Lift up your hearts with John Calvin

Calvin’s pulpit in Geneva, © Yann Forget / Wikimedia

I’m currently reading a fascinating book called Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva. It’s part of a series of books, The Church at Worship, which combine essays, illustrations and extracts from primary materials in order to give readers an insight into Christian worship in a particular place and time. The Kindle edition is also currently available at a knockdown price (£1.93, versus an RRP of £18.99), so I heartily recommend grabbing it while you can.

One of the texts provided is a selection of excerpts from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 9, delivered as a public lecture for trainee pastors. Here are a few points that particularly struck me.

First, on verse 1 (“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds”
), Calvin writes:

When he says “with all my heart,” he means with a pure and whole heart, rather than in a duplicitous way. And therefore he not only makes a distinction between himself and those heavy hypocrites who praise God only with their lips, leaving their hearts stone cold, but he also acknowledges that everything praiseworthy he has done so far stems entirely from the pure grace of God.

This underlines what I’ve long believed: that one thing the psalms teach us is that our feelings matter. They are not the be-all and the end-all – it is “the pure grace of God” that matters above all, not our feelings about it – but the idea of a “faith without feelings” is unknown to the psalmist. I am to give thanks “with my whole heart”; we are not to “praise God only with [our] lips, leaving [our] hearts stone cold”.

Next, Calvin turns to verse 11, “Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion.
Declare his deeds among the peoples”

Indeed, it is not enough to honor and venerate some vague divine force, but instead to know how to recognize the one and only true God, whom one should serve appropriately and according to his commands.

As Luther put it: “There is no other God than the one God who is called Jesus Christ.” The God we worship is not “some vague divine force”, but “the one and only true God”, who has revealed himself to us in “his doings”.

Also on verse 11, God is called “the one who dwells in Zion”, but this wasn’t to tie him to one place; on the contrary, we are to “declare his deeds among the peoples”. Calvin draws a lesson from this about the sacraments:

It is very true that God had given genuine signs of his presence in this visible Sanctuary, but the goal was not to bind people’s senses to earthly elements. Instead, he wanted these external signs to serve as ladders to draw the faithful to Heaven. For right from the start God had the same goal for the Sacraments and all other outward practices of the faith, namely, to accommodate the weakness and minimal capacity of his people. Therefore yet today their true purpose is to help us seek God spiritually in his heavenly glory, and not to keep us in this world or distract us with the vanities of the flesh.

As the editor of the volume, Karin Maag, observes in a side note:

This image of the ladder is one of Calvin’s favorite ways of explaining how God uses the elements of this world to draw believers to a deeper and more spiritual understanding of their faith.

And this, I feel, is where I find myself disagreeing with Calvin. While Calvin sees the sacraments as means by which God draws us up spiritually to heaven, Luther sees them as a means by which God comes down to us and assures us that he is with us here on earth.

This is an important distinction, but perhaps we should not force it too much. Perhaps instead we should see it like St Paul’s description of the second coming of Christ in his first letter to the Thessalonians, where we rise to meet the Lord in the air as he descends to us from heaven…

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