Philipp Melanchthon

From New World Encyclopedia

Portrait of Philipp Melanchthon, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Oil on panel.

Philipp Melanchthon (born Philipp Schwartzerd) (February 16, 1497 - April 19, 1560) was a German professor and theologian, a key leader of the Lutheran Reformation, and a friend and associate of Martin Luther. Melanthon is credited with systematizing Luther's thoughts and was the chief drafter of the Augsburg Confession, which set out the doctrines of what became known as the Lutheran Church, although Luther personally disliked this term. Less inspirational than Luther, whose hymns represented a more popular expression of Protestant Christianity, Melanchthon was of the two the more irenical and conciliatory. He preferred to see errors that had crept into Christian practice, at least in Protestant opinion, as evidence of laxity rather than as "proofs of an essentially anti-Christian system."[1] His instinct was for unity, not division. He regarded the Protestant church as part of the Church Catholic. In 1537, when he signed the Lutheran Articles at Schmalkalden, he "appended to his signature the reservation that he would admit of a pope provided he allowed the gospel and did not claim to rule by divine right," whereas for Luther the Pope was always the Antichrist.[2] Although he was pitted against the Swiss reformers at the Marburg Conference (1529) and in various disputations, he would have preferred to build bridges rather than to burn them. He also defended the Augsburg Confession against Catholic criticism, poiting out where agreement as well as where Protestants departed from Catholic opinion.[3] For some, Melancthon stood in Luther's shadow. However, without a Melancthon standing next to him and often moderating his language, Luther's reformation may not have met with the level of success it enjoyed.

Early life and education

Melanchthon was born sometime in 1497, at Bretten, near Karlsruhe, where his father, Georg Schwarzerd, was armorer to Count Palatine Philip.

In 1507, he was sent to the Latin school at Pforzheim, the rector of which, Georg Simler of Wimpfen, introduced him to the study of the Latin and Greek poets and of the philosophy of Aristotle. But he was chiefly influenced by his great-uncle, Johann Reuchlin, the great representative of humanism, who advised him to change his family name, Schwarzerd (literally Black-earth), into the Greek equivalent Melanchthon.

Not yet thirteen years old, he entered the University of Heidelberg in 1509, where he studied philosophy, rhetoric, and astronomy/astrology, and was known as a good Greek scholar. Being refused the degree of master in 1512, on account of his youth, he went to Tübingen, where he pursued humanistic and philosophical studies, but devoted himself also to the study of jurisprudence, mathematics, astronomy/astrology, and even of medicine.

When, having completed his philosophical course, he had taken the degree of master in 1516, he began to study theology. Under the influence of men like Reuchlin and Erasmus he became convinced that true Christianity was something quite different from scholastic theology as it was taught at the university. But at that time he had not yet formed fixed opinions on theology, since later he often called Luther his spiritual father. He became conventor (repetent) in the contubernium and had to instruct younger scholars. He also lectured on oratory, on Virgil and Livy. He was awarded the Bacheolor of Divinity degree in 1519, but never consented to "become a 'doctor'," which suggests that he was modest about his academic achievements. He said that he was not equal to the responsibilities carried by the title.[1]

His first publications were an edition of Terence (1516) and his Greek grammar (1518), but he had written previously the preface to the Epistolae clarorum virorum of Reuchlin (1514).

Professor at Wittenberg

The more strongly he felt the opposition of the scholastic party to the reforms instituted by him at the University of Tübingen, the more willingly he followed a call to Wittenberg as professor of Greek, where he aroused great admiration by his inaugural De corrigendis adolescentiae studiis. He lectured before five to six hundred students, afterward to fifteen hundred. He was highly esteemed by Luther, whose influence brought him to the study of Scripture, especially of Paul, and so to a more living knowledge of the Evangelical doctrine of salvation.

He was present at the disputation of Leipzig (1519) as a spectator, but influenced the discussion by his comments and suggestions, so that he gave Johann Eck an excuse for an attack. In his Defensio contra Johannem Eckium (Wittenberg, 1519) he had already clearly developed the principles of the authority of Scripture and its interpretation.

On account of the interest in theology shown in his lectures on Gospel of Matthew and Epistle to the Romans, together with his investigations into the doctrines of Paul, he was granted the degree of bachelor of theology, and was transferred to the theological faculty. Soon he was bound closer than ever to Wittenberg by his marriage to Katharina Krapp, the mayor's daughter, a marriage contracted at his friends' urgent request, and especially Luther's (November 25, 1520).

