Did He Say That? John Calvin on Instrumental Music

by Doy Moyer

Why is it that those who want to identify with Calvinism are quick to quote Calvin on matters like predestination, but don’t appear to want to quote Calvin on instrumental music in the assemblies? Here are a couple of pieces of Calvinism that modern Calvinists seem to have missed, so I’m just reminding them that the same John Calvin that promoted Calvinism also believed that instruments in the assemblies were unwarranted and indicative not only of “unadvised zeal,” but was also a “wicked and perverse obstinacy.” Whether you agree or not with the exact arguments made by Calvin, it is clear that he didn’t like them in assemblies. This is not news, of course, but if you are interested, here are some of his thoughts on the matter:

Commenting on Exodus 15, Calvin wrote,

“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.”

Commenting on Psalm 33, here is what Calvin had to say:

“There is a distinction, however, to be observed here, that we may not indiscriminately consider as applicable to ourselves, everything 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 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. 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.”

You can easily find these in his commentaries.