Calvin On Instruments: Not Given For Us To Imitate

Concerning his use of musical instruments, David is not the example given for us to imitate according to Calvin. Rather, in the Reformer’s interpretation, David uses the harp in bringing praise to theLord as an additional typological aspect to worship in the Old Testament. He explains that instruments in the worship service belong to the puerile phase of the church as part of the “pedagogy” of the law. They were aids employed by God before the coming of Christ to move the faithful of the Old Testament to even greater zeal as they praise him. Like other elements of worship during the old dispensation, instruments should be counted among the “shadows” which God used during the times before Christ. However useful they may have been as a help for “the old people” of Israel, Calvin asserts that musical instruments as such were not essential to true worship then and he implies that this is even truer for the Christian church today.

—Herman Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms

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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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    • Not really. The Israelites were directly commanded by God to kill the Canaanites, unlike us today, who are not thus commanded.

      As for how the Israelites worshipped, yes, from the Psalms, they were encouraged to praise the Lord with the harp, etc. And while obviously, going from a priesthood system to the New Covenant one after Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice necessarily changed many elements of worship from how God’s people did in the Old Covenant, we did retain the practice of singing praises to God in worship, as had been done before, even singing the same psalms they did. Why then, did it become wrong to continue doing exactly what the psalms say, to praise God with various musical instruments in worship?

      It seems odd to sing about praising God with such instruments, but say that we are no longer permitted to. Counterintuitive, to say the least.

      (As you no doubt gather, I don’t view the regulative principle as entirely ruling out the use of instruments; since becoming Reformed, I’ve belonged to three different Reformed traditions of the continental variety, none of which have, as a whole body, subscribed to the more traditional, older Reformed view, and none of the churches to which I’ve belonged have done so – though I’ve also attended those that do, sometimes. I respect that others have different opinions, but I do have trouble understanding some of the reasoning, especially in light of things like this.)

  1. By the way, Dr. Clark, I do appreciate of course that a discussion of this dimension may be too complex for a blog back-and-forth, and I have certainly already read discussions of the meaning of the regulative principle of worship, so no need to rehash that, overall, but I’d be especially interested to follow any links that might exist to discussions of this particular point: why, as per traditional Reformed views, we are encouraged to worship the same as in the OT as regards singing the psalms in worship, but are not encouraged to do in the same manner in which they did so, i.e. having musical accompaniment along with the singing.

  2. Is the question whether worship requires the use of musical instruments or musical instruments should be used to bring glory to God including being used in worship? And pray tell, what did the OT use of instruments foreshadow? Finally, when we quote Calvin’s interpretation of the Psalms this way, is the emphasis being placed on the Psalms or on Calvin?

    • Curt,

      There are two distinct questions: 1) historical and 2) theological. Here I’m trying to explore the historical question. I am calling attention to the discontinuity between our original theory and practice and our contemporary theory and practice.

      As a matter of theology, it may be that Calvin and the Reformed were wrong but I wager (metaphorically) that most modern Reformed folk are unaware of the discontinuity between the original and modern Reformed theory and practice of public worship.

      I don’t accept the implied premise of your question, i.e., “if we cannot show a one-to-one correspondence between type and fulfillment, the type stands.” I suspect that few defenders of the use of musical instruments in public worship would want to live with the consequences of that logic.

      Given the way musical instruments appear in the typological period of redemptive history (the OT broadly considered) they, along with the holy war and the priestly sacrificial system all point to Christ (forward in redemptive history) and to the eschaton (upward, as it were). There is no direct, explicit, antitype of the Israelite holy war and yet none of us doubts that, with the the death of Christ, the call to holy war has been fulfilled. Ditto for instruments. Again, see Ps 149:

      Praise the Lord!
      Sing to the Lord a new song,
      his praise in the assembly of the godly!
      2 Let Israel be glad in his Maker;
      let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!
      3 Let them praise his name with dancing,
      making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!
      4 For the Lord takes pleasure in his people;
      he adorns the humble with salvation.
      5 Let the godly exult in glory;
      let them sing for joy on their beds.
      6 Let the high praises of God be in their throats
      and two-edged swords in their hands,
      7 to execute vengeance on the nations
      and punishments on the peoples,
      8 to bind their kings with chains
      and their nobles with fetters of iron,
      9 to execute on them the judgment written!
      This is honor for all his godly ones.
      Praise the Lord!

      From a redemptive-historical perspective, those instruments are covered both with the blood of lambs and bulls and with the blood of Canaanites. I don’t see how we’re going to keep the instruments and dancing but get rid of the holy war. As I note in today’s post, there is a(n) historical correlation between the return of instruments and the return of the priesthood.

