ESSAY
A Positive View of Music
POSTED
March 26, 2019
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Music

It is not coincidental that John Calvin speaks most strongly in defense of vernacular language just after his defense of singing in church. "From this also it plainly appears that public prayers must be couched not in Greek among the Latins, nor in Latin among the French or English, as has heretofore been the custom, but in the language of the people, which can be generally understood by the whole assembly," (3.XX.33).[1]The "from this" out of which this statement "plainly appears" is a discussion of why declamatory prayers and sung music are the only remedy for the worshiper who struggles to keep his full attention on the service. "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me," (Isaiah 29:13, cf. Matthew 15:8-9), Calvin reminds, and this is a cancerous sin that has spreads into the following verse, "for the wisdom of their wise shall perish." Calvin takes this sin seriously: “Unless voice and song, if interposed in prayer, spring from deep feeling of heart, neither has any value or profit in the least with God. But they arouse his wrath against us if they come only from the tip of the lips and from the throat, seeing that this is to abuse his most holy name and to hold his majesty in derision.” 

Here as in so many other places, Calvin cites the mind as the primary problem, and not the music itself (this slight disagreement he takes up in the next section, differing with Augustine in a rare moment). The mind is prone to wander, "unstable and variable as it is, and readily relaxed and diverted in different directions," unless the mind is checked out of negligence by spoken and sung prayers. And it is out of this discussion that he moves into a discussion of the use of vernacular language in church.

If the noetic effects of the Fall spread regularly into our attention span in a worship service, and if this is a serious sin that we regularly commit, then what is our game plan? How can the church systematically help worshipers avoid the evil of banality? With music, according to Calvin. Singing is particularly poised to mitigate against this error, because of its association "with the heart's affection." "For thus do [singing and public prayer] exercise the mind in thinking of God and keep it attentive—unstable and variable as it is, and readily relaxed and diverted in different directions, unless it be supported by various helps." And it is in the context of this principle that Calvin speaks of church music, briefly, in the Institutes. Music pierces through the mental insulation that prevents the weightiness of worship from leaking into the comfortable mind of a disengaged worshiper. 

This is what I will call Calvin’s positive view of music, as opposed to merely his negative views (evinced in, for instance, his arguments against instruments in worship or his hesitancy about part-singing the Psalter in church). To be clear, I don’t use the term “positive” just simply to mean Calvin was happy with music, but rather that Calvin affirms music as a beneficial practice in its own right, not as a concession nor as merely adiaphora, mentioned only to mitigate against certain abuses.

A Fork in the Road

In many discussions of church music, it seems as if it goes without saying that music has a tendency to distract us from the words. A cursory reading of Calvin might even lead someone to think that he subscribed to this idea himself. This is likely because he makes mention of the famously tepid endorsement of music found in Augustine’s Confessions, a tepidity which Calvin ultimately distances himself from, but he does mention: 

Yea, very fierce am I sometimes, in the desire of having the melody of all pleasant music, to which David’s Psalter is so often sung, banished both from mine own ears, and out of the whole church too. ...I then acknowledge the great good use of this institution...that so by the delight taken in at the ears, the weaker minds be roused up into some feeling of devotion. And yet again, so oft it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than with the ditty, I confess myself to have grievously offended: at which time I wish rather not to have heard the music, (Augustine, Confessions, X.33).

Augustine is ambivalent, but he makes one thing quite clear: when he is moved by the melody more than by the words sung, something has gone badly wrong. For Augustine, and for us his descendents, there is ever a battle raging between lyrics and music, and if we were truly pious, we would always side with the lyrics.

But there is another text, a text I think is equally likely to be present in Calvin’s mind as he writes his two sections on music. We are immediately in a different world when we read John Chrysostom’s comments on music (or rather, one of his comments, for there are many). “When God,” says Chrysostom, commenting on Psalm 41, 

saw that many men were rather indolent, that they came unwillingly to Scriptural readings and did not endure the labor this involves, wishing to make the labor more grateful and to take away the sensation of it, He blended melody with prophecy in order that, delighted by the modulation of the chant, all might with great eagerness give forth sacred hymns to Him. 

