Home > Uncategorized > Will we let Paul Gerhardt teach us, or will we ignore him?

Will we let Paul Gerhardt teach us, or will we ignore him?

March 9th, 2007
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One of Cyberbrethren’s readers sends in this fascinating account offering more detail of just what Paul Gerhardt was up against. These details are very often downplayed or ignored. All those Lutherans out there pining about what’s so "wrong" about orthodox Lutheranism’s supposed stubborn and unloving attitude toward non-Lutheran churches need to keep in mind that finally there is no possibility of agreement between those who deny the chief parts of the Small Catechism and those who confess them. Efforts today to move away from the classic expressions of genuine Lutheranism and ape the worship styles and forms of non-denominationalism while claiming that in so doing we can retain the substance of Lutheranism are equally unwise and  dangerous.  Will we ignore the lessons that history teach us?  Thanks to Michael Zamzow for these comments and his translation. By the way, I’ve placed copies of paintings of the Lutheran Divine service in the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy in various places in Germany, throughout this post, so you can have some sense of what Lutheran worship services were like in the days of Paul Gerhardt. Some might say, "No, those can’t be Lutheran services, they look Roman Catholic." Look again. Notice how they feature the distribution of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar in Lutheran_divine_service_16th_century
both kinds! A dead give-away that you are looking at a Lutheran Divine Service. Also, in my studies, the manner in which the Sacrament is depicted follows the similar pattern of depiction common in every painting of Lutheran worship from the 16th century forward, persons in the same general configuration, etc. Interesting, no? [Disclaimer: No, I'm not suggesting every pastor run out and thrown on a chausable and start doing it this way. Changes in matters like this take aHamburg_lutheran_divine_service long time and a lot of teaching. The reason I show these paintings is to dispel the mythology that Lutheranism in its golden years was basically "low church" and "little liturgy." The move toward playing down liturgy and ceremony and beautiful ornamentation came in as a result of Pietism, not as a result of the Reformation.]

Mike writes "The website of Luther in Braunschweig has a great short biography of Gerhardt. The
description of what Gerhardt was up against is described in a way that shakes us out of our Rodney King illusions. Here is a hasty translation. Can one really appreciate Gerhardt if one plays down his orthodox
Lutheran commitment. Do his hymns speak from the depths if they are
made shallow expressions of a generic Protestantism?" Here is his translation:

"The Calvinists at that time behaved  toward Lutherans with the same arrogance with which the representatives of "modern", so-called historical-critical Biblical interpretation behave toward those Christians who "still" consider the Bible to be God’s Word. Calvin had asserted for himself the claim that he actually understood Luther better than Luther understood himself. In the catechism of the Calvinists (<i>Heidleberg Catechism</i> the question (78) is posed: "Do bread and wine become the real Body and the Muhlberg_divine_serviceBlood of Christ?" The answer is a clear "no" with the additional comment: "so the holy bread in the supper does not become the Body of Christ itself, even if the sacrament is traditionally called the body of Christ."  And the Holy Mass is shortly thereafter termed "blasted idolotry." With these statements the Calvinists targeted not just the Roman, but equally the Lutheran Mass.

For decades Calvinist minded preachers tried to gain influence in Berlin. In 1613 Elector John Sigismund fell away from the Lutheran confession and converted to the Reformed faith. There
was an uproar in Berlin in 1615. The trigger was iconoclasm which took place in the Berlin cathedral. The yearGorlitz_divine_service before the church had been confiscated from the Lutherans and turned over to the Calvinists even though there was only a handful of them in Berlin. They consisted for the most part of courtiers and the court preacher who were of Reformed background.

The Calvinists removed all the precious art from the ancient cathedral. They tore the crucifixes out and shattered the pictures whose rubble the threw in the river. They smashed the baptismal font and
eliminated the altars. The left the house of God barren and empty except for a simple table in the chancel. After that the majority of Berliners, who were of a Lutheran persuasion,–the Berliners were still pious back then!–defended themselves with public uproar.

Over the years the Calvinists tried again and again to assert themselves and were supported in their efforts by the Elector. Thus the conflicts escalated –exacerbated by the Great Elector abolishing the subscription of pastors to the Formula of Concord. With the renewal of an edict from 1614 he forbade clergy to speak about the matter from the pulpit. He forbade his subjects to study theology and philosophy in Wittenberg."


