Martin Luther on Music and Song Writing

One of Luther’s great contributions to Christianity was that he pointed out that much of the common thinking about Christian living and attitudes comes from Plato and Aristotle, rather than from the Bible.

Plato, for example, was a dualist – who viewed the physical world as inherently bad, and the unseen spiritual world as inherently good. Therefore, Plato taught that physical pleasure should be avoided; it was better to live a life of suffering and eschew pleasure in order to be more spiritual. This thinking worked its way into Christianity, to the point where things intended by God to be blessings for our enjoyment were rejected and forbidden. One such area was music.

Augustine of Hippo had written about music in the 5th century, stating that he was “troubled in conscience whenever he caught himself delighting in music.” Luther, who greatly looked up to Augustine, responded by saying: “I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God.” He went on to say, “Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor,” and “next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”

“Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor.”

“Next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”

Luther is the one who introduced, or at least re-introduced congregational singing to the church. It may be hard to imagine, but until Luther brought singing to the church, there had been no such thing for at least several hundred years, if not more. Furthermore, the fact that there is congregational singing in Catholic churches today is directly because of Luther, and most hymns sung in the Roman Catholic Church today were written by Protestants.

Luther also believed that music was a great tool for teaching spiritual truths. He wanted to put good doctrine into congregational songs to reinforce the teaching that was coming from the pulpit. Luther wrote many hymns himself, but he also reached out to others for help. In a letter to his friend Georg Spalatin in 1523, Luther wrote:

Our plan is to follow the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers of the church and to compose songs for the people in the vernacular, that is: spiritual songs so the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music. Therefore we are searching everywhere for poets. Since you are endowed with a wealth of knowledge and elegance in the German language, and since you have polished it through much use, I ask you to work with us in this project.

I would like you to avoid any new words or the language used at court. In order to be understood by the people, only the simplest and most common words should be used for singing; at the same time, however, they should be pure and apt; and further, the sense should be clear and as close as possible to the [Bible]. You need a free hand here; maintain the sense, but don’t cling to the words; [rather] translate them with other appropriate words.

Furthermore, unlike Zwingli in Zürich, who forbade the use of musical instruments, Luther encouraged the use of musical instruments in church.

Martin Luther not only introduced music back into the church, but he defined the parameters of what makes for good Christian church music.

What Really Happened on October 31, 1517?

Today is Reformation Day, and not just any Reformation Day – it is the 500 year anniversary of the event which is usually considered to mark the official start of the Reformation, and rightly so – because something was done on October 31, 1517 which would snowball into the Reformation and would changed the world forever.

But what was that event?

It is widely held, that this is the day when Martin Luther defiantly nailed his 95 Theses to the wooden door of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany – his hammer strikes shattering the Holy Roman Empire, and the nail piercing right through the heart of the Pope!

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But on closer examination, it was actually something no less significant, but probably slightly less dramatic!

Here’s what we know:

Luther mailed a letter

The one thing we do know is that on this day, Luther posted a letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. So rather than having the picture in your mind of Luther brazenly and defiantly mailing nailed a list of grievances to the door of the church, picture in your mind Luther sitting at his desk, sealing an envelope and then gently handing a letter to a currier, and giving him some cash to deliver it.

Furthermore, this letter was written – not defiantly and aggressively, but in the most humble, polite and apologetic tone that can be imagined.

You can read the text of that letter here: Luther’s Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz (1517)

Here’s just his introduction:

Spare me, Most Reverend Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, that I, the dregs of humanity, have so much boldness that I have dared to think of a letter to the height of your Sublimity. The Lord Jesus is my witness that, conscious of my smallness and baseness, I have long deferred what I am now shameless enough to do, — moved thereto most of all by the duty of fidelity which I acknowledge that I owe to your most Reverend Fatherhood in Christ. Meanwhile, therefore, may your Highness deign to cast an eye upon one speck of dust, and for the sake of your pontifical clemency to heed my prayer.

The reason Luther wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz is because these indulgences were being sold in his name in the region over which he had oversight and authority, and Luther believed that Archbishop Albrecht was not aware of what was going on, and that it was his duty to inform him. Luther expected that upon hearing about what was happening, Archbishop Albrecht would put an abrupt stop to it. That is, however, not what happened…

We don’t know when the 95 Theses were actually posted

It was Melanchthon, Luther’s follower, who several years later gave the date of October 31, 1517 as the date when the 95 Theses were posted. There’s a good chance that he did that based on knowing that was the day when Luther mailed his letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz.

Maybe that is the date, maybe it isn’t.

The 95 Theses probably weren’t posted the way it has been depicted

A hammer and some nails. So dramatic. Such bravado! But in all likelihood, that’s not how they would have been posted.

