Many Protestants and even some Lutherans often express scorn for the repetitive nature of doctrinal memory work and standardized daily devotion. The emblematic illustration for this rejection is the Rosary of Roman Catholic piety. Support for the rejection of the Rosary can be found from a cursory reading of Luther’s works. However, careful attention will reveal that Luther preaches against the overuse and the misuse of the rosary rather than against the rosary itself. Central to Luther’s criticisms are the widespread understanding of the praying of the rosary as a good work in and of itself earning merit for salvation; and as a prayer audible and visible to others rather than silent and interior. (Matt. 6:6) This clearly violates the Lutheran position of sola fide, or salvation by faith alone. In addition, Luther objects to what he sees as the overuse of the rosary to the neglect of “the truly spiritual, inner, and true Lord’s Prayer” (Works, vol. 42, p. 22). Much of this was due in Luther’s time to praying the rosary out of obedience rather than out of the motivations of the heart.
As long as the rosary is used as a means of gaining merit in heaven, it will be against Lutheran theology. However, if it is not seen as a good work but instead as a true devotional practice, there is nothing in it inherently contrary to Lutheran teaching to using a prayer counter such as the Rosary (I will affirm, however, there specific Lutheran objections to Rosary’s prayers centered on St. Mary). It is more the beliefs surrounding the rosary that should be at issue, rather than the practice of the rosary, or any formalized prayer or devotion, itself.
Luther certainly objected to the rote repetition involved in the rosary, which to his mind did not always command the heart, mind and spirit to follow what the lips said. Many Lutherans today object to this repetition, appealing to scripture:
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Matthew 6:7)
It is certainly true that repetition for the sake of repetition is to be condemned, particularly when viewed as a good work. Thus Article XXVII of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession argues that
the rosary of the blessed Virgin . . . is mere babbling, as stupid as it is wicked, nourishing a false confidence.
This is indeed strong language which reflects the time of its writing, and is motivated by the medieval Roman Catholic understanding of the rosary as a good work earning merit for salvation.
[Of course, it must be remembered that from a Lutheran perspective repetitive praying, or use of a devotional prayer counter, must never be seen as superior to, as Luther said, “one Lord’s prayer with a devout heart and with thought given to the words” (Works, vol. 42, p. 22).]
Christ himself likewise condemns repetition viewed as a means to gain the attention of God. It is to be condemned even more if done for the sake of public performance, as Christ said:
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. (Matthew 6:5)
Yet there are places in scripture where repetitive prayer is praised, not condemned. The best example has to be Revelation 4:8, in which John states
And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
This verse finds its way into the Lutheran liturgy when we state that we join in this “unending hymn” (Lutheran Service Book, Lutheran Worship) and sing together
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of pow’r and might:
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna. Hosanna. Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
Besides the repetition within the hymn itself, these words are sung at each celebration of the Eucharist. Are these “empty phrases”? I think they are not. And repetition does not diminish the devotion of those who pray them. It is not so much the outer appearances but instead the inner state of the Christian praying that is of greatest importance. So long as a true “heartfelt desire” (in Luther’s words) is there, who are we to condemn?
[The original article appeared in the Newsletter of St. Luke Lutheran Church, Clinton Township, MI, February, 2002]