Saturday, November 17, 2012

Of Lutherans and Latin

One of the things they teach you in confirmation class, then maybe a World Civ course, and sometimes even in seminary, is that the Reformers of the sixteenth century wanted Christian worship to be held in "a language comprehended of the people."  Meaning, as they tell the story to children and seminarians, that once the Reformation fervor hit a particular city or princedom, Latin was out and German (or another vulgar tongue) was in.

It's a nice, simple story.  The problem is that it's not quite true.

As readers of Odd Hours know, Latin retained a significant place in Lutheran worship.  Melanchthon wrote that "we have retained the Latin lessons and prayers" in the Mass, (Apology 24).  Luther urged that the Daily Office be sung in Latin, and the Wittenberg Church-Order expressly requires this.

Mind you, the Office was sung by schoolboys, and it is pretty clear that Latin was retained at least in part as a teaching tool.  But this wasn't just a college-town affectation, and it didn't disappear after the earliest years of the Reformation.  

In a 1991 article, Ann Moss offered a survey of "Latin Liturgical Hymns of the Reformation Crisis (1520-1568)."*  As she demonstrates, Lutheran worship during what is sometimes called "the confessional period" made significant use of Latin, not only in Wittenberg but throughout Germany and Bohemia.  Nor was this merely a conservative retention of old and beloved songs, although there was some of that; on the contrary, Lutheran poets and theologians were busily engaged in the writing of new worship materials in Latin.  She places this work within the intertwined contexts of both Renaissance humanism and the movement for Catholic liturgical reform.

Moss points out that, among Protestants, the use of Latin hymns was restricted to Lutherans.  Calvinists were suspicious of hymnody altogether, and
[t]his was also the case in England, where a total commitment to the vernacular, coupled with a belief in the absolute primacy of Scripture over all other forms of the written word, meant that the compilers of the reformed prayer-book found no room in it for hymns, [either] Latin or vernacular.  [She does note the "curious exception" of the Englished Veni creator spiritus sung at ordinations.]
Among the Lutheran liturgical hymn-writers to whom Moss points:

  • Hermanus Bonnus (1504-48):  From the 1540s, revised the sequences and hymns for saints' days to reflect Evangelical theology;
  • Philip Melanchthon, from 1544 onward, composed a few "replacement" hymns for saints' days.  Given his prominence as a theologian, Moss notes that "Latin hymn-writing could hardly have had a more spectacular seal of approval;"
  • Johannes Spangenberg (1484-1550):  Edited a large 1545 collection of Latin and German hymns for church use, apparently at the urging of Luther himself;
  • Reinhardus Lorichius translated into Latin twenty of Spangenberg's own German hymns (1555), with theological commentaries.  (Discussing Spangenberg and Lorichius, Moss speaks of "Lutheranism's bilingual culture");
  • Mattheus Collinus: A Czech poet whose hymns (1545 et. seq.) are "engagingly confidential ... [and take] a rumbustious approach to feast-days, with an emphasis on the feasting;"
  • Georgius Fabricius (1516-71): "the most accomplished of Lutheran Latin hymn-writers [and] a humanist of the first rank;" his hymns range over "Christ's Passion, the canonical hours, the whole of the Church's calendar, and various occasions in the religious life;"
  • Matthias Flacius Illyricus, the most despicable of all major Lutheran theologians prior to the 1930s, also assembled a collection of Latin hymns, although one gathers that, rather than recommending them for worship, his intent was to hold them up as bad examples of the unregenerate past.
Perhaps the most interesting book described by Moss is the 1561 second edition of Lucas Lossius' Psalmodia hoc est Cantica sacra Veteris Ecclsiae selecta [....].  Although Lutheran worship was, as it remains, an intensely localized phenomenon, Lossius's book, which lays out the typical liturgy of Luneburg, was reprinted often and widely enough that it may represent a "standard use."  Moss notes that 
Latin hymns are sung at vespers, and Latin sequences at the traditional moment in the mass, with the addition of rhyming Latin 'cantica,' hymns in German or hymns in a macaronic mixture of German and Latin provided for the communion.
That's a lot of Latin for congregations that were a generation -- or two -- past the break with Rome.

Apart from antiquarian interest, why does this matter to modern-day Lutherans?  First, because it is a reminder of just how liturgically conservative our ancestors were; but most of us already knew that.  Second, and more subtly, the idea of Lutheranism's "bilingual culture" is more profound than Moss may have understood.  Here in the U.S., Lutheran churches have often struggled to embrace both their Teutonic ancestry and their place in a religious culture shaped by the English and Scots-Irish, and to which African American religiosity has provided the principal counterpoint.  As the old WASP hegemony declines, we continue to struggle with our place in the new demographic order.  It is helpful to be reminded of a cosmopolitanism buried deep within our ecclesiastical DNA.

But third and most centrally, we think, is this:  It reminds us that the Latin language, which is of such immense importance in the history of Christianity, and which since Tertullian coined the word "Trinity" has been an almost peerless vehicle of tradition, is an indispensable element not only of the Lutheran academic heritage, but of the liturgical heritage as well.  The Reformers meant to be sure that undereducated church members could follow the service; they never meant to exclude from the service the language of learning and of tradition.  

It is difficult to square this with the populism which has shaped most liturgical reform since the late-20th century.  From the Lutheran Book of Worship through the Hymnal Supplement to With One Voice and Evangelical Lutheran Worship, there has been an intense push to make the language of worship more easily accessible to the hypothetical "average" worshiper.  One sees the same impulse in liturgical reform among most of our ecumenical partners; to it has recently been added a particular concern for gender neutrality.  This push is often supported with appeals to the Reformers and their use of the vernacular, so it is useful to recall that their use of the vernacular was not absolute.  

Roman Catholicism's "reform of the reform" has led to a new English missal which strives for greater fidelity to the underlying Latin.  While it has been sharply criticized in some quarters for its use of English words which are unusual and difficult for the "average" churchgoer, it has been praised in others for offering a witness to the faith which is deeper and, at least to those with some basic preparation, clearer.  Some Roman Catholics are running, often despite the reluctance of their bishops to allow it, toward services in Latin, which they believe present a more "authentic" Catholicism.  Lutheran worship is shaped by a different set of concerns, but might still consider the possibility that, in some circumstances, congregations are well served by a diet of hard-to-chew meat along with their pureed carrots.   

*In Humanistica Lovaniensa:  The Journal of Neo-Latin Studies (vol. XL) 73-111.   (Read it here.)


Anonymous said...

The half German half Latin hymns have always intrigued me; interesting to know a bit more about their provenance!

Father Anonymous said...

I should make it clear that those hymns aren't a Reformation innovation. Mixing Latin and the vernacular was a reasonably common medieval literary device. Lot or poems, for example, rhyme an English word ("wheree'er I be") with the Latin phrase "timor mortis conturbat me."

mark said...

I heard your cousin Anonymous playing a setting
of Divinum Mysterium today.