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
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
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