If Calvin Had a Worship Band

2009 is the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, and his theology has had a huge impact on the life of the church. Particularly influential are his doctrines regarding predestination, and the later systematization of them into the Five Points of Calvinism.

However, there are areas of church life that have not been greatly influenced by Calvin. One very important area of the church that has unfortunately been minimally affected by Calvinism is that of hymns and praise songs.

If you look at the songs that we sing from our earliest years in the church, you can see that little of Calvin’s influence can be found. Take the classic children’s song, “Jesus Loves Me,” as an example. Would Calvin have written such a saccharine-sweet ode to the love of Christ? Perhaps, but he would have changed just a few words. I would like to propose a new title for this song, which would reflect the Calvinist influence on the church: “Jesus Might Love Me, if I’m One of the Elect.”

Or take the first two lines of another popular song that we teach children in our churches, “Jesus Loves the Little Children/ All the children of the world.” Does he REALLY? Come on! You and I both know that he doesn’t, or at least if he does, he doesn’t extend saving grace to all of them. If we were to edit these lines to add a more Calvinist flavor, we might end up with this version: “Jesus loves some of the children/ We don’t know how many for sure, but I’m guessing around 18 percent.”

The Calvinist reformation of our worship would extend far beyond what we teach our children in Sunday school. Let’s now take a look at one of our most popular hymns, John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.” The first verse goes: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” – nothing to tamper with here. The word “wretch,” in particular, is excellent. When we move on to the next line, we find: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Whoa! Wait a minute! Once was LOST!? This simply will not do. The elect were chosen before the beginning of the world! How about this: “I once was unaware of my found-ness, and now I can see that I was never lost in the first place.” There. MUCH better.

Now that we’ve looked at a classic hymn, why don’t we turn our eyes to something more contemporary? How about the praise chorus, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”? For those of you who may be unfamiliar with it, here’s how it goes:

I have decided to follow Jesus
I have decided to follow Jesus
I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back, No turning back

Pretty simple. But the first lines need a little work. First of all, WHO decides to follow Jesus? Not us! We’re dragged into following Jesus, whether we like it or not (but of course we are MADE to like it)! The second line of the chorus is a bit better, although it does imply that there is a possibility of turning back, which of course there is not. I would propose re-writing this chorus in the following way:

Jesus has decided that I will follow
Jesus has decided that I will follow
Jesus has decided that I will follow
No turning back — As if that were an option

Even some of our most beloved Christmas songs could stand a little Calvinist fine-tuning. On the extreme side we have “The Little Drummer Boy,” which should more appropriately be titled, “The Little Pelagian Drummer Boy Who Thought That He Could Bribe God With His Filthy And Useless Good Works.” But most other Christmas songs seem to be just fine, since they mostly stick to talking about the scene in Bethlehem, or divine attributes. However, there is one lyric that raises the eyebrow somewhat: the second verse of “Away In A Manger,” which says, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Well, now, we must admit that this indicates a laudable desire in the author to preserve God’s wholly otherness, even in the person of Jesus. But it would be rather strange for a baby to not cry at all, and in fact this seems dangerously close to the heresy of Apollinarianism. A satisfying compromise might be to amend the offending lyric to read as follows: “The little Lord Jesus cried, but in his humanity, not in his divinity.”

In short, we have a long way to go before Calvinism influences our worship as it has influenced our theology. There are many fine hymns and praise songs out there that speak of the glory and mysterious will of God, but they’re vastly outnumbered. If only that Arminian Charles Wesley had been on our side. . .

1509-2009

John Calvin, the famous French theologian and Genevan reformer, was born on July 10, 1509, which makes 2009 the 500th anniversary of his birth year. Princeton Seminary is celebrating this anniversary by, among other things, encouraging people to read his monumental work The Institutes of the Christian Religion throughout this year. I’ve only read sections of the Institutes, and I have often wanted to read the whole thing, so now seems like as good a time as any to pull down my copy from the shelf and open it up.

If you visit the Princeton Seminary Web site, you can look at the reading schedule for the year. You can also subscribe to the podcast, which features various people reading the section for the day.