Hymns That Teach
Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt, Hymnwriters
26 October 2017
Lutherans have been well-known for writing hymns. Of course, Luther got the ball rolling by writing a large number of exceptionally powerful and theologically deep hymns. These powerful hymns also caught the imagination of the people for whom they were written in their native German language. The Lutheran people of Germany sang with great gusto in churches, mostly without accompaniment, and in fields while laboring and in homes at devotions. In a back handed compliment the seventeenth-century Roman Catholic controversialist Cardinal Robert Bellarmine lamented, "Lutheran hymns have killed many souls." Today, those hymns, such as "A Mighty Fortress," are sung even in Roman Catholic churches. Lutheran hymn writing is again flourishing among American Lutherans as the hymn selections in the Lutheran Service Book (CPH, 2006) testify.
 
Luther wrote hymns to replace the ordinaries of the mass, namely the church's service celebrating the Lord's Supper. The ordinaries were Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, the Creed, Sanctus, and others. Those ordinaries had been sung in Latin for centuries by people who no longer had a good idea what they meant. Luther's substitutes along with his other hymns now unfolded the deep faith of the Lutheran confession to the people of the church. The mass itself was now treated as it was intended to be, that is, as a gift of grace that granted to the believer forgiveness of sins in the presence of God. Luther's hymns expressed the content of that gospel faith in meter and set it upon the hearts of and minds of God's people. No wonder Luther said, "He who sings prays twice."
 
In the seventeenth century the writers most responsible for Bellarmine's lamented Lutheran hymns were the men being commemorated today: Philip Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt. Each one wrote gems of the Lutheran chorale form; hymns still sung to this day. These hymns all fulfilled the boast of the Augsburg Confession that they "teach the people what they need to know about Christ." Christ and His atoning suffering and death were at the center of each hymn they wrote. They often wrote out of their own profound suffering. Paul Gerhardt lost his post as superintendent of the churches of Berlin, and his wife and his children died of the plague during the Thirty Years War, yet he could still write the profound hymn, "Commit Whatever Grieves Thee," among many others.
 
Such hymn singing is not a bunch of liturgical froufrou that can be dispensed with at will. The hymns of the Lutheran church have as their purpose to teach the people the faith of the church. Thus, they must adequately unfold the faith of the church. They may not be the meaningless praise chorus music used now to substitute darkness for light. No, the church of Christ must sing something better for the sake of the truth. The purpose of the music is to teach not to lull into deadly spiritual sleep. They are to produce light not encourage darkness. Hymns should teach.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

   Augsburg Confession
"We are unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass. Without boasting, it is manifest that the Mass is observed among us with greater devotion and more earnestness than among our opponents. Moreover, the people are instructed often and with great diligence concerning the holy sacrament, why it was instituted, and how it is to be used (namely, as a comfort for terrified consciences) in order that the people may be drawn to the Communion and Mass. The people are also given instruction about other false teachings concerning the sacrament. Meanwhile no conspicuous changes have been made in the public ceremonies of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung in addition to the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people. After all, the chief purpose of all ceremonies is to teach the people what they need to know about Christ."

Augsburg Confession, 24.1-3
Psalm 98

Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody! With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD! Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. (ESV)
Prayer
Thy truth and grace, O Father, must surely see and know both what is good and evil for mortal man below. According to Thy counsel Thou wilt Thy work pursue; and what Thy wisdom chooseth Thy might will always do. Thy hand is never shortened. All things must serve Thy might. Thine every act is blessing. Thy path is purest light. Thy work no man can hinder, Thy purpose none can stay, Since Thou to bless Thy children Wilt always find a way. Though all the powers of evil the will of God oppose, His purpose will not falter, His pleasure onward goes. Whate'er God's will resolveth, Whatever He intends will always be accomplished true to His aims and ends. Then hope, my feeble spirit, And be thou undismayed. God helps in every trial And makes thee unafraid. Await His time with patience then shall thine eyes behold the sun of joy and gladness His brightest beams unfold. Amen. (Paul Gerhardt, "Commit Whatever Grieves Thee" Sts 3-6)
 
For Rev. Dr. Christopher Ahlman who leads God's people in song as the Director of Parish Music of Memorial Lutheran Church, that we would altogether make a joyful noise unto the Lord
 
For all those suffering from the devastation of the wild fires in California, that they would cast their cares upon their heavenly Father, who watches over them
 
For the family and friends of Pearl Coburn, that they would grow in faith as they thank God for the gift of the resurrection of the flesh and the life of the world to come while grieving their loss
Art: Albrecht DURER, The Adoration of the Trinity (1511)
Memorial Lutheran Church
smurray@mlchouston.org
http://www.mlchouston.org
©  Scott Murray 2017