Theological disputes

The original 1521 frontispiece of Loci communes rerum theologicarum seu hypotyposes theologicae

In the beginning of 1521, in his Didymi Faventini versus Thomam Placentinum pro M. Luthero oratio (Wittenberg, n.d.), he defended Luther by proving that Luther rejected only papal and ecclesiastical practises which were at variance with Scripture, but not true philosophy and true Christianity. But while Luther was absent at Wartburg Castle, during the disturbances caused by the Zwickau prophets, there appeared for the first time the limitations of Melanchthon's nature, his lack of firmness and his diffidence, and had it not been for the energetic interference of Luther, the prophets might not have been silenced.

The appearance of Melanchthon's Loci communes rerum theologicarum seu hypotyposes theologicae (Wittenberg and Basel, 1521) was of great importance for the confirmation and expansion of the reformatory ideas. In close adherence to Luther, Melanchthon presented the new doctrine of Christianity under the form of a discussion of the "leading thoughts" of the Epistle to the Romans. His purpose was not to give a systematic exposition of Christian faith, but a key to the right understanding of Scripture.

Nevertheless, he continued to lecture on the classics, and, after Luther's return, might have given up his theological work altogether, if it had not been for Luther's urging.

On a journey in 1524 to his native town, he was led to treat with the papal legate Campeggio who tried to draw him from Luther's cause, but without success either at that time or afterward. In his Unterricht der Visitatorn an die Pfarherrn im Kurfürstentum zu Sachssen (1528) Melanchthon by establishing a basis for the reform of doctrines as well as regulations for churches and schools, without any direct attack upon the errors of the Roman Church, presented clearly the Evangelical doctrine of salvation.

In 1529, he accompanied the elector to the Diet of Speyer to represent the Evangelical cause. His hopes of inducing the imperial party to a peaceable recognition of the Reformation were not fulfilled. He later repented of the friendly attitude shown by him toward the Swiss at the diet, calling Zwingli's doctrine of the Lord's Supper "an impious dogma" and confirming Luther in his attitude of non-acceptance.

Augsburg confession

Melancthon in 1526. An engraving by Albrecht Dürer.

Although based on the Marburg and Schwabach articles of Luther, the Augsburg confession, which was laid before the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, was mainly the work of Melanchthon. It is true, Luther did not conceal the fact that the irenical attitude of the confession was not what he had wished, but neither he nor Melanchthon was conscious of any difference in doctrine, and so the most important Protestant symbol is a monument of the harmony of the two Reformers on Gospel teachings. Some would say that at the diet Melanchthon did not show that dignified and firm attitude which faith in the truth and the justice of his cause could have inspired in him, perhaps because he had not sought the part of a political leader, as he may have lacked the necessary knowledge of human nature, as well as energy and decision. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, likewise the work of Melanchthon, was also a clear exposition of the disputed doctrines, drawn immediately from experience and Scripture.

Now in comparative quiet, Melanchthon could devote himself to his academical and literary labors. The most important theological work of this period was the Commentarii in Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos (Wittenberg, 1532), a noteworthy book, as it for the first time established the doctrine that "to be justified" means "to be accounted just," while the Apology still placed side by side the two meanings of "to be made just" and "to be accounted just." Melanchthon's increasing fame gave occasion for several honorable calls to Tübingen (Sept., 1534), to France, and to England, but consideration of the elector induced him to refuse them.

Discussions on Lord's Supper and Justification

He took an important part in the discussions concerning the Lord's Supper which began at the Marburg conference of 1529 between the German and Swiss reformers. He approved fully of the Wittenberg Concord sent by Bucer to Wittenberg, and at the instigation of the Landgrave of Hesse discussed the question with Bucer in Cassel, at the end of 1534. He eagerly labored for an agreement, for his patristic studies and the Dialogue (1530) of Œcolampadius had made him doubt the correctness of Luther's doctrine. Moreover, after the death of Zwingli and the change of the political situation his earlier scruples in regard to a union lost their weight. Bucer did not go so far as to believe with Luther that the true body of Christ in the Lord's Supper is bitten by the teeth, but admitted the offering of the body and blood in the symbols of bread and wine. Melanchthon discussed Bucer's views with the most prominent adherents of Luther; but Luther himself would not agree to a mere veiling of the dispute. Melanchthon's relation to Luther was not disturbed by his work as a mediator, although Luther for a time suspected that Melanchthon was "almost of the opinion of Zwingli;" nevertheless he desired to "share his heart with him."

