500 years of Reformation influence on music


Pelikan points out that in contrast to Enlightenment minds such as Reimarus, Bach “saw precisely that intention [of Jesus to suffer and die] as ‘clearly’ the object of the entire Passion narrative; and, as if to emphasize the voluntary character of the death of Christ as ultimately the result of his love rather than of human malice, [writes] …
‘It is out of love that my Savior intends to die,
Although of sin and guilt he knows nothing,
So that my soul should not have to bear
Everlasting damnation
And the penalty of divine justice.’
With those words Bach states the argument of his Passion of Our Lord according to Saint Matthew: that the Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died because of his love for humanity, in order by his innocent death to satisfy the justice of God, which had been violated by human sin and guilt, and to make it possible for the mercy of God to forgive sin and guilt without violating divine justice.” [Pelikan, pp. 90-91]

Therefore, the St. Matthew Passion stands in the tradition of theology that commenced with Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? [Why Did God Become Man?], a tradition that attempts to answer the work’s eponymous title. But the St. Matthew Passion cannot be reduced to just a dogmatic treatise on a theological theme. It enunciates the glorious mystery of that dogma in its appropriate setting, the liturgy and the worship of God for all theology must end in doxology, that is, the word of God culminates in a word of glory to God.

Dr. Yount writes,

“All the volumes of words written to describe Luther’s impact on the West for the last five hundred years pale in comparison to Luther’s own sense of gratitude to God for the precious gift of music. We can be likewise thankful that God allowed this German monk the years he worked, in order that the world might be a more truthful, good, and beautiful place.” [The Legacy of Luther, pg. 265]

This musicological survey which we may hope to find at least somewhat adequate is most appropriately closed by the great Reformer who found his own words hardly adequate [“Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae Iucundae,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 53:323]:

“I Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God. The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them … In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts and spirits.”

Did King David, Asaph and the sons of Korah expect the Psalms that the Holy Spirit inspired them to write would comfort and impel God’s people for millennia? Did Luther have an inkling that the anthems he wrote during such a turbulent time would be remembered and adapted by musicians long after he was gone? Did Bach and Handel know their vast repertoire of music would be sung, played and remembered in the worship of God for centuries to come? Will our own recordings of these pieces and more recent music be cherished by future generations of Christians? We all play a greater or lesser part in the canon written by the Master Virtuoso. It is to him we commit our consonance, for “whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”


Further study

Recovering the Beauty of the Arts, teaching series by Dr. R.C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries

The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, edited by Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin 

Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, Hughes Oliphant Old

Glory to the Holy One, modern hymns of Reformation by Jeff Lippencott and R.C. Sproul

Glory to the Holy One premiere concert, Feb. 18, 2015, St. Andrew’s Chapel, Sanford, Florida

Saints of Zion: A New Collection of Sacred Music from R.C. Sproul and Jeff Lippencott

Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, selected and annotated by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin

Luther’s Theology of Music: Spiritual Beauty and Pleasure, Miikka E. Anttila

Martin Luther and Musically Expressed Theology, Adam Hough

The Earliest Lutheran Hymn Tradition as Illustrated by Two Classic Sixteenth-Century German Chorales, Vincent A. Lenti

Christianity Today: Reading the Reformation in 2017, Bruce Gordon

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff

Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment, James R. Gaines

Bach Among the Theologians, Jaroslav Pelikan

Bach and Luther: A selection of organ settings by Johann Sebastian Bach based on the hymns of Martin Luther, and Bach and Luther: Commentary, Notes, Texts, Melodies, David Hildner

Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis des musikalischen Werke von Johann Sebastian Bach [Thematic-Systematic List of the Musical Works of J.S. Bach/BMV/the Schmeider catalogue], edited by Wolfgang Schmeider

Music as Preaching: Bach, Passion and Music in Worship, Robin Leaver

J.S. Bach and Scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary, Robin Leaver

Biblical Quotation and Allusion in the Cantata Libretti of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ulrich Meyer

Christian Music: A Global History, Tim Dowley

Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, Jeremy S. Begbie

Worship by the Book, D.A. Carson, with Mark Ashton, R. Kent Hughes and Timothy J. Keller

Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice, Bryan Chapell

Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh

The Story of Christian Music, Andrew Wilson-Dickson

Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship, Dr. John Barber

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal, T. David Gordon

The Trinity Hymnal


church history, music, Reformation, worship