More likely:

  • They were probably posted with paste, rather than with a hammer and nails. So instead of imagining Luther with his arm cocked back to strike a nail with a hammer, imagine him with a bucket of paste and a brush.
  • They were probably not posted by Luther himself. The door of the church functioned as the church bulletin board, where you would post everything from “I lost my cat Mittens” to “I’m offering guitar lessons for $10/hour”. And it was the job of the church custodian to post things on the door. So try to picture Luther gently handing the church custodian something to post on the door, you know: when he had a moment.
  • They were probably posted on several church doors. The posting was in Latin (not the vernacular German), and it was an invitation to a scholarly debate. Kind of like how you might post to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to get your message out there, it is likely that a message like this would have been shared on more than one church door (AKA bulletin board).

No matter the particulars about it, we can be sure of one thing: the Reformation was about a return to the Bible, putting the Bible in the hands of the people, and a rediscovery of the core message of the Bible: the gospel!

Happy Reformation Day!

Sola Scriptura: All Scripture is Breathed Out by God

Yesterday we began a 5-week series at White Fields in which we are looking at the 5 Solas of the Reformation: the slogans that the Reformers used to summarize their core beliefs:

  • Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
  • Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
  • Sole Fide (Faith Alone)
  • Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
  • Soli Deo Gloria (To the Glory of God Alone)

We started by looking at the first of these: Sola Scriptura.

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Sola Scriptura means: the Bible alone is our highest authority.

Martin Luther and the other Reformers found themselves in a situation, where – having read the Bible, they discovered that many practices and teachings of the church in their time were actually in direct opposition to the clear teaching of the Bible – particularly on the issues of absolution of sin and justification.

This is what led to Martin Luther’s famous statement at the Diet (Congress) of Worms:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against this knowledge. May God help me. Amen.

Sola Scriptura does not mean that we reject other sources of truth and wisdom, nor that we reject or ignore tradition. To do so would not only be foolish, but it would be ignorant of the fact that the very way that we got the canon of Holy Scriptures that we now have was in large part by God working through reason and tradition to transmit the Scriptures to us.

What Sola Scriptura means is that when it comes to what we believe and how we live, there is no higher voice, no greater authority than the Holy Scriptures, and everything must by judged by them.

So, if church councils say one thing, but the Bible says another: Who wins?  The Bible does. If our culture and society says one thing, but the Bible says something else, then who do we believe?  Who do we submit to?  The answer is: the Scriptures.

Did the New Testament Writers Know They Were Writing Scripture?

2 Timothy 3:16 says: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

What Scriptures are being referred to here?

Obviously it is referring to the Old Testament scriptures, but interestingly, this comes from 2 Timothy, the last letter which Paul wrote, at the end of his life. By this time — almost all of the books that we have in our New Testaments had already been written, and were being distributed amongst the Christians, to be read and studied in their churches.

So, when Paul says, “All Scripture” — he’s not just talking about the Old Testament, he’s also talking about the New Testament!

In the New Testament, what you find is that the Apostles understood that God was using them in their time to bring about a New Testament of Holy Scriptures, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Here are a few examples:

  • In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter refers to the writings of Paul as “Scriptures”
  • In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul referred to his own message as “the word of God”
  • In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul takes a quotation from the Gospel of Luke – and he calls it “Scripture” (Luke 10:7)
  • In some of his letters, Paul instructs the recipients to distribute his letters and have them read in the churches. (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27)

What Paul is telling Timothy in this text is to stick to the Scriptures, because they come from God, not from man.

The Bible is not only inspired in the sense that it is like a great work of art that we might say is “inspired” – but it is inspired in the greater sense, that the words it contains were breathed by God Himself!

What that means is that the Bible is no ordinary book — it is the very word of God to us, and therefore it alone is worthy to be the highest authority in our lives.

Take Joy in Being the People of God

Last night I went to an event where author Eric Metaxas was speaking about his new book, a biography of Martin Luther. It was held at a church in Greenwood Village, and after speaking for about an hour about Luther and the writing of the book, he answered questions and then signed books.

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During the Q&A time, Metaxas said a few things which I thought were particularly powerful. The question was one about how Christians should always be reforming the church. Eric responded by saying that: yes, the Reformation must always continue, but in his opinion, oftentimes the church is too critical of the church. That Christians spend a lot of time deriding Christians and bemoaning the church, when in fact we should find an immense amount of joy in being the people of God who are called to take the message of God’s grace and love into the world. This is something we should revel in!

He went on to say that he grew up in the secular culture, and that for him – he saw the church as a living connection to God. When you’re drowning and someone throws you a rope, he said, it may be an imperfect rope, but it is a rope nonetheless, and rather than focusing on its flaws, you are thankful for the rope!

