Four odd (but mostly loveable) things about Lutheran hymns

A discussion with a friend earlier tonight got me thinking about ways in which Lutheran hymnody differs from Anglican. So as we live in an age of listicles, here are four features of Lutheran hymns that have always struck me (as an adult convert) as distinctive, three of which I have learned to love…

1. The metres can be rather strange

Anglican hymn metres (a measure of syllables per line) are usually pretty straightforward. The classic is “common metre”: Then there’s “short metre” ( and “long metre” ( These can be doubled up (“DCM”, “DSM”, “DLM”). You might also get, and so on.

Some Lutheran hymns have predictable metres, but with others, all bets are off. The Easter hymn “I am content! My Jesus ever lives” has a metre. Move forward to Pentecost, and “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” meanders around a pattern. Then there’s the Communion hymn, “O Lord, we praise thee”, an epic that causes even the Lutheran Service Book to throw up its hands and label it as “peculiar meter”:

2. The hymns can be really long 

As the examples above show, Lutheran hymns often have really long stanzas. You might think the writers would make up for it by only writing a few stanzas per hymn. Not so! In the older hymnals, it’s routine to see hymns with 9, 10, 12 or more stanzas, even where the stanzas are as long as those cited above.

In the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s first hymnal, the classic hymn “Salvation unto us has come” has 14 stanzas (each of metre). The video here spares us most of these:

The latest LCMS hymnal has reduced this down to 10 stanzas, and other hymns are even more drastically cut – a tendency lamented by ELCE pastor, Tapani Simojoki, in this post defending long hymns as a form of catechesis (and fondly recalling singing a 41-stanza hymn on one occasion).

The good thing about hymns of this length is that they can include some really solid material. The Kindle edition of Walther’s Hymnal is a fine (if regrettably pricey) resource for personal devotion, even if most congregations would riot if forced to sing some of the hymns in their entirety.

3. The hymn tunes can be quite bouncy, though 

The good news is that the hymns often keep you on your toes, reducing the chances of your nodding off midway through verse 18. Early Lutheran chorales often had very bouncy rhythms, many of which were later regularised to fit with changing fashions.

Everyone knows Luther’s hymn Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress), but the original can come as a surprise to those familiar with its incarnation in Anglican hymnals:

To be honest, it’s the four-square, un-dotted version that strikes me as odd these days.

4. We sit down to sing them

This is the one I really can’t reconcile myself to. I’ve not been to many Lutheran churches – there aren’t many in this country to go to – but it seems pretty universal to sit down for most hymns: 

(Image via Duluth News Tribune.) 

It’s even in the rubrics in our service books, with a special symbol (△) indicating when people should stand for the final verse.

This probably makes sense when you’re singing a 27-stanza chorale. Speaking as my church’s organist, though, who sits at the front of the church to play, the impact on the quality of singing is enormous. When people stand for that final verse, or for the closing hymn, the difference in the sound is transformational. Now that we rarely sing more than five or six verses per hymn, I really don’t see what excuse we have for not standing. Hey ho…


Seeking enchantment in a secular age

taylorA friend recently lent me James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular. This short book (140 pages) is a summary and introduction to A Secular Age, a monumental 776-page analysis of secularism by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor – of whose existence I must shamefacedly admit to having previously been ignorant.

Taylor’s analysis of secularism identifies three senses in which the word “secular” can be used. What Taylor calls “secular₁” refers to the classical and medieval understanding of “the temporal”, as opposed to the “spiritual”: the realm of “the butcher, baker and candlestick maker”. “Secular₂” refers to the post-Enlightenment notion of the nonsectarian, religiously “neutral” public square. Both of these meanings are ones with which most of us will be familiar.

“Secular₃”, by contrast, is Taylor’s own distinctive contribution. Secular₃ refers not so much to what a society believes (or doesn’t believe), but to what is believable within that society; to what Taylor calls the “conditions of belief”. A secular₃ society is one in which:

religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested). (How (Not) To Be Secular, pp.21f.)

