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Instrumental Music in Public Worship: The Views of John Calvin

Matthew 7:6 Give not that which is holy to the dogs, and do not throw down your pearls before swine, lest these trample them under their feet, and those turn and tear you.   

Give not that which is holy It is unnecessary to repeat oftener, that Matthew gives us here detached sentences, which ought not to be viewed as a continued discourse. The present instruction is not at all connected with what came immediately before, but is entirely separate from it. Christ reminds the Apostles, and, through them, all the teachers of the Gospel, to reserve the treasure of heavenly wisdom for the children of God alone, and not to expose it to unworthy and profane despisers of his word.

But here a question arises: for he afterwards commanded to preach the Gospel to every creature, (Mark 16:15;) and Paul says, that the preaching of it is a deadly savor to wicked men, (2 Corinthians 2:16;) and nothing is more certain than that it is every day held out to unbelievers, by the command of God, for a testimony, that they may be rendered the more inexcusable. I reply: As the ministers of the Gospel, and those who are called to the office of teaching, cannot distinguish between the children of God and swine, it is their duty to present the doctrine of salvation indiscriminately to all. Though many may appear to them, at first, to be hardened and unyielding, yet charity forbids that such persons should be immediately pronounced to be desperate. It ought to be understood, that dogs and swine are names given not to every kind of debauched men, or to those who are destitute of the fear of God and of true godliness, but to those who, by clear evidences, have manifested a hardened contempt of God, so that their disease appears to be incurable. In another passage, Christ places the dogs in contrast with the elect people of God and the household of faith, It is not proper to take the children’s bread, and give it to dogs, (Matthew 15:27.) But by dogs and swine he means here those who are so thoroughly imbued with a wicked contempt of God, that they refuse to accept any remedy.

Hence it is evident, how grievously the words of Christ are tortured by those who think that he limits the doctrine of the Gospel to those only who are teachable and well-prepared. For what will be the consequence, if nobody is invited by pious teachers, until by his obedience he has anticipated the grace of God? On the contrary, we are all by nature unholy, and prone to rebellion. The remedy of salvation must be refused to none, till they have rejected it so basely when offered to them, as to make it evident that they are reprobate and self-condemned, (áὐôïêáôάêñéôïé,) as Paul says of heretics, (Titus 3:11.)

There are two reasons, why Christ forbade that the Gospel should be offered to lost despisers. It is an open profanation of the mysteries of God to expose them to the taunts of wicked men. Another reason is, that Christ intended to comfort his disciples, that they might not cease to bestow their labors on the elect of God in teaching the Gospel, though they saw it wantonly rejected by wicked and ungodly men. His meaning is lest this inestimable treasure should be held in little estimation, swine and dogs must not be permitted to approach it. There are two designations which Christ bestows on the doctrine of salvation: he calls it holy, and compares it to pearls. Hence we learn how highly we ought to esteem this doctrine.

Lest these trample them under their feet Christ appears to distinguish between the swine and the dogs: attributing brutal stupidity to the swine, and rage to the dogs And certainly, experience shows, that there are two such classes of despisers of God. Whatever is taught in Scripture, for instance, about the corrupt nature of man, free justification, and eternal election, is turned by many into an encouragement to sloth and to carnal indulgence. Such persons are fitly and justly pronounced to be swine Others, again, tear the pure doctrine, and its ministers, with sacrilegious reproaches, as if they threw away all desire to do well, all fear of God, and all care for their salvation. Although he employs both names to describe the incurable opponents of the Word of God, yet, by a twofold comparison, he points out briefly in what respect the one differs from the other. - John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew 7:6.

Instrumental Music in Worship is "exhibiting a silly delight in that worship of the Old Testament which was figurative and terminated with the gospel."
b. July 10, 1509, Noyon, Picardy, France
d. May 27, 1564, Geneva, Switz.


When Israel committed musical idolatry at Mount Sinai, the rejected the Covenant and God gave them the Law "because of transgression." In defining the two silver trumpets, God restricted them to signalling or blowing the alarm over their enemies. John Calvin notes that:

Harmony of the Law - Volume 2 by John Calvin


Calvin in Harmony of the Law speaks of the SYNAGOGUE which was the "church in the wilderness" which OUTLAWED music.

