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  • Lewis Polzin

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



In the first part of this essay, we endeavored to point out why it is that Gerhard is so beloved and connected it strongly to his sense of the resurrection being the focus of his theology. That doctrinal focus resonates with people, both the academic and lay person, and Gerhard wrote for both. In fact, most of Gerhard’s work can be boiled down to the academic and the meditational. Gerhard’s academic work is why he continues to be remembered in theology today, but his meditational work made him popular in his time. This essay will show some of that work and how Gerhard’s mastery of both theology and its practical effects, especially with respect to comforting the hurting, endeared him to all who read his work.

 

1. The Enduring Comfort of Johann Gerhard’s Meditations

When you realize everything Gerhard had to endure, it is easy to believe that he could sympathize with you and have insight into your struggles. This is true even though when Gerhard was only twenty two when he wrote his Sacred Meditations. Whether people knew that or not, he tapped into something incredible and transcendent. Consider even this first meditation, wherein Gerhard reflects upon his own sinful state:


The holy angels, whom God hath given to be my ministering spirits and my companions in the future life, accuse me also; and, alas! by my sins I have deprived myself of their holy ministry in this life and of the blessed hope of their fellowship in the life that is to come. The very voice of God, the divine law, is also my accuser: that law I must either keep, or perish; but for me to fulfill that law is plainly impossible, and the thought of perishing is absolutely intolerable. And God, the inflexible Judge, the almighty executor of His own external law, accuses me; Him I cannot deceive, for He is wisdom itself; from Him I cannot flee, for everywhere His power reigneth. Whither, then, shall I flee (Ps. 139:7)? To Thee, O blessed Christ, my only Redeemer and Saviour, do I fly for refuge. Great indeed are my sins; but greater far is the satisfaction Thou hast made for them; great is my unrighteousness, but greater far is Thy righteousness.[i]


What better meditation could one have as one is coming out of the depths of guilt in Romanism than to rest so keenly on Jesus? Or consider his meditation on the resurrection of the godly:


Death precedes every resurrection, for he cannot arise again, who has not first died; so it is with respect to our spiritual resurrection. Christ will not arise in thee unless the old Adam first die in thee; the inner man of the Spirit arises not until after the outer man of the flesh is dead and buried; the newness of the Spirit will not appear until the oldness of the flesh disappears. Nor is it enough that Christ should arise in thy soul but once, for the old Adam cannot be destroyed in a single moment. The old sinful nature strives daily to live anew in thee; and daily must thou destroy it that Christ may daily begin to live in thee. Christ ascended not to heaven, nor entered into His glory, until after His resurrection from death (Luke 24:26); and so thou wilt not enter into the heavenly glory until Christ first rises and lives in thee.[ii]


This wonderful thought comforts the one struggling with the burdens of this life as they carry him away from the certainty of the life to come. From his Manual of Comfort, consider this statement where Gerhard reassures one who is afflicted with knowledge of their own early death:


The afflicted person says: I am being called out of this life too early. God is taking me away in the midst of my days (Ps. 102:24). I am afraid that is a sign of God’s anger because “bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days” (Ps. 55:23).

 

The comforter says: Nothing that has ripened is ripe too soon for God.

Long life is a gift of God; but a short life is not always a sign of His wrath. God often lets His believers leave this world relatively early so that they are free of the danger of sin, enter the safety of heaven, and need not experience plagues which are more troublesome than death.

 

“Come, My people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast” (Is. 26:20). “The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart: and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come. He shall enter into peace: they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in uprightness” (Is. 57:1-2).

The tree remaining fruitless, bare,

That never greens nor blossoms fair,

Is axe’s prey. No good comes out.

So one removes the worthless sprout,

But no one harms the fruitful tree.

It stands its ground for all to see.

But Christians, though they fruitful be,

Are often sooner yet set free.


The believer always dies best, whether he dies in age or in youth. Is it all that sad for you to be freed sooner from this vale of tears? The sooner the Prince of the army calls you away from your post in this life, the sooner He brings you to the place of rest, peace, and victory.[iii]


I am not one for overly hyperbolic statements, but after reading that, I think I could be ready to die! In all seriousness, Gerhard’s writings connected with people in his age because death was an ever-near, ever-looming presence. To focus his reader so plainly on the living Christ, the hope of the resurrection, and the comfort found in the knowledge of the providence of God could not have been such an easy task. Still, it is one that caused his works to be translated into nearly every European language and many others.[iv] Read any of his devotional works and you will discover writings that transcend the context of seventeenth-century Germany and are universal. Gerhard deals with our doubts and problems today because they are not fundamentally different from those faced by the people he knew and ministered to.


