Beckett: Why So Much Music in the Divine Service?

Pipe organ at St. Lorenz Lutheran Church in Frankenmuth, MI | Garrick Sinclair Photography

In the history of the Lutheran Church, there has traditionally been a kantor who serves the congregation in worship. There are practical factours for this, such as enhancing our worship with the expert musical, liturgical, and theological training of the kantor; to assist the pastors in hymn planning; to advance the ministry of the Gospel among all age groups; and to teach theology and the Scriptures through music. Thus, the purpose of this column is to expand on these practical factours with the theological impetus according to our rich Lutheran heritage.

Martin Luther was a lover of music, especially liturgical, who wrote his own hymns and liturgies we still utilise today. Luther has often repeated, “Music is next to theology,” or as is often paraphrased, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.”[1] Here is a longer quote from his letter to composer Ludwig Senfl, dated October 4, 1530:

I plainly judge, and do not hesitate to affirm, that except for theology there is no art that could be put on the same level with music, since except for theology [music] alone produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely, a calm and joyful disposition… This is the reason why the prophets did not make use of any art except music; when setting forth their theology they did it not as geometry, not as arithmetic, not as astronomy, but as music, so that they held theology and music most tightly connected, and proclaimed truth through Psalms and songs.

LW 49:427-428; WA BR 5:639

To be fair to Luther, we mustn’t deal with this text in isolation but must comprehend it in the mediaeval context within which Luther wrote this letter. Unfortunately, Luther never wrote an entire treatise about music; we only have prefaces and letters and other references scattered throughout his voluminous writings, which isn’t all too surprising since he was an ad hoc writer. He had planned to write a treatise on the doctrine of justification by faith that drove him, but unfortunately, he never got around to it (he died from a stroke at the age of 62 on February 18, 1546, in his hometown Eisleben). He had also planned to write a treatise on music, but this also remained unfulfilled. The best we have is an unfinished draft from 1530 on the subject.

He wrote part of the draft in Greek, titled, Concerning Music. Here’s some of what Luther wrote in that draft:

I love music.

Its censure by fanatics does not please me

For

  1. [Music] is a gift of God and not of man
  2. For it creates joyful hearts
  3. For it drives away the devil
  4. For it creates innocent delight, destroying wrath, unchastity, and pride.

I place music next to theology.

This is well known from the example of

David and all the prophets, who all

Produced poetry and songs.

5. For [music] reigns in times of peace. (WA 30II:696)

The Introduction: “I Love Music”

When Luther says, “I love music,” this is more than a personal, emotional attachment. He is also stating his practical commitment to music. Neither is he writing of his intellectual appreciation of music (music theory) but rather “an experiential response to music as performed and heard… In the same way that Luther discovered the doctrine of justification after an intensely personal struggle, by asking the biblical question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ and receiving the answer, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (see Acts 16:30-31), so Luther’s theological understanding of music began with his personal involvement in and attachment to music” (Leaver, 127). Thus, our question of “why music” concerning the Divine Service and other activities of the Church is just as much a theological one as it is a practical one.

For Luther, a cerebral understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith was not sufficient; it must be both practical and personal. “Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith… Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and so certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times” (LW 35:370). Since this doctrine and music are deeply intwined with each other, so it also stands that music is deeply personal and practical. Because of this, Luther was a strong advocate not only for singing in the simplest sense of singing hymns, but also chanting. Consider what Luther says:

Note that there is a difference between singing and saying, as there is between chanting or saying a psalm and only knowing and teaching with the understanding. But by adding the voice is becomes a song, and the voice is the feeling. Therefore, as the word is the understanding, so the [singing] voice is its feeling [on Psalm 101:8].

LW 11:294

Luther is even so bold to say that if faith is genuine, then it will involve music, and the believer will be filled with the necessity to sing:

For faith does not rest and declare a holiday; it bursts into action, speaks and preaches of this promise and grace of God, so that other people may also come up and partake of it. Yes, his great delight impels [David] to compose beautiful and sweet psalms and to sing lovely and joyous songs, both to praise and to thank God in his happiness and to serve his fellowmen by stimulating and teaching them.

LW 15:273.

Such a bold statement from Father Luther challenges us. Is our faith so genuine that we desire to burst our mouths with songs of praise? Or do we sit there and cross our arms like an impertinent child? Do we desire our children to learn about Jesus through hymnody, even musical participation? Do our music volunteers take ample time to practice so that mistakes are limited during the Divine Service to give glory to God in the gift He has given them? Or do they settle for mediocrity and utilise the stewardship of their talents poorly?

