Anti-heresy anthem

Some months ago, and at the end of a longer article, Pr. David Petersen quoted a hymn by Luther that was still included in The Lutheran Hymnal (no. 260) but was left out of the Lutheran Service Book. Like a lot of TLH hymns that didn’t make it into LSB, this one’s a time-tested treasure of the church. It’s a paraphrase of Psalm 12, applied to the Church.

1. O Lord, look down from heaven, behold
And let Thy pity waken:
How few are we within Thy Fold,
Thy saints by men forsaken!
True faith seems quenched on every hand,
Men suffer not Thy Word to stand;
Dark times have us o’ertaken.

2. With fraud which they themselves invent
Thy truth they have confounded;
Their hearts are not with one consent
On Thy pure doctrine grounded.
While they parade with outward show,
They lead the people to and fro,
In error’s maze astounded.

3. May God root out all heresy
And of false teachers rid us
Who proudly say: “Now, where is he
That shall our speech forbid us?
By right or might we shall prevail;
What we determine cannot fail;
We own no lord and master.”

4. Therefore saith God, “I must arise,
The poor My help are needing;
To Me ascend My people’s cries,
And I have heard their pleading.
For them My saving Word shall fight
And fearlessly and sharply smite,
The poor with might defending.”

5. As silver tried by fire is pure
From all adulteration,
So through God’s Word shall men endure
Each trial and temptation.
Its light beams brighter through the cross,
And, purified from human dross,
It shines through every nation.

6. Thy truth defend, O God, and stay
This evil generation;
And from the error of their way
Keep Thine own congregation.
The wicked everywhere abound
And would Thy little flock confound;
But Thou art our Salvation.

(Pr. Petersen also relates some incidents at the time of the reformation, when this hymn was used as an anti-heresy shield by congregations if a false preacher got up in the pulpit!)

In 1724, to mark the bicentenary of the publication of the first ever Lutheran hymnal, J.S. Bach began a project whose aim was to compose a chorale cantata for every Sunday of the church year.

Usually, church cantatas were based on biblical texts, such as the Gospel reading of the day. The chorale cantata was a new venture: to take the hymn of the day and turn it into a cantata, with the usual choir, soloists and orchestra. Usually, the text of the first and last verse would be presented as they were, while the words of the inner verses would be paraphrased in a series of recitatives and arias. The chorale tune would be heard in some version in the opening movement, and be sung in four-part harmony as the closing movement.

For reasons not entirely clear to us, Bach never completed the cycle (probably he lost his librettist), although he did get through most of the year.

The chorale cantata for the second Sunday after Trinity (last Sunday), BWV, was a setting of none other than this great anti-heresy anthem. It was my privilege to introduce it in last week’s episode of Sunday Cantata on Lutheran Radio UK.

To encourage you to go and listen to it here, here’s a little taster of the opening movement. It’s written in a deliberately archaic style, as a conscious nod to the past, as befits a project that sets out to celebrate the present benefits of a past event.

The chorale tune itself is sung by the altos of the choir, reinforced by the oboe. Around it, the choir sings a solemn fugue, based on the melody.

[In this recording, Bach Collegium Japan is joined by Concerto Palatino.]

More bad things done to good hymns

My researches for Sunday Cantata keep throwing up wonderful Lutheran chorales that never made it into English, or have been forgotten entirely. More distressing still is to find that hymns that have survived have been sadly mistreated by translators and/or hymnal editors.

The latest exhibit for this latter category, from BWV 166, Bach’s cantata for Cantate Sunday (5th of, or 4th after, Easter, depending on which way you like to count): Ämilie Juliane von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt’s hymn Wer weiss wie nahe mir mein Ende.

Here’s how Bach gives us verse one in that cantata:

[Performed by Bach Collegium Japan]

(Listen to the whole thing this Sunday on Lutheran Radio UK)

The original has 12 verses. TLH gave us 11 of them as Who Knows  When Death May Overtake Me (TLH 598), a translation reproduced also in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELH 483).

Question 1: If you’re willing to sing 11 verses, why not 12?

The missing verse is no. 7:

Ich weiß, in Jesu Blut und Wunden
hab ich mir recht und wohl gebett ;
da find ich Trost in Todesstunden,
und alles, was ich gerne hätt.
Mein Gott, ich bitt’ durch Christi Blut:
Mach’s nur mit meinem Ende gut!

An English prose translation by Francis Browne (on the marvellous site bach-cantatas.com) reads as follows:

I know that in Jesus’ blood and wounds
It is right and good for me to make my bed;
There may I find consolation in the hour of death
And everything I would happily have.
My God, I pray through Christ’s blood:
Make sure my end is good.

