Wednesday, May 2, 2012

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

The following quote from Louis Benson will help reset the topic in this series of posts on the classical Reformed and Presbyterian commitment to exclusive canonical psalmody in worship, and help establish a baseline to measure the departure from this standard by the Reformed Church in the Enlightenment era:

There is no more difficulty in assigning the leadership to him (Calvin) than in assigning to Luther the leadership in establishing hymn singing in Germany and its spread from there into Lutheran countries. From this point indeed, the two figures stand as independent sources, from which flow two parallel streams of Protestant church song--- the Lutheran Hymnody on the one hand and the Reformed Metrical Psalmody on the other. And the streams were not fully united till after two centuries had passed. They are not in fact merged into unity even today, when the Calvinistic precedent of Psalm singing still furnishes the ground for maintaining denominational integrity among exclusive Psalm singers (p.75).

It may also prove helpful to add just one more quote from Benson about Calvin’s position on psalmody where he says of Calvin’s standard for worship song:

The Calvinistic Psalm took its authority and its appropriateness from its divine inspiration. It must be Holy Scripture, first of all; then it became metrical merely to facilitate its congregational rendering. Calvin had determined to make the Psalter the praise book of the Reformed Church (p.75).

From these two quotes a couple of important issues emerge. First, Luther and Calvin are regarded by Benson as the liturgical leaders of the Lutheran and Reformed churches respectively. This point is significant since it provides an objective reference point for the measuring the form of worship, particularly in the matter of congregational song, which is what we might call “classically” Reformed. Such a point of clarification is useful since many today who claim to represent the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian position on worship often describe their form of worship as “traditional” or as “classical” over against innovative forms of worship practiced in many Reform and Presbyterian churches today which they often like to label as “revivalistic.” However, Benson’s identification of Calvin as the liturgical standard bearer of historical Reformed worship means that the term “classical” can only honestly and accurately be used to describe worship which conforms to the actual model of worship instituted by Calvin in Geneva and which was followed by other Reformed and Presbyterian churches of the 16th century. Second, Benson isolates the precise difference between Lutheran and Reformed when it comes to the element of song. Benson explains that Lutheran song can be fairly characterized as manmade compositions while Calvinistic songs were nothing less than divinely inspired and taken directly from Scripture. Further, Benson notes that these two contrasting views represented two distinct streams of worship song and they only converged in the Reformed Church 200 years after the Reformation, though he accurately notes some churches which wish to be distinguished as fully Calvinistic in worship continue to conform to Calvin’s precedent of exclusive canonical psalmody. It is evident from this manner of description, that Benson judges only exclusive psalm singing churches as classically Reformed and Calvinistic.

Now, moving on to our specific area of focus, attention will be given briefly to the DECLINE of exclusive canonical psalmody in the church of Geneva. First of all, Benson stakes out the bold ground of claiming that exclusive psalmody was the practice of the French-speaking Reformed churches for well over 100 years after the publication of the 1562 Geneva Psalter (p.108). It is true that the Synod of Montabaun in 1594 commissioned Beza to versify Scriptural canticles as a sort of appendix to the Geneva Psalter, which he did. Beza submitted 12 songs, 10 of which were taken from the Old Testament, and the Church approved their use in worship and private devotion; however, these songs never quite caught on as we might say, and never had a subsequent impact on the church’s repertoire of praise. Second, in the very late 17th century the Venerable Company of Pastors in Geneva approved a motion to eliminate imprecations of the Jews against their enemies from the Psalms. This work was completed largely by Benedict Pictet in 1693 but again, was not unanimously received  (p.112). Third, in the early 1700’s a strong push towards a more “evangelical” hymnody arose in the church.  In response to this surge in momentum towards hymnody, Pictet proposed to supplement the Psalms with New Testament hymns. By 1705, Pictet, prepared 12 paraphrases of New Testament passages which were added to the Psalter as an appendix (p.115). The difference between this project and early attempted revisions and expansions is summarized well by Benson when he says that this project “took its impulse from Lutheran precedent, and it marks the beginning of the new period of Psalms and Hymns on equal footing” (p.116).  With this foot firmly planted in the doorway, supplementation of Psalter continued to grow over time until the 1778 edition of the Psalter contained 54 hymns. Fourth, As the Lutheran hymnal began to influence the Reformed Church, changes in worship song continued to grow until a short period of resistance and push-back was witnessed in the Geneva church early in the 19th century. Those who were committed to the classical model of Reformed congregational singing sought to resuscitate the Psalter by revising its language and tunes. This reform movement was short-lived however and by the 3rd decade of the 19th century, the Psalter ceased to have the sole place in the church’s praise.

