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Philip Melanchton

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   October 17, 1990   |  Type: Articles

Many influential leaders of the Reformation are largely forgotten today. One of those – especially neglected by Reformed people – is Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560). Yet if we had asked Martin Luther in the 1520s who he thought would emerge as the great leader of the German Reformation, he would certainly have answered: “Melanchthon.” He once said on theology, “Luther has the content, but not the style. Erasmus has the style, but not the content. Karlstadt has neither the content nor the style. Melanchthon has both the content and the style.”

Luther's praise for Melanchthon is not really surprising. Philip was Luther's colleague and close friend at Wittenberg University. He was brilliant, one of the greatest Greek scholars of his day. In 1521 he produced the first systematic theology of the Reformation, his Loci Communes (Commonplaces).

In many ways the high point of Melanchthon's leadership occurred in 1530. The Emperor Charles V was back in Germany for the first time since he had heard Luther at Worms in 1521. He summoned the Protestant princes to present their faith and to defend it at the Diet of Augsburg. Luther was not permitted by the emperor to be present at the Diet so Melanchthon was selected as the theologian to draw up a summary of the Protestant faith and to advise the princes at Augsburg. The document that Melanchthon wrote is known to history as the Augsburg Confession. This confession first states positively what Protestants believe and then specifies certain abuses in the life of the Roman Catholic Church that they reject. This confession was presented to the emperor in the name of the Protestant princes and continues to be the basic confessional standard of Lutheranism.

The emperor gave the confession to his theologian, John Eck (whom Luther had debated in Leipzig in 1519). Eck wrote a Confutation of the Confession and Melanchthon responded with his Apology for the Confession. Melanchthon's Apology was so highly regarded by Lutherans that it is included along with the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord - the authoritative collection of orthodox Lutheran confessions.

Despite these great accomplishments, doubts began to arise in some Lutheran circles about Philip in the 1530’s There were several reasons for these doubts. First, Philip showed that he was too gentle and diffident to provide that strong leadership that the movement needed. Clyde Manschreck's modern biography underscores that point in its title, Melanchthon, The Quiet Refonner (1958). It was a response to Philip's tentativeness that Luther made one of his most quoted comments. Philip was so worried about which way to act in a certain situation that he was immobilized. Luther impatiently called him to action saying, “Sin boldly.” Luther meant that it was better to do something for God even at the risk of sinning than to do nothing for fear of sin.

A second reason for Philip's loss of influence in some circles was his movement away from theology. Melanchthon continued to write theology, but it was not his prime interest. He returned to his Greek studies and wrote on philosophy, rhetoric and education. His reforming work on the school curriculum earned him the title in history of Praeceptor Gennaniae, the Teacher of Germany.

The third and perhaps most important reason for doubts about Melanchthon arose from his theology. For some he was too gentle in his theological formulations. Two great questions have been raised about Melanchthon's theology: the matter of synergism and the matter of the Lord's Supper.

The debate on synergism arose because of changes in Melanchthon's understanding of conversion. While early in his career he had said that only the Word and the Spirit are the causes of conversion, later he said that the Word, the Spirit and the consenting will of man are the causes of conversion. He always insisted that he was not making the will of man meritorious in the process of conversion. Still his change surely moved him closer to Erasmus and away from the strong monergism of the Reformation.

Melanchthon's position on the Lord's Supper is of special interest to the Reformed. Melanchthon showed willingness to tolerate a wider range of opinions on the Lord's Supper than Luther's strictest followers. After Luther's death and after Calvin became one of the dominant Reformation figures, Calvin and Melanchthon had a rather extensive correspondence on many subjects including the Lord's Supper. Calvin believed that he and Melanchthon really agreed about the Lord's Supper. He repeatedly urged Philip to state his agreements with the Reformed publicly. Calvin believed that Melanchthon's support would greatly advance ecumenical relations between the Reformed and Lutherans.  Philip probably was correct in believing that the only effect of such public statements would be to reduce his influence further with strict Lutherans.

Estimates of Melanchthon vary greatly. Luther never ceased to love and praise him. Philip is buried near Luther in the castle church in Wittenberg, his marker identical in size to Luther's. But in Concordia Seminary's library in St. Louis among the many portraits of Lutheran worthies there is no portrait of Melanchthon. Perhaps Philip was too gentle. But in comparison with Luther (whom Philip called “a violent physician for a violent age”) he encourages us to be careful and temperate as well as faithful.

Originally published in The Outlook, October 1990 by Reformed Fellowship, Inc.  Used with permission.

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