New Book: Seventeenth Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns

Editor’s Note: Paulist Press recently published Seventeenth-Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns in its “Classics of Western Spirituality” series. Included in this collection are pieces by Johann Gerhard, Philip Nicolai, and Paul Gerhardt, among others. Eric Lund edited the volume and wrote introductions that provide helpful context and background on each author. The preface was written by Robert Kolb, Emeritus Professor at Concordia Seminary. This preface is provided here in its entirety. 

Seventeenth-Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns, edited with introduction by Eric Lund.  Copyright © 2011 by Eric Lund.  Paulist Press, Inc., Mahwah, NJ.  Posted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.


Throughout the sixteenth century reformers of all stripes – Catholic, Anabaptist, Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran – strove for improvements in public morals, in the organization of church government, in public teaching, and also in popular piety.  Different accents and emphases distinguished these various movements for Reformation.  Protestant reformers protested against the ritualistic form of religion they found prevalent in village and town.  This system, they asserted, cultivated dependence on the performance of certain sacred tasks to establish or at least maintain a good relationship with God.  These reformers repudiated a view of sacramental rites that regarded them as effective ex opere operato, simply through the human performance of the ritual, whether faith in God was present in the performer or not.  Such a dependence on the execution of holy forms cultivated indifference to the living trust in God which the Protestant reformers defined as the heart of Christian living and piety.

For instance, in his preparing to lecture on Scripture at the University of Wittenberg and in his Augustinian cloister, Martin Luther encountered a God of conversation and community.  He found the God who presents himself in the Scriptures to be a sovereign Creator, whose word of promise given in Jesus Christ changed human identities as it came through external forms of his Word, in oral, written, and sacramental forms.  Luther abandoned his earlier fascination with certain aspects of monastic “mystical” piety although he never cast aside some of the insights Tauler and Bernard had bequeathed him.  He came, however, to insist that inner voices were uncertain pillars for the comfort of the gospel.  The consolation of consciences rested upon the external forms of the Word.

It can be said that Luther continued the medieval emphasis on poenitentia.  But he transformed the concept into the rhythm of daily repentance, the repetition of the death to sin and rising again as a child of God definitively effected in God’s chosen people through baptism.  “The whole life of the Christian is a life of repentance,” he wrote in the first of the Ninety-five Theses.[i]  In his Small Catechism of 1529 he deepened the concept: explaining the on-going significance of baptism, he wrote that each day “the old creature in us with all sins and evil desires is . . . drowned and dies through daily contrition and repentance, and on the other hand a new person . . . comes forth and rises up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[ii]  The life of repentance he envisioned displayed the effect of God’s Word working as law – what God requires from the human being’s performance of his design for human life – and gospel – the promise of new life in Christ.  Thus, Luther’s piety cultivated a deeply personal relationship of trust and love between the human creature and Jesus Christ.

Luther’s training by instructors steeped in the Ockhamist tradition had also brought him to reject aspects of the medieval distinctions of the sacred and profane, believing that this trust in Christ sanctified all actions since Paul had written that everything not done in faith is sin (Rom. 14:23).  He believed that for the person whose God has justified by his grace through the life of trust in Christ all activities are equally holy, not producing righteousness in God’s sight but necessary for being the right kind of human being that God’s promise in Christ had re-created.  Therefore, he believed that many of the sacred activities of the medieval church had dishonored God, often because they were human commands, not God’s, but also because they distracted from the service to God entailed in service to the neighbor within the context of daily life and because they fundamentally served the interest of the person doing them, not God or the neighbor.  This spirituality of the everyday embraced both prayer and praise to God and service to his creatures, above all his human creatures.  It was practiced by carrying out his commands in the contexts of the situations of life to which he had called human beings in home, economic activities, society, and church.

Thus, Luther continued to practice and propagate many of the forms of liturgical actions of the congregation and of the faithful living of its people from previous generations.  Sometimes he altered them little in context, sometimes he cast them into the context of his new understanding of the conversation and community created by forgiveness of sins and faith in Christ.  The same – quite normal human – mixture of continuities and discontinuities appears also in the plans for pious living, the suggestions for spiritual devotion, which Luther’s followers cultivated over the century and a half following his death.  Luther had adapted a number of the forms of medieval devotional writing, including meditation on Christ’s passion, on the various parts of the catechism, on the consolation of consciences.  Luther also renewed the medieval tradition of hymnic praise of God and made the first steps toward cultivating congregational singing in worship.  He cultivated the spirituality of the common people through his postils, continuing the tradition of preparing model sermons on the weekly lessons, and through his catechisms.  Lutherans have continued meditate on their catechism and on sermons, to compose music and poetry and to meditate upon these hymns as an important part of their devotional life.

This volume presents key samples of the spirituality that flowed out of Luther’s Reformation and mixed with other streams of older and newer perceptions of God’s relationship to his people and theirs to him.  Collections of sermons and catechisms also served families and congregations as sources for meditation and praise, but this devotional literature is exemplary of the approaches offered by this varied and rich landscape of helps prepared for popular devotion.  As Eric Lund notes in the forward of this volume, the seventeenth century was a period of considerable creativity within the Lutheran churches of northern and central Europe.  Although most scholarly attention, at least until recently, has focused on the dogmatic works of leading theologians, as Lund notes, the piety of the people and the life of the congregations depended on preaching and regular worship services and also, to an ever-increasing extent, on the devotional literature designed to be read by individuals and in the family circle.  Devotional literature, hymnic and prose, flourished, flowing from the pens of university professors such as Johann Gerhard and Heinrich Müller, pastors and church leaders such as Christian Scriver and Paul Gerhardt, and lay people, such as the musicians Ahle, father and son, the courtier David Denicke, and Christiana Cunrad, a physician’s wife, and Countess Emilie Juliane von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt.  Johann Sebastian Bach inherited and continued this tradition of meditation and praise.

This volume enables readers to assess how the piety of Luther’s followers found form and formulation in the ever-changing world of central Europe over a century and a half.  Readers can experience the rhythm of the daily Christian encounter with God which these writers strove to focus and therein perceive how Luther’s way of listening to God’s Word and responding in prayer and praise was adapted to new situations and new sets of problems as the events of early modern European history unfolded in the German lands.  As the history of God’s Old Testament people teaches and the Book of Acts reveals in the earliest years of the New Testament church, the people of God, products of his concept of time and movement in the human story, continually adjust their hearing of God’s Word and their responses to it.  That, too, is the history of Lutheran piety.

Robert Kolb

October 31, 2010

[i] D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883- 1993), 1:233,10-11, Luther’s Works (Saint Louis/Philadelphia: Concordia/Fortress, 1958-1986), 31:25.

[ii] Small Catechism (1529), fourth question on baptism, Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (11. ed.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992) 516-17;  The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 360.

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