1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Melanchthon, Philipp

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

MELANCHTHON, PHILIPP (1497-1560), German theologian and reformer, was born at Bretten in Baden on the 16th of February 1497. His father, George Schwartzerd, was an armourer under the Palatinate princes. His mother, Barbara Reuter, a niece of Johann Reuchlin, was shrewd, thrifty and affectionate.[1] Her father, Johann Reuter, long burgomaster of Bretten, supervised the education of Philipp, who was taught first by Johannes Hungarus and then by Georg Simler at the academy of Pfortzheim. Reuchlin took an interest in him, and, following a contemporary custom, named him Melanchthon (the Greek form of Schwartzerd, black earth). In October 1509 he went to Heidelberg, where he took the B.A. degree, afterwards proceeding M.A. at Tübingen. The only other academic distinction he accepted was the B.D. of Wittenberg (1519). He would never consent to become a “doctor,” because he thought the title carried with it responsibilities to which he felt himself unequal. At Tübingen he lived as student and teacher for six years, until on Reuchlin's advice, the elector of Saxony called him to Wittenberg as professor of Greek in 1518. This appointment marked an epoch in German university education; Wittenberg became the school of the nation; the scholastic methods of instruction were set aside, and in a Discourse on Reforming the Studies of Youth Melanchthon gave proof, not only that he had caught the Renaissance spirit, but that he was fitted to become one of its foremost leaders. He began to lecture on Homer and the Epistle to Titus, and in connexion with the former he announced that, like Solomon, he sought Tyrian brass and gems for the adornment of God's Temple. Luther received a fresh impulse towards the study of Greek, and his translation of the Scriptures, begun as early as 1517, now made rapid progress, Melanchthon helping to collate the Greek versions and revising Luther's translation. Melanchthon felt the spell of Luther's personality and spiritual depth, and seems to have been prepared on his first arrival at Wittenberg to accept the new theology, which as yet existed mainly in subjective form in the person of Luther. To reduce it to an objective system, to exhibit it dialectically, the calmer mind of Melanchthon was requisite.

Melanchthon was first drawn into the arena of the Reformation controversy through the Leipzig Disputation (June 27- July 8, 1519), at which he was present. He had been reproved by Johann Eck for giving aid to Carlstadt (“Tace tu, Philippe, ac tua studia cura nee me perturba”), and he was shortly afterwards himself attacked by the great papal champion. Melanchthon replied in a brief and moderately worded treatise, setting forth Luther's first principle of the supreme authority of Scripture in opposition to the patristic writings on which Eck relied. His marriage in 1520 to Catharine Krapp of Wittenberg gave a domestic centre to the Reformation. In 1521, during Luther's confinement in the Wartburg, Melanchthon was leader of the Reformation cause at the university. He defended the action of Carlstadt, when he dispensed the Eucharist in an “evangelical fashion.”[2]

With the arrival of the Anabaptist enthusiasts of Zwickau, he had a more difficult task, and appears to have been irresolute. Their attacks on infant baptism seemed to him not altogether irrational, and in regard to their claim to personal inspiration he said “Luther alone can decide; on the one hand let us beware of quenching the Spirit of God, and on the other of being led astray by the spirit of Satan.” In the same year, 1521, he published his Loci communes rerum theologicarum, the first systematized presentation of the reformed theology. From 1522 to 1524 he was busy with the translation of the Bible and in publishing commentaries. In 1524 he went for reasons of health into southern Germany and was urged by the papal legate Campegio to renounce the new doctrines. He refused, and maintained his refusal by publishing his Summa doctrinae Lutheri.

