Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560)

Life: Education

Philipp Melanchthon, the German humanist and Reformer, was born at Bretten (13 m. e.n.e. of Carlsruhe) Feb. 16, 1497, and died at Wittenberg Apr. 19, 1580. His father, Georg Schwarzerd, was armorer to Count Palatine Philip.

Melanchthon received his first instruction in the school of his native city; he then had a private tutor, Johann Unger, in the house of his grandfather. 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, 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, and was known as a good Greek scholar. As the lectures of the university did not satisfy him, he diligently read in private grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, and the ancient poets and historians. Being refused the degree of master in 1512 on account of his youth, he went to 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 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 a mentor and instructor of a small group of younger scholars. He also lectured on oratory, on Vergil and Livy. His first publications were an edition of Terence (1516) and his (1518), but he had written previously the preface to the Epistolœ clarorum virorum of ReuchIin (1514).

Professor at Whttenberg

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 adolescentiœ 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 Leipsic (1519) as a spectator, but influenced the discussion by his comments and suggestions, so that he gave 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 Matthew and 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 be 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 (Nov. 25, 1520).

Theological Disputes

In the beginning of 1521, he defended Luther by proving that Luther rejected only papal and ecclesiastical practices which were at variance with Scripture, but not true philosophy and true Christianity while Luther was absent at the Wartburg, during the disturbances caused by the Zwickau Prophets, there appeared for the first time the limitations of Melanchthon’s nature, his lack of firmness and his diffidence, and had it not been for the energetic interference of Luther, the prophets would not have been silenced. The appearance of Melanchthon’s Loci communes rerum theologicarum seu hypotyposes theologicœ (Wittenberg and Basel, 1521) was of great importance for the confirmation and expansion of the reformatory ideas. ln close adherence to Luther, Melanchthon presented the new doctrine of Christianity under the form of a discussion of the “leading thoughts” of the Epistle to the Romans. His purpose was not to give a systematic exposition of Christian faith, but a key to the right understanding of Scripture. Nevertheless, he continued to lecture on the classics, and, after Luther’s return, would have given up his theological work altogether, if it had not been for Luther’s urging. On a journey in 1524 to his native town, he was led to treat with the papal legate Campegi who tried to draw him from Luther’s cause, but without success both at that time and afterward. In 1528, Melanchthon wrote a document that eatablished a basis for the reform of doctrines as well as regulations for churches and schools, without any direct attack upon the errors of the Roman Church, and presented clearly the Evangelical doctrine of salvation. In 1529 he accompanied the elector to the Diet of Speyer to represent the Evangelical cause. His hopes of inducing the imperial party to a peaceable recognition of the Reformation were not fulfilled. He later repented of the friendly attitude shown by him toward the Swiss at the diet, calling Zwingli’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper “an impious dogma” and confirming Luther in his attitude of non-acceptance.

Augsburg Confession

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 ironical attitude of the confession was not what he had wished, but neither he nor Melanchthon were 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. But at the diet Melanchthon did not show that dignified and firm attitude which faith in the truth and the justice of his cause should have inspired in him, although it is true that he had not sought the part of a political leader, since he 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 doctrines of 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 Butzer to Wittenberg, and at the instigation of the Landgrave of Hesse discussed the question with Butzer in Camel, at the end of 1534. He eagerly labored for as agreement, for his patristic studies and the Dialogue (1530) of Œcolampadius 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. Butzer did not go so far as to believe with Luther that the true body oí 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 Butzer’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, he 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 Cordatusin 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 cantroversy of 1537 Melanchthon was in harmony with Luther.

Relations with Luther

It is true, the personal relation of the two great Reformers had to stand many a test in those years, for Amsdorf and others tried to stir up Luther against Melanchthon so that his stay at Wittenberg seemed to Melanchthon at times almost unbearable, and he compared himself to “Prometheus chained to the Caucasus.” About this time occurred the notorious case of the second marriage of Philip of Hesse. Melanchthon, who, as well as Luther, regarded this as an exceptional case, was present at the marriage, but urged Philip to keep the matter a secret. The publication of the fact so affected Melanchthon, then at Weimar, that he became exceedingly íll. In Oct., 1540, Melanchthon took an important part in the religious colloquy of Worms, where he defended clearly and firmly the doctrines of the Augsburg Confession. It is to be noted that Melanchthon used as a basis of the discussion an edition of the Augsburg Confession which had been revised by him (1540), and later was called Variata. Although Eck pointed out the not unessential change of Article X. regarding the Lord’s Supper, the Protestants did not then take any offense. The colloquy failed, not because of the obstinacy and irritability of Melanchthon, as has been asserted, but because of the impossibility of making further concessions to the Roman Catholics. The conference at Regensburg in May, 1541, was also fruitless, owing to Melanchthon’s firm adherence to the articles on the Church, the sacraments, and auricular confession. His views concerning the Lord’s Supper, developed in union with Butzer on the occasion of drawing a draft of reformation for the electorate of Cologne (1543), aroused severe criticism on the part of Luther who wished a clear statement as to “whether the true body and blood were received physically.” Luther gave free vent to his displeasure from the pulpit, and Melanchthon expected to be banished from Wittenberg. Further outbreaks of his anger were warded off only by the efforts of Chancellor Bruck and the elector; but from that time Melanchthon had to suffer from the temper of Luther, and was besides afflicted by various domestic troubles. The death of Luther, on Feb. 18, 1546, affected him in the most painful manner, not only because of the common course of their lives and struggles, but also because of the great loss that he believed was suffered by the Protestant Church.

