Handel’s Messiah as (Lutheran) Apologetics

Crossway editor Justin Taylor interviews Calvin Stappert on his new book about Handel’s Messiah.  Did you know Handel was a Lutheran?  Did you know he intended his oratorio to be a work of Christian apologetics?

Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of who George Handel was?

George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany. Like J. S. Bach, born the same year, Handel was born into a Lutheran family and his earliest musical training came from a Lutheran organist and church musician. But unlike Bach, his career went in the direction of opera.

From age 25 when he moved to London, his primary occupation was composing and conducting Italian operas. When the popularity of Italian operas in England waned in the early 1730s, he turned to English oratorio—or, more accurately, he “invented” English oratorio, a genre that grew up in Italy during the 17th century but did not yet exist in England. Though he was reluctant to give up opera, during the ’30s he gradually turned to oratorio. After composing Messiah (his sixth oratorio) in 1741, he left opera entirely and went on to compose about a dozen more, leaving an unmatched legacy in that genre.

You write that apologetics was one of the reasons that Handel wrote Messiah. Can you explain?

Deism was very strong at the time, a serious threat to orthodox Christian faith. Charles Jennens, a devout Anglican, compiled the collection of Scripture texts that make up Messiah in order to combat Deism.

Deism’s “natural theology” had room for a creator-god, but denied miracles and any divine intervention into human affairs. Therefore it denied the fundamental Christian beliefs in the Incarnation and the Resurrection. It also denied their necessity. Humans, they believed, had the resources to solve their own problems; there was no need for a Messiah.

Jennens’s choice of texts had both a polemical purpose—to persuade unbelievers—and a pastoral purpose—to nourish and strengthen the faith of believers. He enlisted Handel (whose music he loved and who undoubtedly shared his convictions) to convey his message through the rhetorical and dramatic power of music.

How will reading your book enable people to understand the music and the theology of Messiah better?

I had two overarching purposes in writing the book.

The first, which doesn’t directly answer your question, was to show an example of how “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.” The Messiah, a work of art that has told the Gospel story to more hearers than any other, owes its existence to a remarkable series of historical twists and turns that finally led to its composition. To make a long story short—without connecting the dots between beginning and ending—Messiah, an oratorio (a genre that originated in a devotional movement in the 16th century in Counterreformation Italy) was composed by an 18th-century German Lutheran who was happily established in a career of writing Italian opera in England, a country in which oratorio did not exist until he “invented” it.

The second purpose, which does speak directly to your question, was to write a commentary on the whole oratorio.

via Handel’s Messiah: An Interview with Calvin Stappert – Justin Taylor.

So, in what senses can a work of art, such as this piece of Handel’s music, function as apologetics, that is, an argument for the truth of Christianity?

Buy the book here:  Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://acroamaticus.blogspot.com Pr Mark Henderson

    “Did you know Handel was a Lutheran?”
    Yes.
    ” Did you know he intended his oratorio to be a work of Christian apologetics?”
    Yes.
    But, Dr Veith, I think the more important question that needs to be asked today is:
    “How can we promote Handel as a potent apologist today, especially among the “cultured despisers”of Christianity?”

  • http://acroamaticus.blogspot.com Pr Mark Henderson

    “Did you know Handel was a Lutheran?”
    Yes.
    ” Did you know he intended his oratorio to be a work of Christian apologetics?”
    Yes.
    But, Dr Veith, I think the more important question that needs to be asked today is:
    “How can we promote Handel as a potent apologist today, especially among the “cultured despisers”of Christianity?”

  • SKPeterson

    Pr. Paul McCain commented about this, in regards to Bach, about a year ago: http://firstthings.com/blogs/evangel/2010/01/bach-and-the-gospel-in-japan/. Perhaps Bach is more of an evangelistic tool, but in this day and age, apologetics and evangelism often go hand-in-hand.

  • SKPeterson

    Pr. Paul McCain commented about this, in regards to Bach, about a year ago: http://firstthings.com/blogs/evangel/2010/01/bach-and-the-gospel-in-japan/. Perhaps Bach is more of an evangelistic tool, but in this day and age, apologetics and evangelism often go hand-in-hand.

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    Hey.

    This is BETTER than apologetics. This is the insertion of Law and Gospel into the ears of people who would not ordinarily go to the one place where this would regularly happen (churches).

    In with and under this discipline of musicians who are driven by their love of music, words and beauty which is law law law and plant this visible seed, God will invisible create faith in hearts.

    Meaning…

    People will come to believe the beautiful historical and biblical account of Our Lord… and then….

    They will start to trust that what Our Lord did was FOR THEM! They will start to cling to our Lord and to trust in Him.

    This is way more than apologetics! This is the coming of the Heavenly Kingdom in the very way that we pray for it in the 2º petition of the Our Father!

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    Hey.

    This is BETTER than apologetics. This is the insertion of Law and Gospel into the ears of people who would not ordinarily go to the one place where this would regularly happen (churches).

    In with and under this discipline of musicians who are driven by their love of music, words and beauty which is law law law and plant this visible seed, God will invisible create faith in hearts.

    Meaning…

    People will come to believe the beautiful historical and biblical account of Our Lord… and then….

    They will start to trust that what Our Lord did was FOR THEM! They will start to cling to our Lord and to trust in Him.

    This is way more than apologetics! This is the coming of the Heavenly Kingdom in the very way that we pray for it in the 2º petition of the Our Father!

  • Porcell

    The history of Christianity is rich with great works of music, poetry, and painting. Examples: Dante, Eliot, Donne, Bach, Handel, Michelangelo, and Cranach, all of whom were devout Christians who found a way to express their faith in great works of art. Art is a disciplined and fine way of expressing profound religious feeling.

    Unfortunately, in our time of the decadence of radical secularism, Christian art is regarded by the cultural elite as a contradiction in terms. The Deism of Handel’s time was far less corrosive than the secularism of ours. We will know when the ambient decadence of radical secularism has begun to end when great Christian works of art come forth, if ever. Maybe we’re too far beyond the pale. Eliot was for real; however, apparently an anomaly, though I once heard a professor claim that Eliot was a harbinger of a return to great Christian art.

  • Porcell

    The history of Christianity is rich with great works of music, poetry, and painting. Examples: Dante, Eliot, Donne, Bach, Handel, Michelangelo, and Cranach, all of whom were devout Christians who found a way to express their faith in great works of art. Art is a disciplined and fine way of expressing profound religious feeling.

    Unfortunately, in our time of the decadence of radical secularism, Christian art is regarded by the cultural elite as a contradiction in terms. The Deism of Handel’s time was far less corrosive than the secularism of ours. We will know when the ambient decadence of radical secularism has begun to end when great Christian works of art come forth, if ever. Maybe we’re too far beyond the pale. Eliot was for real; however, apparently an anomaly, though I once heard a professor claim that Eliot was a harbinger of a return to great Christian art.

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    porcell @ 4

    “The Deism of Handel’s time was far less corrosive than the secularism of ours. ”

    Can you tell us more to back this up please Peter ?

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    porcell @ 4

    “The Deism of Handel’s time was far less corrosive than the secularism of ours. ”

    Can you tell us more to back this up please Peter ?

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    porcell @ 4

    “The Deism of Handel’s time was far less corrosive than the secularism of ours.”

    What arguments could be made for the opposite proposition: that deism is far more corrosive than secularism to the christian faith?

    I would be interested to see you make that case as well.

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    porcell @ 4

    “The Deism of Handel’s time was far less corrosive than the secularism of ours.”

    What arguments could be made for the opposite proposition: that deism is far more corrosive than secularism to the christian faith?

    I would be interested to see you make that case as well.

  • Gulliver

    Luther understood that music connected to biblical truths could reach those who refused to hear the spoken Word. The conversions to Christianity in Japan by those who listen to Bach’s works testify to this understanding.
    When the King of England first heard the Hallelujah Chorus, he stood not to honor the music but the Messiah.

  • Gulliver

    Luther understood that music connected to biblical truths could reach those who refused to hear the spoken Word. The conversions to Christianity in Japan by those who listen to Bach’s works testify to this understanding.
    When the King of England first heard the Hallelujah Chorus, he stood not to honor the music but the Messiah.

  • http://ladydusk.blogspot.com dawn

    It is also free via download from ChristianAudio.com this month.

  • http://ladydusk.blogspot.com dawn

    It is also free via download from ChristianAudio.com this month.

  • Booklover

    “So, in what senses can a work of art, such as this piece of Handel’s music, function as apologetics, that is, an argument for the truth of Christianity?”

    JOY–The Hallelujah chorus bursts with joy.
    TRUTH–The words are entirely biblical, and focus entirely on Jesus and who He is.
    BEAUTY–The beauty is in the music and in the beauty of who Jesus is, which the music declares.

    All of this apologetics is done without “argument.”

    My vocation is to play these types of pieces in “secular” situations. I just finished playing the Hallelujah chorus for a choir of 250. Not many pieces compare to the truth, beauty, and joy of that piece. (There is also John Rutter’s arrangement of “Joy to the World, which comes close.) The joy aroused in these situations is amazing.

    Here is a video shared earlier by Grace, I believe, which is now up to almost 24 million hits. Handel is evangelizing mall-goers in the 21st century. :-)

  • Booklover

    “So, in what senses can a work of art, such as this piece of Handel’s music, function as apologetics, that is, an argument for the truth of Christianity?”

    JOY–The Hallelujah chorus bursts with joy.
    TRUTH–The words are entirely biblical, and focus entirely on Jesus and who He is.
    BEAUTY–The beauty is in the music and in the beauty of who Jesus is, which the music declares.

    All of this apologetics is done without “argument.”

    My vocation is to play these types of pieces in “secular” situations. I just finished playing the Hallelujah chorus for a choir of 250. Not many pieces compare to the truth, beauty, and joy of that piece. (There is also John Rutter’s arrangement of “Joy to the World, which comes close.) The joy aroused in these situations is amazing.

    Here is a video shared earlier by Grace, I believe, which is now up to almost 24 million hits. Handel is evangelizing mall-goers in the 21st century. :-)

  • Porcell

    FWS, in Handel’s time Deism urned out to be a passing intellectual fancy that faded after about one generation. In our time the secularism that dominates the cultural heights is more deeply held, though the foundation is badly cracked; that’s why the hard-edged secularists have become rather defensive.

    For a brief analysis of transient Deism, see Avery Cardinal Dulles’s, The Deist Minimum, including:

    We can discern several reasons why deism, which once looked so promising, proved unable to sustain itself. Deism drew its vitality from the oppressive policies of the religious establishments against which it was reacting. In the minds of the Enlightenment thinkers, confessional religion, unless checked by law or by free competition, led inevitably to tyranny and persecution. But this assumption was based on a time-conditioned union or alliance between throne and altar, not on the gospel of Christ, which gave Caesar no authority over the things of God.

    We can discern several reasons why deism, which once looked so promising, proved unable to sustain itself. Deism drew its vitality from the oppressive policies of the religious establishments against which it was reacting. In the minds of the Enlightenment thinkers, confessional religion, unless checked by law or by free competition, led inevitably to tyranny and persecution. But this assumption was based on a time-conditioned union or alliance between throne and altar, not on the gospel of Christ, which gave Caesar no authority over the things of God.

  • Porcell

    FWS, in Handel’s time Deism urned out to be a passing intellectual fancy that faded after about one generation. In our time the secularism that dominates the cultural heights is more deeply held, though the foundation is badly cracked; that’s why the hard-edged secularists have become rather defensive.

    For a brief analysis of transient Deism, see Avery Cardinal Dulles’s, The Deist Minimum, including:

    We can discern several reasons why deism, which once looked so promising, proved unable to sustain itself. Deism drew its vitality from the oppressive policies of the religious establishments against which it was reacting. In the minds of the Enlightenment thinkers, confessional religion, unless checked by law or by free competition, led inevitably to tyranny and persecution. But this assumption was based on a time-conditioned union or alliance between throne and altar, not on the gospel of Christ, which gave Caesar no authority over the things of God.

    We can discern several reasons why deism, which once looked so promising, proved unable to sustain itself. Deism drew its vitality from the oppressive policies of the religious establishments against which it was reacting. In the minds of the Enlightenment thinkers, confessional religion, unless checked by law or by free competition, led inevitably to tyranny and persecution. But this assumption was based on a time-conditioned union or alliance between throne and altar, not on the gospel of Christ, which gave Caesar no authority over the things of God.

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    Porcell @ 10

    Ok Peter. I see where you are coming from. You are looking at deism as a formal movement.

    I am thinking more of deism as the idea that believe and faith are good, and that that belief and faith in any god at all is good. This IS truly a road to hell paved with lots of talk of god and faith. It is not faith that is a good or virtue.

    It is only when the object of that faith is in Christ alone is faith then a good thing. Otherwise it is the very worse vice and sin. Agreed Peter?

    You can go to alot of churches today and hear about god and you would never know that that church believes that the one true God, the only one that really exists, is the Holy Trinity and that Jesus Christ incarnate is the full and final revelation of that God.

    You would not know this because they dont believe it. I consider this to be deism. And it seems to be running rather rampant and under the name “christian”.

    would you disagree?

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    Porcell @ 10

    Ok Peter. I see where you are coming from. You are looking at deism as a formal movement.

    I am thinking more of deism as the idea that believe and faith are good, and that that belief and faith in any god at all is good. This IS truly a road to hell paved with lots of talk of god and faith. It is not faith that is a good or virtue.

    It is only when the object of that faith is in Christ alone is faith then a good thing. Otherwise it is the very worse vice and sin. Agreed Peter?

    You can go to alot of churches today and hear about god and you would never know that that church believes that the one true God, the only one that really exists, is the Holy Trinity and that Jesus Christ incarnate is the full and final revelation of that God.

    You would not know this because they dont believe it. I consider this to be deism. And it seems to be running rather rampant and under the name “christian”.

    would you disagree?

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Well I dunno.

    “King of kings, and Lord of lords, and He shall reign for ever and eh-eh-ver.”

    I suspect that’s about all most people have ever heard and can remember from Handel’s work (other than the word, “Halleujah!”). Not really much apologetics there.

