The Reticent Reformer: Model or Misguide?
In remembering the Reformation of the 16th century, I would like to focus on one of the lesser-known figures of the Reformation, Philip Melanchthon, the close associate of Martin Luther. This year we celebrate the anniversary of his birth. Melanchthon was born on February 16, 1497, thus, five hundred years ago, in Bretton, a little town in the Palatinate. He studied at the universities of Heidelberg and Tübingen, and ended up as a teacher of Greek in Wittenberg in 1518, not long after Luther had begun his duties as professor of Bible, and only a few months after Luther’s much publicized first disputation with the scholastics about indulgences (The 95 Theses, 1517).
Melanchthon is perhaps one of the most misunderstood of reformers, and also one of the more disputed reformers. In the books written about him different adjectives are used to describe him: the quiet reformer, the forgotten reformer, reformer without honour, and so on. It does not help that he spent the greater part of his life beside that colossal figure of the Reformation, Martin Luther. Yet he was a reformer in his own right, and we do well to pay attention to his contribution, too. Of course, we do this with the provision that ultimately the work of Reformation does not rest on men, but rests in the power of God. And we need to thank God for the men that He raised up at this crucial juncture in world history to lead his church from the darkness of superstition to the light of his Word.
I want to develop with you one thesis: Melanchthon was known as the reticent reformer, but his reticence had a rationale: he was concerned about recovering and preserving the unity of Christendom. In order to achieve this end, he favoured only the barest minimum of conflict – that which was necessary to preserve the evangelical doctrine – and promoted unity of understanding and fellowship. One can argue that at times he went too far; at other times, he did not go far enough. We can, however, honour his essential motive, and on the basis of that motive draw lessons from his life for us today.
One of the deepest underlying concerns of Melanchthon’s work was his endeavour for reuniting a divided Christendom. We must remember that he grew up in a world of one church, and for him the goal of one visible church was one that needed to be pursued. He was prepared to go to great lengths to reach it. He was and remained a Lutheran, a compatriot and confidant of the great reformer his whole life long. By 1521, when Luther had emerged as the towering leader of the German Reformation, Melanchthon stood solidly behind him. In this year, he wrote his Loci Communes, in which he set forth the basic truths of the gospel in the form of topics or Loci. Thus in a short time, his mind had become crystal clear concerning the stand of the true gospel. And the focus was practical, as the opening sentence of the work makes clear: “The chief aim of the work is to know Christ and all his benefits.” It is a theme that returns in the Heidelberg Catechism!
Yet from this Lutheran perspective, Melanchthon is continually seeking unity with other believers, and also unity with the church of Rome. Luther was the firebrand of the Reformation; Melanchthon the representative of the soft and irenic spirit. The contrast with Luther was almost too noticeable to be real. We will consider first his dealings with Rome, then the Oberlanders, then the Zwinglians, and finally the Calvinists.
Talks with Rome
From the first, Melanchthon took part in discussions that would pave the way for a reunification with Rome. He was especially active in the conferences held from 1539 to 1541, at Regensburg, Hagenau, Ratisbon, and Worms. It was only in the later 1540s, when he saw this possibility slipping from view, that he began to give up on ever achieving reunification with Rome. But all the way through he was willing to concede much to gain reunification. He said he would recognize the pope if the pope would admit of the evangelical doctrines. He was even prepared to permit the pope to have his claimed authority over other bishops, as long as he would accept justification by faith. 1 When the Emperor brought in the Leipzig Interim of 1548 Melanchthon gave it a rather halfheartedly support, indicating that he was prepared to allow vestments and other rituals as long as the cardinal principle of justification by faith remained unassailed. The Interim allowed justification by faith, but maintained the seven sacraments (including the mass!), the worship of saints and images, and even the external rituals of the Roman church. Calvin, along with many others, considered that Melanchthon and the other German Protestants were going too far at this point. Bucer refused to accept the Interim and was forced to flee. Melanchthon saw it as doing all he could to save the school and the Reformation at Wittenberg.
Melanchthon was also prepared to be less rigid with regard to the role of the will in salvation. In his great battle with Erasmus, Luther stressed the bondage of the will. In fact, so bound was the will that it seemed as if it lost its role completely. Melanchthon, on the other hand, exhibited a new reticence. He insisted that the will (voluntas) is not one of the causes of justification. Yet in the Apology of 1542, the will is listed as one of the causes of salvation, along with the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Melanchthon clearly means: secondary cause, or indirect cause, but he never says so. 2It seems that he wanted to soften the radical stand of Lutheranism as a concession to Rome, and take away some of the one sidedness and sharpness of Luther’s stand against Erasmus, with whom Melanchthon retained a lasting friendship.
One cannot say Melanchthon was entirely wrong; rather he was too cryptic. 3For the will is active in justification, just as it is active in appropriating the promises of the gospel. But that will is in turn acted upon, a point which Melanchthon also repeatedly recognized. At best, his phrasing was ambiguous, and he preferred to leave the details alone. The reticent reformer! Not only was he reaching out to Rome with his approach, he was at the same time reaching out to the humanists who, following Erasmus, found Luther’s position too harsh. Yet there is no indication that Melanchthon abandoned the glorious gospel of salvation by grace alone, or that he explicitly opposed Luther’s stand in De Servo Arbitro (The Bondage of the Will). He preferred the avenue of silence, rather than have all these elements explicitly spelled out.
Given his stand, Melanchthon held a strong position on the point of the cause of the division of the church. Consistently – and rightly – he put the blame for the division on the Roman intransigence, and on their refusal to accept the heart of the gospel: justification by faith.
The next division with which Melanchthon was confronted in his immediate circle was with the Oberlanders, their chief representative being Martin Bucer in Strassburg. These men stemmed from Wittenberg, but began to move in a more Calvinistic direction. When they could not agree with Art. 10 of the Augsburg Confession, as drafted by Melanchthon, that is, the Lutheran standpoint on the Lord’s Supper, they united together to draft the so called Tetrapolitan Confession, a consensus of four cities in which the spiritual presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper was defended. This document was written by Bucer and Capito, and moved close to the Zwinglian position on the Lord’s Supper. 4Melanchthon himself always remained opposed to the Zwinglian standpoint. But to accommodate these Oberlanders, Melanchthon drafted the Wittenberg Concord in 1536 which incorporated a softened position on the Lord’s Supper. Luther was present at the meeting with these Oberlanders, and although he would have preferred stronger language he was prepared to go along with Melanchthon’s creed. Here as well, the problem concerned what was not said, rather than what was said; but a step towards unity was made!
Melanchthon carried his approach further in 1541 when he reworked the relevant article in the Augsburg Confession, which then was called the Variata, the changed Augsburg Confession. Whereas the first edition spoke of Christ’s bodily presence at the holy meal, the second edition simply spoke of Christ’s presence. He also substituted the word “tendered” for “distributed,” and left out the words, “they disapprove of those who teach otherwise,” leaving this formulation: “Of the Supper of the Lord they teach that with the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ are truly tendered to those who eat the Lord’s Supper." 5That was a new formulation which unequivocally promoted a real spiritual presence of Christ at the Supper. The wording was carefully chosen: while not denying the Lutheran view, it made room for a spiritual interpretation acceptable to Calvin.6Interestingly enough, Luther never spoke out against the new formulation, even though he may well have had his personal reservations about it. He repeatedly left matters of teaching and formulation to Melanchthon.
The Followers of Zwingli
Then the Zwinglians! It was perhaps one of the saddest days in the history of the Reformation when at the castle on the mountain top at Marburg in 1529 representatives of various wings of the Reformation were present at the instigation of Philip of Hesse in order to come to unity, and they failed in their attempt. Luther scratched the words “This is my body” (hic est corpus meum) in a wooden table. He absolutely refused to budge on his position, and he held the Zwinglians to be of a different spirit. After having come to agreement on all other points, fourteen in total, the ways parted on this fifteenth point.