During his sojourn in Tubingen in 1536, Melanchthon was severely attacked by Cordatus, a preacher in Niemeck, because he had taught that works are necessary for salvation. In the second edition of his Loci (1535) he abandoned his earlier strict doctrine of determinism which went even beyond that of Augustine, and in its place taught more clearly his so-called Synergism. He repulsed the attack of Cordatus in a letter to Luther and his other colleagues by stating that he had never departed from their common teachings on this subject, and in the antinomian controversy of 1537, Melanchthon was in harmony with Luther.

Relations with Luther

House of Melanchton in Wittenberg

The personal relation of the two great Reformers had to stand many a test in those years, for Amsdorf and others tried to stir up Luther against Melanchthon so that his stay at Wittenberg seemed to Melanchthon at times almost unbearable, and he compared himself to "Prometheus chained to the Caucasus." About this time occurred the notorious case of the second marriage of Philip of Hesse. Melanchthon, who, as well as Luther, regarded this as an exceptional case was present at the marriage, but urged Philip to keep the matter a secret. The publication of the fact so affected Melanchthon, then at Weimar, that he became exceedingly ill.

In October 1540, Melanchthon took an important part in the religious colloquy of Worms, where he defended clearly and firmly the doctrines of the Augsburg Confession. It is to be noted that Melanchthon used as a basis of the discussion an edition of the Augsburg Confession which had been revised by him (1540), and later was called Variata. Although Eck pointed out the not inessential change of Article X. regarding the Lord's Supper, the Protestants did not then take any offense. The colloquy failed, according to some not because of the obstinacy and irritability of Melanchthon, as others assert, but because of the impossibility of making further concessions to the Roman Catholics. The conference at Regensburg in May 1541, was also fruitless, owing to Melanchthon's firm adherence to the articles on the Church, the sacraments, and auricular confession. Melancthon agreed with Luther that baptism and the Lord's Supper were the only biblical sacraments, regarding the other five as "rites."

His views concerning the Lord's Supper, developed in union with Bucer on the occasion of drawing a draft of reformation for the electorate of Cologne (1543), aroused severe criticism on the part of Luther who wished a clear statement as to "whether the true body and blood were received physically." Luther gave free vent to his displeasure from the pulpit, and Melanchthon expected to be banished from Wittenberg. Further outbreaks of his anger were warded off only by the efforts of Chancellor Bruck and the elector; but from that time Melanchthon had to suffer from the ill-temper of Luther, and was besides afflicted by various domestic troubles. The death of Luther, on February 18, 1546, affected him in the most painful manner, not only because of the common course of their lives and struggles, but also because of the great loss that he believed was suffered by the Protestant Church.

Controversies with Flacius

The last eventful and sorrowful period of his life began with controversies over the Interims and the Adiaphora (1547). It is true, Melanchthon rejected the Augsburg Interim, which the emperor tried to force upon the defeated Protestants; but in the negotiations concerning the so-called Leipzig Interim he made concessions which many feel can in no way be justified, even if one considers his difficult position, opposed as he was to the elector and the emperor.

In agreeing to various Roman usages, Melanchthon started from the opinion that they are adiaphora if nothing is changed in the pure doctrine and the sacraments which Jesus instituted, but he disregarded the position that concessions made under such circumstances have to be regarded as a denial of Evangelical convictions.

Melanchthon himself perceived his faults in the course of time and repented of them, perhaps having to suffer more than was just in the displeasure of his friends and the hatred of his enemies. From now on until his death he was full of trouble and suffering. After Luther's death he became the "theological leader of the German Reformation," not indisputably, however; for the Lutherans with Matthias Flacius at their head accused him and his followers of heresy and apostasy. Melanchthon bore all accusations and calumnies with admirable patience, dignity, and self-control.

Disputes with Osiander and Flacius

In his controversy on justification with Andreas Osiander Melanchthon satisfied all parties. Melanchthon took part also in a controversy with Stancari, who held that Christ was one's justification only according to his human nature.

He was also still a strong opponent of the Roman Catholics, for it was by his advice that the elector of Saxony declared himself ready to send deputies to a council to be convened at Trent, but only under the condition that the Protestants should have a share in the discussions, and that the Pope should not be considered as the presiding officer and judge. As it was agreed upon to send a confession to Trent, Melanchthon drew up the Confessio Saxonica which is a repetition of the Augsburg Confession, discussing, however, in greater detail, but with moderation, the points of controversy with Rome. Melanchthon on his way to Trent at Dresden saw the military preparations of Maurice of Saxony, and after proceeding as far as Nuremberg, returned to Wittenberg in March 1552, for Maurice had turned against the emperor. Owing to his act, the condition of the Protestants became more favorable and were still more so at the Peace of Augsburg (1555), but Melanchthon's labors and sufferings increased from that time.