After the first Diet of Spires (1526), where a precarious peace was patched up for the reformed faith, Melanchthon was deputed as one of twenty-eight commissioners to visit the reformed states and regulate the constitution of churches, he having just published a famous treatise called the Libellus visitatorius, a directory for the use of the commissioners. At the Marburg conference (1529) between the German and Swiss reformers, Luther was pitted against Oecolampadius and Melanchthon against Zwingli in the discussion regarding the real presence in the sacrament. How far the normally conciliatory spirit of Melanchthon was here biased by Luther's intolerance is evident from the exaggerated accounts of the conference written by the former to the elector of Saxony. He was at this time even more embittered than Luther against the Zwinglians. At the Diet of Augsburg (1530) Melanchthon was the leading representative of the reformation, and it was he who prepared for that diet the seventeen articles of the Evangelical faith, which are known as the “Augsburg Confession.” He held conferences with Roman divines appointed to adjust differences, and afterwards wrote an Apology for the Augsburg Confession. After the Augsburg conference further attempts were made to settle the Reformation controversy by a compromise, and Melanchthon, from his conciliatory spirit and facility of access, appeared to the defenders of the old faith the fittest of the reformers to deal with. His historical instinct led him ever to revert to the original unity of the church, and to regard subsequent errors as excrescences rather than proofs of an essentially anti-Christian system. He was weary of the rabies theologorum, and dreamed that the evangelical leaven, if tolerated, would purify the church's life and doctrine. In 1537, when the Protestant divines signed the Lutheran Articles of Schmalkalden, Melanchthon 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.

The year after Luther's death, when the battle of Mühlberg (1547) had given a seemingly crushing blow to the Protestant cause, an attempt was made to weld together the evangelical and the papal doctrines, which resulted in the compilation by Pflug, Sidonius and Agricola of the Augsburg “Interim.” This was proposed to the two parties in Germany as a provisional ground of agreement till the decision of the Council of Trent. Melanchthon, on being referred to, declared that, though the Interim was inadmissible, yet so far as matters of indifference (adiaphora) were concerned it might be received. Hence arose that “adiaphoristic” controversy in connexion with which he has been misrepresented as holding among matters of indifference such cardinal doctrines as justification by faith, the number of the sacraments, as well as the dominion of the pope, feast-days, and so on. The fact is that Melanchthon sought, not to minimize differences, but to veil them under an intentional obscurity of expression. Thus he allowed the necessity of good works to salvation, but not in the old sense; proposed to allow the seven sacraments, but only as rites which had no inherent efficacy to salvation, and so on. He afterwards retracted his compliance with the adiaphora, and never really swerved from the views set forth in the Loci communes; but he regarded the surrender of more perfect for less perfect forms of truth or of expression as a painful sacrifice rendered to the weakness of erring brethren. Luther, though he had probably uttered in private certain expressions of dissatisfaction with Melanchthon, maintained unbroken friendship with him; but after Luther's death certain smaller men formed a party emphasizing the extremest points of his doctrine.[3] Hence the later years of Melanchthon were occupied with controversies within the Evangelical church, and fruitless conferences with his Romanist adversaries. He died in his sixty-third year, on the 19th of April 1560, and his body was laid beside that of Martin Luther in the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg.

His ready pen, clear thought and elegant style, made him the scribe of the Reformation, most public documents on that side being drawn up by him. He never attained entire independence of Luther, though he gradually modified some of his positions from those of the pure Lutherism with which he set out. His development is chiefly noteworthy in regard to these two leading points — the relation of the evangelium or doctrine of free grace (1) to free will and moral ability, and (2) to the law and poenitentia or the good works connected with repentance. At first Luther's cardinal doctrine of grace appeared to Melanchthon inconsistent with any view of free will; and, following Luther, he renounced Aristotle and philosophy in general, since “philosophers attribute everything to human power, while the sacred writings represent all moral power as lost by the fall.” In the first edition of the Loci (1521) he held, to the length of fatalism, the Augustinian doctrine of irresistible grace, working according to God's immutable decrees, and denied freedom of will in matters civil and religious alike. In the Augsburg Confession (1530), which was largely due to him, freedom is claimed for the will in non-religious matters, and in the Loci of 1533 he calls the denial of freedom Stoicism, and holds that in justification there is a certain causality, though not worthiness, in the recipient, subordinate to the Divine causality. In 1535, combating Laurentius Valla, he did not deny the spiritual incapacity of the will per se, but held that this is strengthened by the word of God, to which it can cleave. The will co-operates with the word and the Holy Spirit. Finally, in 1543, he says that the cause of the difference of final destiny among men lies in the different method of treating grace which is possible to believers as to others. Man may pray for help and reject grace. This he calls free will, as the power of laying hold of grace. Melanchthon's doctrine of the three concurrent causes in conversion, viz. the Holy Spirit, the word, and the human will, suggested the semi-Pelagian position called Synergism, which was held by some of his immediate followers.

