Interpretive Principles

Church Music mirrors or parallels the Theology of the congregation it serves.

The proper differentiation between "traditional" Sacred Music and "contemporary" music thus requires knowing a bit of Theology, and a bit of Music. Earlier this week we took a quick glance at some of the musical devices used by Bach in his fantasia and fugue in g minor (BWV 542). Now let's turn our attention to the perspectives shared by Lutherans of his era.

I've reproduced some interpretive guidelines from the Calov Bible Commentary (interestingly, J. S. Bach had a copy in 1733) below. Note the emphasis on Sola scriptura, and pay attention also to way in which Holy Scripture is regarded as self-referential (through types/antitypes). Holy Scripture was once regarded to be authoritative, self-contained, self-referential, and sufficient for salvation. There were strenuous objections to injecting "reader opinion" into the interpretive exercise (see the final point below).

The insightful reader will be able to detect similarities between the regard for The Bible and our understanding of the aesthetic behind the design of traditional Sacred Music.


"The following important guidelines the sainted Herr Luther always had in mind in his spirited commentary on Holy Scripture, and I have purposely taken note of them in this German Biblical and Lutheran Interpretation:

  • The text is carefully read through and scrutinized a number of times in the manner in which pits and strata in mines and quarries are examined with the greatest care.
  • Each word's basic meaning and sense, as well as that of each expression in its usual meaning and according to customary usage of Scripture, is noted, and both of these in the primary and original language, and from this point of view it is discussed.
  • The context has been considered carefully, and so have the intention, the argument, and the purpose of the Holy Spirit, so that this may by all means be maintained and we may not depart from it.
  • I have taken the parallel passages into account, that those elucidate not only the words but also the phrases and expressions, especially when the same argument and the same material is treated somewhere else in Scripture.
  • Also the customs of people and countries have to be considered.
  • Especially careful note is taken of the subject spoken on, so that when the literal sense is to be assumed to be about Christ and the Holy Spirit is actually speaking, the text may not be applied to David or other persons, or left is doubt as to whom it does apply.
  • We have to consider the places in the cities, villages, and regions, so that no mistakes might occur in the stories.
  • The same applies to persons and names, which are often given in various ways.
  • Especially the analogy of faith has to be considered in keeping with the reminder of Paul in Romans 12:6, "If prophecy, in proportion to our faith."
  • For the prophecies of the Old Testament we have to keep in mind the fulfillment to be found in the New Testament, so that the harmony of Holy Scripture may everywhere be apparent.
  • Likewise the figures and types of the Old Testament cannot be neglected, so that the shadows of things to come and the types may be understood and explained by means of their opposites and antitypes.
  • No less, the other passages that are interpreted and explained in the New Testament have to be noted, so that we may not diverge from the Holy Spirit's own interpretation, for this is of course certain, that there is no better interpreter of the Holy Spirit Himself. The Holy Spirit Himself reminds us (2 Peter 1:20-21): "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a mater of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."
  • Therefore I was everywhere very careful that the single literal interpretation of Holy Scripture remain final and that nowhere a twofold interpretation, as, for instance, the literal sense and the mystical sense, that is, the spiritual understanding, be brought in, as some Bible interpreters now and then go in for, especially the Papists and in part also the Reformed, and this can occasionally be seen in the popular German and Latin "paraphreses." Just as there is only one form and substance for a thing, so there is also only one meaning of a word and a text, for the meaning is the form of the word. What would finally become of Holy Scripture if people wanted to receive and understand words and passages not in one meaning but in two? Would Scripture in this shape not become ambiguous and doubtful? And couldn't we in that case liken them, to gether with the Papists, to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi? For the papistic twofold sense actually originated with the Jews, was continued by Origen, and actually propigated by the Papists in the darkness of the kingdom of the Antichrist."

From Appendix to the Calov Bible Commentary (J. S. Bach and Scripture: Glosses From the Calov Bible Commentary, Concordia, 1985, 168).

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