Why would you want to leave that out? Makes me want to know:

Question 2: What’s wrong with the blood of Jesus?

You see, not only do they leave out the bloody verse. Jesus’ blood is veritably written out of the hymn.

If you know TLH (or ELH) well, you will know that there is a refrain at the end of each verse, which goes like this: “My God, for Jesus’ sake I pray / Thy peace may bless my dying day.”

Except that it doesn’t. The German reads:

Mein Gott, ich bitt’ durch Christi Blut:
Mach’s nur mit meinem Ende gut!

That’s the blood of Christ. Something like, “My God, I pray through Jesus’ blood / Make Thou my life’s end only good.” (OK, so I’m no Shakespeare. Sorry.)

Verse11 (10 in TLH/ELH) declares in the original:

“I am and remain in his care,
fairly adorned with Christ’s blood.”

But the hymnal simply states:

“He grants the peace that stills all sorrow / Gives me a robe without a spot.”

The only blood the translators didn’t write out is the direct reference to the Lord’s Supper (verse 10/9). Which makes me wonder:

Question 3: Is it hard to tell the difference between cause and effect?

The translators seem to prefer translating Blut as ‘peace’. Now, as any well-catechised child will tell you, the blood of Christ does bring us  peace with God. That’s why we have the Pax Domini in the liturgy, and that’s why we have it where we have it.

But the blood and the peace aren’t the same thing. The one brings about the other. They are not synonymous. So why on earth would you treat them as synonymous?

Which leads us to:

Question 4: Why would the editors of a conservative Lutheran hymnal go to such lengths to avoid talking about the blood of Jesus (except in the Lord’s Supper, when they can’t get away from it)? Could it be that they were crypto-Ritschlians, perhaps without realising it?

As someone once sang, Ritschl shall reign where’er the sun

Question 5: Given that, even with such a deficient translation, this is a pretty stunning hymn (do read the whole of Browne’s translation, together with the original German, here), why would it be culled even further in the finest modern English-language Lutheran hymnbook, the Lutheran Service Book? All that remains of the 12 verses are  9, 10 and 12 in what has been re-cut as a baptismal hymn (‘Once in the Blessed Baptismal Waters’, LSB 598).

What on earth for? There are plenty of fine baptismal hymns in LSB as it is. No need to go a-butchering for another one, thus depriving the church of the opportunity to reflect on what gives us confidence on the edge of the grave.

And finally: You just heard the tune used in Bach’s time for this hymn: Georg Neumark’s Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten. Why would it be replaced by the later unremarkable creation used in TLH, ELH and LSB?

But at least that’s only a matter of opinion.

Jesus, Thy Boundless Love

Jesus, Thy boundless love to me
No thought can reach, no tongue declare;
Unite my thankful heart to Thee,
And reign without a rival there!
Thine wholly, Thine alone I am;
Be Thou alone my constant flame.

O grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell, but Thy pure love alone!
Oh, may Thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown!
All coldness from my heart remove;
My ev’ry act, word, thought be love.

This love unwearied I pursue
And dauntlessly to Thee aspire.
Oh, may Thy love my hope renew,
Burn in my soul like heav’nly fire!
And day and night be all my care
To guard this sacred treasure there.

In suff’ring be Thy love my peace,
In weakness be Thy love my pow’r;
And when the storms of life shall cease,
O Jesus, in that final hour,
Be Thou my rod and staff and guide
And draw me safely to Thy side!

Paul Gerhardt; tr. John Wesley

A good rule of thumb

for the orthodoxy of a Christian song: if Mormons have to change the words, it’s good.

[A thought inspired by this rather good post.]

Ritschl shall reign where’er the sun?

One of the joys of working on Sunday Cantata has been to delve into the texts of the chorales used in Bach’s cantatas. My policy has been to quote the translation in the Lutheran Service Book whenever possible, for the benefit of listeners who are familiar with the hymns.

Every now and then, however, I need to depart from the LSB translation, when it diverges too far from the German original. And that is always a bit of a worrying sign. Either the chorale in question is dodgy, which is obviously a little disappointing (I always like to think that Bach and the parish of Leipzig were not dodgy theologically); or the LSB translation has re-written a hymn for no apparent reason.

I haven’t come across any incidents of the first problem as yet in my research.

However, the other week, I did come across a depressing example of the latter type. While working on BWV 36, I was delighted at first to find the libretto include a verse from Philipp Nicolai’s ‘Queen of the Chorales’, Wie schön leuchtet. And then I discovered what the LSB (following the Lutheran Book of Worship and Lutheran Worship) does with it.

