Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Charles Garside on Calvin's view of Psalmody pt.6: The Strasbourg pastorate

Before pressing on to survey Calvin’s pastoral stay in Strasbourg, we should take a moment to set up the context by reviewing  the principles of worship which had prevailed there for the past 15 years or so. In 1524 Bucer spelled out his Protestant understanding of the regulatory principles and practices of Christian worship in a book entitled Justification and Demonstration from Holy Scripture. Two themes emerge from this work which are particularly relevant to our concerns. The first is the emerging concept of the regulative principle of worship. With respect to the content of worship song, Bucer explains that “in the congregation we do not use songs or prayers which are not drawn from Holy Scripture.” It is evident that Bucer makes a concrete connection between theory and practice as he spells out the standard for songs sung in public worship. The second theme which is evident in Bucer’s early views on worship is the use of the church fathers and early church worship as a guide for applying apostolic principles of worship.  This principle is evident as he takes a swipe at Zwingli in these remarks, “those who decry the use of song in the congregation of God know little either about the content of Scripture or about the practice of the first and apostolic churches and congregations, which always praised God with song” (12). Again, in the 1530 Tetropolitan Confession (written by Bucer) Garside notes that “Scripture and the Fathers continued to be the norm for evaluation of the liturgy” (12). So a regulative principle of worship which requires Biblical warrant for worship practices and the use of the early church and the Fathers as a guide to applying this regulative principle mark out two dominant characteristics in Bucer’s theory and practice of Christian worship, which of course were given expression in the Strasbourg liturgy which Calvin encounters as he arrives in 1538.

It was into this context of careful reflection on worship, that Calvin came to serve as pastor to French refugees the latter part of 1538. Calvin’s early correspondence from Strasbourg indicates that the prevailing liturgical practices were shaping and influencing his thoughts on worship. A profound indicator of this influence is the publication of a French psalter in 1539 edited by Calvin himself and modeled on the Strasbourg Psalter. Garside argues for more than a mere editorial role for Calvin in the construction of this psalter, as he makes the case that more than a handful of the psalms had been rhymed by Calvin himself. Another piece of evidence that indicates the influence of the Strasbourg liturgical practices on Calvin's thinking is found in the 1539 edition of the Institutes published there. Garside juxtaposes Calvin’s comments in the chapter on prayer contained in the 1536 edition and those made in 1539, siezing on a slight revision made in the latter version as evidence of a significant advance in Calvin’s thinking about the role of song in worship. In the previous edition (1536) Calvin expressed the opinion that he did not “condemn speaking and singing provided they were associated with the hearts affection and serve it” (hardly a ringing endorsement of congregational singing) while in the 1539 edition he inserted between “singing” and “provided” the following phrase:  but rather strongly commend them (13). Another revision occurs where Calvin deleted the phrase “serve it,” as was expressed in 1536, removing the notion that song had a mere servile role in worship. Garside suggests that these slight modifications in the 1539 Institutes, written as they were in Latin, which means they were available to a wide reading audience, form a permanent record of Calvin’s views on worship song and set in motion the emergence of the liturgical principles of Strasbourg as the standard for the next few hundred years of Reformed worship which would eventually erode and give way under the weight of popular revivalism. 

In our next post we will examine the 1541 Ecclesiastical Ordinances submitted by Calvin to the Genevan council.

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