But when the congregation is to be gathered together, ye shall blow, but ye shall not sound an alarm. Numbers 10:7

"For this office, to which they were appointed, was no servile one, as that they should blow the trumpets at the command of others; but rather did God thus set them over public affairs,

that the people might not tumultuously call their assemblies in the blindness and precipitation of passion, but rather that modesty, gravity, and moderation should be observed in them.

"We know how often in earthly affairs God is not regarded, but counsels are confidently discussed without reference to His word. He testified, therefore, by this employment of the priests,

that all assemblies, except those in which He should preside, were accursed.

"Profane nations also had their ceremonies, such as auguries, supplications, soothsayings, victims, because natural reason dictated that nothing could be engaged in successfully without Divine assistance;

but God would have His people bound to Him in another way, so that, when called by the sound of the sacred trumpets as by a voice from heaven,

they should assemble to holy and pious deliberations. The circumstance of the place also has the same object.

The door of the Tabernacle was to them, as if they placed themselves in the sight; of God.

We will speak of the word dewm, mogned (synagogue) elsewhere. Although it signifies an appointed time, or place, and also an assembly of the people, I prefer translating it convention, because God there in a solemn manner,

as if before His sacred tribunal, called the people to witness, or, according to appointment, proceeded to make a covenant with them.

God made a LAW against instruments for the SYNAGOGUE. And no Jew was dumb enough to violate that until the year ad 1815.

Of the trumpet playing not allowed for the assembly, he notes:

Thus Malvenda in Poole's Syn., "et clangetis taratantara." The word is used by Ennius "At tuba terribili sonitu taratantara dixit." -- Serv. in, AEn, 4. A.V., "an alarm."

"But the trumpet sounded with its terrible taratantara." Ennius (Q. Ennius)

Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque
On ancient ways and heroes stands the Roman state
O Tite tute Tati tibi tanta, tyranne, tulisti
Oh, you tyrant, Titus Tatius! You took such great things for yourself

Quintus Ennius (239 BC-169 BC) epic poet, dramatist, and satirist, the most influential of the early Latin poets, rightly called the founder of Roman literature. His epic Annales, a narrative poem telling the story of Rome from the wanderings of Aeneas to the poet's own day, was the national epic until it was eclipsed by Virgil's Aeneid.

"The hatsotserah, or straight trumpet (Ps. 98:6; Num. 10:1-10). This name is supposed by some to be an onomatopoetic word, intended to imitate the pulse-like sound of the trumpet, like the Latin taratantara. Some have identified it with the modern trombone."h 

As Martin Luther notes:

But as our would-be wise, new spirits assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer:

It is true, indeed, that nothing in us is of any avail but faith, as we shall hear still further. But these blind guides are unwilling to see this, namely,

that faith must have something which it believes, that is, of which it takes hold, and upon which it stands and rests.

Thus faith clings to the water, and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life;

not through the water (as we have sufficiently stated), but through the fact that it is embodied in the Word and institution of God, and the name of God inheres in it.

Now, if I believe this, what else is it than believing in God as in Him who has given and planted His Word into this ordinance, and proposes to us this external thing wherein we may apprehend such a treasure? Martin Luther

"Like most religious reformers, Calvin relied on song by the people, and discourages musical instruments which he compared to childish toys which ought to be put away in manhood. So deeply did his teaching sink into the Genevans, that three years after his death they melted down the pipes of the organ in his church, to form flagons for the communion. And his principle were adopted widely in Britain." (W. T. Whitley, Congregational Hymn-Singing (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1933, p. 58).

"To sing the praises of God upon the harp and psaltery," says Calvin, "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." (On Ps. lxxi. 22)

4639. skia, skee´-ah; apparently a primary word; “shade” or a shadow (literally or figuratively (darkness of error or an adumbration)):  shadow. 

He says again: "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." (On Ps. lxxxi. 3.)

He further observes: "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.

[John Calvin Worship: Nor from the beginning was there any other method of worshipping God, the only difference being, that this spiritual truth, which with us is naked and simple,

was under the former dispensation wrapped up in figures. And this is the meaning of our Saviour's words, "The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23).

