Music 1501, Luther began his higher education at the

Theology Summative 1 – Explore the Music Theology of Martin Luther: To what extent
did Martin Luther effect the spread of scripture through hymnal music?

Luther, born in the late fifteenth century, was a ‘theologian and preacher who inaugurated the
Reformation of the sixteenth century, and founding figure of the Lutheran
churches’1. Luther was born in the
county of Mansfeld, in a small town called Eisleben. Luther’s family were
heavily involved in the copper-mining business, particularly the leasing of
land to these businesses around the region. In 1501, Luther began his higher
education at the University of Erfunt. After some sort of characteristic and
emotional change in mind-set, in 1505, Luther entered into the house of
Augustinian Eremites at Erfunt, much to the distaste of Luther’s family.
Ordained as a priest in 1507, Luther began his studies in theology and soon
gained minor degrees in this discipline. Luther moved to Rome to the monastery
and to study at the university of Wittenberg in Saxony, this is where Luther
studied for his doctorate in theology. After receiving his doctorate, he took a
post as professor of theology and preacher of Wittenberg that lasted for the
rest of his life.

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from Luther’s twice-weekly lectures survive (focussing on psalms (1513 – 15), Romans (1515
– 16), Galatians (1516 – 17), Hebrews (1517 – 182),
and a further series on psalms (1518 – 19/20). It is from these notes that
scholars have shown the gradual liberation from the theology of his training,
and how Luther went on to shape the way we look at the challenges to late
medieval Catholicism. Luther was taught in the way of via moderna, derived from William of Ockham, a fourteenth century
oxford philosopher. One main aspect of this type of theology was the resolving
of the ‘divine grace and human response’ paradox with the justification that
the grace of God lay in His promise to reward people’s insufficient but
‘semi-meritorious’ efforts to love God. Luther gradually grew more and more
displeased with this view of theology, and sided more towards the Augustinian
Order in their view of spontaneous work of divine grace within the believer

 In 1517, the sales of ‘indulgences’ began to
prosper in support of the rebuilding of St. Paul’s basilica. The concept of
indulgences was for people to be able to buy them in order to counteract any
sinful acts previously committed by said customers. This idea furthered when
they were said that indulgences could buy any departed souls, that were
presumed to be in purgatory, out. When Luther was asked to give his opinion of
indulgence preachers, he immediately articulated to the archbishop and requested
that he restrain and correct his preachers’ over-enthusiasm. On 31st
October 1517, Luther famously posted ninety-five short theses on the door of
the Castle Church, in Wittenberg, against the concept of the indulgence and the
way that the church was profiting from these sales. Eventually, the theses
spread and copies could be found in numerous cities. This led to a stir with
the Dominican Order as they saw Luther’s criticism of indulgences and their
preachers as an insult and therefore immediately wanted after his condemnation
as a heretic, in Rome. Luther was provisionally excommunicated by Pope Leo X,
and at his hearing to the German Reichstag in 1521, Luther refused to withdraw
his writings unless he could be shown that they were in error according to
‘Scripture or evident reason’. Despite being condemned by the church and the
Emperor, Luther’s popularity was still rising within Germany because of the
discredit that his contemporaries were being hit with, by many advanced
scholars influenced by the northern Renaissance. Still, due to Luther’s
expertise in German and Latin, he was awarded a readership even though some readers
did not quite grasp his concepts yet or how destructive they were to a
traditional religion.

1520 – 21, Luther had begun to write and hand out manifestos that expressed the
need for change within government and religion, which was already a view widely
supported by much of the educated population. In his 1520 book, To the Christian Nobility of the German
Nation, Luther suggested that the previously accepted idea of a
priesthood-led religion, with no say from political leaders of German society,
was an unfair system (The clergy had previously argued that the ordained were
the main body of the church community: and that they alone could discipline and
reform themselves). Luther concluded that this claim was full of deceit and
hypocrisy and that all Christians were equal through their spirituality, and
therefore a priest was merely a representative of the ‘equal priesthood’ of the
whole community. So, with this in mind, Luther brought the conclusion that the
Christian community should reshape their religious life without reference to a
pope or hierarchy.

programme attracted the attention of the Renaissance intellectuals as they had
been taught to be cynical of any sort of materialistic aim of the piety, and to
despise contemporary theology. Word of Luther’s bold attack on the concept of
indulgences reached scholars and readers who had already begun to doubt whether
time in purgatory could be determined and compensated with money. With this
new-found popularity, Luther began to make demands: such as the demolishing of
false idols such as the miraculous image of the virgins at Regensburg. Of
significant importance, Luther’s campaign to reform academic theology, by
replacing scholastic ‘systemisers
with that of the early father’s literary exposition of the bible, appealed to
many contemporary Christian humanists’.3 The
similarities that were drawn from humanist programmes was clearly superficial
and its new direction fundamentally rested on a new ‘definition’ of

brought about a new view on ‘justification’, which resulted in a new,
astonishingly powerful way to destroy old notions of thought and change the
priorities within the church ‘hierarchy’ and within religious life. So, Luther’s
new-found definition was: the merciful forgiveness of God would be given to
those who were really still sinners. Righteousness was acting as a cover, something
unknown to the soul, something that covered ‘the continuing sinfulness, and apprehended
through faith’4.

