Bach during the Enlightenment
Bach lived when Western civilization was in the full flush of the Enlightenment. With reason on the vanguard, man, according to Immanuel Kant, was finally emerging from his “self-imposed nonage.” [Music in the Western World, pg. 384] In fact, in 1747, at the sunset of Bach’s life and ministry, Bach had an encounter with Frederick the Great, who was very influential on German history. During the philosophical tumult of the 18th century, belief collided with the cold certainty of reason as Bach and Frederick debated from their competing worldviews. Their dialogue led to Bach’s dedication of “The Musical Offering” to Frederick the Great, which actually went against everything the king stood for.
In many ways Bach’s music worked against the main currents of its time, none of it more powerfully than the St. Matthew Passion. This Passion stands tall as a great historical masterpiece, but was a liturgical work that served a liturgical function as the Gospel lesson for the Good Friday Vespers service. The St. Matthew Passion, which integrates Luther’s three stages in the contemplation of Christ’s passion [cf. Luther’s Works, Vol. 42, pp. 7-14; Weimarer Ausgabe, Vol. 2, pp. 136-142], may be well understood and interpreted against the backdrop of the Protestant response to the Enlightenment.
Gardiner compares Bach’s composition to the poet Christian Friedrich Henrici, whose pseudonym was Picander, Bach’s most regular literary collaborator and librettist: “The type and mood of the contemplative commentary inserted by Picander and set to music by Bach vary enormously, both in tracing the way of the Cross and at the same time in articulating the three stages of Luther’s ‘Meditation on Christ’s Passion’: first, recognition and acknowledgement of sin; second, the growth of faith through love and the unburdening of one’s sins in Christ; and third, seeing Jesus’ Passion as the model for Christian love.” [Gardiner, pg. 413]
It’s not that Bach considered reason to be worthless. Luther, his chief theological mentor, recognized that reason is a virtue, a gift of God. In the tradition of classical apologetics, these theologians did not denounce reason, but they recognized it for its proper place and application, denouncing the Enlightenment thinkers’ tendency to hijack the very gift of capacity to reason that was given to them by their Creator.
“Luther speaks very forcefully of this gift of God and of its glory. It is the essential and main earthly blessing and it stands far above all other goods of this life as ‘the best and in a certain sense divine.’ It is reason that contributes the essential difference between man and other living beings, indeed everything else. Through it, man exercises that lordship over the earth which was given to him in Genesis 1:28. Reason provides the light by which man can see and administer the affairs of this world. Reason is the source and bearer of all culture. It has discovered all arts and sciences, all medicine and law, and it administers them. Reason makes itself felt wherever wisdom, power, industry, and honor are found among men in this life. None of this is to be despised; rather all is to be regarded and praised as the noble gift of God.” [The Theology of Martin Luther, Paul Althaus, pg. 64]
But this same Luther also called reason a “whore” because he realized that it is a dangerous gift that can lead to man’s ruin if it is allowed to trump faith. The human propensity to rely on reason over faith in God’s revealed Word caused Luther to emphasize the negative side of reason. Luther remarked, “Reason sees the world as extremely ungodly, and therefore it murmurs. The spirit sees nothing but Gods benefits in the world and therefore begins to sing.” [Resounding Truth, Jeremy Begbie, pg. 100]