In the course of research for a couple of purposes (a journal article and a course) I have had opportunity to read the church orders and church laws of the Dutch (Reformed) churches of the 16th and 17th centuries. I have been doing some reading on the struggle between the Reformed ministers and the magistrates in the 1570s and following over how the worship services would be regulated and by what principle. The magistrates tended to be either Erasmian humanists, who anticipated the values and program of the Pietists. They were much more interested in religious experience than in theological orthodoxy or moral precision. They were trying to hold together a religious coalition against Spain and the Reformed ministers were an obstacle to that program. The magistrates operated under the assumption that if a practice was not forbidden it ought to be permitted. Further, the laity like the use of organs in worship and there were influential magistrates who favored them too. The ministers, however, were seeking to follow the principle articulated in the Belgic Confession (1561) art. 7:
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils or decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men or of themselves liars, and more van than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us saying, Test the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: any one comes to you and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house.
Note that the churches confess sola Scriptura generally but apply that principle particularly to public worship. “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us” is found in Scripture. It is sufficient to govern public worship. This same core conviction appears again in art. 32: “Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way.” Heidelberg Catechism 96 articulated the same principle: “…we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.”
Calvin called this principle “the rule of worship.” Since the mid-20th century it has come to be called “the regulative principle,” which may be summarized thus: we do only in worship what God has commanded. It is a unique principle in the modern period (inasmuch as only the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches confess it) with uneven application in where it is professed.
This post is occasioned, however, by reaction from some quarters, to the way a 1574 provincial synod appealed to 1 Corinthians 14:19 to justify their judgment that the playing of organs should be discontinued immediately. Some have complained that Synod was guilty of poor exegesis. How should we evaluate synod’s appeal to 1 Corinthians 14:19? Is it a classic example of proof-texting? I think not. I think synod can be defended.
First, let us note the genre of the document. It is not a biblical commentary. It is not a confession. It is not even a church order. It is an act of synod. Historically, church orders do not appeal to specific passages of Scripture. They are obligated to submit to Scripture and they cannot rule contrary to Scripture but within the confines of Scripture as confessed by the churches they have authority to issue ministerial decisions.
Second, the Reformed churches had been attempting since the 1520s to return the churches to the apostolic and earliest Christian practice of worship. The Jewish synagogues of the 1st century did not use musical instruments. It is a certainty that the apostolic church sang God’s Word a cappella. The second-century church (100s) explicitly rejected the use of musical instruments on the ground that the use of instruments in public worship belongs to the period of types of shadows.1 This was the conviction of both the Latin and Greek church in subsequent centuries. The first musical instrument (an organ) did not enter public worship until 757 AD. Nevertheless, they remained rare enough that Thomas Aquinas felt free to declare in the 13th century that the use of musical instruments in public worship would be judaizing. They were not allowed to be used in services when a pope was present. When the Reformed sought to remove them from the worship services of the churches, they were removing a relative novelty, a throwback to the types and shadows of the Levitical priesthood. They did not see them as aids to worship but as corruptions, not as mature but as childish.
Third, we need to bear in mind that, like it or not, we are late-modern people with late-modern assumptions about how to read Scripture, about what Scripture can and cannot say. Further, a certain bias toward modern hermeneutics and exegesis has prejudiced us against older readings of Scripture. David Steinmetz’ 1980 essay on “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis” remains an important work on this question.
We ought to bear in mind this background as we consider their appeal to 1 Corinthians 14:19 which says, “Yet had I rather in the Church to speake five wordes with mine understanding that I might also instruct others, then ten thousand wordes in a strange tongue” (Geneva Bible, 1560). What might they have seen in this verse that made it seem relevant to the use of musical instruments in Reformed worship? We do not have to guess. There was a long history before the 1570s of appealing to this text in a similar way. E.g., in the 4th century Gregory of Nazianzen said in a homily (preached in the context of an onslaught of natural disasters),
The first wisdom is to despise that wisdom which consists of language and figures of speech, and spurious and unnecessary embellishments. Be it mine to speak five words with my understanding in the church, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue, and with the unmeaning voice of a trumpet, which does not rouse my soldier to the spiritual combat. This is the wisdom which I praise, which I welcome.2 Notice how Gregory understood 1 Corinthians 14:19. He had been pressed into service, into speaking extemporaneously to this congregation about the disasters and he was warning them about slick sophists who would use the disaster to lead them astray. In the course that argument he appealed to something on which they all agreed: that human voices are superior to musical instruments in the service of God.
