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.  

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