In his preface to The German Mass and Order of Divine Service, Martin Luther lays out his philosophy of worship and gives three examples of liturgy that he would like to see implemented. Two of these were actually created, while the third remained only an ideal, to be attempted by later groups with varying degrees of success. Luther’s comments throughout reveal not only what he believed about worship, but also what he believed about the German people and their spiritual condition, as well as the proper relationship between the gathered assembly and the larger society. We will here make a few observations about Luther’s method of implementing the new liturgies, as well as the contents of the liturgies themselves.
Luther begins his discussion on the Mass with a firm reminder of the doctrine of Christian liberty:
Above all things, I most affectionately and for God’s sake beseech all, who see or desire to observe this our Order of Divine Service, on no account 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. Moreover, we would not have our meaning taken to be that we desire to rule, or by law to compel, any one.
But he immediately follow this with another concern:
As then always happens with Christian liberty, few use it for anything else than their own pleasure or profit: and not for God’s honour and the good of their neighbour. While, however, every man is bound on his conscience, in like manner as he uses such liberty himself, not to hinder nor forbid it to any one else, we must also take care that liberty be servant to love and to our neighbour. Where, then, it happens that men are offended or perplexed at such diversity of use, we are truly bound to put limits to liberty; and, so far as possible, to endeavour that the people are bettered by what we do and not offended. Since, then, in these matters of outward ordinance nothing is laid upon us as matter of conscience before God, and yet such ordinance can be of use to our neighbour, we ought in love, as St. Paul teaches, to endeavour to be of one and the same mind; and, to the best of our power, of like ways and fashion; just as all Christians have one baptism and one sacrament, and no one has a special one given him of God.
And so while this liturgy is, on the one hand, voluntary, Luther also believes that it should be uniform within a certain civic polity. Luther later says that he does not believe that “the whole of Germany” must adopt his service, though he also says it would be “a grand thing” if they did. He wants the transition to be gradual, but, of course, he also used the civil magistrate to achieve this end. Essentially Luther sets forth voluntary cooperation as the ideal, but reserves the right to use the civil magistrate for the sake of “order” so long as there is no suggestion that this external requirement is a spiritual necessity. This same duality of free cooperation towards an ideal and the limitations of external order will appear in Luther’s “third service” which we will look at in more detail below.
This sort of “Erastianism” is not without its difficulties, of course. Modern readers are often puzzled at its pairing with the doctrine of Christian liberty. They more commonly associate Erastianism with religious coercion. However, for Luther, it was precisely because he did not want the liturgy to be interpreted as a divine law that he allowed for “secular” oversight and regulation. The liturgy was a human law, appropriately crafted for the local conditions. This logic made good sense in a united Christendom, with both magistracy and ministry occupying the same people and geographical territory. Outside of such a context, Luther’s ecclesiology would necessarily look rather differently, though he never imagined such a change. (For a fuller explanation of “Erastianism,” See Paul Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers, Wipf and Stock, 2002, pgs 142-144, 154-163. )
Evangelism is a prominent theme in Luther’s commentary. It is obvious that he does not consider all of his congregation to be “Christians” or truly converted believers. He expects that the liturgy will itself be a vehicle for conversion, and thus much of his liturgical expression has evangelism as a goal. Luther writes:
In fine, we institute this Order not for the sake of those who are Christians already. For they have need of none of these things (for which things’ sake man does not live: but they live for the sake of us who are not yet Christians, that they may make us Christians); they have their Divine Service in their spirits. But it is necessary to have such an Order for the sake of those who are to become Christians, or are to grow stronger; just as a Christian has need of baptism, the word and the sacrament not as a Christian (for, as such, he has them already), but as a sinner.
This has important implications for Luther’s view of conversion and the visible church in general. Given the historical context, nearly all of the members of Luther’s church would have been baptized. There would have been very few in all of Germany who were not members of the visible church. Yet Luther is not content to leave things at the purely objective level. Rather he uses the liturgy as a bridge between the objective and subjective, supposing that many will be spiritually converted through these ordinary means. Luther does not have the sort of evangelistic methods we might think of today, those of the 19th century, but he does believe that the ordinary elements of the evangelical German Mass will act as converting ordinances.
He adds that he also wants the service to be a tool of instruction and a means for Christians to evangelize others and thus spread the kingdom of Christ:
But, above all, the Order is for the simple and for the young folk who must daily be exercised in the Scripture and God’s Word, to the end that they may become conversant with Scripture and expert in its use, ready and skilful in giving an answer for their faith, and able in time to teach others and aid in the advancement of the kingdom of Christ. For the sake of such, we must read, sing, preach, write, and compose; and if it could in any wise help or promote their interests, I would have all the bells pealing, and all the organs playing, and everything making a noise that could.
Thus we have a clear understanding of Luther’s goal. The service should be able to convert unbelievers and equip new believers with the means of evangelism and discipleship.
