Johann Gerhard's Homiletics

Johann Gerhard's Homiletics

Johann Gerhard exercised a wide-spread and profound influence on the development of Lutheran theology and ecclesiastical life during his lifetime and after his death in 1637.  Most usually think this influence stemmed from his massive dogmatic work, the Loci theologici, and indeed his reshaping of the tradition of organizing Biblical content for teaching continued to have an impact over the following centuries.  More important for the actual practice of Lutheran piety, however, were his devotional writings, especially his Sacred Meditations, Garden of Paradise, and School of Piety which commanded a wide readership into the twentieth century.  In the years after his death his commentaries on several Biblical books were also popular.  His sermon collections on the pericopes, though, published first in 1613, have been reissued many times into the twenty-first century, and also shaped the thinking of Lutherans throughout the centuries after his death.   

In the preface of this Postil, composed while he was superintendent in Heldburg in southern Thuringia and thus regularly preaching to a congregation, Gerhard laid out a program for his theory of preaching. These homiletical reflections offer a glimpse of his own practice of proclaiming the Biblical message and of his goals for his instruction in the Biblical text and its teachings or doctrines when he came to the University. His sermons reveal not only his doctrinal positions, but also his rhetorical method. The preface makes explicit how he viewed the construction of the sermon. This mini-homiletics textbook also illuminates his practice in devotional writings as it lays out eleven ways in which preachers present the Word of God to their hearers.[1]

He labeled these “ways of teaching”—for him the word referred to all forms of public presentation of God’s message for humankind—and identified eleven of them: 

The modus docendi Grammaticus focuses on plumbing the depths of the Hebrew and Greek “sources or chief languages” to explain clearly what the proper meaning and emphases of the words of a text are. This approach is beneficial so long as the preacher does not bring the foreign languages to the pulpit, but simply clarifies the message as it applies to the hearers.

The modus docendi Logicus divides and sub-divides the text, giving a clear outline of six or more parts. Such clarity can be helpful, but preachers should avoid chopping up the text, so the simple folk cannot follow what he is saying.

Some preachers trot out fancy words, with many “exclamationes, apostrophas” and other rhetorical figures, using the next modus, modus docendi Rhetoricus. While eloquence and the ability to articulate effectively are special gifts of God, to be used with thankfulness, preachers should also not forget how Paul reminded the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:1) that he came among them not with lofty words or lofty wisdom to proclaim God’s Word. The Apostle’s word and proclamation were not expressed in the rational speech of human wisdom, but in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that his hearers’ and readers’ faith would not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.

Others use the modus docendi Histronicus, in the manner of the Jesuits, Gerhard reported. They gesture and pose, with special movements of their heads, hands, and entire bodies. This can indeed move the emotions, an important goal for Gerhard, but the common people must be able to tell the difference between a preacher of God’s Word and a comedian or performer.

The modus docendi Historicus employed stories of all kinds, often from pagan authors, which offer living examples that aid the hearers so long as they are used appropriately. Funny stories can, however, bring attention to themselves, so the hearers forget what God’s Word is saying or think less of it.

The modus docendi Ecclesiasticus reaches back to ancient teachers of the church for explanations of the text. These teachers should be read with diligence, as witness to God’s truth and the proper interpretation of Scripture, but the preacher must take care that the people understand their faith rests upon God’s Word alone, not on human opinions, even those of revered church fathers.

Some preachers read the text and explain it with clear, understandable words, bringing in other passages of Scripture and clarifying the circumstances in which the text was written, drawing from all the resources they can muster for the edifying instruction for the hearers. This modus docendi Catecheticus most benefits the hearers, bringing them salvation through God’s teaching, comfort, admonition, and warning.

With the modus docendi Scholasticus the preacher focuses on one particular goal which the Biblical author had in mind and draws specific teachings from the text that support this goal, fortifying the point with a methodical explanation of its significance. Preachers must be careful not to force the text into their own framework, “as sometimes happens,” Gerhard commented.  He was most concerned that God’s Word be applied to daily life, shaping the hearers’ perception of reality and thus forming their character, from which spring their attitudes that produce their actions. Pedagogical devices should promote, not distract from, the hearers’ digesting of the text.

The modus docendi Elencticus addresses falsifications of the text that opponents of the Gospel may have spread among the people. This is a necessary exercise, but must be conducted with appropriate modesty, gentleness, and skill in refuting error. Gerhard urged caution since he recognized this mode was quite fashionable at his time.  He knew that complaining about others is easier than looking into the reflection of oneself and the congregation in the mirror of the Law.

The modus docendi Mysticus is aimed at the edification of the inner person. Using suitable allegories and spiritual clarifications, they draw together Old Testament and New Testament passages to focus on Christ and important points of Biblical teaching. By doing this the modus strengthens recognition of the inward corruption of human nature, “in order to implant true, living faith in Christ, ardent love for God, contempt for the things of this earth, longing for eternity, humble fear of God, inward tranquility, and similar things in the heart.” Gerhard complained faith was being extinguished and love was growing cold in his day. So, diligence, prayer and meditation on God’s Word were necessary to revitalize the living faith of the people. “Mysticus” referred not to some ethereal mystical experience, but to the devotional application of God’s Word to daily life.

Gehard’s final approach to preaching, the modus docendi Heroicus, took a text, but often strayed from it to proclaim with rhetorical skill some point of Biblical teaching. Luther did this as well, but it is a method fraught with dangers and so most preachers should remain on “the common road,” admiring, but not imitating this mode.

For himself, Gerhard added, “If someone asks which modus docendi or way of teaching we use in this postil, we answer that the modus Catecheticus and modus Mysticus joined together are very useful for honoring God and nurturing godliness.” In fact, his preached sermons undoubtedly reflected what he regarded as a proper use of them all, but this singling out of the modus docendi Catecheticus and the modus docendi Mysticus does highlight his intent to instruct his hearers carefully based on Biblical texts with teaching that would form their minds in the pattern of the mind of Christ.  Being of this mind would lead them to live a life of repentance and trust in the forgiveness of sins, which Luther posited as the true, Christian life. Gerhard’s sermons aim to edify the inner person. To that end he used, “suitable allegories and spiritual clarifications,” matching and coordinating Old Testament and New Testament passages to place the focus of his hearers’ and readers’ attention on Christ and on important points of Biblical teaching.

Gerhard recognized the benefits of each of his “ways of proclaiming,” but also warned against the pitfalls inherent to most of them.  His categories ring true as descriptions of the ways in which we attempt to communicate the Gospel in the twenty-first century.  His words of advice deserve our attention too.  He provides a tool for reflecting on our own methods and assessing our own use of the gifts God puts at the disposal of His servants in our own time.

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[1]     Gerhard: Postilla: Das ist/ Erklärung der Sontäglichen vnd fürnehmesten Fest-Evangelien/ uber das gantze Jahr. Auch etlicher schöner Sprüche heiliger Schrifft/ vornemlich dahin gerichtet/ daß wir Gottes Liebe und Christi Wolthaten erkennen/ auch am innerlichen menschen seliglich zunehmen mögen. Erster Theil. Jena 1613, p. a2b–a6b.

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