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.

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