Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Charles Garside on Calvin's view of Psalmody Pt.12: Singing that glorifies God and edifies the believer

It is one thing to come up with a great theory, but it is quite another to put it into practice in such a way that others can understand it and easily apply it. A capella singing of the Psalms is one example of where theory and practice intersect and as anyone knows who has tried it, it provides us with a classic case of trying the rule of easier said than done. Not only does it presuppose that everyone understands and embraces the principle of the matter, it also requires some capacity on the part of those involved to execute the singing properly. Calvin was well aware of the complexities of this issue and put careful thought into making the theoretical become reality. In what follows, we will unfold three crucial components of Calvin’s practice of Psalm singing.

First, Calvin laid it down as a matter of principle that singing Psalms to the glory of God involved singing with the whole heart. It is interesting how many times between 1536 and 1543 that he revisits this principle and places a heavy accent upon it. For instance in the 1536 Institutes he strikes this note saying, “unless voice and song…spring from deep feeling of heart, neither has any value or profit from God’ (p.26). In other words, one could be physically engaged in the right worship activity and still not be pleasing the Lord in the performance of it because the very nature of true worship requires a body and soul connection. Similarly, his 1537 proposal of Psalm singing in Geneva required that it be done in a “heartfelt” manner. Finally, in 1543 he reinforces the theme explaining that it was a principle laid down by Paul that “spiritual songs can be truly sung only from the heart” (p.26). This emphasis upon the quality of heartfelt worship and singing is a testimony to the fact that clinical sterility and cold legalism is not the necessary byproduct of seeking to follow the regulative principle of worship as Calvin conceived of it, but is rather a violation of Calvin’s principle of regulated worship since Calvin himself set down the quality of heartfelt worship as a first principle of Psalm singing.

Second, Calvin places an emphasis upon the role of the intellect in worship. This principle flows from the Calvinist and Reformed requirement of the intelligibility of worship which is illustrated by their conviction that all worship must be in the vernacular. The Reformers were keen to make the point that worship could only be edifying to men if it was understandable to those who participated in it. Carrying on either in reading or song in a language foreign to the worshiper not only insures that those assembled will fail to understand what is going on it can, under certain conditions, easily lead to rank superstition. The latter, by all accounts, was a significant concern of the Reformers who had witnessed this problem first hand in their youth as members of the Roman church. But this matter of the prominence of the intellect was not only born out of experience, it was also informed and shaped by the ancient fathers. For example, Calvin could find ample evidence to support the idea of the centrality of the intellect in worship through his study of Augustine who argued that the all-important difference between the singing of a parrot and a believing human being was that one sang with intelligence while one did not (p.26). Of course, this emphasis upon the intellect in worship serves to demonstrate the mutual interaction and interdependence of heart and head in worship. Without the intellect, worship could easily degenerate into emotional excess and fanaticism if unchecked by sober reflection, while worship without feeling could become cold and impersonal. In this twin emphasis upon heart and head, Calvin strikes a godly and edifying balance.

Third, Calvin sees a major role for memory in public worship. It appears that memory has the potential of facilitating undistracted, contemplative worship as the worshiper is free to sing without the constraint of helps such as a song book if both lyrics and tunes have been thoroughly memorized through repetition of use. The role of memory is not only a critical aspect of unconstrained worship, it also provides the added blessing of portability as the worshiper can take the spiritual songs with them in their heart wherever they are whether at home or at work. In this way Calvin envisioned the Pauline admonition to “pray without ceasing” could be fulfilled as the believer spontaneously prayed and lived in the world when the Psalms emerged in the consciousness of the believer (p.27).  This emphasis on the memory plays a vital role in the daily edification of the believer as they use the mind to recall and dwell on the spiritual songs sung in worship on the Lord’s Day.

Before wrapping up this series on Calvin’s view on psalmody, we will take the opportunity to briefly retrace and link together the steps forged together in Calvin’s thinking between 1536 and 1543.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Charles Garside on Calvin's view of Psalmody Pt.11: the Uniqueness of the Psalms

Throughout this series of posts we have been charting out the course of Calvin’s intellectual development with respect to the role of song and music in worship. With great interest we have watched him scale the rugged terrain of worship and grapple his way up the mount of conviction about the role of Psalms in worship. We have watched him move from the tentative footing of merely commending the Psalms for singing in the church to the very firm ground of commanding the exclusive use of canonical songs in public worship. Along the way up that mountain, it is clear that his thinking about the role of the Psalms in the spiritual life blossomed and grew in some very unanticipated directions. A particularly interesting feature of his progress in thought brought forward to examine is the move to replace all secular songs with the Psalms whether that be within the church or without. In this post, our focus will be on Garside’s argument that this conviction expressed in the Epistle of 1543 is the logical conclusion of the very sharp antithesis forged in Calvin’s understanding between sacred and secular song, the former having the inherent power to raise the soul to joy, while the latter maintain the capacity to unleash the dark power of song which leads men to “disordered delights” and to “obscenity.”  

