Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560): The Creator of Lutheranism

Part One: Melanchthon’s Climb to Fame

Part Two: Melanchthon the Preceptor of Germany

Part Three: Melanchthon’s Failure as a Reformer

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Part Two: Melanchthon the Preceptor of Germany

Rifts that did not break friendship

     Now Rome sent one agent after another, including Frederick Nausea, Cardinal Campeggio’s personal secretary to win Melanchthon for themselves. He told all these emissaries of Rome that if they had the Church’s welfare at heart, they would join him in purifying it from faulty doctrines and traditions. He told Nausea that he erred if he thought Luther wanted to abolish church practices. The fight is not about external things but concerns the righteousness of God. The abuses of the mass, however, must be abolished or rebellion against Rome will increase. He then wrote his Outline of the Restored Evangelical Doctrine for Landgrave Philip who later called him, in vain, to a chair at Marburg. 1

     Further problems for Melanchthon and his relationship with Luther came when in 1525, the peasants asked him to mediate with the nobility on their behalf. It soon became apparent that though Melanchthon agreed that a number of their demands were justified, he was far more conservative than Luther in maintaining that natural law determined natural status and peasants could not tell Lords what to do. Nevertheless, He advised the Lords to exercise Christian mildness and told both parties that a reformation of the Church should occur first and then social problems could be sorted out better. Luther and Melanchthon became rather cautious of each other during the Peasants’ War. Luther, who thought the war was a sign of the Day of Judgement, nevertheless married Katharine von Bora on June 13, 1525 during the most violent period. This shocked Melanchthon who now accused Luther of being sound in doctrine but erring in his personal life. Melanchthon was not invited to the marriage but was invited to a post-wedding celebration two weeks later to which he came. Melanchthon, however, grew to respect the ‘Lutheress’ greatly and when Luther died, he protected her from vicious attacks by Luther’s enemies who strove to punish Kathie for what they imagined Luther had done wrong.

Taking different paths regarding Humanism

     Now the differences between Erasmus’ Humanism and Luther’s and Melanchthon’s theology became greater owing to their different attitudes concerning free will. Melanchthon believed that theology ought to be made compatible with Humanism, so he urged Luther to come to an agreement with Erasmus. This proved impossible as the more Luther emphasized the bondage of the will and the doctrines of election and predestination, the more Erasmus emphasised free-will. Without turning against Luther, Melanchthon still strove to ally with Erasmus. He believed he could find both approaches in human society. He began to speak of the righteousness which is by faith and ‘civil righteousness’ based on natural law, thus keeping theology as a necessity of life but also emphasized the natural abilities and duties of man as if the two kinds of righteousness ran parallel but never merged. The result was that Melanchthon slowly left Luther’s Biblical stand and leaned heavily towards Humanism with its high view of man and faulty view of justification. He refused to deal with the matter of election and predestination, teaching the ability of man to exercise outward righteousness. If man failed, it was the devil’s fault. Luther, however, continued to view Melanchthon as a close friend and advisor and often came to the rescue of Melanchthon especially when he clashed with Agricola on repentance, law and gospel. Agricola and Melanchthon had now radically different views of the gospel but both claimed that they interpreted Luther aright. Melanchthon never openly challenged Luther, though both Reformers were now obviously going different ways.

Melanchthon Reforms Education and Church Organisation

      Now Melanchthon made a name for himself as a great educator so that he was soon widely called the Preceptor (teacher) of Germany. He was not only instrumental in founding Marburg and Königsberg universities but also reorganized the curricula and teaching methods of Tübingen, Leipzig and Heidelberg. Luther remained greatly impressed by Melanchthon’s academic work and didactic gifts. When the Rectorship of Wittenberg University became vacant, Melanchthon was viewed as the best possible candidate for the post. There was one great difficulty, however. The university statutes demanded that the Rector should be an unmarried man with a doctorate but Melanchthon was married but had refused a doctorate. Nevertheless, Luther managed to persuade the authorities that Melanchthon was their man. Under the new elector John the Steadfast who had received the title on the death of his brother Frederick the Wise, Melanchthon was given the task of regulating and establishing schools, church visitation, the instruction of the clergy and controlling the administration of church property. In this way, he became the founder of what was to become the Lutheran Church. Melanchthon was careful to claim Luther as the source of all his ideas but though Luther supported him, it was clear that Melanchthon was now taking an independent path. His new duties caused him to write various manuals of instruction such as his Instruction to the Visitors of 1528 for which Luther supplied forewords. Fourteen of the eighteen Articles of his visitation manual deal with doctrine. Though Melanchthon emphasized repentance and faith, he gave free-will a prominent, initial part in a person’s coming to repentance, whereas he had formerly emphasized grace. We now find Melanchthon diverging from Luther’s translation of the Bible and a friendly rivalry developed between the two men. They no longer worked together but no sooner had Melanchthon written on the law, the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, Luther covered the same subjects in separate works. When Luther brought out his Shorter Catechism, Melanchthon reacted by drawing up on of his own making.

