Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Martial Ethos of Historic Reformed Worship: Psalm singing and civil defense in early 17th century Geneva

For the last 400 years, in the evening of December 11th and on into the wee morning hours of the 12th of December, the longest day of the year on the Julian calendar, the city of Geneva hosts a very large and raucous celebration called the Fête de l'Escalade, the Celebration of the Scaling. During the span of this celebration a hot and tasty vegetable soup is sold everywhere in the streets of Geneva. Along with this soup, the famous chocolate "marmites", a replica of a soup cauldron, filled with marzipan vegetables and decorated with the colors of Geneva, is sold to revelers. According to a long standing custom, these chocolate pots are smashed, while shouting: Thus perish the enemies of the Republic [of Geneva]. Other customs include the offering of mulled wine and children in Halloween-like costumes singing Escalade songs in local bistros and in the streets, but the height of the celebration is marked by the procession of hundreds of Genevans dressed in full historical costume, along with horsemen, musketeers, crossbow marksmen, torch-bearers, a hangman and his assistant. The procession is accompanied by gun smoke, firecrackers and gun salutes which concludes its processional by marching to the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre where proclamation of Genevese victory is made. Everyone enjoys a good local parade and civic celebration, but what does this  Genevan custom have to do with the martial ethos of historic Reformed worship? The answer is that this parade is a public celebration of the annual celebration of the victory of Calvinistic Genevan forces over hostile, Roman Catholic forces of Duke Charles Emmanuel of Savoy which launched a surprise midnight attack against Geneva.

From the inception of Duke Charles Emmanuel’s rise to the throne of the House of Savoy in 1580, he longed to subject the Calvinists of Geneva to Savoy rule and to make the city the northern capital of the house of Savoy. Over the course of time he alternated diplomatic and military offensives, intimidation, threats and promises of peace, none of which secured the objective which aimed at breaking the back of Protestantism in Geneva. The Duke of Savoy enlisting the help of his brother-in-law, Philip III of Spain, finally attempted to seize his objective by force, amassing a force of 2,000 paid mercenaries, and launching a midnight raid on Geneva. The plan was to use a small mobile force of commandos to scale the city walls and to open the gates from the inside in order to flood the city with attackers. However, the plan of the Savoy attackers was thwarted by an alert sentinel who was able to squeeze off an alarm shot before he was killed. This shot set off the tripping of alarms and bells across the city, waking the Genevans and rallying them to defend the city against attack. One of the enduring legends preserved from that fateful evening is the story of Mother Royaume (Mère Royaume), the mother of 14 children, who, when she realized the city was under attack took a large cauldron of soup she had on the fire and hurled it onto the head of a Savoyard mercenary. To this day this act of valor is commemorated by the selling of the vegetable soup and the smashing of the chocolate pots. The upshot of the story is that the citizens of Geneva managed to repel the attackers from scaling the city wall (climb = escalade); while the Duke's army of 2000 mercenaries suffered several hundred casualties, the Genevans  suffered only 18.

When the smoke settled on December the 12th and the citizen militia concluded its mop up campaign, they returned to the streets of Geneva in order to celebrate their victory. As crowds gathered and reveled in the streets they sang Psalms giving thanks to God for their victory. At some point during the celebration, Theodore Beza, at this point in his 80’s, appeared before the crowd and called upon them to sing Psalm 124, one of the psalms he had versified in the 1550’s (p.53). Down to this day on December 12th the Genevans still mark the annual celebration of this momentous victory by the singing of this psalm. The Psalms then, not only galvanized the Reformed in France, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland to face the flames of persecution and filled their hearts with courage as they marched out to battle, they also unified the Calvinists in Geneva to rally in defense of the Reformation in Geneva and to defend it against the malevolent aims of the Roman Catholic Duke of Savoy.