Here’s the German text of v. 6 of Nicolai’s text, with the relevant portion highlighted:

Zwingt die Saiten in Zithara
Und laßt die süße Musika
Ganz freudenreich erschallen,
Daß ich möge mit Jesulein,
Dem wunderschönen Bräut’gam mein,
In steter Liebe wallen!
Singet, springet,
Jubilieret, triumphieret,
Dankt dem Herren!
Groß ist der König der Ehren!

And here’s the LBW/LW/LSB take on it:

O let the harbps break forth in sound!
Our joy be all with music crowned,
Our voices gladly blending!
For Christ goes with us all the way—
Today, tomorrow, ev’ry day!
His love is never ending!
Sing out! Ring out!
Jubilation! Exaltation!Tell the story!
Great is He, the King of Glory!

What on earth happened there? The prayer “that I may in constant love sojourn with  Jesus, my most beautiful Bridegroom” is not only turned upside-down (“Christ goes with us all the way”), but it is stripped of its very heart: Christ as the Bridegroom, whom I am to love as His bride.

Poke a little harder at the translation, and it turns out that this Bridegroom mysticism runs through the whole of Nicolai’s text—and is almost entirely removed from the LSB.

But not only from the LBW/LW/LSB. Turns out that the rot set in already in The Lutheran Hymnal.

I would be interested to know why. Anyone? I can’t think of a good reason myself. I mean, if the original was so bad, it shouldn’t be sung. And if it wasn’t, it shouldn’t have been emasculated.

In the meantime, if anyone is interested in re-translating the hymn and restoring its message, please get in touch. I will be more than happy to get it published! Mark Preus? Matthew Carver? Anyone?

A thought for (another) rainy day

He shall come down like showers
Upon the fruitful earth;
Love, joy, and hope, like flowers,
Spring in His path to birth.
Before Him on the mountains
Shall peace, the herald, go;
And righteousness in fountains
From hill to valley flow.

James Montgomery (1771–1854), ‘Hail to the Lord’s Anointed’, verse 3.

Bad things done to good hymns

One of my favourite occasional blogs is Bad things in new hymn books and other sad tales, in which the proprietor, Cathy, compares original hymn texts with the versions that get printed in hymnals. In almost all the cases she highlights, the change is for the worse, owing to insensitivity, cack-handed attempts at ‘improvements’ or sheer ignorance. The author’s direct style add to the enjoyment, even when I disagree with her theologically.

As a heavy user of the Lutheran Service Book, I have occasion on a fairly regular basis to mutter Cathy-like about unnecessary mutilations of hymn texts. By the same token, as a member of a hymnal committee, I also have sympathy for hymnal editors, who have to tinker with texts in order to make sure that they pass theological muster. I know how hard it is to do well.

Every now and then, however, I discover that behind the good hymn that we all know and love there is an even greater hymn that we don’t know because someone decided at an early stage that they could improve it, and the rest of the world has been following suit ever since.

While researching the origins of one great and well-loved hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation”, I made just such a discovery. It turns out that the hymn, by Samuel John Stone, was written as part of a collection of 12 hymns on the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed (you can buy a facsimile edition here*). Now that’s a great hymnal project if there ever was one!

Having obtained my copy, I quickly looked up “The Church’s One Foundation”, to see whether it had been transmitted unmolested (the LSB molests it slightly, and unnecessarily, in the second half of the final verse to remove any suggestion that being meek and lowly might have any relationship with inheriting the kingdom of God [I mean, who would ever suggest such a thing!]).

And what did I discover? Seven whole verses (surely not an accidental number!), none worth removing. And the final verse of the version commonly printed in fact a spliced up contraction of two final verses, both worth singing in whole.

Here it is, in its full glory:

  1. The Church’s one foundation
    Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
    She is His new creation
    By water and the Word.
    From heaven He came and sought her
    To be His holy bride;
    With His own blood He bought her
    And for her life He died.
  2. She is from every nation,
    Yet one o’er all the earth;
    Her charter of salvation,
    One Lord, one faith, one birth;
    One holy Name she blesses,
    Partakes one Holy Food,
    And to one Hope she presses,
    With every grace endued.
  3. The Church shall never perish!
    Her dear Lord to defend,
    To guide, sustain, and cherish,
    Is with her to the end:
    Though there be those who hate her,
    And false sons in her pale,
    Against or  foe or traitor
    She ever shall prevail.
  4. Though with a scornful wonder
    Men see her sore oppressed,
    By schisms rent asunder,
    By heresies distressed:
    Yet saints their watch are keeping,
    Their cry goes up, “How long?”
    And soon the night of weeping
    Shall be the morn of song!
  5. ’Mid toil and tribulation,
    And tumult of her war,
    She waits the consummation
    Of peace forevermore;
    Till, with the vision glorious,
    Her longing eyes are blest,
    And the great Church victorious
    Shall be the Church at rest.
  6. Yet she on earth hath union
    With God the Three in One,
    And mystic sweet communion
    With those whose rest is won,
    With all her sons and daughters
    Who, by the Master’s Hand
    Led through the deathly waters,
    Repose in Eden land.
  7. O happy ones and holy!
    Lord, give us grace that we
    Like them, the meek and lowly,
    On high may dwell with Thee:
    There, past the border mountains,
    Where in sweet vales the Bride
    With Thee by living fountains
    Forever shall abide! Amen

