Pillar Journal

Calvin on Psalm Singing

More than anything else, Calvin viewed the book of Psalms as the canonical manual of piety.

John Calvin loved the Book of Psalms. For twenty-five years, Calvin immersed himself in the Psalms as a commentator, preacher, biblical scholar, and worship leader.1John Walchenbach, “The Influence of David and the Psalms on the Life and Thought of John Calvin” (Th.M. thesis, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 1969). Part of the first section of this chapter is adapted from my “Calvin on Piety,” The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed. Donald K. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 137–39. For Calvin, the psalmists’ words were always relevant for the New Testament church. The major psalmist, David, reflected an important stage in the history of salvation. In David and the other psalmists, believers still today can see “the living image of Christ.”2John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 2.6.2. The Psalms, then, were not just biblically safe for the church to use in singing, but they also helped the church worship God faithfully and prevented her tendency to backslide and pervert worship.

Most of Calvin’s sermons preached on the Lord’s Day from the Old Testament were based on the Psalms. His New Testament commentaries abound with references to the Psalms.3E.g., John Calvin, Commentary on Romans, ed. David W. and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. Ross MacKenzie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Rom. 3:4. Cf. Calvin’s Commentary on Matt. 21:42 and 27:35, which show his Christological hermeneutic of the Psalms; Miller, “Calvin’s Understanding of Psalm-Singing as a Means of Grace,” 40, 47. Calvin tells us in an autobiographical note prefaced to his Commentary on Psalms that the Psalter had comforted him in a major way during years of trial (1549– 1554).4Opera quae supersunt omnia, ed. Guilielmus Baum, Eduardus Cunitz, and Eduardus Reuss, in Corpus Reformatorum, vols. 29–87 (Brunsvigae: C. A. Schwetschke et filium, 1863–1900), 31:19 (hereafter, CO 31:19).

The Canonical Manual of Piety

More than anything else, Calvin viewed the book of Psalms as the canonical manual of piety. In the preface to his five-volume commentary on Psalms— his largest exposition of any Bible book—Calvin writes, “There is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this exercise of piety.”5CO 31:19; translation taken from Barbara Pitkin, “Imitation of David: David as a Paradigm for Faith in Calvin’s Exegesis of the Psalms,” Sixteenth Century Journal 24, 4 (1993): 847. Calvin’s preoccupation with this book was motivated by his belief that the Psalms teach and inspire genuine piety in the following ways:

  • As revelation from God, the Psalms teach us about God. Because they are theological as well as doxological, they are our sung creed.6James Denney, The Letters of Principal James Denney to His Family and Friends (London: Hodder & Stoughton, n.d.), 9.
  • Psalms clearly teach our need for God. They tell us who we are and why we need God’s help.7See James Luther Mays, “Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms: The Preface as Introduction,” in John Calvin and the Church: A Prism of Reform, ed. Timothy George (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 201–204.
  • Psalms are a model for our prayer. They show us how to intercede for the church.8Commentary on 1 Cor. 14:15.
  • Psalms offer the divine remedy for our needs. They present Christ in His person, offices, sufferings, death, resurrection, and ascension. They announce the way of salvation, proclaiming the blessedness of justification by faith alone and the necessity of sanctification thorough the Spirit in the Word.9Allan M. Harman, “The Psalms and Reformed Spirituality,” Reformed Theological Review 53, 2 (1994): 58.
  • Psalms demonstrate God’s amazing goodness and invite us to meditate on His grace and mercy. They lead us to repentance. They teach us to fear God, trust His Word, and hope in His mercy.
  • Psalms teach us to flee to the God of salvation through prayer and show us how to bring our requests to Him.10John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 1:xxxvi–xxxxix. They teach us how to pray confidently in the midst of adversity.11Ibid., Ps. 5:11; 118:5.
  • Psalms show us the depth of communion we may enjoy with our covenant-keeping God. They show how the living church is God’s bride, God’s children, and God’s flock.
  • Psalms provide a vehicle for communal worship. Many of the psalms use first-person plural pronouns (we, our) to indicate this communal aspect, but even those with first-person singular pronouns include all who love the Lord and are committed to Him. They motivate us to trust and praise God and to love our neighbors. They prompt reliance on God’s promises, promote zeal for Him and His house, and advocate compassion for the suffering.
  • Psalms cover the full range of spiritual experience, including faith, unbelief, joy in God, sorrow over sin, trust in divine presence, and grief over divine desertion. As Calvin says, they are “an anatomy of all parts of the soul.”12Ibid., 1:xxxix. See James A. De Jong, “‘An Anatomy of All Parts of the Soul’: Insights into Calvin’s Spirituality from His Psalms Commentary,” in Calvinus Sacrae Scripturae Professor: Calvin as Confessor of Holy Scripture, ed. Wilhelm H. Neuser, Papers of the International Congress on Calvin Research (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 1–14. We see our affections and spiritual maladies in the psalmists’ words. Their experiences draw us to self-examination and faith by the Spirit’s grace. David’s psalms, especially, lead us to praise God and find rest in His sovereign purposes.13Commentary on Psalms, 1:xxxix.

