Tag Archives: Genevan psalter

Calvinist Monks?

I’ve been reading Carlos Eire’s Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. It’s an enjoyable survey of this time period, though approached from the angle of a historian who presents himself as having no dog in any of the theological fights described. Chapter 12 is on “Calvin and Calvinism” and I thought this excerpt was particularly thought-provoking and worth sharing here:

One of the first reforms instituted by Calvin upon his return to Geneva in 1542 was the creation of a Psalter, a hymnal composed entirely of psalms from the Bible. Subsequent editions added more psalms to the original Geneva version, culminating with the 1562 edition, which contained all 150 psalms in French, the language of the people, set to simple, singer-friendly tunes in poetic meter. The Genevan Psalter was a collaborative effort, but chiefly the work of the musician Louis Bourgeois, the poet Clement Marot, and the churchman Theodore de Beze. Eventually reprinted hundreds of times and translated into many other languages, the Geneva Psalter would come to have an enormous influence on Calvinists everywhere, as the psalms became both a way to pray to God and a way to listen to God. It helps to keep in mind, however, that while the psalter sought to make a biblical text the heart and soul of the liturgy — to ritualize the sola scriptura principle — it was not at all a Protestant invention, but rather a continuation of monastic piety.

In many ways, Genevans lived up to the imperative ideal of St. Benedict’s monastic rule: ora et labora (Pray and work)! Ironically, Calvinists ended up worshiping in a way similar to that of the medieval monks they so despised, singing the Psalter on a regular basis as a community. They also sanctified work itself, as a holy calling, and the practiced discipline and exclusion. Geneva, like a well-run monastery, was no welcoming refuge for sinners or slackers. But the parallels end there. Calvinists were committed to transforming the world by living in it, not by setting themselves apart, and there is a world of difference between these two ways of life. Calvinists saw themselves as a continuation not of monasticism, but rather of Israel, as God’s chosen people. And within this self-conception one very important difference distinguished Calvinists from the ancient Israelites: the Promised Land of the Calvinists was the whole world, not just some tiny patch of arid land wedged between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Carlos Eire, Reformations, p.316

Some of my own thoughts:

The idea of a continuation of monastic piety is interesting, but I doubt it would have resonated with Calvin or other Genevan clerics. They would probably have argued that psalm-singing is part of the church’s patristic, rather than monastic, heritage. In other words, it goes back to the early church and the Reformation was recovering early-church practice.

Second, the expression ora et labora certainly has had currency in Reformed churches. In Canada I remember a Bible study group for young people which bore that name — one which is indeed derived from Benedictine monasticism.

Finally, I appreciate Eire’s contrast between Calvinism and monasticism in terms of how to regard life in this world. The idea of cutting yourself off from the world (or world-flight) is indeed not historically Calvinistic. In this regard, some streams of Anabaptism are more in line with monastic ideals.


The Reformation and Psalm-Singing

Worship was one of the key issues that led to the break with Rome we call the Reformation.  The Reformation was not only about theology, but also about doxology — about the proper way of giving all glory to God.  When I speak about worship here, let me clarify that I’m referring to the corporate worship of the church.  This is about what happens when the church gathers together for public worship.

When it comes to the Reformation of worship in the 1500s, there are several directions we could go.  A fruitful area of consideration for our day would be the singing of Psalms.  This is because of the fact that so much Protestant worship today either totally ignores the Psalms, or reduces them to the occasional singing of something like “Create in Me a Clean Heart.”  As in the medieval church prior to the Reformation, the Psalms have fallen on hard times.

In the early church, the Psalms were highly valued and extensively used in worship.  In his dissertation, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, Hughes Oliphant Old notes that Augustine indicates several times in his sermons that his church in Hippo customarily sang the Psalms.  Basil the Great also spoke in a similar vein, as did John Chrysostom.  Old concludes, “The early Christians sang psalms in the celebration of the Eucharist [the Lord’s Supper] and in the daily morning and evening prayers during the week.  Psalms were sung at meal time as a table blessing, they were sung at work and during the quiet times of meditation at midday and evening” (258).  While the Psalms were not used exclusively, they were given preference and formed the primary song material of the Church.