Controversies with Flacius

The last eventful and sorrowful period of his life began with controversies over the Interim and the Adiaphora[non-essentials of the faith] (1547). It is true, Melanchthon rejected the Augsburg Interim, which the emperor tried to force upon the defeated Protestants; but in the negotiations concerning the so-called Leipsic Interim he made concessions which can in no way be justified, even if one considers his difficult position, opposed as he was to the elector and the emperor. In agreeing to various Roman usages, Melanchthon started from the opinion that they are adiaphora if nothing is changed in the pure doctrine and the sacraments which Christ instituted, but be ignored the fact that concessions made under such circumstances have to be regarded as a denial of Evangelical convictions. Melanchthon himself perceived his faults in the course of time and repented of them, having to suffer more than was just in the displeasure of his friends and the hatred of his enemies. From now on until his death he was full of trouble and suffering. After Luther’s death he became the “theological leader of the German Reformation,” not indisputably, however; for the real Lutherans with Flacius Illyricus at their head accused him and his followers of heresy and apostasy. Melanchthon bore all accusations and calumnies with admirable patience, dignity, and self-control. It can not be denied, on the one hand, that the Lutherans defended themselves against not only supposed but actual deviations from their beliefs, although their zeal sometimes carried them to extremes, nor on the other hand that Melanchthon and his followers represented a justifiable point of view, though they could not always express it within proper limits.

Disputes with Oslander and Flacius

In his controversy on justification with Andreas Osiander Melanchthon satisfied all parties. Melanchthon took part also in a controversy with Stancari, who held that Christ was our justification only according to his human nature. He was also still a strong opponent of the Roman Catholics, for it was by his advice that the elector of Saxony declared himself ready to send deputies to a council to be convened at Trent, but only under the condition that the Protestants should have a share in the discussions, and that the pope should not be considered as the presiding officer and judge. As it was agreed upon to send a confession to Trent, Melanchthon drew up the Confessio Saxonica which is a repetition of the Augsburg Confession, discussing, however, in greater detail, but with moderation, the points of controversy with Rome. Melanchthon on his way to Trent at Dresden saw the military preparations of Maurice of Saxony, and after proceeding as far as Nuremberg, returned to Wittenberg (March, 1552); for Maurice had turned against the emperor. Owing to his act, the condition of the Protestants became more favorable and was still more so at the peace of Augsburg (1555), but Melanchthon’s labors and sufferings increased from that time. The last years of his life were embittered by the disputes over the Interim and the freshly started controversy on the Lord’s Supper. As the statement “good works are necessary for salvation ” appeared in the Leipsic Interim, its Lutheran opponents attacked in 1551 Georg Major, the friend and disciple of Melanchthon, so Melanchthon dropped the formula altogether, seeing how easily it could be misunderstood. But all his caution and reservation did not hinder his opponents from continually working againt him, accusing him of synergism and Zwinglianism. At the conference in Worms in 1557 which he attended only reluctantly, the adherents of Flacius and the Saxon theologians tried to avenge themselves by thoroughly humiliating Melanchthon, in agreement with the malicious desire of the Roman Catholics to condemn all heretics, especially those who had departed from the Augsburg Confession, before the beginning of the conference. As this was directed against Melanchthon himself, he protested, so that his opponents left, greatly to the satisfaction of the Roman Catholics who now broke off the colloquy, throwing all blame upon the Protestants. The Reformation in the sixteenth century did not experience a greater insult, as Nitzsch says. Nevertheless, Melanchthon persevered in his efforts for the peace of the Church, suggesting a synod of the Evangelical party and drawing up for the same purpose the Frankfort Recess which he defended later against the attacks of his enemies. More than anything else the controversies on the Lord’s Supper embittered the last years of his life. The renewal of this dispute was due to the victory in the Reformed Church of the Calvinistic doctrine and its influence upon Germany. To its tenets Melanchthon never gave his assent, nor did he use its characteristic formulas. The personal presence and self-impartation of Christ in the Lord `s Supper were especially important for Melanchthon; but he did not definitely state how body and blood are related to this. Although rejecting the physical act of mastication, he nevertheless assumed the real presence of the body of Christ and therefore also a real self-impartation. Melanchthon differed from Calvin also in emphasizing the relation of the Lord’s Supper to justification.


