Reformers Are Not Radicals

The Evangelical Lutheran princes of the Holy Roman Empire presented their confession of faith to Emperor Charles V on June 25, 1530.  This document became known as the Augsburg Confession because the meeting took place in Augsburg (in modern southern Germany).  While Philip Melanchthon wrote the text, he did so in consultation with Martin Luther and other theologians.  This work and Melanchthon’s Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531) represented the first public confessions of Evangelical Lutherans.

In these writings the first Lutherans made it clear that they did not intend to make a new church, but to reform the Christian church.  For example, they did not radically change the liturgy of the Divine Service.  The first Lutherans preserved the liturgical inheritance of the Christian Church because they believed it was proper, good, and right to do so.  In their view they only sought to remove clearly faulty practices based on false doctrines.  For this reason, Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon rejected the sacrifice of the Mass and the private Mass.  However, they did not reject but purposely preserved the liturgy.  Indeed, Melanchthon explained in the Apology,

we do not abolish the Mass, but religiously maintain and defend it. For among us masses are celebrated every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals, in which the Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other like things.” Apology 24:1

These are not the words of innovative radicals, but of conservative reformers.  While Martin Luther did write new hymns, he often based the tunes on late medieval chant NOT on tavern songs (as some in the past wrongly believed.)  The first Lutherans did not seek to reach the common person by adapting folk love songs for Christian worship.  They understood that the church was a community of saints gathered around the hearing of God’s Word rightly preached and receiving Christ’s sacraments.





About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am an Associate Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


Reformers Are Not Radicals — 4 Comments

  1. “In these writings the first Lutherans made it clear that they did not intend to make a new church, but to reform the Christian church.” This is not a reformation, but a return to what is right and proper, i.e. a restoration. Reform means to alter the basic substance or function of a thing; restore means to return a thing to its’ initial and proper state. What I do not comprehend is when I go to our Synodical Cyclopedia and search “Reformation” – they define this term as “Restoration” (“In church history, the Reformation is the 16th-century movement to restore the church (founded and formed by Christ)”. LCMS Christian Cyclopedia).

    I long for the day when we call a thing what it is; where this is a term (i.e. “is” means “is”) or an attempt to return Christ’s Church to what He intended it to be (i.e. “restoration”). Remember, there is no end to a reformation which is what the Calvanists, Arminians, and current “evangelicals” are eager to assert. They say Luther began a good work- he just did not go far enough. The end result of this is Joel Ostein, Rob Bell, Rick Warren, After five hundred years, maybe we can repent and return to our Confessions and what they intended to accomplish – a restoration of Christ’s Church.

  2. Several online sources that appear to be authoritative convey this interesting factoid: The first stanza of “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” written by Luther, was based upon the refrain of a folk song, “From Distant Land I Come To You.” (

    The folk song — known as a “garland song” — had accompanied a mildly flirtatious game: “A young man would sing the refrain and then pose a riddle to one of a group of girls sitting in a circle. If she could not solve the riddle, she would have to give him her wreath-garland.” (

    Even the song’s folk tune was used by the Lutherans at first.


    Posted, with helpful references, by the First Lutheran Church of Boston:

    “Luther and his followers wrote hymns with strophic lyrics, set to singable melodies that often mimicked German folk tunes. He also modified and paraphrased Gregorian chants to accommodate vernacular strophic texts.”

    [Before the end of the Baroque period, other musical innovations in the Lutheran church effectively reached beyond church members.] “Bach’s church services lasted about three hours, with a one-hour long sermon and over one hour worth of music that attracted church members and visitors alike.”


  3. Initially Luther used the folk melody associated with his first stanza as the tune for this hymn. Later he composed this new tune for his text. VOM HIMMEL HOCH was first published in Valentin Schumann’s Geistliche Lieder in 1539. Johann S. Bach (PHH 7) used Luther’s melody in three places in his well-known and loved Christmas Oratorio.

  4. For many of us, I would imagine, a favorite hymn of comfort is “Be Still My Soul” sung to the tune Finlandia by Sibelius. Some years ago I came across an old opinion piece concerning some of the content being proposed at the time for The Lutheran Hymnal that was eventually published in 1941. In that piece, the Lutheran writer(s) objected to the use of Finlandia because the purpose for which it was composed (and perhaps, as I vaguely recall, the first lyrics sung to that tune) had nothing to do with Christian piety.

    For my part, having sung the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in concert on a couple of occasions, I’m no fan of repurposing his “Ode to Joy” tune for the hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” But the hymn obviously brings joy to many. So may God bless all who lift their voices to sing His praises with it.

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