Instrumental Music: Martin Luther and Instrumental Music

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.

Charles P. St-Onge, “Music, Worship and Martin Luther” (2003). See also Kurt J. Eggert, “Martin Luther, God’s Music Man” (1983) —

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?

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Instrumental Music, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Instrumental Music: Martin Luther and Instrumental Music

  1. Price says:

    A Mighty Fortress is our God….lyricist and composer listed as Martin Luther..

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for raising this question. I'd like to see the answer, but I don't know how to register for the comments without posting one.

  3. Price says:

    Jay, I've looked all over but I couldn't locate a source for the quote attributed to Luther by McClintock and Strong's. It appears that it was something that supposedly someone heard him say that was recorded some 300-350 years later. There is no written document by Luther to support it. It might be accurate, however for me it would be less than a desirable support. I mean really…I read somewhere that somebody said something to somebody else 300 years ago but I don't have anything to confirm it…really. Where'd he say it? To whom? What context ? Was it in jest regarding some inadequately trained musician ? I heard an older woman play an organ one Sunday and I would have had to agree with Luther…it was BAD…:) Could it have been a Roman Catholic that was trying to discredit Luther to the Roman Catholics that he was drawing away? Or perhaps trying to make him look like an anti-Semite. Furthermore, as important a figure as Martin Luther to the history of the church and McClintock and Strong's are the ONLY ones who were privy to this information ?? I don't know……….

  4. aBasnar says:

    Unless I see a primary source with this quote, I wouldn't belive Luther said this myself (although: He said a lot and was often enough contradicting himself …)


  5. Todd says:

    The interesting and enjoyable thing about a "revolutionary" mindset it its capacity for growth as ideas are examined, reexamined and replaced by other ideas. This is also what makes those same minds open sources to support every difference of opinion imaginable. The question has to be, where did the individual in question finally decide abouth these questions. We have the same problem when we try to divine the religious beliefs of the US founding fathers. Each one appears to be all over the place until you place their statements in the context of time, place and audience.

  6. Guestfortruth says:

    Jay , Can you provide your reference that Martin Luther is the father of the Normative Principle ?

  7. HistoryGuy says:

    I am working on some replies to other stuff that you and Clyde/Price have asked. However, from my very limited knowledge on Luther, there are no primary sources for Luther’s explicit rejection or acceptance IM in worship. I don’t mind admitting when out of my league. Therefore, perhaps a Lutheran historian or Reformation historian could say more.

    When reading Luther, one must note whether he is talking about music in life/arts or music in worship.

    David W. Music, Instruments in Church: A Collection of Source Documents: Studies in Liturgical Musicology, No. 7. London, England: Scarecrow Press, 1998, pg. 55-56 quotes from Luther’s primary work.

    David Music makes a personal preface that Luther wanted to reform the church, not divide it, and remained quite Catholic, so he kept the Catholic elements that he could in good conscience accept, many times by appealing to the OT. In Luther’s "Preface to Deudsche Messe und ordnung Gottis diensts (1526). WA XIX, 73" Luther says the sounds of instruments may be appropriate if they will teach spiritual truths, especially to the youth. Yet, all churches do not have to embrace the Wittenberg order. In Luther’s "Lectures on Psalm 33. WA 3, 181," like some ECFs, Luther gives an allegorical interpretation to IM in the OT and believed IM should be understood “mystically” even though real instruments were being used in most of the churches of his day.

    Moving beyond David Music’s book-
    Second hand sources tell us more about Luther’s views, actions, and cultural climate. Luther worshiped at both IM and AC congregations. However, when leading churches that he visited, he often led the congregation in A Cappella singing. In public, Luther neither “prescribed nor prohibited” the reforms of worship, such as the exclusion of incense, IM, images, vestments, etc unless forced to deal with the issue. There were certainly many of his contemporary’s removing such elements.

    His “fence straddling” was believed to have stemmed from the attempt to prevent further division that was disrupting the German church/state political environment. We know Prince’s not only gave him protection, but called on him to calm church tensions. During the “Wittenberg Movement” rioting occurred and churches were damaged. At the request of the City Officials, Luther responded with a series of sermons that spoke against worship reforms and called them secondary matters compared to the laws that the Church of Rome had made in contrast to justification by faith alone.

