Saturday, August 17, 2013

Heavenly Birthday of Johann Gerhard (1582-1637), Arch-Theologian of the Lutheran Church

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. (Among us a new pastor is never made a district president or circuit counselor right off the bat.) 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. I’m happy to say that we here at CPH are doing more to make his writings known than anyone else has done for the last 300 years.

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 1631 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 1636 the Swedish army plundered Gerhard’s estate and burned his house and farm buildings. Then in 1637 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].)

[1] Cf. Fischer, Life of John Gerhard, p. 287.

Gerhard on Allegory and Dry Sermons

+ In memoriam Iohannis Gerhardi, uiri summae pietatis atque doctrinae. +

Gerhard has a wonderful discussion of allegories in his treatise On Interpreting Sacred Scripture. This section alone is worth the price of admission. Though his treatment is brief, it is a treasury of homiletical gems, and I will only discuss its barest outlines here. Indeed, it contains most everything that it took me years of seminary and experience to figure out about whether allegory may be used and if so, how. For the most part my experience has been that modern exegetes are hostile to allegorizing. Gerhard knew this debate well:

The fathers were fairly profuse in their allegories, while some today are fairly hostile to them. So what should be decided about allegories?
Gerhard warns that it is very easy to stray from the rule of faith when allegorizing (we're looking at you, Origen). He navigates the proper use of allegory in a few ways. He starts by noting the rhetorical distinction between a type and an allegory. What Paul is doing in Gal. 4:24, for example, is actually typology though he uses the term "allegory." Likewise, the fathers sometimes misuse these terms.

Next, Gerhard also insists that the literal meaning of Scripture in context is the meaning of the Holy Spirit (excepting those places where the Holy Spirit Himself interprets things allegorically or typologically). That is the basis of all exegesis and from it one can draw "various teachings, exhortations, consolations, and refutations against adversaries." For Gerhard all good allegory is simply responsible application of the text. Modern exegetes who shun allegory should consider rethinking their position along these lines. The original meaning of the text comes first, then in teaching and preaching you also have to apply it to your hearers (allegorize).

Gerhard then offers pointers on how best to allegorize. "The goal of all Scripture is Christ," urges Gerhard. "In allegories, therefore, it is His office, His benefits, and His reign that should be explained most of all." Furthermore, don't allegorize the moral Law like the Ten Commandments. Don't look for allegory everywhere. Do look for allegory in the ceremonial law and in historical narratives provided that you also maintain the facts of the actual events. Often both a type and an allegory can come from the same passage. For example, the account of David and Goliath is about Christ defeating the Devil (typology) and may be applied to the godly man overcoming the lusts of the flesh through faith (allegory). There are even times when allegory is demanded by the text or it will be especially advantageous to do so (when teaching the account of Jacob, Laban, Leah, and Rachel to your Sunday school kids your best bet is to go for the allegorical interpretation!)

Gerhard further notes how allegory makes for good preaching that is Bible rich and not dry or filled with cheeky stories:

When used appropriately and sparingly, allegories delight, stimulate, and remove tedium, which is why they are especially well suited for sermon openings [exordiis]. One must work tirelessly to make allegories appropriate, firstly and foremost that they be analogous to the faith.
This must be why Gerhard always starts his sermons with a type or allegory from the OT that pertains to the Sunday Gospel.

Finally, because allegory can be and has been greatly abused, Gerhard also gives sober warnings:

Be sure, however, not to search too far for allegories, for then they will be crude and inane. Be sure they do not militate against the chief parts of the historical account that we want to treat allegorically. Do not dwell on them longer than they deserve; instead, approach them gracefully, simply touching upon them with a few words subtly and discreetly.  Let them not be too intricate or perplexing. In short, it is not for everyone to appropriately and fittingly use allegories. Those who are less practiced in them should proceed soberly and prudently. Those who make use of allegories hastily and without discernment can easily propose something that the learned will contemn, the vicious will mock, and that will cause the weak to stumble. Undoubtedly Origen was rebuked by the ancients on this charge.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Herberger's Genesis Commentary

This is just a brief post to announce a new offer on the English translation of Herberger's Christological commentary on Genesis: The Great Works of God, vols. I & II. Both volumes can now be obtained at a 40% when purchased together. (There is also an informative interview and an excerpt from the book).