The story of the journey toward the position that the Psalms alone are to replace all other songs, whether for worship or innocent amusement, begins in 1538. In May of this year he submitted a memorandum to the synod of Zurich which called upon Geneva to adopt the Bernese policy of eliminating certain lascivious songs which were used to accompany dancing that seemed to only promote lewd behavior. As Garside notes, at this particular time, Calvin was not aiming to replace secular songs with Psalms altogether, he simply aimed at eliminating one form of song which appeared to promote unseemly behavior. By 1542 a kind of substitution of one for the other began to be evident. Writing in the preface to the 1542 French liturgy for Strasbourg, Calvin wrote that the Psalms along with their melodies had been published “so that you will have seemly songs instructing you in the love and fear of God in the place of those which are commonly sung which are concerned only with dissipation and all vice” (p.25). Clearly, what is in the forefront of Calvin’s thought here is the binary quality of music which has the capacity to effect the soul either for the good or the evil. However, it seems there is still a reservation that some music may still be suitable for recreational use. A door remains open yet for some kind of non-sacred music which although it may not have the power to edify, would not at the same time be spiritually destructive. With the publication of the Epistle of 1543, all ambiguity is removed, and Calvin takes the very uncompromising stand that sacred music (the Psalms) must replace all other music since it alone has the power to promote Christian spirituality outside the context of public worship (p.26).

What remains to be solved at this point, is how Calvin experienced such a turn of thought. Garside maintains that Calvin’s fully matured position of 1543 owes to his extensive interaction with Bucer in the years between 1538 and 1541. Illustrative of Bucer’s point of view on this matter are the remarks he penned in the Foreword to the Strasbourg Song Book. Here Bucer argued that “no instrumentalizing may be sung or used except by and for Christian spiritual activities” (p.25). In a society ruled by the policies of Bucer, no secular songs are permitted and all children are required to go through an education process which subjects them to “psalms and spiritual songs” exclusively. For Bucer, following such a careful regimen was the key to inoculating a whole generation against the wiles of lewd and lascivious songs.

From all indications, the policy of Bucer became a matter of principle for Calvin, albeit with the exception of one crucial aspect. Throughout the Foreword, Bucer spoke of Psalms and “sacred songs” by which he meant human compositions. He freely admitted the influence of Luther at this point, who may have endorsed the use of Psalms but never considered that other non-canonical songs should be banished from public worship provided that they were of a sufficient spiritual quality. Calvin however took a very different stand. When he argued for the policy of replacing secular song with the Psalms in 1543, he argued for a replacement of all songs not contained in canonical scripture because as Garside argues, “For God and His angels as well now as for the world below, nothing else was, or even could be appropriate” (p.26). Just how successful Calvin’s policy was is indicated in what we will see in future studies, that the signing of the Psalms everywhere from the church, to the battlefield, to the factory, to the home around the table and hearth, became the distinguishing badge of French Calvinists.

In our next post we will examine the singing of the Psalms as we wind down our study.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Charles Garside on Calvin's view of Psalmody Pt.10: the 1543 Epistle to the Reader

Knowing what to say and when to say it can be of as much strategic importance, in certain situations, as how something is actually said. In the 1543 Institutes Calvin had added a couple of significant lines of thought to reinforce and shore up his argument for psalmody in public worship: history and the necessity of moderation. Given the unambiguous testimony of the early church and its use of the psalms in worship, establishing the propriety of using the psalms for congregational singing in public worship was easily accomplished. A different format however, would be needed to enlarge on the significance of the concern to maintain appropriate moderation in the use of music in worship. It is to this subject that Calvin now turns in the 1453 Epistle.

Ever since Calvin had proposed the use of psalms in worship in the 1537 Articles, his appreciation for their spiritual power and worth had grown substantially as he both witnessed and experienced their powerful effects in worship. By 1543, after several years of experimentation with the singing of psalms, Calvin began to see their incredible utility for cultivating piety within worship and without, in the grooves of daily living. Calvin was so impressed with the spiritual value of singing psalms that he heartily commended their regular use “in the homes and in the fields” (p.21). What is developing and growing in Calvin’s thought is the fact that it is the very nature of music itself that makes it not only a vehicle of praise, but even more, a rich source of stimulation to praise as it fires the spiritual sensitivities to behold the power and glory of God in the full sweep of life.

