Reformation Day and Hymnody
Today we celebrate the Festival of the Reformation. A central part to the success of the Reformation was the hymnody. Lutheran hymnody took the world by storm 501 years ago. Though one of the first hymnals only contained 25 hymns, these hymns were foundational for the liturgical life of the church and the laity’s (and ministers’ for that matter) understanding of the central teaching of the Reformation - justification by faith alone. Lutheran hymnody remained a vital component to the success of the Reformation as it spread across Europe. Since then, Lutheran hymnody has been an integral part of confessional Lutheran churches throughout the world.
There are at least six characteristics that mark the Lutheran difference in hymnody. The first difference is that Lutheran hymns are confessional. That is they show what we as Lutherans believe. Hymns should be a faithful confession - that is a faithful speaking back to God what He has first spoken to us in His Word. This means that Lutheran hymns are based on and saturated with the language and beauty of God’s Holy Word. This gives the hymns a depth and a breadth that is unsurpassed anywhere else.
Second, flowing out of the first point, Lutheran hymns are loaded with theology. If Lutheran hymns are based upon God’s Word then it would only be natural that they should be loaded with theology - for God’s Word is loaded with theology. Lutheran hymns are not afraid to be theological, because it is often through the hymns that the people learn and remember so much of their own theology. The hymns delight in the riches and wonders of theology as expressed in Holy Scripture.
Third, Lutheran hymns sing about THE faith, not about my faith. That is to say Lutheran hymns focus on the objective, as it is often expressed - Christ outside of us. The reason for this is because the hymns are pointing the one singing them outside of themselves to the object of faith, rather than pointing them inward to their own faith. By focusing on the THE faith all those singing the hymn are actually directed to look upon Christ who gives them their faith, strengthens and sustains their faith.
Fourth, because of the first three points Lutheran hymns are difficult hymns. There is so much substance to each hymn that they cannot be learned quickly or easily. This is true not only of the content, but also of the music as well. This is not a bad thing though. A Big Mac takes far less time to prepare and eat than a delicious New York steak, but there is no question which one is better. This is one small example, but it is often the case that those things that are more valuable and more beneficial for you are more complex and require more time to prepare/learn.
Fifth, Lutheran hymns are congregational. The hymns are designed to be sung by the congregation. They are not written to be sung by a few for the entertainment or enjoyment of the rest, but they are written so that all can participate and sing together. In this way everyone can be edified and built up, everyone becomes more deeply involved in the liturgy of the church. This not only gives them the opportunity to sing about their faith, but also the opportunity to learn and grow more in the faith.
Sixth, it should be clear by now that Lutheran hymns function as preaching and teaching in Lutheran churches. The hymns are proclaiming the glorious truth’s of the Gospel and so are teaching these truths to the congregation as they are sung. As many have pointed out over the years, Lutheran hymns were often more responsible for the Gospel taking root in various places then the other writings and works of even Luther. This means that Lutheran hymns are not a trivial part of the liturgy or the congregation’s life but are working hand in hand with all the other aspects of the liturgy.
Lutheran hymnody has remained a powerful force in the life of the church because of the characteristics and strengths briefly laid out in this paper. Lutheran hymnody is a great treasure in the Lutheran Church, a treasure that is in danger of being buried and forgotten in many of our churches today. May we never forget what a great and invaluable treasure this hymnody is and how fundamental it is to who we are as Lutherans, and how integral it is to passing on the faith to the next generation. So sing them loud – even when you don’t know them well and even when they are hard to sing. You (and those around you) will benefit from it.
Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice,
With exultation springing,
And with united heart and voice
And holy rapture singing,
Proclaim the wonders God has done,
How His right arm the victory won.
What price our ransom cost Him!
- LSB 556
Here are a couple of great quotes I found on hymnody in Reu’s Catechetics:
On hymns: "The church hymn is not, like its brother, the folk song, the property of merely a certain period of life, that of youth; it belongs to the whole congregation, to all periods of life. It is learned by heart by the children, criticized by those in a state of inner ferment, explained by the lessons of life, learned anew and comprehended by the adults, fathomed more deeply through progressive experience, transfigured by age, and tested by death. The hymn is your companion form the cradle to the bier, the expression of your every need. Its deep, central notes not only thunder down from the organ loft; they also rise from the pew. And when the time for singing is past, it trembles upon the lip as a prayer; when the word loses its power in depths of woe, the old comforters once more begin to gleam; and in the darkest night of suffering they sparkle as inextinguishable stars...One of the best gifts parents can give to their children is constant familiarity, intelligent appreciation, and hearty, and sincere use of the world's great hymns. Like all good things it will demand time and effort; but the expenditure will be more than compensated by the gain." – (417-418)
F. W. Herzberger says: "Our Lutheran Church is pre-eminently the Singing Church of Evangelical Christendom. No other Church can rival her in the rich, soulful music in which she sings her immortal hymns.
Countless other songs and melodies have been composed in their day, delighted their audience for a short while, and then passed into hopeless oblivion. Our majestic Lutheran chorals, however, have survived the wrecks of time, and are still today the delight of all true lovers of sacred music, irrespective of creed or language. "The Lutheran Church", says Dr. Schaff, the noted Reformed theologian, draws the fine arts into the service of religion, and has produced a body "of hymns and chorals, which, in richness, power, and unction, surpass the hymnology of all other Churches in the world". The late Alexander Guilmant, a Frenchman and devout Catholic, the unrivaled master of the organ in his day, declared that the Lutheran chorals are the most heart-stirring and inspiring tunes in the whole realm of sacred music. Now what is it that gives to our Lutheran chorals or church tunes their imperishable charm? Knowing their history as we do, we must say that it is the spirit of heroic faith, singing in every note its profound adoration of the merciful and omnipotent God that makes these old Lutheran chorals so universally and solemnly impressive in their character.
They are alive with pure and holy devotion. They thrill th every depth of the Christian heart because they are born from the deepest and holiest passion of their inspired singers. With few exceptions, they were composed in the heroic days of the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, days that called for heroic courage to believe and confess the truth as it is in Jesus; days that demanded heroic submission to the inscrutable ways of our God and Redeemer. The same spirit of sublime, God-given heroism that inspired the texts of our immortal hymns also inspired the heart-stirring tunes. Hence the tunes are an integral part of our hymns. Deprive our hymns of their historic musical setting, sing them to a new modern tune, and you have deprived the rose of the fragrance she alone possesses, you have robbed the nightingale of her most rapturous note. You may then have a sorry hybrid of a poem and some sort of tune, but nevermore the original, forceful, edifying, compact hymn! For in our Lutheran hymns the text and tune are welded as inseparably together as body and soul in man. The reason is that one and the same spirit of holy devotion gave birth to the text as well as the chorals, or tunes, of our Lutheran hymnology. Broadly speaking then, our Lutheran chorals are preeminently devotional in character.” (418-419)
 All of these points can be seen clearly in Luther’s “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” LSB 556.
 So often what people who attend a church believe is not the same as what the church teaches or confesses. Sometimes this is because the hymns/songs sung are actually teaching the opposite of what the church confesses.
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