The last years of his life were embittered by the disputes over the Interim and the freshly started controversy on the Lord's Supper. As the statement "good works are necessary for salvation" appeared in the Leipzig Interim, its Lutheran opponents attacked in 1551 Georg Major, the friend and disciple of Melanchthon, so Melanchthon dropped the formula altogether, seeing how easily it could be misunderstood.

But all his caution and reservation did not hinder his opponents from continually working against him, accusing him of synergism and Zwinglianism. At the Colloquy of Worms in 1557 which he attended only reluctantly, the adherents of Flacius and the Saxon theologians tried to avenge themselves by thoroughly humiliating Melanchthon, in agreement with the malicious desire of the Roman Catholics to condemn all heretics, especially those who had departed from the Augsburg Confession, before the beginning of the conference. As this was directed against Melanchthon himself, he protested, so that his opponents left, greatly to the satisfaction of the Roman Catholics who now broke off the colloquy, throwing all blame upon the Protestants. The Reformation in the sixteenth century did not experience a greater insult, as Nitzsch says.

Nevertheless, Melanchthon persevered in his efforts for the peace of the Church, suggesting a synod of the Evangelical party and drawing up for the same purpose the Frankfurt Recess, which he defended later against the attacks of his enemies.

More than anything else the controversies on the Lord's Supper embittered the last years of his life. The renewal of this dispute was due to the victory in the Reformed Church of the Calvinistic doctrine and its influence upon Germany. To its tenets, Melanchthon never gave his assent, nor did he use its characteristic formulas. The personal presence and self-impartation of Christ in the Lord's Supper were especially important for Melanchthon; but he did not definitely state how body and blood are related to this. Although rejecting the physical act of mastication, he nevertheless assumed the real presence of the body of Christ and therefore also a real self-impartation. Melanchthon differed from Calvin also in emphasizing the relation of the Lord's Supper to justification. He continued to engage in face-to-face dialogue with his Catholic critics until the end of his life.


But before these and other theological dissensions were ended, he died; a few days before this event he committed to writing his reasons for not fearing it. On the left were the words, "Thou shalt be delivered from sins, and be freed from the acrimony and fury of theologians"; on the right, "Thou shalt go to the light, see God, look upon his Son, learn those wonderful mysteries which thou hast not been able to understand in this life." The immediate cause of death was a severe cold which he had contracted on a journey to Leipzig in March, 1560, followed by a fever that consumed his strength, weakened by many sufferings.

The only care that occupied him until his last moment was the desolate condition of the Church. He strengthened himself in almost uninterrupted prayer, and in listening to passages of Scripture. Especially significant did the words seem to him, "His own received him not; but as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God." When Caspar Peucer (q.v.), his son in-law, asked him if he wanted anything, he replied, "Nothing but heaven." His body was laid beside Luther's in the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg.

Estimate of his works and character

Melanchthon's importance for the Reformation lay essentially in the fact that he systematized Luther's ideas, defended them in public, and made them the basis of a religious education. These two, by complementing each other, could be said to have harmoniously achieved the results of the Reformation. Melanchthon was impelled by Luther to work for the Reformation; his own inclinations would have kept him a student. Without Luther's influence, Melanchthon would have been "a second Erasmus," although his heart was filled with a deep religious interest in the Reformation. While Luther scattered the sparks among the people, Melanchthon by his humanistic studies won the sympathy of educated people and scholars for the Reformation. Aside Luther's strength of faith, Melanchthon's versatility and calmness, his temperance and love of peace, had a share in the success of the movement.

Denkaml Philipp Melanchthon auf dem Marktplatz der Lutherstadt Wittenberg

Both men had a clear consciousness of their mutual position and the divine necessity of their common calling. Melanchthon wrote in 1520, "I would rather die than be separated from Luther," whom he afterward compared to Elijah, and called "the man full of the Holy Ghost." In spite of the strained relations between them in the last years of Luther's life, Melanchthon exclaimed at Luther's death, "Dead is the horseman and chariot of Israel who ruled the Church in this last age of the world!"

