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Calvin and Platonic aesthetics

Yesterday, Scott Aniol showed that Martin Luther was influenced by Greek aesthetics, including that of Plato.

Portrait_john_calvin_reverseIn light of Dr. Aniol’s post, it is worth highlighting that Luther was not alone among the Reformers to be influenced by Plato’s thought on music. Calvin, in his preface to the Genevan Psalter, also cited Plato’s views:

But still there is more: there is scarcely in the world anything [than music] which is more able to turn or bend this way and that the morals of men, as Plato prudently considered it. And in fact, we find by experience that it has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another. Therefore we ought to be even more diligent in regulating it in such a way that it shall be useful to us and in no way pernicious. For this reason the ancient doctors of the Church complain frequently of this, that the people of their times were addicted to dishonest and shameless songs, which not without cause they referred to and called mortal and Satanic poison for corrupting the world. Moreover, in speaking now of music, I understand two parts: namely the letter, or subject and matter; secondly, the song, or the melody. It is true that every bad word (as St. Paul has said) perverts good manner, but when the melody is with it, it pierces the heart much more strongly, and enters into it; in a like manner as through a funnel, the wine is poured into the vessel; so also the venom and the corruption is distilled to the depths of the heart by the melody.

Dr. Aniol noted that Greek aesthetic thought was part of the accepted curriculum of this time, and it is clear that Calvin, like Luther, saw clearly the power of music and the need for it to be carefully used, both in the secular and sacred realm. Whereas our age is marked by aesthetic relativity, the Reformers were not so pessimistic. They recognized the realities of the power of music for good and evil.

By the way, it is well worth your time to read–and reread–Calvin’s relatively brief preface to the Genevan Psalter.

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too.

One Response to Calvin and Platonic aesthetics

  1. Casey McCarthy says:

    “For this reason the ancient doctors of the Church complain frequently of this, that the people of their times were addicted to dishonest and shameless songs,…” To whom is Calvin referring when he speaks of “the ancient doctors?” How and in what way were people “addicted to dishonest and shameless songs” at this time?

  2. […] Calvin and Platonic aesthetics – Religious Affections MinistriesBut still there is more: there is scarcely in the world anything [than music] which is more able to turn or bend this way and that the morals of men, as Plato prudently considered it. And in fact, we find by experience that it has a. […]

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