Hymns to Know

One distinctive that marks the Lutheran confession from all others is the love of congregational singing. We owe this to Martin Luther and his friends. Luther himself recognized the role of music in the life of the church, composing hymn texts and tunes that we still use today. Luther wrote:

“Indeed I plainly judge, and do not hesitate to affirm, that except for theology there is no art that could be put on the same level with music, since except for theology [music] alone produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely, a calm and joyful disposition. Manifest proof [of this is the fact] that the devil, the creator of saddening cares and disquieting worries, takes flight at the sound of music almost as he takes flight at the word of theology. This is the reason why the prophets did not make use of any art except music; when setting forth their theology they did it not as geometry, not as arithmetic, not as astronomy, but as music, so that they held theology and music most tightly connected, and proclaimed truth through Psalms and songs.”

From the example of the prophets, we learn that music in the church is properly used for proclamation of the true teaching. Why? Because like the Word of Absolution, music can provide a calm and joyful disposition. Luther even boldly suggests that the sound of music when coupled with theology scares the devil away and lifts the conscience.

Music represents the core of our liturgical life together. Our regular liturgies teach the vocabulary and melody of the people of God. If I intone “Glory be to God on high…” you know to sing in response “and on earth, peace goodwill toward men.” From years of singing the Gloria in Excelsis, this Word of God dwells richly in you and lifts your conscience with the knowledge of salvation.

2006 Lutheran Service Book

The question we must ask is: What music is fitting for the Christian church? The answer to this question is consistent with our approach to the readings, preaching, the liturgy, and the other rites of  the church. While specific readings, particular liturgy, or specific church practices are not commanded or forbidden, this does not mean we should treat them as a matter of taste or flippantly.

As hymns are not inspired by God but are rather our poetic reflections upon God’s Word, there is a wide variance in their faithfulness. Not every hymn is suitable to be sung in a Lutheran church. Not every hymn is suitable for a particular church day or festival. Not every hymn sings with a tune appropriate to the text. Not every hymn is created equal.

This is not a matter of personal taste. Nor is the choice of hymns for the Divine Service something that is secondary. Hymns are chiefly for proclamation of God’s Word. They are to affect the spirit of the singer primarily by what they say and only secondarily by how their musical character. Some of the hymns popular in our churches and homes are inappropriate for the churches of the Lutheran confession. Some hymns reflect upon God’s Word wrongly, distorting it to suit the hymnwriter’s or translator’s own fancy.  Other hymns are too generic or weak in their description of the Holy Trinity and salvation in Jesus to be part of our regular use. Others have very narrow themes that are relevant only to specific occasions.

The efficacy of this song is in the Word spoken. Yet, the particular melody amplifies the Word. Perhaps you have caught yourself singing a hymn or a part of the liturgy as you go about your work or leisure? I know I have. The Word of God is carried from the Divine Service by this melody into our daily lives, bringing Jesus into even the most menial of tasks.

By regular use, the regularly attending congregation will grow in its appreciation and enthusiasm for hymns that were once unfamiliar and more difficult. The sturdier hymns, exemplified by the Lutheran chorales and the medieval chants have both a substance and a staying power that make them a good investment. Much like you can repeat the Gloria in Excelsis by heart, this core hymnody is a most salutary way of instilling sung poetic confessions of the Word of God into the hearts and minds of God’s people.

There is no doubt of the importance of hymnody in the Christian faith and life, for catechesis and confession, prayer and proclamation. A core body of significant hymns (kernlieder), sung with deliberate repetition at intervals throughout the church year, and from one year to the next, is a most salutary way of instilling these sung poetic confessions of the Word of God into the hearts and minds of God’s people.