Sservice 08


Probably the most significant thing Luther did in regard to the older traditions of worship was that he allowed their use to continue.  The Church of England also preserved many of these traditions, but most of the other reformers rejected both the structure and the texts of traditional worship.  Even they, however, kept the most basic elements: God’s word, prayer, and the Psalms.  In fact, for almost two centuries in some of the reformed churches (such as the Puritans who came to America), Psalms were the only music that was permitted. Lutherans retained the traditional ordinary and propers.  At present there is a desire on the part of some in the reformed churches to re-examine and re-adopt the traditional forms. This book is written partly to provide background for those who wish to do this.


The next significant thing Luther did was to emphasize the sermon.  In the previous centuries, the sermon had not always been entirely absent, but for Luther it became a central element in the service.  Most of the other protestant churches also  placed great emphasis on the sermon.


 The third significant thing is that Luther sought ways to re-involve people in the worship ceremony.  In the centuries leading up to Luther’s time, the songs of the service had increasingly been sung by trained choirs.  The common people could not join along in this music, and moreover the language of the texts was Latin, which the common people could no longer understand.  While Luther was not averse to preserving the use of Latin in certain worship contexts, such as for university congregations, yet for the common people he led the way in putting the texts of traditional worship into the language currently in use: in his case, German.  The next problem was to find melodies which the common people could sing.  Luther’s solution was to paraphrase the traditional texts of the ordinary into rhyming lines, and then have them sung to contemporary tunes, tunes with a definite beat (as opposed to chanting).  These are the kind of melodies we call “hymn tunes”.  Luther provided many of these tunes himself.  In his suggestions for service for common people called the “German Mass,” Luther provided a hymn version of the Sanctus.  As time went by, Luther also wrote hymn versions of the Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Nunc Dimittis. 

 Other Lutherans provided hymn versions of the Gloria and Lamb of God, and translated an existing chant to use at theKyrie.1 Each region of Germany created its own worship service based on ideas from traditional worship, and not all of them used hymns at all these possible places.  Hymns for the Gloria and the Lamb of God were the ones most generally used.  Generally, the Kyrie was sung in its short form, and the Creed and Sanctus were kept in their prose versions.Lutheran Book of Worship, on page 120, presents a list of hymns which can be used to substitute for the items of the traditional service.

Besides hymns for the ordinary, there was a great outpouring of hundreds of additional hymns.  These hymns from the first century of the reformation in Germany are called the “Lutheran chorales”. Some of them could be sung at moments in the service where Psalms would be used: for example, Luther’s hymn ” “From Depths of Woe” is a rhymed translation of Psalm 130, and could be sung in place of that Psalm.  Some Lutheran churches developed a tradition of having a hymn at the time of the gradual.  This hymn fit in with the theme for the day, and some of them began to be used on that particular day year after year.  This can be called a “Gradual Hymn”.  J. S. Bach used the occasion of the gradual hymn to write lengthy works for soloists, choir, and orchestra called “cantatas”, which commented on the theme for the day, and which ended with a harmonized version of the Gradual Hymn. Concordia Publishing House has provided a booklet by Carl Schalk which, building on the tradition of the Gradual hymn,  advocates the use of a prescribed hymn each Sunday suitable to that Sundaystheme.  He recommends singing this hymn just before the sermon. The name of the booklet is The Hymn of the Day.

Many additional hymns were written, and gradually these were added into the service, which resulted both in the service becoming longer and the music of the ordinary and propers becoming overshadowed.  The liturgy slowly began to decline, and was not revived again until the middle of the 19th century, a process which will be described in the next chapter.


Finally, Luther made drastic changes in the ceremony surrounding holy communion.  He did not use the traditional communion prayer, but kept only the words of institution.  Bryan Spinks explains the reason Luther created this new “canon” (service order) for holy communion as follows:

The reason for the new canon is to be found in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith and its relation to the command “Do this in remembrance of me”.  The old canon was in obedience to this command, for throughout it spoke in terms of “we do”.  It was a response to God’s action in Christ, seeking by faithful obedience and repetition and intercession, to enter into the sacrifice of Christ.  This seems to have been precisely Luther’s objection.  For Luther, the sacrifice of the cross and forgiveness of sins were God’s gift to man which could only be received by thanksgiving.  It could not be actively entered into by man, whether by imitation or by intercession.  “Do this in remembrance of me” was to proclaim again what God has done for man, and Luther seems to have concluded that the most effective way of doing this was by letting God himself speak in the words of institution.2

When Lutheran hymnals in the late 20th century began again to include the option of a prayer modeled on the traditional communion prayer, it is not surprising that a great deal of controversy was stirred up.  As you take part in the worship planning process, it is important to realize that your pastor will have a position in regard to this issue.

