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Lesser-Known Reformers: Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560)

Philip Schwarzerd was born in Baden, Germany, to devout Catholic parents. He was a bright child; already at the tender age of twelve he began university training. He received his bachelor’s degree when he was fourteen and his master’s degree by the time he was seventeen. At the age of twenty-one, he began to teach Greek and Latin in another university that was itself not even twenty years old—the University of Wittenberg. By then he had changed his last name from the German word Schwarzerd, meaning “black earth,” to its Greek equivalent, Melanchthon. 

His Work 

Philip arrived in Wittenberg in 1518, only months after Luther publicly challenged Rome’s view of indulgences. His prior education was God’s way of preparing him for a career that he never imagined: teaching thousands of university students the Greek language and lecturing on books of the Bible. Though Philip never became an ordained preacher, he taught many men how to open up and read the Scriptures from their original languages. 

Although teaching was his main work, Philip helped the Reformation in other ways as well. First, he was a writer. In 1521 he wrote the first Reformational systematic theology, entitled Loci Communes (“Commonplaces”). It was the theological textbook in Germany for over one hundred years. He also wrote some of the confessions of the Lutheran church; much of the Augsburg Confession, for example, is his work. 

Second, he was the spokesman for and defender of the Reformation at many conferences. Sometimes he was Luther’s assistant; other times Luther could not go, so Melanchthon went as the chief spokesman.  

Third, he and Luther visited the churches to see if they were reforming their teaching and practice according to Scripture. They found that many ministers knew little of the doctrines that were rediscovered during the Reformation. Even worse, they knew little of Scripture. So Philip wrote catechisms to help ministers teach and other documents to help ministers grow in their own understanding of the orthodox Christian faith. 

Fourth, he helped reform the educational system in Germany. He wrote Latin and Greek textbooks, developed a plan for lower education, and helped establish schools and universities. 

Finally, he succeeded Luther as the leader of the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, serving as its leader from 1546 until 1560. Not all appreciated his leadership and changing views, however, so eventually two groups of Lutherans formed: the Philippists, who followed Melanchthon, and the Strict Lutherans, who thought they were doing what Luther himself would have wanted. 

His Theology 

Part of the blame for division among Lutherans after Luther’s death is to be laid at Melanchthon’s feet, for in one important respect his theology changed later in life. 

To be clear, for the most part Philip was theologically sound and truly Lutheran. Certainly he was orthodox in the matter of justification by faith alone. In one respect he was closer to the Calvinists than the Lutherans: he did not agree with Luther’s view of the Lord’s supper, that the body and blood of Christ was “in, under, and with” the bread and wine, so that it was physically eaten in some sense. Rather, he viewed the bread and wine as signs of the body and blood of Christ. 

But in other areas he differed from Luther for the worse. The one that concerns us now is his view of God’s grace and man’s working. While Melanchthon still held to justification by faith alone, he taught that in applying the grace of salvation, God and man work together. This view of salvation is called synergism. It teaches that man must will to be saved, and that God works with man’s will in saving him. While synergism is not exactly the semi-Pelagian view of Rome, which teaches that man’s working is part of the reason for God to justify him, it is still a significant doctrinal error.  

His Legacy 

Despite this significant weakness, Melanchthon was a gifted assistant to Luther in his work. Luther would chide Philip to his face when necessary, but always spoke highly of him to others. Luther needed Philip. 

Philip’s weakness reminds us of the danger of compromise and the urgency of having an accurate understanding of theology. Salvation is all of God. We must not compromise the doctrines of sovereign grace in any respect. This is true in determining who is saved; regarding the provision of Christ to save us; and regarding the application of Christ’s benefits.  

Melanchthon is also noteworthy in a third way. Although he moved in Rome’s direction on the matter of grace, and though the Augsburg Confession that he wrote is gentle in opposing Rome’s errors, Rome would have none of him. The mild and gentle Philip gave Rome the occasion to budge a little from her hard and fixed stand on wrong doctrines in an attempt to reclaim some who had left. But she would not. Rome hates the truth and will not tolerate it in any form. Early on in the Reformation era, God used Philip to make that abundantly clear. 

 

Prof. Kuiper is the professor of Church History & New Testament Studies at the Protestant Reformed Theological School and a member of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church.