Luther’s Case for Psalm-Singing

Zac HicksConvergence of Old and New in Worship, History of Worship and Church Music, Worship Resources1 Comment

Ligonier on Luther and the PsalmsWorship leaders and thinkers who stand in the Reformed worship tradition emphasize the importance and necessity of Psalm-singing. In fact, there are several smaller Reformed denominations who are chiefly known as “psalms-only” worshipers, meaning that the only songs they sing in worship are tuned translations and versifications of the Psalms. John Calvin, the father of the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity, was an outspoken champion of the supremacy of Psalms in worship. He encouraged Psalm-singing in the Genevan Church of his day, and he commissioned well-known artists to craftily set Psalm-versifications to rousing, rhythmic tunes.

Though Calvin was by far the most outspoken of the Reformers on this subject, it’s worth bringing up the fact that Luther also had a very high view of the Psalms. And though he would never argue for a Psalms-only approach in worship, we can derive from his emphasis on Psalms that he would have thought that Psalm-singing would be a healthy, centering practice for the Church. I was reminded of all this as I plod my way through a very dense book on Luther’s theology, Oswald Bayer’s Theology the Lutheran Way:

In Luther’s opinion, the Psalter contains the whole Bible in a nutshell and can therefore be called “a mini Bible.” He lets it stipulate the “manner” and “practice” of his relationship to God, the world, and himself, not only in general but also in particular, as in the development of his concept of meditation. It is no accident that Psalm 119, the very psalm that teaches Luther the true practice of meditation and its true understanding, is also the psalm that teaches him how to understand theology as a whole.*

One of the things I’m learning about Luther’s understanding of theology and the Christian life (those two are one and the same for Luther) is that the Psalms were central. If we have any thoughts of Luther’s theology, we immediately think that, for Luther, his biblical ground zero would be Galatians, Romans, or some other Pauline epistle that distills the essence of the whole of Scripture in the concept of justification by faith alone through Christ. And while this is fair, we could equally say that, for Luther, the Psalms are where this theology is done, practiced, and lived.

It would make sense that the only inspired songbook for Christians (and Jews) would very much be a “mini-Bible.” And though not direct, enclosed in this emphasis is a case from another reformer besides Calvin for Psalm-singing. So let me point out a few choice resources/avenues:

  • For more traditional, hymnbook-oriented congregations, check out this great one-stop-shop, Psalms for All Seasons.
  • For contemporary/modern stuff, check out this wonderful post at Cardiphonia, cataloguing both specific psalms and then some collections/projects at the end.
  • Write your own: there’s nothing like a local worship leader setting Psalms for his or her own congregation. Google search “metrical psalms,” look up Isaac Watts’ psalm-settings, and add tunes to them!

*Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 52.

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