Philipp Nicolai on the Theory and Practice of Eternal Life

Philipp Nicolai received an excellent education. He entered Gymnasium in Dortmund when he was 15 years old and was instructed by the very men who had been first to leave the Roman church in Dortmund and join the Reformation.

Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608) was the third of eight children born to Theodore Nicolai and Catharina Rafflenboel in Mengeringhausen on August 10th, 1556. Theodore was a Lutheran pastor who instilled a love for God’s Word in his children, especially in the young Philipp. Philipp loved to go to church and hear his father’s sermons. He often reread these sermons after church and exhibited at an early age a sharp mind and a keen interest in biblical Lutheran theology.

Philipp Nicolai received an excellent education. He entered Gymnasium in Dortmund when he was 15 years old and was instructed by the very men who had been first to leave the Roman church in Dortmund and join the Reformation. His education was therefore thoroughly Lutheran as he received lessons on Holy Scripture, dogmatics, polemics, and chorale music from courageous defenders of the pure Gospel. He was also classically trained, learning the best of our Western heritage through study of philosophy, law, history, physics, language, composition, and the like. Nicolai’s favorite subjects were poetry and polemics.

Already as a young man at age 17 Nicolai had nurtured his talents to become an excellent poet, composing for his class a Latin poem of 174 hexameters in which every single word of the poem began with the letter “c.” He later composed another poem of 612 Latin hexameters a year before his death in which each word began with the letter “m.”1 This is certainly impressive in its own right, though few of us can wrap our minds around the value of such technical mastery of a now neglected art. And yet Nicolai was determined to use this mastery in service of the Church.

And so it makes sense that Nicolai should be best known among us as a kind of poet, having gone on to compose the two hymnic masterpieces by which we know him today. These are the “King and Queen” of our Lutheran chorales, namely “Wake, Awake” and “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star.” Lutherans sing the first one on the last day of the Church Year and the second one on Epiphany. Both are popular choices for Lutheran weddings. Among scholars he is also known for his fiery polemical works against Papists and Calvinists with blunt and pithy titles like A Brief Report on the Calvinists’ God and Their Religion or The Mirror of the Wicked Spirit that Creeps Around in Calvinist Books. And so we see the product of his two greatest interests passed down to us in his hymns and polemics.

But Nicolai’s extraordinary achievements as a poet, hymnist, and polemicist, when considered in view of his life and ministry, are the ornate flourishes or pious refrains of the work that truly defined Pastor Nicolai during his own lifetime: preaching the Word of God. Nicolai’s mastery of the high arts and his fierce zeal for defending biblical truth joined ranks under the command of a pious and faithful parish pastor who loved God’s Word and loved to preach it like his dad, making him among the most gripping theological writers in history. Regarded by some as the alter Chrysostom,2 Nicolai was loved not only for his preaching, but also for his precious treatises on eternal life that dance like his hymns, cut sharp like his polemics, and read like the comforting sermons of a sincere evangelical pastor.

The following is a translation of an excerpt from Nicolai’s preface to the Theory of Eternal Life, his masterpiece from this “sermonic” genre of his works. He wrote it in honor of Princess Sophia of Brunswick-Lüneburg in 1606:

Serene, high-born electress, gracious Lady: How great is the amiable kindness of our God with His precious gift and blessing of eternal life? For in this wretched vale of tears we are like poor pilgrims and foreigners who wander in a dark land and pit of death. They wander where it is pitch black and where many ravenous wolves, roaring lions, venomous vipers, lindworms, dragons, lizards, and blood-thirsty vagabonds rage in every place. These sorely grieve them by their dreadful mortal threats, so that they know not how to escape. There is, however, also a glorious palace upon a high mountain in this same land where a rich and benevolent king resides and lives with his noble friends and select guests in mighty joy. This king saw the wretched state of this people and out of sincere love sent to them his son to redeem them and call and lead them to his house of joy. And so the son descended with a bright light and radiance from the high castle, and from there he built a narrow bridge down from the castle to the people. He set many servants upon the bridge with burning torches and lanterns and bid the servants to shine light upon them and call out, “Come to me, all of you, and step upon this bridge, so that you may draw near to me and follow me. Then you will save your own skin, escape all of your misery, and join me in my father’s house where there is fullness of joy and where rich nourishment is sufficient and complete. Only come here always and walk straight ahead, so that you may avoid serious injury by veering to the right or to the left and falling even to your death.” Who would not most heartily and gladly follow such a tender voice, such a desirable and noble light of joy? And who would not consider it horrible blindness and foolishness to prefer wallowing in such a dismal pit to being released from that place to peer into the glorious banquet hall of this royal castle up on high?

