Restoring and Paying Forward the Lutheran Chorales:
An Item for Reformation Repentance
Rev. John A. Frahm III
When Luther nailed the 95 Theses up on the church door in Wittenberg, he nailed them not on someone else’s church but his own. The Reformation is a call for repentance. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether the parament color for Reformation ought to be purple. On such a year as the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation we have cause for celebration and also returning to the sources. One of the key areas needing renewal among us is in the area of hymnody. Our understanding and utilization of hymnody has suffered over the centuries.
Between the publication of the Book of Concord in 1580 and 2017, the Lutheran Church has suffered various attacks, sicknesses, and enemies within. The devastation of the Thirty Years War, followed by Pietism, Rationalism, the forced Calvinist-Lutheran Prussian Union, and the frontier conditions of early America have not made preservation of our Gospel-centered heritage a very smooth road. Add to these calamities further complications when Lutherans of various German and Scandinavian backgrounds moved to English, our heritage at the very least was muddied and often poorly translated. C.F.W. Walther and Charles Porterfield Krauth were certainly well-aware of the dangers from influence of the surrounding Revivalists, Calvinists, and other sects in America. The advent of radio led to the promulgation of revivalist songs across American culture, and Lutherans were not sheltered from this influence. This reach has only expanded since then. Thankfully more Lutheran resources are available today now as well.
The loss of the Lutheran chorales among us as a living part of our heritage is not only a loss of identity but a loss of rich comfort, evangelistic witness and faith formation. The influence of Generic American Protestantism has engendered a preference for the saccharine pseudo-gospel of experientialism. While the term “chorale” existed before the Lutheran Reformation, the Lutheran appropriation of the form for the purposes of the gospel confession made it a distinctly Lutheran form of liturgical piety. The radical elements during the Reformation gradually went another way and time has borne out the fruits of their theological trajectory. Part of the problem nowadays is that our identity is conceived not in terms of our confession but under the vague umbrella of Protestantism.
Originally the term “Protestant” was used more in a political context than as a term denoting a particular theology. “Protesting” in and of itself does not indicate a confession of faith but is a negation. Originally protesting the edicts of the Diet of Speyer the term was meant to indicate princes and other rulers who rejected the terms of the Holy Roman Emperor. While the first protesters (Protestants) were mostly Lutherans it was not a particularly theological term but rather a civil, political adjective for the left hand kingdom. It was the Prussian Union of 1817 that was gave major stock to simply regarding non-Roman Catholic (and non-Eastern Orthodox) Christians simply under the umbrella of Protestantism. Friedrich Wilhelm III forced a union between Reformed and Lutherans. Interestingly for today, it was under the context of celebrating a Reformation anniversary that theology and practice were compromised for political ends. So while thinking of the Diet of Speyer protestations Lutherans might consider the designation “Protestant” apropos, later developments and corrosive movements associated with the term tend to leave Lutherans with a bad taste in the mouth when it comes to the term “Protestant.” Popular modern conceptions of the theology associated with term “Protestant” are decidedly not that of the Augsburg Confession. Like Lutheran usage of the terms “evangelical” and “catholic” in self-referencing ways, it takes some circumspect explanation. Pastorally, in the congregation, the catechetical challenge is to make clear the distinction between that which we confess in the Small Catechism as distinguished from those confessions of Calvinist or Arminian lineage. Lutherans are the first Evangelicals and the Church of the Augsburg Confession. At the same time, if one takes a few moments to look up the positive appropriations of the word “catholic” in the Book of Concord, it is clear Lutherans did not want to give up that term either. Rome didn’t own the term “catholic” and in fact on many points, they weren’t very catholic. Both Walther and Löhe were apt to make this observation.
With all of this baggage hanging around the necks of present-day Lutheran congregations, whether consciously aware of it or not, our liturgical and musical heritage has suffered a severe loss. Despite the liturgical heritage being passed down through the German and English hymnals of the LCMS, our recovery of our heritage has been sporadic. Because of these various external influences and little history of catechesis in matters of hymnody or liturgy, people have not widely gained an acquaintance or love for their own displaced heritage that is so rich for the feeding of faith. Perhaps there are concerns of accompaniment tempo or difficulty in learning the syncopated rhythms of the chorale form of music, but we have largely been ignorant and apathetic about the importance of the chorales in our overall liturgical heritage. For Lutherans hymns are not just praise or for engineering a feeling of upliftedness, but are really sung sermons and catechesis to heart and mind for Christian life and the art of dying in Christ in faith.