It is a society in which an “exclusive humanism” becomes a viable option, indeed the default option for many. This is a new development in human history, asserts Taylor:

For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true. (A Secular Age, p.18, quoted in HNTBS, p.23).

It’s important to note that (in contrast to the “secular₂” understanding of secularism) “secular₃” is not merely the “neutral” residue left by the removal of religious belief:

The “secular” is not just the neutral, rational, areligious world that is left over once we throw off superstition, ritual, and belief in the gods. […] The emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option — the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. (HNTBS, p.26)

In other words, the “exclusive humanism” of secular₃, with its “purely immanent sense of universal solidarity,” is an achievement; “a milestone in human history,” in Taylor’s words, providing a way for people to find “fullness and meaning” without reference to any divine or transcendent reality.

As Smith observes, an age dominated by secular₃ thinking is one in which not only non-belief, but also belief, will be significantly different from that of previous eras:

A secular₃ society could undergo religious revival where vast swaths of the populace embrace religious belief. But that could never turn back the clock on secularization₃; we would always know we used to believe something else, that there are plausible visions of meaning and significance on offer. (HNTBS, p.23)

This reminds me a lot of Peter Berger’s argument as to why (in sociological terms) we are all now “heretics”, as I discussed in a blog post back in 2004. Berger observes that the word “heresy” has its roots in the Greek for “choose”: a heretic is one who chooses what they believe, rather than just accepting the received beliefs of their society. But in a pluralistic society, Berger continues:

individuals now must pick and choose. Having done so, it is very difficult to forget the fact. There remains the memory of the deliberate construction of a community of consent, and with this a haunting sense of the constructedness of that which the community affirms. Inevitably, the affirmations will be fragile and this fragility will not be very far from consciousness.

Hence there is no escape for us from secular₃. Much has been written of how Christians today are exploring earlier models of piety and worship, whether that’s the “ancient-future” movement among US evangelicals, or the growth of interest in the traditional Latin Mass among some younger Catholics. All these things may be good and valid, but they do not get us out of the secular₃ conundrum:

[B]elief is contested and contestable in our secular age. There’s no going back. Even seeking enchantment will always and only be reenchantment after disenchantment. […] Elsewhere Taylor emphasizes that “the process of disenchantment is irreversible. The aspiration to reenchant … points to a different process, which may indeed reproduce features analogous to the enchanted world, but does not in any simple sense restore it.” (HNTBS, p.61 (and footnote))

Our instinctive response may be one of dismay at this idea of the inescapability of secular thinking. But there is also something liberating to it.

To explain this in personal terms: I am an adult convert to Lutheranism, becoming (in 2004) a member of a church body that is small and fragile, whose active membership (in the UK) numbers perhaps only in the hundreds. Since then, I’ve been repeatedly haunted, tempted, distracted by church traditions that (in the UK context at least) seem to offer a “wholer” vision of (and framework for) the Christian life than a small and poor collection of small and poor congregations can provide.

To put it in Taylor’s terms, I’ve been seeking “enchantment”, but have often found only “disenchantment” in my own tradition. To realise, though, that even these “wholer” traditions would only be (at least for me) another form of “reenchantment”, haunted by the awareness that other options are available, is an encouragement to find more contentment with where I am. It’s not that some true form of “enchantment” – of an uncontested, whole way of life that is “given” rather than “constructed” – still survives which I have somehow missed and must wander about attempting to find. Which means that maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop trying to do so.

Who’s doing the talking here?

divineserviceDiscussing my previous post on Facebook, a couple of further thoughts came to mind that are worth briefly mentioning here.

First: I think one’s interpretation of the words of institution largely depends on who you think is doing the talking when we celebrate the Mass. If it’s us who are doing the talking, then that will push us towards a metaphorical understanding of them (since we are just remembering / re-enacting what Jesus said and did).

But if it’s Christ who is doing the talking, through his minister, then that’s a different matter. Here is Christ, saying right here and right now, about this bread and this wine: “this is my body, this is the new testament in my blood; take, eat and drink.”

