Luther’s Influence on Church Music

I was privileged to give a talk on this topic at St. Mary’s Church, Portchester, on Reformation Sunday (29 October 2017). I took the liberty of reflecting on the role of music in worship more generally.

The text below is a transcript of the talk, with a little tidying up. The passages enclosed in square brackets are ad lib and incidental to the substance.

If you prefer, you can listen to a recording instead. Or as well as

Thank you very much for the welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s a case of buses again. Eight years I’ve been in this part of the world and visited a few times—never spoken here—now twice in two weeks. It’s a great privilege.

The making of music is such a basic human activity that it’s hard to imagine that there’s ever been a society where there wasn’t music in society that did not make music. For this reason alone, and for others, that people of God has always been a singing people. And, ironically, it is in our own time that we are experiencing a particularly low point in the history of music-making in society and in the church.

“What a lot of nonsense!” you might think. In the era of non-stop music on the radio and in shops and on transport, the technology to carry entire choirs, symphony orchestras, pop musicians, or whatever else you might fancy, in our pockets, and stream whatever we wish to hear almost anywhere we like, and whenever we like, it seems that in fact the opposite is the case. Never has there been so much music available continuously to so many people, so much of the time.

Yet in this era of commercial music we are experiencing what the BBC comedy W1A might call “more of less”. While the professionals sing them play for us, music making has become a specialised activity alongside football and chess and landscape painting, rather than what it has been throughout the history of mankind, a universal human activity in which all people participate rather than something primarily for listening to passively. We have become consumers of music rather than music-makers.

Continue reading Luther’s Influence on Church Music

More than Forgiveness

From Luther’s Epistle Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter (1 Peter 2:11–20):

We have heard above that the two parts are to be together in a Christian and emphasized in Christan teaching. The first part is faith, that we are redeemed from sin through the blood of Christ and have forgiveness. The second part, after we have [faith], is that afterward we should become different people and live a new life. In Baptism, or when we begin to believe, we receive not only the forgiveness of sins (which is the grace that makes us God’s children) but also the gift that must do away with the remaining sins and kill them. Our sins are not forgiven so that we would continue in them (as St. Paul says in Romans 6), as the insolent spirits and despisers of grace allege. Rather, even though sins have been blotted out through Christ’s blood, so that we do not need to pay or make amends for them, and we now are children of grace and have forgiveness, yet that does not mean sin has been entirely done away with and killed in us.

The forgiveness of sins and the killing of them are two different things. Both of them must be proclaimed against those who confuse and turn things upside down with false doctrine. Against the first, the pope and many others have taught that the forgiveness of sins is to be obtained through the trickery of their own self-chosen and invented works and their own satisfactions. This error always continues in the world from Cain at the beginning to the end. Then, when this error has been put down, there are again false spirits on the other isde, who have heard the preaching about grace and boast about it and yet produce nothing more from it, just as if that were enough, and forgiveness should do nothing more in us than that we remain as we were before. Afterward, there were just as many as before, when we still knew nothing at all about Christ and the Gospel.

Therefore, those who want to be Christians must know and learn that, since they have obtained forgiveness without their own merit, they must from now on not allow or indulge in sin, but rather oppose their former, evil, sinful lusts and avoid and flee their work and fruits. That is the summary and meaning of this Epistle reading.

Luther’s Works, Vol. 78: Church Postil III (St. Louis: CPH, 2014), 154–155

Death as debtor to Christ

An interesting thought from Luther’s sermon for New Year’s Day in the Church Postil:

For when death fell on Him and killed Him, and yet had no right or case against Him, and He willingly and innocently submitted and let Himself be killed, then death became liable to Him, did Him wrong and sinned against Him, and itself spoiled everything, so that Christ has an honest claim against it. Now the wrong of which [death] became guilty toward Him is so great that death can never pay nor atone for it. Therefore, it must be subject to Christ and in His power forever, and so death is overcome and put to death in Christ. (Luther’s Works 76 [CPH, 2013], 45)

Again, this fits beautifully with the centrality of the baptismal union:  all things are subjected to Christ, for the Church (Eph. 1:22). Apart from Christ, death rules over my body. In Christ, death is subject to me, because it is subject to Him and I am in Him.

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.]

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

Hymn singing and multiculturalism

Multiculturalism, rightly understood, has chronological as well as geographical dimensions, and our worship is enriched when we sing such hymns of faith that originate in earlier times and under different conditions than our won. The faith does not change but expression of it does. In our frenetic world we need to sing such expressions of theological praise that are more concerned with the timelessness of the substance of what we believe, instead of singing only in a currently fashionable style that quickly goes out-of-date. Further, our contemporary popular culture is not as monolithic and all-pervasive as some of our church leaders would have us believe. Witness the widespread popularity of Gregorian chant recordings in recent years — as well as recordings of chant-related music such as the compositions of the twelfth-century Hildegard von Bingen, on the one hand, and such twentieth-century compositions as those by Arvo Pärt and John Taverner, on the other. There is a certain irony in the fact that at a time when many within our churches are seeking to eliminate our specific traditions of church music, many more in the secular society outside the churches have embraced such music as the aural expressions of a spirituality that contrasts strongly with the brash sounds of the propaganda music of our time.

