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'What is a Lutheran hymn?'

by Gracia Grindal (WordAlone board member)

December 19, 2003

What is a Lutheran hymn? The question has roiled around many of the worship wars raging these past 30 years. Some think a Lutheran hymn is one composed by a Lutheran musician, with a text by a Lutheran. The idea that Lutheran genetic material gives you an automatic understanding of Lutheran theology is dumb.

Many people, however, actually do argue that because we do it and we’re Lutherans, whatever we do is Lutheran, as in "Called to Common Mission" or the Eucharistic prayer.

At the turn of the last century, Lutherans fretted about the exodus of Lutheran youth to more evangelical churches where the music was more attractive to them. Paul Glasoe of St. Olaf College wrote an article in the Jan. 1, 1931, Lutheran Herald wondering if we were “singing ourselves out of the Lutheran church” by not teaching children the Lutheran chorales.

The letters to the editor in the next issues exploded with comments, the wisest came from a missionary to China, N. Astrup Larsen. He argued that a Lutheran hymn was one that gave us “the assurance that we are God’s children, not because of any merit or worthiness of our own, but simply through the atonement made by Jesus Christ.”

Larsen assumed that a hymn would teach.

This venerable notion of a hymn existed among Lutherans until the publication of the “Service Book and Hymnal” (SBH, 1958) whose editors, led by Luther Dotterer Reed, decided that hymns of a homiletical character should not be preferred. Rather, hymns should be godward and devotional, as the preface to the hymn section in the SBH argued. It sounds nice, but upon reflection over the past 15 years, I have come to see how cleverly these few sentences vitiated the tradition of Lutheran hymnody as it came to us from such great hymnists as Martin Luther, Paul Gerhard, Thomas Kingo, Hans Adolf Brorson or Magnus Brostrup Landstad, to name a very few. Reed and his cohorts on the SBH committee derided the Danes and Norwegians for the bad theology and translations of their classic hymns, such as: “O Day Full of Grace,” which they left out of the SBH.

Pastor Selmer Berge was representing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the first conversations with the United Lutheran Church in America about what was to become the SBH. When the committee came to Landstad’s great hymn, “When Sinners See Their Lost Condition,” he recorded the conversation in a private notebook. The conversation went like this and reveals the roots of much of our current debates in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

When I presented “When Sinners See Their Lost Condition” by Landstad it was rejected because “it was too didactic. Not good as such. Not acceptable to the rest.” As it was Landstad’s hymn I insisted it ought to be in. Objection [was] raised because whole plan of Salvation outlined. “The function of a hymn is to express our devotion in church. That is its principal function,” one said. I objected stating that hymns are also to serve the church in its work of personal soul winning. Seltzer said, “Services for personal soul winning are not Lutheran.” "Yes, I replied they were.“ "No," said Seltzer, “they are Methodistic.” I said they were Christian. That ended this episode. I also said that if a hymnbook does not contain hymns with the plan of salvation present we could not use it. Seltzer opined that a hymn is the soul’s address to God directly or obliquely.[i]

This vignette gives us a deep insight into the prejudices of the SBH. I now see that they were attacking the fundamental character of a Lutheran chorale. From Luther on, the chorale existed to teach the faith. In it, the congregation sings to the others in the gathered community the truths of the faith, preaching—finally—the gospel. In a great hymn of the Lutheran faith, I learn the truths of the Christian faith, hear the promises of God to me, claim them as my own and preach them to the other members of the community, to reassure them of their salvation.

The next time you are wondering whether a hymn qualifies as Lutheran, ask to whom the text is addressed, and what it preaches. Would you want to sing it as you were dying? That’s my test as to whether it is a Lutheran hymn or not. One of my favorite hymns is Paul Gerhardt’s “If God Himself Be for Me,” LBW 454. Read it over and see how deeply it claims the promises of Scripture, Romans 8, II Corinthians 5, Galatians 1, and the fourth stanza, in this translation from “The Concordia” 1932:

  • My merry heart is springing,
  • And knows not how to pine,
  • Tis full of joy and singing,
  • And radiancy divine;
  • The sun whose smiles so cheer me
  • Is Jesus Christ alone
  • To have him always near me
  • Is heav’n itself begun.

[1][1]Selmer Berge’s “Notes on Hymnal Com. At Pittsburgh PA, June 19-21, 1945, p I ii. Luther Seminary Archives. Seltzer is George Rice Selzter, a Professor of Liturgics at what was then called Mt. Airy Seminary, but is now called Lutheran School of Theology in Philadelphia.