Johann Arndt (1555-1621) was a Lutheran minister that was troubled by formalism or dead orthodoxy among the German people. He wrote this book, True Christianity (Wahre Christenthum) to counter this trend, arguing that mere assent to correct doctrines is no Christianity at all. The book became wildly popular, and went through 20 printings in the remaining decade and a half of Arndt’s lifetime.
In final form it actually comprises six “books.” However, the main point is fully developed in Book I, which was published in 1605. It is organized around the theme of the image of God– its original significance, its loss in the Fall, and its restoration: a bit reminiscent of Boston’s Fourfold State. However, the main pith focuses on the nature of repentance.
By 1610 Arndt had added three additional books. It is interesting that the thematic structure evolved into an equally compelling, but different organization. Arndt explains (p. 221) that the first three books correspond to the three stages of spiritual growth, which he takes by analogy to physical life as youth, middle age, and old age. The fourth book moves out to contemplate the universe as a whole, including a discussion of the spiritual meaning of each day of creation.
Later, a fifth book was added as if to fill in some missing gaps of practical and dogmatic theology. Post mortem the volume was published with a sixth book containing some relevant correspondences and other such attachments.
This edition is an English translation of most of Book I; the rest of the books are present in digest form. Such an abridgement is acceptable for this reader, as Arndt does come across rather repetitious occasionally.
The theme of Book I can be tasted by listing a few of the chapter titles:
- Chapter 11. He who does not follow Christ in his life is not truly repentant, is no Christian, and is not the child of God
- Chapter 36. The person who does not live in Christ but clings with his heart to the world has only the external letters of the Scripture and does not taste the power and the inner manna.
- Chapter 39. The purity of teaching and of the divine word is not maintained alone with disputations and many books but also with true repentance and holy life.
The theme is driven home with particular vividness in Chapter 8:
There are many people who throughout their life have not done true repentance and yet wish to have forgiveness of sins. They have not left their covetousness, pride, wrath, hatefulness, envy, falsity, unrighteousness; indeed, they have continued them and yet they wish to have Christ’s merits ascribed to them (p. 57).
Note that Arndt is not talking about unbelievers in the sense of men that disbelieve the Bible or believe something contrary to it. Instead, his insight is that a smug, stoical attitude can creep in even while formally acknowledging evangelical core doctrines. I know I am a sinner; I know that salvation is by Christ’s merit alone; that if I am to be saved, then it will be by God’s grace and mercy alone. Yet these are all abstractions that don’t connect unless a change of heart accompanies them, and that change must be real. He continues:
They have convinced themselves that they are good Christians since they know and believe that Christ died for sins. They think that thus all are made holy. Ah, you deluded, false Christian. God’s Word has not taught you that thus you will become holy. No apostle or prophet preached so, but they preach so. If you wish to have forgiveness of sins you must be repentant and leave your sins, have sorrow for your sins and believe in Christ.
In a word, Arndt develops what might be called the phenomenology of repentance. It is a searching examination of what must take place for one to be in Christ and thus saved. Arndt drives home that a belief in repentance is not the same thing as repentance. The phenomenology of repentance is such that in the nature of the concept, it cannot be mere abstract assent.
Since the remaining books are only present in this edition in digest form, I do not interact much with them — except that perhaps one passage from Book 2, chapter 58 should be mentioned. The digest reads:
The misuse of astrology is to be opposed but the heavenly bodies do have influence on our life. God works through nature and Christ pointed the signs of the heavens. The great stars often bring real changes. Sicknesses come about for the most part through the stars. It would be foolish to reject the workings of the heavenly bodies on man for the whole firmament is in man. Nevertheless, all the activities of the stars are brought under the rule of faith and prayer.
Recall that this was written during a time that there was frenzied interest in prophecy and astrology, as described in the interesting book by Prof. Barnes. I take it, then, that for Arndt, “astrology” is at the same level as “science” for us, and therefore he over-confidently says it would be “foolish” to reject its deliverances on health. I am not willing to go from this passage to conclude with some that Arndt was willing to follow the microcosm/macrocosm speculations of magicians. The Book 4 reflection on the spiritual meaning of the days of creation falls in the same category.
1. Arndt’s exegesis of Scripture is not up to the standard expected by readers of Calvin. Often, the principle of context is violated. Above all, there is an arbitrary reversion to allegory: for example, the five kings fought by Abraham are “the flesh, the world, death, the Devil, and sin” (p. 50). However, we need to read Arndt sympathetically by keeping in mind the spiritual/phenomenological project. Obviously, he doesn’t literally think those were the kings Abraham fought. He is taking up the familiar imagery of Scripture and applying it symbolically.
2. Occasionally extrapolations are made that are not theologically acceptable, as: “God does not exist, however, for himself alone, but in his gracious will in Christ he exists for me” (p. 111). But an advantage of these kind of assertions, that at first slap you in the face, is to reinvigorate the personal nature of faith– to gain a view of God as a person with whom one needs to be engaged; not just someone one thinks about.
3. The question of monergism in regeneration is ambiguous, as it typically is in Lutheran thinking after the 16th century controversies had been settled. Election is presented as foresight (e.g. p. 170); however the emphatic touchstone of prevenient grace prevents Arndt’s view from degenerating to that of the Remonstrants.
4. The view of the atonement at times seems to be exemplary, not forensic. But again, the sympathetic reader must remember the project, which includes the imitation of Christ that a believer having true faith and repentance will naturally desire.
5. A sharp division between head and heart is certainly overstated:
There are thus two ways to gain wisdom and understanding. The first [comes] through much reading and disputation. Those who take this way one calls doctos, learned ones. The other way is through prayer and love, and those who take this way one calls sanctos, saints. Between the two is a great distinction. The first, because they are learned and not lovers, are blown up with pride. The others are lowly and humble (p. 222).
It is troubling that Arndt allows (at least in this passage) no overlap between these categories — especially since the late sixteenth-century controversies were far from merely pedantic.
It is, therefore, easy to understand why, in his day, the orthodox Lutherans at first opposed Arndt as a Schwärmer. They were rightly concerned as to whether the formal principle of sola Scriptura was being followed, and of course the question was raised whether sola fide was not also jeopardized. But with further clarification, they came to terms. The book became a standard part of everyone’s library, even many of the “orthodox.”
The book is useful to us for gaining an understanding of an important period of Protestant history, as well as on account of the obvious relevance of the main topic to controversies that are still among us; but above all for the physician-like diagnosis of the heart that Arndt can exercise over the reach of four centuries.
Johann Arndt. English trans Peter Erb. True Christianity (New York: Paulist Press, 1979). Lib of Cong # BV 4503 .A7613 1979