Thursday, September 1, 2011

Johann Gerhard (1582–1637)

Johann Gerhard was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who lived about 100 years after Martin Luther. He was born in 1582, just two years after the last Lutheran confession, the Formula of Concord, had been published. He was always an excellent student in school and university, and after pursuing medicine for a while, he decided to study theology and become a pastor. In 1606, the year before Captain John Smith established Jamestown, Virginia, Gerhard received his first call—a call to be a pastor and superintendent of 26 parishes, and a lecturer at a high school. He was in his mid-twenties. Just by considering his first call, it’s obvious that his contemporaries thought very highly of the gifts God had given Gerhard. Before he was 30, he had become a doctor of theology and had published several books. In his mid-thirties he was called to be a professor of theology at the German city of Jena, and there he spent the next 21 years, until his death. His first wife, Barbara, died after only three years of marriage, when he was 29. Three years later he married Maria Mattenberger, and lived happily with her for the rest of his life. The couple had ten children, four of whom died in early childhood, as was so common in those times.

Gerhard’s writings built up the church and Christian believers, and also defended it against attacks. His works that built up the church include his Sacred Meditations, Meditations on Divine Mercy, School of Piety, his Aphorisms, his Bible commentaries, and his many sermons, but most of all his work on the first great Lutheran study Bible, the Weimar Bible of 1640. His works that defended the church against attacks include the Theological Commonplaces and the book called The Catholic Confession.

But Gerhard’s life was not just the happy life of a writer or teacher. In 1618, war broke out across Germany, a war which would continue off and on for thirty years. This Thirty Years War was especially fought between the Roman Catholic “Holy Roman Emperor” and the Lutheran Swedes, led by Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, who did not always treat the German Lutherans any better than the emperor’s army did. Because Gerhard had been so successful in defending Lutheran teaching against the Roman Catholic Church, the emperor’s soldiers plotted to kidnap Gerhard in 1531 and bring him to Rome for trial. Yet God preserved Gerhard from their plot. On the other hand, the Swedes were angry with Gerhard because of he had been advising peace with the emperor, and so Gerhard had to face the threat of imprisonment from them, too. In 1536 the Swedish army plundered Gerhard’s estate and burned his house and farm buildings. Then in 1537 the city of Jena was raided and plundered.

That year, the year Gerhard died, he wrote to his friend Salomon Glassius, telling him about the savagery of the soldiers: “But I am enduring all these things patiently and say along with Job: ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ He Himself, nevertheless, will look out for me and my household with the assistance necessary for life, for I see that my finish line is near.”[1] On August 12, 1637, the 54-year-old Gerhard became very ill, and he knew his death was approaching. In the next few days he spoke to friends and family, confessing the same faith that he had written throughout his life and making arrangements for his family and the university for after his death. Two days before his death he confessed his sins to his pastor, Adrian Beyer, and received private absolution and the Lord’s Supper from him. After receiving Christ’s Body and Blood he sang the common Lutheran communion hymn, “O Lord We Praise Thee, bless Thee and adore Thee.” Right after this, he arranged for money to be given to the poor people of his city, so that they could have a meal. The next two days he fell speechless, lost his eyesight, and most of his hearing. Yet shortly before giving up his spirit, on August 17, he uttered the words, “Come, come, Lord, come.”

(Source: Erdmann Rudolph Fischer, The Life of John Gerhard, trans. Richard J. Dinda and Elmer Hohle [Malone, TX: Repristination, 2001].)

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