Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Rise and Decline of Exclusive Canonical Psalmody in the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches: The Rise of Exclusive Canonical Psalmody in Geneva

It is a claim beyond dispute that the Reformed church in Geneva during the 16th century sang only inspired canonical psalms. Support abounds for this assertion, but perhaps the easiest way to substantiate it is the contents of the 1562 Geneva Psalter. The 1562 Psalter was the finished form of the song book Calvin had been working to produce for at least 20 years. Previous editions contained various lyrical content, but by far and away these editions contained the Psalms to the virtual exclusion of anything else. By 1562 Pidoux is able to confirm that the final edition, which was printed and translated and distributed across Europe, contained only the 150 Psalms and the “Nunc Dimittis” and the Decalogue. In fact, so obvious is it that Calvin supported only the use of inspired psalmody in the worship of the church, evidenced in his signature work, the Geneva Psalter, that Benson (1909) can speak of a “peculiar” kind of worship song that was used in Geneva which called “The Calvinistic Psalm,” which he describes as “simply the Word of God, translated and versified in hymn-form, so as to be sung by the people.” With heavy weight scholars such as Pidoux and Benson lined up in support of the claim that in 16th century Geneva, the church, under oversight of Calvin, sang only inspired psalms, no further argumentation will be offered in defense of the position. Surely, if someone can offer credible support from credible scholars to refute the claim presented here then the position being promoted would have to be reassessed and altered. Since such evidence and scholarship is most certainly lacking, then the basic soundness and correctness of the claim can be now taken for granted and another line of thought can be pursued, namely, the rise and then the decline of inspired psalmody in the Reformed church of Geneva.

The rise of inspired canonical psalmody in Geneva is very well documented by the scholarly research of Dr. Charles Garside. In the summer of 1979 Dr. Garside presented a study entitled “The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music: 1536-1543” to “The American Philosophical Society,” the oldest scholarly journal in America, which reaches back to 1769. This work is the gold standard, along with that of Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old, in establishing with the greatest scholarly credibility, the historical record of Calvin’s commitment to exclusive canonical psalmody. In the subsequent paragraphs we will follow Dr. Garside’s account of the rise of canonical psalmody in Geneva and then we will turn to the impeccable work of liturgist Luis Benson on the decline of exclusive canonical psalmody in the Genevan church.

