Rev. Gaven Mize
Johann Sebastian Bach. Few are confused as to who he was or what he did for a living. His name has been spoken in many pipe smoke-filled rooms by men with patches on the elbows of their favorite sports coat and listening to a lovely sonata, while discussing the third movement in the Brandenburg Concerto. But, that’s not how most people know him or discuss him. Ask many people in our congregations if they know who Bach was and they will probably say that he was a German of some kind. Ask the lady in who always sits in the third pew if she knew that he was a Lutheran and you will get an, “Of course!” But, is that all that we should know about one of the greatest (if not the greatest) musicians of all time?
Perhaps we could wonder if he was influenced more by those in northern or southern Germany. But, to understand what it was that enlightened the heart and motivated Bach a better question would be, “Did Bach’s theology and piety play an important role in his composing?” Again, “When he composed works for the church were they composed for the sake of the music alone or for the sake of highlighting the reality of what scripture confesses regarding the Christ, the son of the living God?” We could, of course, continue with such questions for hours and barely scratch the surface of Bach’s catalog. However, we can take an in-depth, although brief, look at Bach’s theology and how he influenced the church of his day and even the German church in America today.
Some biographers have tried to link Bach to a sense of national Germanic spirit, however this remains a tall task to prove. The fact of the matter is that Bach and his music were constantly tied directly to the liturgy. It’s impossible to throw Bach into a bucket of other classical composers and pull out a Bach that is separated from the church. It simply can’t be done. For Bach, Lutheran orthodoxy was the centrality of his work. The liturgy and the Gospel could not be separated in the work of Bach any more than they can be separated from one another in corporate worship. That is to say that they (liturgy and the proclamation of the Gospel) are synonymous and build upon each other in an expression that was natural for Bach. Even when we look at the smallest notes from Bach’s work we find a kindly confession to the faith that he held so dearly. The famous J. J. (Jesu Juva=Jesus, help) and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) notes were but small indications of the faith of Bach and also how dearly he held to the work of the Reformers. I suppose one could argue against such small notes made at the beginning and ending of Bach’s pieces, though what was placed between these notes highlighted the subject matter.
From Bach’s work coming out of Luther’s Deutsche Messe (German Mass) to his work with “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” it is clear that his piety and devotion to orthodox Lutheranism was front and center. Regarding his Deutsche Messe, Luther once wrote, “In the first place, I would kindly and for God’s sake request all those who see this order of service or desire to follow it: Do not make it a rigid law to bind or entangle anyone’s conscience, but use it in Christian liberty…” This, however never meant that Luther didn’t respect the liturgical form or its content. Quite the opposite, in fact. Germany was in many ways able to keep its liturgical form and content even as the western Christian world was dismantling it during the age of enlightenment and the plague of pietism. And for Bach the liturgical form and content was the jumping off point from which his works were built. Robin Leaver wrote in regard to Bach’s formation and fortification under the Deutsche Messe, “While this process had begun during Bach’s lifetime, traditions of liturgical worship remained strong in Leipzig. Thus much of Bach’s music was written to be heard within the liturgical framework and context that owed much to Luther’s Deutsche Messe.” Following Leaver’s thoughts here it is clear that Bach was not only a wonderful artist in his own right, but also took from theologians from the Reformation era and even from the spirit of the Reformation itself. For Bach, the Christian liberty Luther spoke of regarding the Deutsche Messe was not a liberty of destruction or dismantlement, but a brilliant use of liberty and the practice of piety and reverence.
Regarding Bach’s theological prowess and piety, Hans Metzger wrote, “The importance of his really being at home in the worship of the congregation we must view as the central force for his creativity and for his piety.” Along with this as the “central force,” the theologians in Leipzig helped to shape Bach’s texts as well as the liturgical works that he produced. There can be no doubt that Bach, while not a theologian in the professional sense, was certainly a theologian in the musical sense. The theology that he so dearly loved shaped him into the musician that he was. If one were to take the theology out of Bach’s experience he would be left with empty chords. As it was, theology lifted Bach’s heart and filled his notes with joy. Proper orthodox theology and piety leaps from his pages.
While it certainly is true that Johann Sebastian Bach stands as a giant in the musical world, it is also true that he stands on the shoulders of the theologians from the German Reformation church. For Bach, Christ’s atonement on his behalf filled his work and his heart. So, from Jesu Juva to Soli Deo Gloria, Christ was proclaimed by Bach. May our hallowed halls of worship be filled with the proclamation of Christ that was dug out from the Reformation and painted most beautifully on the pages of the competent theologian and musical genius that is the work of Johann Sebastian Bach.