Johann Gerhard (1583-1637)
Johann Gerhard lived during a time when the Lutheran Church was in great need of discipline and an orthodox leader. Our gracious God lovingly provided for these needs of his Church through this man. “Gerhard is the third (Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhard) in that series of Lutheran theologians in which there is no fourth” (Gerhard,9).
Johann Gerhard was born in Quedlinburg, Upper Saxony, on Wednesday, October 17, 1582. His parents, Bartholomaeus and Margareta, took him to be baptized on the following Sunday.
His early education began at the public school in Quedlinburg, where he learned literature from three faithful and suitable teachers until 1598. During his attendance there, he composed a Gospel history in Latin verse. At age 15, he contracted consumption and dropsy, and for a whole year he was tormented by sickness and temptation. He wrote a prayer book for himself, which he often drenched with his own tears. The pastor in Quedlinburg, Johann Arndt, comforted and consoled him, and it was due to his influence that Gerhard vowed to study theology, if God should ever permit him to recover. God did provide him a recovery.
A horrible epidemic ran through Quedlinburg in 1598, affecting 3,300 people. The disease also took hold of Gerhard very fiercely, so that he thought he might die. His mother detected the disease immediately and gave him a dose of the only antidote available. She then immediately summoned a physician who, unaware of the dose Johann’s mother had given him, gave him another dose. In just a few hours, he was well again (Fisher,22).
In 1599, he spent a semester of school in Halberstadt, where he wrote a Passion history in Greek verse, before enrolling at the University of Wittenberg. He began to study philosophy at Wittenberg, and he attended two lecture courses in theology later in the year. From 1600 to 1601, he applied himself to medical science, and even began to practice medicine and give prescriptions. He headed to the academy at Jena in February, 1603, where his conscience reminded him of his former vow. He took up a curriculum in theology and philosophy. He also started reading the Scriptures and the church fathers day and night, praying ardently beforehand and afterwards. His studying paid off, and he received his master’s degree in philosophy in June of the same year.
During Christmas of that year, he became very ill and thought he surely was going to die. On December 29 he wrote his will, which also contained a beautiful, orthodox confession of faith in all essential points of doctrine. However, God was not finished with him yet, and he recovered three weeks later.
He went to the university of Marburg in May, 1604, to further advance his theological education. In addition to attending three lecture classes (Genesis, Person of Christ and Justification, Proverbs), he also started two classes of his own, one in philosophy and the other in theology. On August 10, 1605, he left Marburg as a result of the uprising and controversy that was taking place there.
Duke Johann Kasimir of Coburg called Gerhard to be the bishop of Heldburg in 1606. Gerhard accepted the call, provided that he would be able to finish his doctorate at Jena first. The duke consented to this. As part of this pursuit, Gerhard gave a dissertation on Ephesians 4 in July, which 300 students attended. On August 15, he gave his inaugural discourse on the Lord’s Supper, and three days later he underwent a rigorous examination. The theological faculty at Jena made him a doctor of theology on November 11.
He fulfilled his office of bishop at Heldburg faithfully, not only preserving the truths of Scripture in his own teaching, but also making visits to churches in Thuringia and Franconia to examine what was being taught and to exercise discipline if necessary. During this time he also held weekly disputations at Duke Kasimir’s univesity preparatory school in Coburg. In 1615, Kasimir “called” Gerhard (“forced” might be closer to reality) to be Coburg’s pastor and superintendant-general. The duke was very possessive of Gerhard. He refused to release him even when Gerhard expressed his desire to accept a call extended to him by the academy at Jena in 1611.
Kasimir finally dismissed Gerhard at the end of April, 1616, but only after the academy at Jena had repeated the call through the Elector of Saxony. So Gerhard went to the academy at Jena to be a professor of theology. He had longed for an academic profession, and the academy had long desired that he teach there. He arrived there in May, where he was cordially greeted by the faculty. From 1616 to the end of his life, he taught quite a variety of courses in dogmatics and exegesis. For instance, in 1631 Gerhard taught a course on theological topics, a course on his own book Loci Theologici (more on that later), exegetical courses on 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians, and a Bible class on the Gospel of John. He loved the academy for its reputation and sound doctrine, and although he received many other calls, even to the prestigious university at Upsala, Sweden, he remained at Jena until he died. Many men became outstanding Lutheran pastors and professors under his guidance.
When Gerhard was 27 years old, he had married Barbara Neumeier, who was two months shy of 14 years old at the time. Although she was quite young, she was known for her charm, beauty, and devotion to the Lord. When she was 16, she bore Johann a son, Johann Georg, who died 17 days later. From that time on, she became sick and caught a horrible fever. On May 30, 1611, she uttered her last words, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Fischer,217), and died. Her death wounded her husband deeply.
