20 April 2013

God Has Preached the Gospel Through Music

Here is Part VII.b of my ACELC free conference paper (16 April 2013).
The entire paper will be made available on the ACELC website.

Luther’s frequent laudatory comments on the beauty and benefits of music provide a fruitful paradigm for a positive use and value of free outward ceremonies.  As he wrote, for example, in his preface to the Wittenberg hymnal of 1524, that he “would like to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave and made them” (LW 53:316).  Elsewhere, referring to the Renaissance composer, Josquin des Prez (who died in 1521), Luther asserted that “God has preached the Gospel through music, too, as may be seen in Josquin, all of whose compositions flow freely, gently, and cheerfully, are not cramped by rules, and are like the song of the finch” (LW 54:129).

Significantly, Luther embraced music as a blessing in itself, because it belongs to and exemplifies the divine grace and godly good order of Creation, especially in contrast to the chaos and confusion of the devil, sin, and death.  From this perspective, Luther perceived that music itself, even apart from any particular text, is able to convey the Gospel, to chase away the devil, and to lift the sorrowing spirit.  These are rather remarkable claims, but they are consistent in Luther’s writings, and they were put into practice in the way that his followers approached the making and enjoyment of music in the Church.

As Luther appreciated and encouraged artistic excellence in musical composition and performance, he also knew, and took advantage of the fact, that music offers a tremendous benefit to the Christian faith and life, and to theology.  For when it is coupled with the Word of the Gospel, it is a handmaid to the Word, which serves the Word, and supports its proclamation, and carries it to the people, into their hearts and minds.  Luther’s own German Mass (Deutsche Messe) is an especially good example, in which he went to great lengths to match the music to the texts, and to emphasize and underscore the meaning and significance of the texts via the musical intonation.  His friend and collaborator, the great Lutheran Kantor, Johann Walter, attests to the great care that Luther took with these matters.

Music not only catechizes Christians with the Word that it bears; it also gives them a vehicle for confessing the Word of the Gospel, to and for each other in the Church, and to and for their neighbors in the world.  Parents and children, spouses and siblings, also serve and strengthen one another with the Holy Spirit, by the singing of the Gospel in “Psalms, hymns, and Spiritual songs.”

In contrast to Calvin and his followers, who allowed only for the singing of the Scriptures verbatim, Luther advocated the writing of hymns that confess the Holy Scriptures homiletically, that is, in much the same way that a sermon proclaims a text by unfolding it for the congregation.  He and others also wrote hymns that carefully set forth and explain the chief parts of the Catechism.  Lutheran hymnody is therefore kerygmatic and catechetical: It preaches and teaches the Word of the Lord to the people.

Along with its similarities to preaching, Lutheran hymnody is closely connected to the Liturgy in a numerous variety of ways.  It serves and contributes to the ritual and ceremony of the Divine Service, and it is also liturgical in its own character and quality.  Precisely in its confession and proclamation of the Word and work of God, it not only serves the people, but it praises and worships the Lord.   For Luther, hymnody in particular, and music in general, is chiefly doxological: It glorifies its Maker.

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