Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs, and Instruments In The Latin Bibles (2)

The Latin Bible was a major formative influence on the way the Reformed theologians interpreted Scripture. The King James Version/Authorized Version (1611) particularly reflects the influence of the Latin Bible but its influence reverberates in many English translations. It influenced their word choice in translation. Since our theologians in the 16th and 17th centuries used a Latin Bible for their personal study, it also influenced their understanding of the meaning of Scripture.

In the first post in this series we looked at how the Psalms are categorized in the superscriptions of the Psalms in the Vulgate. We also considered the way those words are used in the NT.

From 1579, however, the Reformed orthodox had a new study tool. It didn’t have a clever title e.g., The New International Reformed Study Bible but that is what it was. When the Reformed orthodox writers used a Latin Bible they tended to use the edition produced by Franciscus Junius, Immanuel Tremellius, and Theodore Beza. It was titled Biblia sacra sive testamentum vetus et testamentum novum (Sacred Bible: Old Testament and New Testament).

Recently I have worked through the Biblia sacra to see how the psalms were classified in the superscriptions and the results are enlightening.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

The question before us is this: Against what background did the orthodox Reformed understand the expression in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18, “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”?

In Beza’s Latin NT the expression reads:

psalmis, hymnes, et cantionibus spiritualibus

The only the difference between the Vulgate and Beza’s text is Beza’s choice of cantio in place of canticum for “songs.” Cantio is a relatively rare word, a late, post-classical word. It does not occur in the pre-Clementine Vulgate but and occurs only once (Ps 136:3) in the Clementine Vulgate (1592). That it occurs in Beza’s 1556 Latin New Testament suggests the word had found favor in the second half of the 16th century. Perhaps this noun was favored by the humanists for some reason? Calvin used it 4 times in the 1559 Institutes (3.8.11, 4.13.19, 4.19.22, 4.19.24). Was he influenced by Beza’s 1556 translation or were they both influenced by a broader trend?

How did Junius and Tremellius translate the superscriptions to the Psalms and how might that have influenced the Reformed understanding of the Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16? The other question we pursued was how the Vulgate translated the terms for musical instruments and how that influenced the Reformers. We will ask the same question of Tremellius/Junius.

This work was more difficult because there is no digitized version of Junius’ and Tremellius’ (hereafter Junius/Tremellius) translation but I went through the text carefully by hand.

41 of the Psalms in have no superscription and thus no classification for the psalm. 44 of the Psalms were classified as a Psalm (psalmus) of David or of Asaph et al. 19 of the psalms were classified as a canticum (song). 26 were classified as an ode, which is a transliteration of the Greek term used in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. 4 psalms were classified as an oratio (prayer), 6 as a canticum et pslamus (song and psalm) and 1 as a carmen Davidis (a song of David).

These categories were not isolated or sealed from one another. Some psalms were classified as psalms and as something else, e.g., a canticum. No Psalms were classified as a hymnus but none are classified as a cantio, Beza’s word for canticum. The fact that ode was used suggests the retrospective influence of Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 on Junius/Tremellius. Their choices also suggest that the line between “psalm” and other forms of song is blurry, if it existed at all. The noun psalm occurs more frequently in Junius/Tremellius than in the Vulgate psalter.

They did not seem to have followed the LXX pattern exactly but there are some patterns. Psalmus tends to occur earlier in the psalter (books 1 and 2) and canticum occurs with more frequency later in the psalter (book 5). Ode occurs throughout the psalter but occurs in most often in books 1 (1-41), 2 (42-72), and 3 (73-89) of the psalter.

Following the humanist pattern they used a greater diversity of terms (oratio, carmen, ode) than the Vulgate.

2 of the 3 terms used in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 were used interchangeably in the Junius/Tremellius translation of the superscriptions of the psalter and they used Paul’s word ode, which seems to connect their understanding of Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 directly to their understanding of the Psalter. Arguably, canticum stands for hymnus

Outside the psalter, e.g., in Matthew 26:30 Beza translated ὕμνουν as “hymn” and in Acts 16:25, Paul and Silas were “singing (canebant) hymns to God.” Like the Vulgate, Beza used the transliterated (Latinized) the Greek except that he turned the singular (in both the Majority Text and the NA 28) to a plural. That choice raises its own questions that we cannot pursue here. The caveats from last time still apply. We cannot anachronistically re-interpret “hymn” in light of our modern (largely psalm-less) experience. The question is how it was understood in the 16th and 17th centuries.

We get greater clarity about how Junius/Tremellius and Beza understood Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 in Beza’s translation of 1 Corinthians 14:26 where the Vulgate transliterated ψαλμὸν (psalm) Beza chose canticum. This is illuminating. He did not choose to transliterate psalm, which is the noun that Paul used, but instead chose to translate it with a different noun. Why? Because, in his understanding, and arguably that of the rest of the Reformed orthodox, there was no substantive difference between a psalm and a canticum (song) and, we should add, an ode nor was there any discernible difference between a canticum (Vulgate) and cantio (Beza). They signify the same thing.