    What Luther personally believed and what he publically advocated were different at times. The quote that Luther called the instrument "the ensign of Baal" generally comes from Mcclintock & Strong's Encyclopedia Volume VI, page 762 [available for review at]

    Dr. James Bales, who was very thorough in his research, cited Luther’s quote from [Realencyklopadie Fur Protestantische Theologie und Kirche, Bd, 14, S.433] on page 165 of the paperback version of [James D. Bales, Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship. Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 1973. ] On page 163 of [John L. Girardeau, Instrumental Music in the public Worship of the Church (1888), Reprinted: Crown Rights, 2005], Girardeau notes that instrumental advocate and Luther contemporary, German theologian Eckhard as the one saying, "Luther considers organs among the ensigns of Baal."

    Modern readers here must understand that Luther was torn between church-state-Catholicism-reform, trying to hold things together, and searching for a Biblical hermeneutic. To my knowledge, Luther’s quote that the "instrument is the ensign of Baal" has never been challenged or disputed by scholars.

  8. Jay Guin says:


    Just Google ("normative principle" luther). You'll find several sites where this claim is made.

  9. Guestfortruth says:

    LUTHERAN CHURCH: Four hundred fifty years after his death, Martin Luther (1483-1546) is still a recognizable name to anyone familiar with church history, or even secular history. Initially an Augustinian Catholic priest, he began the Protestant Movement in 1517 A.D. He challenged the Roman church with his "95 Theses," a document that attacked papal abuses and the sale of indulgences. Luther's teaching deeply colored the doctrines and culture of the Lutherans and Protestants as a whole. After his death, his followers organized the Lutheran church. The Lutheran church acquired (and still celebrates) a reputation as "the singing church" but did not use instruments until the century following Luther's death.

    What was Luther's opinion of the instrument in Christian worship? He believed strongly in the power of songs and singing. He wrote, "Music is an endowment and a gift of God, not a gift of men . . . I place music next to theology and give it the highest praise."
    [Edwald Plass, What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology, 1997. p. 980.]

    Luther strongly supported the musical education of children in the schools and the musical education of preachers and teachers. He encouraged poets to write new hymns. He wrote new hymns himself, as well as "corrected and improved" tradition-al Gregorian melodies, making them more suitable for congregational singing.
    ["500 Years of Lutheran Music."

    He provided new opportunities for congregations to participate through music that "praised God and proclaimed the Gospel." He encouraged the use of the vernacular language in song.8

    But he did not use instruments in worship. He said, famously, that the organ in the worship is an ensign of Baal.
    [McClintock and Strong's Encyclopedia, Vol. 6, page 762.]

  10. Guestfortruth says:


    Indeed there are differents webpages but none of those said that Martin Luther was the father of the Normative Principle. I was visiting the webpage of the book of concord 1577 that is the basis of Lutheran doctrine and does not mention him as the father of the normative principle. What I found was he place scripture above the decrees of the Pope.

  11. Jay Guin says:


    You've quoted an article by Allen Webster posted at the Lavista Church of Christ website (

    The first paragraph you quote appears to come from his hand.

    It's clearly not true that the Lutheran Church wasn't organized until after his death, although the name "Lutheran" was likely not adopted until after his death. It was unquestionably a distinct denomination from the Catholic Church long before then. Therefore, I don't accept his other assertions with no authority offered.

    PLEASE do not plagiarize the works of others. It's not hard to give your sources and provide the links.

    I'm very pleased to have you posting here, but it's wrong to quote people without sharing where you got the material from.

  12. Jay Guin says:… <a href="” target=”_blank”>…” target=”_blank”>… <a href="” target=”_blank”>…” target=”_blank”>

    All from the first page of the Google seach "Luther "Normative Principle""

  13. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks much. It sounds like the quotation is second hand and contradicted by Luther's own words. Certainly he never made an objection to instrumental music a part of his doctrinal teaching.

    As the father of the normative principle, it would seem that he personally had objections to the organ — as representative of Catholicism — but as a matter of doctrine, refused to make that into a law.

    He admittedly had very practical reasons for not objecting to all Catholic elements in worship — the prevention of warfare being among them. But I believe he also rejected the idea that First Century practice should be bound as doctrine, for fear of creating a new legalism just as sinful as the one he was begging the church to flee. Salvation by faith can't become salvation by faith + First Century practices.

    Luther likely was not anxious to introduce instruments, but he objected to the making of a law not found in scripture — indeed, to adding anything to faith as a requirement of salvation.

    We should recall that he also fought against the Zwinglians and Calvinists, who vehemently opposed instrumental music (and the Zwinglians were opposed to hymns other than the OT Psalms). Luther was surely well aware of their arguments, but he refused to travel that path.