For God has cheered our hearts and minds through His dear Son, whom He gave for us to redeem us from sin, death, and the devil. He who believes this earnestly cannot be quiet about it. But he must gladly and willingly sing and speak about it so that others also may come and hear it. And whoever does not want to sing and speak of it shows that he does not believe and that he does not belong under the new and joyful testament, but under the old, lazy, and tedious testament.

LW 53:333

Again, Luther’s love for music issues forth a challenge, both personally and corporately. As individuals, will we keep our mouths glued in arrogance, foolishly thinking we don’t need to sing to shew forth our faith; or will we open them wide to sing praises to God as examples to our children during the Divine Service? Children mimic their parents. If they mimic the bad words you speak, certainly they mimic your silence when others are praising God. Furthermore, as the corporate Body of Christ, will we pursue every opportunity and utilise every resource we have to enhance our worship and singing, or remain lazy in our old, complacent ways?

In the draft, Luther also wrote, “[Music’s] censure by fanatics does not please me.” Luther is referring to certain opponents in his day. He was displeased with the Enthusiasts who believed music inherently tends toward evil. Luther strongly disagreed, who, as we have seen, believed music to be strictly a gift from God and integral to our worship and praise of Him. Nine years earlier, in 1521, Luther already had to deal with Karlstadt who also had a negative view on music (he disputed Gregorian chanting). Luther was cognisant that music could certainly be misused (as we still affirm today in worship styles such as contemporary worship music), but for him the problem was not music itself but rather the abusers.

“Music is A Gift of God and Not of Man”

For Luther, music is not mankind’s work but the work of God. This also parallels with the doctrine of justification by faith. “In the same way as justification is God’s gift of grace rather than the reward for human effort, so music is in essence God’s gift of creation rather than a human achievement” (Leaver, 130). Luther esteemed music so much that he believed “that from the beginning of the world music has been an essential element within God’s creation” (Leaver, 130). Thus, he wrote the following that we often shorten, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions… which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found—at least not by us” (WA 50:371).

A common critique of contemporary worship (hereafter CoWo) is that it brings one to worship the emotions (Luther called this enthusiasm, which today we call mysticism). This is true, but sometimes in the attempt to caution others against the idolatry of emotions inherent in CoWo, the opponent moves to remove all emotion from Lutheran worship. Conversely, it is evident from what we’ve seen in Luther’s corpus so far that emotion plays a vital role in worship. The key is that our emotions are not the centre of our worship or the guarantee of an authentic experience with the Holy Spirit (which is the fault of CoWo). Nevertheless, music is “a mistress and governess of those human emotions” that praise God through His Word.

Music is always emotional; it cannot be avoided. The difference between CoWo and traditional liturgical music is that whereas CoWo aims to base the worshiper’s authentic worship experience on the right emotions, traditional liturgical music (hymnody) uses human emotions to give proper (pious) fear, love, and trust to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, CoWo is entirely self-serving (me and my emotional experience) whereas traditional hymnody focuses on responding to God’s Divine Service with songs of praise in fear, love, and trust.

For example, most times when I sing LSB #752 Be Still, My Soul, I begin to cry. CoWo falsely teaches that these tears are the certainty of an experience with the Holy Spirit. But they’re not; they are merely an experience with my human emotions. Rather, they give proper honour and praise to God in my singing because “when change and tears are past, / All safe and blesséd we shall meet at last” (stz. 4). In other words, my love for God moves me to praise Him in this hymn, and it just so happens that such love for God because of what He’s done for me and my dearly departed moves me to tears. True worship is always focused on God’s salvific actions, not on my ability to muster up deepseated emotions to magically experience the Holy Spirit as an invisible force somewhere in the room (we don’t live a galaxy far, far away where the Force awakens us).

Furthermore, Luther viewed liturgical music as being “invitatory,” that is, a corporately inviting response of musical praise to God, rather than the entirely me-focused tripe of CoWo that invites myself to praise my self.

“Music Creates Joyful Hearts”

Thus, continuing the inherent role of emotions in music and worship, Luther writes on Psalm 4:1 (“To the Choirmaster: with stringed instruments,” MTT) (in the Masoretic text [MTT], the superscription of a particular psalm is verse 1):

It is the function of music to arouse the sad, sluggish, and dull spirit. Thus Elisha summoned a minstrel so that he might be stirred up to prophesy [2 Kings 3:15]… And in this manner David here composed this psalm… that is, as something inciting, stirring, and inflaming, so that he might have something to arouse him to stir up the devotion and inclination of his heart, and in order that this might be done more sharply, he did it with musical instruments. Thus in ancient times the church used to read psalms before Mass as an incentive. To the present day some verses remain in the Introit. And to the present day the church has the invitatory psalm in Matins, namely, “O come, let us sing to the Lord” [Ps. 95:1], whereby the people invite each other to praise God. And the psalm is rightly called “invitatory,” because the psalmist summoned not only himself but also others to praise God. This is what St. Ambrose did with a chant, by means of which he dispelled the sadness of the Milanese, so that they might bear the weariness of the time more lightly.

