Martin Luther once said, “Next to theology, I accord the highest place to music.” Luther is of course well known as the composer of the beloved hymn “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott,” or “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” But this was not Luther’s first hymn.
Luther wrote his first hymn in 1523. The context was that there were two monks from Antwerp who were summoned to Brussels and put on trial. They had expressed their devotion to the gospel, and there in Brussels they were condemned as heretics, excommunicated, and burned at the stake. When word of this event got to Luther, he decided to commemorate their lives and their martyrdom through a hymn. Luther titled it “A New Song Shall Here Be Begun.” It’s a folk ballad, really, and it’s seventeen stanzas long.
After writing that song, Luther looked at the liturgy of the church and decided that the church needed an overhaul of its music just as it much as it needed an overhaul of its theology. So, he wrote a letter to George Spalatin, who was secretary to Frederick the Wise and also a fellow preacher in Wittenberg. Luther wrote, “Grace and peace. I am planning, according to the examples of the prophets and the ancient fathers, to create vernacular psalms, that is hymns, for the common folk so that the Word of God remain with the people also through singing. Therefore, we are looking everywhere for poets.” Luther threw his effort into this hymn-writing project, and by 1524 the first hymnbook was produced. It had eight hymns, four of them by Luther. By 1546, there were more than one hundred hymnals printed.
In the next century, there would be hymns from the folks in the English-speaking church. But first were Luther and these German hymns. The most famous of his thirty-eight hymns is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The title and first line conjure up the image of a castle, a stronghold, not unlike Wartburg Castle as it towers over the town of Eisenach, where Luther stayed after the Diet of Worms. Looking at the Wartburg, you get a sense of security. Luther wants us to think of God as our mighty fortress, as a bulwark who never fails us.
But there’s another line that is worth considering from Luther’s great hymn. A few stanzas in, Luther tells us, “That word”—that is, Christ, the Logos—“is above all earthly powers.” This castle in Luther’s day represented power; cannons were poised and ready to defend it. And yet Luther knows that above these earthly powers there is yet another power, and that is Christ, who is indeed above all earthly powers.