Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we consider the life and works of a multifaceted and kaleidoscopic enigma (!) Johann Gerhard.

It is the 17th of October, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.


We will not speak of what happened to the Trojans on Saturday night. Caleb will not throw three interceptions again.

Hey, it's something of a  mitzvah for me here on the almanac and in my broader job as a scholar-in-residence at 1517. I was contacted by the periodical Modern Reformation- one I have been reading since the 90s- and they asked if I would help them out by writing an article on a tricky character in the Lutheran tradition: Johann Gerhard. He, seemingly, doesn’t fit any one particular model or camp in the early 17th century. He was a parishioner and friend of the sometimes reviled Johann Arndt (about whom I have read a lot and written a little), and so they asked if I would give them, and their readers, the low down on this character who seems to fit models both orthodox and mystical in an age when those were often at odds. So, in my work on that, I realize that Johann Gerhard was born on this, the 17th of October in 1582. So, let me give you the daily CHA treatment of this fascinating character.  

He was born in Quedlinburg in 1582- that’s in Saxony- a German region that adopted the Lutheran Reformation. His family was of some means and lineage such that he would be expected to go to university. But he was often sick- whether from TB or variations of plague that swept this part of the Empire. His perennial illnesses pop off the page of most biographies of Gerhard. In the late 16th century, the Abbess of Quedlinburg (for whom Gerhard’s grandfather worked) called the pastor Johann Arndt to be the parish pastor. Arndt’s second love of theology was medicine, which made him a kind of “double physician” to Gerhard- of both his literal body and soul. This connection between the two would last until Arndt’s death in 1621.

Like Arndt, Gerhard was interested in both theology and medicine. He would attend various universities, including Wittenberg, but would spend time between 1600 and 1601 away from the university practicing medicine.

Gerhard’s skills, both theological and pastoral, were recognized at a young age, and he was called to be a bishop in Coburg before he was ordained and only 24 years old. He agreed that he could continue his studies and finish his doctorate at the University of Jena.

It was around this time that he also married, but tragedy struck when his newborn son and wife died within a year of one another in 1610 and 11. He would eventually remarry and have six children outlive him.

His desire to teach was eventually heeded by the Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony, who had him released from the subordinate authority of the Duke of Coburg. From 1616 until the end of his life in 1636, Gerhard taught at Jena (despite job offers from over 20 universities across Europe). His scholarly and pastoral output was voluminous, and writing in so many genres has led scholars to categorize him and mis-categorize him using some of the tropes of the age. To some, he is a full-blown scholastic. He wrote a 9-volume systematic theology (or Loci- that is a work of theology using agreed upon “seats” of doctrine or commonplaces). It has been expanded to a whopping 23 volumes and is alone enough to engage the willing scholar. But he is also, on account of his pastoral and devotional writings, considered something of a mystic and pietist.

And then arises the battle- how could one be a mystic/pietist and as a “Lutheran scholastic”? Well, friends, this is where I’m pretty comfortable, so let me give you the quick version. A “scholastic” like a late medieval “humanist” is a reference to a method. That is, these are ways of speaking of a kind of curriculum. Gerhard, the churchman and teacher, would arrange his theological topics in this method. A “mystic” or “pietist” is someone who often only uses “affective” language and the imagery of the union of Christ and the Holy Spirit and the believer. Like Luther himself (and Arndt after him), Gerhard claimed that if one relies on the gifts of God in Scripture and in the Sacraments, one is united to Christ in a way that “passes all understanding” and is not necessarily given to the same method of mapping out as systematic theology- and both are valid approaches to understanding the faith. There’s more, and that’s why I’ve been asked to write the article (I’ll give you a shout-out when it’s published); in the meantime- if you are given to systematics, check out Gerhard’s Loci or his devotional literature in his Sacred Meditations. Johann Gerhard, born on the 17th of October in 1582, died in August of 1637; he was 54 years old.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary and Philippians 3.

13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

15 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of October 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man whose Boilermakers could’ve had a better showing against the overrated Buckeyes- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who still gets the shivers remembering translating the letters between Gerhard and Arndt discussing early modern pharmacology- I’m Dan van Voorhis

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be OK.

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