Luther’s first service is the Latin Mass, still called at this time the Formula Missae. This was the service that would be held in the German schools, and Luther believed that the young should especially be trained in Latin so that they could converse with others from different countries. He entertains the idea of having Greek and Hebrew services as well, though admits that these are less practical given his historical context:
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. If it lay in my power, and the Greek and Hebrew tongues were as familiar to us as the Latin, and possessed as great a store of fine music and song as the Latin does, Mass should be held and there should be singing and reading, on alternate Sundays in all four languages-German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. I am by no means of one mind with those who set all their store by one language, and despise all others; for I would gladly raise up a generation able to be of use to Christ in foreign lands and to talk with their people, so that we might not be like the Waldenses in Bohemia whose faith is so involved in the toils of their own language that they can talk intelligibly and plainly with no one unless he first learn their language. That was not the way of the Holy Ghost in the beginning. He did not wait till all the world should come to Jerusalem, and learn Hebrew. But He endowed the office of the ministry with all manner of tongues, so that the Apostles could speak to the people wherever they went. I should prefer to follow this example; and it is right also that the youth should be practised in many languages. Who knows how God will make use of them in years to come? It is for this end also that schools are established.
It is clear that Luther does not believe that any one language has a priority over the others. All languages are holy now and of use in the Christian church. Latin enjoys a certain priority because of its familiarity and the “store of fine music and song” of which we possess. Luther’s goal of having four languages in regular use never came to any fruition, of course, and it would be interesting to see if he ever made any serious attempts at attempting it within the schools.
Luther treats the German Mass in his second service, and it is clear that this is the most regular form of service that Luther imagined. It is “set up for the sake of the simple laymen” and held for the general public. This service is almost entirely evangelistic. Luther writes:
Both these kinds of Service then we must have held and publicly celebrated in church for the people in general. They are not yet believers or Christians. But the greater part stand there and gape, simply to see something new: and it is just as if we held Divine Service in an open square or field amongst Turks or heathen.
Indeed, Luther says that this service is not aimed at the training of Christians, “but rather of a public allurement to faith and Christianity.” This service was divided, much like the Anglican service, into the “Divine Service,” which would be the general service used on Sundays and throughout the week, and “the Mass,” which is the communion service. We will look at the components of these below.
The most curious of the services is certainly Luther’s “Evangelical Order.” This service was not for the general congregation, nor was it to be celebrated publicly. Instead, it was for the mature Christians who wished to gather privately in order to practice a stricter discipline and a simpler liturgy. Some of its features are so surprising that it has the capacity to cast Luther’s larger ecclesiology and theology of Christian nurture into a new light. Luther describes it like this:
But the third sort [of Divine Service], which the true type of Evangelical Order should embrace, must not be celebrated so publicly in the square amongst all and sundry. 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.
This order may not have been a “pure church” in the Anabaptist sense of that term, but it was certainly a purer church, as Luther indicates that it could more closely attain to the original Biblical pattern and better preserve church discipline:
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 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.
Interestingly enough, Luther adds that this sort of service would not need an elaborate liturgy, but would rather be characterized by simplicity and the primacy of “the Word and prayer and love.” This is very much in anticipation of the Puritan and Pietist movements which would come in the next century. Luther does not believe that it can be immediately implemented, however, since the people are not yet ready:
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 find 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, I would abide by the two Orders aforesaid; and publicly among the people aid in the promotion of such Divine Service, besides preaching, as shall exercise the youth and call and incite others to faith, until those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together; to the end that there be no faction-forming, such as might ensue if I were to settle everything out of my own head. For we Germans are a wild, rude, tempestuous people; with whom one must not lightly make experiment in anything new, unless there be most urgent need.
And thus the real differentiation between Luther and the Puritans to come is that Luther lacks any sense of urgency that such an elite order must be immediately implemented or made mandatory. It can wait for voluntary formation. Nevertheless, we should not miss the fact that Luther holds this out as a goal, clearly believing it to be a more mature expression of Christian worship and closer to the New Testament example.
We should also note that this third order is the only one of Luther’s services that is non-Evangelistic. Though the members of this group will “baptize,” it must be assumed that they are baptizing people who have already professed faith and made a commitment to “being Christians in earnest.” What place children would have in such an order is unclear. It is not impossible that this third order of Luther’s would also have Baptistic elements, thus anticipating yet another development to come.
Of course, this third order never actually came into being. It was precisely because Luther did not feel that liturgy was an “essential” of the church that he could relegate such a project to the future. Luther even allows, at the end of his commentary, that the form of the Mass itself could be changed in the future if necessary. He is emphatic that the “externals” of the “order” are things that can be changed, added to, and even done away with, so long as the greater service is that of true worship, preaching of the word, evangelism, and Christian service:
To sum up, this and every other order is so to be used that should any misuse arise in connexion therewith, it should be immediately done away with and another made: just as King Hezekiah broke up and did away with the brazen serpent, which God Himself had commanded to be made, because the children of Israel misused it. Forms and Orders should be for the promotion of faith and the service of love, and not to injury of faith. When they have no more to do, they are forthwith dead and of no more worth; just as, if good coin is counterfeit, for fear of misuse it is abolished and destroyed; or as, when new shoes have become old and dry, we wear them no longer but throw them away and buy new ones. Order is an outward thing. Be it as good as it may, it can fall into misuse. Then it is no longer order but disorder. So no Order has any intrinsic worth of its own, as hitherto the Popish Order has been thought to have. But all Order has its life, worth, strength, and virtue in right use ; else it is worthless and fit for nothing.
