Why is the Lutheran Church a Liturgical Church and Should Remain So?
One thing that many non-Lutherans find puzzling, if not downright offensive, is that the Lutheran Church is a church that knows and appreciates the historic liturgy of the Church, and in particular, the “communion service” used throughout the history of the Church, starting very, very early in the Church’s history, with the core/key elements of the historic form of that worship service found already in evidence well back into the late first and early second century. That form of worship service, the service in which the Lord’s Supper, is the center piece, is known in the Western Church as the “Mass.” Even the Lutheran Confessions use the term “Mass” and indicate that the Evangelical [Lutheran] reformation of the church does not include ditching the Mass and the various salutary and helpful liturgical forms, structures, practices, rites and ceremonies. Rather, they are allowed to be the structures and ways in which the Gospel shines forth in the congregation, quite apart from any whims of the moment or pecularities of the man in the pulpit who may (please God!) preach the Gospel well. The liturgy anchors the congregation in the read and heard Word of God and the objective declaration of the Gospel in the Absolution and the great “for you” of the Lord’s Supper.
The Lutheran Church is not a radical reformation of the Church, which, actually, is more appropriately called the Deformation of the Church. But why is this? Why not toss the historic liturgy? What value can it possibly hold for the modern world? Aren’t these words, phrases, forms and structures simply archaic relics of a superstitious past, one in which the Gospel was obscured and clouded by human tradition? The Calvinist/Reformed/Evangelical answer to that question has been: Yes! And so you have, historically, an absolute liturgical poverty throughout Reformed/Calvinist worship. As one Lutheran scholar, Werner Elert, noted with sour sarcasm, “The only thing Calvinism has contributed to the church’s liturgical life has been hymn boards.”
Herman Sasse, who was keenly mindful of the dangers associated with liturgy set adrift from proper confession, provides a beautiful explanation of why the Lutheran Church is a liturgical church. How sad it is to see far too many Lutheran Churches, particularly here in America, scuttling the historic worship forms of the Church and replacing them with nothing more than a poor imitation of the kind of “worship” forms that are used in the large non-denominational/Calvinist/Evangelical churches. Here then is how Sasse answers the question: “Why is the Lutheran Chuch a Liturgical Church?”
“Unlike other confessions, the Lutheran Church has, we know, received a definite liturgical heritage. She is not saddled with the heritage of the ancient pagan notion of sacrifice, a heritage which makes every renewal in the Catholic Churches of the East and West always a renewal of the notion of sacrifice, and therewith a renewal of paganism. And yet, on the other hand, the Lutheran Church has never made a complete break with the early Christian New Testament liturgy, a break which couldn’t be avoided by the Reformed Churches because they had abandoned belief in the real presence— a fact that we must expand in a later letter— without which there can be no true liturgy. Our Church’s liturgy therefore could be that which it was in the sixteenth century according to a Catholic liturgical scholar, namely: “the first serious attempt undertaken with unique linguistic and musical means to create a German folk-liturgy and thus to bridge that estrangement which has remained between the German people and the liturgy ever since their becoming Christian” (F. Messerschmid, Liturgie und Gemeinde , 66).
“If one is to have an idea of the triumphal course of the Reformation in Germany, then “one must,” the same author tells us (ibid., p. 49), “have received from the sources an intimation of the unheard-of vitality of these divine services; of the powerful religious feeling with which they were celebrated by those congregations which had before this been only dumb witnesses and spectators and listeners in the church … one must have received an intimation of the power with which these chorales were taken up by old and young and by all classes! Even Jesuit eyewitnesses have averred that these chorales brought more believers to this new teaching than all preaching and other efforts to win them!” Why are things not so today? Why has our Divine Service lost the power over men’s spirits? This is one of the most earnest questions which our church has to consider.
“One answer that must be given to this question is the fact that we pastors no longer know and understand the liturgical treasures of our church, and therefore are not in a position to introduce our congregations to them. And one of the urgent duties of the Lutheran pastorate today is to win back that which has been lost. Why don’t we preach more often on the liturgy? Why do we believe that we must enliven our liturgical life by borrowing from the Eastern Church or from the Roman Catholic Church? Why don’t we know any longer what the evangelical Divine Service of the old Lutheran Church was like? Why do we leave it to Catholic theology to rediscover Luther’s importance as one of the greatest liturgical geniuses? Why do we know practically nothing about the greatest liturgical scholars of our church in the nineteenth century, about Löhe and Kliefoth? How can we explain the mass printing of theologically and liturgically worthless works on modern liturgical art, from Arper-Zillessen to Burghart’s unfortunate new Prussian Agenda? God help us to teach again the great prayer of the church, that our church may become a genuine ecclesia orans.”
Herman Sassed, Letters to Lutheran Pastors: Volume I – Ecclesia Orans [The Praying Church], April 1949. Concordia Pub House. Kindle Edition.