We need the continuity of Luther’s creedal hymn, with its different perspective on time and eternity, the hymn that teaches rather than simply exhorts, that confesses the faith rather than simply defines it dogmatically, that is evangelical without confusing evangelism with worship, or vice versa.

Robin A. Leaver. Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Lutheran Quarterly Books. Grand Rapids & Cambridge: Eerdmans, p. 127

 

Comfort for women who have had a miscarriage

A brief passage written by Martin Luther, as translated and posted by Matthew Harrison. Pastor Harrison also explains the background to its writing, which is worth checking out.

A final word—it often happens that devout parents, particularly the wives, have sought consolation from us because they have suffered such agony and heartbreak in child-bearing when, despite their best intentions and against their will, there was a premature birth or miscarriage and their child died at birth or was born dead.

One ought not to frighten or sadden such mothers by harsh words because it was not due to their carelessness or neglect that the birth of the child went off badly. One must make a distinction between them and those females who resent being pregnant, deliberately neglect their child, or go so far as to strangle or destroy it. This is how one ought to comfort them.

First, inasmuch as one cannot and ought not know the hidden judgment of God in such a case—why, after every possible care had been taken, God did not allow the child to be born alive and be baptized—these mothers should calm themselves and have faith that God’s will is always better than ours, though it may seem otherwise to us from our human point of view. They should be confident that God is not angry with them or with others who are involved. Rather is this a test to develop patience. We well know that these cases have never been rare since the beginning and that Scripture also cites them as examples, as in Psalm 58 [:8], and St. Paul calls himself an abortivum, a misbirth or one untimely born [I Cor. 15:8].

Second, because the mother is a believing Christian it is to be hoped that her heartfelt … and deep longing to bring her child to be baptized will be accepted by God as an effective prayer. It is true that a Christian in deepest despair does not dare to name, wish, or hope for the help (as it seems to him) which he would wholeheartedly and gladly purchase with his own life were that possible, and in doing so thus find comfort. However, the words of Paul, Romans 8 [:26–27], properly apply here: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought (that is, as was said above, we dare not express our wishes), rather the Spirit himself intercedes for us mightily with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the heart knows what is the mind of the Spirit,” etc. Also Ephesians 3 [:20], “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.”

One should not despise a Christian person as if he were a Turk, a pagan, or a godless person. He is precious in God’s sight and his prayer is powerful and great, for he has been sanctified by Christ’s blood and anointed with the Spirit of God. Whatever he sincerely prays for, especially in the unexpressed yearning of his heart, becomes a great, unbearable cry in God’s ears. God must listen, as he did to Moses, Exodus 14 [:15], “Why do you cry to me?” even though Moses couldn’t whisper, so great was his anxiety and trembling in the terrible troubles that beset him. His sighs and the deep cry of his heart divided the Red Sea and dried it up, led the children of Israel across, and drowned Pharaoh with all his army, etc. This and even more can be accomplished by a true, spiritual longing. Even Moses did not know how or for what he should pray—not knowing how the deliverance would be accomplished—but his cry came from his heart.

Isaiah did the same against King Sennacherib and so did many other kings and prophets who accomplished inconceivable and impossible things by prayer, to their astonishment afterward. But before that they would not have dared to expect or wish so much of God. This means to receive things far higher and greater than we can understand or pray for, as St. Paul says, Ephesians 3 [:20], etc. Again, St. Augustine declared that his mother was praying, sighing, and weeping for him, but did not desire anything more than that he might be converted from the errors of the Manicheans and become a Christian. Thereupon God gave her not only what she desired but, as St. Augustine puts it, her “chiefest desire” (cardinem desideriieius), that is, what she longed for with unutterable sighs—that Augustine become not only a Christian but also a teacher above all others in Christendom. Next to the apostles Christendom has none that is his equal.

Who can doubt that those Israelite children who died before they could be circumcised on the eighth day were yet saved by the prayers of their parents in view of the promise that God willed to be their God. God (they say) has not limited his power to the sacraments, but has made a covenant with us through his word. Therefore we ought to speak differently and in a more consoling way with Christians than with pagans or wicked people (the two are the same), even in such cases where we do not know God’s hidden judgment. For he says and is not lying, “All things are possible to him who believes” [Mark 9:28], even though they have not prayed, or expected, or hoped for what they would have wanted to see happen. Enough has been said about this. Therefore one must leave such situations to God and take comfort in the thought that he surely has heard our unspoken yearning and done all things better than we could have asked.