Turning back to the German Mass, Luther lays out the basic outline for the worship, as well as the specific components of the eucharistic liturgy. Impressively (or perhaps dauntingly), Luther’s churches practiced the daily office, using it as the primary means of catechizing the people. On Sunday there were three services, two in the morning (starting as early as 5 AM) and one in the afternoon. These were to basically follow the traditional liturgical calendar and retain many of the vestments and other visuals. These were, again, held to be things indifferent, preserved for good order, though Luther does express an opinion that the church would be better without some of them:
The Mass vestments, altars, and lights may be retained till such time as they shall all change of themselves, or it shall please us to change them: though, if any will take a different course in this matter, we shall not interfere. But in the true Mass, among sincere Christians, the altar should not be retained, and the priest should always turn himself towards the people as, without doubt, Christ did at the Last Supper. That, however, must bide its time.
Luther lists 14 components to Sunday service. It begins with a sung psalm or hymn in German. Then the Kyrie Eleison is sung to the same tone. The priest then follows this by reading a collect, turned towards the altar, and then turning towards the people to intone the Epistle reading. The choir then responds to this with a hymn in German. There is then intoned a Gospel reading by the priest. The whole congregation responds to this by singing Luther’s version of the Creed, “We all believe in one God.”
After this comes the sermon. Luther prefers the German Postills as a guide for the sermons, since most of the preachers cannot be trusted to write their own sermons:
I think that, where the German Postills are in use throughout the year, it were best to order the Postill of the day, either whole or part, to be read out of the book to the people; not merely for the preacher’s sake who can do no better, but as a safeguard against fanatics and sectaries,–a custom of which one may see traces in the Homilies at Mattins. Otherwise, where there is no spiritual understanding, and the Spirit himself speaks not through the preacher (though I set no limits to the preacher; for the Spirit can teach better than any Postills or Homilies) the end of it will be that every man will preach what he likes; and, instead of the Gospel and its exposition, they will be preaching once more about blue ducks! There are further reasons why we keep the Epistles and Gospels as they are arranged in the Postills, because there are but few inspired preachers who can handle a whole Gospel or other book with force and profit.
Of course, Luther would grant the occasional exception to this. He likely viewed himself as capable of preaching his own material. But for the purposes of a state-church, order was a priority. Again, we can here see parallels to the English ecclesiastical settlement, though Luther also gives hints of a freer form for the mature.
At this point, the service shifts to the eucharist. Luther would use the Lord’s Prayer as a transition point, paraphrasing it and making it a form of exhortation concerning the sacrament. Then comes the consecration and distribution, with the singing of hymns, the Sanctus, or the Agnus Dei in German. Luther mentions that the men and women would go up separately “for the sake of good order and discipline.” Luther retains the elevation and the Sanctus, though with some explanation of the interpretation. He then has the service conclude with a collect of thanksgiving and a benediction.
After describing the service, Luther gives a few words concerning feast days and fast days. He argues that they can be retained, though it is clear that he has some concern over the fast days. He does not want the core service to be altered because of them. He also singles out certain practices that should not be continued:
As for feast-days, such as Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide, Michaelmas, Purification and the like, we must go on, as hitherto, with Latin till we have hymns enough in German for the purpose. The work is but beginning, and all that belongs to it is not yet ready. Only, as one knows, make a start one way and several ways and means will be discovered.
Fast-days, Palm Sunday, and Holy Week may be retained. Not that we would compel any one to fast; but that the reading of the Passion and the Gospels appointed for these times should be observed. But we would not keep the Lenten veil, strewing of palms, covering up of pictures, and all the other mummery, nor sing the four Passions, nor preach on the Passion for eight hours on Good Friday. Holy week must be like other weeks, except that there should be sermons on the Passion for an hour daily throughout the week, or on as many days as is convenient, with reception of the Sacrament by all who desire it. For with Christians everything should be kept in God’s service that has to do with the Word and the Sacrament.
Luther’s commentary on the German Mass reveals much that is familiar to Luther studies but also a few pieces of insight that are surprising. He has an overall conservative disposition, retaining as much of the traditional liturgy and festivals as possible. But Luther is clear that he does this for the sake of order, not because those old forms have any sanctity in and of themselves. If at any point a liturgical practice becomes unhelpful or tends to corrupt the proper teaching of the Word, it should be discontinued.
But there are also flashes of “Puritan” and “Pietist” elements in Luther’s writing. While Luther does retain many traditional liturgical forms, he also makes occasional negative comments about them and consistently insists that a plain liturgy would be more desirable with the focal point being placed upon the word, prayers, and love. Luther also priorities missionary activity , both foreign and domestic, and he believes that the German liturgy should be a means of evangelism for both unlearned and immature members of the visible church as well as those dwelling in foreign lands who have not yet heard the Gospel.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.