Thursday, November 13, 2008

Distinctive Nature of Lutheran Hymnody

Hans Holbein the Younger
detail of "The French Ambassadors"
On desk is a copy of Johann Walther's "Geystliches Gesangbüchlein" (Hymnal) (Wittenberg 1524), containing Luther's hymns, along with a Lute, which Luther was very skilled at.

The Lutheran Church is the “singing church.” She sings at the home, at church, at work, and at the market place. She must sing because she is filled with the Gospel and preserved steadfast in the church. Luther writes “Following the example of the prophets and fathers of the church, I intend to make German Psalms for the people, i.e., spiritual songs so that the Word of God even by means of song may live among the people.”[1] The Reformation was a movement that was constantly singing – after all the Gospel was recovered and given back to the people after years of papist abuse. The alleluias and glorias poured forth with new and revived vigor. The purity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was given back to the blacksmith, the farmer, the peasant, and the children. There was a flourishing of hymns produced particularly in the years 1523 and 1524 in which the catechism and many psalms were set to hymns. The Reformation reclaimed the universal priesthood of all believers, in which all Christians could approach the altar, receive grace upon grace, mercy upon mercy, and joy upon joy.

What distinguishes Lutheran hymns is a theology which gives God’s name in baptism, proclaims the justification of the sinner for Christ’s sake, and nurtures the saint unto the final resting place. Justification apart from work or merit, freely given and freely received is always the proclamation. It is the proclamation and the beauty in which it is lyrically declared that ultimately defines the hymn. Proclamation deals not with speculation and mere subjective feelings but with certain events which resonate in the halls of heaven and in the divine liturgy of the church. The event of God’s incarnation and Christ’s Passion frames the body of Lutheran hymnody in which the church ultimately find their only identity – that of Jesus.

A hymn’s proclamation is set forth in the performative word which is not dependent upon the interdisciplinary will of the church but her passivity and receptivity to Christ’s mercy poured out for all. Lutheran hymnody does not probe the inner depth of the Christian in the pew, searching the human heart for some divine spark or emotional appeal. The appeal, emotion, and depth are only in Christ’s heart and pierced side for his creation. Therefore the gaze of the Lutheran hymn is not an inwardly focused meditation but an outwardly (extra nos) focus on Christ’s cross. It does not seek anywhere else. It seeks and proclaims the God who reveals himself in Christ. It does not provide guesswork, or suppositions of a God not revealed, a God not preached. In the transfiguration it is God who says to Peter, James, and John “Listen to him!” In worship and in the sacred music of the church it is the oratio, meditatio, tentatio which remains transfixed simply on the words and promise of Jesus. Christ’s words actually give life out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). A true hymn does not point to a sign or symbol, but sung and heard truly perform God’s work and create faith.

The comfort of the Lutheran hymn is in a historical event, that he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered for our offenses, rising on the third day for the remission of sins. In the historical event of the cross, Jesus and His church recline outside of time before the heavenly father. It is in this objectivity, this certain eternal event – surely given and received through the gift of faith, in which the church finds comfort.

Luther encouraged the congregation to sing and pointed to a wide variety of traditions. From the melody of the Sanctus of the Missa in deominicis adventus et quadragesimae he wrote “Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old (LSB 960).” He wrote “Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest (LSB 498)” based upon the hymn in the Latin Daily Office of Prayer. The richness of the Psalter also provides prayerful hymn meditations such as “From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee” (ps. 130), as well as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (ps. 46). Luther understood music as a gift from God. He also believed it had the power to chase away the devil and awaken faith. Luther writes, “For the evil spirit is ill at ease wherever God’s Word is sung or preached in true faith. He is a spirit of gloom and cannot abide where he finds a spiritually happy heart, that is, where the heart rejoices in God and in His Word.”[2] For this reason, during the reformation, congregational singing was set on the same level as the Pastor’s preaching and the prayers of the church. It was and still is a method of preaching and spreading doctrine. Due to the free expression of the doctrine of the church, that of Christ and him crucified, Lutheran hymns provide comfort. Robin Leaver, in his analysis of Luther’s liturgical music comes to this conclusion, “For Luther, therefore, music is a God-given benefit to humankind: it may be developed and refined in new ways, but the raw material of music – physical vibrations in the air, the proportions and relationships of different pitches, and so forth – is absolutely and fundamentally the gift of God in creation.”[3]

During the Reformation Luther called poets, lyricists, and musicians to write hymns for the church. Children learned catechetical hymns and melodies which they in turn taught to their parents and anyone interested. Theology was given back to the people as hymns such as Dear Christians One and All Rejoice and Salvation Unto Us Has Come were sung across Germany.
Theology and the proclamation of God’s Word guides the body of Lutheran hymnody. Theology is dead if it does not sing. As David declares, “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him,” (ps. 98:1). Saint Paul admonishes Christians to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (eph. 5:19). It is not that God needs our song but rather that he gives it to us as a gift so that we might rejoice, teach, and build one another up in the true faith. If theology expresses it self in hymns it must also be true that the sacred music expressed is thoroughly Christological.
We must be honest that a great deal of hymns circulating in the greater church are not thoroughly Christological in content but rather appeal to the base emotions and fleeting sentiments. Carl Shalk writes about Lutheran hymnody:

Music in the church functions as viva vox evangelii, as the “living voice of the Gospel,” proclaiming His Word to the world. Its does this, as music is associated with texts that speak clearly and directly of Law and Gospel, of sin and salvation. From such a perspective, music in the church can never be simply teacher, pedagogue, entertainer, or another way of filling the Christian community with useful information. It is the living Gospel itself, laying bare a person’s utter alienation from God, always accusing yet always bringing the final word of reconciliation, hope, and promise. Texts, therefore, are of crucial importance. But so is music itself with which those texts are associated.[4]

The catholicity of Lutheran hymnody is proven by its mass appeal across the globe. No one proves this better than the Lutheran J.S. Bach who took the church’s music and gave it flight into the heavens and back. Bach is more popular than Luther around the globe for introducing Lutheran theology and sacred music. His music has awed the world and preached to millions. Bach took the Holy Gospel and Luther’s catechetical drive and proclaimed it through heavenly cantatas, passions, and sacred music. Jaroslav Pelikan quotes Friedrich Smend, who writes, “Bach’s cantatas are not intended to be works of music or art on their own, but to carry on, by their own means, the work of Luther, the preaching of the word and of nothing but the word.”[5] Because the sacred music preached by God is nothing but the Word and the Word alone it transcends all cultures and all times. It is not culturally bound or bound to any point in time. This is the mark of the corpus of Lutheran hymnody – that its proclamation and movement into the human heart be fixed on Christ’s cross alone.

The cross of Christ is eternally before the Father and therefore Lutheran hymns continue to be composed and sung. The catholicity of the sacred music of the church ensures that hymns continue to be composed and written. As God lacks a free will to come and save his people, so the church lacks a free will to compose new hymns. All theologies of glory must be crucified so that a hymn can take flight from the renewed heart of the baptized Christian. In the Divine Liturgy of the church a much greater chorus of voices is present in the everyday chorales and canticles sung among the faithful.

[1] LW 15:274

[3] Leaver, Robin A (2007). Luther's Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans (p. 70).
[4] Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1988, p. 51.
[5] Bach Among the Theologians. Eugene:Wipf and Stock Publishing House, 1986, p. 26.

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