Secondly: one common response to all this is to say that the Supper is a “mystery” – the implication being that we can’t be sure whether Christ is being “literal” or “metaphorical” when he addresses these words to us.

Yes, the Supper is a mystery, but we should not make mysterious what Christ has made clear, any more than we should claim to make clear what Christ has kept mysterious. Christ’s promise – “this is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” – is clear. How bread and wine can become the body and blood of Christ is indeed a great mystery – but that mystery shouldn’t make us doubt or deny the clarity of the promise itself.

Talking of Facebook (you see what I did there?), I read something at work saying that Facebook is going to “dominate” social media in 2015. Which is a slightly depressing prospect, but hey, that’s the world we’re living in. So I now have a Facebook page for this blog. If “Liking” pages on Facebook is something you do (I’m being totally hypocritical here, as I try to avoid it), then I’d be very grateful if you would do so with this. If not: that’s fine, too. 🙂

English-speaking Lutheranism: lost in translation?

Luther's Bible and the Book of Common PrayerSo, why has “Augsburg Evangelicalism” (see previous post) failed to make much headway in the English-speaking world?

There are many reasons for this. Partly it’s because Lutherans have tended to be diffident about evangelism. Partly it’s because there isn’t that much of a “gap in the market” for a church tradition that is more sacramental than “low-church” Anglicanism, and more evangelical (in the sense of making justification by faith the centre of its teachings and practice) than Anglo- or Roman Catholicism.

To some extent there is a “chicken and egg” problem, which we can deduce from the following observation made by Gene Veith in the introduction to his book The Spirituality of the Cross. While “any Christian could draw on the spiritual insights of the Lutheran tradition that will be described here,” Dr Veith observes that:

The full dose of Lutheran spirituality can only, of course, be found within the day-to-day life of a Lutheran church […] Spirituality, after all, must be lived, not merely intellectualized, and its locus is the mysteries taking place in an ordinary local church.

In other words, no theology or spirituality can be abstracted from the church community in which it is incarnated – which makes it hard for such a theology or spirituality to take root in places where there are few congregations confessing it and living it out.

Wilhelm Stählin, in his book The Mystery of God (see previous post), suggests a deeper reason. He is discussing how the church of Christ is found “in, with and under” human society, so that the Christian faith cannot be abstracted from the human societies within which it is incarnated:

The Church lives within the nations, and the divine mysteries which by it are distributed in the world are united in the Church with the living forces of nationality. He who undertakes to preserve the Church’s purity by the method of only forming a church out of the essence of the Church, without any reference to the laws and ordinances of the nation’s life into which the Church seeks to sink its roots, is likely to fall into a dangerous self-delusion and ignore the way of God. For He wants to embed His mystery in the nation and in history.

While Stählin’s references to “the living forces of nationality” make me a little uncomfortable, I think he is still correct that it is a mistake to seek the pure “essence of church” abstracted from the church’s concrete existence within human society.

Stählin goes on to identify language as the main way in which the church and its social context are bound together:

If the feeling for the depths of language itself had not been concealed from us through the dominance of a purely conceptual way of thinking, then we should have noticed much more clearly how much Christian thought is linked on to the root factors of national culture by the use of the mother-tongue.

Stählin describes this as “self-evident to us of the Evangelical Church” (i.e. the Lutheran church in Germany), given the role of the Reformation in shaping German national identity. However, it is true for other traditions and languages as well:

Christian knowledge expresses itself in different languages, and in every language takes something from the native wisdom that is deposited in every living tongue. Luther’s translation of the Bible is to us all (i.e. in Germany) the classical instance of such a consubstantiatio.

Another classic example of how a Christian tradition is rooted in “the native wisdom” deposited in its “mother tongue” is, of course, Anglicanism, whose very essence was for centuries shaped and expressed in the language of the Authorised Version and the Book of Common Prayer. The most significant example of all, perhaps, is the role played by Latin in the (western) Catholic Church. It remains to be seen what the long term effects will be for these churches of their move away from these traditional languages in recent decades.

