With the recent celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, many us were focused on the single event of Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door (October 1517), which he posted to generate academic debate. However, caution should be exercised in pinning a single event or day to such a widespread and complex movement. There was much more to come for Luther and the Reformers, with arguably more significant events.
One area of neglect that I’ve noticed in most studies of the Reformation in general, and Luther in particular, is the significant attention that a reformation of worship garnered. Yes, it is true that we read of Luther’s (eventual) formula of justification by faith and yes, the authority of the Scriptures under-gird all that Luther did. Yet once the break with Rome had been made, and the unfortunate marriage with the State had been formed, Luther recognized the need to modify worship in order to break with his perceived errors of Rome and provide an alternative for the people.
In January of 1526, Luther wrote instructions titled “The German Mass and Order of Divine Service”. Having realized the changes that needed to be made to his earlier 1523 order of worship, Luther writing in the opening Preface of his later work informs readers that his order of worship is not intended to
“make of it a compulsory law, or to ensnare or make captive thereby any man’s conscience, but to use it agreeably to Christian liberty at their good pleasure, as where, when and so long as circumstances favour and demand it.”
Clearly then, though Luther would proceed to make recommendations for the order and liturgy of worship services, his intention is in no way to bind the consciences of men to this order, and most certainly not to allow it to fall back into the trappings of formal rigidity as with Rome. He even leaves a caveat that should these instructions become unnecessary or outdated, discontinue them.
Additionally, he points out that the Order to follow is not for the “sake of those who are Christians already…but for the sake of those who are to become Christians. For the sake of such, we must read, sing, preach, write, and compose….” In other words, the service order that Luther was about to set down was meant strictly for unbelievers, with the goal of evangelizing them.
Don’t gloss over that, it’ll come back up later.
As Luther begins to outline his recommended order of divine services, he identifies three separate and distinct services. First, is the Latin Divine Service or Latin Mass, called the Forumla Missae. This service was a holdover from the services administered by the Roman Catholic Church, with perhaps the lone omission being the Canon of the Mass. However, in Luther’s own words concerning this divine service, he writes,
“This I do not want to have set aside or changed; but as we have hitherto kept it, so should we be still free to use it where and when we please, or as occasion requires. I do not want in anywise to let the Latin tongue disappear out of Divine Service; for I am so deeply concerned for the young.”
This service was to have singing and reading on “alternate Sundays in all four languages – German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.” So with this first service, Luther maintains, at least partially, the worship from the Roman Catholic experience with the purpose of maintaining Latin proficiency and exposure among the public, particularly the youth. Further justification for keeping this service maybe deduced from its defense written in 1523
I have been hesitant and fearful, partly because of the weak in faith, who cannot suddenly exchange all old and accustomed order of worship for a new and unusual one, and more so because of the fickle and fastidious spirits who rush in like unclean swine without faith or reason, and who delight only in novelty and tire of it as quickly, when it has worn off (Luther’s Works 1965, 53:19).
Remember that prior to Luther’s own translation of the Scriptures in the modern vernacular of German, Latin was the only language the Scriptures were available in and the Roman Catholic services were conducted by the priests solely in Latin.
Luther’s Second Divine Service was the German Mass. Luther considered this for the “sake of the simple laymen” where both this and the previous divine service should be “held and publicly celebrated in church for the people in general. They are not yet believers or Christians.” Remember that these divine services are not intended for believers. They have exclusively unbelievers as their focus, as Luther adds, “So far it is no question yet of a regularly fixed assembly wherein to train Christians according to the Gospel: but rather of a public allurement to faith and Christianity.”
Without question, according to Luther’s own words, these divine services with all of their vestments, singing, preaching, readings of Scripture, celebrations of the Mass, attention on language, etc., were in their entirety meant for the evangelism of unbelievers.
The Third Divine Service, according to Luther, was one in “which the true type of Evangelical Order should embrace, must not be celebrated so publicly in the square amongst all and sundry.” In the opening description, this service is meant to be in complete contrast with those mentioned earlier as it was considered exclusively for believers. In this particular service, Luther goes into more specific detail. Below is an extended quote
“Those, however, who are desirous of being Christians in earnest, and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth, should register their names and assemble by themselves in some house to pray, to read, to baptize, and to receive the sacrament and practise other Christian works. In this Order, those whose conduct was not such as befits Christians could be recognized, reproved, reformed, rejected, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matt. xviii. Here, too, a general giving of the alms could be imposed on Christians, to be willingly given and divided among the poor, after the example of St. Paul in 2 Cor. ix. Here there would not be need of much fine singing. Here we could have baptism and the sacrament in short and simple fashion: and direct everything towards the Word and prayer and love.”
Now, this particular Divine Service outlined and described by Luther may not strike you at first, but it should, for Luther has often been credited as the designer of the Protestant Order of Worship, as well as credited for the introduction of congregational singing. The problem is that the modern features of worship, primarily from the German Mass, which we so freely incorporate today, were intended by Luther to be strictly for unbelievers as an aide to evangelism. The Divine Service for believers was to be private, intimate, sans singing, and centered around the Word, prayer, and love.
We might ask, why then were the evangelistic services of Luther’s copied and not his divine service for believers? Because it never happened. Divine service number three, in Luther’s descriptions, never existed. It was for him, idyllic, but unrealistic. Why? Because the quantity and quality or depth of Christians during this time was limited. In Luther’s own words
“In one word, if we only had people who longed to be Christians in earnest, Form and Order would soon shape itself. But I cannot and would not order or arrange such a community or congregation at present. I have not the requisite persons for it, nor do I see many who are urgent for it. But should it come to pass that I must do it, and that such pressure is put upon me as that I myself unable with a good conscience to leave it undone, then I will gladly do my part to secure it, and will help it on as best I can.”
In the meantime, Luther was resolved to proceed with the previous two Divine Services, “until those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together.”
It is more than likely that when we read of Luther’s services in his works, post-1526, we are not reading of services designed for believers to worship God. We are not seeing the celebration of worship music introduced to the congregation and removed from the choirs so that Christians might sing praises to God. We are seeing divine services designed to reach the masses for the purpose of evangelism. Luther was ready and willing to use any means necessary to bring them to Christ.
Though we’ve seen how Luther retained much of his Roman Catholic influence and tradition, with of course some obvious objections to the Mass, one additional note that we must mention is in regards to his overall philosophy of worship. Whereas the Regulative Principle of Worship was advanced by Calvin, a reform upon Luther, Martin Luther advanced what is called the Normative Principle of Worship. The former restricted worship to only those things which Scripture commands or offers as examples, while the latter broadens worship to include everything not expressly forbidden in Scripture. This is why we see such wide variety in Luther’s worship services.
Given all this, how then does it impact how we view our present day “divine services” knowing that in many respects Luther’s model was the prototype for Protestantism? How should this impact the order for believers, in their own divine services?
If God should be willing…more to come.
Soli Dea Gloria.