But before these and other theological dissensions were ended, he was at last freed by his death; a few days before this event he committed to writing his reasons for not fearing it. On the left were the words, “Thou shaft be delivered from sins, and be freed from the acrimony and fury of theologians”; on the right, “Thou shalt go to the light, see God, look upon his Son, learn those wonderful mysteries which thou hast not been able to understand in this life.” The immediate cause of death was a severe cold which he had contracted on a journey to Leipsic in March, 1560, followed by a fever that consumed his strength, weakened by many sufferings. The only care that occupied him until his last moment, was the desolate condition of the Church. He strengthened himself in almost uninterrupted prayer, and in listening to passages of Scripture. Especially significant did the words seem to him, “His own received him not; but as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” When Caspar Peucer, his son-in-law, asked him if he wanted anything, he replied, “Nothing but heaven” His body was laid beside Luther’s in the Schlomkirche in Wittenberg.

Personal Appearance and Character

There have been preserved original portraits of Melanchthon by three famous painters of his time–by Holbein in the Royal Gallery of Hannover (said to be the best), by Dürer (made in 1526), and by Lukas Cranach. Cranach represented the Melanchthon of later years, worn out, thin, and unsightly, but with a mild and peaceful expression on a highly intellectual face. Melanchthon was small and slight, and but of good proportions, and had a bright and sparkling eye, which kept its color till the day of his death. He was never in perfectly sound health, and managed to perform as much work as he did only by reason of the extraordinary regularity of his habits and his great temperance. He set no great value on money and possessions; his liberality and hospitality were often misused in such a way that his old faithful Swabian servant had sometimes difficulty ín managing the household. His domestic life was happy. He called his home “a little church of God,” always found peace there, and showed a tender solicitude for his wife and children. To his great astonishment a French scholar found him rocking the cradle with one hand, and holding a book in the other. His noble soul showed itself also in his friendship for many of his contemporaries; “there is nothing sweeter nor lovelier than open conversation with friends,” he used to say. His most intmate friend was Camerarius, whom he called the half of his soul. His extensive correspondence was for him not only a duty, but a need and an enjoyment. His letters form a valuable commentary on his whole life, as he spoke out his mind in them more unreservedly than he was wont to do in public life. A peculiar example of his sacrificing friendship is furnished by the fact that he wrote speeches and scientific treatises for others, permitting them to use their own signature. But in the kindness of his heart he was ready to serve and assist not only his friends, but everybody. He was an enemy to jealousy, envy, slander, and sarcasm. His whole nature adapted him especially to communication with scholars and men of higher rank, while it was more difficult for him to deal with the people of lower station. He never allowed himself or others to exceed the bounds of nobility, honesty, and decency. He was very sincere in the judgment of his own person, acknowledging his faults even to opponents like Flacius, and was open to the criticism even of such as stood far below him. In his public career he sought not honor or fame, but earnestly endeavored to serve the Church and the cause of truth. His humility and modesty had their root in his personal piety. He laid great stress upon prayer, daily meditation on the Word, and attendance of public service. In Melanchthon is found not a great, impressive personality, winning its way by massive strength of resolution and energy, but a noble character which we can not study without loving and respecting.

His Fame

Estimates of Melanchthon’s character and work have undergone radical changes since his death, according to the theological standpoint of those seeking, in the representative figures of Luther and Melanchthon, their champion or at least their spiritual associate. It is said that Leonhard Hatter the head of the Wittenberg theologians in the beginning of the seventeenth century, on the occssian of a public disputation, when the authority of Melanchthon was involved, tore down his picture from the wall, and in sight of all trampled it under foot. For more than a hundred years after that, few voices spoke a word in his favor. In 1760 the anniversary of his death was for the first time celebrated, and from that time he began to be regarded in a different light. After this change there was revived not only the interest in his person and works, but even the defects of his rationalism were unionism were defended. More recently, however, these defects have been looked upon again in their true light. The celebration of his four hundredth anniversary in 1897 referred on the whole more to the humanist than to the theologian; but a just opinion will not ignore that Melanchthon rendered great servlces both to the Church and to theology by his reform of humanistic education.

Source: The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Philip Schaff Vol. VII: (abridged and edited for clarity)


About Jian Ming Zhong

In short, I am a five point calvinist, amillennial, post-trib rapture, paeudobaptistic (not for salvation), classical cessationism , and covenantal. I embrace Reformed Theology and subscribe to the WCF 1647. I do not break fellowship with anyone who holds to the essentials of the faith (i.e., the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, Jesus' Physical Resurrection, Virgin Birth, Salvation by Grace through Faith alone, Monotheism, and the Gospel being the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus) but does not affirm Calvinist Theology in the non-essentials. I strongly believe that God's grace and mercy are so extensive that within the Christian community there is a wide range of beliefs and as long as the essentials are not violated, then anyone who holds to those essentials but differs in the non-essentials is my brother or sister in Christ. Romans 11:36 "For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To whom be Glory forever. Amen!"
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