With respect to the rise of canonical psalmody in Geneva, it is to be attributed exclusively to Calvin’s conviction and tireless effort. The story of the rise of canonical psalmody under the leadership of John Calvin begins with the Articles of 1537. These Articles contained four proposals which formed the backbone of Calvin’s attempt to bring order to Geneva: church discipline, psalm-singing in public worship, catechizing the youth, and reform of marriage statutes. For our purposes it is evident that the second proposal, psalm-signing in public worship, is of central significance.  Expanding upon this second article, Garside quotes from Calvin where he gives expression to the rationale of this ordinance: Furthermore it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing psalms in the form of public prayers by which one prays to God or sings His praises so that the hearts of all may be aroused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love. What is of such great importance about Calvin’s accounting for the essential role of psalmody in worship is that it marks a departure from Calvin’s previous views and the prior practice of the Church of Geneva.
When Calvin arrived in Geneva in the autumn of 1536, he complained that the prayers of the Genevan’s were “cold.” Garside explains that Calvin is probably reacting to the fact that when he arrived in Geneva there was no music in worship at all since Farel had abolished it from the liturgy (p.14). Though Calvin took note of this defect, he himself was not at this time in substantial disagreement with the position of Farel as Garside notes, the 1536 edition of the Institutes indicates that Calvin was yet under the sway of Zwingli who from1525 removed the “barborous mumbling” (worship song) from the churches in Zurich (p.11). However, by January of 1537, Calvin’s views about song in worship had sharply changed and he found himself proposing psalm singing in the worship of God. What accounts for this change in thought? Garside suggests two factors: cold prayers and Bucer. With respect to the former, it is evident that Calvin, having experienced the dreadful and spiritually numbing effect of the Zwinglian prohibition against worship song, began to reconsider his position and found support for a new way forward in the writings of Bucer. As early as 1524 Bucer defended song in worship in his Justification and Demonstration from Holy Scripture. This work not only proposes suggestions for where song is to be appropriately used in the course of the liturgy, it also defends congregational singing in the final chapter.  Though it is fair to wonder if Calvin had read much of Bucer and his rationale for worship song, Garside’s judgment is likely correct that while the 1536 Institutes show an inclination towards  Zwingli’s view of prayer (song), the Articles of 1537 betray the hand of Bucer.
Although Calvin experienced a renaissance in his thinking about worship song, the church in Geneva would not experience something similar in its practice, at least not during Calvin’s first stay in Geneva. By early 1538, not only would Calvin not yet be enjoying the proposed change in worship, he also found himself in the position of being banished from Geneva by the city council. On account of his refusal to endorse the arrangement which would cement political ties between Geneva and the Swiss city of Bern by implementing liturgical reform that would make these two cities uniform in their worship, Calvin and Farel were given their "pink slips" and were bounced out of Geneva (p.14). Upon their dismissal from Geneva, both Calvin and Farel went straight to Bern in order to give an account of the fallout in Geneva. From there, they went on to a local synod meeting at Zurich in early May of 1538 where something of a tectonic shift occurred. There, Calvin and Farel presented 14 articles for consideration to the synod, and among those, article 13, was a requirement to sing psalms in public worship. The synod unanimously approved these articles, including article 13, and just a couple of months later the city of Bern changed course from a Zwinglian policy of no congregational singing to one of exclusive psalmody in June of 1538. Ironically the unintended consequences of the Bernese political arrangement with Geneva left Calvin without a pastoral call, while at the same time, it triggered a massive change in policy among the Swiss churches signaling a decisive shift away from the policies of Zwingli toward the new views of Calvin (Bucer!) on worship song.
For a space of about 3 years, from 1538-1541, Calvin labored quite happily in Strasbourg as a he pastored a congregation of French speaking refugees. It would be during this stay in Strasbourg and working in close consultation with Bucer that Calvin would refine his views on psalmody and forge a connection between his theory of regulated worship and its practice. Shortly after arriving in the city, Calvin oversaw the production of a song book for worship in 1539 which was modeled on the Strasbourg Psalter. Another indication of growth and movement in Calvin’s thought on worship is found in the 1539 edition of the Institutes published during his stay in Strasbourg. By making a simple comparison between the 1536 edition of the Institutes and the 1539, Garside was able to show an important development in Calvin’s thought. For instance, in the 1536 edition Calvin expressed the opinion that he did not “condemn speaking and singing provided they were associated with the hearts affection and serve it” (hardly a ringing endorsement of congregational singing) while in the 1539 edition he inserted between “singing” and “provided” the following phrase:  but rather strongly commend them (13). Another revision occurs where Calvin deleted the phrase “serve it,” as was expressed in 1536, removing the notion that song had a mere servile role in worship. Garside suggests that these slight modifications in the 1539 Institutes, written as they were in Latin, which means they were available to a wide reading audience, form a permanent record of Calvin’s views on worship song and set in motion the emergence of the liturgical principles of Strasbourg as the standard for the next few hundred years of Reformed worship which would eventually erode and give way under the weight of popular revivalism.  With these developments in place, Calvin was prepared to return to Geneva and re-launch his quest for the Reformation in that most difficult of cities.
As time passed, the Genevans realized they needed Calvin, though Calvin was not exactly sure he wanted them. But, under council from others, Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541, on one condition however, that the city council accepts his proposals which were outlined in the 1541 Ecclesiastical Ordinances. On September 13, 1541, he reentered Geneva, met with the town council, and picked up his bid for reform where he had left off a few years before as he submitted his Ordinances. These Ordinances were substantially the same as the Articles of 1537 except for some changes to the proposals on worship song. Tucked away in the middle of a paragraph on marriage are the following two sentences: It will be good to introduce ecclesiastical songs, the better to incite the people to prayer to and praise God. For a beginning the little children are to be taught; then with time the church will be able to follow (16). Though these sentences are similar in content with the Articles they say little about the nature of worship song and they seem to shift the subject from worship to children’s education. The very wording of the Ordinances suggests that a future communication would be needed to clarify the content and role of music in the public worship of the Genevan churches and that clarification and expansion is found in the 1542 Epistle to the Reader for his order of worship for Geneva.
With the publication of the 1542 Epistle to the Reader, Calvin’s views on worship song have come to a firm and solid resting point. The title of this new work setting forth the liturgical order for Genevan worship is itself instructive, The Form of Prayers and Ecclesiastical Songs, with the manner of administering the sacraments and consecrating marriage according to the custom of the ancient Church. Here Calvin not only proposes the use of songs in worship he also classifies it is a form of prayer, describes its role, and gives us some sense of what its nature. With respect to the role of worship song Calvin says they are to “arouse and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal” while concerning the nature of song he explains “there must always be concern that the song be neither light nor frivolous, but have gravity (pois) and majesty (maieste), as Saint Augustine says” (p.18).” The 1542 Epistle represents the high water mark of Calvin’s views on worship song which never underwent subsequent change or alteration. From this point forward, Calvin worked tirelessly to produce a complete song book for worship containing the Psalms of Scripture which not only were able to “arouse and inflame” the hearts of men to praise but also met that high standards of quality proposed by Augustine.
Over the next 20 years several versions of the Geneva Psalter would be published as the body of poetry and melodies grew until 1562 when it reached its final form. At no time subsequent to 1542 did Calvin change his views on worship song. Many have thought that Calvin produced psalters which contained hymns and songs not taken from the word of God. Such suppositions are entirely false and baseless, and do not account for how Calvin could so openly contradict his own published views on the subject, yet retain his credibility as an advocate of exclusive canonical psalmody. The fact is, Calvin did not change his views nor his practice between 1542 and 1562 and the great proof of that is the final form of the 1562 Psalter. With this evidence in view, we can see that the canonical psalms had not only the principal place in praise, but the sole place in the praise of the Genevan church of the 16th century.
In our next post we will examine the decline of psalmody in the Genevan church.
In every subsequent post I will always include Calvin’s comments on the centrality and primacy of worship to the cause of Reformation which is found in his great treatise On the Necessity of Reforming the Church:
If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these are kept out of view, though we may glory in the name of Christians, our profession is empty and vain.

I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, "Obedience is better than sacrifice." "In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men," (1 Sam. 25:22; Matt. 15:9.) Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere " will worship" is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.

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