In any case, it’s not quite true that Luther spoke only the words of institution.  In the “German Mass”, he included his own short introduction to the words of institution.  He kept the Sanctus, and in fact put the Sanctus and its introduction into the form of a single hymn.  He kept the Lord’s Prayer as a part of the communion ceremony.  In the “German Mass”, he suggests praying extemporaneously, using the Lord’s prayer as a model. (An outline of the German mass is included at bottom of the page). The German church orders in the years following the reformation also commonly included the “Lamb of God” hymn and the preface leading up to the Sanctus.


The fact that Lutherans did not feel constrained to reject the traditional forms in the process of carrying out the reformation has a theological basis.  Lutherans teach that forms of worship are an area of human freedom.  Their Augsburg confession states in article VII:

Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike.”3

It is clear from reading Luther’s works that his main intent was to avoid making change just for the sake of change, so that the common people could retain the service that they were familiar with. He wrote in 1523 that it was not his intention to abolish the liturgical service of God completely, but to purify the one that is now in use. He knew that the parts of the service, aside from communion, were human inventions, but allowed people to retain the ones that he called “unobjectionable.” (see the service of 1523 at the bottom of this page.) But his attitude was one of freedom. “In all these matters we will want to beware lest we make binding what should be free, or make sinners of those who may do some things differently or omit others. All that matters is that the Words of Institution should be kept intact and that everything should be done by faith.”5 He warned that people were not to establish some indispensable form by which they could harass consciences, “nor do we find any evidence for such an established rite, either in the early fathers or in the primitive church.” “Even if different people make use of different rites, let no one judge or despise the other, but every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (quoting Romans 14:5). Luther’s own adaptations of the received traditional rite shows a great deal of flexibility, as will be seen below, but always with the needs of the common people in mind. In Luther’s day, each of the Lutheran principalities adapted the traditional service in their own unique ways, and understood that is was “Lutheran” to have this kind of freedom. The Lutheran services in use today use ideas from many of these different adaptations.

Even though freely adopted, there is no doubt that the use of the traditional form is widespread in  Lutheran worship. Thedesire to retain  what is good from the past has combined with  a desire for uniformity, as stated for example in Article III part7 of the Constitution of the Lutheran Chuch——Missouri Synod as an objective:

Encourage congregations to strive for uniformity in church practice… 4

Yet it is also true that this same freedom means that some churches will lead the way in refining how we use what has come to us from the past as well as creating new ways to accomplish the same goals.  The sentence quoted above continues:

…but also to develop an appreciation of a variety of responsible practices and customs which are in harmony with our common profession of faith.

I hope those who read this book will be among those who foster this kind of appreciation.  I hope that, following Luther, the reader can be challenged to prepare Sunday worship services that:

1.  are appropriate to your own culture, yet with a connection to the universal church.
2.  allow for variety without confusion by staying within the familiar structure,
are appropriate to your congregation, yet recognizable as similar to what other congregations are doing,
4. Are of high quality, without being “high-brow.”
5.    are complete, but not tedious.
6.    are related to the past, yet up-to-date.
7.    make full use of freedom, without being chaotic.
8.  Select music from many sources, but don’t lose sight of the ideal of “uniformity” within a given Sunday’s experience

Footnotes:                              .

1 . Here is the background of the hymn “Kyrie, God Father in Heaven Above”.  By the early middle ages, the petitions of the Kyrie had already dropped out, so that it was no longer a litany. All that’ remained was the response, Kyrie (Lord) and Eleison (have mercy), which Pope Gregory decreed in 590 should be sung nine times (the middle three times would start with the word Christe (Christ) instead of Kyrie.  The music for this section .became longer and more complex, as choirs had taken over singing of the service.  Sometimes there would be a dozen or more notes on a single syllable. During the eleven hundreds, a monk got the idea of writing a poem to fit these intervening notes. The idea caught on, and gradually there were many such poems, some of which fit the theme for theday. The choir would sing the word Kyrie, then a line of the poem, then the word Eleison, then go on to the next line and do the same thing. This kind of composition was called a “trope”. At the time of the reformation, when leaders were looking for ways to involve people in singing the ordinary and propers, one of. these tropes was translated into German and used in a number of German churches at the time of the Kyrie

(W. G. Polack, The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal (St. Louis, Concordia, 1942) p. 7.) When the Roman Catholic Church reformed the liturgy right after the reformation, they stopped the practice of singing these tropes. But the idea has lived on in this hymn.