Looking back over this brief presentation of the path to the decline of exclusive canonical psalmody, two important details are to be observed. One, the church of Geneva never ruled that Calvin’s regulative principle was unbiblical, nor did it even seem to grapple with the question of whether hymn-singing in public worship conformed to that principle; it simply “drifted” with the winds of change until this new practice was simply accepted. Surely this should be troubling to hymn-singers of the conservative stripe who think that somewhere in the history of the church, a synod met and decided that the regulative principle required the use of hymnody to supplement the Psalter (something the Reformed regulative principle surely requires). The fact is, no such meeting can identified as the catalyst for the change in the worship of the church of Geneva. It seems that over time, popular sentiment simply altered views of what was thought to be acceptable in worship. Two, the Reformed practice of exclusive canonical psalmody, in the church of Geneva, was disrupted by the Lutheran hymnal. In other words, prevailing popular trends influenced the worship of the church and ultimately changed it. The concern which such an alteration in practice ought provoke in the minds of conservative Reformed and Presbyterians can be easily appreciated by returning to Benson’s characterization of the two streams of congregation song which flowed from the two leaders of the Reformation, Luther and Calvin. From the stream of Luther, who held that worship is regulated by what God has not forbidden, man-made hymns flowed; while the stream which flowed from Calvin, who held that worship is regulated by what God commands, consisted of inspired canonical songs taken from Scripture. If we were to pose the question, “why did the Reformed Church of Geneva turn from Psalms to Hymns?” we would have to candidly bring forth the answer that the evidence indicates that a creep in the understanding of the regulative principle of worship, however imperceptible to them, seems to have occurred. The fact that the Venerable Company of Pastors in Geneva did not argue that Calvin’s principle and practice of worship was wrong, and, only over time, permitted the gradual use of hymns confirms our answer. Had they believed singing psalms only was a violation of the regulative principle they would have made the argument; however, there is no record of them arguing man-made hymns are commanded for use in worship and that therefore exclusive canonical psalmody was a violation of  God’s word. Instead, the story of the decline of exclusive canonical psalmody in Geneva reads like a story of accommodation, weakening of conviction about Biblically regulated worship, and wholesale capitulation to popular sentiment. The result of this sad story of decline is the supplanting of the confessional and Reformed principle of worship for that which is non-Reformed and unbiblical.

In view of these facts, those who claim to love the Reformed faith and who imagine that they follow Calvin and his Biblically informed philosophy and practice of worship, tmust ask if the story of the decline of psalmody in Geneva conforms to Calvin’s very clear statement of the regulative principle. If the story of decline and the practice of Lutheran forms of worship, without Biblical mandate or command, is what has replaced Calvin’s practice in the area of song in worship, then it must be asked further—which liturgical leader of the Reformation is now being followed: Luther or Calvin? Beyond that, it is incumbent upon those who are Reformed or Presbyterian in name, and yet, who conform to the practice of Luther, to either show that Luther was doing what was commanded and that Calvin was not, or to admit that they have opted for Luther’s regulative principle. Further, regardless of which of the two options is chosen, such persons ought then either to affiliate with the Lutheran Church or demand that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches revise the Reformed confessional regulative principle of worship to conform to the Luther’s in order that they may pursue their innovative form of worship with a clear conscience. After all, that is not only historically accurate and honest, it is what is required especially of those who take a vow to uphold, teach, defend, and refute anything contrary to the doctrine contained in the Reformed and Presbyterian confession. No middle ground on such a crucial doctrine as the doctrine of worship is permitted.

