- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

Just in time for the holiday season, the traditionalist party in America’s worship war has introduced a new weapon against modernist insurgents. Actually, it’s almost 500 years old: Martin Luther’s music. For the first time, every hymn the German reformer ever wrote, plus a comprehensive collection of his ballads and chants, have been recorded in English, and published in a set of four compact discs.

Titled, “Martin Luther — Hymns, Ballads, Chants, Truth,” this is a daring and beautiful undertaking because it pits high theology set to music against the fashionable praise music — “ear ticklers,” as Protestant traditionalists mock easily digestible tunes such as “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”

The Rev. Paul McCain, interim president of Concordia Publishing House, proposes comparing this light religious fare with the heavy-duty caliber of, say, “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice,” the first congregational hymn Luther penned.

In this tune, Luther laid out in 10 powerful, brief stanzas what amounts to the Protestant Reformation’s entire doctrine of justification by grace through faith.

This doctrine, which has changed the world, teaches that good works do not save man. Luther discovered in Paul’s epistle to the Romans (Romans 3:21-24), that salvation comes by God’s grace and man’s faith in Christ. In Luther’s powerful language, this reads as follows:

“My own good works all came to naught, no grace or merit gaining /Free will against God’s judgment fought, dead to all good remaining./My fears increased till sheer despair left only death to be my share;/the pangs of hell I suffered.

“But God had seen my wretched state before the world’s foundation,/and mindful of his mercies great, He planned for my salvation./He turned to me a father’s heart; He did not choose the easy part;/But gave His dearest treasure.

“God said to His beloved Son: It’s time to have compassion./Then go, bright jewel of My crown, and bring to all salvation;/From sin and sorrow set them free; slay bitter death from them that they/May live with You forever.”

The CDs represent one of the most important contributions of the Reformation. These songs have been sung for nearly half a millennium by ordinary congregants, thus acting as full and equal participants in worship.

Until the Reformation, worshippers had been consumers of liturgies performed for them by priests, deacons, choristers and musicians. Now they are no longer restricted to giving responses to liturgical formulae but actively take their place in the priesthood of all believers whose discovery has been credited as the source from which Western democracy evolved.

There is, then, a substantial difference between Christian mantras, which contemporary congregations keep repeating — in Mr. McCain’s words — “like Buddhist chants,” and the sung theology such as expressed in Luther’s hymns or the Reformed tradition’s Geneva Psalter.

The difference is that most contemporary praise music repeats slogans, whereas congregants singing, for instance, Luther’s stirring and most famous “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” internalize at the same time ancient truths the church has taught since its beginning.

In fact, as Luther said, one must even go back further: “Already the prophets … intertwined theology and music by proclaiming truth in psalms and songs.”

Among the 39 pieces in the new collection, there are many elements of the traditional liturgy Luther turned into congregational chants, for example, the Gloria (“All Glory be to God Alone,”) the Credo, (“We, All Believe in One True God,”) or the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, Who From Heaven Above”).

Many of these have long entered the Roman Catholic repertoire, especially in Germany, the homeland of the Reformation. There, the Catholic hymnal even features the “Mighty Fortress,” at one time seen as a battle hymn against Rome.

Yet a battle hymn it still is — not against Catholicism but against the devil Luther described as a “sad spirit who makes people sad … and runs from music as far as he can.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide