Luther


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

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

 

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– ).

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.)

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.