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.