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.  

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