John Calvin on Musical Instruments in Worship

Back to:
Musical Instruments in Worship

.

1509-1564

Excerpts are in Biblical order

Note that the dates juxtaposed to the excerpts disprove any conjecture that Calvin changed his views on musical instruments in public worship towards the end of his life.

.

.

Commentary on Gen. 4:20  1563

[Below Calvin affirms that music ‘can be adapted to the offices of religion’.  Calvin allows for musical instrumentation to accompany the praise of God outside of public worship (see on Ps. 98:4 below), though by ‘office of religion’ Calvin probably has in mind the Old Testament Levitical ordinances, as is consistent with everything else he says on this webpage.]

Now, although the invention of the harp, and of similar instruments of music, may minister to our pleasure, rather than to our necessity, still it is not to be thought altogether superfluous; much less does it deserve, in itself, to be condemned.  Pleasure is indeed to be condemned, unless it be combined with the fear of God, and with the common benefit of human society.

But such is the nature of music, that it can be adapted to the offices of religion, and made profitable to men; if only it be free from vicious attractions, and from that foolish delight, by which it seduces men from better employments, and occupies them in vanity.  If, however, we allow the invention of the harp no praise, it is well known how far and how widely extends the usefulness of the art of the carpenter.

.

.

Commentary on Ex. 15:20  1559, translated by Calvin into French in 1563

Yet must it be observed, at the same time, that musical instruments were among the legal ceremonies which Christ at His coming abolished; and therefore we, under the Gospel, must maintain a greater simplicity.

.

.

Homily on 1 Samuel 18:1-9  1561-3

As quoted by Porteous, The Organ Question, p. 45

In Popery there was a ridiculous and unsuitable imitation [of the Jews].  While they adorned their temples, and valued themselves as having made the worship of God more splendid and inviting, they employed organs, and many other such ludicrous things, by which the Word and worship of God are exceedingly profaned, the people being much more attached to those rites than to the understanding of the divine Word.

We know, however, that where such understanding is not, there can be no edification, as the Apostle Paul teacheth, while he saith, ‘How can a person give testimony to the faith, and how can he say Amen at the giving of thanks, if he does not understand?’

Wherefore, in that same place, he exhorts the faithful, whether they pray or sing, they should pray and sing with understanding, not in an unknown tongue, but in that which is vulgar and intelligible, that edification may be in the Church.  What, therefore, was in use under the Law, is by no means entitled to our practice under the Gospel, and these things being not only superfluous, but useless, are to be abstained from; because pure and simple modulation is sufficient for the praise of God, if it is sung with the heart and with the mouth.

We know that our Lord Jesus Christ has appeared, and by his advent has abolished these legal shadows.  Instrumental music, we therefore maintain, was only tolerated on account of the times and of the people, because they were as boys, as the sacred Scripture speaketh, whose condition required these puerile rudiments.  But in Gospel times, we must not have recourse to these, unless we wish to destroy the evangelical perfection, and to obscure the meridian light which we enjoy in Christ our Lord.

.

.

Sermons on 2 Samuel  1562-3

It would be nothing but mimicry if we followed David today in singing with cymbals, flutes, tambourines and psalteries.  In fact, the papists were seriously deceived in their desire to worship God with their pompous inclusion of organs, trumpets, oboes and similar instruments.  That has only served to amuse the people in their vanity, and to turn them away from the true institution which God has ordained.  

In a word, the musical instruments were in the same class as sacrifices, candelabra, lamps and similar things. Those who take this approach are reverting to a sort of Jewishness, as if they wanted to mingle the Law and the Gospel, and thus bury our Lord Jesus Christ.

When we are told that David sang with a musical instrument, let us carefully remember that we are not to make a rule of it.  Rather, we are to recognise today that we must sing the praises of God in simplicity, since the shadows of the Law are past, and since in our Lord Jesus Christ we have the truth and embodiment of all these things which were given to the ancient fathers in the time of their ignorance or smallness of faith.

.

.