Recent publications by Christopher Boyd Brown (Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation) and others have pointed out the critical catechetical importance of the Lutheran corpus of hymnody (kernlieder) for the furtherance of the Lutheran confession amongst the people. As it sustained Christians of the early church amid heresies and persecution and the trials of life in a fallen world, so the great body of Lutheran hymns by Luther, Paul Gerhardt, Johann Franck, Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and many others have taken the truth of justification by grace alone and poetically planted it into the souls of faithful Lutheran families. The chorales show the rich and unchanging truth of the Lutheran Confessions is not “dead orthodox” at all but living and deeply comforting, while rooted in the objective truth of the Word of God, pointing the way also to the sacramental treasures Christ has given the Church.
Sadly what many today describe as the “old favorites” or the “old Lutheran hymns” are the English and American hymnody of revivalism and Methodism. “Old Lutheran hymns” perhaps other than “A Mighty Fortress” are largely absent from the active repertoire of many Lutheran congregations even where “page 5” and “page 15” were the norm.
If we desire to preserve, hand-on the faith, and evangelize consistently with our confessional heritage then the Lutheran chorales and the great ethos of Lutheran hymnody must of necessity be passed on as well. Catechisms and chorales go hand in hand for Lutheran parish life and piety. 2017 is a year to repent of generic protestant dilutions. We do ourselves no favors continuing to do so. As Walther once answered the question about importing Methodist hymns into a Lutheran Sunday school, you don’t import coal into Newcastle, an area in Great Britain known for abundant superior coal. In our day the frequent citation of the Formula of Concord on matters of adiaphora often brings not new compositions or richer expressions of the faith once for all delivered to the saints but importation of heterodox or shallow lyrics from “Christian radio” with music designed for emotional manipulation rather than reflection of a solidly Christocentric text that preaches. Matters of adiaphora do not extend to undermining the sound confession of the unchanging faith simply to entice a crowd or engineer a certain group dynamic, or to give the impression that we do not differ from the radical Reformation.
It is important that pastors and church musicians avail themselves of resources to support this important part of our theological heritage. Interestingly notable is Edwin Liemohn’s remark, in his book The Chorale Through Four Hundred Years: In the training of pastors, Luther was also adamant when he expressed the opinion that young men should not be ordained as preachers unless they had been well trained in music (Liemohn, p.19).
Some time ago, Rev. Dr. Rick Stuckwisch assembled some suggestions on where to start with Lutheran Service Book. Institutes like the Good Shepherd Institute and the organist workshops at CTS Fort Wayne give practical helps on recovering our heritage and gaining skills to re-instill the richness of this gift with our people even where there are more modest means. Concordia Publishing House also has a couple nice sets of hymns on CD or in digital format for listening and learning the chorales. Below are some recommended resources toward this end. Some are out of print but worth tracking down. We also look forward to Concordia Publishing House publishing the remaining and eagerly awaited desk edition references for Lutheran Service Book before too much longer.
A few selected resources:
Brown, Christopher Boyd. Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation. (Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 2005)
Leaver, Robin A. Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications (Lutheran Quarterly Books). (Grand Rapids. Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)
Liemohn, Edwin. The Chorale Through Four Hundred Years. (Philadelphia. Muhlenberg Press, 1953)
Riedel, Johannes. The Lutheran Chorale: Its Basic Traditions. (Minneapolis. Augsburg Publishing House, 1967)
Schalk, Carl. Music in Early Lutheranism: Shaping the Tradition (1524-1672) (Saint Louis. Concordia Publishing House, 2001)
Zager, Daniel. The Gospel Preached Through Music: The Purpose and Practice of Lutheran Church Music. (Saint Louis. Concordia Publishing House, 2013)
Zager, Daniel ed. Hymns in the Life of the Church: Journal for the Fourth Annual Conference of the Good Shepherd Institute. (Fort Wayne IN. Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 2004)