Melanchthon’s Place Among the Reformers
Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) was one of the most important reformers of the sixteenth century, but he is not well-known today. The titles of three modern biographies express the humble status he has achieved: Reformer without Honour; The Quiet Reformer; The Unknown Melanchthon. 1 Explanations offered for this fact rest mainly upon the negative reception of Melanchthon’s teaching in the period immediately following the Reformation and in the two centuries following his death in 1560. Also, Melanchthon’s own voluminous writings, though very clear, are not readily understood. For his thought developed throughout his life, and earlier teaching appears to be contradicted by later convictions. Furthermore, as a diplomatic reformer, Melanchthon stressed different, even opposing ideas as the circumstance demanded, so that his writings may appear inconsistent to the modern reader. Compared to his close friend Martin Luther, Melanchthon has received little attention.
The lack of interest may have come to an end with the five hundredth anniversary of his birth, an event celebrated in his native Germany and abroad by numerous publications, conferences and exhibitions. Modern scholarship is turning its attention more and more to events and figures other than the well-known ones of the Reformation, with the consequence that also the works of Melanchthon are studied again. But the exact nature of Melanchthon’s contribution to the Reformation will not be easily described, and no doubt differences will remain regarding his significance even after this year of renewed interest.
One way to assess Melanchthon’s role is to consider him in relation to the other reformers. As a key negotiator in the theological and political manoeuverings, Melanchthon was highly sensitive to the various opinions held by his contemporaries. As the following article seeks to demonstrate, Melanchthon occupied a mediating position on several doctrinal and political issues. As the Reformation unfolded, and as the political alignments shifted during the stormy years of the sixteenth century, Melanchthon sought to steer Wittenberg diplomatically on a middle course. Especially in his relation to the “great men” of the Reformation – Erasmus, Luther and Calvin – Melanchthon reveals a moderating approach to the controversies. Three issues will be treated here: the doctrine of the human will, the teaching of the Lord’s Supper, and the position of reformers towards Roman Catholicism.
Melanchthon and Erasmus
Erasmus was not a reformer; but he did “lay the egg that Luther hatched.” And as a forerunner of the Reformation, Erasmus helped to set the agenda pursued in the sixteenth century. The attitudes of the reformers to the “prince of humanists” reveal their attitudes to one of the most complex features of the sixteenth century, namely the relationship between christian Reformation and Renaissance humanism. For the humanism represented by Erasmus comprised not only the learning and literature of antiquity, but also its norms and values. The reaction of each reformer to the Biblical humanism of Erasmus is revealing, but especially that of Melanchthon, who was arguably the most “humanist” reformer.2
Erasmus and Melanchthon shared a deep admiration of antiquity, a pursuit of learning and eloquence, and intellectual tolerance. Both were peace-loving men who disliked ecclesiastical polemics. Especially in the first years of the Reformation, Melanchthon was attracted to the senior Dutch scholar. Erasmus had praised Melanchthon’s first major publication – a Greek grammar – and suggested that the young scholar would make an important mark. For his part Melanchthon showed a debt to Erasmus by composing the Loci Communes in a form and style Erasmus had advocated. When Melanchthon joined the University of Wittenberg, Erasmus reacted with the thought that Philipp would have a positive, moderating influence on Luther. However, Melanchthon’s expressed support of the Reformation caused the wary Erasmus to become more cautious towards him.
His early writings suggest that Melanchthon did not consider Erasmus very different from the Wittenberg reformers; by 1522, however, he notes a growing difference between the sort of change promoted within Roman Catholicism and that advocated by the Wittenbergers. In a brief discussion of the differences between Luther and Erasmus, Melanchthon makes the following observations.3 Luther teaches the true Christian proclamation not understood by the world and secular reason; that is, “how we ought to be comforted over against death and the judgement of God, and how we ought to conduct our lives against all the wiles of Satan and against the power of the gates of hell.”
Such proclamation is revealed in Scripture alone. Erasmus, on the other hand, teaches what also “the pagan philosophers taught,” namely good morals and civil norms.