(BTW, those Reformed people who think of themselves as conservative in their worship but who refuse to conform to Calvin’s principle and practice, in the interest of accuracy and honesty, need to stop using “classical” to describe their worship. Such persons may be “classical” in the sense of following the principles of the Luther or Anglicanism, but they are not “classical” in the Reformed or Presbyterian sense in that they are not following Calvin’s practice nor that of the 16th and 17th century Reformed and Presbyterian churches. For such “Reformed” persons to continue to use “classical” to describe worship which  follows 18th century revivalistic patterns is inaccurate, dishonest, and confusing. What they should say is that what they think of as true Reformed worship is what comes from the new school of 18th century revivalism and that this model is much to be preferred both to the classical Reformed practice and to the contemporary revivalistic style perpetuated by Jack Miller in the late 1960’s in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.)

On the Necessity of Reforming the Church by John Calvin:
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.

Louis F. Benson, “John Calvin and the Psalmody of the Reformed Churches,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 5, 1 (March 1909):1–21; 5, 2 (June 1909): 55–87; 55, 3 (Sept. 1909): 107–118.


Rick said...

Is it true that in Geneva under Calvin that the apostle's creed was used for singing?
I think before or after the Lord's super. (something I read, not sure it is true)
What about non canonical doxologies?


John Sawtelle said...

Well, the 1562 Geneva Psalter has only 2 songs that are not from the Psalter, the 10 commandments and the Nunc dimittis, so we can be confident that after the publication of the 1562 Psalter the Creed was not sung. As for prior to that, I have heard that Calvin supported the singing of the Creed, but I don't see it except for in the 1539 Strausburg Psalter, a song book not used in Geneva. It is possible that it was included in prose form in previous editions but I cannot confirm that it was sung. I might also add here, that though Calvin does not seem to want to become entangled in arguments about the authorship of the Creed, he seems to be willing to accept that it was of apostolic origin:

I call it the Apostles’ Creed, though I am by no means solicitous as to its authorship. The general consent of ancient writers certainly does ascribe it to the Apostles, either because they imagined it was written and published by them for common use, or because they thought it right to give the sanction of such authority to a compendium faithfully drawn up from the doctrine delivered by their hands. I have no doubt, that, from the very commencement of the Church, and, therefore, in the very days of the Apostles, it held the place of a public and universally received confession, whatever be the quarter from which it originally proceeded. It is not probable that it was written by some private individual, since it is certain that, from time immemorial, it was deemed of sacred authority by all Christians. The only point of consequence we hold to be incontrovertible, viz., that it gives, in clear and succinct order, a full statement of our faith, and in every thing which it contains is sanctioned by the sure testimony of Scripture. This being understood, it were to no purpose to labour anxiously, or quarrel with any one as to the authorship, unless, indeed, we think it not enough to possess the sure truth of the Holy Spirit, without, at the same time, knowing by whose mouth it was pronounced, or by whose hand it was written. Institutes, Bk2, Ch. 16. Sect. 18

Thanks for your thoughtful question.

Rick said...

thanks John, I just noticed that there are other posts before this one. I'll have to catch up to those. I appreciate your emphasis on the RPW.

So, you can't confirm whether they sang the creed, what about non-canonical doxologies?

John Sawtelle said...


No, the Reformed did not use non-canonical doxologies. To the best of my knowledge, the 16th century liturgical orders did not even have a place for doxologies. I do however know that the Psalter contains 5 doxologies and that many Psalm-singing churches use those for doxologies after the benediction.

Thanks for reading and for your questions.