It is apparent from the series of examples highlighted in these past several posts that the singing of the psalms cultivated a martial ethos in the hearts of Reformed worshipers across the continent and the British Isles, not only unifying the Reformed in their experience of their worship but also energizing them to take up the sword in self-defense and strengthening them in heart to face the fiery flames of persecution. Dr. Reid, looking over the evidence makes a couple of pointed conclusions. First he says that, “the vernacular-metrical psalm…became woven into the fabric of the sixteenth century Calvinist and life—one might even say it became part of the Calvinistic mystique” (p.53). So, Dr. Reid makes the claim that psalm singing was part of the fabric and mystique of the Calvinist way of life in the 16th century. In thinking about that statement, a reasonable question to ask is if that could be said of the Reformed and Presbyterian church today. Is the singing of psalms part of the fabric and mystique of the Church? Only a moment of reflection will lead to the sad conclusion that no, psalm singing is not a part of the fabric and mystique of the Church today. The reason it is not is because the Reformed and Presbyterian church somewhere along the line decided that the regulative principle of worship, formulated in the 16th and 17th century confessions did not apply to the content of the songs sung in worship. An unintended consequence of this false assessment is that it changed the ethos of the Reformed and Presbyterian church, exchanging a martial ethos for an ethos of pietistic, syrupy and sentimental emotionalism reflected in the revivalistic hymns of the 18th and 19th century and the vapid praise songs of the 1970’s and 80’s which mimic the tunes and sentiments of Barry Manilow and Ann Murray. Second, Dr, Reid draws the conclusion that psalm singing became one of the major factors in “forming and inspiring Calvinist resistance to persecution, oppression, and attack” (p.54). Can this be said of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches today? Again, only a moments reflection will lead to the obvious conclusion that such an ethos of courage and valor to face persecution, oppression, and attack is not being formed and cultivated in contemporary Reformed and Presbyterian Christians. It would not be stretching the truth too much to say that a major problem in the Reformed and Presbyterian church is that it lacks an identity and therefore has no significant identity to embrace or rally around in support, defense, or self-sacrifice. The Reformed were once known for virulent defense of worship; now, Reformed worship includes everything from Bill Gaither style of worship to the worship style Calvary Chapel or the Vineyard.  With such an amorphous worship identity it is no surprise that the Reformed church is suffering from spiritual anemia having replaced the regulative principle of the confessions with the principle suited to the taste of the masses which is constantly driven by the winds of change: whatever feels good, do it.

It is time for the Reformed and Presbyterian church to be honest, either admitting that the regulative principle of worship contained in the confessions is inaccurate and unbiblical, therefore standing in need of a reformulation which conforms more closely to Scripture, or, it is time to be honest and admit that the innovations which have taken place in its worship since the 16th century are inconsistent with the regulative principle and thus mobilize to restore the old form of Reformed worship. This will not happen however until the record about historic Reformed worship is set straight and the Reformed and Presbyterian churches are consciously made aware of the fact that in practice they have both departed from and rejected the regulative principle of worship. Once there is an awareness of that fact, a decision will have to be made, will the Church embrace its own confession or will it reformulate the regulative principle of worship along the lines which Dr. John Frame has proposed. Evading this question is dishonest and not only undermines the credibility of the Reformed churches, it also cultivates a spineless mushy ethos in the churches and leaves it without a clear identity to embrace or an obvious purpose to rally around, promote, defend, and sacrifice for. No amount of substituting hot button commitments to home-schooling, six day creation, Van Tilian apologetics, or denial of women’s suffrage will restore vigor to the Reformed since the backbone and foundation of the Reformed church is worship as John Calvin himself said in 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.

The longer the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which want to claim the mantle of faithful Calvinism, fail to reckon and make peace with this statement of Calvin, that the whole substance of Christianity rests upon the mode in which God is duly worshiped, the more the Church will suffer from anemia and will twist and shift with the winds of worship which blow across evangelicalism and it will not be able to draw sharp contrasts between itself and broad evangelicalism. Sadly, the Reformed will be indistinguishable from a broad range of churches which includes everything from Anglicanism, to traditional Southern Baptist worship, to Calvary Chapel and the Assembly of God.

People of God, now is the time to rise up in protest, now is the time to embrace our Biblical and historic Reformed heritage!