Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing

A confessional church is a singing church. As she sings, she makes her good confession, a confession both in word and music. As the sainted Martin Franzmann once said, “Theology is doxology. Theology must sing” (Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets: Sermons by Martin Franzmann [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1994], p. 92). Theology cannot remain mute words safely bedded down between the covers of a book; it must leap off the printed page, exit the mouth, and fill the air with holy sound. Theology must be given a voice. The lips, not the pen, are the best instruments of theological expression. Although doctrinal books, commentaries, journals, and essays serve well as mediums of confession, they all play second fiddle to that which is articulated within the liturgy. The dogmatics of Francis Pieper must salute the hymns of Paul Gerhardt.

All of which is to say that the hearth and home of theology is in the Divine Service. All true theology is restless until it finds its rest in liturgy, sermons, and hymnody. There the rubber meets the road. In that holy context the bride of Christ is doing what she does best: hearing from and speaking to her heavenly groom. And the words she speaks are God-words, nouns and verbs which cradle the divine presence. The words the Spirit first planted in her ears bear fruit through her lips as she confesses, chants, and sings. I have heard seminarians say that they learned as much, or more, theology in the daily chapel services as in the classroom or study. The same could be said for any layman who confesses the creeds, prays the liturgy, sings the hymns, or listens to the sermons in his congregation. As he does so, he is swimming in a lake of theology. So it is and so it should be. The Augsburg Confession, Article VII, says the one holy Christian church “is the assembly of believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” The church is thereby defined liturgically, as God’s children gathered around Gospel-preaching and the holy sacraments of the divine service. Here theology is on home turf.

In a psalm recounting how God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, we read, “Then they believed His words; they sang His praise” (106:12; NKJ; emphasis added). They believed, therefore they sang (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:13). Faith and hymnody, belief and confession, go hand in glove. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks and sings. This, however, is a double-edged sword. Hymns can be beautiful confessions of truth, but they can also be ugly expressions of falsehood. The words uttered by the mouth are windows to the heart; they reveal the orthodoxy or heterodoxy which resides therein. So if you wish to know the good, the bad, or the ugly confession of an individual or congregation, you might well begin by asking him or them to sing a dozen of their favorite hymns. The pastor’s quia subscription to the Lutheran confessions and the congregation’s formal membership in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod mean little if the hymn of the day is “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” It doesn’t take a theological giant to see that what they have really decided to follow is something other than the path of orthodoxy.

Here it is helpful to remember that the primary meaning of orthodoxy is “right praise,” from the Greek orthos (right) and doxa (praise or glory). Only by extension does it mean “right doctrine.” The two, however, enjoy a mother-daughter relationship, for from doctrine’s womb the child of praise is born. The ancient church used the following aphorism to say the same thing: Lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, the rule of prayer [constitutes] the rule of believing. That which the church speaks and sings in her liturgy is indicative and constitutive of what she confesses to be true—good or bad. Put your ear to a church’s mouth—not your nose in her books—and there she will tell you what she truly believes, not just what she claims to believe. It is no coincidence, therefore, that virtually all communions within Christendom have their own distinctive hymnody. Their songs mirror their theology…

So begins a booklet I wrote several years ago, entitled, Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing, published by the Evangelical-Lutheran Liturgical Press. In this small book, I examine the place and purpose of hymnody within the divine service, and explain five criteria for Lutherans hymns. I am in the process of preparing Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing for publication, since it has been out of print for several years. I will keep you updated on my progress. And, as always, I thank all of you who have, in any way, encouraged me to begin writing anew, and to keep it up.    

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16 thoughts on “Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing

  1. Pingback: Wonder why Lutherans sing what they sing? by Chad Bird | Emmaus Lutheran Church, Drayton Valley, Alberta

  2. David Ledbetter on said:

    FYI from Lisa Wagner

  3. I would be interested in your comments on “contemporary” worship and music in general. And especially how you answer those who say, “At least people are hearing the Word who otherwise may not have”.

  4. Duane on said:

    I enjoyed reading this piece. It explains a lot. I still feel as a church we hold on to songs in a legalistic way. That somehow we are more saved singing songs that are hundreds of years old.

    • Thanks for the comment, Duane. There is no place for legalism within the church. Rather, a desire to sing that which proclaims the riches of Christ with clarity and beauty.

  5. Mark Davidson on said:

    Thanks for your comments in this article, Chad. Very interesting to read. Just purchased your two books on Amazon for further reading.

  6. Kenya Patzer on said:

    This sounds fantastic! Can’t wait!!

  7. schroera on said:

    Thank you for a thoughtful and well-written article. I am one who agrees with Luther that music is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. I too find the need to express my worship in song. I also agree that the historical liturgy of the Church is a wonderful and wise way to worship. I think those who choose to turn their back on historical worship definitely better have a good reason, but…

    I think it is a stretch to say, “All true theology is restless until it finds its rest in liturgy, sermons, and hymnody.” True theology finds a wonderful home in all of those, but they are not the only orthodox expression of worship or proclamation. They also do not guarantee true theology. Many a heterodox church uses the divine service, sermons and hymnody.

    Don’t get me wrong, I see great wisdom in liturgical worship. I treasure deeply our Lutheran hymnody. I have no desire to stray from them, but I think we need to be careful not to equate orthodoxy with liturgical worship or certain hymns.

    If you want to see my thoughts on proper worship, I recently wrote an article on it: http://364daysofthanksgiving.com/isnt/
    I would love to hear what you think about my article and comments above. Again, thank you for a thought-provoking article.

    • Thank you very much for your comments, as well as linking to your blog post, with which I am in hearty agreement.

      To clarify: when I wrote, “All true theology is restless until it finds its rest in liturgy, sermons, and hymnody,” I was speaking of worship as the place wherein the church confesses theology, but not the only place she does that. Of course, theology can be expressed in the classroom, work space, or living room, for that matter. My point, as I state in the sentence before the sentence you quote, is that “the hearth and home of theology is in the Divine Service.”

      Nor did I ever suggest that they guarantee true theology. Indeed, I go on to make the point that some churches reveal their bad theology precisely in the hymns they choose to sing within the liturgy.

      I do appreciate the feedback. And thank you again for what you wrote in your blog. Well said.

      Chad

  8. Pingback: September 21, 2014 – Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity | First Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church

  9. Pingback: My Newest Book: Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing |

  10. Good music with warming memories,,,

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