He believed that he was purifying the church from recent musical innovations in the western church. Musical instruments and complex hymnody were all part of the corruptions introduced by the Roman Church. . . .
. . . We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Cor. 14:13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to him only in a known tongue. [Commentary on Psalms, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1979), 98 . . .]
. . . musical instruments were among the legal ceremonies which Christ at his coming abolished; and therefore we, under the Gospel, must maintain a greater simplicity. [Commentary on the Four Last Books of Moses, Vol .1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 263 . . .]
But when they [believers] frequent their sacred assemblies, musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews . . . but we should always take care that no corruption creep in which might both defile the pure worship of God and involve men in superstition. [Commentary on Psalms, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1979), 539]
(information from W. Robert Godfrey, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2009, pp. 74-75. Interestingly, Protestant “reformer” Zwingli used the same exact argument from St. Paul to argue that no music whatsoever — not even singing — was permitted in worship. See Howard L. Rice & James C. Huffstutler, Reformed Worship [Louisville: Geneva Press, 2001], p. 100)
But although Calvin believed in congregational singing and fostered it, he was set against accompanying it with any kind of instrumental music. In the 66th Homily on 1 Samuel, chapter xviii, he gives his opinion on this point . . .
If we now consider it to be necessary we shall return to our former darkness and obscure the light which appeared in the Son of God. The Papacy was guilty of foolish and ridiculous imitation when it decorated churches and thought to offer God a more worthy service by employing organs and other follies of that sort. By these the Word and worship of God are profaned, for the people interest themselves in these things more than in the Divine Word. Where there is no intelligence there is no edification . . . That which was useful under the Law has no place under the Gospel, and we must abstain from such things not only as superfluous, but as frivolous. All that is needed in the praise of God is a pure and simple modulation of the voice. Instrumental music was tolerated because of the condition of the people. They were, Scripture tells us, children who used childish toys which must be put away if we wish not to destroy evangelical perfection and quench the light we have received through Christ.
There was no instrumental music in Strassburg or Geneva so long as Calvin controlled the services. . . . The organ which stood in St. Peter’s was allowed to remain till 1562 when the tubes were melted down and turned into flagons for holding Communion wine. (Hugh Young Reyburn, John Calvin: His Life, Letters, and Work, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914, pp. 85-86)
By the middle of the seventeenth century, those who supported its use seem to have made their case sufficiently strongly for organs to begin to be used in worship . . . it is also worth nothing that the Netherlands were not the only place where instruments were being introduced into worship in the seventeenth century. For example, in western Switzerland wind instruments also began to be used in Reformed worship at this time. (Calvinism and the Arts: A Re-Assessment, Dudley, Massachusetts: Peeters, 2007, p. 74)
In fairness to Calvin, it must be noted (as it was, briefly, in the above citations) that he was not at all opposed to music per se. He devoted a great deal of energy and devotion in promoting the Genevan Psalter, and indeed was known to have been moved to tears upon hearing the choir singing at his church. But for some reason, he held to a huge dichotomy between the human voice and musical instruments, as if the voice is not also an “instrument” — and is fundamentally different in some way, so that the one almost inexorably becomes an “idol” whereas the human voice (as long as it is not singing in harmony) does not.
1) They had instruments in the Old Testament.
2) They also had a lot of problems of idolatry in the Old Testament.
3) Therefore, instruments are idolatrous in the context of worship.
He made the same fatally flawed, unbiblical argument about images (present in the temple), and abolished them in churches.
If it was okay then, it didn’t suddenly become evil in the new covenant. If it wasn’t (necessarily and always) idolatry then, it wasn’t, by the same token, after Jesus, either. Idolatry resides in the heart, which is why an argument that a musical instrument is always idolatrous in a church setting (Calvin didn’t hold that it was everywhere or — for that matter — that visual aids were utterly forbidden everywhere) is absurd. One can’t possibly logically arrive at that conclusion.
I would contend, therefore, that Calvin’s is merely an emotional “either/or” overreaction (one of many many such in Calvin and other early Protestants). Even the Calvinists support that conclusion, by the fact that they introduced instruments in the next century, and most have no problem with them today.
I should add that there is an essential difference between judging voices alone, to be appropriate or aesthetically pleasing and proper for a church service, minus instruments, and saying that any instrument used at church must be idolatrous and absolutely forbidden on those grounds. It’s the difference between musical and liturgical aesthetics and positive legalism or prohibitions based on an additional factor (supposed intrinsic idolatry). The first thing doesn’t contradict the Old Testament record of instruments used in praise and worship; the second does.
In a religious system that prides itself on a strict sola Scriptura rule of faith, surely it is beyond strange that such an extreme and manifestly unbiblical view ever got off the ground: so weird that I contend that it has nothing to do with the Bible and everything to do with irrational anti-Catholicism and reaction against Catholic worship. Guilt-by-association again:
1) The Catholic Mass is sacrilege, abomination, and idolatry.
2) Catholic Masses had musical instruments.
3) Therefore, musical instruments in worship are also idolatrous.
Calvin starts from a false premise (#1) — one he always assumed and never adequately proved in any sense whatever –, then draws an illogical inference from the false premise (#3). If the Bible shows otherwise, so much for the Bible . . . That’s what this position within Calvinism amounts to, and it can only be seen as curiously ironic and even a bit humorous, given sola Scriptura as the Calvinist rule of faith.
Photo credit: Bill Nicholls. The timberwork of the organ in the St Stephen Old Radnor church dates from 1540, and as such represents the oldest surviving organ case in the British Isles [Geograph.org.uk / CC BY-SA 2.0 license]