Therefore this fleeting world (in which we children of Adam sojourn and wallow) is an unfortunate pit of anguish and kingdom of Satan, full of wicked spirits in the air below the heavens, and full of great misery, horrible errors, manifold offenses, and sheer dense darkness beneath our feet upon the earth. Indeed, we are surrounded by death in the midst of life, confronted with the jaws of hell in the midst of death, and in the midst of the jaws of hell we are assailed by our own sin. Yet here, just the same, the almighty God (who does not desire the death of the sinner, but that he turn from his ways and live) is not far from us. Nay, rather, He is near to us. For we live in Him and move in Him, and all things consist through Him and in Him. But despite the fact that He is so near to us, He nevertheless resides in a secret light where no man can go. We can hardly recognize (says the wisdom of Solomon) that which is on the earth, and we are slow to perceive that which is at our fingertips. Who then can seek that which is in heaven?

But what does the good and faithful God do in His secret light? His mercy is moved to pity by our affliction and death. He would gladly see our salvation and that we be brought home to Himself in the most joyous fatherland of eternal heavenly life. For this reason He comes to us from his secret throne. He builds a bridge going out, summons many torchbearers to stand upon it for the good of us poor and lost children of Adam, and thereby opens for us the doors and gates of eternal life. And He does this through Christ, His only-begotten Son, our only Mediator, who through His holy incarnation goes out from the Father, comes to us in the world, and through His suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension becomes our road and bridge over the horrible and deep pit of death and eternal damnation to eternal life. He also institutes the holy office of preaching and sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts. He is therefore our heavenly sun and light, and (as Zechariah says) like a Dayspring from on high that He might appear to them who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and guide their feet into the way of peace.

I am (He says) the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me (John 14). This is the way. Walk in it whenever you turn to the right hand or to the left (Isaiah 30). I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved (John 10). I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8). Whoever will follow Me, let him follow Me, and wherever I am, there will My servants be also. And whoever serves Me, him will My Father honor (John 12). For My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me, and I give them eternal life. And they will never see death, nor will any one snatch them out of My hands. The Father who gave them to Me is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of My Father’s hands (John 10). Father, I desire that where I am, they also be there whom You have given Me, that they may see My glory, which You have given to Me (John 17).

The secure Epicurean world with her children does not understand such things. For they give themselves only to temporal goods, passing honor, pomp, and glory. They do not consider the horrible affliction and danger of body and soul in which they are plunged, neither do they consider the righteousness and eternal salvation to which God calls us in His mercy or the noble precious treasure that He richly offers and presents to us in His Word. The old Adam does not inquire about such things, but rather goes about only with the lust of his eyes and flesh and with the hardness of his heart. He thinks (as Scripture testifies), “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (1 Corinthians 15), “that our barns may be full, supplying all kinds of produce; that our sheep may bring forth thousands and ten thousands in our fields; that our oxen may be well laden; that there be no breaking in or going out; that there be no outcry in our streets. Happy are the people who are in such a state” (Psalm 144). Oh, this is nothing but to say: “We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we are in agreement. When the overflowing scourge passes through, it will not come to us” (Isaiah 28). Indeed, “this is the way of those who are foolish, and their posterity who approve their sayings” (Psalm 49).

On the other hand, whoever is wise in God and grasps the eternal life to which we are called tastes and also sees how kind the Lord is. He considers the mystery of eternal life a secret wisdom of God. He favors it above all earthly goods and diligently seeks it so that the kingdom of God suffers violence, because he takes it by force as a violent one (Matthew 11). He says with David, “How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings (Psalm 36). Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73).”

Yet in the same way, a wise pilgrim (who in a dark land and valley of death seeks the bright royal house of joy upon the shining high mountain and diligently hastens toward it) must be attentive to two things: first, he must at all times retain sight of the brightly shining palace of joy, together with the high castle bridge with its torchbearers. Second, he must stay upon the right path and upon the bridge that is built down from the castle. Indeed, he must be careful never to veer either to the right or to the left. Therefore a Christian pilgrim in this world’s gloomy vale of tears must also know and possess both of these things, namely, the theoriam et praxem vitae aeternae,3 that is, firstly, the mirror of eternal life,4 that he know how eternal life has been obtained, and secondly, the right way and course upon the path of eternal life, that he properly keep the right footing on this path and always drive the staff of his pilgrimage upon it. There is so much in store for him in both of these mysteries, and whoever rightly understands them and diligently observes them will be all the more satisfied. He would neither desire nor accept any silver or gold, any earthly joy or welfare over the theoriam et praxem, or over the contemplation and apprehension of eternal life.

To be continued…

1 For further reading on Nicolai’s life, see Curtze, L. D. Philipp Nicolai’s Leben Und Lieder (1859). Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, Print on Demand.

2 “the other Chrysostom”; John Chrysostom (AD 349-407) was famous for his great preaching.

3 the theory and practice of eternal life, i.e. the titles given to his two major treatises on eternal life, the first being that from which this excerpt comes (The Theory of Eternal Life) and the second being one published after Nicolai’s death (The Practice of Eternal Life).

4 The Theory of Eternal Life (1606) is in nearly all of its topics an expansion of The Joyous Mirror of Eternal Life (1598), and it seems clear that Nicolai considers them to be the same work.


Samuel Preus

Samuel Preus works as the Head of Development for Luther Classical College. He and his family attend St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Laramie, WY.

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