Martin Luther – The Hymn Prototype

Yep I linked to a meme

It seems that many picture the great reformer Martin Luther as being opposed to the historic Catholic Church.  This, however, is to misread history.  Luther, who grew up in a poor but devout German Catholic family, held a deep reverence for the liturgy of the mass.  When he began working on the revisions to the mass that ultimately sparked the Protestant reformation, he had no intention of abolishing the liturgy.  He sought to add vernacular texts wherever possible and remove only practices he saw incongruent with the Gospel, such as the sale of indulgences – a practice of the pre-reformation church in which clergy charged a fee for the absolution of sins.

Luther held a very high view of music, and placed it of upmost importance – on par with theology.  In a preface to a publication of printed music Luther writes, “We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.”

The quality of music in the Catholic Church during Luther’s life was extremely high.   This tradition inherited a deliberate emphasis on sophisticated music often with the neglect of congregational participation.  Calvinist reformers reacted against this by outlawing all but the simplest congregational singing drawn from a metrical psalter.  Luther, however, sought to reform the bad without removing the good.  Because of Luther’s high value of music, his liturgy fostered and encouraged a reciprocal interaction between sophisticated music and congregational song.  Instead of outlawing all non-congregational music outright, he reduced it and added congregational singing in the vernacular.

Luther certainly understood the power of music to move people and lift their hearts in praise of God.  Let me share with you his comments on the importance of congregational singing in the preface to the Wittenberg Hymnal:

            “That it is good and God pleasing to sing hymns is, I think, known to every Christian; for everyone is aware not only of the example of the prophets and kings in the Old Testament who praised God with song and sound, with poetry and psaltery, but also of the common and ancient custom of the Christian church to sing Psalms.  St. Paul himself instituted this in I Corinthians 14, and exhorted the Colossians to sing spiritual songs and Psalms heartily unto the Lord so that God’s Word and Christian teaching might be instilled and implanted in many ways.

Therefore I, too, in order to make a start and to give an incentive to those who can do better, have with the help of others compiled several hymns, so that the holy gospel which now by the grace of God has risen anew may be noised and spread abroad.

Like Moses in his song, we may now boast that Christ is our praise and song and say with St. Paul, I Corinthians 2:2, that we should know nothing to sing or say, save Jesus Christ our Savior.

And these songs were arranged in four parts to give the young –who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts- something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place, thus combining the good with the pleasing, as is proper for youth.  Nor am I of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim.  But I would like to see all the arts, especially music, used in the services of Him who gave and made them.  I therefore pray that every pious Christian would be pleased with this (the use of music in the service of the gospel) and lend his help if God has given him like or greater gifts.  As it is, the world is too lax and indifferent about teaching and training the young for us to abet this trend.  God grant us his grace. Amen.”

Is Luther snarky or sympathetic? Let me know in the comments.

Author: adamkurihara

Minister of Worship Arts at NSCBC in Beverly, MA

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