For by these words he meant not to declare that God was not worshipped by the fathers in this spiritual manner, but only to point out a distinction in the external form: that is, that while they had the Spirit shadowed forth by many figures, we have it in simplicity.

But it has always been an acknowledged point, that God, who is a Spirit, must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.]

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

Psalm 78: it in a sense less and absurd manner,
exhibiting a
silly delight in that worship of the Old Testament which was figurative and terminated with the gospel." (On Ps. xcii. 1.)

John Calvin understood "Dispensational Distinctions" as well as the place of music in the Law period under the monarchy of kings rather than of God.

"There is then no other argument needed to condemn superstitions, than that they are not commanded by God: for when men allow themselves to worship God according to their own fancies, and attend not to His commands, they pervert true religion." Calvin's Commentaries, 9:414.

He continues:

"Hebrews 9:1. "Then verily the first", &c. After having spoken generally of the abrogation of the old covenant, he now refers specially to the ceremonies.

His object is to show that
there was
nothing practiced then to which Christ's coming has not put an end.

He says first, that under the old covenant there was a specific form of divine worship, and that it was peculiarly adapted to that time. It will hereafter appear by the comparison what kind of things were those rituals prescribed under the Law.

"Were any one to ask why the Apostle speaks with so little respect and even with contempt of Sacraments divinely instituted, and extenuates their efficacy? This he does, because he separates them from Christ; and we know that when viewed in themselves they are but beggarly elements, as Paul calls them. (Gal. 4: 9.)

Because the music in connection with animal sacrifices under the Law were part of a training or disciplinary system, John Calvin understands the difference between the Old Law and the New Covenant

Then Calvin notes what the Catholics confess: that it was not really a borrowing from the sacrificial system but from the world of entertainment from all pagans:

"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." (Psalm 92:1)

"We need not shrink from admitting that candles, like incense and lustral water, were commonly employed in pagan worship and in the rites paid to the dead. But the Church from a very early period took them into her service, just as she adopted many other things indifferent in themselves, which seemed proper to enhance the splendour of religious ceremonial. We must not forget that most of these adjuncts to worship, like music, lights, perfumes, ablutions, floral decorations, canopies, fans, screens, bells, vestments, etc.

were not identified with any idolatrous cult in particular;
they were common to almost all cults.
They are, in fact, part of the natural language of mystical expression, and such things belong quite as much to secular ceremonial as they do to religion.
Catholic Encyclopedia on Candles

Of Psalm 71:22. 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. By the word of truth, the Psalmist means that the hope which he reposed in God was rewarded, when God preserved him in the midst of dangers.

[Note: Paul connects speaking in tongues and musical instruments which are only useful for signalling in warfare if you interpret the message before you sound it]

The promises of God, and his truth in performing them, are inseparably joined together.
Unless we depend upon the word of God, all the benefits which he confers upon us will be unsavoury or tasteless to us;

nor will we ever be stirred up either to prayer or thanksgiving,
if we are
not previously illuminated by the Divine word.

So much the more revolting, then, is the folly of that diabolical man, Servetus, who teaches that the rule of praying is perverted

as if we could have any access into the presence of God, until he first invited us by his own voice to come to him.

Of Psalm 33 Calvin addressed both the end of the legalistic system and the use of instruments:

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.

puerīlis e, adj. with comp. puer, boyish, childish, youthful : puerili specie, senili prudentiā: tempus, O.: vox: regnum, L.: agmen, a troop of boys , V.: (facies) in virgine, boyish , O.Boyish, childish, puerile, trivial, silly : acta res consilio puerili: inconstantia, T.: vota, O.: Si puerilius his ratio esse evincet amare, H.

inconstantĭa , ae, f. inconstans, I. inconstancy, changeableness, fickleness (class.).

Turpis I.ugly, unsightly, unseemly, foul, filthy I. II.Transf., of sound, disagreeable, cacophonous III.Trop., unseemly, shameful, disgraceful, base, infamous, scandalous, dishonorable. Effemino

Effemino B. In mal. part., that submits to unnatural lust: “pathicus,Suet. Aug. 68; Auct. Priap. 58, 2; Vulg. 3 Reg. 14, 24 al.—Adv.: effēmĭnāte , effeminately

Cicero Plancius When no one knew what were the feelings of those men who by means of their armies, and their arms, and their riches, were the most powerful men in the state, then that voice, rendered insane by its infamous debaucheries, made effeminate by its attendance on holy altars, kept crying out in a most ferocious manner that both these men and the consuls were acting in concert with him.