     Though Melanchthon maintained that the Roman Catholic Church had increasingly misinterpreted Aristotle in their theology and diverged from the Scriptures and the Church Fathers in so doing, he clung to Aristotle closer than Rome in his theory of education, seeing in the Greek philosopher the scientist par excellence. He accepted Aristotle’s method of didactics or so-called verbal arts reducing problems to loci communes or common places so that an overview of a problem could be quickly obtained and he propagated the so-called mathematical sciences which included music and astrology. Thus, though Melanchthon became one of Europe’s greatest educational reformers and his methods were used almost universally until well into the twentieth century, Melanchthon merely reformed but did not improve on the basic non-Christian philosophies of the Middle Ages.

Trusting in planets and stars

     This meant that Melanchthon was still putting his trust in the position of the stars and thus when he attended the Diets of Speyer and Marburg in 1529 he was already convinced from his ‘scientific’ astrological observations that the imperial powers would seek to curb the Reformation and that war would become inevitable. Philip of Marburg and the Upper German States decided to combat the Emperor. They published a Protestation in which they affirmed that they would never tolerate Rome’s novelties and that they would remain steadfast in preaching God’s Word and nothing contrary to it. Melanchthon took no part in this protestation, still believing that natural law compelled him to follow the Emperor and the nobility, come what may. On being asked to support the joint venture of the Swiss and the German Reformers, Melanchthon refused because he still believed in what he called the ‘miracle’ of the true presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper whereas the Swiss emphasized Christ’s spiritual presence with the believer. From now on, when the Swiss approached Melanchthon in an effort to enter into dialogue with him on the freedom of the will, justification, predestination and the Lord’s Supper, his answer was to remain silent. Even Calvin who of the Reformers stood closest to Melanchthon’s view of the Lord’s Supper was shunned by Melanchthon in his desire for peace. Now Melanchthon began to develop plans for unity based on the teachings of the Church Fathers rather than the Word of God. However, Melanchthon promised to go with Luther to the Marburg Disputation of 1529. The disputation solved no problems. Zwingli emphasised an eating in faith for believers whereas Melanchthon spoke of the miracle and mysterious union of the Lord’s Supper for believer and unbeliever alike. Zwingli castigated Melanchthon in his reports on the disputation for being ‘slippery’ and ‘dodgy’. Melanchthon accused Zwingli of having a faulty (non-Aristotelian) view of Scripture. Luther accused the Reformed delegates of striving to spread false teaching under the pretense of being Luther’s followers and when Bucer asked him if this meant that he could not accept the Reformed delegates as brethren, Luther replied, ‘Your spirit and our spirit do not go together’ and accused them of blasphemy and denying the faith. 2  When reported home to his ‘dear Lord Kathie’ on October 4, 1529, Luther told her, ‘I think God has blinded their eyes’. Landgrave Philip of Marburg tried to mediate, arguing that he knew of no reason why Christ could not be truly present in the Supper and that if one insisted on understanding everything in Scripture, one would turn Christianity into a philosophy.

The Augsburg Confession

     Now a new diet was called at Augsburg but the Emperor banned Luther from attending, so Melanchthon found himself the main defender of the Lutheran position. On May 11, 1530, Melanchthon finished his lengthy statement of faith, specially written for the occasion and sent it to Luther for approval. It became known simply as the Augsburg Confession. Luther called the work ‘most beautiful’ and said he could change nothing, nor improve anything. On June 25, 1530, Christian Beyer read out the Confession in German to the Emperor and a large crowd of three thousand hearers. Spalatin called the occasion one of the greatest events that had ever taken place on the earth but it is said that the Emperor slept throughout the two-hour reading. The popish party was of a different opinion to Spalatin and quickly drew up its Confutation of the Augsburg Confession, but copies of it were withheld from the reforming party by order of the Emperor. Opposition from the imperial side came almost as a shock to Melanchthon who in his political naivety had imagined that an emperor would bow to the God who had appointed him. He had not the sober political and theological understanding of Heinrich Bullinger who warned Calvin against trying to work alongside the Emperor. Whatever the Emperor promised, he advised his Genevan friend, he would use it for evil because God had hardened his heart.