    Now, although I'm a fan of Luther (as was Campbell), I don't agree with him on everything. I don't cite him as authority — but I do often learn from the man.

    But for our present purposes, the point is simply that Luther shouldn't be cited as a supporter of the 20th Century Church of Christ position on IM. There are plenty of other great Reformers who did in fact agree with that position.

  14. Norton says:

    Good discussion here. Only a couple of months ago I was searching the net trying to reconcile the "ensign of Baal" quote with Luther's other statements and the practice of the Luthern Church. I didn't find an answer.

    In Luther's "Table Talks", I think thats were it is, Luther calls teachings that pertain to such as church government and assemblly, the "middle things". In Lutheran circles the German word for "middle things" is still used to refer to that which is important in the church, but not essential for salvation. I suspect that Luther may have initially been totally opposed to the organ, but as he mellowed, eventually dumped the question of instrumental music into the bin of "the middle things". It has been years since I read about the above, so I don't guarantee my memory to be 100% accurate.

  15. aBasnar says:

    But that's not really fitting. Rather that was the diffenerece between Zwingli and Luther that Luther did not view silence as prohibition – that's why he kept the liturgy and other catholic traditions.

    I think History Guy gave an excellent summary of Luther's approach to Reformation.


  16. Guestfortruth says:


    In 1522 Luther wrote, " please do not use my name; do not call yourselves Luterans" (F.E. Mayer, The Religious bodies of America, Concordia:St, Louis, Mo., P.123) Luther's intention was not to restore but, revolutionize the Catholic Church and reform certain practice he felt did not conform to his doctrine of faith Only. Opossite to the normative principle practice (indulgences and other unscriptural practices )by the Roman Catholic church. He stated "whatever is not against Scripture is for scripture and Scripture is for it" (Quoted by Frank S. Mead, Handbook of Denominations, Abingdon Press; New York, 1956, P. 129).

  17. Todd says:

    In our local discussions about reformation history Luther and the rest take hits because they sought to "reform" not start from scratch. What we need to consider is how difficult it is to make change in the first place when the fact the when we begin we tend to start with what we know and work from there. Very rarely will anyone throw everything they know away and start from scratch unless they intend to build something completely other than they currently enjoy. Second Luther and the rest of the reformers lived and breathed the central doctrines of Chritianity expressed in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. One of the credal statements is the belief in the "holy universal Church." To their mindset there was no option. The Church that existed was the Church Jesus built and died for. That Church had been hijacked and needed to be returned to its rightful Master. I would like to know how Luther viewed the salvation of the average Christian prior to the dawn of the Reformation. I seriously doubt he would feel as some of us do – that they were lost.

  18. Guestfortruth says:


    Are you sure that the Luteran Church was organized after Luther death the way is organized today? and Why you don't accept the other assertions ? Do you rely in Authority? Because that webpage as google that name luther as the father of the normative principle has not authority at least if there is documented in textbooks that maybe are out of print or books written from the leader of the movement that's the most relyable source. can you explain why there is not authority even is written by Luterans? if you visit the webpage looks that the luterans removed but click where is says" Music heritage" and you see.

  19. HistoryGuy says:

    Your post from 03/02/11 10:45AM was very true. Thank you.

    Your post from 02/28/2011 01:20 PM that Luther contradicted himself [perhaps because of change in his views over time] is very true as well.

  20. HistoryGuy says:

    Jay & Guestfortruth,
    I am on thin ice with my Luther studies. I was trying to focus mainly on the authenticity of his quote. Luther’s hermeneutics were developing, and he was torn between church authority and Scriptural authority.

    Luther espoused justification by faith, but considered various doctrines to be – law – and a matter of heaven/hell. Again, in Luther’s "Lectures on Psalm 33. WA 3, 181," a primary source, he says

    Consequently, they are righteous who will not be led astray from right faith [orthodoxy], as are the Jews, heretics and the arrogant and lukewarm among the faithful…

    Luther really respects the ECFs [as Todd said], which is the nature of Sola Scriptura. He even used their allegorical early interpretation. From the same primary source, Luther says,

    while these [cithara, psaltery] can be taken literally – since God is to be praised and is being praised today by both and many other musical instruments – yet it is appropriate that they be understood mystically, so that only God may be praised in relation to them, and not man. However, both are infinite mysteries

    In my previous posts, I mention the "Wittenberg Movement," the chaos it was causing, and the response [as well as possibly why] Luther responded with neutrality. Please Google it. There were contemporaries of Luther who are considered Lutherans who were reforming worship like Calvin later did. Luther, in his primary sources, admits to using an allegorical interpretation of IM in the OT. However, Luther went through a variety of hermeneutics during his life. I am sure at some point he used Catholic, allegory, literal, a form of the RPW, and a form of the NPW. There is no doubt that Lutherans of Today use the NPW.

