Calvin and Exclusive Psalmody

As always, we must take care not to impose categories or convictions upon figures of history that are reflective of later developments. Nevertheless, there are some matters that we ought to keep in mind as we think about whether or not Calvin could be considered an proponent of exclusive psalmody.[1] 

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 Marot (and later 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 no uninspired hymns were 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.”[2]

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”[3] (an obvious reference to Ephesians 5:19).

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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.

So if Calvin wasn’t an exclusive psalmodist, then I think it is fair to conclude that he was well on his way to becoming one. But I believe, based on the evidence above, that the EP position was something of a ‘matured’ conviction that he had come to over a number of years.

-Daniel Kok © 2017

1A co-authored version of this Appendix can be found at
2. Johnson, Terry. “The History of Psalm Singing in the Christian Church.” Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century. Edited by Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010, page 50.
3. Benson, Louis Fitzgerald. “John Calvin and the Psalmody of the Reformed Churches.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Calvin College. Web. 16, January, 2016.

Calvin, John. “Preface to the Psalter.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Calvin College. Web. 09, January, 2016.
Benson, ibid.