1902 Encyclopedia > Philip Melanchthon

Philip Melanchthon
German Protestant reformer and scholar
(1497-1560)




PHILIP MELANCHTHON, (1497-1560), was born at Bretten, a town of the lower Palatinate, on February 16, 1497. His father, George Schwartzerd, was a kinsman of the famous Reuchlin, and by profession an armourer or commissary of artillery under the Palatinate princes. His mother, Barbara Reuter, was a thrifty housewife and affectionate parent, whose pious character is evidenced by a well-known German rhyme, of which she is the reputed author, beginning Almosen geben armet nicht. His mother's father, John Reuter, who was for many years mayor of Bretten, charged himself with the education of Philip. Taught first by John Hungarus, then by George Simler at the academy of Pfortzheim, where he lived in the house of Beuchlin's sister, young Schwartzerd exhibited remark-able precocity, and speedily won the regard of Reuchlin, who dubbed him Melanchthon (the Greek form of Schwartz-erd), according to the fashion of that age. He lived two years at Heidelberg, and the next three at Reuchlin's university of Tubingen, where he studied law, medicine, and theology, taking his doctor's degree in 1514. He began soon after to give public lectures on rhetoric, and to comment on Virgil and Terence, and ere long it be-came known among European scholars that anew brilliant star of learning had risen on the horizon, Erasmus pro-phesying that he would himself be speedily eclipsed. In 1518, on Reuchlin's recommendation, Melanchthon was appointed by the elector of Saxony professor of Greek in the university of Wittenberg. This appointment marked an epoch in German university education; Wittenberg became the school of the nation ; the scholastic methods of instruction were summarily set aside, and in a Discourse on Reforming the Studies of Youth Melanchthon gave proof, not only that he had thoroughly 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 himself received a fresh impulse towards the study of Greek, and his transla-tion 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 on his part felt the spell of Luther's large personality and spiritual depth, and he seems to have been prepared on his first arrival at Wittenberg to accept the new theology, which indeed as yet existed mainly in subjective form, and as a living spiritual force, in the person of Luther. To reduce it to an objective system, to exhibit it dialectically, the calmer mind of Melanchthon, with its architectural faculty and delicate moral tact, was requisite. Theologi-cally it is impossible to separate Melanchthon from Luther; " the miner's son drew forth the metal, the armourer's son fashioned it." Luther, in whom courage and energy were too much akin to violence and zealous decision to narrow intolerance, and Melanchthon, whose calm deliberation was apt to degenerate into vacillation and whose conciliatory temperament was too much allied to timidity, were each the fit complement of the other.

Melanchthon was first drawn into the arena of the Reformation controversy through the Leipsic discussion, of which he was an eager spectator. He had been sharply reproved by Dr Eck for giving aid to Carlstadt (" Tace tu, Philippe, ac tua studia cura nec me perturba"), and he was shortly afterwards himself attacked by the blustering Ingolstadt doctor. Melanchthon replied in a brief treatise —a model of Christian moderation—setting forth Luther's first principle of the supreme authority of Scripture in opposition to the patristic writings on which Eck so boast-fully relied. His marriage in 1520 to Catherine Krapp of Wittenberg increased his own happiness, and gave a domestic centre to the Reformation. In 1521, during Luther's confinement in the Wartburg, Melanchthon occupied the important position of leader of the Reformation cause at the university. He defended the action of the Augus-tinian monks when they substituted for the celebration of the mass the sacrament of the supper partaken of by the people under both kinds; but, on the advent of the Anabaptist enthusiasts of Zwickau, he had a still more difficult part to play. Melanchthon was irresolute. In their attacks upon infant baptism they seemed to him to have hit upon a "weak point"; and in regard to their claim to personal inspiration his position was summed up in his own words, " 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 he published his Loci Communes Berum Theologicarum.

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 CEcolampadius and Melanchthon against Zwingli in the discussion regarding the real presence in the sacrament. How far the candid conciliatory spirit of Melanchthon was biassed by Luther's intolerance is evident from the exagger-ated and inaccurate accounts of the conference written by the former to the elector of Saxony. At the diet of Augsburg (1530) Melanchthon was the leading representa-tive of the Reformation. With anxiety and tears he drew up for that diet the seventeen articles of the evangelical faith, which are known as the " Augsburg Confession." He held conferences with Romish 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 Romanists 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 Romish errors as excrescences rather than proofs of an essentially anti-Christian system. He was weary of the rabies theologorum, and fondly dreamed that the evangelical leaven, if simply tolerated, would at length purify the church's life and doctrine. In 1537, when the Protestant divines signed the Lutheran Articles of Smalkald, 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 Miihlberg (1547) had given a seemingly crushing blow to the Protestant cause, an attempt was made to weld together the iron and clay of the evangelical and the papal doctrines, which resulted in the compilation by Pilug, 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 equivocally 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, in these tentative negotiations, Melanchthon sought, not really 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 Romish 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 uttered certain expressions of dissatisfaction with Melanchthon, and had more keenly defended in his last years what was distinctively his own, yet maintained hearty and unbroken friendship with him; but after Luther's death certain smaller men arose in name of Luther who formed a party emphasizing the extremest points of the doctrine of the latter. Hence the later years of Melanch-thon were much occupied with acrid controversies within the evangelical church; an account of these, however, would be out of place here. His last years were spent in fruitless conferences with his Romanist adversaries, and amid various controversies among the Reformed, but the flame of his piety burnt brightly till the close. He died in his sixty-third year, on the 19th April 1560, and his body was laid beside that of Martin Luther.

Melanchthon's ever 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 in-dependence 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 lead-ing points—the relation of the evangelium or doctrine of free grace (1) to free will and moral ability, and (2) to the law and pcenitentia 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 Yalla, 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 sanctifi-cation. 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 urged 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 John 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 Leipsic Interim, "that this in no way countenances the error that eternal life is merited by the worthiness of our own works." Melanchthon was led gradually 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.

Melanchthon's life has been written by Camerarius. See also Matthes, Ph. Melanchthon, sein Leben und Wirken, 1S41; Galle, Charakteristik Melanehthons a/s Theologen, Halle, 1S45 ; Rothe's Geddchtnissredeauf Melanchthon, 1800; Nitzsch, Melanchthon, 1860 ; Schmidt, Melanehthons Leben, 1864. There is a biography in English by F. A. Cox, 2d ed., London, 1817. The works of Melanchthon, including his correspondence, are contained in the voluminous Corpus Reformatorum, edited by Bretschneider and Bindseil. (J. Wl.)








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