"To the Glory of God and the Restoration of the Heart"

Patricia Anders
Tuesday, November 6th 2007
Nov/Dec 2007
Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage,
Rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan!
Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage,
Stimmet voll Jauchzen und Fröhlichkeit an!
Dienet dem Höchsten mit herrlichen Chören,
LaÃ?t uns den Namen des Herrschers verehren!

Rejoice, exult! Up, glorify the days,
praise what the All Highest this day has done!
Set aside fear, banish lamentation,
strike up a song full of joy and mirth!
Serve the All Highest with glorious choirs!
Let us worship the name of the Lord!
(“For the First Day of Christmas” (1) )

Johann Sebastian Bach was born March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany, into a family of respected composers and musicians, to which he continued the legacy through two of his 20 children (Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian). It may seem strange to us that in his day Johann Sebastian was known primarily as an organist and not for his some 60 volumes of music-only nine or ten compositions were actually published during his lifetime. After Bach’s death in 1750, his music was soon considered old-fashioned. Mozart appreciated Bach, but it was not until Felix Mendelssohn revived a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 that his genius was finally recognized. Mendelssohn and other Romantic composers discovered in Bach not only forgotten values but a personal humanity that struck a chord within their own sensitive souls. That these values and experiences are so completely connected to the Word of God is what has given Bach a place among the best of the religious composers.

Although Bach was born nearly 140 years after the death of Luther, he followed closely in the musical footsteps of the Reformation. Friedrich Smend, theologian and musicologist, says that Bach’s cantatas “are not intended to be works of music or art on their own, but to carry on, by their own means, the work of Luther, the preaching of the word and nothing but the word.” Martin J. Naumann in “Bach the Preacher” eloquently agrees: “We do not hear the sermons of Luther. We read them as we read the sermons of other great preachers who have long since joined the Church triumphant. We do, however, hear Bach’s sermons. The works of other great musicians speak to us, but the works of Bach preach to us. These sermons, his cantatas, and particularly his St. Matthew Passion, proclaim the glory of the God of the Bible in a thousand voices.” (2)

This godly characteristic of Bach’s music takes on even greater importance in that his was a voice for the Reformation during the Aufklärung-the period of the German Enlightenment following the Thirty Years War-when previously accepted doctrine, such as the Trinity and salvation through Christ, came under attack. At the same time that Bach was composing and performing, some of the most influential early Enlightenment thinkers were having a strong impact upon the intellectual world: Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Newton and Reimarus (the German deist who was the first to assert a division between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith). As Bach lived and worked within the very heart of these new challenges to the Christian faith, it is not surprising that he turned to Luther in an effort to remain orthodox in his own musical context. Bach agreed with Luther that after theology music should have the “highest place and the greatest honor.” (3) Consequently, Bach understood the importance of proper theology in music. It was not enough for him that his music stirred the soul, but that the words were also doctrinally sound according to Scripture-and therefore in keeping with the accepted creeds of the Church as well as with Lutheran theology. One of the highlights of his Mass in B Minor is the magnificent musical setting of the Nicene Creed.

An example of this passion for orthodox teaching is found within Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (1729). His most famous part, “O bleeding head and wounded,” comes from a medieval poem Salve caput cruentatum (“Hail, head, stained with blood”) that some attribute to Bernard of Clairvaux; but the text can also be traced to Anselm of Canterbury and his Cur deus homo (“Why God Became Man”) where emphasis is placed upon the sacrificial atoning death of Christ. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, “Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion may be seen as the most powerful vindication ever composed of that medieval theory.” To this important theology Bach adds his heartrending musical setting that translates our grief and sorrow through godly repentance. Who can keep from tears when hearing or singing these ancient words?

O bleeding head and wounded,
With grief and shame weighted down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns, Thine only crown.
O sacred head, what glory,
What bliss, till now was Thine!
Yet, tho’ despised and gory,
I joy to call Thee mine.

