In his theology of worship, Calvin was quite keen on simplifying the church’s weekly services and judged that Roman Catholicism’s elaborate ceremonies were a throwback to the old covenant era, a continuation of things now out of place in the worship of God’s people on this side of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. With an eye to helping those less acquainted with spiritual matters, he writes,
As a child (says Paul) is guided by his tutor according to the capacity of his age, and is restrained under his tutelage, so the Jews were under the custody of the law (Gal. 4:1-3). But we are like adults, who, freed of tutelage and custody, have no need of childish rudiments….Therefore, if we wish to benefit the untutored [in this era of redemptive history], raising up a Judaism that has been abrogated by Christ is a stupid way to do it. Christ also marked this dissimilarity between the old and new people in his own words when he said to the Samaritan woman that the time had come ‘when the true worshipers would worship God in spirit and in truth’ (Jn. 4:23). Indeed, this had always been done. But the new worshipers differ from the old in that under Moses the spiritual worship of God was figured and, so to speak, enwrapped in many ceremonies; but now that these are abolished, he is worshiped more simply. Accordingly, he who confuses this difference is overturning an order instituted and sanctioned by Christ (Institutes, 4.10.14).
For Calvin, keeping pace with the flow of redemptive history entailed using no musical instruments in worship. Instruments were a feature of old covenant worship, but new covenant singing was to be a cappella affair. To use instruments would be to go backward in the economy and act as if new covenant believers indwelt by the Spirit needed to lean on the aids of the old dispensation. In Reformed thought, alongside this redemptive-historical principle stood the complementary ‘regulative principle’, which stipulated that the church is not at liberty to go beyond the New Testament by adding new elements to the worship service (the church doesn’t have magisterial authority but only ministerial). This would imply in our day that it’s inappropriate to include things such as new praise choruses (soli Psalmi!), videos (especially videos visually depicting any person of the Godhead), and dance in the services. However, things such as the time of the service on Sunday are adiaphora and can be determined by the individual congregation.
Without wishing to slip into unbridled cynicism about the state of evangelicalism, I will say that it’s sobering to me to think about Calvin’s concerns in relation to some of the things that take place in the services at evangelical churches and in relation to some of the things evangelicals have fought about in the realm of ‘worship’. What do you make of Calvin’s perspective on worship? Are there texts in the New Testament suggestive of the church using musical instruments in worship between the two advents? Is a ‘Psalms alone’ tack theologically compelling? Is it a remedy for unbiblical shallowness in our singing or is it just an easy way out of wrestling through hard questions about which songs should and shouldn’t appear in the Sunday liturgy?