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J. S. Bach:
Orthodox Lutheran Theologian?
The Rev. Walter Snyder (XRYSOSTOM)
Note: This paper was written as a "problem study" for a
class in European Lutheranism taught at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri by
Dr. August Suelflow. The format of such a study varies somewhat from a traditional
major paper, but should provide no difficulties to the reader.
Following the paper and notes is a time chart that details Bach's
life against the backdrop of European history.
Was Johann Sebastian Bach a champion of Orthodoxy in a period of Pietism and
Rationalism? If not, why is he so much a part of our liturgy and worship lives?
While we know that orthodox Lutheranism did not die out during and after the Thirty Years'
War, those who continued in the Orthodox fold were not of an overwhelming number. So if Bach
stayed within this movement, he displayed both courage and an example which would bear
examination even now. For while we may never have another Bach, it would certainly do no
harm to have him as stimulation for the work of present and future composers within
Section II: SPECULATION AND PERSONAL BIASES
Many of us---including myself---know little enough about music. But I love to listen, and have
slowly developed an appreciation for all types of music. Bach was always part of the sounds of my life;
however, it took an honors class in my senior year of college to start me thinking about his theology.
This course in Artificial Intelligence used Goedel, Escher, Bach as its text. But the author was a
scientific determinist, and I felt uncomfortable seeing Bach held up in this company. Yet at the time,
I had no opportunity to explore him in any depth.
Still, I did know a little about him, since he is such a part of Lutheran hymnody. Because he followed
Luther and built on his work, I'd always assumed that he believed in what Luther did and wrote. This
thought became stronger when I found out about the climate in which he wrote, since he seemed to look so
much to Luther in a time when much of Protestant Europe was going in contrary directions.
Since beginning seminary, my views have been strengthened. Bach was spoken of highly in many classes,
by the faculty, and by many of my peers.. In various classes, I heard him mentioned in glowing terms.
Additionally, guest speakers such as Rev. Robin Leaver have done much to laud him. My Worship class
taught additional respect for his work in chorales, cantatas and liturgies.
Because of what I knew going in, I believed that Bach was strongly in the Orthodox camp. Even today,
his religious music is popular in confessional churches, especially Lutheran. I trusted his theology to
be deeper and more reverent than that of a Rationalist. And his strong championing of music as a central
part of worship seemed far from the de-emphasizing to which Pietism subjected it.
Section III: THE EVIDENCE
This section is subdivided into examinations of the early and later portions of Bach's life.
Included also will are observations and commentaries of his contemporaries and later writers.
The final area to be examined is Bach in his own words, both from his music and from any correspondence
or public statements which might bear on his theology.
The Early Years
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Thuringia in 1685. Here was "the town wherein Luther hid
himself from his enemies, ... in the Wartburg [where] he made his translation of the Bible and created
some of his hymns." The muse did not settle in isolation when she visited
Bach. Veit Bach, his great-great-grandfather, was known to play the zither; his son Hans was a fiddler, and
the trend continued through his father's generation, when Johann Ambrosius was "court musician at
Eisenach," and "had two brothers and six first cousins in this walk of
life." One other thing the Bach family had much of was the name
Johann," so I will use middle names when using "Bach" would be confusing.
Sebastian spent his early years in Eisenach, attending grammar school and singing soprano in the church
choir. When his father died in 1695, he went to live with his organist brother, Johann Christoph, a former
student of Pachelbel, who continued Sebastian's music education. In 1700, Christoph found the boy a choir
position at St. Michael's, Lueneburg. Sebastian continued at Lueneburg after his soprano voice broke,
"presumably because he was also a useful player of various instruments."
While still living with Christoph in Ohrdruf, Bach had his "first experience with
Pietism." Ohrdruf was a Pietist stronghold, but the school authorities had taken
their oaths to the Orthodox formulations, and thus the community was split. Perhaps
because the battle was so close to home (Christoph was on record with his signature supporting Orthodoxy),
Sebastian may have seen too much, too soon. But whatever else, the school's stand did influence Sebastian.
