1817 marked the 300th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. In Denmark that year, a thirty-four-year-old pastor published a verse to be sung with Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” That verse began with, “Guds Ord det er vort Arvegods”—“God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage.”
The pastor was Nicolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig. He had already become known in Denmark for his writings about Scandinavian history and mythology and for his poetry. He had also become known for his opposition to rationalism. When Grundtvig was born in 1783, rationalism had infiltrated the church throughout Europe. It was popular at the time to reject the accounts of miracles in the Bible and even the resurrection of Jesus. Man’s reason was preferred over God’s revelation.
But Grundtvig’s pastor-father rejected this approach. John Dahle in The Library of Christian Hymns noted that Grundtvig’s father “was one of the very few ministers of Denmark who did not join the rationalist ranks, but remained true to the Gospel of Christ” (Vol. 1, p. 111). This good training in his youth stayed with Grundtvig. He was enticed by rationalism during the time of his formal education, but as he continued to study history, he was pulled back to historic Christianity.
By publishing an extra verse with Luther’s hymn in 1817, Grundtvig wanted to show the connection between the church of the Reformation and the church of his day. But Grundtvig did not follow Luther in every respect. He developed a unique teaching about the Christian Church and how it grows. He said that the Bible presents the necessary information about Jesus and the salvation He has won. But until this message is proclaimed by the Church, it is not powerful to create and sustain faith. He called the Apostles’ Creed the “living Word” since it is the primary confession of the Church. Until the Word is proclaimed, it remains a “dead letter” on the pages of Scripture.
This unorthodox view gained acceptance in Denmark and Norway, and the first Norwegian pastors in America included it in the organizing constitution of the Norwegian Synod in 1851. But when more Norwegian Lutheran pastors arrived, they called attention to what is now called the “Grundtvigian error.” They voted to revise the constitution and reorganize the Norwegian Synod in 1853. Grundtvig’s novel teaching caused enough trouble among Norwegian Lutherans in America that none of his hymns were included in the hymnbooks of the Norwegian Synod until 1903. Since then, every Lutheran hymnbook in English has included “God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage.”
Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” is the immediate context for Grundtvig’s verse and gives it added depth. Luther wrote that “a word” shall overthrow the devil (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #251, v. 3). The Word of God overcomes the devil because Jesus comes through the powerful Word to fight for us. The devil cannot defeat Jesus because Jesus crushed his head by His atoning death on the cross. He brings us His victory now through the Word and Sacraments and strengthens our faith in Him. As Luther wrote, “Still is He with us in the fight / With His good gifts and Spirit” (v. 4). Even if the devil should destroy all that we have in this life, “With us remains the kingdom” (v. 4).
Grundtvig’s verse expands on this reign of God’s kingdom through His Word:
God’s Word is our great heritage,
And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way;
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant, while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure,
Throughout all generations. (#583)
We cannot take credit for receiving the Word of God. It is an inheritance passed along to us by the mouths and hands of others. It is the best gift we have been given. Jesus says that all are blessed who “hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28, ESV). This “keeping” of the Word means to keep it close and pay careful attention to it. Grundtvig’s original wording says we desire to hold God’s Word in high esteem. Our confession of the truth can only be as clear as our understanding of it. Our “chief endeavor” is to gladly hear and learn God’s Word so that we are ready to “spread its light from age to age.”
Grundtvig also writes about how the Word benefits us. It “guides our way.” It leads us out of the darkness of our sin and of the world and shows God’s love and mercy toward us. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins through the Word of God’s Law and comforts our hearts through the Word of His Gospel. The message of what Jesus has done to save us “is our stay.” His righteousness, forgiveness, and grace are our consolation and comfort both in life and in death. The final lines of Grundtvig’s verse are a prayer for everything expressed both in his verse and in Luther’s hymn.
“God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage” was translated into English by Ole G. Belsheim (1861-1925). He was a pastor in the United Norwegian Lutheran Church and served on the committee that produced the 1913 Lutheran Hymnary. The original melody for this hymn is Luther’s tune for “A Mighty Fortress.” The setting of the hymn is by Ludvig M. Lindeman (1812-1887), a famous Norwegian musician who produced isometric settings of many Lutheran hymns. The 1941 Lutheran Hymnal used an alternate melody for Grundtvig’s hymn, so many are unaware of the hymn’s original pairing with “A Mighty Fortress.”
Two hundred years after Grundtvig wrote his hymn, we give thanks that the treasure of God’s saving Word is ours today. We pray that this great heritage is kept pure throughout all generations so that many more will learn of their Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, “Who wins the victory / In ev’ry field of battle” (#251, v. 2).
Note: The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary contains six of Grundtvig’s hymns: 120, 143, 211, 462, 583, 595.
Rev. Peter Faugstad