But I ask, writes Melanchthon, what does philosophy have to do with Christ? Or what does the Holy Spirit have in common with the blind reason of human beings? Whoever pursues this sort of theology may advocate charity but does not teach faith.4
Melanchthon notes that, unlike Luther, Erasmus wrongly assumes that man in his natural state is capable of decisions that lead him toward righteousness. He believes that philosophy can improve the condition of the soul. Melanchthon and Luther teach that the will of the natural man is “bound” to do evil, and that righteousness comes only by God’s grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Erasmus admired Melanchthon’s scholarship and literary skills, but not the substance of his teaching.
In 1524 Luther and Erasmus clashed openly over the doctrine of the human will. Erasmus taught that the will is able to make proper moral decisions even in its natural state; Luther stressed depravity and the inability of the natural will to decide anything good. Meanwhile, Melanchthon feared that the rift would separate not only Erasmus from Luther, but all contemporary humanists from reformers. He sought to mediate between the two for a while in the hopes that humanism might be kept in the service of the Reformation, but in the end he had to state that he sided with Luther. Melanchthon had adopted Luther’s distinction between Law and Gospel, as well as his starting point in the total depravity of mankind. However, he was not unaffected by Erasmus’ teaching on predestination and the freedom of the will, and in the end he assumed an intermediate position.
Melanchthon’s teaching on human will became known later as the “synergist” position. This term derives from the word “working together” in 2 Corinthians 6:11, where we read: “Working together with Him, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.” Melanchthon believed that the will of the human was not inactive or totally passive in the process of regeneration. In the 1521 edition of the Loci Communes he had written that mankind possesses free will only in “external matters” – what one wears, what food one chooses to eat. Regarding the inner matters of the heart, however, we possess no virtuous free will that is capable of meriting righteousness. But by 1537, Melanchthon emphasizes the responsibility of the believer “to work out his own salvation” (Philippians 2:12). Accordingly, he writes in a series of theses on the topic:
Our will cannot succeed without the Holy Spirit, but when it arises and supports itself by the Gospel, it does so by the aid of the Holy Spirit. I do not approve of the Manicheans, who attribute no activity to the human will, not even when assisted by the Holy Spirit. (CR 12.481)
In a similar vein, he writes in the 1540 (“variata”) edition of the Augsburg Confession:
Man’s will has no power without the Holy Spirit to work spiritual righteousness... Spiritual righteousness is wrought in us when we are helped by the Holy Spirit. And we receive the Holy Spirit when we assent to the word of God.5
He did not speak of co-operation as a Pelagian would, but he did ascribe to the human will an active role in the regenerating work of God the Spirit.
One way to explain this development in Melanchthon’s thought is to state that whereas Luther emphasized the total depravity of the unconverted, Melanchthon alerted believers to their responsibility as regenerated creatures. The basis for this emphasis was a conviction that the power of the Spirit to make a new creation of the elect should not be underestimated. Furthermore, Melanchthon had observed in his visitations that many who claimed to be reformed were not in fact reforming their lives. The “Zwickau affair” showed him how easily society can become normless when bolstered by a fervent but insubstantial teaching that does not promote individual duty. Melanchthon stressed that believers must show true repentance in their conduct and speech, since all will be judged according to their works. The regenerate man has a responsibility to act morally.6 When seen in this light, Melanchthon’s thought on the human will may, like some of his other convictions, be interpreted as an attempt to temper Luther’s more radical position. E.P. Meijering concludes that Melanchthon never did abandon the Reformed teaching on the depravity of fallen humanity. 7
Melanchthon and Luther
When Frederick “the Wise” appointed Melanchthon professor of Greek at Wittenberg University in 1518, Martin Luther was not impressed. He had hoped the Elector would give the chair to Peter Mosellanus of Leipzig. By the time Melanchthon uttered the last words of his inaugural lecture, however, he had dispelled any qualms Luther might have harboured. Melanchthon’s rejection of medieval scholasticism, his promotion of the classical languages and return to the Bible were convictions Luther applauded. While significant differences later developed between the two reformers, Luther and Melanchthon always remained close friends.
Melanchthon was the only humanist with whom Luther came to terms and whom he tolerated. We may even go so far as to say that he entered into an alliance with him.8
Differences between Luther and Melanchthon are grounded especially in the careers of their youth and in their characters. Luther was a monk who by a personal, even troubled experience was led to discover justification by faith alone. Melanchthon was a cultured humanist who by learning came to the source of the Christian belief. Both ended up at the Bible. Luther was capable of crude manners and expressions; Melanchthon was courteous and civil. Luther was steadfast and unflinching; Melanchthon occasionally affected by doubt and lack of confidence. Luther’s writing style was graphic and expressive; Melanchthon’s precise and accurate. Luther, knowing the effects of sin in life, trusted solely in the mercy and providence of God; Melanchthon worried for his own responsibility in the reform of the church. And while Luther wished merely to return the church to its true worship, Melanchthon wanted to develop a universal system of knowledge. From these antitheses it is clear that Melanchthon was Luther’s fellow worker, not his follower.
Divergences over the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper almost drove Melanchthon away from Wittenberg, and it is testimony to Luther’s and Melanchthon’s commitment to the Reformation that their friendship was not broken. At issue was the “local inclusion” or physical presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the elements. According to Luther this tenet was supported by the text “this is my body” (1 Corinthians 11:24). Melanchthon had presented Luther’s position – later referred to as “consubstantiation” – in his discussions with Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy of 1529, but it was clearly a teaching he himself could not advance. There are two basic reasons why Melanchthon did not agree with Luther:
other biblical texts supporting Luther’s position are not convincing;
the church of the apostolic and patristic eras allowed for a figurative explanation of 1 Corinthians 11:24.
Melanchthon moved towards a Calvinistic position especially through the influence of his fellow student, Oecolampadius, and Martin Bucer. In the 1535 edition of the Loci Communes he abandons Luther’s position openly, stating that the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the elements of the Supper is real, but not physical. Calvin was pleased that Melanchthon accepted a more “spiritualist” understanding of the real presence, but he was somewhat annoyed that Melanchthon had been so slow in revealing his true colours. However, there were good grounds for Melanchthon’s caution, as later developments show. For the Gnesio-Lutherans would perceive Melanchthon’s shift as a serious challenge against Luther’s teaching. It was at the cost of much abuse from radical Lutherans that Melanchthon made the shift from the view of “local inclusion” of the sacrament.
Later followers of Luther branded Melanchthon a traitor to the Reformation also in the matter of relations with Rome and the pope. And here, too, understanding of Melanchthon’s role evokes some sympathy. Together with the other reformers, but more so, Melanchthon had hoped that reform would not necessitate departure from the Romanist church. This desire to accommodate the pope is most evidenced in Melanchthon’s negotiations at the diet of Augsburg (1530). One view of Melanchthon’s behaviour at Augsburg is that while Luther was prevented from attending by the imperial ban, Melanchthon nearly bartered away key tenets of the Reformed faith for the sake of coming to an agreement with Rome.9 Also when he subscribed to the Smalcald Articles in 1537, Melanchthon revealed a readiness to allow the pope to maintain his authority over the bishops “for the sake of peace and general concord among Christians.” It is for this reason that the motto of the 1997 commemorations of Melanchthon’s birth in Germany is “Melanchthon: Born for Dialogue.”
The difference in attitude to Rome between Luther and Melanchthon may be ascribed in part to the latter’s confidence in human reason. Luther rejected outright any confidence in the understanding of “learned men;” he placed all his trust in the providence of God. When Luther, confident in the faith, would have stopped the dialogue with the Romanists, Melanchthon, relying upon reason, continued it. A letter from the absent Luther to Melanchthon at Augsburg illustrates the difference:
It is not in our power to place or tolerate anything in God’s church or in His service which cannot be defended by the Word of God, and I am vexed not a little by this talk of compromise, which is a scandal to God. With this one word ‘mediation’ I could easily make all the laws and ordinances of God matters of compromise.10
On the basis of this and similar evidence, assessments of Melanchthon’s behaviour at Augsburg have not been favourable. His view of emperor Charles V was much too idealistic, and his hopes for reconciliation with Rome were unrealistic. But it is also characteristic of Melanchthon that, after the negotiations had broken down, he published the so-called Apology to the Augsburg Confession, a document that once again strongly defends the Reformed position and harshly attacks the Romanists.
