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  • Lewis Polzin

The Theology of Johann Gerhard: Exploring His Relevance in the Twenty-First Century, Part I

Updated: Jun 30



Who is Johann Gerhard? The question is a rather simple one, to be honest, but not one for which many people have an answer. In fact, if you put the names of Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, Paul Gerhardt, Martin Chemnitz, Ulrich Zwingli, and Johann Gerhard on a list, most people with a basic understanding of the Reformation (or at least who have read a hymnal) would probably be able to at least recognize a good number of those names, but would still miss Gerhard’s. Gerhard is a theologian for the twenty-first century, even though he came about four hundred years too early. His theology stands the test of time, but not many have read him today. His devotional work is exemplary, but we just have not spent the time in it that we should. The first part of this essay will serve as an introduction to Gerhard and his work. In a subsequent part to be published separately, we will explore some of examples of Gerhard’s work and why it is important for today.


1. Introduction to Johann Gerhard

Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) was a seventeenth-century Lutheran dogmatician. He is often given the chief place during the “Golden Age of Orthodoxy” and regarded as the most important Lutheran theologian after Martin Luther and Martin Chemnitz.[i] He was high-born, but having purposefully chosen to be a pastor and no mere academic, he was not a typical aristocrat. In fact he wished to focus his attention on the suffering of the people among whom he served. His writing was prolific, and since he was a member of the first generation of Lutherans to minister and write following the publishing of the Book of Concord, his work was also seminal for those who would follow. His academic work primarily focuses on the Word and Sacraments, setting the tone for nearly every Lutheran theologian since his time. His meditational writing focuses on the promises of Christ that come through Word and Sacrament, making his work cherished among the suffering.[ii] Even his theological enemies appreciated his ecumenical work; though they may have disagreed with his conclusions, none could say he misrepresented their arguments.[iii] Gerhard’s theology provides a framework for understanding the relationship between God and humanity, addressing questions of suffering, morality, and the human condition.

 

To become a true theologian, Martin Luther wrote, one must go through the continuing, cyclical process of oratio (prayer), meditatio (meditation), and tentatio (temptation or testing).[iv] Gerhard experienced all these things continuously, and they did not stop until he fell asleep in Jesus.[v] Nearly succumbing to the plague that took his own father’s life when he was fifteen, Gerhard, in the same vein as Luther, promised to enter the pastoral ministry if he were to recover. He did, but at a significant loss, for his sickness foreshadowed the many illnesses he would suffer from throughout his life. He soon entered university studies and prepared for the ministry, mentored by Johann Arndt, but was still plagued by illness. Foreshadowing Gerhard’s work in disproving the claims of his adversaries, the first of his academic issues would arise when he was chased out of the University of Marburg when it converted to Calvinism. He was ordained out of the University of Jena in 1606.

 

Gerhard married twice, losing his first wife during the birth of their first child. It was another case of foreshadowing for Gerhard, for he would lose five children in total, and not just in childbirth, before his own death. He was a burdened man, but burdened men are often brilliant, and Gerhard was no exception. His theological writing rivaled Luther’s own. Like Luther, who, after his visitation of the Saxon churches, was so distressed at the quality of their theological knowledge that he wrote his Small Catechism, Gerhard’s visitation revealed lazy pastors who only preached sermons written by others and nothing more. He called these men out and demanded they begin their own studies and proper preparation for the pulpit. To help them along, he began to write his Loci Theologici, a masterwork of theology that still stands without equal today.[vi] He began with his original Aphorismi Succincti et Selecti (Succinct and Selected Aphorisms) and then developed that later into his Loci Theologici. These Loci and many other of his works continue to be translated into English today.


2. Why So Long?

This raises the question: if Gerhard is so well-known and well-respected, why has it taken us so long to bring Gerhard’s works into English? A significant reason is that theological history treats Lutheranism as if nothing happened between 1580, when the Book of Concord was published, and 1675, when Philipp Jakob Spener published his Pia Desideria.[vii] Of course, Lutherans are lucky to get consideration at all when it comes to the world of Protestant theology. Some of this missing century can be accounted for in that the printing presses were still catching up to the giants who wrote in the 16th century. To be fair, Gerhard’s shorter works, such as his Sacred Meditations and Manual of Comfort, were much easier to reproduce than the nearly 4,500 pages of his Loci, and they were written in German as opposed to the Loci’s Latin, making them more accessible. Lutherans have in fact appreciated Gerhard’s works since he first published them, and his works even found popularity within certain Anglican circles because of their theological acumen.[viii] However, the modern Western world left Latin behind by the end of the nineteenth century, and this erected a barrier to his works, as few people had the requisite proficiency to read the majority of his writings, let alone translate them. Thankfully some Lutherans have recognized the need to rescue these works from obscurity, and much of his writing has been recently translated. We are blessed now to be living in an age when we can access Gerhard’s original work digitally, as well as his translated work digitally and in print. This allows many people to work in his texts and interested parties to discover him. Gerhard’s work is now consistently employed in ecumenical dialogue as the arguments of those parties he argued against have not changed in four hundred years, making it helpful for both sides to utilize him. It also seems that many are growing tired of the shallow and lightweight theology that is so ubiquitous in contemporary Christianity. Perhaps many are longing for more profound, more meaningful works that struggle with the dark night of the soul. I will admit that this is all speculation on my part. I wish that I could go back and shake the early American Lutheran theologians and get them to do more while their Latin volumes of Gerhard gathered dust on their shelves, but as time travel is an impossibility, and I concede they did much, I can only be thankful for what is being done today.