Two sets of antitheses are used to expand upon the spiritual utility of music. The first antithesis is between is the spiritual duty of rejoicing in God on one hand, and the sinful tendency for man to delight in vanity on the other. As a wise and compassionate Father, the Lord knowing our weakness and proneness to wander repeatedly into snares and temptations, provided us with music to occupy our minds and fill our hearts with godly joy. Calvin expounds upon this line of thought with several well crafted statements:

Our Lord to distract us and withdraw us from the temptations of the flesh and the world presents us all means possible to occupy us in that spiritual joy which He recommends to us so much

            (music is) a gift of God deputed to that use

           (music is given for the purpose of) recreating man and giving him pleasure

            (and is) dedicated to our profit and welfare (p.22).

At once, not only the goodness, but also, the power of music is made evident for all to see. Yet, it is right there in the awareness of music's power, that a potential problem begins to emerge. If music can be put to such positive spiritual use, it can just as easily be corrupted by sinful men to cultivate gross moral degeneration. It is to this concern that Calvin now addresses himself in the second antithesis.

In a fallen world full of sinful men, even the best gifts are subject to corruption. This fact leads to the framing of the second antithesis which is that even though music has the power to “raise men up to spiritual joy” it also has the power to lead men to into “disordered delights” and even to “obscenity" (p.22). Clearly, Calvin is aware of contemporary discussions about the power of music to enhance or corrupt, but he has adequate testimony from “the ancient doctors” to confirm this point as well, when they lament that “obscene songs” were corrupting the world of their day already. Enlarging upon the degenerating and corrupting potential of music he explains:

There is scarcely anything in the world which is more capable of turning or moving this way and that the morals of men, as Plato prudently considered it. And in fact we experience that it has a secret and almost incredible power to arouse our hearts one way or another (p.22)

Garside notes that although sentiments such as these betray the influence of sixteenth century humanist thought, this philosophical perspective does not entirely account for his stance toward music. Arguing against such a wholesale influence, Garside makes the case that Calvin distinguishes himself from contemporary humanist reflection by developing “the notion of moderation in practice” (p.23). What that means for Reformed worship is diligent and careful regulation of worship music, which we turn to next.

For Calvin, the binary nature of music was more like a riddle to be solved or a knot to be untied rather than a Zwinglian death knell to the use of worship music altogether. Solving the problem begins by understanding the relationship of melody to lyrical content, for it is in the combination of words and sounds that music takes on its peculiar nature, as Calvin writes:

It is true that every evil word (as Saint Paul says) perverts good morals, but when the melody is with it, it pierces the heart that much more strongly and enters into it; just as through a funnel wine is poured into a container, so also venom and corruption are distilled to the depth of the heart by melody (p.23).

It is unquestionable that, from this remark, we can see Calvin’s view of the power of melody. On his understanding, melody is like the tip of the poison dart that drives the corrupting influence of song deep into the heart. However, it is equally clear from Calvin’s remarks that words and lyrical content are of great concern as well since we have apostolic testimony to confirm their capacity to pervert good morals. Distinguishing between these twin features of song points to the way out of the dilemma because if melody can drive corrupt ideas and influences into the heart it can also be used as a vehicle to harness the power of music for good if it accompanies pious lyrics. Such lyrics are in rich store and easily found since the Lord has provided them for us in the Scriptures. By putting the words of the Scripture, primarily the Psalms, to appropriate melodies, the spiritual value and power of music can be unleashed for the advantage of God’s people.

It turns out then, that the large leap forward, made in the 1543 Epistle, is that it represents the full flowering of Calvin’s thought as he makes the crucial connection between melodies and lyrics, and above all in fashioning the priority of words over tunes. While both are important, it is clear by now, that Calvin places the priority on what it is that is sung rather than how it is sung. Since the Psalms are worthy of God because they have been given by Him, it is clear to Calvin the key to using music in worship as a force for good comes through regulating its lyrical content and prescribing the rule that only songs inspired and produced by the Holy Spirit are fitting for the worship of God. Upon making this connection Calvin proceeds to make some of his most memorable and oft quoted statements about the Psalms:

When we sing them (the Psalms), we are certain that God puts the words in our mouths, as if He Himself were singing in us to exalt His glory…

(men will now have) songs not only seemly, but also holy, which will be like spurs to incite us to pray and praise God, to meditate on His works in order to love, fear, honor, and glorify him