Historical Development of the Genevan Psalter

Early in his ministry, Calvin began working on metrical versions of psalms for use in public worship. On January 16, 1537, shortly after his arrival in Geneva, Calvin, together with Guillaume Farel (1489–1565), asked the Geneva city council to introduce psalm singing into church worship. They wrote to the council: “It is a thing very expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers through which one may pray to God or sing his praise so that the hearts of all might be moved and incited to form like prayers and to render like praises and thanks to God with similar affection.”14CO 10:6. The council rejected Calvin and Farel’s request; in fact, the issue of psalm singing was one of the reasons the council asked Calvin and Farel to leave Geneva the following year.15CO 10:6, 192.

Soon after moving to Strasbourg where he became pastor of a Frenchspeaking church, Calvin began work on a Psalter. Since there was no French psalter available, he recruited the talents of men such as Clement Marot (1495–1544), Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510–1560), and Theodore Beza (1519–1605) to produce the Genevan Psalter. The first collection (1539) contained eighteen psalms, six of which Calvin put into verse. The French poet Marot, forced to flee to Geneva for political asylum in the early 1540s, arranged the rest. Calvin was eager to enlist Marot’s talents, despite his worldly ambitions and anti-Reformed convictions.16In contrast to the decadent life at the French royal court which he called a paradise, Marot thought life in Geneva far too strict, even calling it “a hell” (Procee, “Calvin on Singing Psalms,” 11). Cf. Joseph Waddell Clokey, David’s Harp in Song and Story (Pittsburgh: United Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1896), 146. Interestingly, the eighteen psalms selected for the first edition were of a far different balance from most hymnbooks today: six were psalms of repentance, six were about judgment, three dealt with the law and righteousness, while only three were psalms of praise.17Michael LeFebvre, Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, forthcoming 2010), 17–18. The collection also included Calvin’s versified form of the Song of Simeon, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed.

The first Genevan Psalter was printed in 1542, a year after Calvin’s return to Geneva. This expanded version contained thirty-five psalms (Marot arranged thirty, Calvin five); it was followed in 1543 by an edition with forty-nine psalms.18Cf. Louis F. Benson, “John Calvin and the Psalmody of the Reformed Churches,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 5, 1 (March 1909): 1–21; 5, 2 (June 1909): 55–87; 55, 3 (Sept. 1909): 107–118. Calvin wrote the preface to both of those psalters, commending the practice of congregational singing. His second preface in the 1543 edition contains his fullest statement about liturgical music.19Miller, “Calvin’s Understanding of Psalm-Singing as a Means of Grace,” 36.

After Marot’s death in 1544, by which time he had set about fifty psalms to meter, Calvin encouraged Beza to put the rest of the psalms into verse after he happened to find a beautifully rhymed version of Psalm 16 on Beza’s desk. Though Marot was a more careful student of the French text than Beza, Beza’s Hebrew and theology were better. By the early 1560s, Beza completed his work; two years before his death and after working on it for nearly twenty-five years, Calvin rejoiced to see the first complete edition of the Genevan Psalter.20Published as Les pseaumes mis en rime françoise par Clément Marot et Théodore Bèze.