The way that Gerhard approaches this type of comfort for the believer is centered around theological truth. In fact, with theology in mind, Gerhard focuses squarely upon the one, needed comfort. Lutherans are excellent at identifying this comfort as Christ as he comes to us in Word and Sacrament, and this is good. Gerhard wants to bring this comfort in a parallel way, a way of contemplation or true meditation.[v] This is a sort of let-the-imagination-of-your-heart-inspire-you-toward-good-works-for-the-sake-of-Christ type of approach. Lest one think, though, that Gerhard’s appeal to the imagination lacks the academic rigor or theological depth you find in other academic or university theologians, one only needs to read Gerhard for that concern to be erased. Remember that Gerhard’s theology is pristine, even at his young age. Consider this passage from Sacred Meditations:


The Son of God came down from heaven to choose His bride from among men condemned and devoted to eternal death. The whole race to which the bride belonged was hostile to the heavenly Father, but He reconciled it to His Father by His most bitter passion. The bride was polluted in her own blood (Ez. 16:22), and was cast out upon the face of the earth; but He washed her in the water of baptism, and cleansed her in the most holy laver of regeneration (Eph. 5:26); her bloody stains He cleansed with His own blood, for the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, cleanseth us from all sin (1 John 1:7). Foul and defiled was His bride, but He anointed her with the oil of His mercy and grace (Ez. 16:9).[vi]


In no way could Gerhard be accused of theological inaccuracy or incompetence, even if it is paired with such moving prose. Gerhard never minced words but had a way with them that led to the enduring comfort for the one who needed them.


2. The Enduring Wisdom of Gerhard’s Loci Theologici

Wisdom is often said to be practically applying knowledge to the world and doing it well. If that is the case, Gerhard excels, especially in his theological world. There is, in fact, none better. To read Gerhard is to recognize that you are sitting at the feet of one of the most learned men in history. He was incredibly well-read; his library was massive, the contents of which have been reconstructed in a single book, merely filled with the titles. These books were passed down to his son, Johann Ernst Gerhard, following his death.[vii] Gerhard’s wisdom was passed down through his theological writing.

 

The beating heart of Gerhard’s theology is his Loci Theologici or Theological Commonplaces. It is a masterwork of theology that truly has no rival. Gerhard is considered the greatest scholastic theologian in Lutheranism, and this work is why. Gerhard took the medieval method of organizing particular topics into distinct categories to new heights by not just applying logic to each doctrine and drawing out its implications but also by tracing each one back to the Scriptures so that, through the exegetical method, the basis of the doctrine would be revealed.[viii] Gerhard wrote his academic works in Latin, which up until now has made his work largely inaccessible to all but scholars. However, most of Gerhard’s Loci have recently been published in English. Each volume has been greeted warmly by Lutheran academics and laity alike.

 

In these books, Gerhard writes in-depth about the doctrines of the church in a way that combines the Word of God with logical thought and is supported by the study of patrology (a term Gerhard coined synonymous with patristics). The Loci have been counted and ordered in multiple ways depending on the edition in which they are printed.[ix] The Cotta edition seems to organize the different loci the most efficiently. It accounts for the additional volumes Gerhard published, which go into more depth on certain loci (called Exegesis), while also trying to incorporate Gerhard’s confusing numbering system he used in his original Loci Theologici, which he had published over the course of ten volumes, including the index. To understand just how expansive his theology is, it is necessary to see the major subjects of what Gerhard wrote about, treating each subject with its own locus and sub-loci.[x]


On the Nature of Theology (Exegesis)

On Holy Scripture (Exegesis)

On the Nature of God (Exegesis)

On the Most Holy Mystery of the Trinity (Exegesis)

On God the Father and His Eternal Son (Exegesis)

On the Person and Office of Christ (Exegesis)

 

