Sunday, March 14, 2010

John Calvin: Musical Instruments in Christian Services Amount to Idolatry, "Corruption," and "Superstition"; a Defilement of "Pure Worship"

[Organ-Rome.jpg]
Organ of the church San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome (late 16th century)

He believed that he was purifying the church from recent musical innovations in the western church. Musical instruments and complex hymnody were all part of the corruptions introduced by the Roman Church. . . .

. . . 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. 14:13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to him only in a known tongue. [Commentary on Psalms, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 98 . . .]

. . . musical instruments were among the legal ceremonies which Christ at his coming abolished; and therefore we, under the Gospel, must maintain a greater simplicity. [Commentary on the Four Last Books of Moses, Vol .1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 263 . . .]

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. [Commentary on Psalms, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 539]

(W. Robert Godfrey, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2009, pp. 74-75. Interestingly, Protestant "reformer" Zwingli used the same exact argument from St. Paul to argue that no music whatsoever -- not even singing -- was permitted in worship. See Howard L. Rice & James C. Huffstutler, Reformed worship [Louisville: Geneva Pres, 2001], p. 100)

But although Calvin believed in congregational singing and fostered it, he was set against accompanying it with any kind of instrumental music. In the 66th Homily on 1 Samuel, chapter xviii, he gives his opinion on this point . . .

If we now consider it to be necessary we shall return to our former darkness and obscure the light which appeared in the Son of God. The Papacy was guilty of foolish and ridiculous imitation when it decorated churches and thought to offer God a more worthy service by employing organs and other follies of that sort. By these the Word and worship of God are profaned, for the people interest themselves in these things more than in the Divine Word. Where there is no intelligence there is no edification . . . That which was useful under the Law has no place under the Gospel, and we must abstain from such things not only as superfluous, but as frivolous. All that is needed in the praise of God is a pure and simple modulation of the voice. Instrumental music was tolerated because of the condition of the people. They were, Scripture tells us, children who used childish toys which must be put away if we wish not to destroy evangelical perfection and quench the light we have received through Christ.

There was no instrumental music in Strassburg or Geneva so long as Calvin controlled the services. . . . The organ which stood in St. Peter's was allowed to remain till 1562 when the tubes were melted down and turned into flagons for holding Communion wine.

(Hugh Young Reyburn, John Calvin: His Life, Letters, and Work, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914, pp. 85-86)

Calvin's absurd restrictions against musical instruments didn't last long in many Reformed circles. Christopher Richard Joby observed:

By the middle of the seventeenth century, those who supported its use seem to have made their case sufficiently strongly for organs to begin to be used in worship . . . it is also worth nothing that the Netherlands were not the only place where instruments were being introduced into worship in the seventeenth century. For example, in western Switzerland wind instruments also began to be used in Reformed worship at this time.

(Calvinism and the Arts: A Re-Assessment, Dudley, Massachusetts: Peeters, 2007, p. 74)

In fairness to Calvin, it must be noted (as it was, briefly, in the above citations) that he was not at all opposed to music per se. He devoted a great deal of energy and devotion in promoting the Genevan Psalter, and indeed was known to have been moved to tears upon hearing the choir singing at his church. But for some reason, he held to a huge dichotomy between the human voice and musical instruments, as if the voice is not also an "instrument" -- and is fundamentally different in some way, so that the one almost inexorably becomes an "idol" whereas the human voice (as long as it is not singing in harmony) does not.

* * *

Arguments from guilt-by-association (which is pretty much all Calvin is doing here) are not in any way compelling. The argument has to be made on other grounds. Calvin (obviously unimpressed by or unfamiliar with all the biblical evidence about musical instruments and worship) nevertheless makes a rather weak and illogical guilt-by-association argument:

1) They had instruments in the OT.

2) They also had a lot of problems of idolatry in the OT.

3) Therefore, instruments are idolatrous in the context of worship.

He made the same fatally flawed, unbiblical argument about images (present in the temple), and abolished them in churches.

If it was okay then, it didn't suddenly become evil in the new covenant. If it wasn't (necessarily and always) idolatry then, it wasn't, by the same token, after Jesus, either. Idolatry resides in the heart, which is why an argument that a musical instrument is always idolatrous in a church setting (Calvin didn't hold that it was everywhere or -- for that matter -- that visual aids were utterly forbidden everywhere) is absurd. One can't possibly logically arrive at that conclusion.

