500 years of Reformation influence on music

Discipleship in the Passions

Bach, in his evident theological astuteness, achieved depicting both theories by composing two immense Passions, one emphasizing Christus Victor, the other emphasizing satisfaction. In writing these two very large works, Bach was able not only to give each theory of atonement approximately equal emphasis, but he also was able to bring out several important themes that surface from Christ’s suffering and death.

One of these, the theme of discipleship, is emphasized in both Passions. The Catechism also teaches it with Q&A 43, “What advantage do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?” Its answer points ahead to the theme of the third main section of the Catechism living a life of gratitude and to the discipleship theme that is prominent not only in Bach’s Passions but also throughout his cantatas. “Through Christ’s death our old selves are crucified … so that … we may dedicate ourselves as an offering of gratitude to him.”

The St. John Passion, as Jaroslav Pelikan says, is “a celebration of the theme of ‘Christus Victor.'” One of the themes of the St. John Passion is the freedom of the Christian. There is a prayer in Book Ten of St. Augustine’s Confessions that might be said to encapsulate the sum and substance of the St. John Passion. What Augustine said so early in church history in his Confessions, Bach, with equal eloquence after the Reformation, magnified in the St. John Passion.

“How have you loved us, good Father: you did not ‘spare your only Son but delivered him up for us sinners.’ How you have loved us, for whose sake ‘he did not think it a usurpation to be equal to you and was made subject to the death of the cross.’ He was the only one to be ‘free among the dead.’ He had the power to lay down his soul and power to take it back again. For us he was victorious before you and victor because he was victim. For us he was victorious and victor before you he is priest and sacrifice, and priest because he is sacrifice. Before you he makes us sons instead of servants by being born of you and being servant to us.” [Confessions, Book Ten, Chapter 43, Augustine]

In particular, the central part of Augustine’s prayer articulates the thrust of the St. John Passion. The statement, “He had the power to lay down his soul and power to take it back again” is almost a direct quotation of John 10:10, and the next sentence succinctly expresses the Christus Victor theory of the atonement, “For us he was victorious before you and victor because he was a victim.”

Just as Bach looked back to the Middle Ages and Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement when he later wrote the St. Matthew Passion, so also in the St. John Passion he looked back, this time to the early Christian era, to the Greek fathers like Gregory of Nysa. “Bach’s Saint John Passion is the vindication … of … the theory of ‘Christus Victor,’ for which Bach had to reach over Protestant Orthodoxy to Luther, and over the Middle Ages to the Greek church fathers of the early Christian centuries.” [Pelikan, pg. 106]

The ultimate source for the Christus Victor emphasis in the St. John Passion was John himself. Bach needed to look no further than John’s Gospel, for it consistently portrays the power and glory of Jesus the King. Christ won the victory over sin, death and hell. By being bound and put to death, he freed the Christian from the sting of death. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered over the forces of darkness and eternal bondage, and his people are free. This is the central message of the St. John Passion. Bach, no doubt, deserves the place Pelikan gave him “among the theologians.”

In this discussion of the St. John Passion we referred to a prayer by Augustine, and Bach may be bracketed by another theologian at the other end of church history. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship is a chapter entitled “Discipleship and the Cross.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood that grace, although free, is not cheap. Both Bach and Bonhoeffer knew and preached the relationship between these.

“The yoke and the burden of Christ are his cross. To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy. Then we do not walk under the burden of our self-made laws and burdens, but under the yoke of him who knows us and who walks under the yoke with us. Under his yoke we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he whom the disciple finds as he lifts up his cross.” [Bonhoeffer, pg. 103]

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