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Calvin and the Worship of God
Previously Published in The Worship of God, Christian Focus Publications, 2005.
W. Robert Godfrey, Ph.D. John Calvin is a hero for Reformed people. He is a hero because he was such a profound teacher of biblical Christianity. His systematic theology and his biblical commentaries remain models of brilliant scholarship and sensitive faith. While not necessarily agreeing with Calvin at every point and certainly not regarding him as an absolute authority, Reformed people continue to follow basically the theological map charted by Calvin.
Ironically, however, many Reformed people today do not follow Calvin’s view of worship. Many are not even acquainted with his views. If Calvin is as biblical and theologically profound as many Reformed people believe him to be, perhaps his approach to worship needs to be reconsidered.
Importance of Worship
The first surprise for students of Calvin is likely to be the great importance that he attached to worship. In 1543 he wrote a treatise entitled “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church.” The work was written as an explanation and defense of the Reformation to be presented to the Emperor Charles V. Near the beginning Calvin wrote:
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. (1)
Remarkably Calvin put worship ahead of salvation in his list of the two most important elements of biblical Christianity.
This prominence given to worship by Calvin is repeated often. In the Institutes Calvin noted that the first four commandments of the Ten Commandments relate to worship. He concluded: “Surely the first foundation of righteousness is the worship of God.” (2) In his celebrated defense of the Reformation, “Reply to Sadoleto,” Calvin noted that “…there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God.” (3)…
Calvin’s approach to worship later came to be called the regulative principle. This principle holds that the Scriptures must so regulate public worship that only what is explicitly commanded in the Bible may be an element of worship. (6) Calvin was eloquent on the theme:
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. xv. 22; Matth. xv. 9.) Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere ‘will worship’ [Col. ii. 23]…is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate. (7)
Calvin knew the human tendency to think that sincerity and fervor can substitute for truth and faithfulness, but he rejected any such notion absolutely.
Calvin based his great caution about worship in the Fall. One of the most profound effects of the Fall for Calvin was that men have become idolaters. (8) The seed of religion left in them does not lead them to the true God, but leads them to fashion gods of their own design. (9) “Experience teaches us how fertile is the field of falsehood in the human mind, and that the smallest of grains, when sown there, will grow to yield an immense harvest.” (10) Even among Christians the temptation to idolatry remains strong. “The mind of man, I say, is like a work place of idolatrie” (11) and “…every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.” (12)…
…Moderation is proper even in expressing joy. The Psalmist declares, “Worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). Calvin wrote:
To prevent them from supposing that the service to which he calls them is grievous, he teaches them by the word rejoice how pleasant and desirable it is, since it furnishes matter of true gladness. But lest they should, according to their usual way, wax wanton, and, intoxicated with vain pleasures, imagine themselves happy while they are enemies to God, he exhorts them farther by the words with fear to an humble and dutiful submission. There is a great difference between the pleasant and cheerful state of a peaceful conscience, which the faithful enjoy in having the favour of God, whom they fear, and the unbridled insolence to which the wicked are carried, by contempt and forgetfulness of God. The language of the prophet, therefore, implies, that so long as the proud profligately rejoice in the gratification of the lusts of the flesh, they sport with their own destruction, while, on the contrary, the only true and salutary joy is that which arises from resting in the fear and reverence of God. (37)
He made a similar comment on the biblical text, “…let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:29): “…although readiness and joy are demanded in our service, at the same time no worship is pleasing to Him that is not allied to humility and due reverence.” (38)…
Music for Worship
Calvin’s position on music is one application of his theology of worship. Calvin’s view of music focuses most sharply the differences between Calvin and many contemporary evangelicals, even those who would call themselves Reformed. Music was important to Calvin. He wrote of music: “…we find by experience that it has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another. Therefore we ought to be even more diligent in regulating it in such a way that it shall be useful to us and in no way pernicious.” (41)
Calvin greatly simplified the use of music in worship in comparison with the musical developments of the late medieval period. Calvin eliminated choirs and musical instruments from public worship. The only music in worship was congregational singing unaccompanied by musical instruments. The simplicity of singing and the unity of the congregation was best preserved, Calvin believed, by singing in unison.
