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by Colin Harbinson

It is a commonly held perception that John Calvin was opposed to the arts. Colin Harbinson has adapted this chapter from One of the Richest Gifts by the late John Wilson, in which the influential reformer is seen to have a high regard for the arts in everyday life. However, while acknowledging historical context and valid concerns, Wilson questions Calvin’scontention that public worship is not the proper sphere of the arts and offers his own views on the place of the arts in worship.

It is generally taken as fact that the Reformation was hostile to all forms of arts and crafts; that it was a cold, austere, intellectual movement that sought to stamp out art and beauty and establish a gray conformity throughout Europe. Calvin in particular is seen as the bitter foe of art and aesthetic delight, showing not only a mere lack of interest in the arts but opposing them vigorously as the tools of the Devil. The truth is totally different.

Calvin and the Arts

John Calvin not only had a high regard for the arts in his thinking, but he also encouraged his people to understand and appreciate the arts of humankind. They were, as a later Calvinist was to assert, “one of the richest gifts of God to mankind.”1 But for Calvin, the Church was not the sphere of the arts, and the arts were not to be the handmaids of the Church. 

Calvin rejected the claim that images and representational art must be in the church as “books for the unlearned.” This, he believed, could only lead to idolatry and had no support from Scripture. He saw the proper means of teaching and instruction as the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. The pagans had succumbed to the temptation of exaggerating the adornment of their temples, but true godly beauty was not in decoration or images but in the spiritual life and unity of the believers.

Much of his criticism of the images in the Church was valid for his culture and age. Like Savonarola before him, Calvin condemned the artistic fashion of having saints painted in “shameless luxury or obscenity” and complained that the inmates of brothels were “more chastely and modestly dressed than images intended to represent virgins.” But he did not make a blanket condemnation of the plastic arts but wanted them to be used “lawfully.” As he wrote: “But, as sculpture and painting are gifts of God, what I insist on is, that both shall be used purely and lawfully, that gifts which the Lord has bestowed upon us, for His glory and our good, shall not be preposterously abused, nay, shall not be perverted to our destruction.”2 He wanted the arts in what he saw as their proper sphere. They were for our “instruction and admonition,” not to be used as vehicles of worship or preaching. The arts could enlarge our understanding of created reality, extend our experience and “not least of all, bring delight to our hearts.”

Calvin had a strong regard for music, recognizing its power to uplift, but also to debase.  As in all his thinking, it had to be God-centered: “The object of music is God and His creation. The glory of God and the elevation of man are its goal, and the inspired Psalms are its means. Since it is the goodness of God emanating through the universe that makes men sing, God ought to be the centre of man’s  thoughts and feelings when he sings.  Seriousness, harmony and joy must characterize our songs to God.”3

So music should bring glory to God and elevate our spirits and must be welcomed as “one of the  richest gifts.” However, as with sculpture and painting, Calvin was deeply concerned that the art of music be used purely and lawfully. Because of the “secret and incredible power of music,” there was always the danger of being led astray. So Calvin warned: “Music that degrades, that corrupts good manners, that flatters the flesh, must be rejected. For music has a secret and incredible power to move our hearts. When evil words are accompanied by music, they penetrate more deeply and the poison enters as wine through a funnel into a vat.”4 So there was no romantic view that “all music is sacred” or that the words do not matter. There is the recognition that we live in a fallen world. Art, like all the gifts originally given for God’s glory and the common good of humanity, can be used to glorify human beings and lead them to destruction. Calvin was aware that the human mind was a factory continually manufacturing idols, and the peculiar power of the arts to influence and transform makes them a dangerous force if used in the wrong way.

When we allow Calvin to speak for himself, it is difficult to see how he has earned the reputation of the archenemy of art, joy and beauty. In spite of his critics, he did not have “coldness stamped upon his brow,” and in all his many writings shows no “pathological hatred” of art or aesthetic delight. Even his actions deny the myth. In 1546 a passion play was presented in Geneva with no objections from Calvin or his followers. The company presenting the play then asked permission to put on a miracle play that dramatized the Acts of the Apostles. The Geneva Council asked Calvin
whether this play should be allowed, and after reading the script and discussing it with other ministers he said it was “sound and godly” and that he would not oppose its production. When the play was first publicly presented, a fierce attack on it was made by Michal Cop, which led to a riot. Calvin calmed the people and players but was angry with Cop, declaring that the “poor man was in need of sounder sense and reason.” With Calvin’s support, the play continued for another week.

So Calvin sought to encourage the arts by defining what he saw as their place and purpose. It was the misuse of the arts rather than art that was condemned. While removing the arts from the services of the Church, he did not banish the arts as unworthy of Christian interest or involvement. But, undoubtedly, Calvin severely limited the use of the arts in services of public worship, holding fast to the doctrine that the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments were to be paramount.

The Reformation, the Arts and Worship

Compared to the rich liturgical drama of Roman Catholic and Orthodox services the Reformed tradition from Calvin onward appeared austere and barren. Churches tended to be bare, there was a lack of color and excitement, and public worship was more of an intellectual than emotional  experience.  The joy of the Lord was often overlooked in searching for the “deep things of God.”

Scripture is the final authority in worship, as in all else, so only that which is in agreement with the Word of God should be allowed. The arts are not necessary for worship. God’s people can worship Him in the fields, in caves, prisons or in their homes. They do not need highly trained voices to sing His praises, poetically shaped phrases to approach Him in prayer, or fine artistic gifts to offer to their God and King. All that is required is an approach in spirit and in truth.

There are dangers in services of public worship of introducing what the Westminster Confession calls “the imaginations and devices of men.” The imaginative creation of art can become an end in itself and be more of a barrier than an aid to worship. In music, poetry, drama and dance, the presentation can be so moving that it becomes something to admire in itself and for its own sake. Such services of worship can degenerate into a show, where congregations become spectators rather than participants in an act of worship. A choir may indeed be offering praise to God, or they may simply be singers enjoying the experience of creating music and harmony. Those who listen may or may not be caught up in a spirit of praise; they may simply be enjoying a musical performance—worshipping the created thing rather than the Creator.

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