REFORMATION 500: Hymn Debate

As much as hymn singing has always been one of the most effective builders of Christian community, it has also always been one of the strongest dividers of Christian communities. In the early decades of the Reformation, Calvinists broke with Lutherans over several important matters, but one was existentially apparent at every gathering for worship: the singing. Lutherans sang hymns that with considerable freedom expressed their understanding of the gospel (like Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” or “From Heaven High I Come to You”), and they often sang them with choirs, organs, and full instrumentation. Calvinists, by contrast, sang the psalms paraphrased and with minimal or no instrumental accompaniment (like the 100th Psalm, “All people that on earth do dwell,” which was prepared by William Kethe for English and Scottish exiles who had taken refuge in Calvin’s Geneva during the persecutions of England’s Catholic Mary Tudor). However natural it may now seem for Protestant hymnals to contain both Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” and Kethe’s “Old One Hundredth,” in fact it took more than two centuries of contentious Protestant history to overcome the visceral antagonism to “non-scriptural” hymns that prevailed widely in the English-speaking world. It was even longer before organs, choirs, and instrumental accompaniment were accepted.

—Mark Noll, “Praise the Lord: Song, Culture, Divine Bounty, and Issues of Harmonization” http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2007/novdec/9.14.html

Advertisements

REFORMATION 500: Gratitude for Grace

O Lord, we are not worthy to have a glimpse of heaven, and unable with works to redeem ourselves from sin, death, the devil, and hell. For this we rejoice, praise and thank you, O God, that without price and out of pure grace You have granted us this boundless blessing in your dear Son through whom You take sin, death, and hell from us, and give to us all that belongs to Him.

—Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s Easter Hymn

Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands,
For our offenses given;
But now at God’s right hand He stands,
And brings us life from Heaven.
Wherefore let us joyful be,
And sing to God right thankfully
Loud songs of Alleluia!

No son of man could conquer Death,
Such mischief sin had wrought us,
For innocence dwelt not on earth,
And therefore Death had brought us
Into thralldom from of old
And ever grew more strong and bold
And kept us in his bondage.

But Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,
To our low state descended,
The cause of Death He has undone,
His power forever ended,
Ruined all his right and claim
And left him nothing but the name,
His sting is lost forever.

It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life;
The reign of death was ended.
Stripped of power, no more it reigns,
An empty form alone remains
Death’s sting is lost forever!

Here the true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree—
So strong His love!—to save us.
See, His blood doth mark our door;
Faith points to it, Death passes o’er,
And Satan cannot harm us.

So let us keep the festival
Whereto the Lord invites us;
Christ is Himself the joy of all,
The Sun that warms and lights us.
By His grace He doth impart
Eternal sunshine to the heart;
The night of sin is ended!

Then let us feast this Easter day
On the true Bread of Heaven;
The Word of grace hath purged away
The old and wicked leaven.
Christ alone our souls will feed;
He is our Meat and Drink indeed;
Faith lives upon no other!

—Martin Luther (1524), translated Richard Massie (1854)

(may be sung to the hymn tune MIT FREUDEN ZART [“Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above”])