Hymnals are Little Doctrinal Compendiums According to Luther, A Comment by BJS Reader Holger Sonntag

(We have had some incredible dialogue posted in the comment section on our article from Brian Yamabe titled “Contemporary vs. Traditional Worship.” Brian is struggling with the fact that his congregation is adding a contemporary service. This string has 115 comments on it including Brian’s own pastor who favored us with his rationale for adding the service. The discussion then spilled over into our article from Pastor Clint Poppe  where you will find the  discussion  about a “new” Lutheran who was uncomfortable when she visited  an LCMS parish  that used the hymnal.  Reader Holger Sonntag offered these quotes from Luther’s introductions to various hymnals published in his day to defend the use of the hymnal. We thought this comment was worth a wider readership.)


Regarding the use of hymnals, historically, let’s not forget that Luther wrote prefaces to three hymnals containing many of his hymns in various settings (contained in vol. 53 of the American Ed. of Luther’s Works). He was, among other things, very concerned about the texts of the hymns he had written and that were at times “improved upon” by printers.


From the Wittenberg Hymnal:

“And these songs were arranged in four parts to give the young—who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts—something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place, thus combining the good with the pleasing, as is proper for youth. Nor am I of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim. But I would like to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave and made them. I therefore pray that every pious Christian would be pleased with this [the use of music in the service of the gospel] and lend his help if God has given him like or greater gifts. As it is, the world is too lax and indifferent about teaching and training the young for us to abet this trend. God grant us his grace.”


Hymnals are a way to promote good music, that is, music that is unlike popular, easy-listening love ballads but truly artful, something he expresses in his “Preface to all Good Hymnals” and in his preface to G. Rhau’s Delightful Symphonies (motets for the church year), the latter praising especially the wonder of human voice:


“And yet, compared to the human voice, all this hardly deserves the name of music, so abundant and incomprehensible is here the munificence and wisdom of our most gracious Creator. Philosophers have labored to explain the marvelous instrument of the human voice: how can the air projected by a light movement of the tongue and an even lighter movement of the throat produce such an infinite variety and articulation of the voice and of words? And how can the voice, at the direction of the will, sound forth so powerfully and vehemently that it cannot only be heard by everyone over a wide area, but also be understood? Philosophers for all their labor cannot find the explanation; and baffled they end in perplexity; for none of them has yet been able to define or demonstrate the original components of the human voice, its sibilation and (as it were) its alphabet, e.g., in the case of laughter—to say nothing of weeping. They marvel, but they do not understand. But such speculations   on the infinite wisdom of God, shown in this single part of his creation, we shall leave to better men with more time on their hands. We have hardly touched on them.”


A little later:

“But when [musical] learning is added to all this and artistic music which corrects, develops, and refines the natural music, then at last it is possible to taste with wonder (yet not to comprehend) God’s absolute and perfect wisdom in his wondrous work of music. Here it is most remarkable that one single voice continues to sing the tenor,11 while at the same time many other voices play around it, exulting and adorning it in exuberant strains and, as it were, leading it forth in a divine roundelay, so that those who are the least bit moved know nothing more amazing in this world. But any who remain unaffected are unmusical indeed and deserve to hear a certain filth poet12 or the music of the pigs.

But the subject is much too great for me briefly to describe all its benefits. And you, my young friend, let this noble, wholesome, and cheerful creation of God be commended to you. By it you may escape shameful desires and bad company. At the same time you may by this creation accustom yourself to recognize and praise the Creator. Take special care to shun perverted minds who prostitute this lovely gift of nature and of art with their erotic rantings; and be quite assured that none but the devil goads them on to defy their very nature which would and should praise God its Maker with this gift, so that these bastards purloin the gift of God and use it to worship the foe of God, the enemy of nature and of this lovely art.”


There is, in other words, a proper use of music and an improper use. The proper use of art music ennobles the natural musicality; the imporper use, whose point it is to promote promiscuity, dishonors God, its Creator.


From the Weiss Hymnal:


“Now there are some who have given a good account of themselves and augmented the hymns so that they by far surpass me and are my masters indeed. But others have added little of worth. And since I realize that there is going to be no end to this haphazard and arbitrary revision which goes on from day to day, and that even our first hymns are more and more mutilated with each reprinting, I fear that this booklet will ultimately fare no better than good books everywhere, namely, to be corrupted and adulterated by blunderheads until the good in it will be lost and only the bad remain. Similarly, we see in St. Luke 1 [:1–4] that in the beginning everyone wanted to write a gospel, until the true gospel was all but lost among so many gospels. The same thing happened to the books of SS. Jerome, Augustine, and many others. In a word, there must be mouse dirt with the pepper.1 In order to prevent this as far as possible, I have reviewed this booklet again and printed the hymns of our group separately with the names of the authors, something that I had heretofore avoided for fear of vainglory, but that I am now forced to do, lest worthless hymns by others be sold under our name. I have placed other hymns which we think are good and the most useful in the second section.

I beg and admonish all who love the pure Word no more to “improve” or enlarge our booklet without our knowledge. But if it should be “improved” without our knowledge, let it be known that such is not the booklet published by us in Wittenberg. After all, everyone can compile his own booklet of hymns and leave ours intact, as we beg, desire, and herewith declare to be our wish. For we would like to safeguard the value of our own currency, not begrudging anyone else the privilege of coining a better one for themselves, in order that God’s name alone be praised and not ours.”


Here, clearly, a hymnal is kind of like a little doctrinal compendium, a hymn is sung doctrine — it better be the correct one! Compiling a hymnal is setting up a teaching standard, a canon, if you will: some make the cut because they are good, that is, in agreement with God’s word and expound it fully, while others don’t make the cut because their text is lacking.


In summary, hymnals in the Lutheran church, from the very beginning, have fulfilled the important function of setting musical and textual (doctrinal) standards and patterns to be followed, later on with the sanction of the church body via church orders. That today trans-congregational standards — in this and many other areas — no longer seem to make sense is a problem, or, to put it differently, a lack of Christian love.


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