Commentary on Ps. 33:2  1557

[Note that in the below passage, Calvin allows for musical instrumentation being joined to praise outside of the public worship of the Church.  This is in accord with the examples of Scripture where civil, national, processions use instruments in singing praise to God.  See Schwertley, Musical Instruments, pp. 33-35]

It is evident that the Psalmist here expresses the vehement and ardent affection which the faithful ought to have in praising God, when he enjoins musical instruments to be employed for this purpose.  He would have nothing omitted by believers which tends to animate the minds and feelings of men in singing God’s praises.  The name of God, no doubt, can, properly speaking, be celebrated only by the articulate voice; but it is not without reason that David adds to this those aids by which believers were wont to stimulate themselves the more to this exercise; especially considering that he was speaking to God’s ancient people. 

There is a distinction, however, to be observed here, that we may not indiscriminately consider as applicable to ourselves, every thing which was formerly enjoined upon the Jews.  I have no doubt that playing upon cymbals, touching the harp and the viol, and all that kind of music, which is so frequently mentioned in the Psalms, was a part of the education; that is to say, the puerile instruction of the law: I speak of the stated service of the temple.

For even now, if believers choose to cheer themselves with musical instruments, they should, I think, make it their object not to dissever their cheerfulness from the praises of God.  But when they frequent their sacred assemblies, musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law.  The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews.  Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostle is far more pleasing to Him.

Paul allows us to bless God in the public assembly of the saints only in a known tongue, (1 Cor 14:16).  The voice of man, although not understood by the generality, assuredly excels all inanimate instruments of music; and yet we see what St Paul determines concerning speaking in an unknown tongue.  What shall we then say of chanting, which fills the ears with nothing but an empty sound?

Does any one object, that music is very useful for awakening the minds of men and moving their hearts?  I own it; but we should always take care that no corruption creep in, which might both defile the pure worship of God and involve men in superstition.  Moreover, since the Holy Spirit expressly warns us of this danger by the mouth of Paul, to proceed beyond what we are there warranted by Him is not only, I must say, unadvised zeal, but wicked and perverse obstinacy.

.

.

Commentary on Ps. 71:22   1557

I will also, O my God! praise Thee…  In speaking of employing the psaltery and the harp in this exercise, he alludes to the generally prevailing custom of that time.  To sing the praises of God upon the harp and psaltery unquestionably formed a part of the training of the law, and of the service of God under that dispensation of shadows and figures; but they are not now to be used in public thanksgiving.

We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to him only in a known tongue.

[The force of Calvin’s argument is that if we worship God by playing an instrument, then it is not by a known tongue or the fruit of the lips, which is how God has directed us to worship Him.  Nor is the worship hearing an emotive song, but singing from one’s heart and lips.]

.

.

Commentary on Ps. 81:3   1557

With respect to the tabret, harp, and psaltery, we have formerly observed, and will find it necessary afterwards to repeat the same remark, that the Levites, under the law, were justified in making use of instrumental music in the worship of God; it having been his will to train his people, while they were as yet tender and like children, by such rudiments, until the coming of Christ.

But now when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated the shadows of the law, and taught us that God is to be served in a simpler form, it would be to act a foolish and mistaken part to imitate that which the prophet enjoined only upon those of his own time. From this, it is apparent that the Papists have shown themselves to be very apes in transferring this to themselves.”

.

.

Commentary on 92:1,4   1557

In the fourth verse, he more immediately addresses the Levites, who were appointed to the office of singers, and calls upon them to employ their instruments of music not as if this were in itself necessary, only it was useful as an elementary aid to the people of God in these ancient times.

We are not to conceive that God enjoined the harp as feeling a delight like ourselves in mere melody of sounds; but the Jews, who were yet under age, were astricted to the use of such childish elements.  The intention of them was to stimulate the worshippers, and stir them up more actively to the celebration of the praise of God with the heart.  We are to remember that the worship of God was never understood to consist in such outward services, which were only necessary to help forward a people, as yet weak and rude in knowledge, in the spiritual worship of God.

