The Lutheran Reformation grew and spread rapidly by means of sound—in a world that knew nothing of electronics, broadcasting, and decibels.
The sounds of the Reformation came from two sides—from the pulpit and from the pew. The Reformation was centered on the word of the Gospel—voiced from the pulpit and prayed and sung from the pew.
The Greek word angelo in the word “evangelical” means “to announce or proclaim.” The evangel is the Gospel, an announcement of good news. And those words point especially to oral proclamation or preaching.
Luther emphasized the oral, audible proclamation of the Word when he wrote in the Smalcald Articles: “Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the sacraments” (SA III, VIII, 10).
Luther believed that Scripture is the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that it is the absolute authority. Luther spelled it out: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason… my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
Christians are urged to study God’s Word. But the exercise of the Christian faith is not merely a private communion with God with the Bible in one’s hands. Christians congregate, that is, they gather together to hear God’s Word sounded—proclaimed publicly and audibly. Luther points to the fruit of this preaching when he writes: “The Word of God is of such character that when someone preaches it, it never returns void” (Luther’s Works, 18, p. 376, on Haggai 1:12).
This preaching is not just sounds and words, or talk about oneself and one’s own experience; it is the specific proclamation of sin and grace—our sinfulness and God’s grace in giving up His Son to death on the cross. That’s what must be the sound coming from the pulpit. In this connection, Luther often quotes Jesus’ words, “He who hears you, hears me” (Luke 10:16), and St. Paul’s words, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).
But the Reformation also sounds from the pew. Luther’s sermons take up many volumes. But he also prepared words for proclamation by the congregation. Our Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary contains twenty-eight hymns by Luther, and the American edition of Luther’s Works has thirty-seven as well as several liturgical chants. Luther’s hymns set a pattern for many others to follow. From the pew the people sing the Law and Gospel of God’s Word.
Luther’s reworking of the historic liturgy placed God’s grace, the justification of the sinner, and the service of Word and Sacrament at the center of worship. Worship was no longer work that we do for God, but the place where God comes to us. Hymns were an important part of that worship, the Divine Service. Many of Luther’s hymns are simply parts of the liturgy—Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei; others are paraphrases of Scripture; and still others teach the Gospel and Christian doctrine. The content sounded by the people as they sing these Lutheran hymns is precisely the same message sounded from the pulpit.
The sound of the Reformation from pulpit and pew aims at just one thing—to proclaim Jesus Christ and His cross of salvation to sinners, who are given new life by our Lord’s life-giving word—“Strengthened in faith, perfected in holiness, and comforted in life and in death.”
Erling T. Teigen
Bethany Lutheran College