Melanchthon was the man responsible for producing the confession of Augsburg, which was a foundational document that
outlined specifically what the Lutheran church was, its belief system and essentially
in what ways the Lutheran church was different from Catholicism and other denominations.
The ‘confession´ was sent to the
emperor and to the Reichstag. Although, Melanchthon was accountable for the
creation of this document, Luther oversaw and agreed upon the formal document. Johann
Bugenhagen was the author of a similar document written for north Germany and Scandinavia.
However, during the 1528 visitations, it was clear that congregations and
priests alike were pleading ignorance to the clear ‘rules’ (if you will) set
out by these documents. So, with this in mind, in 1529, Luther set out and
wrote two Catechisms, one short
version for semi-literate people and a longer one for the informing of
preachers and priests, both definite for the Lutheran tradition. Unlike the
south Germans, Luther believed in the teaching and education of ones’
congregation before bringing about any change, to make sure people had an
informed knowledge of the goings-on within the church setting.

Loewe is an academic theologian and music historian, who studied at the United
World College of the Atlantic and further studied for a BA, MPhil and an MA at
St Peter’s College, Oxford. Loewe is currently Dean of Melbourne and St. Paul’s
Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Melbourne and the Anglican Province
of Victoria. Loewe focusses a lot of his theological works on the role of music
and the communication that it can have with scripture. He has published widely
in the fields of ecclesiastical history and music.

Andreas Loewe’s article ‘Why do Lutherans Sing? Lutherans, Music, and the
Gospel in the First Century of the Reformation’, attempts to explain the
process of Martin Luther’s approach to using music to preach and educate the
public in the ways of the liturgy. It explains how Luther used music as a
Universal medium to spread the Word of God. Loewe explains in his article that
music “Attracts others
and makes them partakers of God’s grace,” but serves as an important instrument
to “incite people to do good, and to teach them.”5


 “accorded the greatest honour and a place next
to theology”

the question still remains: To what extent did Luther influence the spread of
scripture through music? Luther knew that the best option way of communicating
the Gospel and the Reformation message was by using the best instrument
available at the time: music. By using music, Luther found a universal medium that
appealed to all, ‘regardless of their ability to read, their social standing or
their actual location.’6 Luther
particularly focussed his music writing into hymns. One way that he used music to
his advantage was by using popular folk tunes of the time. In this way, Luther
had the perfect weapon that enabled people of all denominations to be able to
join in with his music. Once he set religious texts to these tunes, Luther hoped
that while people would be singing, they would take in the words and absorb the
meaning that came with them. The clever thing about Martin Luther’s setting of
popular songs was that they could be passed by word of mouth, to friends,
family and hopefully through generations. This was a revolutionary way of being
able to broadcast his theological truth to a large cross-section of society
with relatively low amounts of resources.

the voice to spread the word of the Reformation, proved to be very efficient,
in a time of significant illiteracy. Luther used a powerful use of concise
text, the use of the vernacular and the use of popular melodies. With all three
of these factors, a very rapid, and very effective dissemination of Luther’s
views ‘crossed national,
cultural, and socio-economical boundaries.’7
There were multiple ways that Luther’s hymns travelled: by broadsheet, by
written letter, and by word of mouth, that meant the Lutheran teachings spread
around. So effectual were the spread of these hymns that they even reached
Catholic cities where, as previously mentioned, Luther’s writings had been
banned. Cornelius Becker is recorded to have commented about the ease that
Luther’s hymns had reached the Catholics, “Since his sacred songs were carried to people in far-away
places by letter, as well as in the souls and minds pious Christians, it was
not as easy to block their progress as it was intercept Luther’s books and