  3. Will,
    I second the encouragement to keep reading what has been recommended. I also wanted to comment that other elements of old covenant worship that we understand not to have continued into the new covenant included the burning of incense as prescribed under Moses and, as mentioned in Psalms 149 and150 (which seem to be eschatogical), dance. The use of musical instruments served a similar purpose as the incense- one was a sweet-smelling savor to God and one was for “sounds of joy,” both of them typifying the work of the Spirit in the heart of the believer after Christ’s ascension. That’s why Paul says in Ephesians and Colossians that the making of melody is to be with the heart. I was a long-time praise band and praise team member. I came to see that we were not accomplishing through our musical performance the spiritual edification that God intends, and that we don’t know what we’re missing. It all pales in comparison to what the church could have and enjoy would she only pay attention to what God has prescribed (the meaning of something being regulated) for new covenant worship. Isn’t it worth calling all the performance to a halt until we’ve made a thorough study of biblical and church history? I believe that what we consider restrictive (no musical instruments) is actually for our freedom and increase in joy and edification.

  4. Dr. Clark,
    First, thank you for the response. I do struggle with it in this sense, I don’t think that your argument is strong enough to prohibit the use of instruments in today’s worship of God. I say that because it seems that to conclude that the instruments have only a foreshadowing function because they appear during a typological time period, one must also conclude that every part of OT worship has only a foreshadowing function. I don’t see the Biblical evidence for this.

    We should also note the association made in Ps 149:3. If we wish to say that we should not use instruments because they are typological in one way or another, should we also prohibit singing praise to God and dancing to the Lord for the same reason. This line of argument is not just highly deductive, the premise is not based on any direct commands or prohibitions from the scriptures. So though I understand the reason why some prefer to sing sans musical instruments, I see no advantage either way. In addition, I see a restriction on a glorifying God use of musical instruments

    On the other hand, there is a practical reason for warning people about the music and instruments we use in worship. All too often we syncretically join the culture from which a chosen musical style and instruments comes from with the worship of God. Such a joining exalts that particular culture and the people who associate with it. Thus, our worship of God also becomes a worship of ourselves through the worship of a preferred culture. And this warning goes to all of us Christians regardless of whether or not we use musical instruments.

    • Curt,

      We don’t have to prohibit the use of instruments any more than we have to prohibit holy war. Both expired with the death of Christ. The burden of proof is not on those who resist instruments. It’s on those who would restore them after the cross.

  5. Perhaps it’s been addressed elsewhere, but I didn’t see any mention of the use of musical instruments as an aid to corporate singing.

    We don’t use any instrumental music in our worship except as an accompaniment to help us in singing. The instrument (a piano) does not supply the worship for us, we worship with our voices, while it helps us to do so. (In other words, instrumental music is not an “element” of our worship.)

    I’m sure this is the case for many congregations — we need, and benefit greatly from, the assistance of a musical instrument to help us carry the tune and lift our voices in beautiful song as we worship God.

    BTW, I agree with Calvin’s take on the typological aspect of musical instruments, and their fulfillment in Christ.

    • Sure, I didn’t make that very clear. It only serves us to help us in our singing. The music of our worship comes from our singing, not from the instrument. For this reason we don’t, for example, have any instrumental portions in our worship service — no “offertory” piano solo, for instance. The instrument never stands alone, it used only to assist us in what we are called to do.

      As a further example, I have worshipped in churches that exclude musical instruments and sing a capella. They, however, begin their singing with the assistance of a pitch pipe, sounding the starting note and key. A piano does the same for us, only providing that assistance throughout the singing.

      This is different from common practice in a couple of ways. First, instrumental music doesn’t form an element of the worship, to use the terminology of the regulative principle (to which I hold). Second, it never takes the place of our songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. There is no performance aspect to the music, as if it were for our enjoyment, or to create an atmosphere. It never takes the spotlight. It serves a supporting and assisting role only so that we may better lift our praises to God in song, and edify one another with the words we sing.

      Does that help?

      • Alan,

        Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding you—this is one of the limits of written communication— but you seem to be saying that “doesn’t use instruments in public worship” = “doesn’t have instrumental solos in worship.”

        Is that your argument?

        If giving up the pitch pipe is the cost one must pay to sing a cappella, then I think most are ready to do it.

    • Dr. Clark, we’re having more trouble communicating than I expected. It’s not merely a matter of “not having piano solos” — I offered much more in the way of description of our practice, and how I distinguish it from common/current practice of instrumental music in worship. I don’t think there’s much more I can add to what I’ve already written.