Here we get something much closer to Calvin’s own vision of music in section 31, and I would argue this is the text that most influenced Calvin’s approach to music in Institutes. Here melody blends with prophecy to create minds more attentive, not less, to the words of Scripture. Chrysostom even makes music sound essential: what would we do without music? We would approach Scripture and worship with laborious dread and dullness, not with gleeful anticipation.

Chrysostom and Calvin are giving us a much needed counterpoint to Augustine’s overwrought prudery. Music and text, melody and words, lyrics and tune—these things are not each other’s enemies. No, the real enemy to the text of Scripture is our minds: “indolent” for Chrysostom, “unstable and variable” for Calvin. We are, even in the context of worship, still noetically fallen beings. Into this enters music, not as a threat, as in Augustine, but as a solution. Calvin’s stern warning about not praying with sufficient fervor and depth of meaning is not a warning against music, but it is a warning for which the solution is music. Ironically, in many traditions informed by Calvinist attitudes toward music, we tend to pass over Chrysostom and Calvin and access the spirit of Augustine. We are convinced that we must get back to the words themselves. We must get all this musical distraction out of the way. But for Calvin, music is the sacramental gift of the Spirit, slapping you across the face and waking you from liturgical autopilot. Viewed from this historical perspective, in his view of music, Calvin is much closer to Luther than he is almost universally believed by scholars to be.

Applying Calvin’s Positive Principle

You are, perhaps, a congregant. You amble into church every Sunday morning and, whether or not you think of it, you are also "coming to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to innumerable angels in festal gathering, to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, to God, the judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus," (Hebrews 12:22-24). “What right believing Christian,” asks Gregory the Great, speaking of Christian worship, “can doubt that in the very hour of the sacrifice...the heavens be opened, and the quires of Angels are present in that mystery of Jesus Christ; that high things are accomplished with low, and earthly joined to heavenly, and that one thing is made of visible and invisible?”[2]And yet you don't act like it. What does church music have to do with your apathy? 

Or perhaps you are a pastor: your congregants don't act like they understand the reality of Hebrews 12 and this is not a sin that God takes lightly, according to Isaiah (and Calvin). But you know that widespread understanding of this Hebrews 12 reality in worship is possible. Other more “enchanted” ages of the church have been better than we are and other churches in Christendom now are more engaged than yours is. How can church music pastorally improve your congregation’s engagement with Sunday morning liturgy?

On the one hand, Calvin agrees with Augustine that music is subservient to the ends of the text. This is plain from his comment that music is a “help” to the wandering mind. Music is, in Lutheran terminology, a sermon on, an exegesis of, the text. Calvin may have a positive view of music, but he would be no fan of the ideology Beethoven, Hanslick, Nietzsche (or, dare I say, Roger Scruton) applied to church music. Even Calvin’s positive principle of music is, I believe, totally incompatible with “absolute, autonomous art music” in an ecclesiastical setting. (In the same vein, Calvin would, I wager, have little patience for the organist who insisted that their flowery introductions were “their own act of worship” and so ought to override the pragmatic concerns of congregational worship. Just so we’re clear.)

On the other hand, though, Calvin clearly paints music as some sort of alarm clock on our noetic failings. So Calvinist music should be anything but dull. And, indeed, as originally composed and performed, it wasanything but dull—it wasn’t for nothing that Calvinist psalm settings were called “Genevan jigs.” I think Calvin’s positive view of music can be used to endorse some kind of Christian musical maximalism: yes, music is subservient to the text, but that does not mean that it is meant to be backgrounded. It is subordinate in a hierarchy of ends, but not necessarily in a hierarchy of means and certainly not of perception. Music might well need to shout at us to get us to hear. Like Flannery O’Connor’s vision of the good Catholic writer, the good Calvinist musician must “make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”[3]