In short, the Reformed orthodox would not have understood the objection against interpreting Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 against the background of the Psalter. In their minds, the two were bound together. For them, when Paul said “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” he was referring to the superscriptions of the psalms. Nor would they have sympathized with the argument that “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” must refer to distinct types of songs and certainly they had no sympathy for the notion that “psalm” refer to a canonical psalm, a hymn to a type of non-canonnical song, and “spiritual song” to another type of non-canonical song.

Musical Instruments

One of the more interesting facets the Junius/Tremellius psalter is their translation of the directions to the musician. In 55 psalms, in all five books of the psalter, this superscription appears:

To the master of the symphonia (magistro symphoniae).

Typically in our English Bibles, e.g., in the ASV and ESV, the superscription over Psalm 4 reads, “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” The 1559 Geneva bible has “To him that excelleth on Neginoth.” Thus, they left the Hebrew untranslated—though we have already observed how the editors/translators addressed the use of musical instruments in the new covenant, in the note on Psalm 150:3. KJV/AV revised the Geneva Bible slightly: “To the chief musician on Neginoth….” The Geneva/KJV tells the English reader less than the ASV/ESV but none of them has quite the same effect of the Junius/Tremellius translation. Symphonia was a transliteration of the Greek term (συμφωνία). According to Liddell and Scott (the precursor to Liddell, Scott, and Jones), a Symphonia, in this context, is a band or an orchestra. It features percussive instruments (drums, cymbals) but apparently included wind instruments since the superscriptions to Psalms 53 and 75 include instructions to the “master of the symphonia” regarding the use of a “pneumatic instrument.”

Outside the psalter, terms for musical instruments occur most frequently in 1-2 Chronicles, in conjunction with the Levitical, priestly ministry (and often in the context of burnt offerings and sacrifices). In 1 Chronicles 15:16, the Levites were playing “with instruments of music, psalteries, cithara, and cymbals. In 16:42 it is “trumpets and cymbals for resonating and musical instruments….” In 2 Chronicles 29 the Levites were using “musical instruments” including various horns. This fits the evidence we saw in the superscriptions to 2 psalms regarding the use of particular instruments.

What does the Junius/Tremellius translation tell us about how they saw musical instruments in the psalter and redemptive history? First, whereas the terms for a symphonia and musical instruments generally and certain instruments particularly occurred with regularity in the Psalter and in 1-2 Chronicles, they occur, of course, not at all in Beza’s NT. Second, it would have been very difficult for the Reformed orthodox, for whom the Junius/Tremellius/Beza Latin Bible became the study Bible (apart from the original text), not to think of musical instruments as inextricably tied to the typological period of redemptive history and to the sacrificial ministry of the Levites. Where our translations sometimes encourage us to thing of a vocal choir, their translation encouraged them to think of the use of musical instruments in the psalms. In that respect, our experience of the psalter is quite different from theirs. The use of “choir” or “choirmaster” anachronistically tends to create the impression that the Israelites did just as many modern congregations do but for the Reformed orthodox, who composed our confessions, when they thought of the psalter and Old Testament worship generally, they thought of musical instruments, sacrifices, and even holy war (Psalm 149) against the enemies of God’s national people.

This helps explain why the churches in Geneva, Heidelberg, the Netherlands, France, and the British Isles removed or sought to remove musical instruments from Reformed churches. They were relics of the era of types and shadows, intimately, inextricably bound up with the Levitical sacrifices.

Obviously, the predominant contemporary understanding of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” varies rather sharply from that reflected in the standard Latin study Bible used by our orthodox Reformed forefathers. Further, their is considerable discontinuity between the way modern Reformed folk tend to think about musical instruments and the way the Reformed theologians and churches thought of them in the formative, classical period (16th and 17th centuries) of Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

It is useful to know that most (but not all!) of us no longer agree with our Reformed sources. We need to wrestle honestly with the facts. It is simply not satisfactory to say, “Well they were wrong.” That might be the case but we cannot simply assert that. We must show why they were wrong. Why were they wrong to read “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in light of the superscriptions in the psalter? Why were they wrong to see the cultic (i.e., the use in public worship as distinct from the general, cultural) use of musical instruments as inextricably bound up with the types and shadows of the temporary, Israelite, national cultus and polity? It is an a fact of redemptive history that Levites played musical instruments so long as the burnt offerings were being made (2 Chron 29). They stopped with the sacrifices stopped. It is a fact of redemptive history that the same psalms that exhort us to dance and play musical instruments also exhort us to holy war against God’s national enemies.

When our theologies were being written and when our confessions were being framed, this was the understanding that informed them as they confessed that we may do in worship only that which God has commanded. In light of their understanding of redemptive history they removed instruments from the churches and sang only God’s Word (usually psalms) in response to God’s Word. They did not see musical instruments as circumstances. They saw them as elements just as the sacrifices were elements.