A difference is to be observed in this respect between his people under the Old and under the New Testament; for now that Christ has appeared, and the Church has reached full age, it were only to bury the light of the Gospel, should we introduce the shadows of a departed dispensation.  From this, it appears that the Papists, as I shall have occasion to show elsewhere, in employing instrumental music, cannot be said so much to imitate the practice of God’s ancient people, as to ape it in a senseless and absurd manner, exhibiting a silly delight in that worship of the Old Testament which was figurative, and terminated with the Gospel.

.

.

Commentary on Ps. 98:4   1557

‘Exult before Jehovah all the earth’

Here he repeats the exhortation with which he had begun, and by addressing it to the nations at large, he indicates that when God should break down the middle wall of partition all would be gathered to the common faith, and one Church formed throughout the whole world.

When he speaks of musical instruments the allusion is evidently to the practice of the Church at that time, without any intention of binding down the Gentiles to the observance of the ceremonies of the law

.

.

Commentary on Ps. 149:2   1557

The musical instruments he mentions were peculiar to this infancy of the Church, nor should we foolishly imitate a practice which was intended only for God’s ancient people.

.

.

Commentary on Psalm 150:3  1557

‘Praise him with sound of trumpet.’  

I do not insist upon the words in the Hebrew signifying the musical instruments; only let the reader remember that sundry different kinds are here mentioned, which were in use under the legal economy, the more forcibly to teach the children of God that they cannot apply themselves too diligently to the praises of God — as if he would enjoin them strenuously to bring to this service all their powers, and devote themselves wholly to it.

Nor was it without reason that God under the law enjoined this multiplicity of songs, that he might lead men away from those vain and corrupt pleasures to which they are excessively addicted, to a holy and profitable joy.  Our corrupt nature indulges in extraordinary liberties, many devising methods of gratification which are preposterous, while their highest satisfaction lies in suppressing all thoughts of God. This perverse disposition could only be corrected in the way of God’s retaining a weak and ignorant people under many restraints, and constant exercises.

The Psalmist, therefore, in exhorting believers to pour forth all their joy in the praises of God, enumerates, one upon another, all the musical instruments which were then in use, and reminds them that they ought all to be consecrated to the worship of God.

.

.

Daniel 3:7  1561

[It seems clear in the passage below that Calvin, by ‘Church’ is referring to the Church of the Old Testament, as he uses the same language in his commentary on Ps. 98:4 with respect to musical instruments.  Calvin contrasts the legitimate use of instruments in the worship of the Old Testament Church to the misuse of this by the Jews, which used the ceremonial rituals as a grounds for self-righteousness.] 

We should learn also from this passage, not to be induced, by the will of any man to embrace any kind of religion, but diligently to inquire what worship God approves, and so to use our judgment as not rashly to involve ourselves in any superstitions. Respecting the use of musical instruments, I confess it to be customary in the Church even by God’s command; but the intention of the Jews and of the Chaldeans was different.  For when the Jews used trumpets and harps and other instruments in celebrating God’s praises, they ought not to have obtruded this custom on God as if it was the proof of piety; but it ought to have another object, since God wished to use all means of stirring men up from their sluggishness, for we know how cold we grow in the pursuits of piety, unless we are aroused.  God, therefore, used these stimulants to cause the Jews to worship him with greater fervor.

But the Chaldeans thought to satisfy their god by heaping together many musical instruments.  For, like other persons, they supposed God like themselves, for whatever delights us, we think must also please the Deity.  Hence the immense heap of ceremonies in the Papacy, since our eyes delight in such splendors; hence we think this to be required of us by God, as if he delighted in what pleases us.  This is, indeed, a gross error.

There is no doubt that the harp, trumpet, and other musical instruments with which Nebuchadnezzar worshipped his idol, formed a part of his errors, and so also did the gold.  God, indeed, wished his sanctuary to manifest some splendor; not that gold, silver, and precious stones please Him by themselves, but He wished to commend his glory to his people, since under this figure they might understand why everything precious should be offered to God, as it is sacred to Him.

The Jews, indeed, had many ceremonies, and much of what is called magnificent splendor in the worship of God, and still the principle of spiritual worship yet remained among them.  The profane, while they invented gross deities which they reverenced according to their pleasure, thought it a proof of perfect sanctity, if they sang beautifully, if they used plenty of gold and silver, and if they employed showy utensils in these sacrifices

.