On the other hand, Luther wrote of Melanchthon, in the preface to Melanchthon's Commentary on the Colossians (1529), "I had to fight with rabble and devils, for which reason my books are very warlike. I am the rough pioneer who must break the road; but Master Philipp comes along softly and gently, sows and waters heartily, since God has richly endowed him with gifts." Luther also did justice to Melanchthon's teachings, praising one year before his death in the preface to his own writings Melanchthon's revised Loci above them and calling Melanchthon "a divine instrument which has achieved the very best in the department of theology to the great rage of the devil and his scabby tribe." It is remarkable that Luther, who vehemently attacked men like Erasmus and Bucer, when he thought that truth was at stake, never spoke directly against Melanchthon, and even during his melancholy last years conquered his temper.

The strained relation between these two men never came from external things, such as human rank and fame, much less from other advantages, but always from matters of Church and doctrine, and chiefly from the fundamental difference of their individualities; they repelled and attracted each other "because nature had not formed out of them one man." However, it can not be denied that Luther was the more magnanimous, for however much he was at times dissatisfied with Melanchthon's actions, he never uttered a word against his private character; but Melanchthon, on the other hand, sometimes evinced a lack of confidence in Luther. In a letter to Carlowitz he complained that Luther on account of his polemical nature exercised a personally humiliating pressure upon him. Some would say that any such pressure was more than justified, but that would have been a matter of opinion even then.

His work as reformer

As a Reformer Melanchthon was characterized by moderation, conscientiousness, caution, and love of peace; but these qualities were sometimes said to only be lack of decision, consistence, and courage. Often, however, his actions are shown steming not anxiety for his own safety, but from regard for the welfare of the community, and for the quiet development of the Church.

Melanchthon was not said to lack personal courage; but rather it was said to be less of an aggressive than of a passive nature. When he was reminded how much power and strength Luther drew from his trust in God, he answered, "If I myself do not do my part, I can not expect anything from God in prayer." His nature was seen to be inclined to suffer with faith in God that he would be released from every evil rather than to act valiantly with his aid.

The distinction between Luther and Melanchthon is well brought out in Luther's letters to the latter (June, 1530):

To your great anxiety by which you are made weak, I am a cordial foe; for the cause is not ours. It is your philosophy, and not your theology, which tortures you so—as though you could accomplish anything by your useless anxieties. So far as the public cause is concerned, I am well content and satisfied; for I know that it is right and true, and, what is more, it is the cause of Christ and God himself. For that reason, I am merely a spectator. If we fall, Christ will likewise of Christ and God himself. For that reason, I am merely a spectator. If we fall, Christ will likewise fall; and if he falls, I would rather fall with Christ than stand with the emperor.

Another trait of his character was his love of peace. He had an innate aversion to quarrels and discord; yet, often he was very irritable. His irenical character often led him to adapt himself to the views of others, as may be seen from his correspondence with Erasmus and from his public attitude from the Diet of Augsburg to the Interim. It was said not to be merely a personal desire for peace, but his conservative religious nature, that guided him in his acts of conciliation. He never could forget that his father on his death-bed had besought his family "never to leave the Church." He stood toward the history of the Church in an attitude of piety and reverence that made it much more difficult for him than for Luther to be content with the thought of the impossibility of a reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church. He laid stress upon the authority of the Fathers, not only of Augustine, but also of the Greeks.

His attitude in matters of worship was conservative, and in the Leipsic Interim he was said by Cordatus and Schenk even to be Crypto-Catholic. He never strove for a reconciliation with Roman Catholicism at the price of pure doctrine. He attributed more value to the external appearance and organization of the Church than Luther did, as can be seen from his whole treatment of the "doctrine of the Church." The ideal conception of the Church, which the Reformers opposed to the organization of the Roman Church, which was expressed in his Loci of 1535, lost for him after 1537, its former prominence, when he began to emphasize the conception of the true visible Church as it may be found among the Evangelicals.

The relation of the Church to God he found in the divinely ordered office, the ministry of the Gospel. The universal priesthood was for Melanchthon as for Luther no principle of an ecclesiastical constitution, but a purely religious principle. In accordance with this idea Melanchthon tried to keep the traditional church constitution and government, including the bishops. He did not want, however, a church altogether independent of the State, but rather, in agreement with Luther, he believed it the duty of the secular authorities to protect religion and the Church. He looked upon the consistories as ecclesiastical courts which therefore should be composed of spiritual and secular judges, for to him the official authority of the Church did not lie in a special class of priests, but rather in the whole congregation, to be represented therefore not only by ecclesiastics, but also by laymen. Melanchthon in advocating church union did not overlook differences in doctrine for the sake of common practical tasks.