Why did he think that? It was a commonplace among the earliest Christians that the religious use of musical instruments was immature. The use of instruments tends to move one’s emotions rather than one’s mind. In our age, we value this affect quite a bit—perhaps more than we should. As late moderns, deeply influenced (even if unaware) by Romanticism, we tend to value affect more than intellect. We tend to disparage the intellect. Gregory and the others reversed the order. They sang in worship less than we and they valued voices over instruments and intellect over affect. We see the same values in the 5th century, when Thedoret of Cyrrhus wrote about the use of musical instruments: “but only the singing with lifeless organs, with dancing and cymbals, etc. Whence the use of such instruments and other things fit for children is laid aside, and plain singing only retained.”
Thedoret was appealing to applying 1 Corinthians 14 and this time specifically to worship in the context of discussing worship. In the 16th century, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Calvin commented on 14:7:
inasmuch as Paul has merely taken what is commonly understood; as, for example, the sound of the trumpet, of which he speaks shortly afterwards; for it is so much calculated to raise the spirits, that it rouses up—not only men, but even horses. Hence it is related in historical records, that the Lacedemonians, when joining battle, preferred the use of the flute,2 lest the army should, at the first charge, rush forward upon the enemy with too keen an onset. In fine, we all know by experience what power music has in exciting men’s feelings, so that Plato affirms, and not without good reason, that music has very much effect in influencing, in one way or another, the manners of a state. To speak into the air is to beat the air (1 Cor. 9:26) to no purpose. “Thy voice will not reach either God or man, but will vanish into air.”3
The whole thrust of his exposition of this chapter is on the importance of intelligibility of what is done in public worship. On v. 14 Calvin wrote,
Let us take notice, that Paul reckons it a great fault if the mind is not occupied in prayer. And no wonder; for what else do we in prayer, but pour out our thoughts and desires before God? Farther, as prayer is the spiritual worship of God, what is more at variance with the nature of it, than that it should proceed merely from the lips, and not from the inmost soul? And these things must have been perfectly familiar to every mind, had not the devil besotted the world to such a degree, as to make men believe that they pray aright, when they merely make their lips move.4
His entire discussion of the chapter has been dominated by concern for and in the context of public worship. For Calvin, instruments are about emotion but true, heartfelt worship is about the intellect. On v. 19 he wrote,
19. I would rather speak five words. This is spoken hyperbolically, unless you understand five words, as meaning five sentences. Now as Paul, who might otherwise have exulted loftily in his power of speaking with tongues, voluntarily abstains from it, and, without any show, aims at edification exclusively, he reproves, by this means, the empty ambition of those, that are eagerly desirous to show themselves off with empty tinkling. (1 Cor. 13:1.) The authority of the Apostle ought, also, to have no little weight in drawing them off from vanity of this kind.5
Under v. 20 he continued to write about the impropriety of Christians remaining like children. We are to be children relative to malice but we are not to be children relative to understanding. Christian simplicity, he wrote does not consist in ignorance. We know that the Dutch pastors and theologians were reading Calvin. Various synods made provisions to make his Institutes and commentaries available to the churches.
The Patristic background and Calvin’s comments give us some insight into the framework in which synod read and applied 1 Corinthians 14:19. Their invocation of this passage in this context is a shorthand way of saying, in effect, the use of musical instruments is immature. Grow up. It was a shot at the Erasmian magistrates who, in the view of the ministers, were trying to take the Dutch churches back to the types and shadows, back to childish things.
There is more work that could be done but we ought to be a little cautious than some have been in reaction to this article of the Acts of Synod. There were some outstanding pastors and theologians at synod who were standing up for the faith under great pressure. Not a few of their brothers and sisters had suffered grievously under the Spanish papists. Thousands had been martyred. They were still working out Reformed theology, piety, and practice in the midst of internal and external resistance.
When we see something from the earlier Reformed that does not make immediate sense, we should do them courtesy of trying to understand them. We may ultimately disagree with them but we owe it to them and to ourselves and to the truth to try to find out why they thought and spoke as they. We should not simply assume that they were not as enlightened as we late moderns.
1. See e.g., Ambrose of Milan. “The Two Books on the Decease of His Brother Satyrus” in St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, translated by H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth, Vol. 10. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), §105–10.
2. Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Orations of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 247.
3. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 440.
4. Calvin, ibid., 446.
5. Calvin, ibid., 450–51.