.

Commentary on Habakkuk 3:19  1559

He adds, ‘on my beatings.’  This word, נגינות, neginoth, I have already explained in my work on the Psalms.  Some think that it signifies a melody, others render it beatings (pulsationes) or notes (modos) and others consider that musical instruments are meant.  I affirm nothing in a doubtful matter: and it is enough to bear in mind what we have said,—that the Prophet promises here to God a continual thanksgiving, when the faithful were redeemed, for not only each one would acknowledge that they had been saved by God’s hand, but all would assemble together in the Temple, and there testify their gratitude, and not only with their voices confess God as their Deliverer, but also with instruments of music, as we know it to have been the usual custom under the Law.

.

.

Commentary on Colossians 3:16  1548, rev. 1556

[Note that Calvin on Ps. 33:2 above affirms that musical instrumentation may be joined to Christians’ praises outside of the public worship of God.  Hence, this is most likely the context for the below excerpt.  This is confirmed in that Calvin affirms that the phrase ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ allow for ‘all kinds of songs’, though in practice he limited the sung praise of Christian public worship to inspired Bible songs (and the Apostles’ Creed).  Hence, it is more than likely, fitting the passage’s context, that Calvin considered Col. 3:16 to be speaking of social worship, and not the church’s public worship.]

‘Psalms, hymns.’

Farther, under these three terms he includes all kinds of songs.  They are commonly distinguished in this way — that a psalm is that, in the singing of which some musical instrument besides the tongue is made use of: a hymn is properly a song of praise, whether it be sung simply with the voice or otherwise; while an ode contains not merely praises, but exhortations and other matters.  He would have the songs of Christians, however, to be spiritual, not made up of frivolities and worthless trifles.  For this has a connection with his argument.

.

.

The Necessity of Reforming the Church  1543

Exhortation to Charles V

Unless we intend to confound everything, we must constantly distinguish between the Old and the New Testament.  That although the observation of a ceremony under the Law might be useful, now it is not only superfluous, but absurd and pernicious.

.

.

As Quoted by Dr. Porteous

The Organ Question: Statements of Dr. Ritchie and Dr. Porteous, For and Against the Use of the Organ in Public Worship in the Procedings of the Presbytery of Glasgow, 1807-1808, p. 45

That Instrumental Music is not to fitted to be adopted into the Public Worship of the Christian Church, than the incense, the candlesticks and the other shadows of the Mosaic law.

.

.

The First Protestant Administration of the Lord’s Supper in France  1534

J.A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 2, p. 179

It was at Poietiers that the evangelisation of France began in a systematic way.  The school which Calvin here gathered round him comprehended persons in all conditions of life…  They discoursed about Divine mysteries as they walked together on the banks of the neighboring torrent, the Clain, or as they assembled in the garden of the Basses Treilles, where…  they often held their re-unions…

By-and-by it was thought prudent to discontinue these meetings in the Basses Treilles, and to seek some more remote and solitary place of re-union.  A deep and narrow ravine…  then known as the ‘Cave of Benedict,’ but which from that day to this has borne the name of “Calvin’s grotto,” was selected as the scene of the future gatherings of the converts.  It was an hour’s walk from the town…  

In this grotto, so far as the light of history serves, was the Lord’s Supper celebrated for the first time in France after the Protestant fashion.  On an appointed day the disciples met here, and Calvin, having expounded the Word and offered prayer, handed round the bread and cup, of which all partook…  The place had none of the grandeurs of cathedral, but ‘the glory of God and the Lamb’ lent it beauty.  No chant of priest, no swell of organ accompanied the service, but the devotion of contrite hearts, in fellowship with Christ, was ascending from that rocky chamber, and coming up before the throne in heaven.

.

.

.

Related Pages

Musical Instruments in Worship

The Westminster Confession and Musical Instruments in Worship

Psalm Singing

Worship

The Regulative Principle of Worship

John Calvin Quotes on Common Grace

John Calvin Quotes on God’s Love for all Mankind

John Calvin Quotes on the Fatherhood of God over all Men

John Calvin on the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel