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Hymns And Hymnwriters Of Denmark by Jens Christian Aaberg

Chapter Thirteen The Living Word

Grundtvig began his ministry in the capital with high hopes, but he was soon disappointed. His services as usual attracted large audiences, audiences that frequently overflowed the spacious sanctuary. But these came from all parts of the city, an ever changing throng from which it was quite impossible to create a real congregation. The parish itself was so large that the mere routine duties of his office consumed much of his time. There were mass weddings, mass baptisms, mass funerals for people of whom he knew little and could have no assurance that he was not |giving the holy unto dogs or casting pearls before swine.| With the prevailing decay of church-life most pastors accepted these conditions with equanimity, but to Grundtvig they constituted an increasingly heavy burden.

He was still lonely. Awakened Christians were few, and his fellow pastors were nearly all Rationalists who looked upon him as a dangerous fanatic whom it was best to avoid. Grundtvig's opinion about them, though different, was scarcely higher. It provoked him to observe pastors openly repudiating doctrines and ordinances which they had sworn to defend. To his mind such a course was both dishonorable to themselves and unjust toward their congregations which, whether or not they approved of these unlawful acts, had to be served by their parish pastors. The majority, it is true, accepted the new doctrines with indifference. Rationalism then as now promoted apathy rather than heresy. But Grundtvig observed its blighting effect everywhere, even upon himself.

Signs of a new awakening, nevertheless, were appearing here and there, especially in certain rural communities. Influenced by the Haugean movement in Norway and Grundtvig's own earlier work, scattering groups of Evangelicals and Pietists began to evince new life and activity. Peasants in a number of parishes in Jutland refused to accept the Evangelical Christian hymnal and a new rationalistic colored catechism, choosing to go to jail rather than to compromise their faith; and groups of Evangelical laymen on the island of Fyn began to hold private assemblies at which they nourished themselves by reading Luther's sermons and singing Kingo's and Brorson's hymns. Most if not all of these groups admired Grundtvig for his bold defiance of Biblical Christianity and looked hopefully to him for encouragement. If, as his enemies charged, he had wished to make himself the head of a party, he could easily have done so by assuming the leadership of the private assemblies.

But Grundtvig never compromised his views for the sake of attracting a following, and he did not approve of private assemblies. Such groups, he wrote, had frequently disrupted the church, bred contempt for Scripture, and fostered a perverted form of piety. Even as a release from the present deplorable situation, they might easily produce more harm than good.

Although Grundtvig could not approve of the assemblies he, nevertheless, sympathized deeply with the distressed laity. A layman was then bound to his parish, and Grundtvig clearly understood the difficulty of laymen who had to accept the ministry, have their children baptized, instructed and confirmed by pastors denying fundamental doctrines of their faith. With his usual frankness he therefore threw caution to the winds and reminded the pastors that it was their own failure to preach and defend the Lutheran faith that was forcing Evangelical laymen to seek in the assemblies what was arbitrarily withheld from them in the church. |Whether it be good or bad, recommendable or deplorable,| Grundtvig wrote, |it is, at any rate, a fact that the spirit of the church service has changed so greatly during the last half century that it is almost impossible for an Evangelical Christian to derive any benefit from it, and it is this situation that has forced earnest laymen to invent such a substitute for the church as the private assemblies evidently are.|

For a number of years Grundtvig thought and wrote almost ceaselessly about this problem. With conditions so perverted that the lawbreakers were imprisoning the victims of their own lawlessness, something ought evidently to be done about it. But what could he do?

He tried to attack Rationalism from new angles. In a carefully written article in |The Theological Monthly,| a magazine that he published in collaboration with the learned but crusty Dr. G. A. Rudelbach, he argued that any inquiry concerning the nature of Christianity should distinguish between the questions: What is true Christianity? and Is Christianity True? The first was a historical question, and could be answered only by an examination of the original teachings of Christianity; the second was a question of conscience and depended on the attitude of the individual. He was he asserted, perfectly willing to recognize the right of the Rationalists to believe what ever they choose, but as a historian he had to protest against the propagation of any belief under the name of Christianity that clearly denied what Christianity originally affirmed.

His writing, however, produced no evident result. The rationalists either maintained a contemptuous silence or answered him by their favorite cry of ignorance and fanaticism. The true teachings of Christianity, they asserted, could be ascertained only by the trained theologian, able to read the Bible in the original and trained to interpret it in the light of current knowledge. Such men knew, it was claimed, that many of the doctrines formerly held by the church, such as the divinity of Christ, the atonement and the triunity of God, were not found in the Scriptures at all or were based on misread or misinterpreted texts.

Although these contentions were almost as old as Christianity itself, Grundtvig still found that a clear refutation of them was practically impossible. He could not disprove them by Scripture, for the Rationalists would claim their interpretation of the Bible to be as trustworthy as his own; nor could he appeal to the confessions, for his opponents openly repudiated these as antiquated conceptions of a less enlightened age. His only hope of giving any real guidance to the confused and distressed laity of his church thus appeared to depend on the possibility of discovering an expression of Christianity so authoritative that the most learned perverter of the faith could not repudiate it and so plain that the humblest believer could understand it. In his anxiety it even seemed to him that the Lord had failed adequately to provide for His little ones if He had not supplied them with such a shield against the storm of confusing doctrines.

|Being greatly distressed with the thought that all humble Christians must either fall into doubt concerning their only Savior and His Gospel or build their faith on the contradictory teachings of learned theologians,| he wrote, |I perceived clearly the pressing need of the church for a simpler, more dependable and authoritative statement of that word of God which shall never pass away than all the book-worms of the world could ever produce. But while my anxiety for the distressed laity of my church grew and I sought night and day for a clear testimony of Jesus that would enable them to try the spirits whether they be of God, a good angel whispered to me: Why seekest thou the living among the dead?' Then the scales fell from my eyes, and I saw clearly that the word of God which I so anxiously sought could be no other than that which at all times, in all churches and by all Christians has been accepted as a true expression of their faith and the covenant of their baptism, the Apostolic Creed.|

In his search for an effective means of arming the laity against the confusing claims of the Rationalists, Grundtvig thus came to place the Creed above the Bible, or rather to assert that the two should stand side by side, and that all explanations of the latter should agree with the plain articles of the former so that every Christian personally could weigh the truth or error of what was taught by comparing it with his baptismal covenant.

Grundtvig supported his |great discovery| with passages from the Bible and the church fathers, especially Irenaeus. He advanced the theory that Jesus had taught the Creed to His disciples during the forty days after His resurrection in which He remained with them, |speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God|; that the Creed through the early centuries had been regarded as too sacred to commit to writing and, therefore had been transmitted orally; and that it constituted, together with the words of institution of the sacraments and the Lord's prayer, in a special sense |the living word of God| by which He builds and vivifies His church. It should be stated, however, that Grundtvig's intention by distinguishing between what he called |the living| and |the written word,| was not to belittle the Bible but only to define its proper place, the place of enlightening and guiding those, who through God's living covenant with them in their baptism already have become Christians. A Christian, he believed, is reborn in his baptism, nourished in the Communion and enlightened by the Word.

A critical examination of Grundtvig's theory, about which thousands of pages have been written, lies beyond the scope of this work. Grundtvig himself felt that his |discovery| had given him a solid foundation for his stand against the Rationalists. And his theory unquestionably did enable him, in the midst of an almost hopeless religious confusion, to reassert the essentials of Evangelical Christianity, to refute the contentions of the Rationalists by weighing them on an acknowledged historical basis of faith, and to reemphasize that the Christian church is not a creation of theological speculations but of God's own work in His word and sacraments.

Grundtvig for some time previous to his discovery had felt exceedingly depressed. His long struggle for the reawakening of his people to a richer Christian and national life appeared fruitless. Most of the intellectual and spiritual leaders of his time looked upon the very idea of sharing the richer cultural and spiritual values of life with the common man as a visionary conception of an unstable and erratic mind. One ought naturally, they admitted, to be interested in improving the social and economic conditions of the lower classes, but the higher treasures of mind and spirit belonged in the very nature of things to the cultured few and could not be shared with the common herd.

In spite of these discouragements, Grundtvig somehow experienced a wonderful rebirth of his hope in the spring of 1824, an experience to which he gave eloquent expression in his great poem, |New Year's Morning.| He writes in the preface that he has |long enough battled with a witch called indifference, and has discovered that the battle wherein one is most likely to be defeated is the battle against nothing.| He therefore urges his friends to ignore the witch and join him in a determined crusade for a reawakening of the Northern spirit to the accomplishment of Christian deed.

Grundtvig's hope for a season of quiet and peaceful cooperation with his friends was, however, soon shattered. In the summer of 1825, a young professor of theology, H. N. Clausen, published a book entitled: The Constitution, Doctrine and Rituals of Catholicism and Protestantism. As Prof. Clausen enjoyed a great popularity among his students and, as a teacher of theology, might influence the course of the Danish church for many years, Grundtvig was very much interested in what he had to say. He obtained the book and read it quickly but thoughtfully, underscoring the points with which he disagreed. And these were numerous. At the very beginning of the book, he found the author asserting that |the Protestant theologian, since he need recognize no restriction of his interpretations by creeds, traditions, or ecclesiastical authorities, is as once infinitely more free and important than his Catholic colleague. For as the Protestant church unlike the Catholic possesses no conclusive and authoritative system of belief either in her creeds or in Scripture, it devolves upon her trained theologians to set forth what the true teachings of Christianity really are. |Why, O why!| the professor exclaims, |should eternal Wisdom have willed revelation to appear in a form so imperfect? What other purpose, I ask you, can an all-wise Providence have had with such a plan than to compel the children of man to recognize that it is only through the exercise of their own, human intelligence that the revelation of God can be comprehended!|

As Grundtvig mused upon these assertions so expressive of all that he had denied and fought against, he felt at once that they constituted a challenge which he could not leave unanswered. He had shortly before written to a friend: |Since the perverters of Christianity have become so self-confident that they will not answer any charge against them except when it is addressed to themselves personally and by name, one may eventually have to employ that form of attack.| And that was the form he chose to use in his now famous book. The Reply of the Church to Prof. H. N. Clausen.

|By the publication of this book,| he writes, |Prof. Clausen has put himself forward as a leader among the enemies of the church and the perverters of God's word in this country. A church, such as he advocates, that has no determinable form, exists only in the brains of the theologians, and must be construed from theological speculations on the basis of a discredited Bible and according to the changing thoughts and opinions of man, is plainly nothing but a fantastic dream, a comic if it were not so tragic conception of a Christian congregation which claims to confess the same faith, but knows not what it is, and holds that it is instituted by God, but cannot tell for what purpose before the theologians have found it out.

|Against such a church, I place the historical church, that is the church of the Gospel, instituted by Christ Himself, created by His word and vivified by His Spirit. For I contend that the Christian church now as always consists of that body of believers who truly accept the faith of their baptismal covenant, Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper as the faith and means of salvation.|

The Reply of the Church caused a sensation. It was read and discussed everywhere. But if Grundtvig had hoped to force a general discussion of the plight of the church, he was disappointed. Prof. Clausen answered him with a lawsuit |for malicious injury to his professional honor|; his enemies all condemned him, and his friends were silent. If they approved of the substance of his charges, they disapproved of their form. Grundtvig appeared to have thrown away the last remnant of his already tattered reputation, and only the years would reveal that in doing so he had struck a deadlier blow against Rationalism than he had expected, that he had, in fact, for years to come made Rationalism impossible in Denmark as a form of Christianity.

Meanwhile the Danish church was preparing to celebrate its thousandth anniversary in May, 1826. Grundtvig looked forward to the event with almost child-like anticipation, hoping that the celebration might serve to awaken a new appreciation of the old church. To heighten the festivities the authorities had authorized pastors to select the hymns for the services in their own churches, and Grundtvig had written and published a pamphlet of hymns to be used in his church. But shortly before the festival, his bishop informed him that only hymns from the authorized hymnal could be chosen. As no one else had composed hymns for the occasion, Grundtvig could not doubt that this new ruling was aimed solely at him, and this new evidence at the length to which his enemies would go for the sake of humiliating him appeared to him like the last straw. He had long suffered under the difficulty of serving a church which honored the law-breaker and persecuted the law-abiding and thought of resigning. But he had a family to support. And while he himself would gladly bear the poverty his resignation would inevitably bring him, he doubted his right to impose such a burden upon his family. The difficulty was finally solved for him by his wife, who one day came into his study and said: |Father, I know what is troubling you. You wish to resign and hesitate to do so for our sake. But I want you to do whatever you think is right. The Lord will provide for us.|

And so it was settled. His resignation was handed to the authorities a few days before the festival, and it was accepted so quickly that he was released from office before the following Sunday. When the festive Sunday came which he had looked forward to with so much pleasure, he sat idly in his study across from the church and watched people come for the service, but another pastor preached the sermon, he had earnestly wished to deliver, and other hymns than his own beloved songs served as vehicles for the people's praise.

Public sentiment regarding Grundtvig's resignation varied. His friends deplored the action, holding that he should have remained in his pastorate both for the sake of his congregation and the cause which he had so ably championed. But his opponents rejoiced, seeing in his resignation just another proof of an erratic mentality. For who had ever heard of a normal person withdrawing from a secure and respectable position without even asking for the pension to which he was entitled?

The six years during which Grundtvig remained without a pulpit were among the busiest and most fruitful of his life. He published his Sunday-Book, a collection of sermons which many still rate among the finest devotional books in Danish; made extended visits to England in 1829-1831, for the purpose of studying the old Anglo Saxon manuscripts kept there, an undertaking that awakened the interest of the English themselves in these great treasures; wrote his splendid Northern Mythology or Picture Language, and The World's History after the Best Sources, works in which he presents the fundamental aspects of his historical, folk and educational views that have made his name known not only in Scandinavia but in almost every country in the world.

Meanwhile he again had entered the pulpit. As a compensation for the loss of his ministry, a group of his friends shortly after his resignation began to hold private assemblies. When Grundtvig still firmly refused to take part in these, they decided to organize an independent congregation, petition the government for permission to use an abandoned German Lutheran church and call Grundtvig as their pastor. The petition was promptly refused, though Grundtvig himself pleaded with the authorities to permit the organization of an independent congregation as the best means of relieving the dissatisfied members of the church and declared that he would himself join the assemblies unless some such measure of relief was granted. When the authorities ignored his plea, Grundtvig made good his threat and appeared at the assemblies, drawing such a crowd that no private home could possibly hold it, whereupon it was decided to secure a public hall for future meetings. But when the authorities heard this, they suddenly experienced a change of heart and offered the troublesome preacher and his friends the use of Frederik's church for a vesper service each Sunday.

The eight years Grundtvig served as an independent preacher at the Frederik's church were among the happiest in his life. He rejoiced to know that the large, diversified audience crowding the sanctuary each Sunday came wholly of its own free will. It also pleased the now gray-haired pastor to see an increasing number of students become constant attendants at his services. Even so, his position had its drawbacks. He was permitted neither to administer the sacraments nor to instruct the young people, and the authorities even denied him the right to confirm his own sons. Grundtvig felt especially this refusal so keenly that he again was thinking of resigning his pulpit when the king offered him an appointment as pastor of Vartov, a large institution for the aged.

Thus from 1839 until Grundtvig's death the chapel at Vartov became his home and that of his friends and the center of the fast growing Grundtvigian movement. People from all walks of life, from the Queen to the common laborer, became regular attendants at the unpretentious sanctuary, and the eyes of some old people still shine when they recall the moving spirit of the services there, the venerable appearance and warm monotone voice of the pastor, and, especially, the hearty, soul-stirring singing. Many of Grundtvig's own great hymns were introduced at Vartov. From there they spread throughout the church. And it was to a large extent the hearty, inspiring congregational singing at Vartov which made the Danish church a singing church.

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