From the Vicar,
The Lutheran Church has always been known as the singing church. Today, that often does not seem to be saying much. We can attend a variety of other churches around us and hear singing, some better, and some worse. Beautiful Roman Catholic cathedrals and money-hungry televangelists have singing, just like your own Lutheran church. But yet there is a difference, a Lutheran difference, which makes singing in the Lutheran church unique amongst all other branches of Christ’s Church. This difference goes much deeper than which hymns we choose to sing, though the hymns we select are the most important result. Why are Lutherans different when it comes to the song of the Church? The answer lies in both the historical and theological realms.
When you look around the Christian landscape today, singing is simply a part of what Christians do in worship. However, this was not always the case. Several times in its history, the Christian Church has abandoned music for the congregation, making it the exclusive property of the priests and monks. The Early Church struggled with heresies (as does the Church in all ages), heresies that often spread their theology through music. In response, many clergy began to condemn popular singing in the churches, and instead gave music to choirs, clergy, and monks. Popes and bishops wanted to control music within the Church, and not give it free reign to spread falsehood. Popular hymnody was shut down for centuries, but music still thrived in the monasteries, where many hymns we find in our hymnals today were written. Therefore, with only a few exceptions, the congregation was generally not able to sing until the time of the Reformation. And even in that period the Church’s song suffered. Reformers such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin looked down on singing any songs but those found in Scripture, sung in a very simple way.
In direct contrast with these outlooks, Martin Luther gave the Church’s song back to the people. He saw music not as something frivolous, but as a good gift of God to be used in His service. Music was not the sole possession of the clergy, but belonged to all Christians. Music served to bring people into the liturgy, where God gives His good gifts. Finally, unlike Zwingli and Calvin, Luther also gladly accepted the music of the Church throughout history, bringing the hymns hidden in the monasteries for centuries to the people. Therefore, the Lutheran difference is first of all that Lutherans, in contrast to Church history and contemporary trends, celebrated music as a good gift of God to be given to the congregation in the Divine Service.
The theological side of the Lutheran difference can best be illustrated through the example of one man, Johann Sebastian Bach. Most people know of Bach as a great composer, one of the most talented that ever lived. But very few know about or appreciate his theological background. In fact, many Lutherans (including myself until I attended the seminary) do not even realize that Bach is ‘one of us,’ a Lutheran musician strongly motivated by his orthodox Lutheran theology. This is quite simply because most attempt to understand Bach apart from his theology. Few musical textbooks or television programs even consider this an area to explore, and so we are left with a deficient picture of this great man. These sources see Bach’s music as disconnected from his theology, a contention that he himself would find utterly false.
Bach was a kantor in the Lutheran Church, an office that combined theological and musical training, so he did not think solely in musical terms. For Bach, as for all Lutherans, doctrine and practice (theology and music) could not be separated. This is the most important part of the Lutheran difference. We do not only sing, but we sing with a purpose, we sing what we believe. Hymns must preach. If a hymn does not express what we confess as a church, then we do not sing it. Therefore, Lutherans require much more of their hymns than do other denominations, and many hymns found in Lutheran hymnals do not have a place anywhere else. This principle seems quite simple, even obvious, but in actual practice this Lutheran difference is maintained only by pastors, musicians, and laity who are conscious of what they sing and why.
The office of kantor has fallen out of use since the first centuries of the Lutheran Church, but it is so emblematic of the Lutheran difference that it could use a revival. Lutherans have historically expected their musicians to have a firm grounding and understanding of theology. If theology and practice are so intertwined together, then a musician with no concept of theology simply cannot lead the Church’s song. In the same way, a pastor cannot be ignorant of music in the Church. He must have a firm understanding of both the role and practice of music. In addition, the Lutheran difference not only influences who leads the Church’s song, but most importantly what is to be sung. If Lutherans want their music to confess what they believe, then the texts must clearly and honestly proclaim Christ and the theology of the cross. The music must be wedded to the text in such a way that it does not obscure what the text says or give a different message. To accomplish this, the Lutheran Church has had both theologians who could write and compose, such as Martin Luther, and combinations of theologians and composers that could work together to wed text and tune, such as Johann Gerhard and Johann Ebeling.
Lutherans are not called the singing church because we sound so much better than everyone else. In fact, some of our singing leaves much to be improved and we who are in the church that bears this title should be active in enhancing the congregation’s song. Instead, we are called the singing church historically because Lutherans brought hymns back to the people and theologically because we view the Church’s song very highly as a sung confession of faith. Lutherans should have high standards for what is sung in the Divine Service because what we sing does matter, it says something to us and it says something about us.