"Well grounded in the humanities, his character absorbed the theological bias of the
There is also some early evidence that Bach was not only seeing the major
theological controversy of the day first hand, he was also advancing rapidly in other areas of learning.
After coming to Ohrdruf, he applied himself, and "worked his way out of Quarta in half a year. He was barely
ten when he entered the class, the average age of whose pupils was twelve." When scarcely
fifteen, he finished Prima, and this was almost three years earlier than was normal among his
contemporaries. Thus we have evidence of a young man who had the combination of
knowledge and wisdom to excel in his studies. Knowing the nature of his courses, which included much theology,
Greek, and Latin, I feel that Bach was quite aware of the surrounding battles, and was able to think them
Following his time at Lueneburg, Bach was briefly employed in Weimar, before taking a position as the
New Church, Arnstadt's organist. He got the job by accident; he asked the authorities for permission to try
their new organ. They "were so impressed with his skill that they offered him the post ... on the
spot." He was only eighteen. However, Bach didn't devote all his time to the organ
and the church choir. When he was twenty-one, "he was reprimanded by the Church Consistory for 'making music'
with 'a stranger maiden' in the choir loft," during a time when girls were not allowed in church
choirs. So no matter what his other inclinations, Bach was not overly concerned at
that time about the individual expressions associated with a staunch Pietist.
Bach married his second cousin, Maria Barbara, about a year after this incident. Whether or not she was the
"stranger maiden," he had already moved on to Muehlhausen and a fresh start, and had to return to Arnstadt to
tie the knot. At this time, Bach was employed By St. Blasius Church. Here is the time
when the young Sebastian Bach disappears and his mature incarnation begins to assume full stature. When he left
for his next position, his resignation showed a well thought-out plan for himself and for the future of his
[I]t was my intention to advance the music in the divine service toward its very end and
purpose, a regulated church music in honor of God; ... also ... to improve the church music ... [as well as
starting and financing other projects]: it so happened that none of this was possible without vexatious
relations.... So God willed to bring about an opportunity that will not only put me in a better position as
far as the subsistence of my livelihood is concerned, but will also make it possible for me ... to
persevere in working for my very end which consists in organizing church music
well. [Emphasis added.]
Any further work should be considered in light of these farewell remarks, and how Bach accepted or rejected
the destiny he laid out for himself.
No matter what else, Bach showed his orthodox Lutheranism and his great love of music at this time. His
desire was to keep his family well, but his over-arching goal was to keep music as an integral part of corporate
worship. Whether or not he stayed his course is a matter to consider as he grew and evolved musically.
The Later Years
From Muehlhausen, Bach moved on to Sachsen-Weimar, and the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst. He was to be chapel
musician, and hoped to pursue the plans he laid in Muehlhausen. Here, Bach was charged with composing a new
cantata every month, and with the musical instruction of the Duke's nephews. The Duke
was not overly carried away with passions in any area, but seems to have been content to rule quietly, wisely
and well. "Holding a middle course between orthodox zealotry and fanatic Pietism, he curbed the acerbities of
ecclesiastical controversy and ruled his churchmen with Erastian firmness." It is
interesting that Bach did so much with the cantata. While many strong Pietists enjoyed music, and included
hymns along with the chanting of Bible texts and Psalms, Pietism de-emphasized corporate worship. Not so Bach.
His cantatas and chorales were designed to be integral parts of the worship service, and required much
preparation and the organization of a great amount of talent among the congregation's singers.
Bach spent almost ten years at this job, then picked up his stakes again. At least part of the problem was
the promotion of a musical inferior to the post of Kapellmeister. Even if Bach had a
strong faith and a deep love for God, he also had strong pride, and a deep love of his own work. But when he
attempted to leave for Koethen, where the climate was pro-music (even if also strongly Calvinist), he found
himself under arrest "'for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal.'"