3. Gerhard’s Particular Focus

To demonstrate why the comfort and wisdom that drip from his pen are so palpable, perhaps it is necessary to zero in on Gerhard’s particular focus within his Loci. Gerhard’s comfort is always derived from the resurrection, both Christ’s and ours, and his wisdom is always found in Christ crucified and risen. His theology, then, is always centered around those very basic premises. For instance, Baptism is all about the resurrection, as is the Lord’s Supper, the Gospel, and even the nature of the Trinity.

 

Because Gerhard grounds his theology in the resurrection, he always makes incredible insights regarding how theology is eminently practical. If Gerhard is preaching the resurrection of the body, then he is grounding his theology in the physical world, which means that theology has a physical effect on its hearer. Theology is ultimately practical. And because it is practical, it is specifically designed to comfort the believer. That is Gerhard’s great wisdom. He takes the theology he begins to explore, finds the joy and comfort in it based on Christ, and then brings it down to earth for the benefit of those who need to hear it.[ix]

 

An example of this is how, in relation to Baptism, Gerhard utilizes the distinction between the fides quae creditur (the faith which is believed) and the fides qua creditur (the faith by which one believes).[x] Gerhard points to Baptism as delivering the fides qua to an individual, and with that faith comes the ability to trust in, assent to, and bring to life a desire for the promise of the resurrection.[xi] If this is true, then pastorally, Gerhard would always keep pointing the struggling believer, whether in the body, with doubt, with grief, or any other thing, to that very faith that points to the resurrection, which is the telos of the fides quae. Baptism is not the only doctrine with which he does this, but it is a clear one.

 

Along with the resurrection grounding theology in the physical world, it also grounds theology in a doctrine of personhood.[xii] It is a doctrine about the whole person, body, soul, and spirit, one that pastors must  proclaim to people, especially those who are near death. Consider Gerhard’s five major points of a blessed death as quoted by Austra Reinis:

1. Just as Christ in his fear of death turned to God in prayer, so we also are to turn to God in prayer, “for it is in prayer that the power to overcome death is to be found.”

2. Just as Christ prayed: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” so we are to forgive our neighbor.”

3. Just as Christ on the cross made his will in that he committed his mother to the care of the apostle John, so we are to take care of our families with a well-considered will.

4. Just as Christ at the hour of death lifted his eyes and heart to paradise, so we are to believe and to hope that through death we will enter into life. 

5. Finally, just as Christ committed his soul into the hands of the Father, so we also are to repeat his words: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”[xiii]

In the first point, the person is found in the actual fear of death. In the second, the person is found in the fact that they have a neighbor. In the third, the person is found in that they have a familial identity. In the fourth, the person is found in that the promise of life is given to the dying person. In the fifth, the person is found in the identification of the singular person, “I.” While this is not the only place Gerhard delves into the idea of personhood, it is but a mere demonstration that Gerhard understands that theology has its practical value for the entirety of the person. Each point above, grounded in the person, also deals with them according to the body, soul, and spirit. While it is true that personhood is found in all those things, it is nothing if it is not grounded in who we are and who God has created us to be, namely, creatures composed of bodies and souls who are called to love, worship, and live with him forever. Again, see how this is all grounded in Christ. It is Christ who first prays, first shows how to care for our families, first trusts in eternal life, first commits his soul. Christ and him crucified is the very foundation of Gerhard’s entire theology.


4. Why Johann Gerhard’s Theological Insights Matter Today

Gerhard’s theology remains profoundly relevant in 2024 due to its comprehensive approach to Christian doctrine and its keen insights into the human condition. Gerhard’s emphasis on the intersection of theology and daily life provides a framework for addressing contemporary existential questions and challenges. His deep understanding of scripture and tradition offers valuable guidance for navigating the complexities of faith in the modern world. The comfort and solace that he provides, especially his devotional works, allow the twenty-first century Christian to be connected to something ancient but always contemporary, which is a mark of all good theology.

