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