Philipp Melanchthon 1497-1560
Five hundred years ago, on February 16, 1497, Barbara Schwarzerd, daughter of the mayor of Bretten, and her husband George received a baby son. They named him Philipp, in honour of the Elector to whom George was a respected armour-maker. Unfortunately the father died in 1508 after a long illness, and Philipp was placed under the tutelage of Barbara’s uncle, the famous humanist Johann Reuchlin. Encouraging the youth’s studies by promising him an enviable collection of books and manuscripts, Reuchlin was pleased when Philipp excelled at the Latin school in Pforzheim.
In 1509 Philipp enrolled in the University of Heidelberg, where he earned the B.A. degree two years later. Moving to Tübingen, a university known for its “modern way” of education, young Schwarzerd soon distinguished himself as student of Greek and Latin. In the same year Reuchlin bestowed on Philipp the name “Melanchthon,” Greek for “black earth,” a fanciful translation of Schwarzerd. It was not uncommon for those promoting the rebirth of antiquity to alter their names to ancient equivalents: Zacharias Baer became “Ursinus,” and Luther for a time “Eleutherius.” As a student Philipp was particularly interested in the literature of Greece and Rome, the philosophy of Aristotle, and astrology. Each of these humanist subjects shaped the thinking of the later reformer. When he finished formal studies in 1514, Melanchthon worked mainly as a corrector of texts at the press of Thomas Anshelm, and published his first scholarly writings.
In 1518 Melanchthon was appointed professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg, where he gave an inaugural lecture entitled “On the Improvement of Studies.” In it the “little Greek” promoted the reform of the curriculum already under way at Wittenberg by advocating a return to the classics and an understanding of the languages of the Bible. In these early years at Wittenberg Melanchthon published textbooks on Greek grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics – subjects crucial to the reform of higher education and the methods of the Renaissance. In addition to teaching Greek and New Testament, Melanchthon substituted for the professor of Hebrew and lectured on Psalms. Melanchthon was a popular teacher; hundreds of students attended his lectures. In later years one of them was Ursinus, future author of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Endowed with a strong intellect and untiring energy, Melanchthon soon won the admiration of his colleagues. Especially Luther realized Melanchthon’s worth: the knowledge of antiquity and its languages, the high academic standards, and the precise formulation of theological concepts were crucial to Wittenberg’s success. Moreover, Luther appreciated Melanchthon’s moderating influence upon his own forceful leadership. They became collaborators and close friends. Their homes stood on adjacent properties; the pathway between them was well travelled.
One year after his appointment, Melanchthon came to Luther’s aid at the Leipzig debate with the Romanist Johann Eck. Besides arguing over the topics of penance, free will, and sovereign grace, the two clashed over papal authority. Luther made every effort to demonstrate that the Lord Jesus Christ, and not the pope, is the head of the church. Officially an observer, Melanchthon sat near his friend and whispered proof texts and other supporting evidence whenever Luther needed to cite Scripture or the church fathers. Eck, who was losing the debate, became so annoyed that he ordered Melanchthon to be quiet. At Leipzig it had become clear to all that Melanchthon was throwing his lot in with the Reformation. The humanist Reuchlin retracted the offer of his library, and ordered Melanchthon never to contact him again.
On November 26, 1520, a Latin poem posted for the students announced that lectures were cancelled: Melanchthon would marry Katharina Krapp, daughter of the mayor of Wittenberg. Katharina and Philipp received four children. Life in the Melanchthon home was good: the children’s catechism written by Philipp for use in family devotions, the in-house lessons from the gifted teacher, and the hospitality afforded to students and fellow scholars made this a special home. But the family did not always enjoy perfect bliss. The second child, George, died in infancy, while Philipp jr. required extra care. The oldest daughter Anna was not happily married, and Magdalen would later die of grief as her husband, the physician Caspar Peucer, languished in jail for his reformed convictions. Often and for long periods of time Melanchthon was called away from Wittenberg. He attended colloquies, visited churches and schools, and advised political dignitaries. When Katharina died in 1557 Melanchthon was attending the Diet of Worms; he returned many days later.
During Luther’s enforced stay at Wartburg Castle (1521-22) Melanchthon took over the government of the University, also teaching Luther’s courses in theology in addition to his own. At this time he published what is perhaps his most important work, the Loci Communes. Literally meaning “common places,” the first edition of the Loci consisted of a summary of Christian doctrine according to the Biblical texts. Too flatteringly described as the first systematic dogmatics of the Reformed faith, this book sets out in precise language the Reformed teaching on important doctrines such as sin, law, grace, and justification through faith. Using a technique already employed by Erasmus and other humanists, Melanchthon collected the Bible passages that may be used as proof texts for Biblical doctrine. The work was greatly appreciated and enjoyed numerous editions and revisions, eventually becoming a standard textbook for students of theology. It also influenced later Reformed writings, most notably Calvin’s Institutes.
Never desiring leadership of the Reformation in Wittenberg, Melanchthon was unable to control radical reformers during Luther’s absence. The case of the “Zwickau prophets” is revealing. Himself a remarkably superstitious person and perhaps therefore open to the notion of extra-Scriptural revelation, Melanchthon found it difficult to chastise the three men who came from Zwickau claiming to receive direct messages from God. Not needing the Bible, these men considered themselves “prophets” and advocated radical behaviour in light of what they saw as the imminent end of the world. The learned but impressionable Johann Carlstadt was convinced. The radicals became more bold, suggesting that students leave the university altogether. Riots threatened. Melanchthon was at a loss, and wrote to Luther: “the dike has burst, I cannot hold back the waters.” Matters would have deteriorated further if the strong-willed Luther had not come out of hiding to set matters straight.