In summary, see to it that above all else you are a true Christian and that you teach a heartfelt yearning and praying to God in true faith, be it in this or any other trouble. Then do not be dismayed or grieved about your child or yourself, and know that your prayer is pleasing to God and that God will do everything much better than you can comprehend or desire. “Call upon me,” he says in Psalm 50 [:15], “in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” For this reason one ought not straightway condemn such infants for whom and concerning whom believers and Christians have devoted their longing and yearning and praying. Nor ought one to consider them the same as others for whom no faith, prayer, or yearning are expressed on the part of Christians and believers. God intends that his promise and our prayer or yearning which is grounded in that promise should not be disdained or rejected, but be highly valued and esteemed. I have said it before and preached it often enough: God accomplishes much through the faith and longing of another, even a stranger, even though there is still no personal faith. But this is given through the channel of another’s intercession, as in the gospel Christ raised the widow’s son at Nain because of the prayers of his mother apart from the faith of the son. And he freed the little daughter of the Canaanite woman from the demon through the faith of the mother apart from the daughter’s faith. The same was true of the kings son, John 4 [:46–53], and of the paralytic and many others of whom we need not say anything here.

(WA D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar, 1883– ).

Let the little children…

HT: www.cyberbrethren.com

There are certain topics of discussion / debate that tend never to go away among confessional Lutherans. One of them is the age of first communion. In almost all Lutheran churches, first communion is linked closely or inextricably to confirmation—for what can only be described as pragmatic rather than dogmatic reasons. After all, confirmation is a churchly rite, not a biblical one. Tradition dictates that confirmation is preceded by detailed instruction, often lasting up to two years, in the early years of secondary education. I was confirmed at 15. In my church body, 13-14 is more common. Now, there are all sorts of historical, theological and especially pastoral issues linked to delaying (yes, I mean that) first communion to the teenage years.

Now, as I said, this debate is probably here to stay. Both sides of the argument make a fine showing in this Cyberbrethen blog post. To cut a long story short, I align myself with Pastors McCain and Cwirla in this particular debate.

I was confronted by this question in a very practical way yesterday. About half-an-hour after the last of my young children had gone to bed and grown-up time was about to start, my wife and I heard a familiar pitter-patter of little feet coming down the stairs. Yet again, my eldest daughter couldn’t get to sleep. A common occurrence, usually for no particular reason.

Well, this time it was different. H (age 7) was visibly upset, with tears flooding down her cheeks. What on earth was the matter?

“I have been asking Jesus into my heart, but nothing seems to happen, and it makes me really sad.”

Turns out, she has been reading the books of Patricia St.John, one of her favourite authors. And in almost every book, some child or another gets to the point of asking Jesus into its heart, with wonderful transforming consequences. And now little H was desperate for the same experience, and was desperately disappointed, and a little worried, that nothing was happening, despite her prayers.

As is often the way with God’s children, this misunderstanding led to a wonderful conversation about what makes us Christian. As the opening of Olaus Svebilius’ Explanation of the Small Catechism puts it so simply:

Q1: Are you a Christian?
A: Yes, I am.

Q2: Why are you called a Christian?
A: Because I have been baptised in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and in baptism I have put on Christ. I believe and confess Him to be my Saviour and my Redeemer.

There. It’s that simple. Turns out, H has had Jesus “in her heart” for over 7 years already. No need to ask for anything more, except faith to see what she already has.

Except one thing. There will come a day when she will not only have Jesus in her heart but also on her tongue and in her stomach. And she can’t wait! She knows what she needs, she knows that she wants it, and she knows where to get it from—but for the time being, she can’t have it, because she is not yet in secondary school and so can’t go through secondary-school-style instruction. She’s missing out, and she knows it, and you can tell.

Let the little children come—let’s not hinder them.

God has many ways to create, support, and increase faith in us: when we hear the Word, either publicly or privately; when we are baptized; when we are fed with the body of our Lord  . . .  He himself know what is good and profitable for us. (Martin Luther at the Margburg Colloquy, 1529. H. Sasse, This Is My Body, 201.)

New Volumes to Luther’s Works

Exciting news: Concordia Publishing House are about to roll out new volumes in the “American Edition” of Luther’s Works. The first new volume will be coming out later this year. Anyone interested in Luther and not able or willing to work with the German/Latin originals should be cheering. Read more here.

Those willing and able to work with the German/Latin originals should be cheering, too, because some of the earlier volumes of the Weimarer Ausgabe are beginning to appear on Google Books. Information on that can also be found from the link above.