Reformation Day – Worth Singing About
For five centuries now the Protestant Church and the Western world have reaped the many benefits of the Reformers’ work and legacy—a legacy proceeding from their faith in God, their courage to stand firm against powerful ecclesiastical and political leaders, and their zeal for the authority of the Bible. We have benefited from the Reformer’s liturgies, from their commentaries and other writings, and ultimately, from their transformation of Western civilization. The scholarly study of biblical ideas, the worship of God by common people, the education of children, the Protestant work ethic, psalters and hymnbooks in the hands of the congregation—all of these concepts must be credited to the innovations and work of these men.
In the time of Luther and Calvin, the Roman Church had ruled the religious world, and often the political world, for a thousand years. And since the time of Jerome in the fifth century, no one had really studied the Bible in its original languages. Medieval scholars did not go beyond the Latin Vulgate, and Church leaders at every level promoted extra-biblical traditions and teaching such as indulgences, penance, purgatory, prayers to the saints and Mary, the lighting of candles in front of statues, and genuflecting before paintings, relics, and crucifixes.
Education was limited to the aristocracy and those who served the Church; it was not available to regular people. Wealth was hoarded for religious leaders and for the Church’s material advancement, while peasants lived in squalor. Lives were cheap, and those who spoke out against religious leaders were silenced or persecuted.
When the common people attended services at cathedrals and parish churches, they had little idea what was happening because the entire service was conducted in Latin, a language foreign to them. The priests chanted in Latin; the choirs of men and boys sang in Latin; the Bible, also in Latin, was not in the pews or available to be read. It was reserved for the clergy, who interpreted it as they desired, preserving papal traditions and feeding into the fears of people in order to control them and keep them in the dark. These were indeed the Dark Ages.
But a light began to dawn. Along with the birth of the Renaissance and its emphases on reason and scholarly inquiry came the Christian humanists. Wycliffe, Hus, Bucer, Calvin, Erasmus, Melanchthon, Luther, Knox, Tyndale and so many others are members of this group. The Christian humanists read and studied the New Testament in the original Greek and the Old Testament in Hebrew. And by reading God’s Word in its original languages they could understand it and then teach what it actually said. These Reformers also read the writings of the Church Fathers like Augustine, Chrysostom, and other Patristic thinkers in an effort to recreate the positive aspects of the early Church in their own time. (Something very similar started happening in music around 1600, sparked by the Florentine Camerata).
By studying the Scriptures for themselves and by translating them, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers discovered the errors that were pervasive in Roman teaching and tradition. They clearly understood the extra-biblical nature of many practices and the way the gospel was being manipulated—in short, that heresy was prevalent. And so they railed against these false teachings—they protested—which is why they and their descendants are called Protestants.
Before the Reformation, only the clergy and choir sang in worship. Most of us would have had no idea what was being said or sung, and we would never have personally participated in musical worship. But because of the printing press, Luther and Calvin, and those poets and musicians with whom they collaborated, the congregation was given hymnbooks and psalmbooks to hold and read, and from which to sing. These Reformers gave us a voice in worship again. (Even the opportunity to choose to sing in Latin–there is SO much wonderful church music from the Renaissance that should be used, with translations provided so it can be understood. Luther himself loved this great music and Josquin was his favorite composer!)
One of the saddest developments in the church over the last couple of decades has been the replacement of hymnals and psalters with movie screens and projectors. There is nothing wrong with technology or technological advances in themselves. But, there is something wrong with throwing out the hymnals and psalters. People died for our right to hold songbooks and Bibles in our hands and read them, to have them in our homes and places of worship, to teach them to our children, and to share them with each other.
This move to be “unencumbered” by hymnals has already proven to be a disastrous one for the spiritual health of the Church. We think we are “freeing ourselves” to worship better. What we are actually doing is impoverishing our worship now and for our children and grandchildren in the future. Without this repertoire in our hands, it is far too easy to replace it with something lesser, both theologically and musically, which is precisely what has been occurring. And it only takes one generation of nonuse for a hymn to disappear. Singing psalms and hymns, writing new ones, holding these collections of prayers and doctrinal teaching in our hands—these privileges are part of our birthright as children of the Reformation. This is our music. We must value it, treasure it, teach it, share it, and above all sing it for God’s glory and for our enrichment as His children.
Happy Reformation Day!