I would contend, therefore, that Calvin's is merely an emotional "either/or" overreaction (one of many many such in Calvin and other early Protestants). Even the Calvinists support that conclusion, by the fact that they introduced instruments in the next century, and most have no problem with them today.

I should add that there is an essential difference between judging voices alone, to be appropriate or aesthetically pleasing and proper for a church service, minus instruments, and saying that any instrument used at church must be idolatrous and absolutely forbidden on those grounds. It's the difference between musical and liturgical aesthetics and positive legalism or prohibitions based on an additional factor (supposed intrinsic idolatry). The first thing doesn't contradict the Old Testament record of instruments used in praise and worship; the second does.

In a religious system that prides itself on a strict sola Scriptura rule of faith, surely it is beyond strange that such an extreme and manifestly unbiblical view ever got off the ground: so weird that I contend that it has nothing to do with the Bible and everything to do with irrational anti-Catholicism and reaction against Catholic worship. Guilt-by-association again:

1) The Catholic Mass is sacrilege, abomination, and idolatry.

2) Catholic Masses had musical instruments.

3) Therefore, musical instruments in worship are also idolatrous.

Calvin starts from a false premise (#1) -- one he always assumed and never adequately proved in any sense whatever --, then draws an illogical inference from the false premise (#3). If the Bible shows otherwise, so much for the Bible . . . That's what this position within Calvinism amounts to, and it can only be seen as curiously ironic and even a bit humorous, given sola Scriptura as the Calvinist rule of faith.

8 comments:

Adomnan said...

Thank God Bach was a Lutheran rather than a Calvinist!

Calvin: "Where there is no intelligence there is no edification."

Adomnan: So, instrumental music is never edifying, according to Calvin. His "biblical" arguments against instrumental and polyphonic church music are too feeble to merit refutation.

And what replaced the beautiful music of the Catholic Middle Ages and Renaissance among Calvinists?

By far the most popular music among French Protestants in Calvin's day was a collection of the psalms rendered into light verse by the libertine poet Clement Marot. A survey of French literature published in 1906 (Litterature Francaise depuis les origines jusqu'a nos jours) passes the following judgment on them (translated from the French):

"Marot's psalms show that his genius was not at all able to raise itself to the level of the ode, especially of the sacred ode. His psalms later became the battle songs of the Protestants, which is enough to show what they were worth from a doctrinal point of view. Saint Francis de Sales called them 'ridiculous doggerel' and affirmed that they could not be sung without offending God."

Nick said...

I cannot believe my ears (pun intended): The Fifth Person of the Trinity (after Luther) made such laughable claims and (like all omnipotent deities) dogmatically imposed them on believers. Even Protestants today laugh at this, and yet this man was led by the Spirit to reform the church!

And I agree with Adomnan, thank God Bach and other greats were not Calvinist.

Todd said...

Are you Catholic and over the age of 18? Have you said the Rosary Prayer at least once in the past year? If so, please take part in an anonymous research study online that examines the place of the Rosary Prayer in Catholic individuals’ lives. To participate in this doctoral research study, click the following link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/rosaryprayer Participation is anonymous and free of charge.

Suburbanbanshee said...

Well, there are many apostolic churches and Jewish groups today which still only use the human voice in liturgy. (Well, and the shofar in the case of the Jews.)

Calvin was several centuries or a continent away from that state in the West, but it was historically a fair argument. The Church still gives first place to the human voice; the organ got in rather late, as did other, less illustrious instruments. (Like the huge "serpent" drone pipes.)

The early Christian argument against liturgical use of instruments was that most musical instruments were totally associated with sex, drugs, and idol worship. Flutes, for example, were the equivalent of a porn soundtrack. The Roman and Greek instruments were used at the theater, at gladiatorial shows, at drunken symposiums, and in the half-bar&grill, half-brothel tabernae. The water-driven organs were the music of death in the arena, and trumpets were pretty much used only in the army. Even bells were a hard sell, with this kind of history.

There are arguments as to whether the early Irish monks used harps during liturgy, but I'm not really hep on those arguments. (Unless you count the Office, in which case it's possible. But the little tiny hand harps seem to have been an "outdoors walking along and singing the psalter" thing.)

As paganism's associations died away, Christianity started flirting more with instrumentation at Mass. (The Copts even started using the sistrum on special occasions.) But it took a very, very long time. Very. So Calvin's not just pulling this complaint out of his butt; although at his time, pretty much any large enough church wasn't going with human voice only, and probably hadn't for a century or two. Rural areas may have varied.