The older he grew, the less he distinguished between the Gospel as the announcement of the will of God, and right doctrine as the human knowledge of it. Therefore, he took pains to safeguard unity in doctrine by theological formulas of union, but these were made as broad as possible and were restricted to the needs of practical religion.

As a scholar

As a scholar Melanchthon embodied the entire spiritual culture of his age. At the same time he found the simplest, clearest, and most suitable form for his knowledge; therefore his manuals, even if they were not always original, were quickly introduced into schools and kept their place for more than a century.

Knowledge had for him no purpose of its own; it existed only for the service of moral and religious education, and so the teacher of Germany prepared the way for the religious thoughts of the Reformation. He is the father of Christian humanism, which has exerted a lasting influence upon scientific life in Germany.

His works were not always new and original, but they were clear, intelligible, and answered their purpose. His style is natural and plain, better, however, in Latin and Greek than in German. He was not without natural eloquence, although his voice was weak.

As theologian

As a theologian, Melanchthon did not show so much creative ability, but rather a genius for collecting and systematizing the ideas of others, especially of Luther, for the purpose of instruction. He kept to the practical, and cared little for connection of the parts, so his Loci were in the form of isolated paragraphs.

The fundamental difference between Luther and Melanchthon lies not so much in the latter's ethical conception, as in his humanistic mode of thought which formed the basis of his theology and made him ready not only to acknowledge moral and religious truths outside of Christianity, but also to bring Christian truth into closer contact with them, and thus to mediate between Christian revelation and ancient philosophy.

Melanchthon's views differed from Luther's only in some modifications of ideas. Melanchthon looked upon the law as not only the correlate of the Gospel, by which its effect of salvation is prepared, but as the unchangeable order of the spiritual world which has its basis in God himself. He furthermore reduced Luther's much richer view of redemption to that of legal satisfaction. He did not draw from the vein of mysticism running through Luther's theology, but emphasized the ethical and intellectual elements.

After giving up determinism and absolute predestination and ascribing to man a certain moral freedom, he tried to ascertain the share of free will in conversion, naming three causes as concurring in the work of conversion, the Word, the Spirit, and the human will, not passive, but resisting its own weakness. Since 1548 he used the definition of freedom formulated by Erasmus, "the capability of applying oneself to grace." He was certainly right in thinking it impossible to change one's character without surrender of the will; but by correlating the divine and the human will he lost sight of the fundamental religious experience that the desire and realization of good actions is a gift of divine grace.

His definition of faith lacks the mystical depth of Luther. In dividing faith into knowledge, assent, and trust, he made the participation of the heart subsequent to that of the intellect, and so gave rise to the view of the later orthodoxy that the establishment and acceptation of pure doctrine should precede the personal attitude of faith. To his intellectual conception of faith corresponded also his view that the Church also is only the communion of those who adhere to the true belief and that her visible existence depends upon the consent of her unregenerated members to her teachings.

Finally, Melanchthon's doctrine of the Lord's Supper, lacking the profound mysticism of faith by which Luther united the sensual elements and supersensual realities, demanded at least their formal distinction.

The development of Melanchthon's beliefs may be seen from the history of the Loci. In the beginning Melanchthon intended only a development of the leading ideas representing the Evangelical conception of salvation, while the later editions approach more and more the plan of a text-book of dogma. At first he uncompromisingly insisted on the necessity of every event, energetically rejected the philosophy of Aristotle, and had not fully developed his doctrine of the sacraments.

In 1535, he treated for the first time the doctrine of God and that of the Trinity; rejected the doctrine of the necessity of every event and named free will as a concurring cause in conversion. The doctrine of justification received its forensic form and the necessity of good works was emphasized in the interest of moral discipline. The last editions are distinguished from the earlier ones by the prominence given to the theoretical and rational element.

As moralist

In ethics Melanchthon preserved and renewed the tradition of ancient morality and represented the Evangelical conception of life. His books bearing directly on morals were chiefly drawn from the classics, and were influenced not so much by Aristotle as by Cicero. His principal works in this line were Prolegomena to Cicero's De officiis (1525); Enarrationes librorum Ethicorum Aristotelis (1529); Epitome philosophiae moralis (1538); and Ethicae doctrinae elementa (1550).

