John Calvin on the Magnificat

The Virgin Mary as Our Teacher
Each Advent season, churches all over the world sing a version or two of the Magnificat, the song of Mary, set to various tunes from the medieval time until today. However, in the Protestant tradition—especially the Reformed branch of Protestantism—attention to the virgin Mary is minimal. Though both the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds make clear references to Mary and her role in the incarnation of Christ, Protestants tend to push Mary to the side. She may make an appearance in a children’s pageant, but once the Advent season is over and Protestants bask in the glory of Christmas, they say goodbye to Mary for another year. But what if we followed John Calvin’s example and instead looked to Mary as a teacher even beyond the Advent season—a teacher whose attitude and words can serve as a model and guide for our own lives?

Protestants’ hesitance to pay closer attention to Mary is likely rooted in the Reformation. Among many issues in the medieval church with which the Reformers had sharp disagreements was the church’s overt devotion to St. Mary. As children of the Reformation, Protestants today tend to feel uneasy if they pay too much attention to Mary, worrying they might fall into the mistakes of the medieval church against which the Reformers adamantly campaigned. In this Advent season, it might be good for all of us to look back at what John Calvin thought about Mary and her role in the Incarnation. My hope is that by learning directly from Calvin, we too can appreciate Mary as a model for Christian worship while being careful not to repeat the errors of the medieval church.

Calvin is known not only for his theological writing, but for putting the singing of the metrical psalms in the vernacular in the foreground of his efforts to reform the church. Calvin believed that we can pray in two ways: by using spoken words and by singing. But he insisted that in church, people must sing only the words of the songs God gave us in the Bible—namely, the psalms (“Preface to Genevan Psalter, 1543”). In his Institutes Calvin states that singing in church is important, but it must come from the heart’s affection so that the mind focuses only on God (Institutes, 3.20.31). In fact, in the church in Geneva, Calvin instructed congregants to sing the psalms in unison and without musical accompaniment. For Calvin, Mary serves as an exemplar of proper worship even as he criticizes those who venerate her. When he begins to explain Mary’s song in his commentary on Luke 1:46–55, he does not miss a single breath before criticizing the medieval church’s excessive praise of Mary, and he calls medieval churchgoers hypocrites for “[singing] the praises with open mouth, unaccompanied by any affection of the heart” (Commentary, 52). “Affection of the heart” is the same phrase Calvin uses in the Institutes to describe how singing should happen in the church. Emphasizing that Mary did what was right—praising God from her “inward feeling of the mind”—Calvin then takes a second jab at the medieval church, saying that those who sing God’s glory with the tongue alone, without the mind or heart, “do nothing more than profane [God’s] holy name” (Commentary, 52).

Calvin respects Mary deeply. In his commentary on Luke as well as sermons on Luke 1 and 2, Calvin consistently refers to her as “the virgin Mary,” and sometimes he simply calls her the “holy virgin” (see Calvin’s sermon “The Servant of the Lord” in Songs of the Nativity). In Mary’s song, he explains, we find three important lessons: Mary’s abundant expression of thanks for God’s mercy, her celebration of God’s power and judgment, and her understanding of the application of redemption for God’s people (Commentary, 52). In his sermon on Luke 1:45–48, Calvin stresses Mary’s significance in the history of redemption. He states that God was using her as his mouthpiece and as an instrument of the Holy Spirit (Songs of the Nativity, 20). In his own way, Calvin is placing Mary in the same rank as the prophets of the Bible who spoke on behalf of God, and he shows that Mary was able to assume this prophetic role because of her deep faith in God. She truly believed that God was totally reliable and that whatever came from God was always true. Calvin says that Christians should learn from Mary’s example and, like her, be assured that their happiness is closely related to faith—that is, the “full acceptance of the promises of salvation contained in the gospel” (Songs of the Nativity, 20).

Mary’s song, Calvin explains, reminds us that we are always poor and helpless unless God comes down to us and reveals to us the salvation that can come only from him. Only when we understand that our salvation is a free gift from God and realize that God cares for us tremendously can we find true joy. For Calvin, this joy enables us to offer God the true sacrifice of praise. Mary sang her praises to God because her true joy overflowed in her heart and manifested itself throughout her life.

Calvin recognizes that, on the surface, when we hear people singing songs seemingly directed to God in praise, it is often hard to distinguish between the true act of worship and one performed by the hypocrites. He notices that even people without any true devotion to God can appear like true worshipers when they sing.

Calvin also speaks disapprovingly of the medieval church’s practice of singing in four-part harmony with organ accompaniment. The church believed they were pleasing God through that, Calvin says, but then he challenges them, asking if the manner with which they sing the songs really edifies the body of Christ. In his opinion it does not, because what they do is only a human invention, something that only comes from humans’ lips (“The Servant of the Lord,” 26). Contrasting this with Mary’s humble heart when she sang her praise to God, he points out that Mary’s song matters to God because God is the source of that song. God has warmed Mary’s heart with his kindness, and now her soul can truly sing with praise and reverence to God. Calvin further reminds his readers that in praising God they must always be conscious of their own sinfulness and be inwardly persuaded that they are fully dependent on him. Without this understanding, their songs and praises to God are but shams and falsehoods. But with this right knowledge, they will find that God’s grace and mercy bring them to true happiness (“The Servant of the Lord,” 27).

This Advent season, I suggest that you find the opportunity to sing a version or two of the Song of Mary, whether corporately as you worship at church or at home with family members or a handful of close friends. There are good pieces in Psalms for All Seasons and Lift Up Your Hearts based on Luke 1:46–55. “My Soul Gives Glory to My God” Winter, PfAS 1042 is one rendition, set to the tender tune MORNING SONG. Mary’s canticle is also paraphrased thoughtfully with Psalm 75 in “My Soul Cries Out” Cooney, PfAS 75B, sung to the energetic tune of STAR OF COUNTY DOWN.

As you sing, think again of what Calvin teaches us about Mary and her song, and revisit your appreciation for Mary. I do not mean for us to go back to the medieval practice of overemphasizing or elevating Mary’s place, but as with other biblical characters, let’s learn from her example about living with and before God. The Advent season is an appropriate time to do it. Calvin gives us some tips on how to appropriately esteem her. We can take her as our teacher, as Calvin instructs us, and see her as a mirror of God’s mercy toward us. She helps us acknowledge that without God we are nothing. We must give high honor to Mary, he then adds, because she was the one who bore Jesus Christ, not only in her womb, but also in her heart (“The Servant of the Lord,” 31).

Let us also remember that Calvin teaches us that singing is a form of prayer. Even though we depart from Calvin’s thought when we praise God by singing in harmony and with the accompaniment of various musical instruments, it is still important that our praises to God come from the affection of our heart and are not just mere words coming from our lips.

Referenced Works by John Calvin

  • Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Vol. 1. Translated by William Pringle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949.
  • Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.
  • “Preface to the Genevan Psalter, 1543.” Reprinted in Les Pseaumes mis en rime francoise, by Clement Marot and Theodore de Beze. Geneva: De’limprimerie de François Jaquy, pour Antoine Vincent, 1562.
  • “The Servant of the Lord.” In Songs of the Nativity: Selected Sermons on Luke 1 & 2. Translated by Robert White. Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2008.

Dr. Yudha Thianto is the P. J. Zondervan Chair and professor of history of Christianity and Reformed theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. Originally from Indonesia, he is currently researching the history of psalm singing in the Reformed tradition that traveled from Calvin’s Geneva through the Dutch Reformed Church to the East Indies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Reformed Worship 149 © September 2023, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.