Music According to Calvin

Daily Scripture readings for July, set #7:

– Exodus, chapters 19-20
– Psalm, chapter 30
– Matthew 13:1-23
– Acts 18:18-28

The Exodus recording of the 10 Commandments is so much more epic than I remember. Smoke, clouds, trumpet blasts, animals dying… lots of drama. In keeping with the old covenant vs new covenant theme, I want to zero in on the Lord’s decree in verse 5 of chapter 19: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine” (19:5). IF… that is a huge if. As we all know, obeying God’s voice is not easy. A fundamental difference between old and new covenants, one that cannot be overstated, is the fact that the old covenant hinges on US, and IF we can obey God.

Already the Psalm readings have included a few texts that are familiar to me because of songs we regularly sing at New Hope Church (Psalm 25, for example). Today’s reading in Psalm 30 is another one that we often sing, forming the basis for a song called “Mourning Into Dancing.” I recently had a conversation with a friend about John Calvin’s perspective on music in the church. Calvin seems to suggest that ONLY Psalms should be sung in corporate worship gatherings. Anyone have any thoughts/reactions to that?

Matthew 13 has always been a fascinating chapter to me, and today’s reading of it was no exception. I’m struck by Jesus’ use of Isaiah quote in verses 14-15. He references Isaiah as part of his answer to the disciple’s inquiry as to why he always speaks in parables. His answer, followed by the Isaiah text, is this: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given… this is why I speak to them in parables” (vs 11-13). It’s remarkable that Jesus quotes this particular Isaiah passage, because the text quoted is part of God’s COMMISSIONING of Isaiah! It’s as if Jesus is saying: “I speak to the people in parables because they are blind to the truth anyway. Kinda like when the Father told Isaiah to go tell the people that they were blind.”

Again in Acts I’m noticing that the early church’s Gospel presentation was based on the Old Testament: “For he (Apollos) powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus” (vs 28). Apollos showed that Jesus was the Messiah by using the Old Testament. I wonder how many 21st century Christians could do that, if the need arose.

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3 thoughts on “Music According to Calvin”

  1. Regarding only singing Psalms…. seems a little extreme to me. For example, does that mean we cannot sing as the Elders do in Revelation 4-5? If that is not Corporate Worship, I don’t know what is! (From what I can gather, most of Rev 4-5 does not derive from Psalms although I’m sure someone will shoot me down).

    I think perhaps a better argument for locking in a particular music style should start with a discussion on what is the purpose of “songs” “hymns” and “spiritual songs”. I had always thought that hymns have a specific purpose: to teach theology/doctrine. By contrast, the ‘praise choruses’ that we sing have a different purpose: to give glory to God and to focus our perspective on His supremacy and sufficiency. As I read the psalms, I see more of the latter style (praise) than I do doctrine. By this logic, Hymns would be “out”. And I find it hard to believe that Calvin would have wanted to ban hymn singing.

    Personally, I see the benefit to all types of music with all types of purpose behind them. We were designed to understand and respond to this variety so it glorifies God to exercise this design.

    Now, if only we could get some country western jamming on Sunday AM I think we’d be right on target!

  2. Brandon, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I think a fair summary of Calvin’s argument is this: We must be careful with the emotional power and influence that music has. If we are to use such a potent thing to help us worship, we must guard ourselves in choosing what text we put along with it, so as to not have our hearts manipulated into viewing potentially harmful ideas as true/helpful simply because they are put to music. Calvin says that the only texts that can be married to music in an absolutely safe way for use in worshipping God are the texts that he has already given us, namely the Psalms. By that definition, the Revelation texts would be “allowed” as well, in addition to excerpts from Ezekiel, etc. Although it’s not a common view in today’s Church, it’s definitely a strong argument.

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