In his Epitome philosophiae moralis Melanchthon treats first the relation of philosophy to the law of God and the Gospel. Moral philosophy, it is true, does not know anything of the promise of grace as revealed in the Gospel, but it is the development of the natural law implanted by God in the heart of man, and therefore representing a part of the divine law. The revealed law, necessitated because of sin, is distinguished from natural law only by its greater completeness and clearness. The fundamental order of moral life can be grasped also by reason; therefore the development of moral philosophy from natural principles must not be neglected. Melanchthon therefore made no sharp distinction between natural and revealed morals.

His contribution to Christian ethics in the proper sense must be sought in the Augsburg Confession and its Apology as well as in his Loci, where he followed Luther in depicting the Evangelical ideal of life, the free realization of the divine law by a personality blessed in faith and filled with the spirit of God.

As exegete

Melanchthon's formulation of the authority of Scripture became the norm for the following time. The principle of his hermeneutics is expressed in his words: "Every theologian and faithful interpreter of the heavenly doctrine must necessarily be first a grammarian, then a dialectician, and finally a witness." By "grammarian" he meant the philologist in the modern sense who is master of history, archaeology, and ancient geography. As to the method of interpretation, he insisted with great emphasis upon the unity of the sense, upon the literal sense in contrast to the four senses of the scholastics. He further stated that whatever is looked for in the words of Scripture, outside of the literal sense, is only dogmatic or practical application.

His commentaries, however, are not grammatical, but are full of theological and practical matter, confirming the doctrines of the Reformation, and edifying believers. The most important of them are those on Genesis, Proverbs, Daniel, the Psalms, and especially those on the New Testament, on Romans (edited in 1522 against his will by Luther), Colossians (1527), and John (1523). Melanchthon was the constant assistant of Luther in his translation of the Bible, and both the books of the Maccabees in Luther's Bible are ascribed to him. A Latin Bible published in 1529 at Wittenberg is designated as a common work of Melanchthon and Luther.

As historian and preacher

In the sphere of historical theology the influence of Melanchthon may be traced until the seventeenth century, especially in the method of treating church history in connection with political history. His was the first Protestant attempt at a history of dogma, Sententiae veterum aliquot patrum de caena domini (1530) and especially De ecclesia et auctoritate verbi Dei (1539).

Melanchthon exerted a wide influence in the department of homiletics, and has been regarded as the author, in the Protestant Church, of the methodical style of preaching. He himself keeps entirely aloof from all mere dogmatizing or rhetoric in the Annotationes in Evangelia (1544), the Conciones in Evangelium Matthaei (1558), and in his German sermons prepared for George of Anhalt. He never preached from the pulpit; and his Latin sermons (Postilla) were prepared for the Hungarian students at Wittenberg who did not understand German. In this connection may be mentioned also his Catechesis puerilis (1532), a religious manual for younger students, and a German catechism (1549), following closely Luther's arrangement.

From Melanchthon came also the first Protestant work on the method of theological study, so that it may safely be said that by his influence every department of theology was advanced even if he was not always a pioneer.

As professor and philosopher

As a philologist and pedagogue Melanchthon was the spiritual heir of the South German Humanists, of men like Reuchlin, Wimpheling, and Rodolphus Agricola, who represented an ethical conception of the humanities. The liberal arts and a classical education were for him only a means to an ethical and religious end. The ancient classics were for him in the first place the sources of a purer knowledge, but they were also the best means of educating the youth both by their beauty of form and by their ethical content. By his organizing activity in the sphere of educational institutions and by his compilations of Latin and Greek grammars and commentaries, Melanchthon became the founder of the learned schools of Evangelical Germany, a combination of humanistic and Christian ideals. In philosophy also Melanchthon was the teacher of the whole German Protestant world. The influence of his philosophical compendia ended only with the rule of the Leibniz-Wolff school.

He started from scholasticism; but with the contempt of an enthusiastic Humanist he turned away from it and came to Wittenberg with the plan of editing the complete works of Aristotle. Under the dominating religious influence of Luther his interest abated for a time, but in 1519, he edited the "Rhetoric" and in 1520, the "Dialectic."

The relation of philosophy to theology is characterized, according to him, by the distinction between law and Gospel. The former, as a light of nature, is innate; it also contains the elements of the natural knowledge of God which, however, have been obscured and weakened by sin. Therefore, renewed promulgation of the law by revelation became necessary and was furnished in the Decalogue; and all law, including that in the scientific form of philosophy, contains only demands, shadowings; its fulfilment is given only in the Gospel, the object of certainty in theology, by which also the philosophical elements of knowledge—experience, principles of reason, and syllogism—receive only their final confirmation. As the law is a divinely ordered pedagogue that leads to Christ, philosophy, its interpreter, is subject to revealed truth as the principal standard of opinions and life.

