Monday, November 21, 2011

Luther, Calvin and Music

When I was researching about J.S. Bach for my book, I came across authors who mentioned that Bach's music could only flourish in the Lutheran states and not those dominated by Calvinism. I was curious why that was, so I started reading a bit about Luther and Calvin's different views of art and creativity. This has helped me to have a better appreciation for the Lutheran musical tradition, as well as an appreciation for the progress that the Calvinist tradition has made since then (I attend a Calvinist church that has pretty good music, at least compared to other churches, though we're a long way from producing another J.S. Bach).

Luther's views on music are well documented, so this post will mainly look at Calvin's thinking, though I will refer to Luther to emphasize the contrasts.
Luther’s own crisis of faith had led to an experience of divine favor that would propel him to always emphasize the immediacy of God’s supernatural grace. For Luther, God’s presence could be mediated in physical objects used in worship no less than the natural world ("God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees, and flowers, and clouds, and stars.") This, together with Luther's natural interest in music (see his letter about music here) would assure that art would always retain a special place in mediating to man something of God’s beauty, majesty and awe (this, of course, reached fruition in J.S. Bach).

By contrast, the dispassionate and logical Calvin tended to emphasize God’s absolute transcendence, majesty and otherness, resulting in modes of worship that eschewed Lutheran physicality, avoided creativity wherever possible  and remained closely tethered to those things which could be formulated in didactic and cognitive terms. As Evelyn Underhill has noted in Worship,
In the type of worship which [Calvin] established, we seem to see the result of a great religious experience - the impact of the Divine Transcendence on the awe-struck soul - and the effort towards a response which is conditioned by a deep sense of creaturely limitation, but deficient in homely and child-like dispositions; and, with intrepid French logic, refuses the use of creaturely aids. Calvin desired, as so many great religious souls have done, a completely spiritual cultus; ascending towards a completely spiritual Reality, and rejecting all the humble ritual methods and all the sensible signs by which men are led to express their adoration of the Unseen. God, who 'hath no image', was the ultimate fact. Therefore a pitiless lucidity of mind, which ignored the mysterious relation between poetry and reality, and the need of stepping-stones from the successive to the Eternal, insisted that all which is less than God must be abjured when man turns to adoration. Unlike Luther, Calvin was really hostile to the mediaeval embodiments of worship. He regarded them with abhorrence, and went to all lengths in the fury of his denunciation. Without Luther's first-hand knowledge of Catholic devotion, and interpreting Catholic theology in terms of the crude popular religion of the time, he even felt able to say that in the Roman Mass "all that a criminal godlessness could devise is done". Hence he cast away without discrimination the whole of the traditional apparatus of Catholicism; its episcopal order, its liturgy, symbols, cultus. No organ or choir was permitted in his churches: no colour, no ornament but a table of the Ten Commandments on the wall. No ceremonial acts or gestures were permitted. No hymns were sung but those derived from a Biblical source. The bleak stripped interior of the real Calvinist church is itself sacramental: a witness to the inadequacy of the human over against the Divine.
The nascent hostility to physicality in worship led Calvin to include the use of musical instruments in worship as among the shadows that were dispelled “when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated.” He Calvin writes,

“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 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 …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.”

The “shadows of a departed dispensation” seems to have included not only musical instruments but all hymns other than Psalms. As John Barber noted in his article 'Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship':

“Luther wanted the hymns of the Church to reflect as closely as possible the exact words of scripture. Calvin went a step further. He felt that the singing of the express words of only the psalms, though he did permit the singing of other select scripture texts, ensured that Divine revelation was being put to music. The only notable musical contribution of the early Calvinist churches was therefore the Psalters, metrical translations of the Book of Psalms." Barber, 'Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship.'

Richard Arnold noted similarly in The English Hymn: "Calvin’s enthusiasm for singing was subject to a crucial qualification: he restricted what was to be sung exclusively to the Psalms – these were, he writes in 1543, the songs provided by God and dictated by His Holy Spirit, and it would be presumptuous and sacrilegious for humankind to sing any words or arrangements of his of her own devising.”

The idea seems to have been that for worship to be "spiritual" it had to be "simple" in the sense of being disencumbered with the trappings of materiality (including musical instruments). For example, in his book Reformed Worship, Terry Johnson wrote “the worship of Reformed Protestantism is simple. We merely read, preach, pray, sing and see the Word of God… True faith comes through the word (Rom. 10:17). True worship then must be primarily (though not absolutely) non-material, non-sensual, and non-symbolic.” The attempt to achieve non-material worship has greatly crippled Calvinist artistic endeavors. Calvin did allow for musical instruments and art in contexts other than worship, writing
"And yet I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible. But because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each, lest those things, which the Lord has conferred upon us for his glory and our good be not only polluted by perverse misuse but also turned to our destruction."
Even though Calvin allowed for musical instruments and art and contexts other than worship, the problem that arose was comparable to that which Tom Howard described in Evangelical is Not Enough. "If by its practice [our religion] implies that colors and symbols and gestures and ceremonies and smells [and, I would add, musical instruments] are inappropriate for the house of the Lord and must be kept outside, for ‘secular’ and domestic celebrations like birthdays, parades, weddings, and Christmas banquets, then it has driven a wedge between his deepest human yearnings and the God who made them."

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