Erasmus of Rotterdam at the age of 60 (woodcut by Albrecht Duerer, 1526)
Philipp Melanchthon lived from 1497 until 1560. During this time Europe was going through a great period of change known as the Renaissance, or a time of re-birth. Inventions such as the compass and the printing press changed the world forever. In 1492, five years before Melanchthons birth, Columbus discovered America.
Humanism (from the Latin word humanitas, meaning humanity) was a movement that emphasized those activities that brought out the best in human beings. The study of Greek and Latin as well as ancient classical literature are good examples of the pursuits of the humanists at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
The best known among the humanists in Melanchthons day was Erasmus of Rotterdam. At first Erasmus seemed to welcome what was emerging as the Reformation in Germany, especially in the work of the then unknown Augustinian monk Martin Luther. It appeared as though there were similarities between the pursuits of the humanists and the reformer. But a breakdown came in 1525 when the two monks irreconcilably disagreed over the freedom of the human will in matters of salvation. From then on, most humanists turned away from the Reformation.
The biblical humanists were naturally interested in pursuing the languages and studies associated with the Bible. Early biblical humanists included Lorenzo Valla and Jacques Lefevre d Etaples, and others. Melanchthons great-uncle and teacher was the well-known biblical humanist Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522). Reuchlin also insisted on the study of the classics, including Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament.
A priest selling indulgences to townspeople
During the Middle Ages (500-1500 AD), the Roman Church, with the Pope as its head, had become the greatest power in the western world. Kings and princes could only reign successfully with the Popes approval. And the church also suffered. What had been intended by Jesus Christ to be gifts to His church on earth, namely the Gospel and the Sacraments (or Means of Grace), were abused, wrongfully administered, even withheld, and worst of all, sold. This selling of forgiveness came in the form of the sale of indulgences. For money, and sometimes even goods like poultry and cheese, a person could buy an indulgence, which claimed to offer the merits of the saints on behalf of the owner. In that way sins were forgiven and a place for the sinner was secured in heaven.
Young Martin Luther
It was into this age that Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, the son of Hans Luder, a mine and foundry owner in Mansfeld, Germany. Martin attended school for nine years, learning Latin. He began studying to become a lawyer at the University of Erfurt in 1501. In July of 1505, on his way back to Erfurt from a visit with his father, presumably to discuss his future, Luther experienced a terrible thunderstorm. Fearing for his life, Luther promised St. Anna that if she would spare his life, he would become a monk. When he survived, he promptly quit his university studies and joined the Augustinians in Erfurt.
The young monk took his vows very seriously. Soon he experienced great spiritual conflicts over the forgiveness-of-sins-through-good-works system of the monastery, which he came to realize was a completely inadequate way to be forgiven. In order to save the young monk from spiritual ruin, his superior, Johann Staupitz, directed Brother Martin to the Scriptures.
Luther began his studies again -- this time in biblical theology -- and by 1508 was lecturing, and in 1512 earned his doctorate. After completing a trip to Rome (from the fall of 1510 until the spring of 1511), Luther became all the more unsure about the medieval penitential system, especially in light of what he saw in the holy city. At the same time, he was transferred to Wittenberg, eventually to take the place of Father Staupitz as professor of biblical theology. It was in the Scriptures that he was to find the answers to questions that troubled his soul, answers that lighted the way for the Reformation.
Luther describes what happened at Wittenberg:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, He who through faith is righteous shall live. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, He who through faith is righteous shall live. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, 1463-1525 (detail of painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1532)
Against the wishes of Luthers prince, Frederick the Wise of Electoral Saxony, indulgences were hawked to the peoples of his land, albeit in neighboring ducal Saxony. One only needed to cross the border to purchase them. To make matters worse, the indulgence-salesman and friar John Tetzel told Luthers parishioners they could even purchase indulgences from him for sins they had not yet committed.
In Wittenberg, Luthers own prince offered the pious the opportunity of indulgence through his enormous collection of relics in the Castle Church on November 1, the Day of All Saints. Luther took advantage of the occasion. On the Eve of All Saints, October 31, 1517, in a manner customary to the university, he posted on the door of the Castle Church ninety-five statements, or theses, that called into question and for discussion the abuses associated with indulgences. The posting of the 95 Theses became the spark that ignited the Reformation.
