Luther’s Theology: Music as Servant of the Word
Luther’s recovery of a Bible-centered Christianity led him to revise the worship liturgy to reflect this new theological orientation. His reordering of worship services gives us a glimpse of his theology of music, and from his own words, we see that he had a high view of it, not only for worship, but as an entity in itself.
Using the gospel as his grid, Luther retained, replaced, or revamped various elements from the mass. We clearly see his guiding principle: “And this is the sum of the matter: Let everything be done so that the Word may have free course instead of the prattling and rattling that has been the rule up to now. We can spare everything except the Word. Again, we profit by nothing as much as by the Word. For the whole Scripture shows that the Word should have free course among Christians.”[i]
Having ensconced the Bible at the pinnacle of worship, Luther sees an intimate connection between music and the Word: “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. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener’s soul…. After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.”[ii]
He held a high view of music in part because it’s a benefit bestowed by God: “I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone. But I am so overwhelmed by the diversity and magnitude of its virtue and benefits that I can find neither beginning nor end or method for my discourse.”[iii]
Luther held that this gift permeates the created order: “First then, looking at music itself, you will find that from the beginning of the world it has been instilled and implanted in all creatures, individually and collectively. For nothing is without sound or harmony. Even the air, which of itself is invisible and imperceptible to all our senses, and which, since it lacks both voice and speech, is the least musical of all things, becomes sonorous, audible, and comprehensible when it is set in motion.” For Luther, the most sublime of creaturely music is found in man: “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.”[iv]
This gift is also an art form whose chief advantage is its power to move us: “Here it must suffice to discuss the benefit of this great art….We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely, that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions….For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate—and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good?—what more effective means than music could you find?”[v]
Luther understood that music is essential to worship because ultimately God has ordained it as such: “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 of the common and ancient custom of the Christian church to sing Psalms. St. Paul himself instituted this in I 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.”[vi]
Heirs of the Reformation must hold fast to Luther’s template of music as servant of the Word. His link between the two, with music serving as a useful vehicle to convey biblical and theological content, is a valuable reminder that our worship music must prioritize the content of songs over their sonority for emotional impact. And in this year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we should thank God for our rich heritage of biblically sound hymns that express biblical truth in lyrical style via moving melodies.
James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.
[i] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 14. This quote is from Luther’s 1523, “Concerning the Order of Public Worship.”
[ii] From Luther’s 1538 “Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae Iucundae [Pleasant Harmonies],” LW 53: 323-324.
[iii] LW 53: 322.
[iv] LW 53: 322.
[v] LW 53: 323.
[vi] From Luther’s 1524 “Preface to the Wittenberg Hymnal,” LW 53: 315-316.