Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Charles Garside on Calvin's view of Psalmody Pt.13: recap and conclusion

As all good things must come to an end, so to must this brief study of the development of Calvin’s thought with respect to music and song in public worship. In wrapping these series of posts, I want to follow Garside’s study to its conclusion where he summarizes the main lines of thought developed in Calvin’s growing convictions about worship song between 1536 and 1543. These main turns in thought can be summarized in four decisive steps:

First, Garside establishes the baseline for charting Calvin’s progression in thought by fixing on the year 1537 and more specifically, by appealing to the publication of the Articles. For the first time, Calvin advocates the use of vernacular psalm singing in public worship. This proposal marks a decisive change in practice, as just a year prior, in 1536, Calvin in his Institutes could only commend singing a psalm or reading some portion of scripture during and after participation in the Supper. So what generated this shift in perspective? Garside suggests that the several months of pastoral service in Geneva during the year of 1536 accounts for this change as much as anything else. In witnessing firsthand the coldness of the prayers of the saints, Calvin was moved to consider another course. For Calvin, nothing was more useful for stimulating the heart and emotions to godly fear and joy than the singing of the Psalms in the native tongue of the worshiper. While this proposal was not fully implemented before Calvin was exiled from Geneva in the spring of 1538, he did find opportunity to put this proposal into practice while serving in Strasburg. There he finally experienced the quality of worship which he had envisioned for Geneva, and upon his return in 1542 he made it a matter of first priority to oversee the implementation of vernacular psalmody as a means of intensifying the quality of the Genevan worship experience and stoking the ardor of the church’s prayers.

Second, Calvin’s conviction about the role of psalms in worship solidified as he grew to understand more fully the role of psalms in the worship of the ancient church. Through his extensive interaction with Bucer during the years of pastoral exile in Strasburg, Calvin became even more acquainted with the function of psalms in early worship. Evidence for his deepened awareness of psalm singing in the apostolic and early church is the title for the proposed alterations to Geneva’s worship liturgy which he described as “according to the custom of the ancient Church.” The description of the 1542 liturgy indicates Calvin’s desire to reform the church according to the model of antiquity.

Third, through a careful reading of Augustine, Calvin developed a concept of sacred music. From his study of Augustine, Calvin became impressed with the need for gravity and majesty in the church’s music and the necessity of permitting the text to take priority over the tune and melody. In this way the power of music would be harnessed for spiritual good as the music assisted the worshiper to think about the lyrical content of the song while at the same time restraining dangerous excesses which could be generated by music shaped strictly for the purpose of engaging the emotions while bypassing the intellect.

Fourth, Calvin’s final step in 1543 to replace secular songs with the Psalms even outside of worship marks a final significant turning point. Aiming at counteracting the potentially corrosive effects of immoral and obscene secular songs sung in wider society, Calvin proposed that the psalms could and should be sung around the home and hearth as well as in worship. While Calvin’s effort to banish secular songs and substitute the psalms only in their place may sound extreme to our 21st century ears, Garside points out that this was not entirely out of step with 16th century humanist ideas concerning the social dimensions of music which had been profoundly shaped by Platonic theory (p.29).  Given such a context, it is not hard to appreciate how it happened that vernacular psalmody became something like a Calvinist badge as the Reformed sang their psalms in worship and took them on the go as they went into workplace and on to the battle fields while defending their heartfelt faith.

In bringing this final post on Garside’s article to a conclusion, I will give him the last word:

Calvin’s vernacular psalmody in the last analysis is nothing other than a formulation in uniquely musical terms of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Thus from its inception Calvin’s theology of music in its textual dimension was Scriptural. The Psalter was conceived, and always would be considered by him, as an indispensable instrument for the prosecution of his ministry of the Word of God to the city of Geneva and the wider world beyond (p.29).

I hope this close look at Garside’s analysis of Calvin’s developing thought between 1536 and 1543 has been both useful and informative, and that it may help stimulate a desire, at least among the Reformed, to return to the rich heritage of Calvin’s and by extension, the apostolic and early church’s practice of worship according to the Word.

In our next series, we will examine other aspects of Calvin’s views on psalmody.

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