Tag Archives: John Calvin

The Reformation and Psalm-Singing

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  Worship was one of the key issues that led to the break with Rome.  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!


What Caused the Reformation?

presswork

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  This “birthday” places the birth of the Reformation on October 31st, 1517 — the date Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  One might quibble about the dating.  The Reformation can’t really be compared to a baby being born.  There were a string of events and historical processes that contributed to the movement, and some of these predated 1517.  But, for the sake of convenience, we can run with the 1517 date and celebrate God’s goodness in bringing his Church back to the gospel.  Over the coming months, I hope to have a number of Reformation-related posts.

I want to begin today with considering the question:  what caused the Reformation?  Someone might say, “It’s obvious:  God caused the Reformation.”  As true as that is, it is not a very helpful answer.  We know that God uses various means to accomplish his purposes.  So, what means did God use to bring about the Reformation?

When it comes to such questions, historians sometimes refer to sufficient and necessary causes (or conditions).  Sufficient causes produce the event.  They inevitably cause the event to occur.  Necessary causes are things that had to be present in order for the event to occur, but by themselves don’t produce the event.  The illustration often used is of matches and fire.  What caused the fire?  The necessary causes would be the presence of the match and the presence of a surface on which to strike the match.  The sufficient cause would be a person taking the match and actually striking it.  I want to focus on three necessary causes of the Reformation.  These were things that had to be present before the Reformation could really ignite and set Europe aflame with gospel renewal.

The first is printing technology.  The movable-type printing press appeared in Europe in the fifteenth century, but it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that this technology came into its own.  Printers finally became proficient at producing mass quantities of books.  Moreover, on the eve of the Reformation, a process for manufacturing paper in a cost-effective way is perfected.  Potential for mass quantity plus cheaper paper equals the possibility of literature available to a wider scope of the population.  Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers produced literature that took advantage of this technology.  Their writings went far and wide, spreading the gospel hope.  Without advances in printing technology, the Reformation would not have occurred.

But these advances would have meant nothing if people continued producing literature in Latin.  The second necessary cause is the proliferation of literature in the native tongues of Europe.  Even outside of theology, writers started putting out books written in German, French, English, Dutch, and so on.  Works were still written in Latin (even into the eighteenth century), but these were specialist writings geared to academics.  Right before the Reformation, however, books were being written in the vernacular for non-academics.  The Reformation became a populist movement by capitalizing on this development.  For example, the 95 Theses were originally written in Latin — after all, Luther desired an academic debate.  However, they were soon translated into German.  Eventually, many of Luther’s writings were first written solely in German.  The Reformation took off because of people like Luther writing in German, Calvin writing in French, and so on.  Of course, of all writings appearing in the vernacular, the most powerful of all was the Word of God.  Finally, people could read for themselves what Scripture says in their own language — and that was gospel dynamite.

However, that assumes that people can read.  That brings me to the last necessary cause:  the rise of education and literacy in Europe.  Prior to the 1500s, literacy was reserved for a select few.  Stories are told of royalty that did not know how to read.  There were parish priests who were functionally illiterate — they would have memorized just enough Latin to carry out their duties.  But coming into the 1500s, this begins changing.  By 1517, literacy was still not what it is today, but it had improved and it continued improving.  In fact, because of the Reformation emphasis on the importance of reading the Scriptures, wherever the Reformation took hold, educational improvements followed.  Schools were established and literacy was expected to be the norm rather than the exception.  Without improvements in literacy, however, we would not even be talking about the Reformation as one of the great events in history.

I have described three necessary causes for the Reformation:  printing technology, vernacular literature, and literacy.  Yes, there are more necessary causes that could be mentioned, but those three are among the most important.  Without them, there would have been no return to the Scriptures, no return to the gospel.  In his providence, at just the right time, our sovereign God brought these developments into being and thus prepared the way for a recovery of his saving truth.  We see his hand in it all and praise him for it!

 


Calvin: “A false and dangerous make-believe”

“Let us ask those who possess nothing but church membership, and yet want to be called Christians, how they can glory in the sacred name of Christ?  For no one has any communion with Christ, but he who has received the true knowledge of him from the word of the gospel.  The apostle denies that anyone actually knows Christ who has not learned to put off the old man, corrupt with deceitful lusts, and to put on Christ.  External knowledge of Christ is found to be only a false and dangerous make-believe, however eloquently and freely lip servants may talk about the gospel.  The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life…It is fully understood when it possesses the whole soul, and penetrates to the inner recesses of the heart.  Let nominal Christians cease from insulting God by boasting themselves to be what they are not, and let them show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ, their master.”

John Calvin, Golden Booklet of the Christian Life (quoted by Paul R. Schaefer Jr. in The Spiritual Brotherhood, 58).