Now, why would anyone want to remove verse 3? A Lutheran hymnal would surely want to have a little reference to Augsburg Confession VIII in the margin. As for verses 6-7; well, it seems that Mr. Stone never did need redacting by Lutheran hymnal editors; all they needed was to stick to his original text rather than the one passed down courtesy of other hymnal editors.

So, dear clergypersons, give your congregations the whole glorious hymn. Dear laypeople, get your clergypersons to give it to you.

Now, did I mention already that I serve on a hymnal committee? An item suggests itself to me for inclusion…

*[UPDATE: Pastor James Sharp has pointed out to me that the text of Lyra Fidelium is available online here. You can also read the 1870 edition at Google Books. Though I would recommend buying the book—far more satisfying!]

This is how

to sing Lutheran hymns. Videos courtesy of Rev. James May of Lutherans in Africa, who do this and much more marvellous work, teaching Lutheran faith & life across Africa.

Check out more great videos on YouTube.

Goes to show that Africans can sing European Lutheran hymns. On the other hand, Europeans can’t sing African hymns like this:

Why do we sing?

Luther’s hymns were more than sung propaganda. They had a specific catechetical function in undergirding the principal teachings of the faith. They were sung during the narrow catechesis of teaching the main parts of the catechism in church and home. But there was a broader catechetical function when these same catechism hymns were sung on particular Sundays of the church year when a vital link was made between the celebration of that Sunday and a specific part of the catechism. Similarly, when such hymns as Wir glauben and Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der von uns den Gotteszorn wandt, were sung as the creed and during communion, and important connection was again being made between these liturgical actions and fundamental theology as expressed in the catechism.

For Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues the singing of hymns was therefore more profound than the way we tend to sing them today. We sing them for nostalgic reasons, to remind us of an earlier time in our lives. We sing them as shibboleths, identifiers—usually enshrined in a specific musical style—that marks out what kind of contemporary Christians we are. We sing them because we have always sung them, and we like the emotions they evoke, though we do not necessarily understand what it is we are singing. Or we sing them because they are new and up-to-date, and we would not want to b e heard singing stuffy hymns, especially those old German ones. But such modern criteria for the singing of hymns appear very superficial when compared with how hymn-singing-as-we-know-it began in the sixteenth century.

Luther’s hymns, as well as those written by his Wittenberg contemporaries, were grounded in Scripture and functioned not only as worship songs, expressing the response of faith to be sung within a liturgical context, but also as theological songs, declaring the substance of the faith. Today the emphasis is on “Christian experience,’’ and very little is heard about the essential catechesis of hymnody. But the catechetical function of hymns has been fundamental in Lutheran theology and practice, at least, until the later eighteenth century. In contemporary Lutheran hymnals now in use this hymnic catechesis is either somewhat muted or obscured. But perhaps in the Lutheran hymnals of the twenty-first century that have yet to be edited there will be a return to Luther’s understanding that through catechesis—and in this case, hymnodic catechesis—Christian experience is both created and interpreted.

Robin A. Leaver. Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Lutheran Quarterly Books. Grand Rapids & Cambridge: Eerdmans, pp. 168–9

The trouble with short hymns and services

These shortened forms of hymnic versions of the Lord’s Prayer are symptomatic of our modern age, which is impatient with hymns longer than three or four stanzas and with services of worship that last longer than fifty-nine minutes. But worship and prayer require time if we are to become attuned to what we are doing and why. Luther and his generation have much to teach us about hymns that have more to do with faith, rather than simply evoking feeling, hymns that are sometimes expressions of prayer, instead of always being thought of as expressions of praise, hymns that make us take time in worship and prayer to consider who God is, what God has done for us, what God continues to do for us, and what our real needs — as opposed to our wants — are. The catechesis of prayer not only defines what prayer is but also expresses itself in prayer, which is what Luther’s catechism hymn on the Lord’s Prayer takes time.

Robin A. Leaver. Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Lutheran Quarterly Books. Grand Rapids & Cambridge: Eerdmans, p. 133–4