Qualities of the Genevan Psalter

The Genevan Psalter offers a remarkable collection of 130 distinct meters and 110 different melodies written specifically for the psalms, plus two biblical canticles that remained in use: the Song of Simeon and the Decalogue. Ross J. Miller writes: “Most of the Psalms, therefore, could only be sung to a particular melody, a melody that was created for that particular psalm. These melodies, furthermore, because they were newly composed, did not refer the hearer to any other text, secular or sacred, except its own psalm. The psalm tunes as well as their texts came to have considerable authority in Reformed circles. Composers of elaborate settings of these melodies for voice or instrument would assure their readers that the melodies had not been changed.” 21Miller, “Calvin’s Understanding of Psalm-Singing as a Means of Grace,” 40–41.

The best known of the outstanding musicians of the Genevan Psalter is Louis Bourgeois—chosen by Calvin himself.22Elsie Anne McKee, ed. and trans., John Calvin: Writings in Pastoral Piety (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2001), 85. Arriving from Paris in 1545, Bourgeois became a music teacher in Geneva. He did most of his work on the Genevan Psalter in 1549 and 1550, arranging 80 of the 125 melodies, thus becoming one of the three main composers of the Genevan Psalter.23 (accessed April 3, 2010). Other significant contributors include Guillaume Franc, cantor at Lausanne; Mattheus Greitner of Strasbourg; Maitre Pierre, a precentor in the Genevan church; and Claude Goudimel, who was mainly responsible for harmonies.

The Genevan tunes are melodic, distinctive, and reverent.24Unlike Martin Luther, Calvin tried to avoid mixing secular tunes with sacred singing. He believed that all psalm singing must be in the vernacular, asserting that the evidence of Scripture and the practices of the ancient church were grounds for liturgical psalm singing (VanderWilt, “John Calvin’s Theology of Liturgical Song,” 72, 74). Sung in half and whole length notes, they clearly express Calvin’s convictions that the psalms deserve their own music and that piety is best promoted when text takes priority over tune. Since music should help us receive the Word, Calvin says, it should be “weighty, dignified, majestic, and modest”— fitting attitudes for sinful creatures in the presence of God.25Preface to The Genevan Psalter (1562), cited in Charles Garside, Jr., The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music: 1536–1543 (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1979), 32–33. This type of music promotes the sovereignty of God in worship, properly conforming a believer’s inward disposition to his outward confession. It enables a believer to sing under the impulse and direction of the Holy Spirit.26Institutes, 3.20.32. Cf. John Alexander Lamb, The Psalms in Christian Worship (London: Faith Press, 1962), 141; Ross J. Miller, “Music and the Spirit: Psalm-Singing in Calvin’s Liturgy,” in Calvin Studies VI, ed. John H. Leith (Davidson, N.C.: Davidson College, 1992), 49–58. As Miller notes, “Psalm-singing in public worship, Calvin believed, enhanced the work of the Holy Spirit in a general way, freeing earth-bound human minds and hearts so that they could be lifted heavenward for divine fellowship.”27Miller, “Calvin’s Understanding of Psalm-Singing as a Means of Grace,” 41.

Psalm Singing and Worship

Psalm singing is one of the four principle acts of church worship, Calvin believed. It is an extension of prayer and congregants’ most significant vocal contribution. He thus urged his people to sing psalms in Sunday morning and afternoon services. Beginning in 1546, a printed table indicated which psalms would be sung on each occasion. Sermon texts dictated the psalms for worship. By 1562, three psalms were sung at each service.28McKee, John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety, 85–86.

Calvin felt so strongly about psalm singing that early on he introduced it into his Geneva school. Students were required at the Academy of Geneva to “exercise themselves in singing psalms” every day after the noon meal.29Theodore Gerold, Les plus anciennes melodies de l’ Eglise protestante de Strasbourg et leurs auteurs (Paris: Librairie Felix Alcan, 1928), 15. Calvin’s goal was to enable children to sing psalms at school, church, and home so that they could help their parents learn to sing them also.30LeFebvre, Singing the Songs of Jesus, 13. Calvin wrote, “If some children, whom someone has practiced beforehand in some modest church song, sing in a loud and distinct voice, the people listening with complete attention and following in their hearts what is sung by mouth, little by little each one will become accustomed to sing with the others.”31CO 10:12.

