The New International Encyclopædia/Melanchthon, Philipp
MELANCHTHON, mḗ-lăṉk'thon, Ger. pron. mắ-läṉk'tṓn, Philipp (1497-1560). The associate of Luther in the Protestant Reformation, and the foremost teacher of his time, in the words of Hallam, “far above all others the founder of general learning throughout Europe.” He sprang from the middle class, as did Luther from the lower. His father was an armorer in favor at Court, his mother the daughter of the burgomaster of Bretten in Baden, where he was born, February 6, 1497. By the advice of his grand-uncle, the learned Reuchlin, he changed his family name, when he entered the University of Heidelberg at the age of twelve, from Sehwarzerd (‘Black earth’) into its Greek equivalent, Melanchthon, a common practice among scholars. Having taken the bachelor's degree when fourteen, he took the master's degree at Tübingen when seventeen and at once began to lecture on Terence, Vergil, and rhetoric; when nineteen he published an edition of Terence, which ran through seventy-three editions in the course of about a century. His Latin and Greek grammars enjoyed still larger use even in Catholic schools.
Most opportunely for Luther, who had posted his theses the year before, Melanchthon was now called to the chair of Greek at Wittenberg, and in 1518 delivered his inaugural upon “Reform in the Studies of Youth.” Those who had depreciated him for his boyish appearance immediately changed to admiration. The next year Melanchthon took the bachelor's degree in theology, but modestly declined the doctorate. Never ordained, never preaching, he remained, like Calvin, a lay theologian to the end of his days. His lectures were thronged, sometimes, as reported, to the number of two thousand, including even princes and noblemen.
From his classical studies, he was drawn by Luther's urgency and the prevailing ferment into the field of theology. By his Loci Communes, i.e. general outlines of theology, he made in 1521 his first great contribution to the Reformation. From Melanchthon's architectural and organizing spirit, according to Dorner's view, the truth born in Luther's heart received its objective form and the stamp of validity. Equally important was the aid he gave to Luther's Bible work, in which the accuracy is his, while its idiomatic force and beauty are Luther's. In 1526 he became professor of theology in name, as for years he had been in fact.
Among the Reformers, Melanchthon was characteristically the peacemaker. The Augsburg Confession, presented by the Protestants at the Diet in 1530, surprised even the Catholics by its moderate tone. The tone was Melanchthon's, who drafted it from articles drawn up by Luther. In 1531 Melanchthon published his Apology — a vindication of the Augsburg Confession, and the most learned of the Lutheran symbols. After this date he wrote his name ‘Melanthon,’ as easier to pronounce. His irenic spirit prompted him to issue a modified edition of the Confession, the Variata (1540), generalizing specific statements of the Lutherans objectionable to the Calvinists, with the design of removing impediments to the union of the two parties. But such efforts only brought bitter trouble upon Melanchthon. He had now reached the limit of his successes, and his remaining years were darkened by the failure of his efforts for a more ethical theology, and for the union of the Protestant factions.
Melanchthon's treatises on ethics, in which Aristotle was his master, became standard text-books. These ethical studies revealed to him defects in his theological masterpiece, the Loci Communes, which he amended by successive revisions in 1535 and 1543. They also occasioned a serious breach between the ‘Philippists’ and the strict Lutherans, whose extreme denial of the freedom of the will made Christian ethics impossible. Cries of heresy arose, which no explanations could still. Another breach was caused by Melanchthon's slow but sure change from the Lutheran conception of the mode of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper to the Calvinistic. A third ground of odium was Melanchthon's willingness, for the sake of avoiding civil war, to compromise with the Catholics by securing tolerance of evangelical doctrine, but retaining most of the Roman ceremonies, as ‘adiaphora’ (things indifferent). In the bitter controversy which ensued the Philippists were hounded as ‘knaves, Samaritans, and Baalites.’ Melanchthon's relations with Luther were strained, but to the last his gentle spirit held captive that fiery heart. He looked forward to death as “escape from the madness of theologians.” His last prayer was “that the churches might be of one mind in Christ.” He died April 19, 1560.
Melanchthon seems from one point of view to have been born before his time, and has been long in coming to his rights. In a period of fanatical strife, he earnestly strove to bring about Christian unity. But on the honor-roll of the Reformation his is conspicuously the historical, judicial, progressive spirit. His one great weakness was his consenting with Luther and others to the bigamy of Philip of Hesse, and his regret for it threw him into a dangerous illness. Declining invitations to other German cities, to France, to Denmark, to England, he stood unflinchingly to his post in stormy Wittenberg, The churches he found it impossible to reconcile now unite in honoring him. Lacking the dramatic element which draws the popular heart to Luther, his blending of progress and tolerance, of sweetness and light, attracts the cultivated mind.
Bibliography. — Melanchthon's works, including his correspondence, fill volumes i.-xxviii. of the Corpus Reformatorum, edited by Bretschneider and Bindseil (Halle, 1832-50). The Wittenberg edition of his works was published in 1562-64. His Loci Communes, edited by Plitt (Erlangen, 1864), was reëdited by Kolde (Erlangen, 1890). In German consult his Leben und Wirken, by Matthes Altenburg (1841; 2d ed. 1846); his Leben und Schriften, by C. Schmidt (Elberfeld, 1861). For biography consult his Life (in Latin) by his friend Camerarius (Leipzig, 1566), edited by Neander in Vita Quattuor Reformatorum (Berlin, 1846); also Krotel's English translation of the Life by Ledderhose (Philadelphia, 1855). J. W. Richards, Philipp Melanchthon (New York, 1898) is both popular and accurate. Valuable in special points of view are: Hartfelder, Philipp Melanchthon als Prerceptor Germaniæ (Berlin, 1889); Herrlinger, Die Theologie Melanchthons (Leipzig, 1878); Galle, Charakteristik Melanchthons (Halle, 1840). Volumes vi. and vii. of Schaff's History of the Christian Church (New York, 1890) and volume iii. of Schaff's Creeds of Christendom (New York, 1890) contain much valuable biographical and theological matter concerning Melanchthon.