Of course, Lutheranism has never been solely a German-language tradition, as my Scandinavian (and Baltic) Lutheran friends will be quick to remind me. But Scandinavian Lutheranism is almost as long-established as the German variety, so that it has long spoken the native tongues of those countries. In any case (and perhaps significantly in this context), Scandinavian Lutheranism can be a very different beast from the German variety, both culturally and theologically.

For Lutheranism in the English-speaking world, the problem becomes that it is always a tradition in translation, losing something of its essence and vitality along the way, never quite finding a fully comfortable way of expressing itself in English. Thus Lutheranism – and, as a consequence, “Augsburg Evangelicalism” – remains something of an “introduced species”, rather than a native plant.

A brief introduction to Augsburg Evangelicalism

Luther's roseCan you be Lutheran without being Lutheran?

In a country whose Lutheran churches are few, small and struggling, that is far from an academic question (though not, mercifully, one which currently faces me personally).

A few years ago, Chris Atwood coined the term “Augsburg Evangelical” to describe the essence of Lutheran faith and practice. He summarised it in the following five principles:

  • Justification by faith alone.
  • Baptismal regeneration.
  • The real and substantial presence of Christ’s body and blood in the elements of the Lord’s Supper.
  • A relative indifference to polity as defining the being of the church.
  • Scripture as the only binding norm of faith and practice.

There is nothing about any of these that should necessarily be restricted to “the Lutheran church”, and indeed most other churches share at least some of these principles. And yet, as Chris went on to observe, we still find in practice that:

every congregation which affirms [all] these five also affirms the whole kit and kaboodle of the Lutheran tradition, from the Book of Concord to Law and Gospel sermons to Waltherian congregationalism to Reformation Sundays to Concordia Press to beer.

Other ways of presenting these “five points of Augsburg Evangelicalism” have been suggested, as set out in this post in 2010. For example, ROSES (as an echo of Calvinism’s TULIP):

  • Regeneration through Grace in Baptism (sola gratia): God initiates faith.
  • Only through faith (sola fide): only faith justifies Man.
  • Scriptural authority (sola scriptura): teaches Gospel and Law.
  • Economic church polities towards needs: polities are chosen according to practical needs.
  • Substantial real presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion: nurtures a believer and deepens the union between Man and God.

Or the following, more lighthearted effort (which, as someone pointed out at the time, manages to capture all six characteristics of the Evangelical Lutheran Church…):

  • Faith alone justifies
  • Unique presence in the supper
  • Baptismal regeneration
  • Authority of scripture
  • Rejection of polity norms

That said, however you define (or mnemonicise) it, this still feels a rather static – and, in some respects, rather negative – definition. In another post, I attempted to define the central dynamic (“engine-room”) of Lutheranism, based on Articles IV, V and VI of the Augsburg Confession:

IV. Concerning Justification

Furthermore, it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. […]

V. Concerning the Office of Preaching

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe. […]

VI. Concerning the New Obedience

It is also taught that such faith should yield good fruit and good works and that a person must do such good works as God has commanded for God’s sake but not place trust in them as if thereby to earn grace before God. […]

Each of these is critical, but it is Article V that is the linchpin. Justification is not by faith in an abstract gospel, but in the gospel as proclaimed to us in the word and sacraments (see also Romans 10:14-15); and that same faith, given to us by the Holy Spirit through the word and sacraments, produces good works as its fruit.

Again, there is nothing that would seem necessarily “Lutheran” about all that, and yet that specific dynamic – and in particular the way in which the role of preaching and the sacraments is understood – is one I’ve rarely found articulated so clearly outside a Lutheran context. Which is a shame, because I remain convinced it’s an understanding that would be beneficial to Christians from all traditions, without their also having to sign up for potluck lunches, sitting down to sing hymns, etc.

So, the reason for this post is simply to draw together those previous strands from my blogging, and to start 2015 making another small attempt to commend to Christians from other traditions these insights of “Augsburg Evangelicalism”, in the hope that it may be of use to some – even if Augsburg Evangelicalism and Lutheranism are likely to remain inextricably bound together for the foreseeable future.