Besides Aristotle's "Rhetoric" and "Dialectic" he published De dialecta libri iv (1528) Erotemata dialectices (1547) Liber de anima (1540) Initia doctrinae physicae (1549) Ethicae doctrinae elementa (1550)

Personal appearance and character

There have been preserved original portraits of Melanchthon by three famous painters of his time—by Holbein in various versions, one of them in the Royal Gallery of Hanover, by Albrecht Dürer (made in 1526, meant to convey a spiritual rather than physical likeness and said to be eminently successful in doing so), and by Lucas Cranach.

Melanchthon was dwarfish, misshapen, and physically weak, although he is said to have had a bright and sparkling eye, which kept its color till the day of his death. He was never in perfectly sound health, and managed to perform as much work as he did only by reason of the extraordinary regularity of his habits and his great temperance. He set no great value on money and possessions; his liberality and hospitality were often misused in such a way that his old faithful Swabian servant had sometimes difficulty in managing the household.

His domestic life was happy. He called his home "a little church of God," always found peace there, and showed a tender solicitude for his wife and children. To his great astonishment a French scholar found him rocking the cradle with one hand, and holding a book in the other.

His noble soul showed itself also in his friendship for many of his contemporaries; "there is nothing sweeter nor lovelier than mutual intercourse with friends," he used to say. His most intimate friend was Camerarius, whom he called the half of his soul. His extensive correspondence was for him not only a duty, but a need and an enjoyment. His letters form a valuable commentary on his whole life, as he spoke out his mind in them more unreservedly than he was wont to do in public life. A peculiar example of his sacrificing friendship is furnished by the fact that he wrote speeches and scientific treatises for others, permitting them to use their own signature. But in the kindness of his heart he was said to be ready to serve and assist not only his friends, but everybody.

He was an enemy to jealousy, envy, slander, and sarcasm. His whole nature adapted him especially to the intercourse with scholars and men of higher rank, while it was more difficult for him to deal with the people of lower station. He never allowed himself or others to exceed the bounds of nobility, honesty, and decency. He was very sincere in the judgment of his own person, acknowledging his faults even to opponents like Flacius, and was open to the criticism even of such as stood far below him. In his public career he sought not honor or fame, but earnestly endeavored to serve the Church and the cause of truth.

His humility and modesty had their root in his personal piety. He laid great stress upon prayer, daily meditation on the Word, and attendance of public service. In Melanchthon is found not a great, impressive personality, winning its way by massive strength of resolution and energy, but a noble character hard to study without loving and respecting.


Melanchthon's works, including his correspondence, fill volumes i-xxviii of the Corpus Reformatorum, edited by Bretschneider and Bindseil (Halle, 1832-50). The Wittenberg edition of his works was published in 1562-64. His Loci Communes, edited by Plitt (Erlangen, 1864), was reëdited by Kolde (Erlangen, 1890). In German: his Leben und Wirken, by Matthes Altenburg (1841; second edition,1846); his Leben und Schriften, by C. Schmidt (Elberfeld, 1861). For biography: His Life (in Latin), by his friend Camerarius (Leipzig, 1566), edited by Neander in Vita Quattuor Reformatorum (Berlin, 1846); also Krotel's English translation of the Life by Ledderhose (Philadelphia, 1855). J. W. Richard, Philipp Melanchthon (New York, 1898), is both popular and accurate. Valuable in special points of view are: Galle, Charakteristik Melanchthons (Halle, 1840); Hartfelder, Philipp Melanchthon als Prœceptor Germaniœ (Berlin, 1889); Herrlinger, Die Theologie Melanchthons (Leipzig, 1878). Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, volumes vi, vii (New York, 1890); Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (New York, 1878), contain much valuable biological and theological matter concerning Melanchthon; also, Cambridge Modern History, volume ii (Cambridge, 1904), contains an exhaustive bibliography.

  • This article incorporates text from an edition of the New International Encyclopedia that is in the public domain.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Melancthon, Philip," Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed, 89.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Project Gutenberg, Apology for the Augsburg Confession. Retrieved April 16, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cox, Francis Augustus. The Life Of Philip Melancthon: Comprising An Account Of The Most Important Transactions Of The Reformation. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-1428648210.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Melancthon, Philip." 1911.
  • Kien, O. Melanchthon, Philipp. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1904.
  • Kusukawa, Sachiko. The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: The Case of Philip Melancthon (Ideas in Context). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0521030465.

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.


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