenant sacrament of the Supper as a permanent ordinance, commanding its regular use; so, who then could reasonably argue against singing the Psalms in response to the Supper, if Jesus himself sang them at the conclusion of the first celebration of the Supper? In addition to making a purely Biblical defense of song in worship, Bucer added to it the practice of the early church and the testimony of the Fathers. Not that the Reformed church was bound to follow every practice of the Fathers and the ancient church, but, the church legitimately could receive guidance and direction in matters of worship from the early church and the Fathers when and where their practices conformed to the Biblical model. And for Bucer, it was clear that in this particular matter they did.

The question which now needs to be asked, and, in turn, answered, is did Calvin have access to the views and practices of Zwingli and Bucer, and whether his writings betray an influence of their views upon his own thinking? As a matter of fact, it is difficult to establish a clean paper trail here which would provide a definitive answer, but Garside takes the very strong position that Calvin indeed had either read Zwingli and Bucer, at least in translation, or, had at least been informed about their practices through word of mouth testimony. It may just be a real possibility that each had influence upon Calvin in their own turn. Garside points out that the 1536 Institutes show an inclination towards  Zwingli’s view of prayer, especially in his exposition of Matthew 6:6, while the Articles of 1537 betray the hand of Bucer.

What then, caused the change from a decidedly more Zwinglian approach to a more Bucerian view of song in worship. At this point, my read of Garside is that he claims the pivot was not as much intellectual as it was experiential. When Calvin arrived in Geneva in the autumn of 1536, he complained that the prayers of the Genevan’s were “cold.” Garside explains that Calvin is probably reacting to the fact that when he arrived in Geneva there was no music worship at all since Farel had abolished it from the liturgy (p.14). It seems like Calvin experienced a sort of renaissance in his thinking by actually experiencing what life would be like without worship song, and he found it lacking indeed! After enduring several months of songless worship Calvin submitted a proposal for change in worship practice in the Articles of 1537. What Calvin proposed would not, at least at this time, be approved in Geneva. By early 1538, not only would Calvin not yet be enjoying the proposed change in worship, he also found himself in the position of being banished from Geneva by the city council. On account of his refusal to endorse the arrangement which would cement political ties between Geneva and the Swiss city of Bern by implementing liturgical reform that would make these two cities uniform in their worship, Calvin and Farel were given their "pink slips" and were bounced out of Geneva (p.14).

In spite of the turbulence experienced by Calvin and Farel, a silver lining would emerge in the clouds as a result of their banishment from Geneva.   Upon their dismissal from Geneva, both Calvin and Farel went straight to Bern in order to give an account of the fallout in Geneva. From there, they went on to a local synod meeting at Zurich in early May of 1528 where something of a tectonic shift occurred. There, Calvin and Farel presented 14 articles for consideration, and among those, article 13, was a requirement to sing psalms in public worship. The synod unanimously approved these articles, including article 13, and just a couple of months later the city of Bern changed course from a Zwinglian policy of no congregational singing to one of exclusive psalmody in June of 1538. Ironically the unintended consequences of the Bernese political arrangement with Geneva left Calvin without a pastoral call, while at the same time, it triggered a massive change in policy among the Swiss churches which signaled a decisive shift away from the policies of Zwingli toward the new views of Calvin (Bucer!) on worship song.

Next time, we will survey Calvin’s pastorate in Strasbourg. 

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