Singing was a basic element of worship for Calvin because he saw singing as a particularly heartfelt way to pray: “As for public prayers, there are two kinds. The ones with the word alone: the others with singing.” (42)
Calvin believed that the Psalms were the best songs for the Christian community to sing:
Moreover, that which St. Augustine has said is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from him. Therefore, when we have looked thoroughly, and searched here and there, we shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory. (43)
Calvin elaborated on his strong feelings about the value of the Psalms to the Christian community in the preface to his Psalms commentary:
I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror…in short, there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise. (44)
Calvin’s approach to music may well seem strange and idiosyncratic today. Calvin believed, however, that he was simply restoring the use of music sanctioned by the Bible and followed by the ancient church. From reading the fathers (especially Athanasius, Chrysostom and Augustine) Calvin learned that the ancient church sang exclusively (or almost exclusively) Psalms in unison without instrumental accompaniment. (45) He believed that he was purifying the church from recent musical innovations in the western church.
On the issue of musical instruments Calvin was convinced that the fathers rightly saw that the new covenant required abandoning instruments for public worship:
To sing the praises of God upon the harp and psaltery unquestionably formed a part of the training of the law, and of the service of God under that dispensation of shadows and figures; but they are not now to be used in public thanksgiving. We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Cor. xiv. 13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to him only in a known tongue. (46)
Calvin linked the movement of New Testament worship away from instruments to the greater simplicity of the new covenant: “…musical instruments were among the legal ceremonies which Christ at His coming abolished; and therefore we, under the Gospel, must maintain a greater simplicity.” (47) Calvin’s statements show that his criticism of instruments was primarily directed against any role for musical instruments independent of accompanying congregational singing, but in practice he did eliminate instruments completely from worship.
Calvin argued that the instruments were instituted for the Jews to wean them gradually from the dissolute ways of the world: “…that he might lead men away from those vain and corrupt pleasures to which they are excessively addicted, to a holy and profitable joy.” (48) But the maturity of the church after the appearance of Jesus made such “puerile instruction’ unnecessary and detrimental to spirituality.
But when they [believers] frequent their sacred assemblies, musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews….but we should always take care that no corruption creep in which might both defile the pure worship of God and involve men in superstition. (49)
Calvin’s concern for proper worship extended also to the tunes to be used for the Psalms. He carefully supervised the preparation of the Genevan Psalter over the years to insure the composition of appropriate music and in the providence of God was blessed with composers of extraordinary talent like Louis Bourgeois. Calvin expressed his basic position on tunes in these words: “Touching the melody, it has seemed best that it be moderated in the manner we have adopted to carry the weight and majesty appropriate to the subject, and even to be proper for singing in the Church….” (50) The music for the songs of the church must be reverent in relation to God and singable for the congregation.
Calvin’s critics suggest that his approach to music is dominated by the very cautious attitudes of Plato toward music. Certainly Plato, both directly and mediated through the fathers, was a great influence on Calvin. Calvin did refer to Plato’s attitude toward music quite favorably both in the “Preface” to the Genevan Psalter and elsewhere: “…we all know from experience how great a power music has for moving men’s feelings, so that Plato teaches, quite rightly, that in one way or another music is of the greatest value in shaping the moral tone of the state.” (51) The real issue is not the influence of Plato, but whether Calvin’s use of Plato enables him to see the implications of biblical teaching more clearly or not. Calvin clearly felt it did. The power inherent in music meant that it had to be handled carefully:
And in truth we know by experience that singing has great force and vigour to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal. Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty (as St. Augustine says), and also, there is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels. (52)
Indeed the tunes of the Genevan Psalter show a remarkable range of emotion carefully reflecting the emotions of the Psalms for which they were composed. (53)
For Calvin true worship must wed inward sincerity to outward faithfulness to God’s Word. Worship must be outwardly obedient to God’s inspired direction and also flow from the heart: “…it is not sufficient to utter the praises of God with our tongues, if they do not proceed from the heart…” (54) In true worship the believer exercises faith and repentance as he meets with God and grows in grace. (55) As Hughes Oliphant Old stated, “The outward form of worship and the inward adoration of the heart must remain firmly joined together.” (56)
Calvin’s labor to relate the inward and outward dimensions of worship properly flowed out of his theology as a whole. Reformed Christianity for him was an integrated whole. His doctrine of sin made him deeply suspicious of human instincts and human desires in the matter of worship. His doctrine of grace led him to expect God to be sovereign in directing worship. He would have insisted that those who think that they can preserve Reformed systematic theology while abandoning a Reformed theology of worship are wrong. (57) Rather he would suggest that where theology stresses the sovereign power and work of God, where the priority of his action and the regulative authority of his Word are recognized, there a form of worship very like Calvin’s own will emerge. The church today needs to listen anew to Calvin on worship so that its worship will not be man-centered, but God-centered and God-directed.
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