The Lord’s Day was a special time for psalm singing. Before each service, the churches would post on their doors what psalms would be sung. Devoted families would send a family member to check the numbers posted and the entire family would practice singing those psalms before each service. Also, between the Lord’s Day services, people were encouraged to sing psalms.32Miller, “Calvin’s Understanding of Psalm-Singing as a Means of Grace,” 37.

Calvin believed that there was something unique about the Psalms. He observes, “The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here [in the Psalms] the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to [participate]….”33Commentary on Psalms, 1:xxxvii. Calvin also believed that corporate singing subdued the fallen heart and restrained wayward affections in the way of piety. Like preaching and the sacraments, psalm singing disciplines the heart’s affections in the school of faith, lifting the believer to God. It also amplifies the effect of the Word on the heart, multiplying the church’s spiritual energy. “The Psalms can stimulate us to raise our hearts to God and arouse us to an ardor in invoking as well as in exalting with praises the glory of his name,” Calvin writes.34CO 10:12; cited in Garside, The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music, 10. In short, with the Spirit’s guidance, psalm singing tunes believers’ hearts for glory.

Remarkable Success of the Genevan Psalter

The Genevan Psalter was an instantaneous success. Twenty-five editions were printed in the first year, and sixty-two editions within four years of publication. By the nineteenth century, there were fourteen hundred editions in dozens of languages. The Netherlands alone produced thirty editions in less than two centuries.35Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion: A Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 1980), 175. More than thirty thousand copies of the first complete five-hundred-page Genevan Psalter were printed by more than fifty French and Swiss publishers in the first year, and at least 27,400 copies were published in Geneva in the first few months (Jeffry T. VanderWilt, “John Calvin’s Theology of Liturgical Song,” Christian Scholar’s Review 25 [1996]: 67). Cf. Le Psautier de Genève, 1562–1685: Images, commentées et essai de bibliographie, intro. J. D. Candaus (Geneva: Bibliothèque publique et universitaire, 1986), 1:16–18; John Witvliet, “The Spirituality of the Psalter: Metrical Psalms in Liturgy and Life in Calvin’s Geneva,” in Calvin Study Society Papers, 1995–1997, ed. David Foxgrover (Grand Rapids: CRC, 1998), 93–117.

Remaining an integral part of Reformed worship for centuries, the Genevan Psalter set the standard for successive psalm books in French, English, Dutch, German, and Hungarian. As a devotional book, it warmed the hearts of thousands, but the people who sang from it also understood that its power was not in the book or its words, but in the Spirit who impressed those words on their hearts.

The Genevan Psalter promoted piety by stimulating a spirituality of the Word. That spirituality was corporate and liturgical, breaking down the distinction between liturgy and life. The Calvinists freely sang the Psalms not only in their churches, but also in their homes and workplaces, on the streets and in the fields.36Witvliet, “The Spirituality of the Psalter,” 117. Miller notes, “According to sixteenth century accounts, Huguenot soldiers and sailors were known for their psalm-singing as they carried out their duties, and French Protestant martyrs faced death singing a favorite, or most appropriate, psalm. A seventeenth-century Catholic bishop, Godeau, noted that ‘to know them [the Psalms] by heart is among them a mark of their communion.’”37Miller, “Calvin’s Understanding of Psalm-Singing as a Means of Grace,” 42. Cf. Charles W. Baird, History of the Huguenot Emigration to America (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1885), 81, 103, 206.

In short, psalm singing became a “means of Huguenot selfidentification.” 38W. Stanford Reid, “The Battle Hymns of the Lord: Calvinist Psalmody of the Sixteenth Century,” in Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, ed. C. S. Meyer (St. Louis: Foundation for Reformation Research, 1971), 2:47; cf. Benson, “John Calvin and the Psalmody of the Reformed Churches,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 5, 2 (June 1909): 57–67. It also became a cultural emblem. As T. Hartley Hall writes, “In scriptural or metrical versions, the Psalms, together with the stately tunes to which they were early set, are clearly the heart and soul of Reformed piety.”39“The Shape of Reformed Piety,” in Robin Maas and Gabriel O’Donnell, Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 215. Cf. Reid, “The Battle Hymns of the Lord,” 2:36–54. No wonder, then, that in many parts of Europe, the term psalm singer became nearly synonymous with the title Protestant.40LeFebvre, Singing the Songs of Jesus, 13.

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