This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and esteem for Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other Reformers is freshly in the air. But as much as we continue to esteem their theological legacy, many might find it surprising to learn how different some of their views were compared to the typical evangelical today.
Calvin on church music is no exception. The Genevan reformer restricted texts sung in church meetings to the Psalms, plus a few other biblical passages, and the Apostles’ Creed. He banned musical instruments from congregational praise, arguing that they were part of the ceremonial law given to Israel. If Calvin walked into an evangelical service today, he might make a beeline for the door, before he even reached the coffee bar, in an attempt to escape the sound of reverb-drenched guitar and pounding drums.
Can modern evangelicals learn anything from this 16th-century Frenchman whose views on music seem so extreme in our day? How do our indie rock bands, newly composed hymns, video screens and lights relate to Calvin’s theology of corporate worship?
Even if we don’t adopt all his conclusions, Calvin’s theology of singing is a timeless source of instruction for us. As we prepare our hearts to sing God’s praises with his people, here are three of his insights worth special consideration.
1. Music Can Lead Us Astray
Calvin understood that “our nature inclines toward idolatry” (Institutes, 1.11.3). Each person’s heart is “a perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.7). “Our nature draws and induces us to look for all manner of demented and vicious rejoicing” (“Preface to the Psalter” in Writings on Pastoral Piety, 95). Calvin noticed how music can all too easily lead our minds and hearts toward idolatry. Music, he said, “has a secret and almost incredible power to arouse hearts in one way or another” (“Preface to the Psalter,” 95).
Calvin’s right. We can become infatuated with the emotional high of singing instead of relishing the splendor of our Savior. We can marvel more at the skills of the musicians than the majesty of our Maker. All too subtly, we can begin to delight more in the praise we offer to God than the praiseworthiness of God.
Calvin’s war against any hint of idolatry calls us to examine our own hearts. Why do we sing on Sunday morning? What do we hope to “get out” of church? Do I find my joy in Jesus and his gospel, or merely in an emotional experience? We should repent of singing for mere comfort and self-satisfaction, and seek the larger joys which have their source in God alone.
2. Music Can Stir Us for God
Calvin was cautious of idolatry, but he was no killjoy. He opted for a simple congregational musical expression not because he opposed art and beauty, but because he respected the power of music as a God-given force for good.
Ever aware of the “indolence” and “ingratitude” of our hearts, he knew that we need a “stimulus” to fan the flames of godly affection (Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 33). “Song has great force and vigor to arouse and inflame people’s hearts to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal” (“Preface to the Psalter,” 94).
Such an insight should sound refreshing to our ears. Too often, even if unconsciously, we have operated according to the mantra, “I’m so happy, therefore I’ll praise God!” Calvin would have us respond, “I’ll praise God, so that I can be truly happy in him.”
Brothers and sisters facing persecution, pain, doubt and depression may not feel like singing when Sunday morning shows up. But Calvin reminds us that God has given us music to stir our affections. Congregational song connects the wires of God’s truth to our depleted hearts and revives us in seasons of coldness.
I always encourage struggling saints to sing, even if their voice feels faint. Singing in faith is a declaration of truth, but it’s also a plea that the Spirit would make the truth more vivid to our hearts.
3. God Gave Us Songs to Sing
Calvin not only cherished the emotion-stirring force of music. He was also jealous for his congregation to sing the best lyrical content. For that, he turned to the Bible’s inspired hymnal: the Psalms. The Christian who masters the Psalms, Calvin taught, has mastered “celestial doctrine” (“Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms” in Writings, 56).
Calvin called the Psalter “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul” because it depicts the righteous man addressing God from every possible emotional state (“Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms,” 56). Calvin argued that the Psalms “frame our life to every part of holiness, piety and righteousness” and “principally teach and train us to bear the cross” (“Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms,” 58).
Given his high view of the Psalms, it’s no surprise that Calvin leveraged music to make his congregation a Psalms-saturated people. Every song was a mnemonic device that embedded the theology of the Psalms into the hearts of believers. Do songs we’ve memorized give us an equally robust theological foundation? Do our prayers and praises bear the fragrance of the rich theology and emotional tapestry of the Psalms?
Jumpstart Your Joy
Like any good gift from above, music—even church music—can become an idol if we cherish the gift more than the Giver. But the beauty of God’s gifts is that they point us beyond the gifts themselves to God’s glorious mercy and grace for sinners. Our songs should stir our hearts to worship in all seasons of life, just as the Psalms so beautifully express.
Music on a Sunday morning exists to awaken our hearts out of their weeklong stupor and jumpstart our joy in Jesus. In all the joyful noise rising up from the saints, don’t miss out on the only One who matters. The melodies of our music, the volume of our voices and the power of our praise mean very little unless our songs crescendo with joy in him.