The great reformer of the church, Martin Luther, wrote,
The organ in worship is the insignia of Baal… The Roman Catholics borrowed it from the Jews.
“Martin Luther,” Mcclintock & Strong’s Encyclopedia, Volume VI, page 762; Realencyklopadie Fur Protestantische Theologie und Kirche, Bd, 14, s.433 cited in Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship, James D. Bales, p. 130.
And yet, authorities routinely cite Luther as the father of the “normative principle of worship” (that which is not forbidden is permitted) and instrumental music in worship. Indeed, J. S. Bach wrote his hundreds of compositions as a Lutheran “to the glory of God.” Even Lutheran scholars credit Luther with disagreeing with Calvin and Zwingli and allowing instrumental music in the Lutheran church.
For example, Luther wrote,
Nor am I at all of the opinion that all the arts are to be overthrown and cast aside by the Gospel, as some superspiritual people protest; but I would gladly see all the arts, especially music, in the service of Him who has given and created them.
Quoted in Joshua Busman, “Different Commandments: Sola Scriptura and Theologies of Worship in the Protestant Reformation” (2010). And consider —
[Luther’s] attitude toward music is clearly set forth in this well known Forward to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae, a collection of chorale motets published in 1538.
I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God. The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits…. Our dear fathers and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence, we have so many songs and psalms. This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God. However, when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.
… Note above that Luther did not envisage music as a human invention, but as a gift from God (“Musica Dei donum optimi”). Again, Luther said,
Music is an outstanding gift of God and next to theology. I would not give up my slight knowledge of music for a great consideration. And youth should be taught this art; for it makes fine skillful people.
Luther also commented that music’s power had often stirred him to proclaim God’s Word. Luther said,
Music is God’s greatest gift. It has often so stimulated and stirred me that I felt the desire to preach.
From John Barber, “Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship,” Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 8, Number, 26 (June 25 to July 1, 2006).
Luther introduced congregational four-part harmony to the church and is said to have approved instrumental music —
In his introduction to the Wittenberg hymnal of 1524, Luther writes:
These songs were arranged in four parts to give the young—who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts—something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place, thus combining the good with the pleasing, as is proper for youth.
… Where did Luther’s views on music place him among the other reformers of the church? Luther had a high view of the value of music, and as has been shown approved of using several different melodic forms of music in worship. Luther also approved of using hymn lyrics not necessarily taken word for word from the Scriptures. While his texts often paraphrased the Scriptures, they also explained them, and propounded specific points of doctrine. Luther certainly approved of using instruments to enhance the music of the church’s liturgy, including the organ. He also had “a tendency to accommodate renaissance thinking, to value music humanistically as a performance and as art…rather than…[as] a mathematical science valued for its theoretical content.” Luther parted ways with Augustine, Ambrose, and other writers of the early church in believing that the emotive value of music was a positive, not a negative.
Luther has also shown us how the simple unison melody of the congregational hymn can intertwine with the artistic music of choir, organ and instruments to join in a common, concerted praise of God’s name. He has elevated the conception of the work and worth of the church musician and pointed the way to his proper function of serving the cause of the gospel and leading God’s people in worship.
Will Durant, The Reformation: A History of Western Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300 – 1564 (1957), p. 367, quotes Luther —
Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women; shall we then prohibit wine and abolish women? The sun, the moon, and the stars, have been worshiped; shall we then pluck them out of the sky?
And so, I’m confused. The popular quotation, attributed to Luther, treating the organ as an “ensign of Baal” can’t be easily reconciled with his views as interpreted by contemporary thinkers, many from within the Lutheran tradition. And it’s not possible to simultaneously attribute to Luther the normative principle of worship while holding him up as an opponent of instrumental music. In fact, I can’t find any references to Luther’s calling the organ an “ensign of Baal” other than in articles condemning instrumental music — mostly from within the Churches of Christ. But I have confirmed that the statement is found in the Mcclintock & Strong’s Encyclopedia — in an article that defends the a cappella tradition.
I have a theory, and wonder whether the readers can shed any additional light on this riddle. I think Luther instituted a cappella singing early in his ministry, not as a doctrinal matter but for the sake of simplicity and expedience. He wanted to get the congregants to sing — a privilege they’d been denied for centuries by the Medieval Catholic Church.
But over time, the question of what is permitted and what is not became critical to his ministry as efforts were made to find common ground with the Catholic Church (to prevent wars) and the Reformed Church in Switzerland (to prevent wars). His thinking appears to have approached something like the normative principle of worship, that is, granting freedom where no scriptural precept would be violated.
It may be that instruments were not introduced until after his death. I can’t find any authority on the question. But certainly his overarching sola fide (faith only) theology would make the use of instruments permissible.
So … does anyone know how instrumental music came to be such an important part of Lutheran worship?