Although he found them hard to understand, Melanchthon continued his effort to achieve a union with the Zwinglians. Prodded on by Bucer and Calvin, who urged him to be more vocal about his viewpoint, he continued to exchange ideas with H. Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor in Zurich, in a most cordial way. Melanchthon, however, also did not want to alienate the Lutherans from his position, and so divide them anymore than they already were divided. So he was reticent on exactly how the elements work at the Lord’s Supper, content to stick with his formulations in the Apology and in the Wittenberg Concord. He would only say: Christ is present, and communicates himself in the signs of bread and wine. Bullinger retained his misgivings about this approach, and although he respected Calvin’s position on the matter, he never agreed to sign the Augsburg Confession, since he saw it also as too ambiguous on the Lord’s Supper.
Contact with Calvin
And then the Calvinists! Calvin had made remarkable headway with the Zwinglians when in 1549 they agreed upon the so called Zurich Consensus, a document on the Lord’s Supper which brought together the Oberlanders, the Swiss, and the Calvinists. Calvin was hesitant about some of the language used, and preferred a stronger reference to Christ’s presence, but he could live with the results. Melanchthon also secretly expressed his favourable inclination to the document. Yet he never took the public stand for fear of alienating the stricter Lutherans.
The stricter Lutherans, spurred on by envy because of this consensus, broke out in more violent attacks against the Calvinists. Calvinism was gaining too much influence for them, and they were especially wrangled because of Calvin’s growing influence in Lutheran territory (the Palatinate). They saw Melanchthon as far too agreeable to Calvinist influences. Melanchthon, however, stayed in the background.
Also when Calvin became entangled in debate with the strict Lutheran Joachim Westphal of Hamburg in 1552, Melanchthon stood in the background. The reticent reformer! How we would have liked him to say more! How Calvin pleaded with him to speak his mind! Even in his public statements, Calvin stated that he was writing also in order to remind the learned and serious men of Germany concerning their duty – obviously having Melanchthon in view. Yet in his letters to Calvin, Melanchthon makes clear that on some points he thinks Calvin is saying too much. For example, he was not prepared to endorse Calvin’s statements on predestination. Here too he would rather leave the matter to God, and simply put forward the truth of Scripture that God chooses us, but that the will is active in the choice. He has greater room for inconsistencies and loose ends than Calvin would have considered appropriate. Brevity and simplicity mark his style. No wonder he was called the Praeceptor Germaniae, the teacher of Germany.
Calvin was especially troubled by Melanchthon’s reticence on the Lord’s Supper. He knew that Melanchthon thought about the Supper in terms very close to his, and he knew that Melanchthon’s support for his view would have great influence in many sections of Lutheranism. He pleaded with Melanchthon: “I would rather die with you a hundred times than to see you live without speaking the truth at this critical juncture.” But there was only silence.
Melanchthon was present at one additional meeting for the purpose of seeking unity among Protestant leaders. This was at Worms in 1557. The French churches sent Farel and Beza, and, while Bullinger retained his characteristic scepticism, the participants agreed to study the Augsburg Confession, and try to reach greater understanding on its statements regarding the Lord’s Supper. Melanchthon presented a short position statement at the assembly, along with one presented by the French delegates, but this statement was not materially different from what the Augsburg Confession stated. The brothers could agree that both the Reformed and Lutheran churches formed the one true church of the Son of God. 7At the conference Melanchthon privately expressed his disagreement with Westphal and the strict Lutherans, but he declined to make a public statement on this matter.
