Friday, March 11, 2011

“Calvin and Music” by Paul Jones (Ch. 10)

This review, written by Theo Lodder, is one of our series of reviews of chapters of David W. Hall & Marvin Padgett, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R, 2010). We welcome your engagement and responses.

In chapter 10 of Calvin and Culture, Paul Jones, organist and music director at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, discusses Calvin from within the discipline of music. After briefly introducing Calvin’s worldview, which was characterized more by joy and less by austerity than is sometimes granted, Jones recounts Calvin’s colossal contribution to the retrieval of robust congregational singing, particularly psalm-singing. He traces in detail the development of the numerous psalters which Calvin published over the period of a quarter century, culminating in the Genevan Psalter of 1562. For the Canadian Reformed Churches, which claim the honour of publishing the first complete English version — the Anglo-Genevan Psalter — some 400 years later in 1972, this chapter provides crucial historical information about the formation of the Book of Praise which we use in our worship services and beyond from week to week. Jones also provides an intriguing survey of numerous historical contributors to music in the Reformed tradition in several lands as a further sampling of Calvin’s widespread impact.

In his discussion of Calvin’s famous “Preface to the Psalter” (1543), Jones remarks that Calvin, like Luther, “believe[d] that music can teach the Word of God as a concentrator of the text it carries.” His respect for the power of music, both for good and for ill, lay at the heart of Calvin’s caution about music and his misplaced fear of musical instruments in worship, according to Jones, a caution inherited from the patristic church. This respect for music’s power also motivated Calvin to engage the finest poets and musicians he could find to prepare a psalter.

Calvin’s choice of the ancient church modes for psalm-singing, Jones points out, was “intrinsically linked to Calvin’s program of restoring the face of the ancient church” and also reflected the influence of Renaissance musical values, such as “simplicity, a word-note relationship where music serves the text, clarity, intelligibility, and historical rootedness.” Thus, the Genevan Psalter was truly visionary and purposefully unlike the secular music of its day, aspects we should remember in our discussion about and use of this psalter in particular, and also in our thinking about and practice of liturgical music in general. The church needs to be the salt and light of the world also in her music and song.

Of particular interest to the Reformed musician, liturgist, and worshipper is the musical evaluation of the Genevan Psalter which Jones offers. According to him, the rhythms of the psalm tunes are the most captivating, characterized by “vitality and energy.” He also believes that “the breadth and quality of [its] melodies and metric forms [are] unmatched in any other metrical psalter.” These observations go a long way in explaining the growing interest in and use of the Genevan Psalter among many churches throughout the world. The Canadian Reformed Churches really do have something valuable in their psalter that is worth promoting and sharing with many others in the English-speaking world.

What about Calvin’s well-known objection to musical instruments in worship, including the organ? Jones points out two factors that one should remember when assessing Calvin’s position (and that of the Synod of Dort; Jones likely means the provincial and national synods of 1574 and 1578). The first factor, according to Jones, is Calvin’s stated dissent against how organs were used in the Roman services; the second factor is the reality that organs were concert instruments and not used for congregational singing in Roman churches either.

Jones also provides helpful guiding principles for Christian musicians drawn from Calvin’s theology and practice. Among these guiding principles are the centrality of the Word of God in the church musician’s labour and the importance of music in corporate worship. I fully agree with Jones when he claims that the church has a mandate, in line with the wise instruction and the good example of Calvin, to teach children psalms and hymns and to train young people musically. I also agree that church musicians, pastors, and other church leaders, such as seminary professors, should work closely together so that as church we may offer to God, through Jesus Christ, the jubilant music and song of which he is eternally worthy.

With an M.Div. from the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, Theo Lodder, pastor of Cloverdale Canadian Reformed Church in Surrey, BC, is about to graduate with his Doctor of Ministry degree from Covenant Theological Seminary (PCA). His dissertation is entitled “Musical Instruments and Musicians in the Worship of the Canadian Reformed Churches.”

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