Further reading

Selected blog posts on this topic from the past few years:

The best books to read on all this (though they are presentations of “Lutheranism” rather than “Augsburg Evangelicalism” as such):

Edit: or you could just spare yourself all of the above, and read, mark, learn and inwardly digest this tweet from Pr Alex Klages. Wisdom! Let us attend!

The mystery of the missing sacraments

monument-valley-3680_640“Our people have been unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass. But it is obvious, without boasting, that the Mass is celebrated among us with greater devotion and earnestness than among our opponents.” – Augsburg Confession (German text), Art. XXIV (Kolb/Wengert)

Such has been the confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church for almost 500 years. Sad to say, though, that for much of that time this statement has been a lie.

We have hopefully moved beyond the story told by Bo Giertz of a 19th century Norwegian being dismayed to find that not a single church in Stockholm was celebrating the Lord’s Supper when he visited. Our own congregation has celebrated weekly Communion for several years now, and the days when Lutheran churches would typically celebrate Communion once a quarter are hopefully now behind us – but the fact that such days came at all is dismaying.

How did it come about that a church with such a robustly sacramental confession – a church which could, in 1530, make the statement quoted above – should have, for distressingly long periods of time, “practically lost this Lutheran doctrine of the sacrament, and consciously or unconsciously even follow[ed] what Luther fought against,” as Wilhelm Stählin put it?

Stählin posed this question in his 1937 book The Mystery of God. He suggests that to answer it, we first need to consider the wider context for the sacraments in the life of the church: namely, the “divine mystery” of God’s presence “in, with and under” the created things of this world:

If one reads in the liturgical writings of the ancient Fathers, […] one is plunged into an abundantly rich stream, or perhaps more accurately, into an atmosphere of sacramental life. The entire being of the Church, together with all its forms of life, is a world of mystery. (p.71)

Thus Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar are not “isolated actions”, but rather supreme examples of the “power of the divine mystery” which suffuses the whole church, and which enables the church “to affirm, with all joy and seriousness, that she is the ‘stewardess over the mysteries of God.'” Thus, in around 1000, it could be said that church had plurima sacramenta, “very many sacraments”.

In the years after 1000, however, the definition of a “sacrament” was narrowed to the point where the Council of Florence, in 1439, could decree that the number of sacraments is seven. The Reformers further narrowed the list, first to three (including Absolution) and then to two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Those, however, the early Lutherans held to with great “devotion and earnestness”, to the extent that Luther would rather see the Reformation’s unity shattered than give ground on the “est” of “hoc est corpus meum”.

This narrowing of the definition of “sacrament”, though, came at a cost:

[T]ogether with Christology, the Sacraments are the only place where [Lutheran] Reformation theology developed a doctrine that should guard and defend this true mystery. Therefore a later development could abrogate at all other points the mystery, or rather, it could advance farther along the way that had been trodden with danger long prior to Luther at the late collapse of the medieval period. (pp.78f.)

In other words, while the Lutheran doctrine of the sacraments was clear and robust, it left undefended the wider category of mystery. The result was to leave the sacraments looking exposed, even anomalous:

What we of the Evangelical Church call “Sacraments” are the last persisting remains from a world of mystery that once embraced and filled the whole life of the Christian Church in its breadth, length, depth and height. They are, as it were, boulders formed from the earliest granite foundation which have remained standing, whilst softer material has crumbled away, dissolved in dust, by the floods of a totally different way of thinking. So now they stand, these boulders from primeval rock, in a landscape completely changed, alien and strange, as the uncouth witnesses of a world that has vanished into the beyond. (p.79)

Does this mean that Stählin thinks the Reformers were mistaken in their doctrine of the sacraments? No. He argues that the need to define the sacraments and limit their number came from the need to protect against “the ever-threatening divine mystery into a general mystery of life and of the world.”

