by Rev. Christopher Maronde
“Pious prayer offered in faith is familiar conversation with God. It is a salutary remedy to all the difficulties of life. It is the key to heaven and the door to paradise. It shows us how much we depend on God, and it is a ladder of ascension to God. It is a shield for our defense and a faithful messenger of the ambassador. It is a refreshment in the heat of misfortune; it is medicine during illness. It is a winch, drawing us to heaven, and a vessel that draws water from the font of divine kindness… Whoever is truly a child of God through faith will, with childlike trust, address his or her heavenly Father every day in prayer.” (Meditations on Divine Mercy, 21-22)
“The efficient cause of Scripture is either principal or instrumental. The principal cause is true God, one in essence, triune in person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We prove this, first, from the material of Scripture. Scripture taken materially is nothing other than God’s Word. But God is also the great author of His Word, and in this sense, too, Scripture is called the Word of God.” (Theological Commonplaces, I, 49)
It is an unfortunate result of our sinful nature that we so often pit two ideas or concepts against one another that are in truth complementary. Especially for Lutherans—who hold that Christ is both man and God, who hold that the Scriptures are God’s Word even though written by man, who declare emphatically that man cannot choose heaven but can choose hell—this should not be. We should be used to confessing two truths that seem to be contradictory according to human reason, but so often, we set two truths against one another. In this way, a concern for the piety and devotional life of the people of God is so often set against a concern for the confession of the truth of God’s Word. But there is at least one theologian who shatters this unfortunate opposition, thus leaving an example to us all: Johann Gerhard.
Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) died as a professor of theology at the University of Jena, a post he had held for twenty-one years. His popularity there was evidenced by the fact that he received and turned down over twenty calls during his time as a professor. Before that he served in several pastoral roles, including the supervision of other pastors as a superintendent. Along with most in that troubled era, filled with war and disease, Gerhard knew suffering. As a young man Gerhard barely survived the bubonic plague which ravaged his city and family. His first wife died after only three years of marriage. Gerhard knew suffering, and with the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), he would know such things once again.
“The tears stream from my eyes, but your gracious hand wipes them away. Just as you allowed Stephen, the first martyr, to see your gracious face even as he was being stoned, so also you allow me, wretch that I am, the full enjoyment of your comfort though I am surrounded by misfortune. Just as you sent a consoling angel to your Son in the most bitter agony of death, so also you send me your sustaining Spirit in my struggle. Without your strength, I would break under the weight of the cross. Without your help, I would be destroyed by the attack of numerous adversaries.” (Meditations on Divine Mercy, 121-122)
To all appearances, Gerhard was a study in contrasts. The same man who wrote one of the most popular treatises of the era on personal devotion and meditation, the Daily Exercise of Piety (republished by Concordia Publishing House as Meditations on Divine Mercy) also wrote a twenty-three-volume dogmatic text (published by Concordia Publishing House as Theological Commonplaces), examining every part of theology in detail and condemning in the strongest terms those teachings which are contrary to the truth. On the one hand, Gerhard’s pastor and strong influence was Johann Arndt, often known as the ‘grandfather of Pietism,’ a theological movement that focused on the inward life and experiential Christianity. On the other hand, Gerhard was a major champion of Lutheran Orthodoxy, a movement that codified and organized the teachings of the Reformation in opposition to contrary teachings, a movement considered by many Pietists to be concerned only with the ‘dead letter,’ and not with living faith. In fact, not only was Gerhard part of this movement, but his work codified and set the standard for all who came after him.
“We depart not from Christ but from the pope who has changed into the Antichrist, not from the Word of God but from human glosses and traditions, not from the church catholic but from those who were exercising a tyrannical dominion over the church. We have uprooted not the wheat but the weeds from the Lord’s field. Therefore why should we have to hear the accusations: ‘Innovators! Schismatics! Factious! and Heretics!’?” (Theological Commonplaces, XXV, 345)
That Gerhard could both a devotional writer and a precise and polemic dogmatician perplexed some in his own day and many who study him today. Some claim that he was inconsistent, some claim that he simply tried to “get along” with the other side; those who vilify the age of Orthodoxy either point to him as one of the villains or claim him as a closet pietist. Few understand the key to resolving this puzzle: Johann Gerhard’s concern, when writing devotional materials or dogmatic textbooks, always remained the same, to proclaim the truth about Jesus Christ, the Savior of all people.
“No! Eternal life is not the reward earned for a certain number of our merits but is the free gift of God in Christ and for the sake of Christ.” (Handbook of Consolations, 41)
Gerhard could move from the sick-bed to the classroom, from the pulpit to the lecture hall, from writing devotional material to composing a dogmatic textbook, because for him the task was the same, to lead people into all truth in Christ. He could vary his delivery of this truth to fit the circumstance, but the truth always remained the same, and his concern for that truth remained the same. The same truth that he defends vehemently against error is the truth that he comforts troubled consciences with.
“We see with what great zeal the children of this world vie with one another over the boundaries of fields and over temporal possessions. Therefore it would be shameful for the children of the church to be unconcerned about that heavenly possession and the boundaries of the churchly field.” (Theological Commonplaces, XXV, 4)
To many in the strain of confessional Lutheranism, Johann Gerhard is held to be the third preeminent theologian of the Reformation. After Luther came Martin Chemnitz, after Chemnitz came Johann Gerhard. Some have even called him “the third after which there is no fourth.” From him we can learn how to pray; from him we can learn the truths of the faith. But what we especially learn from Johann Gerhard is that a concern for the truth and a concern for the piety of the people of God are not contradictory, but are together the task of the Christian, the task of a pastor, and the task of those given to be doctors of the Church.
The Rev. Christopher Maronde is associate pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Lincoln, Neb.