Although the St. Matthew and St. John passions are magnificent in their own right, it is Bach’s Mass in B Minor (which he began in 1733) that culminates a lifetime of work and faith. Many have hailed this as the greatest work ever written, transcending boundaries of time or place. Musicologist Christoph Wolff writes: “Such an undertaking could not but be close to Bach’s heart, for it was the supreme opportunity to unite his creed as a Christian with his creed as a musician in a single statement.” (4)

The most important goal for Bach in his music was that it glorified God. When Bach began a piece, he wrote “JJ” for “Jesu, Juva!” (“Jesus, help!”); and when he finished, he inscribed “SDG” for “Soli Deo Gloria” (“To God alone be the glory!”). (5) The Reformation not only influenced Bach’s musical content but also music itself within the context of the Church. As seen in the excerpt from the St. Matthew Passion and in the passage below from his Christmas Oratorio, the genius of Bach is that he knew how to musically transform words to move the Christian’s will and heart to worship.

Jesu, my joy and bliss,
my hope, treasure and lot,
my Redeemer, defence and Salvation,
Shepherd and King, light and sun!
Oh, how shall I worthily,
praise Thee, My Lord Jesus?

I will live only to glorify Thee;
my Saviour, give me strength and courage,
that my heart may so do right zealously.
Strengthen me,
that I may worthily
and with gratitude, extol Thy goodness.

Bach wrote to his students that they should play their instruments “so that a sweet-sounding harmony may result to the glory of God and for an allowable delight of the heart. And as in the case of all music, so also the purpose and final goal…should be nothing else but only the glory of God and the restoration of the heart [Recreation des Gemüths]. Where this is not observed, there you have no real music, only devilish bleating and harping.” (6) This echoes Luther’s comments in his preface to the first evangelical hymnal (1524) and as recorded in ‘Table Talk’: “God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling Him…. St. Paul encouraged the use of music in order that through it the Word of God and Christian doctrine might be preached, taught, and put into practice…. The whole purpose of harmony is the glory of God; all other use is but the idle juggling of Satan.” (7) This is the reason Bach wrote “Jesu, Juva!” at the beginning and “Soli Deo Gloria!” at the end of each work-whether sacred music written for the Church or secular music composed for nobility. This consistent objective shows that Bach understood the chief end of humanity: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Bach would be pleased that his music is not only still performed today on a regular basis (our church recently gave a soul-stirring performance of his Mass in B Minor), but is as close to us as our stereo (or even as a downloadable file from the Internet!). He would be more pleased, however, if in his music God continues to be truly glorified and our own hearts restored as we join Johann Sebastian and the choir universal in communal worship. This is something we can experience this season in his Christmas Oratorio-which is not so much a straightforward retelling of the Christmas story as worshipful meditations on the wonder of Christ’s birth and atonement for our sins.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the
heavenly host, praising God, and saying:
Glory be to God in the highest, and on earth peace,
good will toward men.

Then fittingly, you angels, rejoice and sing,
that things turn out so favorably for us this day.
Up then! We will join in with you,
for we can rejoice just as you.

We sing to Thee in Thy host
with all our might and main: praise, honour and glory,
that Thou, o long-desired Guest,
hast now appeared.

1 [ Back ] John Eliot Gardiner, dir., Christmas Oratorio, by Johann Sebastian Bach, The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (London: Archiv Produktion, 1987).
2 [ Back ] Jaroslav Pelikan, Bach among the Theologians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).
3 [ Back ] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Mentor Book/New American Library, 1950).
4 [ Back ] Christoph Wolff, "The Kantor, the Kapellmeister and the Musical Scholar: Remarks on the History and Performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor," John Eliot Gardiner, dir., Mass in B Minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach, The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (London: Archiv Produktion, 1985).
5 [ Back ] Pelikan.
6 [ Back ] Günther Stiller, Johann Sebastian Bach and the Liturgical Life in Leipzig (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984).
7 [ Back ] Wilfrid Mellers, Bach and the Dance of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

Tuesday, November 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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