1. On Sacred Scripture (1610)

2. On the Interpretation of Scripture (1610)

a. On the Method of Theological Study

3. On the Nature of God (1610)

4. On the Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity (1610)

a. On the Three Elohim

b. On God the Father and His Eternal Son

5. On the Person and Office of Christ (1610)

6. On the Creation and Angels (1611)

7. On Providence (1611)

8. On Election and Reprobation (1611)

9. On the Image of God in Man before the Fall (1611)

10. On Original Sin (1611)

11. On Actual Sins (1611)

12. On Free Choice (Free Will) (1611)

13. On the Law of God (1613)

14. On Ceremonial and Judicial (Forensic) Law (1613)

15. On the Gospel (1613)

16. On Repentance (1613)

17. On Justification through Faith (1613)

18. On Good Works (1614)

19. On the Sacraments (1614)

20. On Circumcision and the Paschal Lamb (1614)

21. On Holy Baptism (1614)

22. On the Holy Supper (1614)

23. On the Church (1614)

24. On the Ecclesiastical Ministry (1619)

25. On the Civil Magistrates (Political Magistracy) (1619)

26. On Marriage (1620)

a. On Celibacy and Similar Topics

27. On the Last Things (1621)

28. On Death

29. On the Resurrection of the Dead

30. On the Last Judgment

31. On the End of the World (Consumption of the Age)

32. On Hell or Eternal Death

33. On Eternal Life


All four editions of Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces number these loci differently. These are the Jena edition of 1610–Gerhard’s original printing; the Frankfurt/Hamburg edition of 1657–edited by Gerhard’s son; the Tübingen edition of 1762–also referred to as the Cotta edition; and the Berlin/Leipzig edition of 1863–also called the Preuss edition. One can glean the depth Gerhard goes into with his work by the titles alone.

 

Reflecting on the wisdom within his Loci Theologici, we discover that Gerhard’s methods bring the reader to see the practical effects of true doctrine. Take, for example, Gerhard’s simple advice on what the studies of a first-year theologian (seminarian) should look like:

"The following should be commended to the future theologian in his first year of studies: (1) reading Sacred Scripture, (2) an overall understanding of the theological commonplaces, (3) hearing especially the public lectures on these wherein the chief parts of heavenly doctrine are methodically treated, and also hearing the disputations."[xi]


Here, Gerhard lays out a simple plan: center the students in the Scriptures, teach them the basics of the doctrines of the Word, and start to introduce them to systematic theology. From this year through year five, more depth is added, with growth in being able to argue about controversies, knowing Luther’s writings, defending against the papists, etc. Gerhard’s advice is practical and seasoned and makes for a good theologian. Of course, Gerhard’s advice is not just for seminarians but for the entire church. Consider how Gerhard treats the argument of his arch-nemesis, Bellarmine,[xii] when he claims the word “catholic” means that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church:


In order that it may become quite clear whether the name “catholic” is a true mark of the church, we must search out the origin and meaning of this word. Its origin is correctly referred to the Apostles’ Creed, in which this article stands: “I believe there is one, holy, catholic church.” There are some people who doubt that the word “catholic” came from and was put into the Creed by the apostles because it is found nowhere in Holy Writ… However, we do not deny that this word has come from the apostles themselves. From the mouth of their Master they heard that the church in the New Testament was not going to be contained within the narrow boundaries of Judea, as in the Old Testament, but that the Gospel was going to be preached “in all the world”…Therefore the first origin of this word arose from the antithesis between the Israelite church in the Old Testament and the Christian church in the New. The former was ordinarily bound to a definite nation and people, namely, the people of Israel. All who wanted to be members of the church had to join with the Israelites. For this reason they were called “proselytes,” which means “those who come” or “foreigners” (Acts [2:11]). The latter is gathered from all nations in all the world by the universal preaching of the Gospel, and it is scattered throughout all the earth. As time passed, however, heresies grew strong in the New Testament church, and “catholic” began to be understood as a consensus in catholic teaching, that is, in the confession of faith that the apostles first preached orally and later left in the Scripture by the will of God. In order that heretics might not take over the expression “catholic church” for their own congregations because of the multitude of those who applauded them, the word “catholic” was expounded and explained through “apostolic,” just as in the Nicene Creed of AD 325 the article of the Apostles’ Creed on the church was explained in this way: “I believe there is one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Thus one may understand that the true church is the one that is built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles in any part of the world and that protects the teaching of the apostles faithfully and purely.…Therefore “catholic” is attributed both to the doctrine that the apostles first preached orally throughout the world at Christ’s command and later put into writing and handed down to posterity, and to the people or assemblies that accepted this teaching through the work of the Holy Spirit, preserved it undefiled, and to whose witness the orthodox appealed in the course of later centuries whenever controversies arose.[xiii]


In this admittedly long passage, Gerhard’s wisdom is not just to attack Bellarmine’s rather simple argument,[xiv] but to truly explore the entire context of the word “catholic.” He sets an example for study, not just of linguistics, but, I think, for everything: start with the Scriptures, move then into antiquity and the Fathers, next go to how the word changes over or the subject is viewed through time, and finish with the proper use of the term or the correct understanding of the subject.[xv] The wisdom of Gerhard is not just in his ability to tell you something that is good, right, and beautiful (though he does this), nor is it in the utter destruction of his adversaries’ arguments (though his polemical skill is fantastic), but it is in the method by which he uses his knowledge and the foundation upon which he builds his theological house, which is Christ crucified and risen. If this is where Gerhard’s wisdom is based, then it is no wonder it endures through the ages.


