4 - Song

Vernacular religious song was not the invention of the Reformation era. There was a long European history of such songs, including English carols, Dutch geestelijkeli ederen, Italian lauda spirituales, and German leisen. Luther knew of and utilized the single-stanza, para-liturgical German leisen that were closely associated with the liturgy and the festivals of the church year. Examples include the fifteenth-century Wir glauben all an einen Gott, based on the Creed, the fourteenth-century Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (Christmas Day), the twelfth-century Christ ist erstanden (Easter Day), textually and musically related to the Easter sequence Victimœ paschali laudes, and the thirteenth-century Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist (Feast of Pentecost). All of these and others were revised and expanded by Luther and are found in Low German forms in the Magdeburg Enchiridion. But whereas previous generations had sung these leisen extra-liturgically, after Mass on the respective festivals, Luther directed that the new evangelical hymns—whether they were re-workings of older material or newly created—should be sung intra-liturgically, that is, within the reformed Mass by the congregation at large.

This brings us to the hymn that is the focus of our attention tonight : the Christological hymn, Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn, written in 1524 by the first Protestant woman hymn writer, Elisabeth Creutziger. One of the things that is beginning to emerge from the study of the Popular Reformation is the extremely important role that some women played in the dissemination of Reformation faith among the general populace. In connection with hymnody there are two women of particular importance: Elizabeth Creutziger of Wittenberg, the author of this hymn, and Katharina Schiltz Zell of Strassburg, who brought out a hymnal in pamphlet form.

Elisabeth Creutziger originally came from East Pomerania, that is, northeastern Germany bordering on Poland. She was a nun who came to evangelical faith through the influence of Johannes Bugenhagen, Luther’s colleague and pastor of the town church in Wittenberg, who also came from Pomerania. On renouncing her vows, she married Caspar Creutziger, a theological student in Wittenberg, who became a pastor in Magdeburg (1525-1528) before returning to Wittenberg to become pastor of the castle church and professor at the university.

Elisabeth’s hymn, written during the winter of 1523-1524, has a number of unique features that later became distinctive traits of the Lutheran chorale tradition. First, the hymn has the distinction of being the first “Jesuslied,” a Christological hymn of the Reformation era. Later, such hymns became a particular feature of Lutheran Epiphany hymns, which explains why later hymnals include it under the Epiphany heading. But since the heart of Reformation theology involved what was then a “new” understanding of the person and work of Christ, the importance of this first Lutheran Christological hymn can hardly be overestimated.

Second, the new hymn grew out of an old one . The first stanza is virtually a free translation of the first stanza of the Christmas Latin office hymn, Corde natus ex parentis, which we sing as “Of the Father’s love begotten.”

Third, the hymn combines objectivity with subjectivity. The first two stanzas deal objectively with the doctrines of Incarnation and Atonement, that Christ was born and died for us. The remainder of the hymn is a subjective response to those doctrines, especially the third stanza:

O let us in thy knowledge
and in thy love increase,
that we in faith be steadfast
and know thy Spirit's peace;
that thy sweetness may be known
to these cold hearts, and teach them
to thirst for thee alone.

Since Lutheran Christology is primarily expressed in its eucharistic theology, the imagery of “thirsting after Christ” here almost certainly has eucharistic overtones—something that is picked up in Bach’s chorale cantataCitation: 4Herr Christ, der Einge Gottessohn (BWV 96), composed in 1724., especially movement 3, which, of course, was first heard in a eucharistic context.

That Elisabeth Creutziger intended her hymn to have popular appeal is seen in its associated melody—a variant of a German folk song melody that appears in the Locheimer Liederbuch of ca. 1450. Therefore the new hymn was introduced with a tune that would have already been familiar to the people: what was new was carried along by what was already known.

The hymn quickly entered the basic repertory of Lutheran chorales so that by the time of Bach it was very much an old hymn. But it was given new life and new meaning by the new music that was composed to address its basic message in a new way. The Christological theology was expounded in the anamnesis of the music, for it is the nature of true liturgical music to bring the past into the present and to make theological propositions personal. That was Bach’s particular gift. But it could not have happened without the insights of the Reformation; it could not have happened without the theological and musical insights of Luther; it could not have happened without the Christological hymn of Elisabeth Creutziger; and it could not have happened without these small hymnals, such as the Magdeburg Enchiridion, which allowed the ordinary people, the salt of the earth, to sing of their faith.


Herr Christ, der Einge Gottessohn (BWV 96), composed in 1724.