Johann Gerhard – Pastor and Teacher in Troubling Times

Johann Gerhard – Pastor and Teacher in Troubling Times

 

            Johann Gerhard is often seen as the third pillar of the Lutheran tradition, after Martin Luther and Martin Chemnitz (author of the Formula of Concord and the Examination of the Council of Trent). Gerhard is considered the foremost Lutheran theologian of what is commonly known as the time of Lutheran Scholasticism, or Lutheran Orthodoxy. His works are considered unmatched by any later Lutheran theologian.

            If the word “scholasticism” brings a yawn to your face, think again. Most of Gerhard’s life was spent during the devastating Thirty Years’ War, and his theology was shaped in the crucible of conflict, suffering, and destruction, producing a body of works that is both well-thought and practical.

 

A Troubled Life

            Born on October 17, 1582, to a noble family in Quedlinburg, Germany, he was one of seven children. During a serious illness at age fifteen, he vowed to become a minister if he recovered. He kept his vow. At the same time, he experienced many of the same stings of conscience as Luther, lacking assurance of his salvation. He found comfort in the counsel and friendship of the Lutheran pastor Johann Arndt (often considered the father of Lutheran Pietism).

            In 1598, just one year after his first major illness, he fell prey to the plague that claimed the lives of over 3000 people just in his town. He recovered but became sick again in 1603, this time so seriously that he wrote his last will. This pattern continued throughout his life.

            After getting a thorough education (he was fluent in Latin and Greek and able to write Greek verse), Gerhard served as superintendent of twenty-six parishes in the Duchy of Coburg. It was an impressive assignment, given his young age (he was about 25 when he started). During this time, he also lectured at the local high school and wrote some devotional works that show a true pastor’s heart. The best-known of these is Sacred Meditations, with a Postille including a treasury of sermons.

            In 1608, he married a young woman named Barbara Neumeye, who died five years later, shortly after the death of their only child. One of Gerhard’s most moving devotional works, Handbook of Consolations for the Fears and Trials that Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death, was written at this time. The book is organized in sections, each starting with a common temptation at the prospect of death and followed by wise words of biblical comfort.

            Gerhard remarried in 1614. His second wife, Maria Mattenberg, stayed at his side for the next twenty-three years. Together, they had ten children, four of whom died in childhood. The oldest, Johann Ernst Gerhard, followed in his father’s footsteps.

            From 1616 to 1637, Gerhard taught at the University of Jena, where he had studied. There, he labored to instill in his students a deep love for Scriptures and the importance of organizing them in a systematic way that made it easy to communicate their message to others. He also wrote apologetics works against Roman Catholicism and Unitarianism, which was rapidly spreading in eastern Europe (especially Poland) at that time.

            The Thirty Years’ War began in 1618, making theology even more important in the face of death and uncertainty. Frequently asked by the local dukes to give his advice in the war, he is credited for saving Jena by meeting Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, at its gates and persuading him to desist from a thorough plunder of the city.

            During the war, Gerhard suffered from several assaults and threats to his life. In 1631, he escaped the Emperor’s orders to abduct him and take him to Rome for trial as a heretic. Five years later, he was captured by the Swedes who, offended by Gerhard’s suggestion that they should make peace with the Emperor, plundered his estate, leaving it in ashes. At that time, he was working on a revision of the German translation of the Bible, specifically on the last chapter of Job, and drew comfort from the restoration of all things to the Biblical forefather.

            The following year, soon after another major plunder of Jena, he was overtaken by a high fever. He took the opportunity to remind his students of the beauty of the life to come, quoting Hebrews 4:9: “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God,” and Hebrew 12:22: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels.” He died in August, two months before his fifty-fifth birthday. His last words were, “Come, come, Lord, come.”

 

Gerhard’s Writings and Major Themes

            Gerhard’s magnus opus is his Loci Theologici, divided in nine volumes – a discussion of theological thesis organized in a systematic way. Each thesis is followed by the antithesis (arguments against it), Gerhard’s responses, questions, and a section of practical use (explaining why each topic is important to our lives).

            Other works included a Confessio Catholica, refuting the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, The Harmony of the Gospels, and Schola Pietatis. His most popular works, today as they were then, remain his devotional writings.

            One impressive feature of these works is Gerhard’s ability to quote both Scriptures and the Church Fathers with an apparent effortless ease, helping readers to see the continuity of Biblical beliefs throughout Church history, and leaving an example to any Protestants who are tempted to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water.

            All of Gerhard’s works are inherently pastoral, with a major emphasis on the work of Christ and what he named a “wonderful exchange” of Christ’s righteousness for our sins and eternal life for our death.

            Echoing Paul’s determination “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), Gerhard affirms that “the death of Christ and His suffering is the essence of Christianity.”[1] In this light, Christ’s resurrection is the glorious confirmation that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and that our salvation is sealed. It is also a token of our resurrection on the last day, which is “the heart of the Christian religion, the aim of our life, and our shield against every adversity.”[2]

            Gerhard knows that “the article of the resurrection is very much opposed to our bodily nature and human reason.” “The hope of the resurrection is very often shaken in my heart by the storm of various thoughts,” he writes in one of the Temptations of his Handbook of Consolations. But, he adds, “The revelation of the Holy Spirit is the foundation of our faith, not the presuppositions of our reason,” since “God is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think (Eph. 3:20).”[3]

            Always pastoral, Gerhard considers the effects of these themes on our lives. “The passion of Christ wins our love; the resurrection of Christ strengthens our faith; the ascension of Christ confirms our hope.”[4]

            And these themes are an everlasting source of comfort. Constantly surrounded and threatened by death, he could confidently say, “I am not afraid by reason of my sins: for Thou art my righteousness; I am not afraid by reason of my ignorance: for Thou art my wisdom (I Cor. 1:30); I am not afraid of death: for Thou art my life (John 14:6); I am not afraid of my errors: for Thou art my truth; I am not afraid of corruption: for Thou art my resurrection (John 11:25); I am not afraid of the sorrows of death: for Thou art my joy.”[5]



[1] Johann Gerhard, Handbook of Consolations, transl. by Carl L. Beckwith, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2009, 3

[2] Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces, On the Resurrection of the Dead and On the Last Judgment, transl. by Richard J. Dinda, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2020, 10

[3] Gerhard, Handbook of Consolations, 77

[4] Johann Gerhard, Sacred Medications, transl. by C. W. Heisler, Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1896, 116

[5] Johann Gerhard, Sacred Meditations, 33

 

Simonetta Carr

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