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.


Vic said...

"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."

What set of principles or rules govern the propriety of any given melody? Is there a regulative principle when it comes to melodies? Is melody elemental or circumstantial to the singing of God's Word?

John Sawtelle said...

That is a tougher issue to nail down with the precision of lyrical content since we can turn to Scripture and find a set of inspired songs, but we cannot turn to Scripture and a set of corresponding melodies.

Calvin would say that the tunes should be crafted to fit the majesty of the words, so he hired professionals to work on the musical side of the Geneva Psalter.

I think he would also say that the tunes and melodies should be consistent with the principles of self-control and emotional balance. He would not favor melodies which would distract from the content of what is sung and he would not want tunes which would remind the worshiper of secular songs.

So I think we could say that there is a sort of regulative principle at work here. Melodies must promote sobriety, self-control, be free of emotional manipulation, and appropriate to the basic tenor of the Psalm. In other words, it would be incorrect to put the majestic words of Psalm 100 to the theme song of the Soprano's.

I hope that helps a bit, I have thought far less about this than I have about the actual content. And, besides, as you know, music is not really my up my ally.