Monday, October 6, 2014
Luther the Liturgiologist
Just three years earlier Luther had insisted that everything added to the "simple institution by the zeal and devotion of men" be put aside -- including "vestments, ornaments, chants, prayers, organs, candles, and the whole pageantry of outward things..." (Luther's Works 36, p. 36)
It was characteristic of Luther's hyperbole that, on the surface at least, make Luther sound almost Amish to us. His point was to emphasize Christ alone -- although his liturgical reforms were draconian to say the least. Though many have found theological rationale for his liturgical surgery (thinking here Bryan Spinks and his work on Luther's reform the canon), I am somewhat leery of Luther as a liturgiologist. He was not well prepared for the delicate art of liturgical theology and, while he did a credible job, it was not inconsistent with the medievalism in which he was educated.
My point, however, is that as Lutherans we take him most seriously, we honor him and his words, but we are bound to the much more careful liturgical direction and theology of the confessions where no such hyperbole or animus exists toward church usages, ceremonial, ritual, and even specific liturgical text (here think of the Greek canon of the mass quoted so approvingly). Indeed, our Confessions see these not as hindrance to be handled carefully or perhaps avoided entirely but as salutary, beneficial, and useful for the sake of the Gospel itself. More than this, Lutherans insisted that they in no wise abolished the mass or departed from catholic doctrine or practice in any way and challenged their accusers to prove where they had.
Luther's liturgical reforms were pastorally motivated to be sure but they were not necessarily the fruit of great thought or thorough knowledge of the liturgy and its history and practice. In fact, Luther's reforms of the mass were careful and theological -- more so in practice than in rhetoric. What went missing was hardly noticeable to the folks in the pew and what was added (chanting the Words of Institution to the Gospel tone) was more understood in Luther's day than in ours (where the Verba are seldom heard chanted by the majority of Lutherans and then such chanting is typically assigned as a Roman holdover and not a reform at all).
In the end, I am sympathetic to Luther's perspective and desire but I am much more comfortable with the approach of the Confessions with respect to the liturgical identity of the Church of the Augsburg Confession. I would suspect that I am not alone in this.