      Plainly put, though, I understand that musical instruments were an element of OT worship. They are not an element of NT worship, since their use is not commanded, and they have been typologically fulfilled.

      Common & current practice, however, is to use instruments as an element — their use becomes a feature of the worship itself. It is not so in the practice of our congregation, it is used only to help us sing.

      I see a distinction. Do you?

      • Hi Alan,

        I wanted to be sure I am understanding you before replying.

        1. As I understand the practice in the Apostolic church, the ancient church, most of the medieval church, the Reformation, and post-Reformation churches, there were no musical instruments used in public worship for any purpose.

        2. As I understand the Levitical/priestly use of instruments, they did exactly as you are saying: assisted the people with singing.

        3. I still don’t understand how your proposed use of worship is substantially different from that which the Reformed churches rejected. I don’t think our forefathers accepted any use of musical instruments in public worship.

        Does that help?

    • I appreciate your patience and interest to understand me. Regarding your 3 points:

      1. Agreed.

      2. The Levitical use of instruments seems to be more than an aid to singing. Instrumental music was truly an element of worship.

      3. It may not be any different from what was rejected! But then as you see in #2, I see a distinction between our practice and the Levitical, as also much of current practice (with bands, orchestras, and so on — all clearly elemental). I gather you don’t see a distinction.

      I appreciate, and share, your desire to be biblically faithful in all things. I haven’t studied this issue as deeply as you have, so I don’t think I’ll be changing minds here. I was simply offering an example of a practice which I believe conforms to the regulative principle, while still, anomalously (it would seem) including the use of a musical instrument. We hold to this practice with a clear conscience before the Lord.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for this series of posts. So much of the debate from all sides on this issue at least in my circles is based on historical ignorance. Wherever we come out on this issue, we should at least know what the Church, and more specifically the P&R church, has historically confessed and practiced.

  7. Alan, Girardeau’s already been there and done that.

    Fifthly, It is by some gravely contended that if tuning-forks and pitch-pipes may be used, so may organs. The same answer as was returned to the immediately foregoing argument is pertinent here. Did those who submit this argument ever notice the use made of a tuning-fork or a pitch-pipe by a leader of singing? It is struck or sounded in a way to be heard by the leader himself, and when by means of it he has got the pitch of the tune to be sung, it is put into his pocket, where it snugly and silently rests while the singing proceeds. It no more accompanies the worship than does a bell. Like it, it stops sounding before the act of worship begins. What analogy is there between it and an instrument that accompanies every note of the singing by a corresponding note of its own. Assign to the organ the same office as the humbler tuning-fork or pitch-pipe, namely, merely to give the leader of the simple singing the pitch of the tunes, and who would object to it? The question of organs would be as quiet as they would be. One toot before the singing, and then they would be, what they ought to be during the public singing of praise, as silent as the grave. One cannot help wondering that the admirers of this “majestic instrument” would employ a comparison which reduces it to a pitch so low!

    Instrumental music was commanded by God to David for the ceremonial worship of the temple in which it accompanied the sacrifices.

    And he set the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet: for so was the commandment of the LORD by his prophets.
    And the Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets.
    And Hezekiah commanded to offer the burnt offering upon the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the LORD began also with the trumpets, and with the instruments ordained by David king of Israel.
    And all the congregation worshipped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded: and all this continued until the burnt offering was finished.
    2 Chron. 29:25-28

    If the sacrifices have been abolished/fulfilled in Christ, so too their accompanying details, i.e. instruments, priests, vestments, etc. We may not bring them back into NT worship unless we have a command for them. And doing all things decently and in order is not good enough.

    IOW there is nothing new under the sun and the historical P&R position answered the objections. Rather the problem is many times the contemporary P&R church is not even aware of the original historical position. After all, in broader evangelical circles only the Campbellite Church of Christ still holds to the practice, which is not much of a recommendation.

  8. This line of argument is not just highly deductive, the premise is not based on any direct commands or prohibitions from the scriptures.

    Not to be redundant, but au contraire, Curtis.

    As above 2 Chron. 29:25:

    And he set the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet: for so was the commandment of the LORD by his prophets.

    Note the last: “the commandment of the LORD by his prophets”.

    Again the problem is the modern P&R church doesn’t know its Bible or its reformed doctrine and history near as well as it thinks it does.

    IOW mebbe in between Jon Stewart, Democracy Now and Faux News, we all gots sum ketchin up to do.


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