When in 1717 he went to Koethen, Bach's output underwent drastic change. Some of the authors I've examined
consider this period to show a shallowness of faith, since little religious music was composed or presented,
while others argue that Koethen was a only a respite, and that it is impossible to separate "sacred" from
"secular" when considering the music of Bach. At Koethen,
[H]e really flowered as a secular composer, producing ... the Brandenburg concertos ... although he
continued to compose religious music as well.... It was the best job he ever had, and he might have stayed
indefinitely had it not been for the death of the prince's wife, who loved music.... [T]he new princess
turned out to be a woman who cared little---and spent less---for music.
Following his time in Koethen, Bach once again sought greener pastures, and accepted in 1723 the position
of Cantor of St. Thomas Church, Leipzig---which is probably his most famous position. Besides a few trips to
other parts of Germany, it was in Leipzig where Bach stayed until he died. Leipzig was home to his greatest
religious compositions. Here he wrote and introduced to the world the Magnificat in D, the St. John
Passion, the St. Matthew Passion, the B-Minor Mass, and the Christmas
Oratorio. Bach also returned to the heart of Orthodox worship services, when "he
composed five sets of Church cantatas for all the Sundays and holy days of the ecclesiastical year, a total of
In Leipzig, Bach continued his practice of heading most manuscripts with "Jesu Juva" ("save, Jesus"),
while concluding them with "S.D.G." (Soli Deo Gloria; "to God alone the Glory"), which, along with
the texts and their settings, is "indicative of his personal faith."
Thus far, the evidence points toward an orthodox and pious Lutheran composer. But what have others said of Bach?
In Others' Words
Bach has drawn thousands of comments through the years. Some are favorable, some not. A sampling of others'
views of his music and theology will help put better perspective on him. Geiringer notes a strong Christocentricity:
The simultaneously temporal and atemporal nature of Bach's music is thus exactly mirrored in the simultaneously
harmonic-vertical and linear-horizontal character of his technique: in this sense he may be said to be the supreme
composer of the Christian Cross, itself a metaphor at once vertical and horizontal.
But he also sees Bach as moving in a direction away from the totality of classic Lutheran theology. Examining
the Mass in B-Minor, he wrote: "Its completion might well indicate a mellowing in the aged master's
attitude, a deviation from belligerent Lutheran orthodoxy toward a more ecumenical
attitude." [emphasis added]
Bach had a strong intellect, as his school record notes. But in his fugues, he displayed true Rationalism,
working within strict rules to produce, as in the "Six Voice Ricercar" of the Musical Offering, a
complex fugue on a "very complex" theme, for which writing "a decent fugue of even two voices based on it
would be difficult for the average musician." But Nietzsche complains that, "'In Bach
there is too much crude Christianity, crude Germanism, crude Scholasticism.... [A]t the threshold of modern
European music ... he is always looking back toward the Middle Ages.' " Was
Nietzsche right? Or did his religious antipathy blind him to a trinity of piety, pure doctrine, and advanced
thought which Bach possessed?
Will Durant obviously viewed Bach as one of the Orthodox. In The Age of Voltaire, he said succinctly,
"'Bach's works are the Reformation put to music.'" Robin Leaver agrees: Bach was a
"serious student of Luther," purchasing an Altenburg edition of Luther's works after already owning the
earlier Jena edition. Obviously, the second edition would be redundant for anyone not
dedicated to truly understanding the work of the reformer. And such dedication is not that of one on the fringes
of Lutheran theology.
In Bach's Words
Finally, we must look at what Bach said and did. He was a student of Scripture and
of Lutheran theology. In his Calov
Commentary to Luther's Bible, he noticed that Calov missed part of Luther's commentary
on original sin in Genesis 3. Luther had argued that original righteousness was an integral
part of man, and Bach replaced the missing words from the Altenburg edition, where Luther
illustrated the scholastic position of this righteousness as an adornment a man might place on
a woman, "which comes from outside and without injuring her nature."
Many other corrections may be found in his commentary, showing attention to detail, and a
desire to understand his theology exactly as Scripture would have it understood.
In his passions, Bach came face-to-face with the suffering and death of Christ. He was capable of displaying
orthodox trust in one passage, and the personal expression valued by many Pietists. In the St. Matthew Passion,
he has the congregation respond to Jesus in the garden, "... Whoever trusts God, Builds firmly on him, will never
be forsaken." But the human reaction of the women to his death is also clearly shown.
