Lips + Heart Part 4: Case Study, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

In case you missed them
Introduction and Criteria
Case Study: Hillsong
Case Study: Trading My Sorrows 

Case Study: Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Here is what the website What Saith The Scripture writes about this hymn, and its significance for the Christian church in Germany during the Protestant Reformation:

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Ein’ fest Burg ist unser Gott) quickly became the Battle Hymn of the Reformation. Turning away from a music form dominated by the clergy of the Catholic Church, Luther placed the emphasis upon congregational singing. Hymn books were soon published from the newly introduced printing presses (1450) of Johann Gutenberg (1400-1468). Luther’s first hymnal was introduced in 1524 with a total of eight hymns– half by Luther. Early congregational singing of the Reformation was in unison without accompaniment, but organ music was later added as an accompaniment to the chorale. Christian hymns, like the Scriptures, in the language of the people instead of Rome’s liturgical language of Latin, were published in tract form and distributed far and wide as a powerful tool of evangelizing the lost.

So, with that history in view, one would think that Luther’s hymn should always be played in Christian worship services, right?  Let’s put it through the six question criteria test.

Lyrics

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe —
His craft and pow’r are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide
Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He —
Lord Sabaoth His name,
From age to age the same —
And He must win the battle.

And tho this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph thru us.
The prince of darkness grim —
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure —
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs —
No thanks to them abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Thru Him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still —
His kingdom is forever.

Testing It:

The Bible Test:

This hymn is basically a theological meditation upon Psalm 46. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble”(Psalm 46:1 ESV).  Luther admittedly penned this hymn as another layer in his theological assault/pastoral attempt to lift up a view of God’s sovereignty among a people that had learned to fear other things more than fearing God (in an appropriate manner).

The Hymnody Test:

Yes. This song may be the paradigm of hymnody.  The whole of the Protestant worship movement extends from this song as the chief example of hymns and theological worship.

The Internal Consistency Test:

Yes. Again, any time you write a song as a theological meditation upon scripture, chances are that you will end up with a consistent song.

The Hook Test:

What hooks me about this song? The lyrics.  So rich. So thoughtful. So preachy. So worshipful.  This is a fantastic song for contemplation and reflection.

The DMB Test:

Whoops.  The first flaw in Luther’s song, although we should not fault Luther.  This song is a prisoner of its time period.  It does not transpose to the 20th century, let alone the 21st century.

Dont believe me?  Check out this band that tried to update it (warning: they say a bad word).

The closest thing I have found to a DMB arrangement is this.  Chris Rice also arranged it here, but it still sounds like it should be played at a Renaissance Fair.  Pretty decent, but still at an  odd meter.  The ghost of Luther’s time persists!

I was on a mission trip with our youth evangelism team in Chicago a few years ago and we led worship at a Lutheran church downtown that wanted us to play this song in their worship.  We had guitars and drums and pianos and dancers.  Our worship pastor, a gifted musician who has won 3 dove awards for arrangements, said and I quote “There is no easy way to play this song on guitar.  It changes chords on every note.”

Settled.

The Recognition Test:

Again, even with the aforementioned updated arrangements, this song is trapped by an odd meter and uneven flow.  I would mark it down in the same way I marked down Hillsong’s With Everything due to the trouble with recognizability. In short, it would be difficult to hear this song one time and then sing it through again.

******

Conclusion:

I am going to give this song a “depends” answer.  It really depends on what kind of church body you have.  This song was a good first attempt by the Protestant Reformer to get the people’s eyes off of their sin and onto the sovereign Lord of the universe. For the record, I personally love this song.  I would sing this song in a personal time of worship through song.  I love reading the lyrics.  But, I have my reservations. I would venture to say that this song becomes the litmus test for particular church selection.

Here is the test question: Would you advocate singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in a corporate worship service as a regular part of musical worship?

Those that respond “Yes” are typically your head Christians who want to go to a heady, thoughtful, reflective worship service more often than not.  Think “Presbyterian” or “Reformed Church” or “Bible Church” type folk.

However, those who answer “No” are likely the heart Christians who would rather go to an experiential, presence of God, worship service with demonstrative response and emotional freedom of expression.  Think Charismatic, Holiness, Methodist, Pentecostal, or Hippie-Rock church folks.  For the same theological goal in worship, these folks should try this song.

Same theological message, but with a more updated, recognizable feel.

My gut tells me that many younger audiences will prefer the latter song to the former. But, who knows, maybe this Young Reformed and Restless crowd is more influential than I think.

About Doug Hankins

Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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