Updated: Oct 30
Text: Olaus Petri (1499-1552) Tune: Burkhardt Waldis (1490-1556)
1 Thy sacred Word, O Lord, of old Was veiled about and darkened, And in its stead were legends told, To which the people harkened; Thy Word, for which the faithful yearned, The worldlings kept in hiding, And into human fables turned Thy truth, the all-abiding.
2 Now thanks and praise be to our Lord, Who boundless grace bestoweth, And daily through the sacred Word His precious gifts forth showeth. His Word is come to light again, A trusty lamp to guide us; No strange and divers teachings then Bewilder and divide us. Amen.
Very little attention is given these days in the liturgical calendars to Reformation Sunday. It seems to have gone out with the ecumenical movement. While that is understandable in some respects, it is too bad. Martin Luther’s teachings and theology transformed the Western church in many ways, none perhaps so deeply as his decision to change the language of worship from the universal Latin of the church to the vernacular. This produced an outpouring of German hymns and very shortly thereafter hymns in the Nordic countries.
The Swedish reformer Olaus Petri (1493-1552) and his brother Laurentius (1499-1573) had been in Wittenberg studying with Luther in 1518. In 1519 they came back to Sweden armed with his ideas. Over time, Olaus produced the first Swedish Lutheran hymnal (1526) which was revised and added to over the next decades. In 1541, his brother and he with others produced a complete translation of the Bible into Swedish, which came to be known as the Gustav Vasa Bible after the Swedish king at the time.
They helped establish the Swedish church as Lutheran; Laurentius was named Archbishop by the king and served for 41 years, more than any other archbishop has in Sweden. The brothers suffered for their Lutheran convictions during the turmoil in Sweden as the country moved toward becoming Lutheran. They were even condemned to death, but were saved from that sentence. (A good novel to read about this troubled time is Faith Alone by Bo Giertz. August Strindberg composed a long, five hour play on Petri called Master Olof.)
Olaus wrote several of the first hymns in the hymnal of 1526, although they are not attributed to him. One can read in this hymn how he teaches the faith—telling the singers that now “God’s Word has come to light again/A trusty lamp to guide us.” In telling the story so people can understand it, he criticizes the state of the late medieval church for hiding Scripture from the people.The original hymn in the 1526 hymnal had several more stanzas which all teach the new faith, contrasting it with the old one. These were polemical times, to be sure, people could be martyred for their professions of faith.
Today we tend not to like hymns or sermons that criticize other creeds. Especially those of our brothers in Christ. We can blush at what we might read as accusations against the medieval church and want to withdraw this hymn. While I would probably not include this hymn in a service, we might profit from thinking of our ministry as speaking the truth, and combatting: “the itching ears” as Scripture has it. Today many are drawn to strange creeds and cults. The truth makes an eternal difference, which we seem to forget. This hymn teaches how the medieval church had strayed, as well as the truth of the Lutheran faith. Petri has written another hymn on the kindness of the Father, "O Fader vår, barmhärtig god/O our Father, kind and good," that has survived until today in the Swedish hymnal with some revisions by Wallin and Anders Frostenson. His translations of Luther's hymns are still sung by Swedes.
Later versions of the Swedish hymnal, such as Wallin’s in 1819, recast the hymn completely so it emphasizes and teaches the faith rather beautifully, stressing God’s word as a spring and source of life. It even praises the morning dew of nature that refreshes us as does Christ. No surprises there. However, Swedish Augustana in its 1925 Hymnal translated Petri’s version, not Wallin’s, which as Swedes they knew well. Wallin’s irenic temper infused that hymnal with another spirit, maybe a gentler spirit than the strong and vigorous polemical cries of the time of the Reformation. But the compilers of the 1925 Hymnal seemed to prefer that to the gentler Wallin. In fact, Augustana's founders had suggested the Swedish immigrants not use Wallin, but only a revision of Wallin by Thomander and Wieselgren, two Swedish pastors who criticized Wallin for being too much influenced by the Enlightenment.
Times change and people look for new ways to express their faith. But if the church is to be ever reforming, Ecclesia semper reformanda est, as Karl Barth argued, today maybe we should figure out how to teach the faith clearly, even so far as calling out the errors that are dominating our spiritual cultures today. The old heresy of Gnosticism seems to have taken on new strength encouraging everyone to find his or her own truth inside themselves. There be dragons. And if we simply let anything go, we do incredible harm to our children who are yearning for "the all abiding Truth"—Jesus Christ. One scholar describing the life and work of Petri noted that everything he did was to honor his dear brother, Jesus Christ. May it also be true for us.
HYMN INFO Petri’s hymn first appeared in the 1526 Swedish hymnal, Swenska songer eller wijsor. It was used by the Swedish church until Wallin’s revision, but returned in the 1925 Swedish Augustana hymnal. Its tune is by the Latvian composer of the early Reformation, Waldis. He was an accomplished musician valued by the Reformers. His tunes are still treasured among Lutherans in Germany and the Nordic countries, especially his tune for what some of us know as "The Thought of Jesus O How Sweet" from the Concordia.
LINKS Unfortunately there is only one version of the hymn on Youtube and it is the Wallin hymn from the current Swedish hymnal.