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  1. Brigitte Washeim
    March 9th, 2007 at 21:24 | #1

    Having grown up in Germany Paul Gerhardt’s Hyms were among my favorites. Unfortunately they too often loose in the translation. Having grown up in Bavaria, a predominantly Catholic Province I do understand how people can misunderstand our liturgical practises as Catholic. I just attended a women’s Biblestudy were the lack of udnerstanding was quite apparent. “Why does the pastor have to declare my sins forgiven. I know they are forgiven, when I confess them to God.” “Why the crossing.” “the Lutheran church has eliminated the second commandment and made two out of the last (Thou shalt not make a graven image of anything….). What shook me up most was the seeming lack of understanding of the office of the keys, almost as if a Pastor is not really necessary at least for that aspect of our faith. This coming from a person I had previously thought well grounded. I hope to address these things in our next Bible study, but will have to speak with our pastor about these things also and do some reading on it.

  2. Terry Maher
    March 10th, 2007 at 09:50 | #2

    Having grown up Roman Catholic, pre Vatican II, in the US around mostly people of Bavarian descent, I notice this same thing all the time. I think of it as a lack of understanding of the difference between Catholic and catholic. Used to hear this all the time on the RC side of the fence — Lutherans are just Catholics without the pope, Lutherans are Catholics who flunked Latin, Lutherans and Catholics aren’t all that different because the first thing either one of them does is set up a brewery, on and on.
    I professed the Lutheran faith over ten years ago, in WELS, having read the Book of Concord and some of Luther’s treatises, ready to take my place in the real one, holy, catholic and apostolic church reformed to its right self, and began hearing all the same stuff you do instead.
    I think Pastor McCain hit it exactly — American Lutheranism has from the start confused Reformation with Pietism, resulting in something akin to the forced union of Lutheran and Reformed churches in the old country except we did it to ourselves rather than it being forced upon us! And this effect, I would suggest, is not only historical, but given added fuel by two more recent developments. One is a latter day Pietism seeking the emotionalism of the “evangelical” (in the American sense) mega churches along with the numbers it draws, thinking this is “mission”. The other is adaptation of Rome’s new Mass from Vatican II, thinking that is commitment to the historic liturgy, whereas Vatican II for Lutherans no less than latter day Pietism lead away from the reformation of the church so magnificently laid out in our confessions. The writings of our first synodical president Walther remain as timely now in this regard as when he wrote them.
    Unfortunately so often instead of a church where the mass is zealously retained and defended, we have either generic American Protestantism with a “Catholic” gloss and sometimes without the gloss as “Saddleback Lutheran Church”, or, mistaking itself as a counter effort, Vatican II for Lutherans from Lutheran Book of Worship through Lutheran Worship and even into the new hymnal along with the real stuff.
    On the bright side, were it not for the American melting pot, I could have missed all this and grown up, being of English descent, Episcopalian! Never to have eaten stollen on Christmas morning either! Unglaublich!
    Stand firm! It bolsters me no end to read people like yourself, our host, and many others in the Lutheran blogosphere. Speaking of which, I suppose posting under my real name I should add I am “Past Elder”, der vergangener Vorsteher. How ironic is that! Spaeter!

  3. Christine
    March 19th, 2007 at 14:44 | #3

    Terry’s comments are so inspiring to me. I grew up in Bavaria of a Lutheran mother and Catholic father. My mom’s Lutheran ancestors left Salzburg, Austria when the local Catholic hierarchy ordered all Lutherans to convert or leave.
    When we came to the U.S. my mom, sister and I attended LCMS Churches but as an adult I ended up in some ELCA congregations. When I left the ELCA because of the increasing ecumenical syncretism that began to appear the word was the LCMS was veering very much into an “American evangelical” direction so I panicked and thought, well, may as well try my Father’s tradition. Hence, I am now coming out of ten years of membership in a Roman Catholic parish and have just now found an LCMS congregation that is liturgically, confessionally and doctrinally sound.
    The Roman Catholic shoe I tried to put on just never did “fit”. I should have known better.
    I’ve just recently dusted off and reread my cherished copy of Krauth’s “The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology.”
    I didn’t realize how much I missed my confessional Lutheran roots until I attended Divine Worship this past Sunday. Thanks, Terry, and thanks, Pastor McCain, for reminding me of the Gospel riches I almost discarded.

  4. Rev. Charles Henrickson
    March 29th, 2007 at 13:14 | #4

    Thank you for this entry, Rev. McCain. I have been reading up on Paul Gerhardt over the last month or so, and last night I concluded a five-part sermon series on “The Hymns of Paul Gerhardt.” Over the five midweek Vespers, we sang a total of 12 of the Gerhardt hymns in LSB. Well received by our congregation.
    I am intrigued by the pictures you have posted of Lutheran services. I only wish there was a way to make them larger still, more than in the current pop-up windows, so that I could make out more detail.
    McCain: Me too Pastor Hendrickson, unfortunately they are the best I could obtain from the web site in Braunschweig. Tantalizing indeed. Are you familiar with the work: “J.S. Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig” by Günther Stiller. It is a remarkable picture of the worship and liturgical life of full-bore orthodox Lutheranism.

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