The whole equestrian order was with me; whom, indeed, that dancing consul of Catiline's used to frighten in the assemblies of the people with menaces of proscription. All Italy was assembled, and terrified with fear of civil war and devastation.

Infantilis  of or belonging to infants or little children  Histrionalis of or belonging to a stage-player, like an actor.

-Tacitus 1.16 This was the beginning of demoralization among the troops, of quarreling, of listening to the talk of every pestilent fellow, in short, of craving for luxury and idleness and loathing discipline and toil. In the camp was one Percennius, who had once been a leader of one of the theatrical factions, then became a common soldier, had a saucy tongue, and had learnt from his applause of actors how to stir up a crowd. By working on ignorant minds, which doubted as to what would be the terms of military service after Augustus, this man gradually influenced them in conversations at night or at nightfall, and when the better [p. 15] men had dispersed, he gathered round him all the worst spirits.

[The "people's" congregation were quarantined from the temple when the trumpets signalled the beginning of sacrifice. Only the civil-temple state sacrificed tens of thousands of innocent animals as their TYPE of the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ with the mocking music of the warrior Levites whose service was "hard bondage."]

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 Corinthians 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. [Paul uses the terms lifeless instruments or carnal weapons]

What shall we then say of chanting, which fills the ears with nothing but an empty sound?

A modern writer agrees:

"At a time when there is a rising protest against monologous and therefore sometimes monotonous 'one man ministeries' in the churches, and when it is complained increasingly that the preacher is one of the few remaining public figures whose formal remarks allow no public interrogation or discussion (even Presidents are subjected now to the discipline of public interview), it is perhaps in order for the churches to look here in Corinthiasn to their earliest structure (including interrogation and challenge)... in place of the often dull and unprofitable responsive readings before it and of some of the singing which seems to be often, at the conscious or mental level at least,

low level glosolalia with instrumental accompaniment." (Fredreck Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit, p. 300)

Calvin continues:

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.

Again, Calvin notes that: "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 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." (Calvin's Commentary on the Thirty-third Psalm, and on 1 Sam. 18:1-9).

In The Mode of obtaining the Grace of Christ, Calvin notes:

9. It is, however, to be carefully observed, that Christian liberty is in all its parts a spiritual matter, the whole force of which consists in giving peace to trembling consciences, whether they are anxious and disquieted as to the forgiveness of sins, or as to whether their imperfect works, polluted by the infirmities of the flesh, are pleasing to God, or are perplexed as to the use of things indifferent.

It is, therefore, perversely interpreted by those who use it as a cloak for their lusts,

that they may licentiously abuse the good gifts of God, or who think there is no liberty unless it is used in the presence of men, and, accordingly, in using it pay no regard to their weak brethren.

Under this head, the sins of the present age are more numerous. For there is scarcely any one whose means allow him to live sumptuously,

who does not delight in feasting, and dress, and the luxurious grandeur of his house, who wishes not to surpass his neighbor in every kind of delicacy, and does not plume himself amazingly on his splendor.

And all these things are defended under the pretext of Christian liberty.

They say they are things indifferent:
I admit it, provided they are used indifferently.
But when they are
too eagerly longed for, when they are proudly boasted of, when they are indulged in luxurious profusion, things which otherwise were in themselves lawful are certainly defiled by these vices.

Paul makes an admirable distinction in regard to things indifferent:

"Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled" (Tit. 1: 15.)

For why is a woe pronounced upon the rich who have received their consolation? (Luke 6: 24,) who are full, who laugh now, who "lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches;" "join house to house," and "lay field to field;" "and the harp and the viol, the tabret and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts," (Amos 6: 6; Isa. 5: 8, 10.)

Certainly ivory and gold, and riches, are the good creatures of God, permitted, nay destined, by divine providence for the use of man; nor was it ever forbidden to laugh, or to be full, or to add new to old and hereditary possessions, or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine.