 

Gerhard’s theological works, preeminently his Loci Theologici, continue to provide a rich resource for engaging with theological concepts in a nuanced yet expansive and meaningful way. His exploration of topics such as justification, sanctification, and the role of the church in society offers timeless wisdom that informs and enriches contemporary theological discourse. Moreover, Gerhard’s theological reflections on the nature of God, the human experience, and the Christian hope resonate with the pursuit of what is good and true, especially as one keeps their eyes on the promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation. In an era marked by rapid social, cultural, and technological changes, Gerhard’s theology offers a stabilizing anchor rooted in the profound truths of Christian theology and tradition.

 

As we continue to grapple with pressing ethical, social, and existential issues in the twenty-first century, Gerhard’s theology reminds us of the enduring relevance of foundational theological principles and the enduring significance of the Christian faith as it prepares us to answer the onslaught of the world and the reception of the life which is to come in Christ.



[i] Glenn K. Fluegge, Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) and the Conceptualization of Theologia at the Threshold of the »Age of Orthodoxy«: The Making of the Theologian (Göttingen: EditionRuprecht, Inh., 2018) 22.

[ii] Johann Gerhard, Gerhard’s Sacred Meditations, trans. C.W. Heisler (Philadelphia: Luther Publication Society, 1896); Johann Gerhard, John Gerhard’s Manual of Comfort, ed. John M. Drickamer (Fort Wayne: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 1988).

[iii] Leonardo De Chirico, “Robert Bellarmine and His Controversies with the Reformers: A Window on Post-Tridentine Roman Catholic Apologetics,” European Journal of Theology 31, no. 1 (2022): 36, https://doi.org/10.5117/ejt2022.1.003.chir.

[iv] John W Kleinig, “Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: What Makes A Theologian?,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 66, no. 3 (2002): 258.

[v] Erdmann Rudolph Fischer, The Life of John Gerhard: Which Has Been Explained Clearly and Copiously from Trustworthy Records for the Large Part Not Yet Previously Published and Shared Most Kindly with Him from the Very Equipped Library of His Most Serene Highness, the Duke of Gotha, and Directed to Shed Light on the Ecclesiastical History of That Age When He Lived, trans. Richard J. Dinda and Elmer Hohle (Leipzig: Repristination Press, 2001), 138–50; Gaylin R. Schmeling, “Gerhard-Theologian and Pastor,” Lutheran Synod Quarterly 44, no. 4 (2004): 289–297.

[vi] Johann Anselm Steiger, “Kirchenordnung, Visitation Und Alltag: Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) Als Visitator Und Kirchenordnender Theologe,” Zeitschrift Für Religions- Und Geistesgeschichte 55, no. 3 (2003): 232–33.

[vii] Schmeling, “Gerhard-Theologian and Pastor,” 373.

[viii] Johann Gerhard, A Golden Chaine of Divine Aphorismes Written by John Gerhard Doctor of Divinitie and Superintendent of Heldberg, trans. Ralph Winterton (Cambridge: Printers to the Universitie, 1632).

[ix] Erik Peder Ankerberg, “You Taught the Book of Life My Name: Johann Gerhard, George Herbert, and the Inscription of Holy Baptism,” Logia 12, no. 4 (2003): 19–23.

[x] John P. Edwards, “From a ‘Revealed’ Psychology to Theological Inquiry: James Alison’s Theological Appropriation of Girard,” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 21 (2014): 122, https://doi.org/10.14321/contagion.21.2014.0121.

[xi] Edwards, 123.; Johann Gerhard, On Justification through Faith, ed. Joshua J. Hayes, Heath R. Curtis, and Benjamin T.G. Mayes, trans. Richard J. Dinda (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2018) 115.

[xii] Austra Reinis, “How Protestants Face Death: Johann Gerhard’s Funeral Sermon for Kunigunde Gostmännin, Widow of Hans Dietrich von Haβlach Zu Stockheim,” Theological Review 25, no. 1 (April 2004): 31.

[xiii] Reinis, 32.


Rev. Lewis R. Polzin is the pastor of St. Peter–Immanuel Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. He is also an adjunct professor in the Theology Department for Concordia University, Wisconsin, the Vice President of Just & Sinner, and Fellow of Practical Theology for the Weidner Institute. His research interests are in the resurrection, vocation, the sacraments, and homiletics. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the South African Theological Seminary, where his thesis is provisionally entitled, “Implications for Sacramental Theology Derived from the Doctrine of the Resurrection in the Writings of Johann Gerhard and Joseph Ratzinger.” He is joyfully married to Elizabeth with whom he has two children.

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