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Philip Melanchthon (1)

The only uncontested statements about the life of Philip Melanchthon (also Melancthon) are those of his dates and places.  As soon as one steps beyond the limits of his birthdate and dwelling places, he steps into an arena of bitter dispute.  Many condemn Philip so vehemently as to be unable to say any good of him; many laud the theologian so fervently as to be blind to any defects.  The only other point on which all are agreed is that which ascribes to Melanchthon a gigantic role in the Reformation, one which approximates or equals the role of Luther.

Basis for the dissension among estimators of Melanchthon is to be found precisely in the man himself.  He was a paradoxical, in fact, a contradictory person.  On every fundamental issue, he either changed his view, uttered contradictory remarks, or differed in declaration and deed.  This need not prove him to have been a sniveling and hypocritical sycophant.  Of the many charges levelled against him, seldom if ever has he been accused of courting the favor of those who were in a position to advance his own personal cause.  The character of the man combined with his awareness of conflicting considerations to produce a life of ambiguity.  As soon as we have surveyed the pertinent facts of his life and death, it may be well to compare some estimations of Melanchthon, in the light of which our own judgment must be made.

The child who was to be the second greatest figure in the Lutheran Reformation was born in Bretten on February 16, 1497.  His original name was Philip Schwarzerd, literally, Philip Black Earth.  One indication of the influence which his great uncle, the famed humanist Reuchlin, had upon him is Philip’s quick change of the name into the Greek equivalent, Melanchthon.  A precocious lad, he obtained a master’s degree in the arts in 1513.  By that time, he either was schooled or schooled himself in philosophy, rhetoric, astronomy, Greek, grammar, dialectic, ancient poets and historians, jurisprudence, mathematics and medicine.  He entered Pforzheim in 1507, the University of Heidelberg in 1509, and Tubingen in 1512.  After 1516, Philip concentrated upon theological study.  From Tubingen, he was called to Wittenberg as Greek professor.  This position he took up in 1518.  This date also marks the meeting of the two who headed one of the greatest movements in the history of the Church, Luther and Melanchthon.  Of their relationship there are opposite opinions.  Rev. Herman Hoeksema, who takes an extremely dim view of Melanchthon in general, maintains that Luther stood under Philip’s influence.1 The historian, Philip Schaff, who generally regards Melanchthon very highly, states that Philip Melanchthon was “carried away and controlled (sometimes against his better judgment) by the fiery genius of the Protestant Elijah.”2  There can be little doubt but that the dominating figure was the “fiery Elijah,” Luther.  That Luther was cajoled by Philip into weak positions on predestination, as is Rev. Hoeksema’s contention, is highly probable, however.

Overwhelmed by the enormity of the movement which centered in Wittenberg, Melanchthon flung himself and his valuable talents into the Reformation.  Whatever of his humanistic youth he retained, the naturally irenic scholar never again experienced the easy and peaceful life of the typical humanist.  With a passion scarcely equaled by any of his contemporaries, with the exception of John Calvin, Philip labored with body and mind, with mouth and pen in the cause of the Reformation.  He was attacked and vilified by Catholic and Lutheran.  At times, his life was imperiled and he was forced to flee. So intense was Philip in his studying that Luther once roared at him to cease or be excommunicated.  The entire burden of composing confessional statements and conducting “negotiations” with the Catholics and the Zwinglians fell upon Melanchthon.  The unanimous verdict upon this tireless and reproach-racked labor was that it was done out of sincere concern for the cause of God’s Church.  Maurice, Elector of Saxony, remarked that “he had never seen nor experienced anything like Melanchthon’s conduct, who was not only too disinterested to ask for anything but would not even accept it when offered.”3 And Luther, whose inaction in the confrontation with the Catholics was due to his odiousness in Catholic eyes, heaped praise upon his close friend, “He (Melanchthon) is doing more than all the rest.  He is the Atlas who sustains heaven and earth.”4

Already at the Leipzig debate, Melanchthon made his presence felt.  With typical modesty, he called himself an idle spectator to the conflict between the Catholic, Eek, and Martin Luther.  But he supplied Luther with so many arguments both before and during the speeches that the irritated Eck cried out, “Tace tu Philippe, ac tua studia cura, nec me perturba (Keep silence, Philip, mind your own studies and don’t disturb me).”5  Melanchthon was always less than fond of Eck and subjected him to rare but cutting animadversion, “no pious person could listen without disgust to the sophisms and vain subtleties of that talking mountebank.”6  Between the Leipzig debate and Philip’s death in 1560, Philip lectured to an many as 1500 students at a time, wrote theological treatises and confessions, headed Lutheran delegations at frequent colloquies, and attempted to live some kind of family life with Katharine Krapp, whom he married on November 25, 1520.  One area into which he stoutly refused to enter was the ministry.  He remained a layman until his death, although Luther urged him repeatedly to take up preaching.

After the death of Luther, Philip became the disputed head of the Reformation movement.  He was the natural choice but his acceptance of the Romish stipulations contained in the Leipzig Interim, the “adiaphora,” alienated a large segment of the Lutheran party.  Under the leadership of Flacius, the Gnesiolutherans (the “real Lutherans”) separated themselves from the “Philippists,” who aligned themselves with Melanchthon.  The discord existent between these two factions was the cause of Philip’s greatest misery.  He died on April 19, 1560 at Wittenberg and was buried next to Luther in the Schlosskirche.  His deathbed confession was firm, hopeful and strikingly typical, “Thou shalt be delivered from sins, and be freed from the acrimony and fury of the theologians, (rabies theologorum).  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.”7

To subject a person of such great influence as Melanchthon to critique demands that the sentimental not be allowed to color the correct evaluation of his teachings.  The nicest and the sincerest person may promulgate the most pestiferous heresy.  The child of God of every age has the calling to try the spirits, even if the spirits are angels.  An understanding of why Melanchthon thought and acted as he did can never replace, nor may it, a cold, hard look at what he believed and did.  And the final judgment upon the man is God’s to make.  Yet, at the end of this brief sketch of Melanchthon’s life, more details of which will come later, it is appropriate to quote the beautiful and stirring response of Calvin to the death of his friend and co-worker:  “O Philip Melanchthon! I appeal to thee who now livest with Christ in the bosom of God…I have a thousand times wished that it had been granted to us to live together; for certainly thou wouldst thus have had more courage for the inevitable contest, and been stronger to despise envy, and to count as nothing all accusations.  In this manner, also, the malice of many would have been restrained who, from thy gentleness which they call weakness gathered audacity for their attack.”8

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  1. Hoeksema, Rev. H., Soteriology notes, p. 3.
  2. Schaff, P., History of the Christian Church, 1910, Vol. VII. p. 192.
  3. Quoted by Francis Cox, The Life of Philip Melanchthon, p. 114.
  4. Manschreck, C. L., Melanchthon: The Quiet Reformer, p. 273
  5. Cox, op. cit., p. 99.
  6. Schaff, op. cit., Vol. VIII, p. 382
  7. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. VII. p. 282.
  8. Calvin, Opera IX 461, quoted by Schaff, op. cit., Vol. VIII. p. 398