The event known as the Reformation means a lot more than simply the story of the life of Dr. Luther and the nailing of the 95 Theses. Reform came to the church and to the lives of the people in Luthers day in many ways. There were great struggles over doctrine and practice. Monks and nuns gave up their vows to the church and married. There was the introduction of the Divine Service and hymnody in the language of the common people. The Bible appeared in German. And there were wars.
In Germany much of the Reformation was directed from Wittenberg by Dr. Luther. He was assisted by his co-worker and friend, Philipp Melanchthon, who systematized the Evangelical doctrine in his Loci Communes Theologici, saw to the reform of the schools and universities, and was generally held to have been Dr. Luthers successor -- in the event of Luthers untimely death.
Young Philipp Melanchthon (painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1532)
Philipp Schwarzerdt (Greek: Melanchthon) was born February 16, 1497, in the house of his grandparents in Bretten, Germany. He was the first of five children (1499 Anna, 1500 or 1501 Georg, 1506 Margarete and 1508 Barbara). Melanchthons father, Georg Schwarzerdt, was master of armory of electoral Saxony. His mother came from the well-to-do Reuter family of merchants. His grandfather saw that young Philipp, his brother Georg and two other grandsons had a strong education in Latin by hiring the tutor Johannes Unger from Pfortzheim.
At school Philipp was the best student. He went on to learn Greek under Johannes Hiltebrant. His great-uncle, the humanist Johannes Reuchlin, in the humanist tradition, gave him the Greek name Melanchthon.
Your name is Schwarzerdt (German for black earth), you are a Greek, and so your new name shall be Greek. Thus I will call you Melanchthon, which means black earth.
-- Johannes Reuchlin, March 5, 1509
Reuchlin saw to it that Melanchthon was admitted to the University of Heidelberg at the age of twelve. About two years later, in 1511, at the age of fourteen, he received his BA. However, the following year, when Philipp applied to take the examinations for his MA, the professors were hesitant to allow him to continue, on the grounds that they thought the fifteen-year old could not possibly be accepted as a teacher. He did finish his studies at Tübingen, and in January of 1514, he received the MA at seventeen. He was received by the faculty of philosophy and began teaching. He also began writing, which he was to continue doing for the rest of his life.
Melanchthon was greatly influenced by humanism. At the age of nineteen even the famous Erasmus of Rotterdam recognized Melanchthons many talents and spoke highly of him:
To what hopes does this young man or rather this boy, give rise! What acumen of innovation, what purity of language, what mature erudition!
-- Erasmus, 1516
In 1518, the twenty-one-year-old Melanchthon was recommended by Johannes Reuchlin to Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony for the new chair of Greek literature at the electors Wittenberg University (founded in 1502). On August 28 he gave his first lecture on reforming the instruction of the youth. It was the beginning of a lifelong association for Melanchthon with the university.
At Wittenberg Philipp Melanchthon studied theology under Dr. Martin Luther. In September 1519 he was granted his first degree in theology: baccalaureus biblicus. Melanchthon turned out to be a popular lecturer. And Luther, who was fourteen years his senior, recognized Melanchthons remarkable abilities.
I am asked to get married because it is thought to be an improvement of my situation. If I knew that marriage would not disturb my work and my writing, I could easily decide in favor of it. For the time being, however, it will not happen.
-- Philipp Melanchthon, 1519
Melanchthons belief about marriage did not last long. In November 1520 he was married to Katharina Krapp, the daughter of the mayor of Wittenberg, Hieronymous Krapp. Their marriage was to last nearly 40 years, until the death of Katharina in 1557. There were four children (1522 Anna, 1525 Philipp, 1527 Georg, 1533 Magdalena).
Melanchthon also became involved in the administration of the Wittenberg university. In 1523-24 and 1538 he was rector. In 1535-36 and 1546-48 he was dean of the philosophical faculty. Beginning in 1555 Melanchthon gave lectures in world history. The resulting work was later published under another name.
