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Lutheran Liturgical Reform, Part 2

Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship we do? In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our worship service, beginning with the history of Christian worship itself.

Liturgy between Reformation and Now

Liturgical changes between the Reformation and today were often due to national differences and historical influences. In Sweden, for instance, Gustav Vasa led the revolt against King Christian II of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. This insurrection ended with the 1523 election of Vasa as the Swedish king when Sweden seceded from the Kalmar Union and the modern country of Sweden was established as separate from and independent of the other Scandinavian countries.

King Gustav I implemented a break with the Roman Catholic Church by exiling the Catholic Archbishop, Gustav Trolle. That, along with additional clashes with Pope Clement VII, led not only to a break with the Roman Catholic Church, but also to the introduction of Lutheranism and the removal of Catholic errors in the liturgy in Swedish churches. In 1531, Olavus Petri published the Swedish Mass, which was similar to Luther’s German Mass but using the Swedish language. Additional modifications and additions to the Swedish Mass were made in the following years, including the addition of the sermon as a regular part of the liturgy.

The 1530’s were not a good decade for the Roman Catholic Church. Not only King Gustav I of Sweden, but also King Henry VIII of England ended their countries’ submission to the pope. The English Reformation produced an English-language liturgy called the Book of Common Prayer. The content and arrangement of that liturgy were influenced by and similar to that of the Lutheran liturgy.

English church liturgy, however, was subsequently tossed about by tumultuous political events in England. After the death of Henry VIII, a second Book of Common Prayer, which reflected the influence of Calvinism (including the statement that the “presence of Christ is not in the sacrament, but only in the heart of the believer”) was introduced. Following the 1547 death of King Edward VI (the son of Henry VIII) and the nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey, Edward’s half-sister Mary Tudor became queen. She was staunchly Catholic. “Bloody Mary” persecuted, executed, and imprisoned Protestant leaders and returned the Church of England to Roman Catholic jurisdiction and liturgy. However, in 1604, under James I, the fourth Book of Common Prayer became the official liturgy of the Church of England. It largely replaced Catholic elements of the liturgy with Protestant ones. However, the theology of the Protestant liturgies was more Puritan (mostly Calvinistic) than Lutheran.

The political and religious chaos of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) resulted in the functional disintegration of church life in western European countries. Luther D. Reed (The Lutheran Liturgy) says, “Ordered church life was disrupted, churches were closed, wrecked, or defiled. Liturgical books, music, and sacred vessels were destroyed, together with vernacular translations of the Scriptures.”

Subsequently, the efforts to restore orderly church life led to what some have characterized as “dead orthodoxy” and legalistic rules for church attendance. Non-attendance at regular services resulted in fines, and state churches became more or less an arm of the civil government. Church attendance was largely a civil duty like following the speed limit laws in our day, and tended to have little to do with actual spiritual involvement in everyday life. Sermons tended to be long, academic, and lacking in edification. Pastors considered their duties to have been fulfilled when they had “gone through the motions” of liturgy and preaching, without any consideration of the spiritual effect on the congregation. It was comparable to a teacher falsely thinking he had successfully taught merely by talking about his subject, in spite of the fact that no actual learning occurred among the pupils.

There was, understandably, a reaction to this “dead orthodoxy.” Unfortunately, the reaction to an error is very often just an opposite error. For example, the opposite of the error of legalism is the error of antinomianism. The erroneous reaction to “dead orthodoxy” was Pietism.

Reacting to the sterile, largely perfunctory aspect of church life after the Thirty Years’ War, the pietistic movement appealed to many Christians. Pietism emphasized personal and subjective religious experience, but it did so at the cost of eliminating formal worship and doctrinal instruction. It focused on subjective experience (emotion) rather than intellectual recognition and acceptance of objective Biblical truth. As Fred L. Precht says in Lutheran Worship—History and Practice, “Reflective of the mystical spiritualism of John Tauler (1300-61) and others, regeneration (a biological image) became the central subject instead of the Word of God and justification (a forensic image), so highly stressed by the reformers and orthodox theologians.” Pietism espoused many slogans emphasizing subjective and emotional worship and eschewing formal worship. They spouted such things as “life versus doctrine” and “Holy Spirit versus the office of the ministry.”

The effect of Pietism on liturgy was predictable: the means of grace (Word and Sacrament) were undervalued or neglected, preaching focused on personal experience rather than revealed truth, and it tended to be little more than admonitions to sanctified living. The pastor was viewed not as a holder of the Office of the Ministry, but merely as a witness to and an example of a godly life. In its more extreme manifestations, Pietism rejected formal liturgy altogether. Formal prayers were replaced by impromptu extemporaneous prayers. Hymns focused on human religious experience rather than the objective facts of redemption through Christ. That dichotomy is still with us today, differentiating Lutheran hymns from “worship songs.” Pietism overlooked divinely revealed doctrine and focused instead on subjective emotional religious experience, and this misplaced focus led to religious unionism based on fellowship with those who felt the same rather than those who believed the same.

The intellectual vacuum created by Pietism allowed the philosophical movement of the Enlightenment (17th and 18th century European movement) to invade the church in the form of Rationalism. The effect of Rationalism in the church was to establish man’s reason, rather than God’s revelation, as the means of determining truth. Rationalists rejected Biblical revelation, and some even charged the human authors of Scripture with deliberate falsehood. Pietism had rejected the forms of liturgical worship; Rationalism rejected also the content. It sought novelty instead of the fixed forms of liturgy, and rejected the idea of man’s sinfulness along with pretty much anything supernatural because such things were not discernable by man’s reason. Man’s seeking of moral perfection was enjoined rather than proclaiming God’s grace in the reconciliation to God that we have in Christ. The church became more like a lecture hall where decidedly non-religious content was proclaimed. For example, one sermon on Luke 2 (the birth of Christ) espoused the virtues of modern agricultural practices and methods of animal husbandry. The redemption accomplished by Christ was largely ignored in favor of lectures about how to achieve a “happy” life. Biblical miracles were “explained” by natural scientific processes, or else rejected as altogether false. The bodily resurrection of Christ was denied. Original sin was disavowed, and objectionable behavior was viewed as merely the result of natural external influences on the individual.

Even in churches where Rationalism ruled, some form of liturgy still existed. However, it was corrupted by Rationalistic philosophy. For example, an 1808 agenda of the time had the following as the form of distribution: “Eat this bread; may the spirit of devotion rest upon you with all its blessings. Drink a little wine; moral power does not reside in this wine, but in you, in the teachings of God, and in God.” One form of Baptism stated, “Water, the best means for cleansing the body, is the most fitting emblem of soul-purity. May thy heart remain pure and thy life unspotted, thou still innocent angel!”

In time, God graciously restored to the German Church and church liturgy the sound theology of Luther and biblical Lutheran liturgy. It was also at this time that many confessional Lutherans migrated to America. This period is known as the confessional revival of the 19th century. Claus Harms (1778-1855) warned German Lutherans about the dangers of the “papacy of reason.” Liturgies were revised to restore the best forms of truly biblical worship.

By the grace of God, we today have such biblical and edifying liturgies in sources such as those derived from Wilhelm Loehe’s Agenda for Christian Parishes. Loehe looked through two hundred old agendas to compile the best possible usage, and it is that agenda that most confessional Lutheran churches in America use today. Our The Lutheran Hymnal, for example, uses these forms.

May God graciously grant that we recognize, are edified by, and continue to use the gift of biblical Lutheran liturgy which He has given us.

Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.