Dave Armstrong said...

Arguments from guilt-by-association are not in any way compelling. The argument has to be made on other grounds.

With musical instruments, we already had the model of David and those of his time worshiping God with a harp, and tambourines, etc. (see Ps 33:2; 71:22; 150:3-4). Many of the Psalms mention stringed instruments at their start, implying (or so it seems to me) that the Psalm was accompanied by instruments. Therefore, Calvin's contention that a Psalm can only be properly sung is not even consistent with what the Psalms themselves teach (see Ps 4, 6, 54-55, 61, 67, 76; cf. Hab 3:19).

See also the extensive musical instrumentation accompanying the ark of the covenant (where God was specially present, in a way somewhat like eucharistic presence at the Mass), as described in 1 Chronicles 15. There is no hint of disapproval in the text, as if this was something frowned upon by God as idolatry.

Cf. 1 Chronicles 16:37-42a:

[37] So David left Asaph and his brethren there before the ark of the covenant of the LORD to minister continually before the ark as each day required,
[38] and also O'bed-e'dom and his sixty-eight brethren; while O'bed-e'dom, the son of Jedu'thun, and Hosah were to be gatekeepers.
[39] And he left Zadok the priest and his brethren the priests before the tabernacle of the LORD in the high place that was at Gibeon, [40] to offer burnt offerings to the LORD upon the altar of burnt offering continually morning and evening, according to all that is written in the law of the LORD which he commanded Israel. [41] With them were Heman and Jedu'thun, and the rest of those chosen and expressly named to give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures for ever. [42] Heman and Jedu'thun had trumpets and cymbals for the music and instruments for sacred song . . . .

Also: 1 Chronicles 25:6:

"They were all under the direction of their father in the music in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God."

And 2 Chronicles 5:12-14:

and all the Levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, and Jedu'thun, their sons and kinsmen, arrayed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, stood east of the altar with a hundred and twenty priests who were trumpeters; [13] and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the LORD), and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the LORD, "For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever," the house, the house of the LORD, was filled with a cloud,
[14] so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God.

Dave Armstrong said...

Note that the glory of the Lord filled the temple in response to the praise of musical instruments and voices; thus it was pleasing to God. Cf. 2 Chron 7:6; 34:12; Neh 12:36.

Calvin (obviously unimpressed by or unfamiliar with all this biblical evidence) nevertheless makes a rather dumb, illogical guilt-by-association argument:

1) They had instruments in the OT.

2) They also had a lot of problems of idolatry in the OT.

3) Therefore, instruments are idolatrous in the context of worship.

He made the same argument, in effect, about images (present in the Temple), and abolished them in churches.

If it was okay then, it didn't suddenly become evil in the new covenant. If it wasn't (necessarily and always) idolatry then, it wasn't, by the same token, after Jesus, either.

Idolatry resides in the heart, which is why an argument that a musical instrument is always idolatrous in a church setting (Calvin didn't hold that it was everywhere or -- for that matter -- that visual aids were utterly forbidden everywhere) is absurd. One can't possibly arrive at that conclusion logically.

I would contend, therefore, that it is an emotional "either/or" overreaction (one of many many such in Calvin and other early Protestants). Even the Calvinists support that conclusion, by the fact that they introduced instruments in the next century, and most have no problem with them today.

Dave Armstrong said...

I should add that there is an essential difference between judging voices alone, to be appropriate or aesthetically pleasing and proper for a church service, minus instruments, and saying that any instrument used at church MUST be idolatrous and absolutely forbidden on those grounds.

It's the difference between musical and liturgical aesthetics and positive legalism or prohibitions based on an additional factor (supposed intrinsic idolatry).

The first thing doesn't contradict the OT record of instruments used in praise and worship; the second does.

And in a religious system that prides itself on a strict sola Scriptura rule of faith, surely it is beyond strange that such an extreme and manifestly unbiblical view ever got off the ground: so weird that I contend that it has nothing to do with the Bible and everything to do with irrational anti-Catholicism and reaction against Catholic worship. Guilt-by-association again:

1) The Catholic Mass is sacrilege, abomination, and idolatry.

2) Catholic Masses had musical instruments.

3) Therefore, musical instruments in worship are also idolatrous.

He starts from a false premise (#1), then draws an illogical inference from the false premise (#3).

If the Bible shows otherwise, the Bible be damned. That's what this position within Calvinism amounts to.

Ben M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.