Philipp Melanchthon (1497 - 1560) German author of the Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran Church (1530), humanist, theologian, and educator. Active during the Protestant Reformation, he was a friend of Martin Luther and defended his views. In 1521 Melanchthon published the Loci Communes, the first systematic treatment of the new Wittenberg theology developed by Luther.
Early life and education
Melanchthon was born at Bretten, near Karlsruhe, where his father, Georg Schwarzerd, was armorer to Philip, Count Palatine of the Rhine.
In 1507 he was sent to the Latin school at Pforzheim, the rector of which, Georg Simler of Wimpfen, introduced him to the study of the Latin and Greek poets and of the philosophy of Aristotle. But he was chiefly influenced by his great-uncle, Johann Reuchlin, the great representative of humanism, who advised him to change his family name, Schwarzerd (literally Black-earth), into the Greek equivalent Melanchthon.
Not yet thirteen years old, he entered in 1509 the University of Heidelberg where he studied philosophy, rhetoric, and astronomy/astrology, and was known as a good Greek scholar. Being refused the degree of master in 1512 on account of his youth, he went to the university of Tübingen, where he pursued humanistic and philosophical studies, but devoted himself also to the study of jurisprudence, mathematics, astronomy, and even of medicine.
When, having completed his philosophical course, he had taken the degree of master in 1516, he began to study theology. Under the influence of men like Johann Reuchlin and Erasmus he became convinced that true Christianity was something quite different from scholastic theology as it was taught at the university. But at that time he had not yet formed fixed opinions on theology, since later he often called Luther his spiritual father. He became conventor (repetent) in the contubernium and had to instruct younger scholars. He also lectured on oratory, on Virgil and Livy.
His first publications were an edition of Terence (1516) and his Greek grammar (1518), but he had written previously the preface to the Epistolae clarorum virorum of Reuchlin (1514).
Professor at Wittenberg
The more strongly he felt the opposition of the scholastic party to the reforms instituted by him at the University of Tübingen, the more willingly he followed a call to Wittenberg as professor of Greek, where he aroused great admiration by his inaugural De corrigendis adolescentiae studiis. He lectured before five to six hundred students, afterward to fifteen hundred. He was highly esteemed by Luther, whose influence brought him to the study of Scripture, especially of Paul, and so to a more living knowledge of the Evangelical doctrine of salvation.
He was present at the disputation of Leipzig (1519) as a spectator, but influenced the discussion by his comments and suggestions, so that he gave Johann Eck an excuse for an attack. In his Defensio contra Johannem Eckium (Wittenberg, 1519) he had already clearly developed the principles of the authority of Scripture and its interpretation.
On account of the interest in theology shown in his lectures on Gospel of Matthew and Epistle to the Romans, together with his investigations into the doctrines of Paul, he was granted the degree of bachelor of theology, and was transferred to the theological faculty. Soon he was bound closer than ever to Wittenberg by his marriage to Katharina Krapp, the mayor's daughter, a marriage contracted at his friends' urgent request, and especially Luther's (November 25, 1520).
Although based on the Marburg and Schwabach articles of Luther, the Augsburg Confession, which was laid before the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, was mainly the work of Melanchthon. It is true, Luther did not conceal the fact that the irenical attitude of the confession was not what he had wished, but neither he nor Melanchthon was conscious of any difference in doctrine, and so the most important Protestant symbol is a monument of the harmony of the two Reformers on Gospel teachings. Some would say that at the diet Melanchthon did not show that dignified and firm attitude which faith in the truth and the justice of his cause could have inspired in him, perhaps because he had not sought the part of a political leader, as he may have lacked the necessary knowledge of human nature, as well as energy and decision. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, likewise the work of Melanchthon, was also a clear exposition of the disputed doctrines, drawn immediately from experience and Scripture.
Now in comparative quiet Melanchthon could devote himself to his academical and literary labors. The most important theological work of this period was the Commentarii in Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos (Wittenberg, 1532), a noteworthy book, as it for the first time established the doctrine that "to be justified" means "to be accounted just," while the Apology still placed side by side the two meanings of "to be made just" and "to be accounted just." Melanchthon's increasing fame gave occasion for several honorable calls to Tübingen (Sept., 1534), to France, and to England, but consideration of the elector induced him to refuse them.
Discussions on Lord's Supper and Justification
He took an important part in the discussions concerning the Lord's Supper which began in 1531. He approved fully of the Formula of Concord sent by Martin Bucer to Wittenberg, and at the instigation of the Landgrave of Hesse discussed the question with Bucer in Cassel, at the end of 1534. He eagerly labored for an agreement, for his patristic studies and the Dialogue (1530) of Johannes Oecolampadius had made him doubt the correctness of Luther's doctrine. Moreover, after the death of Zwingli and the change of the political situation his earlier scruples in regard to a union lost their weight. Bucer did not go so far as to believe with Luther that the true body of Christ in the Lord's Supper is bitten by the teeth, but admitted the offering of the body and blood in the symbols of bread and wine. Melanchthon discussed Bucer's views with the most prominent adherents of Luther; but Luther himself would not agree to a mere veiling of the dispute. Melanchthon's relation to Luther was not disturbed by his work as a mediator, although Luther for a time suspected that Melanchthon was "almost of the opinion of Zwingli"; nevertheless he desired to "share his heart with him."
During his sojourn in Tubingen in 1536 Melanchthon was severely attacked by Cordatus, preacher in Niemeck, because he had taught that works are necessary for salvation. In the second edition of his Loci (1535) he abandoned his earlier strict doctrine of determinism which went even beyond that of Augustine, and in its place taught more clearly his so-called Synergism. He repulsed the attack of Cordatus in a letter to Luther and his other colleagues by stating that he had never departed from their common teachings on this subject, and in the antinomian controversy of 1537 Melanchthon was in harmony with Luther.
This material is adapted from the The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge at ccel.org.
- Philip Melancthon: Scholar and Reformer (PDF), by Mr. Eric Frank