For more than a decade I have made it a point during the holy week to listen to all of the extant Passions of the brilliant Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, and also his magnificent Easter Oratorio on Resurrection Sunday. Not only was Bach a musical genius who brought Baroque music to its zenith, he was also an astute theologian, with a profound grasp of the Lutheran tradition to which he belonged. As the composer and musician in the great Church of St Thomas in Leipzig, Bach was not only steeped in the great musical tradition of the Reformation, he also possessed profound knowledge of the writings of the Reformer Martin Luther and the tenets of the Lutheran orthodoxy of his day. His commitment to the Lutheran tradition is further evidenced by his long friendship with his librettist, Erdmann Neumeister, Leipzig’s most eminent defender of orthodoxy and author of 400 books.
Bach’s familiarity with and creative appropriation of Scripture, Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms and the Book of Concord is evident everywhere in the sacred cantatas of the composer. The characteristic JJ (Jesu Juva, ‘Jesus Help’) at the beginning of his scores and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, ‘To God be the Glory’) at the end indicate the profound piety of the composer. Schönberg is surely right in asserting that J. S. Bach is tied with religion in a way that no other composer was.
Bach wrote at a time when the rationalism of the Enlightenment in Europe was tightening its grip on both university and church in Germany, with the goal of expunging from religion all claims and dogmas that fail the test of reason. For instance, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, a brilliant contemporary of Bach, challenged the traditional interpretation of Christ’s death on the cross by arguing that ‘it was clearly not the intention or the object of Jesus to suffer and to die’. Rather, Jesus’ intention, according to Reimarus, was to build an earthly kingdom and to free his people from the bondage of Roman rule.
When he realized that his bold preaching had offended the authorities and put his life in jeopardy, Jesus began ‘to quiver and to quake’, and tried to hide from sight. When Judas betrayed his hiding place, Jesus, believing that he was a messenger from God, expected God to deliver him from the hands of the authorities. But when deliverance did not occur, the crucified Jesus uttered the bitter and desperate cry recorded in the Gospels, ‘Eli, Eli Lama Sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Remairus concluded that ‘It was in this that God had forsaken him, it was in this that his hopes had been frustrated’.
It is therefore not surprising that Reimarus would propose a bizarre theory that challenges the traditional understanding of the resurrection of Christ. The disciples, who had attained fame through the ministry of their rabbi, stole the body of the dead Jesus, hid it and then fabricated a tale of the resurrection and the return of Christ.
Against this sinister distortion of the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ, Bach boldly declares that the death of Christ, the Son of God incarnate, is the greatest expression of the love of God. Thus, in the soprano aria in his Matthew’s Passion, ‘In love my Saviour now is dying’, Bach could declare: ‘It is out of love that my Saviour intends to die, / Although of sin and guilt He knows nothing, / So that my soul should not have to bear / Everlasting damnation / And the penalty of divine justice’. Jesus did not recoil when he realised that his ministry had offended the authorities; he did not fear for his life, and tried to escape arrest. Rather Jesus presented himself willingly in obedience to the Father’s will, setting his face towards Jerusalem and Golgotha.
Furthermore, the death of Jesus was not the tragic death of a deluded revolutionary, as Reimarus had argued. Jesus died as one who bore the sins of the world, so that we should not have to bear the ‘everlasting damnation’ and ‘the penalty of divine justice’ that we rightly deserve. Against the revisionist approach of his contemporaries like Reimarus, Bach unwaveringly presented the atonement as satisfaction, thereby aligning himself with the Reformers and the eleventh century theologian, Anselm. As Jaroslav Pelikan has rightly observed, ‘the Anselmian doctrine of redemption as satisfaction rendered through the blood of Christ is a crimson thread that runs through Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew from beginning to end’.
Just as Bach would reach back to the Reformers (especially Luther) and to the medieval theologian, Anselm in his Passion According to Saint Matthew, so he would appeal to the Greek Fathers, chiefly Gregory of Nyssa in his Saint John Passion, which celebrates the great theme of Christus Victor. Bach’s Saint John Passion is infused with this theme, from the choral shouts proclaiming Jesus as ‘Herr’ (‘Lord’) to the transformation of the sixteenth-note figures of the strings to a crescendo, a grand, rising sequence. In the ‘deepest lowliness’ of the incarnation and the cross the lordship, power and glory of the Son of God is made manifest.
Through the cross and resurrection, the incarnate God confronts and defeats his enemies. Musically, Bach uses the turba choruses (i.e., choral pieces that contain the words spoken by the characters in the story) to emphasise the role of Christ’s enemies. These choruses, to use the description of Karl Geiringer, were used with good effect because of their ‘strongly wild, passionate, and disturbing character’. The cross and resurrection signals God’s triumph over the forces of evil, the defeat of the ‘prince of this world’ (John 16:11) and the ‘god of this world’ (2 Cor 4:4). Like Luther, Bach took the devil very seriously, and would not acquiesce to the demythologized and abstract accounts of evil that is often presented by the rationalists of the Enlightenment.