    I say we need to update it with electric guitars and drums and slick choreography.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Well I dunno.

    “King of kings, and Lord of lords, and He shall reign for ever and eh-eh-ver.”

    I suspect that’s about all most people have ever heard and can remember from Handel’s work (other than the word, “Halleujah!”). Not really much apologetics there.

    I say we need to update it with electric guitars and drums and slick choreography.

  • jgernander

    Although he is a Calvinist, Stapert wrote a GREAT book on Bach’s music called My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach.

    If you can get past the book’s being organized according to the Heidelberg Catechism and not according to the Small Catechism which is what Bach himself used, you will enjoy this book. It’s wonderfully devotional while showing the theology in Bach’s music. Just last week I reread his section on the Christmas Oratorio.

    Pastor Jerry Gernander

  • jgernander

    Although he is a Calvinist, Stapert wrote a GREAT book on Bach’s music called My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach.

    If you can get past the book’s being organized according to the Heidelberg Catechism and not according to the Small Catechism which is what Bach himself used, you will enjoy this book. It’s wonderfully devotional while showing the theology in Bach’s music. Just last week I reread his section on the Christmas Oratorio.

    Pastor Jerry Gernander

  • Porcell

    FWS: would you disagree? Yes, the mainline churches that preach a flaccid Christianity are much more influenced by secularism than Deism. In fact during the crucial period of 1890 to 1920 the mainline churches caved to secularism and have never recovered.

  • Porcell

    FWS: would you disagree? Yes, the mainline churches that preach a flaccid Christianity are much more influenced by secularism than Deism. In fact during the crucial period of 1890 to 1920 the mainline churches caved to secularism and have never recovered.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Porcell – I might be wrong, but I think that the 18th Century Deism, followed by Victorian sentimentality that was Deist in essence but “cute” in delivery were the natural precursors to later secularisation. Thus I wouldn’t try to fit value judgements on these – is the fellow that has just started out on the road to perdition any better than the fellow who has gone some way down that road?

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Porcell – I might be wrong, but I think that the 18th Century Deism, followed by Victorian sentimentality that was Deist in essence but “cute” in delivery were the natural precursors to later secularisation. Thus I wouldn’t try to fit value judgements on these – is the fellow that has just started out on the road to perdition any better than the fellow who has gone some way down that road?

  • Porcell

    Louis, In my view Deism was a highly rational argument. Victorianism was decidedly a product of romanticism.

  • Porcell

    Louis, In my view Deism was a highly rational argument. Victorianism was decidedly a product of romanticism.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Porcell – once Deism removed the “Transcendent” from society, substitutes had to be found. The romantic movement of the early 19th Century was the result. The difference is that (the theosophists and other weirdo’s excepted), they knew that they were substituting, and it didn’t really change belief.

    On a different tack, I don’t think that the Second Great Awakening, with it’s (semi-)pelagian theology would have been possible without Deist preparation – Pelagian theology is the natural follow-up on Deism. It is “velvet-glove” Deism. And that semi-pelagian theology led directly to the subsequent Secularism.

    That is how I would trace it, anyway.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Porcell – once Deism removed the “Transcendent” from society, substitutes had to be found. The romantic movement of the early 19th Century was the result. The difference is that (the theosophists and other weirdo’s excepted), they knew that they were substituting, and it didn’t really change belief.

    On a different tack, I don’t think that the Second Great Awakening, with it’s (semi-)pelagian theology would have been possible without Deist preparation – Pelagian theology is the natural follow-up on Deism. It is “velvet-glove” Deism. And that semi-pelagian theology led directly to the subsequent Secularism.

    That is how I would trace it, anyway.

  • Booklover

    I will be interested in reading this book because most of my studies referred to Handel as one who wrote Christian music to appeal to the masses after Italian opera died out; some even referred to him as “a man of the Enlightenment.” I suppose that anyone compared to Bach might seem like a raging heathen, :-) but I will be happy to read a different explanation of Handel’s beliefs.

  • Booklover

    I will be interested in reading this book because most of my studies referred to Handel as one who wrote Christian music to appeal to the masses after Italian opera died out; some even referred to him as “a man of the Enlightenment.” I suppose that anyone compared to Bach might seem like a raging heathen, :-) but I will be happy to read a different explanation of Handel’s beliefs.

  • RC

    fws @ 3. What you said at the end of that post just described my experience perfectly.

  • RC

    fws @ 3. What you said at the end of that post just described my experience perfectly.

  • helen

    About the impromtu Hallelujah Choruses, this from NPR this a.m.

    http://www.npr.org/2010/12/21/132226892/flash-mob-forces-california-mall-evacuation

    A little too much success!

  • helen

    About the impromtu Hallelujah Choruses, this from NPR this a.m.

    http://www.npr.org/2010/12/21/132226892/flash-mob-forces-california-mall-evacuation

    A little too much success!


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