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Kantor Resch on Confessional Lutheran Hymns – Part I

What Is A Confessional Lutheran Hymn?

A confessional Lutheran hymn originates from and gives strophic hymn form to the doctrines and teachings found in the Lutheran Book of Concord, 1580.  Therefore, using the word confession” in the following context signals that it is an expression of one’s belief, one’s creed, one’s “confession.” The word is used here in the creedal sense, not the penitential sense.

Confessional Lutheran hymns will always have the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ as their subject. The whole hymn is about Jesus. He is not present in a token way in the midst of a text that is really about someone or something else, or sandwiched in at the end of the text, or in a brief appearance as a closing doxological stanza. He is the reason for the hymn.  He is not hidden – He is everywhere.

Confessional Lutheran hymns are modeled after the Psalms.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Psalter the prayer book of Christ.  And Martin Luther spoke of this Christological Biblical hymnal in this way, “The Psalter ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this: it promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly – and pictures his kingdom and the conditions and nature of all Christendom – that it might well be called a little Bible.” Confessional hymnody allows the singer to sing of Christ just as God has modeled for the singing of His people in His own hymnal.

For while the Psalms speak to a myriad of subjects, the chief subject is always what God has done for His people. That means that in every case, God’s people will be the object of His gracious activity toward them.  God is the actor, He is the subject, and His people receive His gracious activity. The whole Book of Psalms sings of how God rescues, saves, comforts, restores, feeds, protects, and sustains His people.  And since God has done all of this by sending His Son, Jesus Christ is omnipresent in the Psalms.  

In a confessional Lutheran hymn the subject and the object have to line-up with this Biblical model of the Psalm and the Canticles, or the result would be a very different kind of singing. This different kind of singing will typically have the individual as the subject and God as the object and expresses what the individual is thinking, feeling, wanting, understanding, and desiring to give to God.  This is singing in which one sings of “one’s faith.”  That is not the same as when the singer sings of “THE faith.”  Hymns like the TE DEUM sing of “THE faith,” giving the whole church objective truths to sing, to confess together.  If one gets the subject and the object wrong, Jesus Christ will be displaced as the subject and He will become the object.  Such singing leaves the singer with themselves, not Christ.  

Confessional hymns originated with Martin Luther.  The children of God need a lifetime of learning and rehearsing His thoughts and His ways as given in His Holy Word.  And for Lutherans, those thoughts and ways are also clearly expounded and articulated in the Lutheran Confessions.  In addition, Lutherans have a magnificent body of hymnody that faithfully articulates and unpacks the substance of those Confessions.  In the form of a congregational hymn, truths are given to all ages in a way that feeds their hearts, minds and memories.  This is Lutherans singing about what makes them Lutheran.

From the first days of the Reformation, Martin Luther discovered that the congregational hymn was a powerful and effective teacher of those Biblical truths.  And as a singer and musician, he was well aware of the fact that music is a power, and soon he set out to use the power of music to teach the church.  Evidence of this fact is shown in Luther’s own hymn settings of the six chief parts of the catechism, his settings of hymns teaching the distinction of Law and Gospel, as well as his hymns that teach the liturgical church year.  

Confessional Lutheran hymns are like confessional Lutheran sermons

Both hymns and sermons teach and preach Biblical truths, and also apply those truths to the life of the singer or the hearer.  Both are carefully crafted statements that seek to be artistic, eloquent, and beautiful.  This is not ordinary speech.  However, both forms of preaching (spoken and sung) have the same goal of clearly, rightly, and faithfully giving Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.