3. Why Gerhard’s Works Matter Today

Gerhard’s works, albeit not as well-known as they should be,[xvi] change the lives of those who read them. They truly transcend time. They are words written in the seventeenth century, but they are not merely for the seventeenth century; they are timeless. Because of Gerhard’s focus on the resurrection, on comfort, on theological acumen, on suffering, on oratio, meditatio, tentatio, on life, and on loss, his words and his insights hit his reader in ways that can only be received as if it were Jesus himself speaking to us. I am certainly not saying that Gerhard’s words are Spirit-inspired, but they are inspired words. Gerhard knew the heart of man, both in its depravity and in its deep need, and was able to speak God’s word clearly and rightly to it.

 

It is certainly hard to separate my deep appreciation for Gerhard from an actual critique after spending so much time with him in my own studies, but I have not really found a whole lot to critique, to be honest. The worst thing I can say is that, while his ability to quote the Church Fathers and others is beyond nearly anyone else’s ability, his efforts to accurately cite them leave something to be desired. Tracking down original sources for Gerhard’s quotes is often difficult. That does not negate anything of his writing, or the truth of God’s Word that he shares, however.

 

His works still matter for us today. This is why there are publishing companies dedicating major time and money toward translating all of his works, that it might finally be in the hands of all who would desire to spend time with it. His works speak to us and will continue to speak to the church throughout the ages if only we can continue to seek after both the knowledge, the wisdom, and the comfort therein.



[i] Johann Gerhard, Gerhard’s Sacred Meditations, trans. C.W. Heisler (Philadelphia: Luther Publication Society, 1896) 14.

[ii] Gerhard, 297–98.

[iii] Johann Gerhard, John Gerhard’s Manual of Comfort, 57.

[iv] Charles A. Albert in Gerhard, Gerhard’s Sacred Meditations, 7.

[v] David S. Yeago, “‘The Immeasurable Love of the Bridegroom’: Spirituality and the Doctrine of Justification by Faith in Johann Gerhard’s Sacred Meditations,” Sewanee Theological Review 46, no. 1 (2002): 11.

[vi] Gerhard, Gerhard’s Sacred Meditations, 73–74.

[vii] Alexander Bitzel et al., eds., Bibliotheca Gerhardina: Rekonstruktion Der Gelehrten- Und Leihbibliothek Johann Gerhards (1582-1637) Und Seines Sohnes Johann Ernst Gerhard (1621-1668), Doctrina Et Pietas (Frommann-Holzboog, 2002).

[viii] Henry Eyster Jacobs and John A.W. Haas, eds., The Lutheran Cyclopedia (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899) 434–35.

[ix] Johann Gerhard, On the Nature of Theology and Scripture, ed. Benjamin T.G. Mayes, trans. Richard J. Dinda, Theological Commonplaces (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009) xvi–xviii.

[x] For the sake of this article, I should note that I did translate the titles of Gerhard’s particular Loci in a way that may differ from his English publishers. I tried to reflect his original words rather than try to divide it up into related volumes for sale. I should also note that this work stems directly from my doctoral work and comes from that unpublished thesis.

[xi] Johann Gerhard, On Sacred Scripture, On Interpreting Sacred Scripture, and Method of Theological Study, ed. Benjamin T.G. Mayes, trans. Joshua J. Hayes, Theological Commonplaces (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017) 180.

[xii] Gerhard really enjoys digging on Bellarmine throughout all his works.

[xiii] Johann Gerhard and Benjamin T.G. Mayes, On the Church, trans. Richard J. Dinda, Theological Commonplaces (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010) 277–79.

[xiv] Go and read it for yourself. It is rather silly.

[xv] I work with Gerhard extensively as I am writing my doctoral dissertation and, no matter what subject he picks up within his Loci, this appears to be the method of all of his studies.

[xvi] See Point 2 in Part 1 of this essay.


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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