from “Lutheran Hymnody: Orthodoxy in Song” by Pr. Chad L. Bird
Criteria #3: A Lutheran hymn is not experiential or sentimental (theology of glory), but objective and sturdy (theology of the cross). The theology of the Lutheran church is a theology of the cross. This means not only that we preach Christ crucified, but that the crucifix is the lens through which we view all of God’s dealings with us. In the sacrifice of the body of Jesus, God was hiding Himself in order that He might reveal Himself through what seemed most ungodly or “ungod-like”. God revealed His glory, His love, and His will to save within what the human mind rejected as offensive or unbecoming of divinity. And so St. Paul says,
For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God [. . .] God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God. (1 Cor 1:18, 27-29).
The cross thus shapes the sacramental and liturgical life of the church as well. The plain, ordinary, earthly elements of water, bread, and wine are the masks behind which Christ is present. Human words spoken by a common man are the vehicles of the Spirit’s work. These are the means of the cross, the bearers of divine gifts which come from outside man and enter into him by objective channels. Because God is so hidden and unseen in this, faith is required to believe and receive that which God is proffering.
The theology of glory, however, turns its gaze away from the outside-of-me Gospel and Sacraments, to the inner experience of the Spirit or the outward manifestations of God’s might or sovereignty. The theology of glory looks for God where man assumes God should be found, not where He has promised to be. The glory-theologian thus treasures supposed experiences of God, where he “feels” the divine presence. His conversion-experience replaces the objectivity of Holy Baptism and the whispering of the inner “still, quiet voice of God” trumps the public preaching of the Gospel.
How does a glory-theologian speak of worship and the purpose of hymnody within that context? Here is how Kirk Hadaway defines a worship service and its goals:
A worship service is a dynamic mix of congregational singing, prayer, choir anthems, announcements, ritual, testimony, liturgy, solos, instrumentals, organ music, a sermon, an offering, Scripture reading, sitting, standing, and interacting with persons seated nearby. Some churches may add to this mix other elements such as a children’s sermon, drama, clapping and swaying to the music, “passing the peace,” a processional, a recessional, and so forth. The nature of this content, and its quality affects the character of worship in terms of meaning, enjoyment, boredom, excitement, morale, and whether one feels they have encountered God in the experience. 9
There is a complete absence here of the divine work of God in His Word and Sacraments to bestow upon sinners the gifts of Jesus Christ. The “worship service” is a hodgepodge of primarily human activities designed to help the worshiper feel they have encountered God in the experience. Ostensibly, the more meaning, enjoyment, excitement, and morale the service generates, the more successful the worship-leaders are. Hymnody within this mix cannot but serve subjective ends.
The ever-popular “In the Garden” (The Other Song Book, #261) is a parade example of the sticky-sweet romanticism and sentimentalism of the theology of glory.
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
Chorus: And He walks with me and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own.
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
He speaks and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.
I’d stay in the garden with Him
Though the night around me be falling;
But He bids me go through the voice of woe,
His voice to me is calling.
A Lutheran hymn is not centered on the experience of man “falling in love” with God but the activity of a loving God on behalf of fallen man. And that divine activity is always hidden in, with, and under the Means of Grace — the Gospel and Sacraments — not feelings and garden- walks with imaginary Jesuses. One need not look far in Lutheran hymnody to find a plethora of examples of hymns which focus on the theology of the cross. Consider the hymn by Paul Speratus (1484-1531), “Salvation unto Us Has Come,” (LW #355):
Salvation unto us has come
By God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.
What God did in His law demand
And none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on ev’ry hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the law requires,
And lost is our condition.
It was a false misleading dream
That God his law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
Since Christ has full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,
Your death is now my life indeed,
For you have paid my ransom.
Man is here depicted as he truly is: one who stands under the ever-accusing Law, doomed to damnation, but redeemed by Christ, who makes full atonement for him. Man is not in need of “feeling” Jesus or experiencing an orgasmic spirituality full of emotional excitement. He needs the ransom, the grace, the death of Jesus. On that foundation, sturdy and enduring and objective, he builds.