So, if we agree with Calvin’s principle, we should be more comfortable with Josquin’s chaotic polyphony than Palestrina’s tidy counterpoint (certainly Luther was). Perhaps we should be happier with Olivier Messiaen’s dissonant, screaming organ sketches than Widor’s frilly Victorian organ symphonies. Possibly even happier with a hard rock rendition of Psalm 2 or a Lecrae track than the soothing sounds of Chris Tomlin’s mic held ever-so-close to the mouth. I would judge that our approach to the text is better served in the former of each of these pairs. The overly familiar text is made strange and unfamiliar. And that is just what we need, lest we draw near to God with our lips but not our hearts. I don’t merely mean to defend an ugly aesthetic, but perhaps to place music less in the category of “aesthetic” altogether, and in a category more consonant with ancient thought, that of “rhetoric”. Music should speak intelligibly and prophetically in order to be edifying, just as Paul says in I Corinthians 14.

Even if the church embraced this approach, the traditional organist might not be out of a job. By way of a specific example, I would wager that Gunnar Idenstam’s recent Christmas album Folkjul is an excellent embodiment (malgre lui) of the Calvinist positive principle of church music. It even combines many of the elements above: Idenstam is an organist influenced by Renaissance polyphony, Messiaen, and hard rock. His approach is one of respectful but thorough refashioning of how you listen to Christmas carols, that most banal of all sacred genres. The result is that you are gripped by them.

More specific decisions on Church music—exactly what musical idioms to choose, what styles to don—are questions that this specific principle of music may be too general to deal with; that, or perhaps those questions are best dealt with in specific congregational contexts. I should mention one other thing: Calvin speaks of music within the context of public prayer, which, he emphasizes in section 33, should be in the language of the people. By putting his treatment of music right in the midst of his defense of vernacularism, he is implying that music should be no different—it too should be in the language of the people. 

In the spirit of Calvin and the Reformers, we should affably, heartily, mercilessly reject any compromise with archaism in our hymns, psalm settings, and even in our musical idioms. This is a respect in which American Protestants have failed their forebears. Our hymns and even our praise songs tend to be insulated by a thick layer of archaism. This non-vernacular language does an excellent job ensuring that we worship with our lips, and not with our hearts. It keeps at a safe distance all that Biblical language of real-world specificity. We need less concern for what is sentimentally meaningful to us, and more of the guileless Calvinism of Francis Schaeffer, who seizes on this connection between vernacular public worship and vernacular art. “Christian art today should be twentieth-century art. Art changes. Language changes. The preacher’s preaching today must be twentieth-century language communication, or there will be an obstacle to being understood. And if a Christian’s art is not twentieth-century art, it is an obstacle to his being heard. It makes him different in a way in which there is no necessity for difference.”[4]

Calvin would heartily agree with the comparison between preaching in vernacular language and art in a vernacular language: he put his discussion of vernacularism next to his discussion of music, precisely because the unintelligible Latin of Roman liturgy was just another redoubt for the worshiper’s mind, keeping out the sanctifying force of Scripture. We must ensure that our liturgy and our music is written in the language we actually speak, and not a sacerdotal idiom with no purchase on reality.

This is not, of course, an endorsement of bad contemporary music or music that otherwise defies the principles outlined above. But the presence of bad vernacular music does not obviate the need for good vernacular music. As C. S. Lewis reputedly once said to J. R. R. Tolkien, “if they won’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves; but it is very laborious.” It is indeed laborious, for books and music both, but this is the task set before us often throughout the Psalms: “O sing unto the Lord a new song.” And it is the necessary outgrowth of the Protestant principles of Christian worship music.

John Ahern is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in musicology from Princeton University. He is also an organist and choir director at Hope Lutheran Church in Freehold, NJ. He loves his wife and son, and they all frequently sing, to greater and lesser degrees of success, Renaissance bicinia over dinner.


[1]This and all subsequent quotations from Institutesare from Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, tr. Ford Lewis Battles, Louisville: The Westminster Press (1960). 

[2]From Dialogues of Gregory the Great, 4.58. 

[3]Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 34.

[4]Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible: Two Essays, 75. 

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