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Calvin, the Arts, & Worship

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’s contention that public worship is not the proper sphere for the arts and offers his own perspective.

By Colin Harbinson


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 center 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 a reputation as 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 itself 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 was the final authority in worship, as in all else, so only that which was in agreement with the Word of God should be allowed. The arts were not necessary for worship. God’s people could worship Him in the fields, in caves, prisons or in their homes. They did 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 was required was 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.

So the Reformed tradition in public worship sought to discard all that would come between men and women and their God. The sermon was central. Worship was not only being caught up in praise and adoration; it was also God speaking to us. God spoke to His people, and the vehicle He chose was the “foolishness of preaching.” The arts could have no place here as creational gifts. The proclamation of the Gospel was not the proper sphere of the arts within the creation.

Any critique of the Reformed tradition of worship must take into account the fact that the reformers were no more anti-art than they were anti-intellectual, and the historic tradition reflects this fact. Calvin had a strong sense of the responsibility of the arts for the common good, and it was this that governed his approach and appreciation. However, the arts were to have no place in worship. The English Puritans also had this attitude to the arts. Although they forbade music in the church—other than the unaccompanied human voice—they encouraged music-making in the home with the family gathered around the organ or enjoying violin or fiddle music. John Milton, one of the greatest English poets, was a Puritan. So the Puritans, in the Reformed tradition of refusing a place for the arts in worship, did not attack the place of arts in the world. It was the lewdness and decadence associated with the theatre that they objected to rather than the art of drama; similarly, they objected to dancing because of the lasciviousness associated with it.

The Arts and Public Worship?

So the Reformed tradition that has sought to be faithful to the Word of God does have a meaningful, dignified simplicity that has not always meant a discarding of the arts in all of life. But should the arts of humanity—themselves the gift of God—have no place in public worship?

Whether consciously realized or not, the arts are present in most church services. Apart from the architecture of the building and the craftsmanship and colors of the furnishings, there is music, the poetry of the readings, the rhetoric of the prayers and sermon and the dramatic re-enactment of the Last Supper. But, in spite of the dangers and temptations, is there not a need for a greater use of the arts? Properly used they can be an aid to worship and can create an atmosphere of reverence and praise. They can also bring a real challenge and demand a valid response.

The Bible teaches that, while our citizenship is in heaven, we are also creatures of earth. The things of earth have their own particular effect upon us. We are not purely spiritual beings whose sole function is to live on a spiritual plane. This is why the psalmist found comfort in lifting his eyes to the hills and why Jesus told his disciples to look at the lilies, sparrows and grass of the field—all part of the physical creation.

These things are not wrong. As Calvin himself asked:

Should the Lord have attracted our eyes to the beauty of the flowers, and our senses to pleasant odors, and should it then be a sin to drink them in? Has he not made even the colors so that one is more wonderful than the others? Has He not granted to gold and silver, to ivory and marble, a beauty that makes them more precious than other metals or stones? In a word, has He not made many things worthy of our attention that go far beyond our needs? [5]

To those who are spiritually aware and awakened, beauty can bring them closer to God and create a sense of awe and worship. A sunset or sunrise, the moon reflecting on placid waters, a sparkling stream on a heather-clad hill, the shining rain or flashes of lightning in a darkening sky—each can bring the awareness of another dimension transcending time and place. The arts can have the same effect. The echo of a few bars of music, some lines of poetry, the expression on a sculpted face, a painting or a noble cathedral can all touch the heart with wonder and awe.

So while recognizing that worship is more than artistic expression and that the arts do not automatically lead to worship, there is the need to see afresh how they can be used to God’s glory and the good of His people within the context of worship. They can make it easier for burdened and weary hearts to be lifted up and dimmed eyes to be opened to catch a glimpse of something of the glory and majesty of the God who has made all things.

The image of the Christian faith as seen by most people is expressed in the church building.