2. Bryan Spinks, Luther’s Liturgical Criteria and His Reform of the Mass (Bramcote Notts 1982)

3. Augsburg Confession, Article VII.
4. Handbook of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (St. Louis, 1986) p. 9
5. The quotations in this paragraph are from Luther’s Works, Volume 53, pages 30-31. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965).

 Outline of Luther’s “German Mass” of 1526
abridged from Luther’s Works Volume 53 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965) pages 69-89.

The items of the Traditional Service Luther’s German Mass
Introit (Entrance Psalm) Sing a hymn or chant a Psalm in German (he gives a sample chant melody)
Kyrie Sung in Greek, just the 3 line version
Gloria Not included
Collect Chanted by the pastor on a single note
epistle lesson Chanted by the pastor; he gives sample melodies
Gradual (Psalm between readings) not included
Gospel lesson Chanted by the pastor; he gives sample melodies
Creed To be sung by the entire congregation to the chorale version, found in today’s hymnals as “In One True God we all believe.”
Sermon included
Offering and offertory not included
Preface to Sanctus not included
SANCTUS permitted later, as optional music during the distribution
Communion prayer Luther omitted the communion prayer, but does give a sample of a lengthy exhortation
Lord’s Prayer Luther allowed the pastor to say his own paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, but preferred that the same paraphrase  be used at a given church each week “if for the sake of freedom it does not wish to use another.”
Words of Institution Chanted; he gives a sample melody
Peace not included
Agnus Dei permitted later, as optional music during the distribution
Distribution He like the idea of giving out the bread right after it was blessed, and then giving out the cup later after it was blessed.
Communio For music during the distribution, he allowed German chorale versions of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, or other appropriate hymns, which he suggests. He provides his chorale version of the Sanctus, which includes an introduction about Isaiah; this chorale is found in today’s hymnals as “Isaiah Mighty Seer.”
Nunc Dimittis Not included
Closing prayer he provides a collect, still common in churches today, “thou has refreshed us with this salutary gift …”
Benediction the Lord Bless you and Keep You (Numbers 6:24-26)

Luther’s Mass for Wittenberg of 1523
abridged from Luther’s Works Volume 53 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965) pages 19-35.

The items of the Traditional Service Luther’s Mass for Wittenberg of 1523
Introit (Entrance Psalm) He approved use of the introits “for the time being” but hoped the day would come when the entire Psalm could be sung, as he knew that was the original practice. (p22)
Kyrie Approved, and he hoped the entire congregation could sing it.
Gloria Unobjectionable, but it should not have the extra words that were added by medieval composers. Also, “the bishop can decide to omit it as often as he wishes.” p 23
Collect OK to use, “as long as it is evangelical.”
epistle lesson approved, but he hoped someone would make a better selection, with more gospel content and less content on works. (p 24)
Gradual (Psalm between readings) unobjectionable, and he preferred to keep the alleluias during lent.
Gospel lesson approved
Creed unobjectionable
Sermon “we don’t think it matters whether the sermon is after the creed or before the introit;” Luther like the idea of preaching before the mass so that the service could be a response to the gospel. (p 25)
Offering and offertory The offertory prayer is objectionable because it made the mass sound like a sacrifice.
Preface to Sanctus He does include the historic versicles (“lift up your hearts” etc., and the preface. (p 27)
SANCTUS unobjectionable. The choir could sing it. (p 28)
Communion prayer He found it to be objectionable, because it made the mass into a sacrifice (p 26)
Lord’s Prayer He does read it.
Words of Institution “All that matters is that the Words of Institution be kept intact.” (p31)
Peace He includes “The peace of the Lord be with you alway.”
Agnus Dei Unobjectionable. Can start distribution while it is being sung.
Distribution Pastors are free to give out the bread right after it was blessed, and then giving out the cup later after it was blessed; or to bless both and then give them both out. (p 30)
Communio unobjectionable
Nunc Dimittis Not included
Closing prayer He supplies his own collect to avoid ones that mention “sacrifice.” (p 29)
Benediction the “customary “May Almighty God bless you, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” or Numbers 6:24-26, or Psalm 67:6-7. (p 30)


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