Three years later, Gerhard remarried, this time Maria Mattenberg. They were devoted to each other as long as they were married. She bore him 10 children, three of whom died just days after they were born. Their names were, in order, Georg Sigismund, Margaret, Elisabeth, Johann Ernst, Johann, Maria, Polycarp, Johann Friedrich, Johann Andreas, and Anna Christina (Fischer,221-222).
Gerhard suffered many hardships throughout his life. At various times he suffered asthma, rheumatism, dry fever, a thin voice (especially before his call to Jena), kidney trouble, and weakness of his entire body and its functions. Death constantly surrounded him and everyone living in those days. His father had died when he was 16 years old. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) raged during a large part of his life. During this war, Gerhard was under threat of imprisonment several times. Once he and his colleague, Johann Major, went out to the city gates of Jena to dissuade Count Tilly from destroying the entire city. When the count covered his ears, “Gerhard ran off to the side and shouted excitedly: ‘I don’t want you to listen to me now; I want you to listen to God!’” (Fischer,95). In this way he did affect the count, and the city suffered only minor pillaging.
In spite of all this, Gerhard was well known for his godliness, piety, kindness, agreeableness, gentleness, sobriety, thankfulness, humility, patience, generosity, imagination, and steadfastness in unfavorable situations. He was devoted to his family; after his children reached their teens, he held devotions with his family twice a day, every day (Fischer,129). He gave immensely of his time, talents, and treasures for the benefit of the Church; he acquired two estates for the academy by his favor with the nobility. His religious enemies could find no blemishes on him with which to accuse him or ruin his reputation. That which he wrote was in harmony with the life that he lived. Even when Gerhard wrote against Calvinists, Papists, and Photinians, while he thorougly denounced their errors, it could hardly be said that he had written harshly (Fischer,121). (This could not be easily said of Lutheran theologians before him.)
He was a prolific writer. “His colleague Johann Himmel said of him that he had written many excellent works in his life, his hand moving as fast as his thoughts, without ever revising any book once written” (Scharlemann,42). His greatest work by far was his Loci Theologici (Topics of Theology) in nine volumes, which took him 11 years to write. In it he outlined and explained comprehensively all points of Scriptural doctrine, together with extensively detailed refutations of error. His most popular work by far was his Meditationes Sacrae (Sacred Meditations), which he wrote at age 22. Since its first publication in Latin, it has been translated into almost every major language. Some of his other excellent works include Harmoniae evangelicae Chemnitio-Lyserianae continuatio (A Continuation of the Gospel Harmony by Chemnitz and Leyser), Confessio catholica (The Universal Confession), Exercitium pietatis quotidianum (The Daily Exercise of Piety), Die Passions-Historie nach den vier Evangelisten (The History of the Passion According to the Four Evangelists), and Von der heiligen Taufe und dem heiligen Abendmahl (Concerning Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Some of these have been recently published in English by Repristination Press.
Gerhard’s writings, while certainly not infallible, attest to the outstanding knowledge and wisdom with which the Lord endowed him. His enemies were forced to remain silent while he was alive, due to the thoroughness he employed in refuting them from Scripture. He was certainly an unsurpassed benefit to the academy at Jena at that time and through his writings is still very beneficial today to the Christian Church as a whole.
On August 12, 1637, Gerhard contracted an inner burning and weakness of his bodily powers. On August 15, with his colleagues Johann Major and Johann Himmel at his side, he committed his children to the Lord in prayer. Thereafter he confessed his faith, and asserted that he still held firm to the holy doctrine he had always taught. Following this, he named three theologians who would be worthy of succeeding him. Then he extended his hand to the two great theologians by his side, who wept greatly at this gesture. After bidding them farewell, he confessed his sins and received the Lord’s Supper from his pastor, Adrian Beier, archdeacon of Jena. For the next two days, he spoke very little and slept much. On August 17, “his eyesight began to fail, his hearing weakened, and his breathing became heavy. Johann Gerhard, therefore, in the presence of his two colleagues, John Mayor (Johann Major) and John (Johann) Himmel, of Master Adrian Beyer (Beier) and very many of his friends, amid their very ardent prayers … gave up his life around three in the afternoon with these words: ‘Come, come, Lord, come’” (Fischer,290).
His funeral took place on August 20. His body was taken to St. Michael’s church, where this epitaph, written by Ludwig Fidler, was imposed upon him: “Here lies Godliness, Uprightness, Frankness and John (Johann) Gerhard. Such praise befits him, and that is enough” (Fischer,290).
We do well to praise and thank our Lord for the people he has used in the past to preserve and strengthen his church. He certainly does not need humans to help him in this task, but he has nevertheless bestowed upon many people that high privilege and responsibility. Johann Gerhard was certainly not among the least of these.
- Fischer, Erdmann Rudolph. The Life of John Gerhard. Richard Dinda and Elmer Hohle, 2000. (Published: Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 2001.)
- Scharlemann, Robert P. Thomas Aquinas and John Gerhard. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1964.
- Gerhard, Johann. Sacred Meditations. (Printed: Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 2000.)