Architecture for churches is a matter of gospel. A church that is interested in proclaiming the gospel must be interested in architecture, for year after year the architecture of the church proclaims a message that either augments the preached Word or conflicts with it. If the gospel of Christ is worthy of accurate verbal proclamation week by week, it is also worthy of faithful architectural proclamation, where its message speaks year after year. [6]

Poetry and music together make an excellent didactic tool. This linking enables words to be easily recalled by the memory. With the considerable number of worship songs that are being written and sung today, it is all the more important to be able to identify poor poetry and equally poor theology. A good tune is never enough because the words, when engraved in the mind, become part of the theology and philosophy of Christian living.

Poetry is not confined to songwriting. It is a medium of the arts much used in the Bible and an excellent vehicle for communicating the truth. A suitable poem could provide a call to worship or prayer or even be used as a prayer in itself; many of the psalms are poetic prayers. Poetry can give a dramatic opening to a sermon or climax the message with a challenge in a sharp, concise way that demands a response. Poetry has the power to cheer the downcast, comfort the bereaved and crystallize the hope that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel. But it must be poetry that is worthy of the name of art.

Cheap, sentimental verses that are not true to life should have no place in worship or in the life of the mature Christian. True art not only has the ability to create an immediate response but also is capable of lodging in the heart and mind, revealing fresh insights as it germinates. A poem, which is the work of a true craftsman in words, is always fresh and relevant.

Drama was used by the Prophets and has something to add to services of worship. Biblical drama can help in understanding the historical reality of the faith—a faith based on the God who acted in history. The dramatization of biblical stories can bring to life real people in real situations. However, it is not only biblical history that can be examined dramatically. Contemporary problems—indeed all of life—can also be fruitfully explored.

But such drama, as in all Christian involvement in the arts, must be true to the art form and to life, as well as to the Word of God. Romantic sweetness and glib answers must be avoided. The Greeks used the “god from the machine” device—the god who came down at the end of the play to resolve all problems. It is not a valid contribution to drama to substitute Christ for this deus ex machina and to imply that all dilemmas and difficulties can be immediately solved by the acceptance of Christ and the Christian faith. Such art is artificial. Life is not like that, and the Bible does not give easy answers to all moral and intellectual problems in a world where all things are darkened by sin.

Mime and dance can also disclose fresh aspects of human experience and portray new ways of showing the goodness of God. Emotions are often too deep for words and the non-verbal arts of music, mime and dance can express the inexpressible. Certainly they were used among the people of God in the recorded history of the Scriptures.

The arts, then, can bring something of value to public worship, can be exercised in obedience to the Word of God and can be a genuine offering to Him. Public worship can use the fiction of drama, the expressive gestures of dance and mime, the created story, the poetic form, the visual arts and music and song to bring a congregation nearer to God and reveal facets of the truth He has given to human beings. Art can speak to the heart with power and conviction; it can fire the imagination and bring its own response that can be worked out in a life of service and praise. But it must be true art, the highest form of craftsmanship, finding its meaning in Christ and its service to God.


The late John Wilson was a self-educated Scottish Presbyterian. He worked in a steel plant in Motherwell and devoted much of his spare time to study and sharing his learning with others. This chapter from his book, One of the Richest Gifts, was edited and adapted by Colin Harbinson with permission from The Handsel Press, Edinburgh, Scotland, who published the book in 1981.

[This article was originally published in The Creative Spirit: A Journal of Faith and the Arts, Belhaven 2006]



[1] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Gainesville, FL: Associated Publishers and Authors, undated), 87. 2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeil (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, and The S.C.M. Press Ltd., London, 1960). [3] Quoted in H. R. Van Til, The Calvinist Concept of Culture (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers, 1972), 110. [4] Van Til, 110. [5] John Calvin, The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life (Faverdale, NC: Evangelical Press, 1975), 88. [6] John Davison, “Reformation in the Meeting House,” Reformation Today, Sept./Oct. 1975.


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