Luther’s desire for the reform of churches in Germany was put into effect by Melanchthon, an able organiser and advisor. Composing the Church Visitation Articles for the purpose of assisting local congregations in promoting change, Melanchthon toured throughout Thuringia as he inspected the state of affairs. He and Luther were not impressed with what they found. Few clergy knew the basis, nature and means of reformation, and it became clear that improvements would not come easily. The Articles concisely express the basics of the Reformed faith and provide guidelines for their implementation. It is said that they served to spread ecclesiastical change throughout Germany.
Melanchthon was convinced that change was required in the schools as well as churches. To that end he produced a pamphlet on the establishment of Reformed schools and on proper curriculum, and attached it to the Visitation Articles. The constitution for the school at Nuremberg – where Melanchthon’s student and first biographer Camerarius was appointed principal – became the prototype for numerous other institutions. Melanchthon helped to set up no less than 56 institutions of elementary education throughout the land, and is regarded as the founder of the modern public school system in Germany. He also rewrote the constitutions of several universities, including those of Leipzig and Wittenberg. As a consequence of his commitment to Reformed education and higher learning, Melanchthon received the honorific title “Praeceptor Germaniae” – “teacher of Germany.”
Melanchthon’s skill in composition, his knowledge of the Christian faith, and his desire for unity made him the ideal spokesman of the Reformation. He attended numerous political and religious councils, and he is the author of several significant Reformed documents. At the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529, Melanchthon promoted Luther’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper while debating with Huldrych Zwingli. The Zwinglians maintained the “sacramentarian” position which stresses the commemorative function of the supper. With one hopeful eye on the Romanists and their insistence on the sacrificial role of the Eucharist, Melanchthon could not find common ground with Zwingli. Partly responsible for the failure of the colloquy, Melanchthon at least helped to clarify the different positions within the Reformed circle.
As author of the Augsburg Confession of 1530, Melanchthon summarized the Wittenberg position before emperor Charles V. While the Romanists had prejudiced the Diet with a declaration of 404 articles against the reformers, the latter decided that a complete confessional statement was in order. The document would also serve to distinguish the reformers from the Anabaptists and others with whom they were frequently identified. Relying on the earlier Marburg Confession and the Visitation Articles, Melanchthon composed it in the absence of the banned Luther. While Luther applauded the efforts, he criticised Melanchthon for glossing over key points of difference, including the Romanist teachings on purgatory, veneration of saints, and the authority of the pope. Luther rightly was concerned that the irenic and conciliatory Melanchthon would yield too much, but Philipp felt sharply that failure to find concord with Rome might result in open persecution. The document later became part of Lutheran teaching, and it was taken up in the official Book of Concord of 1577.
The revised (“variata”) edition of the Augsburg Confession reveals an important change in Melanchthon’s thinking about the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Influenced by Martin Bucer and increasingly drawn to Calvin’s “spiritualist” interpretation, Melanchthon withdrew from the confession the phrase that the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ are truly present in the bread and wine; instead he wrote that the body and blood of Christ are truly offered with the elements. Similar changes may be found in the later editions of the Loci. Luther himself did not object openly; indeed, he continued to promote Philipp’s theological handbook. But whereas the friendship between Luther and Melanchthon was not broken by this doctrinal difference, such developments would later cause friction between the “original,” so-called “Gnesio-Lutherans,” and Philipp.
Martin Luther died in 1546; in his Funeral Oration, Melanchthon notes that the Lord had taken to Himself a leader in His church. Through him, God had placed His Word on a lampstand, cleansed the church in her worship, and built up the flock. Realizing the loss that came with the death of Luther, Melanchthon assumed control of Wittenberg University and the Reformed cause there. However, neither Melanchthon’s character nor the developments within Protestantism was such that a unified front could be reached or maintained. Moreover, wars and rumours of wars affected the political and theological discussions. As a result, the last years of Melanchthon’s life were often far from pleasant, as he struggled to maintain a middle road between ultra-Lutherans and more moderate Protestant groups.
The inability of the Protestants in Germany, France and Switzerland to co-operate resulted in numerous attacks on Melanchthon and the more flexible reformers. Precisely because he was spokesman for the Reformation and a contributor to its confessions, Melanchthon became the focus of attacks on several issues. Accused by the Gnesio-Lutherans of being too conciliatory towards Romanists, Zwinglians and Calvinists alike, Melanchthon bore with patience the insults of those who could not understand or appreciate the mediating position of the “Philippists.” One of his own students, Flacius Illyricus, became a bitter enemy. Melanchthon’s writings on the doctrines of the human will, the Lord’s supper, and the non-essentials of the faith, were openly attacked. Philipp felt embattled as the union he desired for the German, French and Swiss Protestants became increasingly remote.
Nevertheless, Melanchthon continued to guide the University of Wittenberg, and in the final decade of life contributed in the numerous areas of his expertise. He advised princes and councillors, provided guidance for Reformed churches and schools, and published scholarly works. Among the ecclesiastical documents he penned at this time are the important Saxon Confession for the Council of Trent (1551) and the widely used Examination of Preachers before Ordination. But it became clear to Melanchthon that Lutherans, Zwinglians, and the growing Calvinists – let alone the Romanists – would not join during his lifetime, if ever. Worn out by constant travel, debate, and the tensions of the 1550s, Melanchthon became ill, and died on April 19, 1560. In one of his last, private writings the reformer reflects upon the benefits of entering God’s glory. One of them, he notes to himself, is that “you will be set free from the ragings of theologians.” He was laid to rest beside Luther in the castle church of Wittenberg.