LW 10:43

Twenty years later, Luther also wrote similarly on Psalm 118:16-18:

A good song is worth singing twice. It is customary for people, when they are really happy or joyful, to repeat a word two or three times. They cannot say it often enough, and whoever meets them must hear it. This is the case here, that the dear saints are so happy and joyful over the miracles God does for them when He delivers them from sin and death, that is, from every evil of body and soul, that out of sheer joy they sing their song over and over again.

LW 14:83

This is evident in that we cannot help but sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God every year on the festival of Reformation Day.

Thus, emotions are not the centre of our worship, but they do drive us to give praise and glory to God. CoWo would have us centre our emotions on the Unholy Trinity: Me, Myself, and I. Traditional liturgy centres our emotions on the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In his letter to Ludwig Senfl aforementioned, Luther also wrote that “except for theology, [music] alone produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely, a calm and joyful disposition” (LW 49:428). For Luther, such a joyful disposition was done with more than just the human voice, whether individually or corporately combined with others during the Mass. In 1541, Luther wrote strikingly similar words to what he had written on Psalm 4 twenty-eight to thirty-one years earlier:

The stringed instruments of the… Psalms are to help in the singing of this new song… [A]ll pious, Christian musicians should let their singing and playing to the praise of the Father of all grace sound forth with joy from their organs, symphonias, virginals, regals, and whatever other beloved instruments that are (recently invented and given by God).

What Luther Says §3100

“Symphonias” was a term used to designate a number of instruments, what today we might call a small chamber orchestra. For example, every year at my congregation for our children’s Christmas programme, we have trumpeters, a trombonist, and sometimes saxophonists play with the organ, and a cellist with a pianist. We do similarly for Easter. This would be a type of symphonia Luther is describing.

For Luther, inventions of new instruments are a human work but the music itself utilised in worship is the work of God. Furthermore, for Luther, instruments play a fundamental role in divine worship. Hence the long history of the Lutheran Church in calling kantors not only to play hymnody and lead the congregation in worship at the professional level, but also in training musicians within the congregation to perform in symphonias and other musical ensembles. For Luther, “voices and instruments sounding together are a theological opportunity, the sound of joy of the redeemed as they glorify the God of grace” (Leaver, 133).

“Music Drives Away the Devil”

Luther’s third thesis in the draft is that “[music] drives away the devil.” Again, this was of great pastoral concern to Luther rather than some abstract, theological concept. His letters, table talks, and various other writings are filled with many references to his personal afflictions from the devil, and he found music to be of tremendous help during such Anfechtung (roughly “spiritual affliction”). “But for Luther music was more than a means of distraction, in the hope that temptation would be forgotten. From his point of view the corollary of music being the gift of God is that the devil, being opposed to God, must therefore abhor music” (Leaver, 133). Although he can stand it for a little while, the devil despises the Word of God, as is evident in our Lord’s temptation when He drove him away with the Word of God after some time. Since the devil so despises the Word of God, imagine even more his aversion for music—which is God’s gift to man—when it is combined with His Word. Imagine the veins pulsating and popping in his ugly forehead when you and little children sing God’s Word.

There are several noteworthy words from Luther on this subject as well. “Satan is a spirit of sadness; therefore, he cannot bear joy, and that is why he stays very much away from music” (What Luther Says §8). Thus, if we are so concerned with the youth leaving the Church, as we so often lament, perhaps we should take more seriously the opportunities, resources, and facilities our congregations have in calling a kantor—whenever financially able—who is well-trained and suited to put songs of praises into the mouths of our children that will cause that vile basilisk to feel from them (or at the very least providing the training for our organists). This is music that sounds like the Church rather than music that sounds like the world and is hardly distinguishable from a Taylor Swift concert.

Luther also wrote in that same letter to Ludwig Senfl:

For we know that music, too, is odious and unbearable to the demons. Indeed I plainly judge, and do not hesitate to affirm, that except for theology there is no art that could be put on the same level with music, since except for theology [music] alone produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely, a calm and joyful disposition. Manifest proof [of this is the fact] that the devil, the creator of saddening cares and disquieting worries, take flight at the sound of music almost as he takes flight at the word of theology.

LW 49:427-428

Both “the sound of music” and “the word of theology” repel the devil. Just like theology, music “serves to cast out Satan, the instigator of all sins, as is shown in Saul, the king of Israel [1 Samuel 16:23]” (WA 50:371).

