Was John Calvin an Exclusive Psalmodist?


There is no doubt that Calvin pioneered psalm singing for his generation and that the Reformed churches quickly became known for their psalm singing. It is more difficult to prove that Calvin and the various churches of the evolving Reformed tradition of that time were Exclusive Psalmodist (EP) in the sense we understand it today because we have few councils that dealt with that matter directly. Calvin’s position is, however, much closer to the EP position and, in fact, essentially that in practice if not in stated principle. Consider:

1) At the time of the Reformation the Psalms were not readily available to be sung in French (or any other European language). Calvin had to commission French poet Clément Marot (and later Claude Goudimel) to write out the Psalms in meter which took a great deal of time and money. So initially the Genevan song book was a cobbling together of various psalms and other songs.

2) However, as one traces the various editions of the Genevan Psalter you will find less hymns being included over time to the point that nothing more than the Song of Simeon and the Ten Commandments accompanied the 150 Psalms in the final edition (1562). In this case we have biblical psalms and two inspired songs lifted from scripture. And it is not as if uninspired hymns were not available at the time:

“The Constance Hymn Book of 1540, called by Hughes Old ‘one of the most important monuments in the history of Reformed liturgy,’ included hymns by Zwingli, Leo Jud, Luther, Wolfgang Capito, and Wolfgang Musculus, among others.”

Terry Johnson, The History of Psalm Singing in the Christian Church

In fact, the Reformed church quickly distinguished itself from the Lutherans in their liberal use of the Psalms in worship.

3) Calvin ‘negotiated’ the singing of psalms in his return to Geneva. He states in his proposed Church Order:

“The other part concerns the psalms, which we desire to be sung in the church, after the example of the ancient Church, and according to St. Paul’s testimony, who said that it was a good thing to sing in the assembly with mouth and heart” (an obvious reference to Ephesians 5:19).

Louis F. Benson, John Calvin and the Psalmody of the Reformed Churches

4) The following quotation, from Calvin’s Preface to the 1543 Genevan Psalter, indicates not merely a preference for the Psalms but their obvious superiority to all other songs:

“When we have looked thoroughly, and searched here and there, we shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory.”

5) Calvin’s successors in France, the Huguenots, were well known as psalm singers:

“To the early French Protestants the Psalm book was a unit—the Word of God in the personal possession of the humblest, the symbol as well as the vehicle of their new privilege of personal communion with God. To know the Psalms became a primary duty; and the singing of Psalms became the Reformed cultus, the characteristic note distinguishing its worship from that of the Roman Catholic Church… It is not possible to conceive of the history of the Reformation in France in such a way that Psalm singing should not have a great place in it.”

Benson, ibid.

6) Under (or perhaps after) Calvin’s influence, most, if not all, Reformed and Presbyterian churches became Exclusive Psalmodists, or at least refused to sing songs of mere human composition. The staying power of these psalms (to crowd out other songs) is indicated in that man-made hymns did not become widely sung until the late 18th and early 19th century as worldly influences began to sway the old convictions held by the Reformed churches.

1) Q. Did Calvin, as some claim, author an uninspired hymn that he intended for use in public worship?

A. Almost certainly not. There is a hymn erroneously attributed to him, but he himself claimed in 1557 to have written only one poetic composition in the previous 25 years which was an epic poem written in 1541. (see Did John Calvin Author a Hymn? by R. Andrew Myers).

2) Q. What do the Psalters that Calvin produced, and his French liturgy, tell us about public worship in Strasbourg or Geneva and Calvin’s view of the appropriate content of praise?

A. Calvin’s first (Strasbourg) 1539 Psalter contained 19 Psalms (it was not until 1562 that the full 150 Psalms were versified), the Song of Simeon, the metrical Ten Commandments, and the Apostles Creed in prose. His 1542 Geneva Psalter contained metrical versions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Song of Simeon and the Apostles Creed. His 1542 Liturgy (La Forme des prières et chantz ecclésiastiques) provides for the singing or recitation of the Apostles Creed at the observance of the Lord’s Supper. (Horton Davies, in The Worship of the English Puritans, shows that the Song of Simeon was to be sung at the Lord’s Supper, but only in Strasbourg after Calvin’s departure.) The 1542 Geneva Psalter also states in the preface that “after we have sought on every side, searching here and there, we shall find no songs better and more suitable for our purpose than the Psalms of David, dictated to him and made for him by the Holy Spirit.” Further revisions to the Genevan Psalter were made in 1543, 1551, and 1562 (Beza revised it slightly further in 1587 after Calvin’s death).

By 1562, the Apostles Creed was eliminated from the Genevan Psalter. Given that this was the final production of the Genevan Psalter in Calvin’s lifetime, it represents his maturest thought on the matter that the metrical Apostles Creed need not be included in the Psalter used by his congregation. The presence of the other metrical non-Psalms shows that only inspired material was deemed suitable for praise, and it ought to be remembered that not all material, even metrical material, in a Psalter was necessarily used or intended for use in corporate worship. Some Biblical songs in meter might have been for use in private devotional exercise. We must note these various qualifications over time and observe that Calvin’s apparent practice in Geneva tended more and more towards Exclusive Psalmody, and perhaps reached it as well.

3) Q. What can we learn about Calvin’s view of Psalmody in worship from the principles he has laid down regarding Biblical worship and the singing of Psalms?

A. Calvin in many places made it plain that any worship lacking warrant from Scripture constituted idolatry. Centuries before the term “Regulative Principle of Worship” was first coined, Calvin articulated it.

“I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course?” (The Necessity of Reforming the Church).

“It must be regarded as a fixed principle that all modes of worship devised by man are detestable” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.XI.4).

“Although Moses only speaks of idolatry, yet there is no doubt but that by synecdoche, as in all the rest of the Law, he condemns all fictitious services which men in their ingenuity have invented.” (Commentary on Exodus 20:4).

“When men allow themselves to worship God according to their own fancies, and attend not to His commands, they pervert true religion.” (Commentary on Jeremiah 7:31).

Never once did Calvin author a hymn and he never promoted the singing of uninspired hymns (there is ambiguity in his understanding of whether the Apostles Creed was written by the Apostles or not). He did, however, produce a Psalter, and promoted the singing of psalms. His latest remarks on the Pauline terminology of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” affirms that no significant distinction is in view (which agrees with the Puritan understanding that Paul was referring to the Psalter by the use of all three terms):

“Now St. Paul sets down here songs, psalms, and hymns, which scarcely differ at all from one another, and therefore there is no need to seek entertainment for ourselves in setting forth any subtle distinction among them.”

Sermons on Ephesians (5:18-21), pp. 552-553.

He aimed at reformation in worship and believed that the early church sang psalms:

“From this passage, however, we at the same time infer, that the custom of singing was, even at that time, in use among believers, as appears, also, from Pliny, who, writing at least forty years, or thereabouts, after the death of Paul, mentions, that the Christians were accustomed to sing Psalms to Christ before day-break. I have also no doubt, that, from the very first, they followed the custom of the Jewish Church in singing Psalms.”

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:15.

All reputable evidence directs us to the conclusion that in principle and in practice, Calvin, in his later years and most mature thought, either held to Exclusive Psalmody or was very close to it.

This article was adapted from comments by Daniel Kok and R. Andrew Myers in a social media discussion and posted here with their permission.

See also “Calvin and the Origins of Reformed Psalmody”, chapter 6.2 in Songs of Zion: The Biblical Basis for Exclusive Psalmody by Michael Bushell.


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