Review of Seventeenth-Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns

Seventeenth-Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns, ed. Eric Lund (New York: Paulist, 2011).

This latest in the massive Classics of Western Spirituality Series helps to fill in a hole in the anglophone world’s knowledge of Lutheranism after the Reformation. The three devotional writers featured here—Johann Gerhard, Heinrich Müller, and Christian Scriver—as well as the assorted hymnwriters were all seventeenth-century men, well after the Reformation but just before the flowering of Pietism. They held their own, Gerhard in particular, in the confessionalization of European Christianity, but, as editor Eric Lund is at pains to point out, that didn’t mean they were dry-as-dust concretizers of orthodoxy, penning erudite but irrelevant volumes on esoteric themes. Quite the contrary, living in one of the most traumatic periods of European history, and dealing with the fallout in their parishioners’ lives, they were very much concerned with the personal faith of Lutherans and how it was expressed in daily life.

In fact, if your previous acquaintance with Gerhard was only through his reputation as systematizer of Lutheran doctrine, you will be surprised and perhaps a little unsettled at the keenness of his interest in your personal piety. It certainly was not enough for him, or any of the writers here, that you would have purely head-knoweldge of the gospel, since even the demons can manage that. It must come to life, leading to repentance and personal transformation, and they will stop at nothing to bring you there. Read historically, I can appreciate Gerhard’s approach; with the world around descending into war and other forms of pestilence, loving the Reformation rediscovery of the gospel but lamenting how little it had changed people’s hearts, he drove home hard the message of Christ’s vicarious suffering and the necessity of rebirth in the individual Christian. I also wonder if it was not another flip-flop after the early Reformation’s equation of justification with regeneration and the Formula’s separation of the two, such that Gerhard and friends wanted to rejoin them once more.

I’m not sure, though, that I would wholeheartedly recommend the “Sacred Meditations” for today’s reader. They strike me as terribly heavy-handed and emotionally overwrought; but then that might be mainly a matter of taste, and others might find them more rewarding. I was most impressed at Gerhard’s lively doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Who sometimes can appear to be the absent party from the Lutheran doctrine of God as popularly conceived. Gerhard insists—as did Luther—that even the resurrection is of no avail if it doesn’t come to dwell in the believer through faith, and to make that happen is the proper work of the Holy Spirit. Both the Son and the Spirit’s missions are essential to our salvation. (This doctrinal conviction, incidentally, leads to Gerhard’s most startling image: “As a faithful mother offers both breasts to her faithful child, so our faithful God sends both his Son and the Holy Spirit to us, miserable sinners.” Apparently not only twentieth-century feminists are at ease with such similes!) Gerhard also revitalizes Luther’s use of union language to describe justification, for instance here: “Faith conjoins us to Christ, unites us with Christ, and for that reason it is also the mother of all virtues in us. Where faith is, there is Christ.” Because Christ is present in faith, justification and regeneration go together; it is inconceivable that Christ would be present and yet there would be no change in the believing person. It also struck me, in reading Gerhard’s biblical interpretations, that in a day when nobody doubted the historical veracity of the Bible, all the energy went into extracting the “real” spiritual meaning of the historical events and ignoring the plain sense. A curious inversion.

Christian Scriver takes a similarly emotional approach to driving home doctrine for the purpose of active spirituality, though he has a more didactic bent. The selections from his “Gotthold’s Occasional Devotions” use items and scenes from everyday life to teach some little lesson of faith; again, probably popular in a previous era, but striking me as rather tedious today. Likewise the extract from “Treasure of the Soul,” which seems chiefly to be dealing with the self-satisfied, bourgeois Pharisees who show up in church every Sunday, lead respectable lives, and remain utterly devoid of justifying faith or sanctifying love. Certainly such people need a wake-up call, but it’s hard to imagine that they’re the sorts who would have picked up a book like this anyway. The old rule of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is probably a lot harder to put into practice than we first imagined.

My own favorite of the bunch was Heinrich Müller, whose sassy, in-your-face confrontational style I found to be a refreshing contrast to the agonizing sincerity of Gerhard and Scriver. He does a good job of distinguishing faith and love while insisting that they always go together, gives wise advice on battling sin, and teaches how to preach both law and gospel. He also gives probably the best account I’ve ever read of how faith is not a new work, not a good in itself but for what it clings to: “A weak faith is still faith. Faith is not always a burning torch but often only a flickering candle… Faith is the eye with which we look at Jesus. A weak eye is also an eye, a weeping eye is also an eye… For our faith is not grounded in our feelings but in the promise of God. Faith is the foot that bears us toward Jesus. And injured foot is still a foot… God has not placed salvation in your grasp but in the one grasped, who is Christ.”

The last section of the book consists of hymns of the period, most in the old translations by Catherine Winkworth but some more recent ones too. Many of these are familiar—“Wake, awake, for night is flying,” “O morning star, how fair and bright,” “Now thank we all our God,” “O sacred head, now wounded,” “A lamb goes uncomplaining forth,” “Awake, my heart, with gladness,” “Jesus, thy boundless love to me,” “Now all the woods are sleeping,” “If thou but suffer God to guide thee,” “Jesus, priceless treasure,” “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”—but you will be pleasantly surprised to find all the verses (far more than we can tolerate to sing in worship nowadays) with all the hidden riches therein. And of course there are many unfamiliar hymns too, rendered in English poetry. Overall I am struck by how very concerned these hymnwriters, like the devotional writers, were to impress the gospel on individual people and kindle faith in them. Most hymns are expressions of faith, especially in the face of misfortune, and pledges of loyalty. We often complain that contemporary hymnody is too me-centered, but this is apparently our own heritage too. I begin to suspect it is an aspect well worth remembering.


Comments are closed.