Only let the world be so well advised that in place of songs in part empty and frivolous, and in part stupid and dull, in part obscene and vile, and in consequence evil and harmful, which it has used up to now, it may accustom itself hereafter to singing these divine and celestial hymns with the good King David (p.24)

Clearly, these statements indicate that Calvin did have a sort of regulative principle of song, and that principle is, that every word of edifying praise must come from God Himself. The claim is often made that Calvin merely preferred the Psalms and that he only commended their use rather than taking the position that the regulative principle of worship specifically required their use. Claims such as these fall flat upon reading Calvin in context. The reason Calvin can take the stand against the position of Zwingli who forbid the use of music in worship altogether is precisely because he came to understand that the way to resolve the problem of the potential spiritual harm of music was to find its value in the lyrical content. By making lyrics the issue, Calvin brought congregational song under the strict application of the regulative principle since only canonical songs possessed the specific quality of divine inspiration.

In our next post, we will examine the uniqueness of the Psalms.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Charles Garside on Calvin's view of Psalmody Pt.9: the 1543 Institutes

Social movement scholars have for some time been aware of the fact that as social movements progress, the ideas which fire and drive it grow more refined and specific. Such was certainly the case in the magisterial reformation of the 16th century. Numerous examples abound which indicate that as the years passed, reformed ideas and rhetorical expressions grew in refinement and depth. Thus far in our study of Garside’s analysis of Calvin’s view of worship song we have been noting how his thoughts and expressions mature, expand, and grow from 1536 onward. In coming to the Institution of 1543 there is evidence that Calvin, in this “Latin counterpart to the French Epistle” is concerned to both amplify and frame his thoughts on music and song with greater clarity and rhetorical force (p.20).

Though Calvin expands his argument in the new version of the Institutes, he continues to follow the structure of the argument found in the 1542 Epistle to the reader. In this edition he follows the threefold pattern of history, apostolic instruction, and appeal to St. Augustine. For the first time however, in marshaling his arguments for psalmody from Scripture, he quotes the apostle Paul directly saying:
This we may infer from Paul’s words: “I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind” [1 Cor. 14:15]. Likewise, Paul speaks to the Colossians: “Teaching and admonishing one another…in hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to the Lord.” [Col. 3:16p.] For in the first passage he teaches that we should sing with voice and heart; in the second, he commends spiritual songs, by which the godly may edify one another (p.20).
By directly quoting from Paul he enhances the force of his argument by allowing the reader to see for themselves that his proposals are simply an implementation of Biblical injunction. In writing to a Protestant audience that was being trained to hold fast to scripture alone for faith and practice, the ability to lay hands on specific Biblical texts must certainly have lent great credibility to his argument.

Moving from Scripture to church history, he again puts the reader’s hands on specific historical texts that seemed to support his claims. In this case, as in past writings, Calvin lay hold of St. Augustine’s remarks about music and song made in the tenth book of the Confessions. Here, Calvin seizes on the link Augustine forged between melody and the verbal content of the song. From Augustine the lesson is learned that “our ears are not to be more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words” (p.20).  In a moment of transparency, Augustine confesses that when singing, he had a tendency to focus more on the singing than upon what was actually being sung; therefore, he heartily endorsed the prescription of Athanasius who admonished worshipers, when singing psalms in public worship, to “use so slight and inflection of the voice that it was more like speaking than singing” (p.20).

These caveats of Augustine, cited with approval, form a new way of conceiving of the role of music and song in worship. Instead of constructing songs that contain melodies and words which are crafted for the ear and for the sake of delighting and entertaining a human audience, Calvin admonishes that song and music are fitting for public worship if only they are consciously aimed at promoting the glory of God and are characterized by the kind of vocal inflection proposed by Athanasius which in turn promoted and reinforced the emotional restraint approved of by Augustine. Any other kinds of music and song conceived of for public worship were, according to Calvin, “unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but displease God in the highest degree” (p.21).

With these remarks of Calvin in view, it is hardly conceivable how many so-called “Calvinists” today countenance the use of emotionally charged revivalist hymns and syrupy praise songs, both of which are extremely superficial and paper thin in theological content. Use of such music and song seems to betray a lack of candor and an apparent discomfort in the admission that they share nothing of Calvin’s and, by way of extension, 16th century Reformed views of music and worship song. It would seem that a more honest and edifying course of action would be to openly refute Calvin’s views and repudiate them so that contemporary Reformed Christians would understand why their views and practices are superior  to and more Biblically grounded than Calvin’s and the rest of the 16th century confessionally Reformed churches.

The next post will examine additions made to the 1543 Epistle.