While Melanchthon was associated with the University of Wittenberg, it achieved world fame that lasted until the middle of the seventeenth century. On occasion over 2,000 students would attend his lectures. He is credited with the founding of schools, writing of textbooks and initiating of reforms.
Philipp Melanchthon came to know Dr. Martin Luther at Wittenberg. Their relationship was to develop over the years into a deep, life-long friendship. Melanchthon was to say of Luther: I would rather die than be separated from this man. This friendship lasted until Luthers death in 1546.
Luthers adversary, Dr. Johannes Eck (woodcut, 16th century)
Beginning in 1519, Melanchthon was to spend the rest of his life studying and defending the Evangelical theology of the Reformation. In June of that same year he and Luther accompanied another Wittenberg theologian, Andreas Karlstadt, to Leipzig, to debate with a Roman Catholic theologian sent by the Pope named Dr. Johannes Eck (a German name that also means corner). While he did not formally take part in the debate, Melanchthon is said to have written little notes to Luther giving biblical passages that contradicted the Popes claim to preeminence. This advice irritated Eck. Luther later commented, In my teaching profession I do not respect anything more than Philipps advice. This mans judgment and his authority are worth more to me than all dirty Ecks (corners).
Melanchthon came to Wittenberg from a strong humanist background. However, it was not long before Luther won Melanchthon for the Reformation. Luther gave Melanchthon the theology of the Reformation and Melanchthon taught Luther Greek. It was Melanchthon who urged Luther to translate the Bible into the German of his day. Hiding in the Wartburg castle against his own will--but at the will of his prince--Luther began the translation in 1521 and continued into 1522. After his return to Wittenberg in the spring of 1522 he polished his translation with Melanchthons help. Luthers Bible translation remains the most widely read to this day.
It was Melanchthon who delivered the oration at the funeral for Dr. Luther in the Castle Church at Wittenberg on February 22, 1546, four days after Luthers death. In it he assessed Dr. Luthers position in the Reformation and the history of the Church. Melanchthon fit his venerable co-worker within the line of the fathers of the Old and New Testaments and the Church.
While Dr. Luther was hidden at the Wartburg castle (because of the imperial ban against him after the Diet at Worms), Philipp Melanchthon took over his lectures on the Scriptures. This marked the beginning of a time of great productivity for Melanchthon.
In 1525 the new elector, John the Steadfast, released Melanchthon from his professorship, allowing him to hold lectures on any topic he wished. Based on his lectures concerning the ethical and political writings of Aristotle and Cicero (held from 1529 to 1532), Melanchthon published his own system of ethics in 1538 and a revised edition in 1550. In 1540 Melanchthon published the first part of his teachings on man titled De anima (final version 1553), and in 1549 a work on physics appeared in which he expressed his opinion concerning the Copernican view of the world.
Melanchthon also wrote commentaries on the New Testament: in 1527, on Colossians; and between 1529 and 1556 on Romans. (He wrote a brief introduction to Romans in 1520; his first completed commentary on the book was published in 1532, with revised editions in 1540 and 1556.)
Luther was the prophet among the Wittenberg theologians. He worked endlessly on the evangelical theology. But that gave him little time to systematize its various doctrines. In 1521 Melanchthon took on this task, writing the first summary of evangelical theology titled Loci communes rerum theologicarum. Luther was enthusiastic about the book and recommended it as essential reading to understand the Reformation theology of Wittenberg.
Philipp Melanchthon is known in Germany as Germanys Teacher, or in Latin, Praeceptor Germaniae. He was given this title while he was still living. But the impact of his work and writings have long since extended past Germanys borders.
Humanism gave Melanchthon the ideal of the mastery of languages. He wrote a text book, About Greek Grammar, in 1518. This book was used in schools well into the eighteenth century!
Inspections were conducted in the schools and universities under Melanchthons guidance. The ignorance of the people, and even of the teachers and clergy, was embarrassing. He developed what can be best described as an organizational structure and a defined curriculum. His Instruction for Inspectors (1528) documents this system.
Presentation of the Augsburg Confession to Emperor Charles V, 15 June 1530 (detail of painting, 1617)
On January 21, 1530, Emperor Charles V called for an imperial diet to meet in Augsburg, Germany, in April of that year. He desired a united empire against the Turks and intended that all religious disunity come to an end.