Metaxas went on to point out that the cultural elites in our day all speak the same language of secular humanism, and they together have collectively agreed that Christianity is old fashioned, obsolete and passé – and too often, we as Christians bow down to that and say: ‘Yeah, you’re right,’ and we shrink back into the shadows or retreat into an insular Christian sub-culture. Instead, we should stand in confidence as the people of God, with the truth of God, and use all avenues available to us to bring God’s truth and the message of the gospel into our society.

Eric has done this very well with his radio program and his books, which are published by a mainstream publisher (Viking Books) and several of which have made the New York Times bestseller list. He has a unique perspective on the church, having become a Christian later in life, studying at Yale and living in New York City, none of which are generally considered particularly friendly towards Christianity. He has been a good steward of the gifts that God has given him and has become an important and influential voice in our society, heralding the gospel as he can.

 

How Martin Luther King Jr Got His Name

This coming weekend at White Fields we will be starting a new series for the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation about the 5 Solas.

Partly in preparation for this and partly out of my own interest and curiosity, I’ve been reading a few books. One of them is Eric Metaxas’ new biography of Martin Luther, and the other is Stephen Nichols’, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World.

Metaxas begins his book with a story, which I had never heard before: How in 1934, an African American pastor from Georgia got on a boat to make the trip of a lifetime; he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, through the gates of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Israel. After this pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he traveled to Berlin to attend an international conference of Baptist pastors. While in Germany, this man, Michael King, became so impressed with what he learned about the Reformer, Martin Luther, that he decided to do something dramatic: he decided to change his name to Martin Luther King. This man’s son, also named Michael, was five years old at the time, and although close relatives would continue to call him Mike for the rest of his life, his father also changed his name, and he became known to the world as Martin Luther King Jr.

Metaxas uses this story to highlight the dramatic impact that Martin Luther has had, not only on the world, but on those who have come to know the story of his life and understand his actions, which have indeed changed the world and Christianity as we know it – even Roman Catholicism.

What has caught my attention most in the book so far, is how shockingly little even those who did have access to the Bible actually read it in Luther’s time, and how deep and widespread the problems were in the church at that time, largely as a result of this. It seems that what really set Martin Luther apart, and what led to the Reformation, was simply that he read the Bible. May we not be guilty of neglecting that in our day!

Tomorrow evening (Tuesday, October 24), my wife and I will be going down to Denver to see Eric speak about his book at Cherry Creek Pres. If you’re interested in going, here’s the event site where you can get tickets.

Luther’s Big Anniversary

This year marks 500 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther – a German monk and professor of theology – nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This act is considered the official beginning of the Reformation.

To celebrate this anniversary some European countries have declared special events and programs. Ukraine, for example, has declared an official program called R500 that includes special teaching in public schools about the Reformation and Protestants. This is particularly interesting considering how Protestants in Eastern Ukraine have suffered persecution from separatist authorities.

In honor of this anniversary I’ll be posting some of my favorite quotes from Luther over the next few months. I grew up going to Lutheran school, so I have some familiarity with him and affinity for him.

Luther’s Large Catechism begins with some insight about the first commandment:

The First Commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me

That is: Thou shalt have and worship Me alone as thy God.

What is the force of this, and how is it to be understood? What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God?

Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.

Therefore it is the intent of this commandment to require true faith and trust of the heart which settles upon the only true God and clings to Him alone. That is as much as to say: “See to it that you let Me alone be your God, and never seek another,” i.e.: Whatever you lack of good things, expect it of Me, and look to Me for it, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, creep and cling to Me. I, yes, I, will give you enough and help you out of every need; only let not your heart cleave to or rest in any other.

To read the continuation, click here.

Approaching Easter

Yesterday we had a blizzard hit the Front Range. Some places got as much as 25″ of wet, heavy snow. I was in Boulder yesterday and there were broken tree limbs littering Broadway.

I don’t mind this snow actually, I am only praying about what it means for our big Easter Outreach this Saturday in Roosevelt Park…

As we approach Easter, here are 2 things I wanted to share: a quote and a link to an article.

Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection not in books alone, but in every leaf of springtime.
– Martin Luther

Steve Brown on 6 Proofs of Christ’s Resurrection

 

 

Don’t Forget the Actual Holiday Happening Today

Today is Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Schlosskirche, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

Today is a great day to remember the work of the reformers which you unquestionably benefit from. Men who struggled for us to have the freedom to read the Bible for ourselves, in our own languages – and consider for ourselves what God says to us in the Scriptures. Today is a day to be thankful for the return to Biblical theology and the doctrine of grace that these men fought for.