Tucked away in I.2 of Barth’s Church Dogmatics is a little section on hymnody. It is one of Barth’s running footnotes (in smaller print) in his discussion on the subjective aspect of the Holy Spirit in revelation and man (I.2, Part III.16.2). The section is quite long, so I’ll have to paraphrase it.
First, Barth talks about Luther’s hymns and how they were simply meant to teach the Word of God and Christian doctrine to the common people (quo verbum Dei vel cantu inter populos maneat). He explains that Luther’s hymns are “completely lacking in…all emphasis upon the emotion of the subject. What these hymns contain is adoration and solid communication, confession of faith, confession of sins, proclamation.” Luther’s hymns don’t “demand to lay this or that” upon people’s hearts in a subjective, man-centered way. “In these hymns we never find either God’s child or God’s Church preoccupied with themselves, but always turning to the recognition and praise of God and his acts.”
He then traces Lutheran hymnody and mentions how it later shifted its “epicenter” to the “heart, the soul, the I, the We;” to the subjective aspect of the Christian faith and away from the objective truths. As a side, Barth also mentions how the epicenter of worship didn’t shift as much in the Reformed churches because they held fast to psalms. Fast forward to pietism and mysticism, to what Barth calls the “more self-conscious age” of “emotional” “self-confession.” What happened when the subjective and emotional I/me/we began to dominate hymns? “Confession and proclamation have now really given way to religious poetry…on the whole, participation in the singing of these hymns implies a congregation which is highly self-impelled, highly self-activating, and highly self-exalted, and no longer – we cannot fail to remark it – the congregation of Luther which is moved simply by hearing the Word in faith.”
In these self-centered, emotional, and subjective hymns, “the traditional Christology has turned unnoticed into an exoteric garment. In Tersteegen [an evangelical hymnist of the 18th century] it is a garment for the exposition of a mystical experience of the presence. In Gellert [another evangelical hymnist of the 18th century] it is a garment for the exposition of a solid moral attitude.”
Barth goes on to quote Tersteegen’s view of hymns: “Come, O souls ourselves, and let ourselves be rid of all visible things, of the senses, of reason, and of all idiosyncrasies, in order that, properly separated, simplified, pure creatures, we may enter into our spirit and soul-ground, and there find, behold, and love God who is also a Spirit, and enjoy his peace which passeth all understanding.”
“In the generation which followed Tersteegen and Gellert, the Evangelical Church acquired a purely subjective hymnody. …The [modern] congregation’s confession has now really become a confession of itself. …Even Reformation praise of God disappears in the gurgling gullet of modern religious self-confession.”
Here’s how he summarizes this section.
“Protestantism has followed the way of apostasy from the Reformation. The history of the hymn reveals to us the inner secularisation which has taken place. …The Holy Spirit has ceased to be the Spirit of Jesus Christ. To all appearances He is still a spirit of God, even a Christian spirit. In fact, however, He is the spirit of human inwardness and seriousness, the spirit of mysticism and morals. In that spirit we do not yet enjoy, or enjoy no longer, the communion with God which is realised in the revelation of God. On the contrary, for all our seriousness and with all our piety, we are simply alone with ourselves and by ourselves.”
Wow. Can you imagine what Barth might have written if he would listen to the songs that pass for worship music today? Karl Barth meet Michael W. Smith. Yikes!