This pattern continued into the medieval period.  For most of the Middle Ages, the Psalter was the primary material for the singing and chanting of the Church.  This singing and chanting were done by the clergy and in Latin, and thus disconnected from the congregation.  Yet the primary material remained the Psalter.  This began to change in the early 1300s.  During that time, we see the introduction of numerous Latin hymns and the primary place of the Psalter begins to slip.  When there was singing or chanting of the Psalms, often this was reduced to one or two verses.

During the 1500s, God brought about the Reformation of the Church and this included changes in how God was worshipped in song.  I’ll mention five specific changes.

First, the Psalms were translated into the common language of the people and then set to metrical tunes.  In Geneva, under Calvin’s leadership, the Psalms were translated and versified by Clement Marot and others.  Musicians such as Louis Bourgeois composed the tunes — they were custom-made for each of the psalms.

Second, the Psalms were to be sung by the entire congregation.  Since they were in the common language, and since they were set to tunes that were (relatively) easy to sing, this was now feasible.  You did not need to be a professional musician to sing in church.  That said, in places like Geneva, the Reformation did introduce an emphasis on music education.  Why?  Because church leaders wanted congregational singing to be as beautiful as possible to give the maximum glory to God!

Third, there was a movement back towards the priority that the early church gave to the Psalter.  Says Old, “It was simply a matter of preferring to sing the hymns that had been inspired by the Holy Spirit” (259).

Fourth, the Reformation brought back the singing of all the Psalms.  When the Genevan Psalter first appeared in 1542, it only contained 30 psalms.  However, the goal was always to include all 150 Psalms, and by 1562 that goal had been accomplished.  Not only were all the Psalms included, but the intention was to sing all of them.  The 1562 Genevan Psalter included a type of schedule by which the church would sing each of the Psalms in the course of six months (see here for more details).

Finally, the Reformation reintroduced the singing of whole Psalms.  While it was not always possible, the preference was to sing the entire Psalm from beginning to end.  That this was the preferred practice is clear from the source mentioned above in my fourth point.  This was possible because the Genevan tunes were originally composed to be sung briskly, not at a funereal pace.  How and why they came to be sung otherwise is another story, but for now let’s just note that the singing of whole Psalms was the ideal which the Reformation restored.

This history is relevant at several levels.  In much of evangelical worship today, it’s almost like we’re back to the worst of the medieval period.  Instead of congregational singing, there are worship leaders doing the singing for the church.  Oftentimes the music is so technical and the material so unfamiliar, that congregational singing in worship is virtually impossible (see Tim Challies’ reflections on this here).  It’s like the Reformation and its return to congregational singing never happened!

That particular trend has been resisted in many confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  Yet we still have our problems.  Think of the primacy of the Psalter.  In churches that practice exclusive psalmody, it’s not an issue.  The Psalms are their only song material.  But for those of us who see the Scriptures as commending or even commanding hymnody alongside the Psalter, the challenge is there to keep the Psalter in the highest place.  Especially when we don’t understand what we’re singing, the tendency is going to be to drift towards more uninspired hymnody.  Pastors especially have a calling to make sure that our churches understand the Psalter, especially in how it speaks of Christ.

Another problem faced by Reformed and Presbyterian churches is the singing of only some Psalms, and then also the singing only of partial Psalms.  I am as much a part of this problem as anyone else.  There are Psalms that I have never chosen for singing in public worship in my nearly 18 years of preaching.  There are reasons for this (difficulty of the tune, not relevant to the sermon for the day or the occasion, etc.).  That can be overcome by revisiting the idea of a psalm-singing lectionary (see here again).  The other problem is easier to overcome.  If a metrical Psalm only has three or four stanzas (or less), why not sing the whole thing?  Especially if our accompaniment keeps the tempo brisk (as intended!), I can hardly think of a reason not to.

