Art for Pleasure's Sake: Calvin on Gen. 4.21

It's well known that Calvin frowned upon religious images in churches and the use of musical instruments to accompany singing in the corporate worship of God. Religious artwork in churches served, he believed, to distract worshipers from those "pictures" of Christ and his redeeming work which God himself had placed in worship (that is, baptism and the Lord's Supper) and from the sermon, which in his view should set Christ crucified before the eyes of worshipers more vividly than any painting possibly could (cf. Gal. 3.1). His distaste for musical instruments in worship stemmed from his conviction that corporate singing is essentially an act of prayer; musical instruments, he believed, could only distract worshipers from that act, drawing their thoughts away from the Person to whom they were praying to the sounds and melodies emitted by whatever instrument -- in his day, the organ -- was employed to accompany the singing.

It is sometimes assumed that Calvin's reticence regarding artwork and musical instruments in churches reflected reservation on his part regarding the arts more generally. Not so. In his chapter on religious images in the Institutes Calvin unabashedly insisted that "sculpture and painting are gifts of God." Though ill-suited to capture "God's majesty, which is far above the perception of the eyes," these "gifts" undoubtedly serve "a pure and legitimate use." Calvin actually identified two discrete uses for artwork depicting "histories"/"events" and simple "images"/"forms of bodies" respectively: a didactic use ("teaching and admonition") and that quite simply of affording "pleasure" to the beholders. Significantly, he condemns neither use of art outside of worship.

Calvin's comments on the "legitimate use" of artwork in the Institutes find a parallel in remarks he makes regarding music and musical instruments in his commentary on Gen. 4.21. These remarks occur within a broader consideration of the "preeminent endowments" which God has entrusted to the unbelieving persons in Cain's lineage (Gen 4.20-23). Calvin has no doubt that persons in Seth's lineage were likewise busy in the "invention and cultivation of arts;" that Cain's descendants are specifically singled out for their artistic skills reflects God's enduring benevolence specifically to them. Calvin does, however, believe that "the heathen" have generally outstripped the church in the cultivation of "the liberal arts and sciences." Indeed, "we are... compelled to acknowledge that we have received astronomy, and the other parts of philosophy, medicine, and the order of civil government, from them."

The benefits to all men of these named sciences cultivated by "the heathen," as well as more practical skills like "the art of the carpenter," are deemed fairly obvious by Calvin. But what benefit is gained by "the invention of the harp" and "similar instruments"? Musical instruments (and, by implication, the music performed on them), he suggests, "minister to our pleasure, rather than to our necessity."

This is no word of censure on Calvin's part. Human pleasure "is not to be thought altogether superfluous; much less does it deserve, in itself, to be condemned." But Calvin is concerned to carefully qualify his approval of an art which primarily serves the end of pleasure. He acknowledges that lawful pleasure can become "foolish delight;" that is, a kind of unconstrained and selfish pleasure which ultimately "seduces men from better employments, and occupies them in vanity." What is ultimately required, then, is that the pleasure we derive from music be "combined with fear of God."

Calvin's point is not that any pleasure we derive from music ought to be mitigated by a certain anxiety about enjoying music too much; that is not what is meant by "fear of God" in this (or any) context. Calvin's point, rather, is that we should acknowledge God's incredible benevolence, even to those who spurn him, as we find pleasure in music (and every other good gift). In other words, the pleasure which music affords should lead us to God rather than from him. "Such is the nature of music," then, "that it can be adapted to the offices of religion, and made profitable to men." When Calvin speaks of "religion" here he means not corporate worship, but the entire life of a man or woman lived in concrete relationship to the Triune God. Music can, in short, serve -- that is, enhance -- that relationship.

There are echoes here of a distinction which St. Augustine drew centuries before Calvin between the enjoyment of something as an end in itself (frui; diligere propter se) and the enjoyment of something in relation to something greater than itself (uti; diligere propter aliud). Only God, according to Augustine (and, I think, Calvin) is meant to be enjoyed in and for himself. All other realities should be enjoyed because of the relation that they sustain to him. If we seek to enjoy other realities apart from God (i.e., without any sense for how they relate to him), our affections have become disordered; we have become idolaters.

The irony of this truth is that when we seek to enjoy music or any other reality which potentially brings us pleasure in conscience relation to God, our enjoyment of that reality is heightened, not decreased. Who, after all, enjoys a diamond ring more: the man who stumbles across it on the beach with the aid of his metal detector? Or the girl who receives it from the boy who loves her as a token of his affections and intention to marry her? Obviously the latter. For the girl, the ring points to a reality -- a value -- greater than the ring itself (someone's love for her), and this increases her enjoyment of the ring (which sustains the same exact monetary value in each scenario).

So too with music or any other gift that comes from God. When we acknowledge a fine musical instrument or the songs produced on it (or them) as gifts ultimately from God, who has entrusted to all men creative abilities of remarkable proportions, the pleasure we gain from the same increases. Every beautiful song, like every breathtaking piece of art, becomes a token of divine love and generosity, pointing us towards the Creator whose creative abilities men merely image, and his astounding affection for all men, especially his adopted children (to whom even greater gifts are given).

Calvin, then, hardly turns out to be the enemy of the arts, or for that matter pleasure, he is sometimes taken for. Indeed, he provides for us a method of hearing and enjoying music, or feasting our eyes upon the visual arts, that will maximize pleasure, insofar as he provides for us a method for enjoying the arts that will not distract us from God, but draw us directly into contemplation of God's staggering generosity to us.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.