“If it please Christ, Melanchthon will make many Martins and a most powerful enemy of scholastic theology; for he knows their folly and the Rock of Christ as well. As a man of might, he will prove his ability.” It was in these words that Martin Luther all but named his successor in Philip Melanchthon, the quiet, meek, and reconciling German Reformer.
At the age of twelve, young Philip Melanchthon, then Philipp Schwartzerdt, entered the University of Heidelberg, where he studied philosophy, astrology/astronomy, and rhetoric and became a scholar in the Greek language, a recently rediscovered language in the west. By the time he was nineteen, he had a master’s degree as well as his undergraduate, despite being delayed at the University for his young age. By the time he was 22, he was invited to the newly founded Wittenberg University by the increasingly popular teacher and lecturer Martin Luther.
Steeping himself in the Humanist tradition (which emphasized the Scriptures and internal reform more than Scholasticism and Church tradition), he lectured on Greek and Roman literature and wrote a Greek grammar textbook so timeless that it was used for more than 200 years in Germany and for a long while in England as well. His days at Wittenberg began at 2 am, and his first classes began four hours later at six, for about 600 students. Despite this, he made time to court his eventual wife of 37 years, Katherine, with whom he had four children.
Philip became involved in the Reformation whilst attending a debate between Luther and Johann Eck, when he passed Scripture passages to Luther undermining the Romish doctrine of Papal supremacy. He broke with his great-uncle and mentor Johann Reuchlin as well as his contemporary and admirer Erasmus who said 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!”
This “purity of language” became a necessity during the course of Luther’s life, when he navigated a difficult path in the Reformation, first between Evangelicals and Catholics, and later between Lutherans, Reformed Calvinists, and Catholics. While Luther provided a grounded and constant attack on the vices of contemporary religion, Melanchthon gave a more gentle and systematic approach to the fledgling Reformation, attending numerous councils and synods with Zwinglians and Calvinists and trying to reconcile them to Luther’s reformation, and vice-versa.
While more of an academic by nature, he wished for peace above all else. Unlike Luther, he placed reconciliation and resolution foremost, even when it seemed to infringe on the truth. While Luther was alive, he provided a balance to Luther’s passion, yet after Luther’s death, he began to drift theologically. When the Holy Roman Emperor invaded several German city states and forced the Evangelicals to submit to Rome, Melanchthon compromised Lutheran doctrine and submitted. This should serve as a warning to those who view peace above all else, for in the end it increased division and split the Reformation in Germany.
Despite his shortcomings, his intelligence crafted the Reformation as we know it today. He formally rejected transubstantiation in 1521, before Luther did, and maintained a position closer to the modern Protestant evangelical doctrine of Spiritual presence in the Lord’s Supper. He was also the first Protestant to write a commentary on Romans and then a systematic theology of Protestantism, in which he placed doctrines of original sin, justification by faith, and grace alone as primary, and topics like free will, penance, vows, and confession secondary and questionable, if not contrary to Scripture. In his writings one can find traces of what would become modern Calvinist thought, which greatly influenced our nation both in the founding fathers and in the Great Awakening.
Melanchthon considered education a primary virtue and outlined Saxony’s first public school curriculum and directed several dozen cities on their founding of public schools, thus making him a founder of public education and a great educational influence across the German city states. He was an ideal humanist and ideal reconciler, an odd combination especially given his lifelong friendship with Martin Luther.
Like Melanchthon, we should strive to be all things to all men, peaceable and humble, seeking the truth yet willing to admit our faults. This should not however make us timid to fight for the truth as Melanchthon often came close to doing, but boldly proclaiming his word and boasting in Christ.
“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” –II Corinthians 10:5
Manschreck, Clyde L. “Philipp Melanchthon.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14 Feb. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Philipp-Melanchthon.
Maronde, Christopher. “Luther and Melanchthon.” LutheranReformation.org, The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, 2 Feb. 2017, lutheranreformation.org/history/luther-and-melanchthon/.
“Philipp Melanchthon 500th Anniversary Exhibit.” CHI…500 Years of Philipp Melanchthon, Concordia Historical Institute, Jan. 1998, www.lutheranhistory.org/melanchthon/.