    That said, all of these folks were at the beginning of the Reformation and followers of them eventually divided and codified separate Reformation hermeneutics. I believe I originally mentioned Luther in a post to make a point about hermeneutics. I pray that this has added some insight to my previous comments on Luther. Again, I am weak in my Luther studies. Alexander knows German better than I do so maybe he can add some insight and resources?

  21. Price says:

    Does anybody besides me find it strange that we give such flexibility to the ECF's and their personal preferences and/or arguments for how they decided to act but we deny the very same freedom to choose for those of us who are equally uninspired yet passionate about our Lord ?? Why should Clement of Alexandria have more freedom in Christ than me or you ?? I don't know about you guys but David, a man who the Holy Spirit clearly states was a man after God's own heart…danced and played and sang his butt off… I'm with David…let the chips fall where they may !!

  22. Larry Short says:

    If you really want to know about the thinking of the early church, which should be the apostles church, the ECF is the best source, not us. Are they more inspired than us, no, but being closer to the source…..
    All history adds value, and its up to us to use it, or toss it.
    Campbell had an advantage on Luther, that new beginnings were the spirit of the American frontier. Luther, admirably tried to get Catholics to see faith over end justifies the means, actions. Sadly, most religious groups split rather than reform. Might be a problem today.

  23. Jay Guin says:


    I was astonished when I read some of Campbell's earliest writings. For many years, he referred to himself as a "reformer" not a "restorer." Indeed, Walter Scott often signed his letters to Campbell's periodical "PM" — being the initials of Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther's right-hand man.

    Scott saw Campbell as continuing the work of Martin Luther — to complete the Reformation begun hundreds of years before and never completed — as evidenced by ongoing division.

    And the early RM leaders did not see themselves as creating a new church or restoring a church lost for centuries. Rather, they saw themselves ridding the church of the serious sin of division by teaching a very tolerant view of doctrinal disagreement.

    They did not call believers from damnation to salvation but from division to unity.

    This is, indeed, the theme of Campbell's book The Christian System as well as Thomas Campbell's "Declaration and Address."

    The idea of calling the movement a "restoration" movement didn't catch on until the 20th Century. See Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement, pp. 6 ff.

  24. Jake says:


    I don’t know if you have looked at this lately, but I have run across this quote myself from Luther regarding the organ, and have since investigated and found that he does not seem to be a capella in any terms of conviction.

    However, I have wondered if he was speaking specifically against the organ. I don’t know if this is tenable from the literature, but I know that in many conservative but not a capella Presbyterian groups, there tends to be disdain for the powerful organ as supporting congregational singing in favor of a single instruments, generally a piano or maybe acoustic guitar. Is it possible that Luther simply disliked the organ?

    Then again, I don’t know much about music or instruments to know what organ meant then as compared to what it means now, but I’ve wondered if that has something to do with it. For me, I follow am a Presbyterian who holds to a capella, exclusive psalmody and I’m not too concerned about Luther per se. 🙂

    I have even seen Reformed Presbyterians try to argue that Luther was not only a capella but exclusive psalmody: I think that the evidence is wrong and that that is silly to argue, but it’s been done!

  25. Dwight says:

    In regards to the statement that is alluded to Luther, we find people willing to accept it because it agrees with their view of things. There is usually little fact checking that goes on when you don’t care if it is true, but see it to be on your side. I too have heard this quote, “The organ in worship is the insignia of Baal… The Roman Catholics borrowed it from the Jews.” used against IM, but it is sad that the source isn’t from Luther himself but from someone relaying what he said. This is called hearsay and shouldn’t be considered credible, especially with other known statements from Luther that directly oppose the thought. We need to get more honest in our studies otherwise we just pass untruths along as fact. To use this quote without the exact source located lacks integrity.
    Now it is true many of the reformers thought very little of the Jews, but the early Jews from what I know did not have organs and didn’t originate the organ, but did use it after the 7th century as did many Christian churches. The early Jews did however have IM.

Leave a Reply