I love the Psalms.  I love the way this inspired songbook honestly acknowledges the whole range of human emotions.  We are led to praise God with explosive joy, but also to lament with flowing tears.  We see Christ the Redeemer prophetically represented, but we also encounter our sin which put Christ on the cross.  We’re taught to pray and give thanks.  We’re taught to confess and repent.  I can’t imagine worship without the Psalms.  Let’s be thankful to God that the Reformation restored their rightful place in our worship!


The Liberation of 26 Hungarian Reformed Ministers

I’m currently reading Spiritual Desertion by Gisbertus Voetius and Johannes Hoornbeeck.  This seventeenth-century work  includes a helpful historical introduction by M. Eugene Oosterhaven.  In this introduction is a fascinating story that I’ve never heard of before, related to the picture above.  To set the context, Oosterhaven has another picture that includes this caption:

Among the theological students of Voetius and Hoornbeeck were scores of Hungarians who pondered the possibility of their kin and country being abandoned by God.  Muslim Turks had occupied Hungary since 1526.  Their cruelty and exploitation of the people shocked all of Europe.  However, Jesuits and Hapsburg rulers, in the service of Rome, were the cause of even greater suffering.

Then this is the caption that goes with the picture I’ve included above:

The liberation of Hungarian ministers at Naples by Admiral de Ruyter, 1676.  The men pictured had been sold to a Spanish fleet to serve as galley slaves.  Chained to oars day and night for nine months, some had struggled with the fear of abandonment by God as well as their fellow believers.  The twenty-six survivors sang Psalms 46, 114, and 125 as they were being transferred to a Dutch ship on February 11, 1676.  When the transfer was complete, they knelt on the deck in their rags and emaciated condition and sang Psalm 116.  The Dutch seamen, who seldom shed tears, wept openly.

How did the Dutch know that the Hungarians (who spoke no Dutch) were singing Psalms 46, 114, 125 and 116?  Because they were singing them in Hungarian on the Genevan tunes.  The Psalms are still being sung in Hungary in this fashion.


But They Can’t Learn/Like Genevan Tunes! Really?

Andrew Myers has an interesting story from early American history involving the Genevan tunes and native peoples.  The tunes of Psalms 128 and 130 were especially favoured.


Genevan Psalm-Singing “Lectionary”

I’ve been reading John Witvliet’s The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources.  Witvliet suggests that there is value to singing through all the Psalms on a regular basis.  He also remarks that has a historical basis:  “In Calvin’s Geneva, despite the rejection of the Roman lectionary for Scripture readings and sermon texts, the Psalms were sung in public worship according to a regular regimen that was printed in the back of published Psalters (indeed, it was a lectionary for singing)”  (51).  I had a look at a couple of old Genevan Psalters (1565 and 1674), but I didn’t find any such “lectionary.”  However, with some help from one of my colleagues (thanks, George!), I found the original source which Witvliet references, Pierre Pidoux’s Le Psautier Huguenot du XVIe siecle.  Pidoux reproduces a chart that is apparently found at the back of a 1562 Genevan Psalter.  You can find it here.

There are a few interesting features on this chart.  The entire Psalter is sung through in a half-year.  However, this involves a Wednesday service (Jour des Prieres), as well as the use of pre-service songs before the morning and evening Sunday services.  It also sometimes involves determining the song before and after the sermon, thus taking this song selection out of the hands of the minister.  Also, the singing of whole Psalms is the norm, although where the Psalm is long, it will be split up over two or more services.

I think something like this could be used in twenty-first century Reformed worship services as well.  I’m going to tinker with it and see what I can come up with.  I agree with Witvliet that there is value in singing all the Psalms on a regular basis.