In regard to the relation of grace to repentance and good works, Luther was disposed to make faith itself the principle of sanctification. Melanchthon, however, for whom ethics possessed a special interest, laid more stress on the law. He began to do this in 1527 in the Libellus visitatorius, which urges pastors to instruct their people in the necessity of repentance, and to bring the threatenings of the law to bear upon men in order to faith. This brought down upon him the opposition of the Antinomian Johannes Agricola. In the Loci of 1535 Melanchthon sought to put the fact of the co-existence of justification and good works in the believer on a secure basis by declaring the latter necessary to eternal life, though the believer's destiny thereto is already fully guaranteed in his justification. In the Loci of 1543 he did not retain the doctrine of the necessity of good works in order to salvation, and to this he added, in the Leipzig Interim, “that this in no way countenances the error that eternal life is merited by the worthiness of our own works.” Melanchthon was led to lay more and more stress upon the law and moral ideas; but the basis of the relation of faith and good works was never clearly brought out by him, and he at length fell back on his original position, that we have justification and inheritance of bliss in and by Christ alone, and that good works are necessary by reason of immutable Divine command.

Bibliography. — The principal works of Melanchthon, with the bulk of his correspondence, are contained in the Corpus reformatorum (vols. i.-xxviii.; Halle, 1834-1850), edited by Bretschneider and Bindseil, to which must be added Bindseil's Supplementa (Halle, 1874). Melanchthon's earliest and best biographer was his friend Joachim Camerarius (1566), a new annotated edition of which is much needed. The best modern life is that by Georg Ellinger (Berlin, 1902); next is that of Karl Schmidt (Elberfeld, 1861). The celebration in 1897 of the 400th anniversary of Melanchthon's birth produced many short biographies and Festreden, among them works by J. W. Richard (New York and London, 1898); George Wilson (London, 1897); Karl Sell (Halle, 1897); Ferdinand Cohrs (Halle, 1897); Beyschlag and Harnack (1897). Richard Rothe's Festrede (1860) also is good. The most learned of modern Melanchthon scholars was probably Karl Hartfelder, who wrote Philipp Melanchthon als Praeceptor Germaniae (Berlin, 1899); Melanchthoniana paedagogica (Leipzig, 1892), giving in the first named two full bibliographies, one of all works written on Melanchthon, the other of all works written by him (in chronological order). Hartfelder believed that a good deal of unpublished material is still left in German and foreign libraries. Thus three long unknown letters are published in the Quellen und Forschungen of the Königl. Preuss. Inst. Hist. at Rome, vol. ii. Two are to the Cardinal of Augsburg and one to Lazarus von Schwendi. Melanchthon was on his way to the Council of Trent as delegate of the elector of Saxony and the cardinal had offered to meet him at Dillingen. He writes “ingeminating peace,” deploring that the council was not a national synod, which would have been a better means of arriving at the truth.


  1. Her character is evidenced by the familiar proverb —

    Wer mehr will verzehren
    Denn sein Pflug kann erehren,
    Der muss zuletzt verderben
    Und vielleicht am Galgen sterben —

    of which Melanchthon said to his students “Didici hoc a mea matre, vos etiam observate.” (For Melanchthon's Latin version of the saying see Corpus reformatorum, x. 469.)

  2. He read the usual service, but omitted everything that taught a propitiatory sacrifice; he did not elevate the Host, and he gave both the bread and the cup into the hands of every communicant.
  3. It must be admitted, however, that Matthias Flacius saved the Reformation.