Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Martial Ethos of Historic Reformed Worship: Psalm-singing for vigorous Kingdom service (part 1)

Calvinistic worship, that is, worship regulated according to Scripture alone (Heidelberg Catechism Q 96; Belgic Confession article 32), has fostered and cultivated a unique form of piety in the Reformed church in the past. Many examples and testimonies of this distinct form of piety could be cited, but in this new series, I propose the MARTIAL ETHOS produced by Psalm-singing, which characterized militant Calvinism in the 16th and 17th centuries, for consideration. The research I will use to discuss the martial ethos produced by Psalm-singing among the Reformed churches of this period has been generated and published by W. Standford Reid in an article entitled, “The Battle Hymns of the Lord: Calvinist Psalmody of the Sixteenth Century.” Dr. Reid was a professor of history at the University of Guelph and the research presented in this particular essay is found a volume of essays published in 1970 in Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, edited by C.S. Meyer. In the subsequent posts based upon this essay, I propose to examine the following five areas for examination: 1) Psalm singing strengthened the Calvinists to fight, 2) A brief history of Geneva Psalter’s construction –including its distribution in several languages, 3) Reasons why the psalter strengthened the Calvinists, 4) The Roman Catholic opposition to the Psalter and the Calvinist Psalm-singers and, 5) Use of the Psalter of various Calvinistic military campaigns of the 16th and 17th century. As we consider the evidence set forth and make the connection between the singing of psalms and the martial ethos of historical Calvinism, I challenge contemporary Reformed churches to recommit to the exclusive singing of the Psalms and inspired canonical psalms in order that they may reclaim the Calvinistic heritage of fulfilling the Biblical mandate to embrace the roll of the church militant in this age, which it has been shamefully distracted away from through its conscious choice to adorn Reformed worship with the accoutrements of breezy evangelical revivalism and to follow its form of feminine piety.

Dr. Reid begins his essay by claiming that certain types of music have power to stimulate to action, even the power to incite hands to war and fingers to fight. A moment’s reflection upon various kinds of music will easily verify the adequacy of this assertion. Ask yourself, “which performer or group would tend to motivate a soldier for battle more, Barry Manilow or Metallica?” I don’t think anyone who wants to be taken seriously would propose that Barry Manilow is the more obvious selection.  It is obvious that a particular kind of ethos corresponds to these styles of music: Manilow’s music is characterized by a syrupy emotionalism and is thus fitting for cultivating and evoking that response where such moods are desired, and of course, a sort of robust, manly, courageous aggressiveness has characterized the music of James Hetfield and Metallica from their earliest beginnings, and that music is well suited to cultivate and strike similar chords in the hearts of its listeners. That simple exercise then provides common sense confirmation of the assertion made by Reid that certain types of music stimulate certain actions, even martial action.

Next, Dr. Reid points out an obvious fact which is that the Calvinists had to fight their way to Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. To verify the point, one only needs to think for a brief moment about the Huguenot’s, the Dutch, the Scottish Covenanters, Cromwell’s Roundheads, or the “Reformes of the Cevennes,” all who valiantly engaged in battle to defend and promote their deeply held Calvinistic and Reformed convictions. Helpfully, Reid gives at least a brief explanation for why the Calvinists were so often found marching out to battle, and it was not because they happened to be blood-thirsty, maladjusted thugs. It was rather because Calvinists, unlike the Lutherans, were never afforded the same political and religious protections from Rome and its allies, as the Lutheran’s received under the settlement of the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. On account of that lack of protection the Reformed were often savagely persecuted for their faith, and were left with no other option but to resist and fight back.

Interestingly, what Reid points out as characteristic of these Reformed armies who trudged out to the battlefield in the defense of polis and ecclesia is that as they went out to battle “the psalmists’s words seem to have come almost automatically to their lips” (p.36). Beyond that, think for a moment about Reid’s claim which is that it was the Psalms that tipped the balance in the favor of the Reformed as they engaged in battle. It is true, as Reid points out that Reformed forces were often led by a militant aristocracy and funded generously by a wealthy bourgeoisie, but those factors alone cannot account for their military success. Instead of finding the secret of their success in the quality of their leadership or the adequacy of their financial partners, Reid digs down into the hearts of the soldiers themselves, and having peeled back the layers he finds the Psalms there and argues that it was the Psalms which both built up and maintained the morale of the soldiers as they fought (p.37). See that? Calvinist worship, as historically conceived of and practiced by the Reformed churches of the 16th century, led to Kingdom advancement!

As we bring this article to conclusion, it is best to give Reid the last word so we can hear his bold and decisive claims about the all significant role of the Psalms in the 16th and 17th century battles for religious and political freedom from Rome and her allies:

The things that really grabbed the common man, the ordinary Calvinistic soldier, was something much more mundane: his catechetical training and congregational singing of the psalms. More than all the fine theological training, both the catechism and the Psalter entered into the very warp and weft of the humblest members’ lives (p.37).

Well, there we have the main thought Reid proposes for consideration, which is that the Psalms, when repeatedly sung in the congregation, have the power to fashion a certain kind of piety and theological conviction in the heart such that it creates a vast reservoir of motivation and resolve which may be tapped repeatedly and used as fuel to energize “hands to war and fingers to fight” in order that Christ’s kingdom may be defended and advanced for the glory of His name.

Now, let me conclude with a question for my Reformed readers (and I ask this as gently as I can), whose churches long ago sold the precious birthright of Psalm-singing for the pottage of revivalistic hymns and praise songs, are your songs tending to motivate and strengthen you to fight and to defend and to advance the kingdom of God, or do they tend to keep your hands clean from such actions and concerns and focused instead on your prayer closet and personal piety? Of course having spent much of my life in Reformed churches which rejected the Calvinistic and Reformed heritage of Psalm-singing in favor of Watt’s paraphrases, hymns of the Wesley brothers, and Fanny Crosby’s ditties, I am satisfied that I know the answer, but I would like you to consider Reid’s assertion for yourself: certain types of music stimulate to action, even to inciting hands to war and fingers to fight. Try to answer honestly!

Next time we will give a brief history of the Geneva Psalter’s construction –including its distribution in several languages.

1 comment:

Vic said...

Looking forward to this series...

Personally, congregational Psalm singing has been a tremendous blessing in my life granting words of valor and comfort and I would not trade it for anything this world has to offer.

It is a sad thing when Reformed churches today shove the singing of the Psalms to the sideline.

"We have not made exclusive Psalmody one of our distinctive principles; rather, those who have given up this position have made it distinctive for us. We will stand where all the Presbyterian and Reformed churches once stood." Bruce C. Stewart, Psalm Singing Revisited.