The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Melanchthon, Philipp

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The American Cyclopædia
Melanchthon, Philipp
Edition of 1879. Written by Philip SchaffSee also Philipp Melanchthon on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

MELANCHTHON, Philipp, the second leader of the Lutheran reformation, born at Bretten, in the present grand duchy of Baden, Feb. 16, 1497, died in Wittenberg, April 19, 1560. His family name was Schwarzerd (black earth), but his uncle, the celebrated scholar Reuchlin, translated it into the corresponding Greek Melanchthon. He was educated at the Latin school of Pforzheim, and at the universities of Heidelberg and Tübingen. He was uncommonly precocious, graduated as master of arts in 1514, began to lecture at Tübingen, and published a Greek grammar, an edition of Terence, and projected a new edition of Aristotle's writings, as a means of reviving the true philosophy. He took rank at once among the very first Greek and Latin scholars of the age. In 1516 Erasmus said of him: “My God! what expectations does Philipp Melanchthon excite, who is yet a youth, yea, we may say a mere boy, and has already attained to equal eminence in the Greek and Latin literature. What acumen in demonstration, what purity and elegance of style, what comprehensive reading, what tenderness and refinement of his extraordinary genius!” With his classical studies he combined a careful study of the Bible in the original. This, in connection with the influence of Reuchlin, predisposed him favorably to the great movement of the reformation, which commenced during his residence at Tübingen with the controversy between Luther and Tetzel in 1517. On the recommendation of Reuchlin he was called to the professorship of Greek at the rising university of Wittenberg in 1518, and thus became the colleague of Luther. Although he was subsequently called to other prominent positions in Nuremberg, Tübingen, Heidelberg, and even France and England, he preferred remaining at Wittenberg to the close of his life. He was the most popular teacher of the university, and attracted students from every direction. At first he lectured on classical literature, but in 1519 he graduated as bachelor of divinity, and thenceforward devoted himself mainly to theology. Yet he was never ordained, nor would he ever accept the title D. D., and in a discourse in 1533 uttered a warning against conferring it too frequently. He never ascended the pulpit, although he frequently wrote sermons for others, and delivered in his house practical lectures on the Gospels in Latin, which were taken down by some hearers and published as sermons (Postilla). He was therefore a lay theologian; but as such he wielded a powerful influence in that great ecclesiastical movement which makes the 16th century one of the most important periods in church history. He acted a prominent part in the German reformation, and is inferior only to Luther and Calvin among the reformers. His modesty, gentleness, and peacefulness stand in strange contrast with the furious contest into which he was reluctantly drawn. But, while Luther had to brace up his courage and to arm himself for the conflict, Melanchthon was admirably adapted to moderate the fiery zeal of his colleague, and to aid him with his superior learning. In 1519 he attended the Leipsic disputation, and defended Luther with his pen against Dr. Eck, the champion of the church of Rome. In 1521 he published the Loci Communes, the first system of evangelical Protestant theology, which passed through more than 50 editions during his lifetime, and was used long after his death as a text book in the Lutheran universities. At first it was but a fresh effusion of the vigorous evangelical faith in the Scriptures and the all-sufficient grace of God in Christ; but subsequently it was greatly enlarged and improved, although it never attained the philosophical depth, logical order, and precision of Calvin's “Institutes.” In 1522 and the following years he wrote several commentaries which attracted much attention, but were overshadowed afterward by some of Luther's and especially by Calvin's commentaries. He also lent valuable aid to Luther in the translation of the Bible, which was commenced in 1522 and completed in 1534. In 1529 he accompanied his prince to the diet of Spire, and helped to draw up the famous protest of the evangelical minority against the Catholic majority of the diet, which gave rise to the name Protestants. In the same year he attended the unsuccessful theological conference with the Zwinglians at Marburg. At that time he agreed with Luther's view on the Lord's supper. In 1530 he spent several months at Augsburg during the session of the diet, and wrote his most important official work, the “Augsburg Confession,” which was signed by the Lutheran princes, publicly read before the diet, and became by general consent the principal symbolical book of the Lutheran church. Soon afterward he replied to the “Refutation” of the Catholic divines by the “Apology of the Confession,” a work of great theological merit, and likewise of symbolical authority in the Lutheran church, though it is far less used and quoted than the Confession. Subsequently he made considerable modifications and alterations in the Confession, with the view to improve and to adapt it to the Reformed churches. Hence the difference between the “Altered” Augsburg Confession of 1540 and the “Unaltered” of 1530. The principal change refers to article X. on the Lord's supper, and the omission of all those words which favored the view of the corporeal presence and an oral fruition of the body and blood of Christ by all communicants. The changes were at first passed by or acquiesced in, but subsequently gave rise to violent controversies. In 1536 he endeavored, with Bucer, to bring about a doctrinal compromise between the Lutheran and Zwinglian views on the Lord's supper. In 1537 he signed the “Articles of Smalcald,” drawn up by Luther, but added the singular proviso that he would acknowledge the supreme authority of the pope jure humano, if he would tolerate the freedom of the gospel; i. e., he was willing to become a semi-Catholic, if the pope would become a semi-Protestant. In all the conferences with the Roman Catholics, at Worms (1540), and at Ratisbon (1541), he was the delegate