“Music Creates Innocent Delight”

In his treatise on the Last Words of David (1543), Luther wrote, “For the evil spirit is ill at ease wherever God’s Word is sung or preached in true faith. He is a spirit of gloom and cannot abide where he finds a spiritually happy heart, that is, where the heart rejoices in God and in His Word” (LW 15:274). Luther expands on the thesis that “[music] creates innocent delight,” saying, “I place music next to theology. This is well known from the example of David and all the prophets, who all produced poetry and songs.” Luther likes to point to David’s banishing Saul’s evil spirit through music as well as the Prophets’ use of music:

  • “Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music” (WA 50:371).
  • “For by it [music] also the evil spirit of Saul was driven off [1 Samuel 16:23], and the prophetic spirit was given to Elisha [2 Kings 3:15]” (What Luther Says §3094).
  • “And as David initiating the writing of psalms and made this a vogue, many others were inspired by his example and became prophets. These followed in David’s footsteps and also contributed beautiful psalms; for example, the Sons of Korah, Heman, Asaph, etc.” (LW 15:273).
  • “That it is good and God pleasing to sing hymns is, I think, known to every Christian; for everyone is aware not only of the example of the prophets and kings in the Old Testament who praised God with song and sound, with poetry and psaltery, but also the common and ancient custom of the Christian church to sing Psalms. St. Paul himself instituted this in 1 Corinthians 14[:15] and exhorted the Colossians [3:16] to sing spiritual songs and Psalms heartily unto the Lord so that God’s Word and Christian teaching might be instilled and implanted in many ways” (LW 53:315-316).

In short, as Lutherans, we have historically considered music (1) to be the greatest gift of God to man next to His Word (and Christ, of course, the Word made flesh), (2) an enormous comfort and power to cast out evil spirits, (3) integral to the Prophets’ proclamation of God’s Word, and (4) also integral to Christian education and catechesis of all ages.

“Music Reigns in Times of Peace”

Luther was quite upset with the Lutheran Dukes of Saxony. They had “disbanded their musical foundations” and even “refused to give financial support to the teaching of music in their university of Wittenberg.” They were “more prepared for war rather than peace” (Leaver, 136). Once again, this is rather convicting. We often espouse how important music is to us and the Church, but in some churches, complaints abound more than our efforts to improve our worship. Though we complain about it, we remain rather content that our children are leaving the Church rather than—as real men and true parents—sacrificing to leave behind a musical legacy for our children who are asking for musical improvement. And some of our musicians settle for mediocrity by not practicing and not honing their skills. For this reason and others, Luther exhorted people to prayer in public worship, which took place in singing (chanting). For example,

The people need to be challenged to earnest devotion through public prayer in the churches. It has been my practice, with permission of the pastors and the congregation, to chant alternatively with the choir, as is customary, Psalm 79 after the sermon on Sunday, either at the morning or at the evening service. Then a choirboy with a good voice, from his place in the choir, sings on his own the antiphon or tract, “Lord, not according to our sins” [Psalm 103:10]. After that, a second choirboy may chant the other tract, “Lord, do not remember the iniquities of our forefathers” [Psalm 79:8]. Following that, the whole choir, kneeling, may sing, “Help us, O God” [Psalm 79:9]… Thereupon, when desired, the congregation may sing, “Grant us peace” or the Lord’s Prayer in German.

LW 43:231

Why So Much Music?

So, why so much music in the Divine Service—in our chanting and various hymnody? And why have someone who can professionally lead us in worship? It is more than just the practical needs, more than just our love for liturgical music, and more than just the richness of our Lutheran heritage. Drawing from the doctrine of justification by faith, (1) music is God’s gift to man to simultaneously receive the gift of Himself in His Word and direct us to worship Him; (2) it centres our fear, love, and trust in God rather than the vanity of ourselves; (3) it inspires faith; (4) it exercises the devil and other evil spirits; and (5) it continues to catechise (and therefore nourish) the Christian faith, especially the children. Our children will also remember God’s Word for them since music becomes that “mistress and governess of those human emotions” that directs our faith and attention to Christ alone. If done poorly, no one wants to sing. When done excellently, the glory of God echoes in our lives throughout each week.


[1] Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, eds. J.F.K. Knaake et all (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883) [hereafter cited as WA] Tischreden [hereafter cited as TR] No. 968: WA TR No. 3815: “Musica est… theologiae proxima” (see What Luther Says: An Anthology, trans. & ed. Ewald M Plass (St Louis: Concordia, 1959) [hereafter cited as WLS] No. 3090; WA TR No. 7034: “I place music next to theology and give it the highest praise” (WLS No. 3091); WA 50:370: “experience confirms that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise”; Luther’s Works: American Edition, 55 vols. Eds. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehman (St. Louis and Phialdelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955) [hereafter cited as LW] 53:323).

Bibliography

Robin A. Leaver, “Luther on Music,” Lutheran Quarterly XX (2006).

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