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A Review of “Understanding Church Music in the Lutheran Tradition”

Carl Schalk. A Small Catechism: Understanding Church Music in the Lutheran Tradition.
Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2017.
20 pages. $3, paperback.

Carl Schalk and Paul Westermeyer. A Large Catechism: Understanding Church Music in the Lutheran Tradition.
Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2018.
52 pages. $5, paperback.

Carl Schalk’s work as a church musician, teacher, and scholar grew from a deep faith and from an understanding of and respect for the great Lutheran tradition of music. He published these two small books (A Large Catechism was with his colleague Paul Westermeyer) in order to help people understand this musical tradition. 

Each catechism offers nine identical theses. Although slightly reworded between the two books, each thesis builds upon the other. Together they provide a complete picture of Luther’s understanding of how music, as a gift of God, serves as the “handmaiden” to the Word of God by proclaiming it in the Divine Service. A Small Catechism provides a two-to-three-paragraph explanation for each thesis, whereas A Large Catechism provides a four-to-six-page essay on each thesis as well as a couple of pages of resources for further reading and study. 

Below are the nine theses with some brief comments or pertinent quotes for each. 

  1. Worship is the central act of the church’s life and mission. What the Church is and does flows from hearing and celebrating what God has done for us.
  2. Lutheran Worship is centered around Word and Sacrament. In Word and Sacrament, God grants the forgiveness of sins, a renewed life, and eternal salvation
  3. Lutheran worship stands unambiguously in the liturgical tradition of the western Catholic tradition. The value of the liturgical forms and practices of historic Christianity is explained.
  4. Lutherans believe that music is God’s good gift to the Church for the proclamation of the Word and for the edification of his people. A Large Catechism provides a brief explanation of how Luther’s position on music differed from the other Reformers and why.
  5. The liturgy and its music play an essential role in catechesis and in Christian faith formation. It is important to remember that “the liturgy and the church’s song form us for God’s end, not ours” (A Large Catechism, p. 29).
  6. Congregational song is the primary music of the Church. The chorale or congregational hymn is of primary importance to the Church’s song.
  7. In Lutheran worship the music of the choir, organ, and other instruments derive their function from the Church’s liturgy. All musicians, both voice and instruments, are in service to the proclamation of the Word.
  8. The composer of music for the church functions within the parameters of liturgical worship. The role of the composer is to point worshippers to Christ.
  9. In the Lutheran tradition, “cantor” is the title given to the leader of the people’s song. This section provides advice and insight into the position of Cantor that is useful to anyone wishing to serve in that capacity or any church wishing to establish or fill such a position.

Anyone who wishes to have worship services and music programs that are focused on proclaiming the Word of God will find these handbooks to be useful tools and guides. A Small Catechism is quite small and can be placed in a shirt pocket. It is useful for introducing the topic to music students, church musicians, and lay people in a church setting. Although slightly larger, A Large Catechism is still of brochure size. It “is intended for pastors, church musicians, worship committees and all who are interested in better understanding and putting into practice in the congregational life the rich tradition of Lutheran worship and church music” (p. 5). 

Martin Dicke
Music Specialist 
LCMS Office of International Mission