Luther’s Theology: Music as Servant of the Word

Using the gospel as his grid, Luther retained, replaced, or revamped various elements from the mass

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.”

 

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.”

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