At first it was the elector of Saxony, Luthers prince, Fredrick the Wise, who requested that the Wittenberg theologians write a statement of what the churches of his land believed and practiced. But at Augsburg the princes and cities that held to Luthers teachings decided to make a common confession rather than just a Saxon confession.
Earlier documents, including the Schwabach and Torgau Articles, were used. It was also determined that the Lutherans did not want to be identified with other opponents of the Roman Church. The document was to include agreements along with differences. Under the preparation of Philipp Melanchthon and the consultation of Dr. Martin Luther, who was not present in Augsburg, the Confession was completed and signed by seven princes and the representatives of two free cities and delivered to the emperor on June 25, 1530.
ARTICLE 1: OF GOD
Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three persons, is true and to be believed without doubting; that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all good things, visible and invisible: and yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
ARTICLE 3: OF THE SON OF GOD
Also they teach that the Word, that is, the Son of God, did assume the human nature so that there are two natures, the divine and the human, inseparably conjoined in one Person, one Christ, true God and true man, who was born of the Virgin Mary, truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, that He might reconcile the Father unto us, and be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men. He also descended into Hell, and truly rose again the third day; afterward He ascended into heaven that He might sit on the right hand of the Father, and forever reign and have dominion over all creatures, and sanctify them that believe in Him, by sending the Holy Ghost into their hearts, to rule, comfort, and quicken them, and to defend them against the evil and the power of sin. The same Christ shall openly come again to judge the quick and the dead, etc., according to the Apostles Creed.
ARTICLE 4: OF JUSTIFICATION
Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christs sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for Righteousness in His sight. Romans 3 and 4.
ARTICLE 7: OF THE CHURCH
Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the Administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, One Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Ephesians 4: 5-6.
The sad story in Philipp Melanchthons life is that of the Interim. After Luthers death, Emperor Charles V invaded Germany and attacked those lands that had accepted the Reformation. He forced on the people a document called the Leipzig Interim. This document was to settle the controversy between the Roman Church and the Evangelicals during an interim period until a church council could be held. The document was so severe against Lutheranism that a revision was necessary. The revised document, called the Augsburg Interim, was written by Philipp Melanchthon along with others from Wittenberg in November 1548. It only brought with it much trouble for the followers of Luther.
In 1553 Maurice of Saxony betrayed the Emperor, turned on him, and expelled him from Germany. Yet Melanchthon was never to recover from his participation in the Interims and the criticism for compromising the Lutheran positions that it brought. Ironically, his open discussions with the Reformed were also to bring similar accusations of betrayal to that camp. Sadly, it seems that Melanchthon not only did not satisfy those whom he worked hardest to please; but he never satisfied himself.
In October 1557, while in Worms attending religious dialogues at the order of Elector August, Melanchthon learned of his wifes death (October 13). From that time on he became increasingly ill. He also took hard the hostile treatment he received from those who accused him of leaving the theology of Luther and the Reformation.
Philipp Melanchthon on his death-bed (drawing by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1560)
Melanchthons last public lecture was on April 11, 1560. He died on April 19 and was buried next to his friend and fellow reformer, Martin Luther, in the floor of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The grave is marked by the Latin words: Here rests the body of the most commendable Philipp Melanchthon, who died on 19 April 1560, in this town after he had lived for 63 years 2 months and 2 days.
The answer to the above question depends on who you ask. Skilled in astronomy, classical languages, education, music, and even poetry, Philipp Melanchthon is the ideal humanist scholar of the sixteenth century.
Yet he is because of his theological works. He was, after all, one of the reformers of the sixteenth century. He wrote three of the confessions contained in the collected confessions of the Lutheran Church (The Book of Concord), namely, the Augsburg Confession, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. His Loci communes systematized evangelical Lutheran theology and instructed hundreds of Lutheran pastors. He counseled secular and spiritual leaders--the scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam, King Henry VIII, and the reformer John Calvin. He even participated in peace talks between rulers. Philipp Melanchthon was kind, moral, hospitable, and yet timid and frequently ill. He was a peace-minded man.
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