06 September 2007

Dealing with Doubt by Singing the Gospel

As I continue to research and progress on my own book, For All His Benefits, I am presently reading a most excellent work by Christopher Boyd Brown: Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Harvard, 2005). It is a fine piece of scholarship, pleasantly written, clear and concise, and not terribly long (172 pages, plus several appendices). It addresses the role and significance of Lutheran hymnody for the success of the Reformation in conveying evangelical doctrine and confession with real staying power among the laity.

Brown deals concretely with his topic by focusing on the Bohemian mining town of Joachimsthal, a notable center of Lutheranism concerning which I have heretofore had regrettably little knowledge or awareness. This town's rich musical life and contributions derived in no small part from the long-time service of Cantor Nicholas Herman, a very fine hymnwriter in his own right. He is responsible for such important Lutheran hymns as "Let All Together Praise Our God" (LSB 389) and "'As Surely as I Live,' God Said" (LSB 614). He wrote many other hymns, as well, especially for the children's choirs of Joachimsthal.

Anyone interested in the history and theology of the Lutheran Reformation ought to include this book in his reading list, and all the more so those with a passion for the hymnody of the Church. I'm a little over halfway through the book at this point, and have found it to be engaging from the start, a truly delightful read, eminently fascinating, and enlightening.

It so happens that, in my reading this evening, I came across a few paragraphs on the way in which the Lutheran hymnody of Joachimsthal dealt with the perennial doubts of Christians living in this sinful world under the cross. These remarks come at the conclusion of a section on "Law and Gospel in the Hymns," within a chapter entitled, "Lutheran Music in the Church." I was struck by how very pertinent this passage is in addressing a difficult issue for any Christian:

"Though the Joachimsthal hymns encourage works of love in service of the neighbor as the testimony of a living faith, they also acknowledge that neither the faith nor the works of the Christian are perfect in this life. They contain numerous petitions for strengthening of faith, while frankly acknowledging the presence of doubt and moral failings in the Christian's life:

'Alas, dear God, how weak my faith!
How bold and impudent my flesh!
It will not keep the Spirit's path
But rushes headlong toward death.

'How often doubts dismay my heart;
The Law therein works many a smart:
Commands and orders without cease—
First this, then that—and gives no peace.

'My native powers are far too weak
To do the good I ought to seek.
In deep corruption I was born;
To wickedness my heart is prone. . . .

'My sins I now confess to thee;
Dear Father, do not punish me:
There stands before thy judge's face
Jesus my Savior, in my place.'

"By presenting such spiritual difficulties along with their remedy in God's promises of mercy, [Nicholas] Herman sought to fortify his audience against despair. To be sure, the hymns did not encourage doubt and sin. But by teaching that moral failings and doubts were an expected part of Christian experience, to be overcome with God's forgiveness and help and providing models for dealing with these failings, they prevented young Lutherans from imagining that sin and doubt were unforgivable, unmentionable faults, directing them always to the free mercy of Christ. The essential feature of the hymns, like that of the Lutheran teaching they were intended to convey, was 'comfort' [Troest]" (Singing the Gospel, 98).

Appropriately, this passage is immediately followed by a section on "Confession and Absolution," and the way that it was taught and confessed in the hymns (as well as practiced in the towns). For this means of grace is a most effective weapon against doubt and despair, providing as it does the occasion and opportunity to avail oneself of the Gospel in a quite personal and tangible way. In that light, it is noteworthy that one of the two Herman hymns included in the Lutheran Service Book is the aforementioned "'As Surely as I Live,' God Said" (LSB 614).

I am delighted that the author of this excellent book, Christopher Boyd Brown, is one of the featured speakers at this year's Good Shepherd Institute in Fort Wayne (4-6 November), "Celebrating the Life and Hymns of Paul Gerhardt and Martin Franzmann." Brown's paper (to be given on Monday the 5th at 8:45 a.m.) will be on "Paul Gerhardt in Context: The Second Reformation and the Thirty Years' War." Needless to say, I am anxiously awaiting to hear what this fine scholar has to say, in person, concerning a hymnwriter most near and dear to my heart.

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