It is necessary that the One who “was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,” at specific times and in specific places, should come to us most fully “in quite definite forms and solemnities, in quite definite signs and actions.” It is also proper that Baptism and the Supper, always the two supreme “mysteries” of the church, should retain their distinctive status.

And, for all the damage caused by the floodwaters of rationalism, the sacraments have nevertheless survived:

The doctrine of the Sacrament has enabled mystery to “survive the winter,” and conveyed through the centuries an ultimate knowledge concerning the divine mystery… (p.80)

Hence the church is left in a position where it can revive the sacraments and receive new life from them – but only if we recover our wider sense of “the divine mystery, which is much larger and greater than the mystery of the Sacrament”; the divine mystery that is “the Church’s principal source of life in general, and imparts to all her life its value and meaning.”

Lutheran spirituality: anguish and joy

Matthew Lynn Riegel

Continuing the theme of Lutheran spirituality, I read an interesting paper on this by the Rev Matthew Lynn Riegel, in which he adopts “the venerable tradition of providing a set of theses”: 32 theses in total.

The whole set of theses is worth reading, but I wanted to single a few out that particularly resonated with me. Starting with the first:

1. It is better to address the question of Lutheran Spirituality as an ideal (what should be) than as a reality (what is).

Never, I would have to say, a truer word…

Moving on, Mr Riegel sets out some theses usefully summarising the role of the means of grace in Lutheran spirituality:

9. The Holy Spirit is given to the human creature by God through the external Word.

10. The Sacraments are the visible Word.

11. Any spirituality which claims that the human can receive the Holy Spirit without benefit of the external Word is rejected.


26. The Gospel ministry which communicates the Holy Spirit is discharged through the taught/preached Word, Holy Baptism, The Sacrament of the Altar, Holy Absolution, and the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints.

Also worth reading are theses 28 to 32 on the central role of the psalms, the Small Catechism and hymnody in Lutheran spirituality.

But the thesis that particularly struck me was one that introduced what was, for me, a new concept:

19. Until the eschaton, the sanctified are properly said to be simul raptus et gemitus.

Are properly said to be what? In brief, simul gemitus et raptus (as it’s usually put) can be translated “simultaneously anguished [gemitus] and joyful [raptus].” As Riegel puts it in his “exposition” of this theses:

Although simul justus et peccator is a well-known phrase among Lutherans, the corollary which describes the paradoxical quality of life for the homo spiritualis is almost unknown. Since the homo spiritualis clings to the promises of God in Christ with a sure confidence, he/she knows great joy. This joy is rendered as “rapture” or “transporting bliss.” On the other hand, the homo spiritualis also knows that perfection is eschatological – that until that Last Day, Sin, Death, and the Devil will wage war against God’s elect. This knowledge, which is more than intellectual – indeed the homo spiritualis feels in both body and soul the slings and arrows of the enemy – is rendered as (gemitus) “anguish,” “groaning,” or even hyperbolically as “damnation.”

The homo spiritualis suffers real pain. There is no need for spiritual exercises which vicariously engage the human in the Passion of Christ in an attempt to elicit Love. Rather, the homo spiritualis groans in travail with the whole creation, expectantly awaiting the Last Day when the pain will end. This anguished groaning is held in paradox with the joyful hope of rescue. What is more, this anguished groaning is a mark of experience which is called the school of faith, for through trial and tribulation and in the midst of our groaning the Holy Spirit instructs us in true faith.

What I find helpful here is the sane pastoral balance which this enables. It avoids both the “fixed-grin, now-I’m-happy-all-the-day” stereotype of “victorious Christian living”, but also avoids the opposite error in which only misery and heartache can be regarded as truly “authentic”. It’s OK to feel anguish and unhappiness as a Christian, despite the joy which the gospel announces to us; equally, it’s OK to feel joyful as a Christian, despite the suffering in the world around us, despite our own continuing sinfulness. To feel both these sets of emotion at once is the normal Christian experience, not an aberration.

The Christian life in a nutshell: our status is simul justus et peccator; our experience is simul gemitus et raptus.