This is true, but when the means are supplied to roll and wallow in luxury, to intoxicate the mind and soul with present and be always hunting after new pleasures,

is very far from a legitimate use of the gifts of God.

Let them, therefore, suppress immoderate desire, immoderate profusion, vanity, and arrogance, that they may use the gifts of God purely with a pure conscience. When their mind is brought to this state of soberness, they will be able to regulate the legitimate use.

On the other hand, when this moderation is wanting, even plebeian and ordinary delicacies are excessive.

For it is a true saying, that a haughty mind often dwells in a coarse and homely garb, while true humility lurks under fine linen and purple. Let every one then live in his own station, poorly or moderately, or in splendor; but let all remember that the nourishment which God gives is for life, not luxury, and

let them regard it as the law of Christian liberty, to learn with Paul in whatever state they are, "therewith to be content," to know "both how to be abased," and "how to abound," "to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need," (Phil. 4: 11.)

In The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543) Calvin wrote:

"In inveighing against ceremonies themselves, and also in abrogating a great part of them, we confess that there is some difference between us and the prophets. They inveighed against their countrymen for confining the worship of God to external ceremonies, but still ceremonies which God himself had instituted; we complain that the same honor is paid to frivolities of man's devising.

They, while condemning superstition, left untouched a multitude of ceremonies
God had enjoined, and which were useful and appropriate to an age of tutelage; our business has been to correct numerous rites which had either crept in through oversight, or been turned to abuse and which, moreover, by no means accorded with the time.
For, if we would not throw everything into confusion,
we must never lose sight of the
distinction between the old and the new dispensations, and of the fact that ceremonies, the observance of which was useful under the law,

are now not only superfluous, but vicious and absurd.

But in regard to the former, it is plain that

they are destitute of authority from the scriptures,
as well as of any
approved example of such intercession; while, as to the latter,

Paul declares that none can invoke God, save those who have been taught by his word to pray. On this depends the confidence with which it becomes pious minds to be actuated and imbued when they engage in prayer.

But is it not altogether at variance with reason that the ploughing oxen should starve, and the lazy asses be fed? They will say, however, that they serve at the altar. I answer, that the priests under the law deserved maintenance, by ministering at an altar;

but that, as Paul declares, the case under the New Testament is different.

And what are those altar services, for which they allege that maintenance is due to them? Forsooth, that they may perform their masses and chant in churches, for example,

partly labor to no purpose,
and partly
perpetrate sacrilege, thereby provoking the anger of God. See for what it is that they are alimented at the public expense!

Westminster Confession of Faith CHAPTER XXI

Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day

I. The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.

But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself,
and so limited by his own revealed will,
that he may not be worshiped according to the
imaginations and devices of men,

or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation,
or any other way
not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

C.H. Spurgeon once said, (cited in Christian History magazine, Vol. 5, No. 4). The church needing reformation in Calvin's day was the tradition-encrusted church of Rome. Shortly after the Reformation, for those leaving Rome behind, two streams became apparent.

One was the stream of classical Protestant orthodoxy, represented today by a handful of Gideons in their desktop publishing winevats.

The other was the left wing of the Reformation - the anabaptist movement. In the early years, the anabaptists were suffering outsiders.

But today the anabaptist church is the Establishment - an establishment governed by a chaos of traditions instead of biblical worship.

Everywhere we look we see Christians approaching God with observances in worship which Calvin calls 'the random offspring of their own brain.'"

Though this work is not an elaborate systematic presentation of the foundations of Christianity, such as Calvin's Institutes, it has still been correctly acknowledged as one of the most important documents of the Reformation.

Calvin here pleads the cause dearest to his heart before an assembly perhaps the most august that Europe could have furnished in that day. It has been said that the animated style used by Calvin in this work would not lose by comparison with any thing in the celebrated "Dedication" prefixed to his Institutes.

To this day, The Necessity of Reforming the Church remains a powerful weapon, both defensive and offensive, to fight the contemporary battle for Protestantism - the everlasting gospel of truth. Here, in our modern setting, we find the answers to many of the vexing questions which continue to agitate the Church.

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