Calvin on Psalm Singing in Worship

As for public prayers, there are two kinds: the one consists simply of speech, the other of song…And indeed, we know from experience that singing has great strength and power to move and to set on fire the hearts of men in order that they may call upon God and praise him with a more vehement and more ardent zeal. It is to be remembered always that this singing should not be light or frivolous, but that it ought to have weight and majesty…Now, what Augustine says is true, namely that no one can sing anything worthy of God that he has not received from him. Therefore, even after we have carefully searched everywhere, we shall not find better or more appropriate songs to this end than the Psalms of David, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And for this reason, when we sing them, we are assured that God puts the words in our mouth, as if he himself were singing through us to exalt his glory.

Thanks to Wes Bredenhof for reminding us of this gem.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Daniel,

    I deleted your comment. I won’t have people promoting federal visionists or wolves on the HB. There are a zillion places to do that on the interwebs but the HB isn’t one them.

    • Dr. Clark,
      I’m surprised you removed the link I posted as it had nothing to do with FV theology, but was rather a very scholarly lecture on “Calvin and Music,” which happened to be very relevant to this post.

      Sometimes it seems to me that simple theology got dropped along the wayside somewhere, and you are doing something else. What do you think you are gaining, for example, by calling Doug Wilson a “Mullah” and talking about him building a “wall around Moscow”?

      If you are truly concerned about theology, why do you need the ad hominem’s?


      • Daniel

        this no place for the promotion of wingnuts and wackos or wolves. If you want to promote that stuff do it on your own blog, not here. There is NOTHING innocent about them. The apparently innocent suff is just a starter drug.

  2. Just exactly what explains, if not excuses, the contemporary P&R ignorance of Calvin’s position on song in worship? For instance, the original Articles concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva proposed by the Ministers at the Council, Jan 16, 1537 (Calvin’s Theological Treatises, pp.47 -55) that provoked the city fathers to the point Calvin, Farel and Corauld were required to vacate the premises, touched on four topics. Granted the Lord’s Supper and related discipline was the big item, but congregational psalmody (pp.53,54), along with catechizing and the reform of marriage laws, was included.

    Calvin returned three years later to Geneva and largely suceeded in implementing the suggested reforms in time, including psalmody which no less than a Warfield vouches for (The Westminster Assembly and Its Work, 1931, p.52). Calvin also had high praise for psalmody in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms. The last prescribes the “infallible rule for directing us with respect to the right manner of offering to God the sacrifice of praise.” Not only that, we are told repeatedly that “no other book” commends God’s care of and providence for his church so explicitly and eloquently, but also with such strict “adherence to truth. In short, there is no other book in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise. (1557, rpt. 1989, Baker, IV: xxxviii-xxxix).” Stirred up, but not provided the material and substance to the duty?

    Perhaps it is not that the contemporary P&R church is ignorant of Calvin’s position, but rather that it doesn’t want to know.

  3. I find it very odd that Christians that hold to Sola Scriptura would sing man-made hymns in worship. What happened to that aspect of Reformation? Does not history tell us that exclusive Psalm-Singing was the signature of the Puritans, the Scot Presbyterians, & the Hugenots?

    Brakel, in his The Christian’s Reasonable Service, lauds the use of singing only the Psalms in worship and decries other songs. He alludes to past Synods rulings on this topic:

    Synod of Dort, 1578, article 76: “The Psalms of David in the edition of Petrus Dathenus, shall be in the Christian meetings of the Netherlands churches (as has been done until now) sung, abandoning the hymns which are not found in Holy Scripture.”

    Synod of Middelburg , 1581, article 51: “Only the Psalms of David shall be sung in the church, omitting the hymns which one cannot find in Holy Scripture.”

    Synod of Gravenhage, 1586, article 62: “The Psalms of David shall be sung in the churches, omitting the hymns which one does not find in Holy Scripture.”

    Sadly the Synod of 1618-19 reflects the granting of certain concessions on the part of many ministers to the will of the people instead of standing firm on the Word when they ruled:

    Synod of Dort, 1618-19, session 162: “In the Church only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung. The 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon, the hymn ‘O God who is our Father,’ and so on, shall be left in the freedom of the churches, whether they want to use them or not, as they see fit. The rest of the songs shall be taken out of the church, and similarly any which have previously been imported into the church shall be omitted in the most decent way possible.”

    But I must grant that this in NO way allows for man-made hymns. At best one can argue for is inspired hymnody, as this decree alludes to. But many of the NAPARC churches do not argue for that, they argue for man-made hymns not inspired hymnody, much less Exclusive Psalmody.

    I especially like Rev. Wes Bredenhof’s observation on this point, which all Reformed Christians should note:

    “Despite these good intentions, by the early nineteenth century the Reformed churches had all but abandoned psalm-singing in favour of uninspired hymns. This was not an isolated development, but went hand-in-hand with an abandonment of the confessions and indeed, of the gospel itself.” See

    It was indeed the 19th Cent. that saw the rise of many liberal influences upon the Church and they continue to plague some NAPARC member denominations.

    If we are to recover the Reformed Confessions and the Biblical attainments of the Reformation, then we have to go to the root of the matter and not just cherry pick those doctrines that we prefer and ignore the others since they would undo our man-made traditions and customs. In other words let Scripture be the foundation of our practice, not man-made customs and practices in the Worship of God.

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