     Sadly, in his struggle for unity and in the face of robust opposition, Melanchthon ditched his own doctrines and argued that if the papists accepted the Lord’s Supper in both kinds and allowed priests to marry, he would be satisfied. This was too much for the Evangelical Lords who had risked their realms and their necks in opposing the Emperor. They forbade Melanchthon to water down his own confession 3. The Augsburg Confession, they argued, must remain the standard confession of the Lutheran churches. Melanchthon, however told Cardinal Campeggio that he agreed in doctrine with the Catholic Church and he was ready to obey Rome if she would abolish all abuses. It appears that Melanchthon was prepared to drop even sole fide if Rome conceded that he taught the righteousness of faith. This was too much of a compromise for Luther who wrote to Melanchthon warning him not to be guided by philosophy but the Word of God. He also told Melanchthon that he should not try to go it alone but listen to the advice of his fellow Reformers. Both the Reformed nobility and the people were now dissatisfied with Melanchthon who made things worse by claiming that it was wrong to heed the cry of the common people, arguing that concord in Germany at a high price would be a greater blessing than total separation through stubbornly keeping to matters which divide. His fellow Reformers, however, told him that the price he wished to pay was too high for them. On September 22, the Emperor left Augsburg convinced that Melanchthon’s party had been soundly refuted. Now Melanchthon had his Augsburg Confession and a newly written Apology printed for general distribution. Both works were made official, confessional documents of the Lutheran churches in 1531. From the point of view of the Swiss Reformers, the confessions left too much out. Bullinger, who had succeeded Zwingli at Zürich, was concerned that the Lord’s Supper had not been defined in a scriptural manner and the doctrines of grace had been glossed over. The major area of disagreement was centered around Article X: Of the Lord’s Supper which reads:

‘Of the Supper of the Lord they teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present, and are distributed to those who eat the Supper of the Lord; and they reject those that teach otherwise.’

Melanchthon produced his Apology of 1531 to ward off criticism, saying of Article X:

‘The Tenth Article has been approved, in which we confess that we believe, that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and are truly tendered, with those things which are seen, bread and wine to those who receive the Sacrament. This belief we constantly defend as the subject has been carefully examined and considered. For since Paul says, 1 Cor. 10, 16, that the bread is the communion of the Lord’s body, etc., it would follow, if the Lord’s body were not truly present, that the bread is not a communion of the body, but only of the spirit of Christ. And we have ascertained that not only the Roman Church affirms the bodily presence of Christ, but the Greek Church also both now believes, and formerly believed, the same. For the canon of the Mass among them testifies to this, in which the priest clearly prays that the bread may be changed and become the very body of Christ. And Vulgarius, who seems to us to be not a silly writer, says distinctly that bread is not a mere figure, but is truly changed into flesh. And there is a long exposition of Cyril on John 15, in which he teaches that Christ is corporeally offered us in the Supper. For he says thus: Nevertheless, we do not deny that we are joined spiritually to Christ by true faith and sincere love. But that we have no mode of connection with Him, according to the flesh, this indeed we entirely deny. And this, we say, is altogether foreign to the divine Scriptures. For who has doubted that Christ is in this manner a vine, and we the branches, deriving thence life for ourselves? Hear Paul saying 1 Cor. 10, 17; Rom. 12, 5; Gal. 3, 28: We are all one body in Christ; although we are many, we are, nevertheless, one in Him; for we are all partakers of that one bread. Does he perhaps think that the virtue of the mystical benediction is unknown to us? Since this is in us, does it not also, by the communication of Christ’s flesh, cause Christ to dwell in us bodily? And a little after: Whence we must consider that Christ is in us not only according to the habit, which we call love, but also by natural participation, etc. We have cited these testimonies, not to undertake a discussion here concerning this subject, for His Imperial Majesty does not disapprove of this article, but in order that all who may read them may the more clearly perceive that we defend the doctrine received in the entire Church, that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and are truly tendered with those things which are seen, bread and wine. And we speak of the presence of the living Christ; for we know that death hath no more dominion over Him, Rom. 6, 9.’

This view, which has come to be called ‘Consubstantiation,’ meaning that one receives Christ’s body at the same time as one receives the bread, in the form Melanchthon gives it, is rather different to the Roman Catholic view of Transsubstantiation where a transforming of the bread into the very body of Christ is presumed and Melanchthon’s thrust might be seen as an effort to unite the extremes of both the Reformed and Roman Catholic parties.