Calvin’s Prayer Following His Lecture on Ezekiel 3:18-20

John Calvin

This coming Sunday we have the ordination/installation of office bearers at the Providence Canadian Reformed Church.  I plan to preach on the well-known passage of Ezekiel 3:16-21, where the prophet is appointed a watchman over Israel.  As part of my preparation, I was reading John Calvin’s commentary on these verses.  He has some very good insights and application.  However, what really struck me was his prayer.  The material in this commentary was originally delivered in the context of weekday lectures or sermons in Geneva.  Before starting, Calvin typically prayed the following:

Grant us, LORD, to meditate on the heavenly mysteries of your wisdom, with true progress in piety, to your glory, and our edification.  Amen.

Then after each lecture/sermon, he would have a prayer suited to the particular verses he’d been expounding.  The English translation of Thomas Myers (later republished by Baker) includes Calvin’s prayer after Ezekiel 3:18-20.  Unfortunately, it leaves a bit to be desired in terms of readability.  With the help of some friends who are far more proficient at Latin than I am, I hereby offer this improved translation:

O Almighty God,

You appoint the ministers of your doctrine. You raise them up, watchmen over us. You do so on the condition that they be vigilant for our safety. Therefore, grant that we also may be attentive to their instruction, and avoid that double destruction through our own fault, by error and obstinacy. But if we should happen to wander, may we at least, having been held back, come to our senses and so return into the right way, never to desert it again. May we persevere unto the end, that we may eventually enjoy that eternal blessedness which is laid up for us in heaven, through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Mockingjay and Reformed Political Theory

Mockingjay

At the moment, the third installment of the Hunger Games series continues to dominate box office sales.  Mockingjay (Part 1) continues the story of Katniss Everdeen as she struggles against the tyrannical Capitol.  I have written about the first installment before, providing the (tongue-in-cheek) “definitive Christian review.”  The latest installment provides even more food for thought.  In fact, Mockingjay provides a powerful illustration of a particular aspect of Reformed political theory.

It has to do with resistance against tyrants.  We can take John Calvin as an example of the theory in writing.  Part of the fourth book of Calvin’s Institutes is taken up with how Christians should view the state.  Calvin also lays out the responsibilities of magistrates.  Almost at the very end, he deals with the question of what should be done with tyrannical rulers.  If you have a king who is sadistic, unjust, a persecutor, and a lover of almost every evil, should a Christian just take it?  Is there no recourse for believers?  Can they revolt?  Calvin’s answer (in Institutes 4.20.31) is that there is a proper and God-honouring way to resist and overthrow tyranny, but it still involves God-given authority.  Calvin’s position is that lower magistrates not only can, but must do what they can to overthrow tyrannical higher rulers.  Says Calvin,

…I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.

In other words, lower magistrates are actually obliged to resist tyranny and overthrow it if necessary.

A classic illustration of this is found in the Dutch Revolt.  During the mid-sixteenth century, the Spanish were in control of what we today call the Netherlands and Belgium.  The Spanish were tyrannical to a fault.  They were brutally oppressive, especially towards Reformed believers.  However, Reformed folk did not take it passively.  There was a strong resistance movement and it was led by lower magistrates from across the Low Countries.  Men like William of Orange resisted the Spanish and made war against them.  Eventually, these efforts were successful and freedom was secured, at least in the northern part of the Low Countries.  Were the Dutch wrong to rebel against the Spanish?  No, it was not a rebellion in the sense of overthrowing authority.  Instead, it was lawfully constituted authorities leading a lawful revolt against godless tyranny.

We see the same thing happening in Mockingjay (Part 1).  President Snow and the Capitol are clearly tyrannical.  They oppress the districts and exact tribute from them (human tributes who serve for the entertainment of the Capitol).  But there is a revolt underway and it takes place under the auspices of District 13.  District 13 was thought by many to have been obliterated.  It turns out that the district still exists and has a strong internal government led by President Coin.  President Coin is leading the revolt against the Capitol.  Consequently, from a Reformed perspective, the revolt portrayed in Mockingjay is a lawful endeavour.  In fact, President Coin is doing what she is obliged to do.  It would be wrong for her not to revolt against the Capitol.  I doubt Mockingjay intends to illustrate “Calvinist resistance theory,” but it does so nonetheless, at least to a certain degree.  To illustrate it fully, the characters involved would have to commit their cause to God and seek to carry it out for his glory.  Regrettably, the world of Katniss Everdeen, even in District 13, is a godless and unbelieving society.  All there is in the world portrayed is the horizontal plane.   Therefore, the illustration only works to a point.

Tyranny is always a threat.  We would be naive if we thought that we or our descendants will never be faced with it again.  If we should come to live under the jackboot of some oppressive, tyrannical power, how should we respond?  Because of our history, Reformed believers have given extensive thought to this question and we have an answer readily at hand.  We should never passively accept tyranny, but at the same time we must never reject authority.  This is why it is crucially important for Christians to be involved in politics.  We need believing people in positions of authority, not only for the influence they bear now, but also for the leadership they can provide if and when tyranny must be resisted and overthrown.