The reticent reformer! And in the last years his silence grew more and more ominous. He wanted to hold the gospel message to the simplest terms. And he became more and more weary of what he called the rabies theologorum, the battles among the theologians. When he was visited in 1558 by a friend and supporter of Calvin’s he again verbalized his criticisms of Westphal. But, said the visitor, he met a Melanchthon who had lost his former jovial spirit. Melanchthon said that he himself was not a theologian but a grammarian, and so he was. He was never ordained, and aside from attending church services in Wittenberg he only led family services himself at his home.
Model or Misguide?
We see in Melanchthon a fine line drawn. He never would have explicitly compromised on basic evangelical doctrines like justification by faith. Works were for him, a fruit of faith, not a cause of it, born out of faith, not love. But the work of faith itself was something about which he remained consciously ambiguous. He did not mind a margin of ambiguity if people could live with it. It turned out to be impossible, and even in his own lifetime he was faced with so many disappointments that he saw many of his efforts shipwrecked on the reef of human obstinacy and fear. Too often he had chosen the way of covering the issues rather than dealing openly with them. Precisely this choice brought more problems than it solved, and he lived to see Lutheranism breaking up into many warring factions. He could have spoken out more than he did! Had he spoken out, the course of the history of the Reformation would probably have been different. That is all hindsight. Some aspects of his standpoint should have been spelled out more. He should have shown his colours. But he never became angry or belligerent, and even with the Zwinglians, especially in comparison to Luther, his tone remained moderate and conciliatory.
The reticent reformer! I raised the question at the beginning: model or misguide? My guess is that of all the reformers Melanchthon is one of the hardest to judge. Being Calvinists, we cannot but wish that he had moved more consciously to Calvin’s position, also on the matter of predestination. Was he at bottom one who wanted to compromise the truth of the gospel? Was he a Solomon in the house of David?
We cannot and should not make a definitive or black and white choice here. In fact, we must judge Melanchthon very carefully. While we would have wanted more from him, he remains with Luther a path breaker, a vanguard. We should not forget that Melanchthon was, perhaps more than his contemporaries, a very medieval man. He retained his beliefs in astrology up to the end of his life, and he saw bad omens everywhere. He was a man of the first hour, and so he must be judged and understood. While he added the rest and quietness necessary to steer the Reformation in a solid direction, he nevertheless lacked the depth and precision and fortitude to strengthen it further. A path breaker is one who opens the way. And being at the vanguard, you will understand that he longed for the return of a united church. It was only the progress of the Reformation itself that made him see this would not happen in his lifetime. So we can only say, he is neither model nor misguide. If anything, he’s both: in some things his is an example from which to learn. We all should cultivate the irenic spirit, and not seek to impose our vision unilaterally on others. There must be a willingness to seek each other out and find in each other in the faith of Christ. On the other hand, where Melanchthon pursued excessive reticence, we have in him no guide. The truth must be spoken and it must sound clearly from the lips of those who are called to maintain it. Otherwise the Reformation principles are doomed to die.
How do we pursue church unity today? The figure of Melanchthon, along with all the other reformers as well, tells us that we at the least must be active in promoting it. To let sleeping dogs lie is not an option! Whether full understanding can be gained is another matter. But the pursuit of the goal should involve us all. We should not rest content in a superficial denominationalism which sweeps all the differences under the carpet, or pretends that they do not exist.
On the other hand, there are limitations to keep in mind. If there are extra-confessional distinctives as a part of our ecclesiastical baggage, things we have picked up from our tradition, but which are matters of tradition and not Scripture or confession, those are matters about which we may enjoin individual freedom, or personal preference. There is room for moderation! There is room for a divinely inspired reticence, that is, that Christians do not bind each other over and above Scripture.
It’s a hard and challenging road to follow. But the reformers, including Melanchthon, were the leaders in this regard. They at least dared to walk it. Anyone who upholds the principles of the Reformation today will also give this cause his best effort. Let us pray for it and work for it, looking forward to the day when we will also meet the workers of the first hour in heavenly glory.