Making the doctrine of man central

    Now, as witnessed by his commentaries on Colossians and new work on Romans, Melanchthon made the doctrine of man his theological starting point. Besides his emphasis on the Word of God, he always added his interpretation of the judgement of the church, usually meaning the Church Fathers. Melanchthon departed from Luther especially on justification which had been the central pivot of the Reformation. Arguing against Luther’s view that justification is all of grace, Melanchthon now taught that justification only comes when the sinner grasps out and takes the salvation offered him: it never comes passively. The Reformation on the European Continent, however, did not stand or fall with Melanchthon. Both Martin Bucer in Strassburg and Henry Bullinger in Zürich were now furthering the Reformation in ways that Melanchthon thought were signs of the spiritualism he hated. Francis Lambert had ushered in the Reformation in Hesse with a hundred and ninety-five theses which went far further than  Luther’s reforms and gained Luther’s full opposition so that he asked for the death penalty on such ‘Anabaptists’ and ‘heretics’. Luther and Melanchthon had decided to leave Wittenberg with its leading professors and take over the theological faculty in Marburg in 1527 but on finding that Lambert was to head the faculty and not himself, he withdrew, though he lost several of his major professors to Marburg.

Luther fails to curb Melanchthon

    Luther, though he wished at first to find union with all the churches, became increasingly deaf to the pleas of first the English, then the Strasburg Reformers and the German Swiss and lastly the Genevans, feeling that a more radical Reformation would endanger outward unity. When Thomas Cranmer strove to find a universal consensus on theology for the European churches, many churches on the Continent sent representatives to London to work with the English Church. However, Melanchthon, who spoke more than anyone about church unity, declined to take part. His ideas of unity could not fit in with a unity that left Rome out of the fellowship. Professor Stupperich relates how it is almost incomprehensible to understand why Luther did not take Melanchthon to task here. Save for the matter of the Supper, Luther was certainly more Reformed than Melanchthon yet he allowed the university man to drift further away from him without question. Prof. Stupperich concludes that it was the strong friendship which Luther felt for Melanchthon that kept him from protesting 4. However, at this time both Luther and Melanchthon were allied in their joint opposition to Agricola and Osiander. Others were not as patient as Luther. When Melanchthon left Wittenberg for a time to reorganize the University of Tübingen, many of his Wittenberg students took the opportunity to rebel against their professor, complaining the he had departed from Luther’s position on justification and emphasized far too much human activity in salvation. Put simply, Luther believed that justification meant ‘being made just’ which he believed referred to being made a new creature in Christ. Melanchthon  in the thirties came to accept a mere nominal position on justification as a legal act of God treating the believer merely as if he were justified with no radical change in his nature.

    Melanchthon wrote to the Wittenberg professors saying that he believed Luther agreed with him but would not fight their opposition. He soon changed his mind, however, and published his On the Ingratitude of the Cuckoo to ward off criticism. The opposition found even the title of his work offensive. Now Melanchthon, who had always professed to be a man of peace, raised the hackles of Reformers throughout Germany and Switzerland. Melanchthon’s efforts to appease the critics were rarely successful. For instance, Melanchthon’s semi-popish view of the Lord’s Supper was not explicit enough for the papists and smelt too much of Rome for the Reformers. Melanchthon thus changed the article in 1540 to the wishy-washy statement that together with the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ were offered. He obviously thought that all parties could interpret such a statement as they wished and thus a union of all the churches could be obtained. The reluctant Reformer could not understand why neither side was pleased with the alteration. It is in conjunction with Melanchthon’s ‘unifying’ alteration that Calvin made one of his first international appearances as a Reformer. During Calvin’s exile in Strasburg, Bucer took him to Frankfurt to dispute with Melanchthon who was revising Article Ten of the Augsburg Confession and kindly discussed his views with the up and coming Calvin. The future Geneva Reformer, wrote to his friend William Farel saying, ‘You need not doubt about him, but consider that he (Melanchthon) is entirely of the same opinion as ourselves.’ 5 This is one of the first signs that Calvin differed in his view of the Eucharist from the German Swiss Reformers as also from their Anglican allies. Beza was even closer to the Lutherans in his interpretation and whilst Calvin was in Zürich in 1549 discussing the subject with Bullinger, Beza published his belief in the real substance of Christ being taken at communion openly. Calvin signed Bullinger’s Zürich Declaration on the Supper which rejected his and Beza’s former opinions but carried on as usual when he rejoined Beza in Geneva.