Melanchthon and Calvin
Relations between Melanchthon and Calvin were marked by a deep mutual respect. Also trained as a humanist, the younger Calvin appreciated Melanchthon’s rejection of medieval scholasticism and speculative theology. Calvin’s first scholarly work, a commentary on a work by the philosopher Seneca, had earned him a place in the company of the finest academics such as Melanchthon, and revealed his interest in the relationship between faith and intellectual culture. Melanchthon’s precise formulations and exact definitions appealed to Calvin. And Melanchthon’s conduct in international affairs had earned him respect in France, where his eloquent expression of the faith was more appreciated than that of Luther. It is not surprising, therefore, that scholars have found considerable evidence of Melanchthon’s influence upon Calvin.
The most significant influence of Melanchthon upon Calvin concerns the Institutes. It has been shown that especially the first edition of Calvin’s work was indebted to Melanchthon’s Loci Communes.11
The chapters dealing with the Law contain ideas and expressions similar to Melanchthon’s, and Calvin’s concept of the three-fold use of the ten commandments appears to be a specific instance of such influence. However, in many cases Calvin refines Melanchthon’s already nuanced ideas. Especially on the doctrine of the natural will, Calvin advances beyond his colleague. For, as D. Steinmetz shows, while Melanchthon posits that man has a limited knowledge of God and His justice, Calvin – closer to Luther than to Erasmus – responds by noting that mankind is so utterly blind by nature that it cannot perceive the existence and justice of God that is indeed revealed in nature.12
Such developments in doctrine attest to the benefit Calvin received from the theological deliberations of his older contemporaries, and especially Melanchthon.
Calvin admired Melanchthon’s ability to formulate the reformed faith; he did not, however, appreciate Melanchthon’s apparent vacillations at the important theological and political diets. Although evidence suggests that Calvin signed the Augsburg Confession of 1540, he was not very satisfied with it.13In a letter to Farel in 1541 he writes:
Philipp and Bucer have composed ambiguous and insincere formulas concerning transubstantiation, so as to try to satisfy the opposing party by giving nothing. I could not agree with this method... (CR 39.217)
While Melanchthon wished to leave the issue of the “local inclusion” an open question for the time being, Calvin thought that open treatment of this doctrine should not be suppressed for the sake of political gains.
Calvin appreciated Melanchthon’s intellectual tolerance, but he felt at times that too much was granted by him for the sake of conciliation. In a lengthy letter to Melanchthon in 1550 he writes that he cannot exonerate Melanchthon for yielding so much to the papists:
You should not have made so many concessions to the papists; for you have loosed those things the Lord has bound up in His Word, and you have granted them the opportunity to bring shame upon the Gospel.(CR 41.594)
In this matter of relations with Rome, Calvin thought, Melanchthon had overstepped the boundary between doctrines “concerning which there could be no dispute” and those over which difference of opinion should be tolerated. Yet he did share with Melanchthon the desire to aim for unity wherever doctrinal harmony warranted it.
Melanchthon’s role in mediating the Reformation was considerable. Sensitive to the doctrinal and political differences among the diverse parties of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, he promoted open communication. At times this approach was admired: Luther stated that he “cannot tread so softly and gently as Philipp can.” At other times Melanchthon’s conciliatory approach was reckoned as compromise. Yet his expressions of the reformed faith in several key confessions was appreciated by his contemporaries, and his moderating influence was admired by all non-radical reformers. The refinement Melanchthon brought to the key doctrines of the natural will and the Lord’s Supper served to advance the understanding of Scripture and its teachings. The gratitude of the reformers for Melanchthon’s role may be summed up by the following description by Luther:
I am here in order to do battle with the sectarians and the devil; this is why my books are very aggressive and argumentative. I must uproot stumps and tree-trunks; cut down thorns and thickets, and fill in water-pools. I am the rough woodsman who must build a road and keep it open. But Master Philipp moves about quietly and in an orderly fashion; he builds and plants, sows and waters according to the great gifts which God has given him so amply. 14