"Penitence Tears my sinning heart in two, Let the teardrops of my weeping Soothing spices ever be, Beloved Jesu,
offered thee." While using his libretto masterfully, he also used his genius to craft music
to bring emphasis to certain areas.
Many musicologists have commented on the halo in sound that is placed around the head of Jesus by the strings'
accompaniment of his words. Significant when present, this halo is also significant when absent, as in the words
of dereliction on the cross and in Jesus' refusal to give an answer to Pilate.
Section IV: CONCLUSION
Having speculated and investigated, my conclusion is that Johann Sebastian Bach was, indeed, firmly in the
Orthodox camp. But he was also the forerunner of much that is modern in thought, and structured vast portions of
his music with a mathematical precision which would be admirable to a Rationalist. Yet there was also a
dimension in him of personal expression of faith, which would be a Pietist trait.
In reference to my speculations, I see that while I was not wrong in thinking of Bach as orthodox, I also
over-simplified him. He was a complex person, and pinning the strict label of Orthodox on him damned with faint
praise. The beauty of the music shows a depth of feeling and a desire of Bach to express himself. As far as
following the lead of Luther, the Calov Bible and the two sets of the reformer's works show that the theologian
had more than passing influence on the composer, while many of the cantatas are based directly on Luther's
After examining so much evidence, I am compelled to abandon my original conclusions as being too narrow.
From his earliest school records to the last of his fugues, he showed not only great intellect, but the
continual pushing of that intellect to new levels. In such revelling in the complex expression of his thought,
Bach surely was of the "new" time and the Rationalist school. But no man produces so much in any field without
being compelled by overwhelming passion. And the passion of Bach, as we have seen above, never strayed far
from his crucified and risen Savior.
His religious works are the personal expression of his faith, often the mark of the Pietist. But these works
were created for the Church, and show Bach's unswerving allegiance to corporate worship by their very make-up.
Taken even by themselves, the 300-odd cantatas composed at Leipzig show a man who saw the Church as the proper
setting for man's response to his Maker. And his own margin notes show him to be a devoted Bible scholar---and
one who followed the Orthodox lead of Calov. Similarly, his collections of Luther indicate a man who was
pursuing the path of the Reformation.
Therefore, my mind was not so much "changed" as it was "expanded." I don't feel that I was wrong in my initial
evaluation, but that I wasn't right enough. Bach still seems quite Orthodox---but not one-dimensionally so.
In him we see a true balance found by few. Without sacrificing any area, Bach excelled in Piety, Rationality
and Orthodoxy. Each shaped the others, and all were normed by his love of making music, and his love of
Soli Deo Gloria
The victory is won; the perfect sacrifice has for me all been paid. No more the law dominion hath or dares
obstruct me. The course is run. God from death's bondage has released me; as one from prison I am
Chiapusso, Jan. Bach's
World. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1968. Helpful for understanding the background in
which Bach worked.
David, Hans T., and Arthur Mendel, eds. The
Bach Reader. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966. Bach in his own words. Also
contains Forkel's biography and comments by contemporaries and later critics.
Foelber, Paul F. Bach's Treatment of the Subject of Death in His Choral Music. Diss.
Catholic U of America, 1961. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961. Oriented toward music,
slight value in this paper.
Grew, Eva, and Sydney Grew. Bach.
London: Aldine House, 1947. *Good, readable biography. Includes chronology, bibliography.
Herz, Gerhard. Bach's B-Minor Mass in History. Accession #77371. Concordia Seminary Library,
St. Louis. N.p.: n.p., [1963?] Appears to be program notes from a concert. Interesting; limited scope.
---. "Toward a New Image of Bach." Bach 1.4 (1970): 9-27. Notes on Calov Bible. Defense against
Blume and others.
Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel,
Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1979.
*Integrates music, visual art and math. Author tries to be strict determinist, but fails
at times. Worth a serious read by theologians, artists, scholars and computer specialists.