The definitive victory of God over the forces of evil is emphasized in the words of Jesus, ‘It is finished’, which Bach skilfully sets to a descending line to depict the expiration of the dying Jesus. Even in the midst of presenting the final and definitive victory of God, Bach would not casually and hurriedly bypass the death of Christ. Thus Bach invites us to take time to contemplate fully the ‘bad’ on this Friday that we call ‘good’. The death of Christ is real, and the sorrowful, meditative aria follows appropriately his last words. But this aria is not simply the celebration of the death of a hero. If it were only that, then Reimarus could surely also sing its words with conviction. For Bach, this is the death of the Hero, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
Thus, the significance of Jesus’ declaration ‘It is finished’ could only be properly understood in the way Luther explicates it: ‘God’s Lamb has been slaughtered and offered for the world’s sin. The real High Priest has completed the sacrifice. God’s Son has given and sacrificed His body and life as the ransom for sin. Sin is cancelled, God’s wrath assuaged, death conquered, the kingdom of heaven purchased, and heaven is unbarred’. That is why in the second part of the aria, a shout of triumph bursts forth as the B minor adagio turns to a D major allegro and the full orchestra now accompanies the alto soloist as she sings: ‘The hero of Judah triumphs with power / and closes the battle’. The death of Christ has conquered death itself, and the resurrection marks the victory of God, the dawn of a new age.
But it is Bach’s magnificent Easter Oratorio that best captures the victory and joy of the resurrection of Christ. Bach composed music to the lyrics of the famous librettist, Picander, whose poetic paraphrasing follows closely the account of the resurrection in Mark 16:1-8. Beginning with the instrumental overture which can be divided into two parts – the joy of the resurrection and its melancholy aftermath – Bach masterfully shapes the attitude with which the believer must embrace this glorious truth. After the sinfonia and duet, Bach has Mary Magdalene utter these words in the alto recitative, ‘O cold mind of men! / Where has the love gone, / Which you owe to the Saviour?’ as if directing them to the sceptical rationalists of his day.
It is in the bass recitative towards the end of the Oratorio that Bach unequivocally declares the orthodox faith in the resurrection of Christ through the lips of the evangelist John: ‘We are glad, / That our Jesus lives again, / And our heart, / Just now melted and wavering in sadness, / Forgets its pain / And thinks about songs of joy; / For our Saviour lives again’. The theme of Christus Victor is once again emphasized in the tutti final chorus, which declares that ‘Hell and the devil are overcome; / Their gates are destroyed. / Rejoice, ye redeemed tongues, / So that it is heard in heaven.’
Bach’s Easter Oratorio depicts two responses to the great truth of the resurrection of Christ. There is the exuberant burst of rhythmic energy and the glorious sounds of trumpets which shout ‘hallelujahs’. But Bach knows that there is more than one way to say ‘hallelujah’, and so the Oratorio also invites a more contemplative response as the believer steps back as it were and reflects in overwhelmed amazement at this miracle of miracles. Bach shows that both the flourishes of trumpets and tympani and the somber sinfonia in E minor are appropriate responses to the glorious resurrection of Christ!
- S. Bach has through the years taught me many things about what it means to be a Christian and a theologian. He has taught me to be courageous in the face of the shifting sands of culture and the pervasiveness of secularism and scepticism. The truth of the Gospel does not require our defence; it is well capable of standing on its own, and the chief responsibility of the Christian is to bear witness to it with integrity – to tell it as it is. Beneath the architectonic brilliance and complexity of Bach’s music is the unflagging desire of the composer to simply tell it as it is. Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality.
Bach, more than any other composer, has taught me the relationship between worship and theology, between what the Orthodox theologians have termed as the lex orandi (the law of prayer) and the lex credendi (the law of belief). Bach strenuously resisted the effort of the Enlightenment to tear the two asunder, to sever theology from spirituality. For the Thomaskantor, liturgy and theology are of a piece. And nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly and powerfully than in his Passions and sacred cantatas which resist the tendency found in Reimarus and others to distinguish the ‘historical Jesus’ from the ‘Christ of Faith’. These lessons are still pertinent for the church today, four centuries removed from that in which the Baroque composer lived and wrote.
May we in this postmodern climate of relativism and despair learn from Bach to tell it as it is – to proclaim humbly and courageously the Gospel of the resurrected Christ, in all its profundity, mystery and wonder!
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was originally published in the Trumpet (TTC).