of the Lutheran party. In these conferences, and especially in the adiaphoristic controversy concerning the Augsburg and the Leipsic Interim (1548), he incurred the censure of the more determined Protestants. His motives were always disinterested; yet his timidity, modesty, love of peace, and the hope of an ultimate reconciliation of Catholicism and Protestantism, which he probably cherished to the end of his life, led him to make many concessions, and to agree to compromises which satisfied neither party and were soon broken up. This compromising disposition, and his doctrinal changes on the Lord's supper and other articles, together with various personal causes, disturbed his relations with Luther; yet their friendship was never entirely dissolved. Luther, though often dissatisfied with Melanchthon's timidity and vacillation, never openly took ground against him; and Melanchthon, in his funeral oration on Luther, called him the Protestant Elijah, and lamented his death as a great calamity for the church of Christ. From Luther's decease in 1546 to his own death in 1560 Melanchthon was the acknowledged leader of the German reformation, and was consulted by princes and universities on all important events and measures. In the mean time the Lutheran divines became more and more divided between two schools, the strict old Lutherans, headed by Flacius, Amsdorf, Hessus, and other violent polemics against Roman Catholics as well as Calvinists, and the more moderate, conciliatory, and progressive Melanchthonians, or Philippists, as they were generally called, after the Christian name of their leader. Melanchthon bore the violent abuse of his former friends and pupils with patience and meekness. What he lost in the opinion of the zealots for exclusive Lutheranism he gained in esteem and confidence with the Reformed churches in and out of Germany. He stood in friendly correspondence with Calvin to the last, and was invited to England. In 1551 he set out for the council of Trent as delegate from Saxony, when Maurice suddenly changed the aspect of affairs by his famous military movement against the emperor, and dispersed the council. The peace of Augsburg in 1555 materially improved the political condition of the Lutherans, and secured to them liberty of worship within the empire. In 1557 he attended, at the request of the emperor, the last theological conference with the Roman Catholics at Worms. He was received with great honor, but the conference ended in a complete failure, and the hope of reconciliation utterly vanished. This, in connection with the violent eucharistic or crypto-Calvinistic and other doctrinal controversies in the Protestant party, the unsparing attacks of the strict Lutheran party, and various domestic afflictions, greatly embittered the last years of his life, and broke down his weak physical frame, already exhausted by incessant study and application. Nevertheless he continued to write responsa et vota to the last. A few days before his decease he wrote in Latin the reasons which made death welcome to him, viz.: on the left side, deliverance from sin and from the acrimony and fury of theologians; on the right side, the light of eternity, the vision of God and his Son, and the full knowledge of those wonderful mysteries of faith which we can but imperfectly understand in this life. On a journey to Leipsic in March, 1560, he contracted a cold which proved fatal. His last and greatest care and sorrow was the distracted condition of the church; his last and most fervent prayer was for the unity of believers. When Peucer, his son-in-law, asked him whether he desired anything, he replied: "Nothing but heaven;" and soon afterward he breathed his last. He was buried in the principal church of Wittenberg, by the side of Luther. — As a reformer, Melanchthon was admirably adapted to assist Luther, and to supplement him. He was better suited for the quiet study than the commotion of public life. Inferior to Luther in strength of intellect and will, he surpassed him in scholarship and moderation of spirit. The one was the hero, the other the theologian of the German reformation. He reduced the new ideas to order and system, and commended them to literary men, while Luther powerfully impressed them upon the people. Melanchthon was of small stature and delicate frame, but had fine blue eyes and a noble forehead. He married in 1520 the daughter of the burgomaster of Wittenberg, and lived happily with her till her death in 1557. He called his nursery the “little church” (ecclesiola Dei), and was occasionally seen rocking the cradle with one hand and holding a book in the other. He cared little or nothing for money, was extremely good-natured and benevolent, and unblemished in all his moral relations. The otherwise beautiful symmetry of his character is marred by but one serious error (and this he shared with Luther), the qualified countenance reluctantly given to the double marriage of Philip, landgrave of Hesse. — The works of Melanchthon embrace a Greek and Latin grammar, editions of and commentaries on several classics and the Septuagint, Biblical commentaries, doctrinal and ethical works, official documents, declamations, dissertations, responses, and a very extensive correspondence. The first edition of his collected works appeared at Basel, in 5 vols. fol., in 1541; the second, under the editorial care of Peucer, at Wittenberg, in 1562-'4; but both are incomplete. The most valuable edition is that of Bretschneider and Bindseil in the Corpus Reformatorum (28 vols. fol., 1834-'60). The life of Melanchthon has been written by Camerarius (1566), Niemeyer, Köthe, Ledderhose (Heidelberg, 1847; translated into English by Krotel), Galle (1840), Matthes (1841), Wohlfahrt (1858), Planck (Melanchthon, Præceptor Germaniæ, 1860; new ed., 1866), and Schmidt (1861). — On April 19, 1860, the tricentennial anniversary of Melanchthon's death was celebrated with great enthusiasm throughout Protestant Germany. At Wittenberg, where “he lived, taught, and died” (as the inscription on his house reads), the corner stone was laid of a monument to his memory, to be erected beside that of Luther. The festival oration was delivered by Dr. Nitzsch of Berlin, the last surviving professor of the once famous university of Wittenberg. At the same hour the foundation of a similar monument was laid at Bretten, his birthplace.