Music is a powerful thing. Just ask John Calvin. Calvin often has a bad reputation in the popular imagination, but the image of a dour, brooding man is tragically wrong. While Calvin warned against the frivolous use of music, he called it a gift from God, expressly made to give man pleasure. Singing, Calvin said, is one of the ways that we offer public prayers to God.
Since the Scriptures say that even infants will praise God (Ps. 8:2), Calvin insisted that everyone under his care in Geneva be privileged to sing the praises of God. The medieval church had wrested music and song from the people, caging it in indecipherable Latin sung only by priests. Calvin sought to free it to do what it was designed to do: lift men’s hearts, to the glory of God (Ps. 95:1).
Calvin cautioned, however, that few things in the world have the power that music does “to bend the morals of men this way or that.” He bemoaned the ease with which, like wine being funneled into a barrel, poison can make its way into the heart if the wrong words are set to music.
For that reason, one must be extremely careful about what one sings. Calvin proposed two criteria for selecting appropriate songs.
First, songs should glorify God. Calvin urged the selection of songs “that will spur us to pray to God and praise Him, to meditate on His works so as to love Him, to fear Him, to honour Him, and glorify Him.” The content of the songs is obviously crucial here; songs should be theologically rich and orthodox to properly praise the Lord. Calvin advocated singing only psalms as the safest route, but carefully chosen hymns and songs could fulfill this criterion as well.
The melody also was to be fitting to the occasion of a meeting between God and His people. It was not to be set in popular idioms, but rather was to reflect the majesty of God. “There is thus a big difference,” he said, “between the music people make for their enjoyment at home around the table, and the Psalms that are sung in church in the presence of God.”
Second, songs should edify worshipers. Calvin’s emphasis here was on intelligibility. While birds may sing beautifully, people sing with understanding. Calvin supervised the versification of the psalms in French and encouraged the use of songs that are easily learned and retained. Theological richness is important here as well, as rigorous songs assisted in the people’s instruction in the truths of God’s revelation. When funneling content into his people’s hearts, Calvin was concerned to ensure that they were being fed nourishing food, not poison or drivel without value.
Calvin saw singing as a beautiful way to praise God and enjoy life. May we, as Calvin sought to do, lift our hearts to glorify God with our sung praises.