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FW: An Interview with Rev. Dr. Benjamin Mayes, Editor of Johann Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces
Mayes on Gerhard…
Feed: Concordia Academic Posted on: Wednesday, June 25, 2014 12:00 AM Author: DawnW Subject: An Interview with Rev. Dr. Benjamin Mayes, Editor of Johann Gerhard's Theological Commonplaces
As Concordia Publishing House prepares to release the eighth volume in Johann Gerhard's magisterial Theological Commonplaces, the following interview with the series editor, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin T. G. Mayes, introduces Gerhard and his writing, and reflects on the place of this material in the 17th century and for pastors and scholars of the 21st century.
Who was Johann Gerhard and why is his work important?
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. 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 only 23 years old. Before he was 30, he had become a doctor of theology and had published several books. In his mid-30s 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.
Gerhard's writings built up the church and Christian believers and also defended the same 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, his many sermons, and, most crucial, 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.
What are the "theological commonplaces"? Why did Gerhard write this series?
The Theological Commonplaces (Latin: Loci Theologici) are a multivolume work of theology that draws from Holy Scripture, presents the teachings of the early church fathers, and defends the truth against its opponents. It is Gerhard's most famous work. It began as disputations (debates) that Gerhard held with the pastors in his district as an exercise in studying theology and defending the church's faith. From there Gerhard put into writing all of his notes and preparations, so that the Commonplaces would be a treasure trove of divine learning for pastors and other Christians to learn and defend God's holy revelation in Christ Jesus.
As you work with this material translated from Latin, what have you found to be most challenging? What has surprised you most in the volumes so far?
A number of things surprised me. Gerhard uses a lot of words that are not found in the standard Latin dictionaries. (This is because modern Latin-English dictionaries are geared for use in reading the classics; but the Latin language had grown and developed a bit by Gerhard's time, over one and a half millenia later.) Also he quotes from Augustine and other early church fathers more than from Luther. He knew and quoted from medieval church law and ancient Roman imperial law. He knew philosophy and made use of it in order to clarify his arguments and criticize his opponents' arguments. His arguments are thoroughly biblical, and he is very clear on this, even though he knows and makes use of so many other testimonies to the truth. Finally, he often ends his chapters or commonplaces with a consideration of the "practical use" of each doctrine. This shows that theology was not an ivory-tower exercise for Gerhard. Each point of theology was derived from Holy Scripture and was meant for application to God's people as teaching, consolation, admonition, or warning.
This project is truly a team effort. Describe the roles of the people involved.
Dr. Richard Dinda, a professor at Concordia University Texas in Austin, originally translated the 19th-century edition (edited by Edward Preuss) into English, but this translation lay dormant for several years. Then in the 2000s, the Rev. Paul McCain and the senior leadership and board for Concordia Publishing House resolved to bring forth Dr. Dinda's translation in print. Since nearly the beginning I have been the general editor, tasked with checking the translation and adding clarifying footnotes, tracking down the plethora of works that Gerhard cites, and providing a suitable introduction. Dawn Mirly Weinstock has been the production editor from the beginning, putting together the parts of these large volumes like the pieces of a puzzle. Recently, the Rev. Joshua Hayes and the Rev. Heath Curtis have joined the team as assistant editors. Numerous others have contributed to make this series the acme of Lutheran theology in the English language.
What benefits will a parish pastor derive from interacting with Gerhard's Theologocial Commonplaces?
Gerhard's Commonplaces are more thorough than any work of classical Lutheran theology that we have in English. For example, Pieper devotes a little more than one page to God's immutabity, and Gerhard devotes about four times as much space to the same topic. Pieper is three volumes; Gerhard will be seventeen volumes.
Gerhard's Commonplaces are educational. By reading him, one can learn an enormous amount about God's Word, church history, philosophy, and clear thinking.
Gerhard's Commonplaces give us a window into how the Formula of Concord was understood in the generation after it was written.
Many of Gerhard's opponents had incorrect views that are popular today. For example, in Commonplace II, On the Nature of God, Gerhard is constantly arguing with Conrad Vortius, a late 16th- / early 17th-century Reformed theologian who was condemned at the Synod of Dort (1618–19). Vorstius denied God's eternity, using the very same arguments as Nicholas Wolterstorff currently uses. Instead of being eternal, God, for Vorstius and Wolterstorff, is a temporal, everlasting being, bound by time just as we are. Nowadays, open theism and the theologies of Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg have found open ears among many. Gerhard's Commonplaces can help pastors and theologians today connect to the entire Christian tradition, which from the early church through the Middle Ages and the Reformation affirmed such things as God's impassibility, eternity, immutability, omnipotence, and omnipresence. Gerhard can help us to break free from modern theology.
Gerhard does a thorough job with his polemics. Although it may be unpopular these days, polemics are still important. They help us to go beyond saying, "This is what we believe," to saying "and this is why." Gerhard especially argues against Socinians (anti-Trinitarians, who were commonly called "Photinians"), Roman Catholics, and the Reformed.
Yet Gerhard was not overly polemical. He loved the truth and was willing to attack errorists, but he did so with moderation. He always endeavors to represent his adversaries truthfully. This makes his writings all the more accessible to us today.
Gerhard gives thorough consideration to issues dealing with pastoral practice and ethics. Marriage is the largest volume in the series. (It deals also with celibacy, polygamy, forbidden grades of relationship, etc.) Many scholars have noted that Gerhard's Commonplaces are not only intellectual, but they are also pastoral and devotional.
Describe the value of the publication of this series for the scholar.
Gerhard is the third most important classical Lutheran theologian, after Luther and Chemnitz. He quickly became a standard for all later Lutheran doctrine. Everyone quoted him and interacted with his writings, until people stopped reading Latin.
The Commonplaces are filled to the brim with quotations from the church fathers, many of whom have never been translated. One can read large quotations from Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria, for example, and also quotations from figures known to, but not commonly read by, American Lutherans, such as Alcuin, Bernard of Clairvaux, Savonarola, and Jean Gerson.
Gerhard lived in an era that is basically unknown to us. We know a lot about the time from the Reformation to the Formula of Concord, and then from C. F. W. Walther to the present, but not about the time in between—a span of 250 years. (The United States is younger than that.) It is as if someone buried a treasure and left us a treasure map. We have known about Gerhard for a long time—that is the treasure map. But only now are we beginning to dig up the treasures themselves.
The forthcoming volume addresses sin and free choice. In addition to his constant dialogue with Robert Bellarmine, what other groups or theologians does Gerhard address?
Gerhard rejects Matthias Flacius's views on original sin; Flacius claimed that the substance of fallen man is itself original sin. Rejecting this view was important, since God remains the creator of mankind, and yet God is in no way the author of sin. This latter point is emphasized against the Reformed, some of whose writers made God responsible for Adam's fall. Nevertheless, Bellarmine and his Tridentine Roman Catholic colleagues remain the main opponent, as they minimized the gravity of original sin, claimed that evil desires are not sinful, and maximized the abilities of human free choice without the aid of God's grace. Gerhard, on the other hand, emphasizes the seriousness of human sin and the utter necessity of God's grace for salvation. In this way, He gives all glory to God and seeks salvation where God has put it, in the saving work of Christ, applied to us by the Holy Spirit.