However, having
said this, not all of Luther’s hymns were focussed on the mystery of God. In
fact, there were quite a number that were aimed to spread the word of the
Reformation rather than word of scripture. Luther’s first hymn, Zeitungslied, was a newspaper song that
had particular focus on current affairs, very effectively. The first of Luther’s
sacred hymns were published in 1524 and were based on a paraphrase from psalm
130, “From depths of woe I cry to you”, and from a paraphrase from psalm 51, “May
God have mercy on us all”. Another way that these hymns spread to catholic
cities was by travellers who had learned the hymns by heart. However, this led
to issues further down the line. Massed singing of the hymns at the beginning
of catholic services caused huge public disturbances that led to the
imprisonment of any distributor of Lutheran hymns. “Since his sacred songs were carried to people in
far-away places by letter, as well as in the souls and minds of pious Christians,
it was not as easy to block their progress as it was to intercept Luther.”
When these arrests occurred, there were reported ‘revolts’ documented. It was
reported on May 6, 1524 at St John’s Parish that brought “six to eight hundred
people together to liberate the prisoner by force.”9 Luther
visited the Parish in June of the same year, which was more of a formalising
act to the introduction of the Reformation in the city, as his hymns had
already won over the majority of residents.10
During the publication of his first set of hymns, Luther commented in his
introduction on why he wrote hymns: “I have… brought together a number of
spiritual songs, in order to spread and disseminate the holy Gospel, which by
the grace of God has once again arisen.”11

the early years of the Reformation, music was pushed to the forefront of
education in order to disseminate the Biblical and Reformation message. Hymns served
‘not only as a means of public instruction and of corporate worship, but also as
the basis for the private pedagogy and devotions of individuals and households.”12
The teaching of hymns at schools was a large focus of education, and as a
result school students sang a lot of music, which was preferably in four-part
harmony. In the second half of the sixteenth century, protestant schools stipulated
that schoolmasters should be musically-able. If not, cantors were employed to
promote the Reformation message to make sure that students were receiving the
proper musical education that was needed. It was not only students that were
being educated, they were in fact encouraged to go home and teach their parents
the tunes and words that they had learned at school. As early as 1528, it was
made clear that schoolmasters were to educate not only the children but to
encourage them to actively re-educate their parents. The pressure put on
schoolmasters became intense and in 1555 the schoolmasters, from the origins of
the Reformation, complained of being overworked and being underpaid for the
duties that had been left to them: ‘In the Wittenberg Latin primary school the
schoolmasters have to shoulder a lot of work – teaching singing, polyphony as
well as reading to a large number of children both local and outsiders. For the
amount of work, they are paid very little.’13

used religious examples to affirm his musical intent. Using the lesson of David
calming Saul’s anger by playing the harp (1 Sam. 16.23), Luther suggested that
music could protect the human disposition from evil and even from Satan.

conclude, I believe that Martin Luther utilised hymns to a very great extent.
The way in which he based his very first hymns in the popular tunes of the time
was of great importance and improved the efficiency in which the hymns spread
from city to city. Also, the idea of teaching children and placing importance on
music within education meant that people of all ages were involved the
Reformation and dissemination of Lutheran theology.

Hastings Mason and Pyper, ‘The Oxford
Companion To Christian Thought’, page 398.

Hastings Mason and Pyper, ‘The Oxford
Companion To Christian Thought’, page 398.


3 Hastings
Mason and Pyper, ‘The Oxford Companion To
Christian Thought’, page 400.

4 Hastings
Mason and Pyper, ‘The Oxford Companion To
Christian Thought’, page 400.


5 J.
Andreas Loewe. ‘Why do Lutherans Sing?
Lutherans, Music and the Gospel in the First Century of the Reformation’, pg.

6 J.
Andreas Loewe. ‘Why do Lutherans Sing?
Lutherans, Music and the Gospel in the First Century of the Reformation’, pg.
72 – 73.

7 J.
Andreas Loewe. ‘Why do Lutherans Sing?
Lutherans, Music and the Gospel in the First Century of the Reformation’, pg.

Friedrich Wilhelm Bautz, “Cornelius Becker”, in ‘Biographisch-Bibiographisches Kirchenlexikon’, 1:449-50


10 For
Luther’s influential Magdeburg sermon on true and false righteousness, see
Oliver K. Olson, “Theology of Revolution: Magdeburg, 1550 – 1551,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 3, no. 1
(1972), 56 – 79, 63.

11 See
Martin Luther. ‘Vorrede des Wittenberger
Gesangbuches’, pg. 11 – 14.

Brown, pg 8

13 Pallas. ‘Die schuldiener in der lateinischen
kinderschul zu Wittenberg haben grosse arbeit mit singen, figurieren und lessen
und eine grosse menig von burgerskindern und frembden zu versorgen und ihrer
arbeit nach sehr geringe besoldung’, pg. 42.