Working with Bucer

     When Hermann von Weid, the Archbishop of Cologne, began to take sides with the Reformation, he invited Melanchthon and Martin Bucer 6 to his administration centre at Bonn to help him draw up a statement called the Cologne Reformation. Melanchthon soon found that he was a junior in all respects when compared to Bucer and left him to do most of the work, so his name nowadays is hardly ever connected with Bucer’s reforms in Bonn. Luther was livid at the result because Bucer’s view of the Supper as a work of faith and not as a bodily receiving of a ubiquitous Christ was clearly outlined in the work to the detriment of the official Wittenberg position. Luther called the reforming paper a lengthy display of ‘great babblings’, stating, as if to protect Melanchthon from criticism that it was obvious that Klappermaul 7 Bucer was behind it. Regarding Bucer, Bullinger and Calvin thought that he was too cautious as a Reformer whereas Luther thought that he was far too radical. However, from now on, whenever Melanchthon took part in a disputation side by side with Bucer, he was content to remain in the background. He just could not compete. By the late thirties and early forties, Melanchthon, and even Luther, were being left behind by almost all of the Reformers accept arch-Lutherans such as Brentius and Westphal whose worst days of ultra-narrow and militant Lutheranism were to come. Melanchthon was now sure he would be thrown out of Wittenberg, especially when Luther attacked the Swiss and Strasburg view of the Eucharist with growing bitterness, starting with his Brief Confession of the Holy Sacrament Against the Fanatics. Luther openly called not only the Reformed Church of Hesse ‘Anabaptists’ but also the Swiss Reformers, who were all, he believed ‘bedeviled’ and urged the nobility to have them forced out of Lutheran realms. Indeed, he joined the Roman Catholics at Speyer in 1529 in pleading for their extermination by public execution. Melanchthon merely kept quiet although each of the non-Lutheran parties continued to hope that he would one day join their special cause.

     With the Smalcald War looming ahead and rumours that the pope was calling a General Council at Trent, Landgrave Philip of Hessen called a large assembly of Reformed divines at Smalcald to work out a policy for the Evangelical Estates, as they were now called. Luther was too ill to join but asked Landgrave Philip to present his Smalcaldian Articles as a testimony to his faith. Melanchthon, however, urged the landgrave not submit Luther’s Smalcaldian Articles though Elector John had especially asked Luther to draw up the articles for the assembly. Instead, Melanchthon moved Philip to take his Augsburg Confession as a basis for discussion. He also added a new work On the Power and Primacy of the Pope. Here Melanchthon was clearly stating that he was the leader of Lutheranism, not Luther. Although the delegates signed these documents, there was much unrest as it was pointed out to Melanchthon that his new work on the pope contradicted his previous writings. Bugenhagen, who had moved from Wittenberg to Marburg, managed to persuade those at the assembly to sign Luther’s Smalcaldian Articles privately. Though still very ill, Luther contributed a treatise on the continuing debate On the Councils and the Church whilst Melanchthon wrote his On the Church and the Authority of the Word of God. In these two works, one sees a measure of disagreement here between the two friends. Luther affirmed, contra Melanchthon, that it is no use arguing from the Scriptures and the Church Fathers and early councils at the same time in order to reform the Church as they speak with different tongues. Luther, however, was nearing the end of his days and also his influence. He was decreasing but Melanchthon was increasing as the pioneer and organizer of what came to be called Lutheranism. Nevertheless, Melanchthon soon found out that his ‘middle way’ position was not fully acceptable to the Protestant powers as they argued against joining a popish council at Trent whereas Melanchthon was for attending the conference. The Protestant states declared that they had nothing against a free council of equal delegates whereas a council called by the papist powers for the Roman Catholic Church would not give a free hearing to Protestants.

The Interim

     On February 18, 1546, before the Emperor’s diet at Regensburg had ended and only a few weeks after the notorious Council of Trent had commenced, Luther died. His last work on earth was to reconcile two Protestant lords and thus help to keep the unity of the Protestant cause. Bugenhagen preached the funeral sermon in the vernacular at Wittenberg and Melanchthon gave a memorial address in Latin. At the diet of Regensburg, Charles V declared war on the ‘heretics’ and Melanchthon finally gave up hope that the Emperor as a man appointed by God would indeed follow God. Immediately he wrote defending the Augsburg Confession and condemning the Council of Trent. Wittenberg was made a target of Charles’ Spanish troops and soon fell to them. Melanchthon fled with his family and Luther’s widow to Zerbst from whence he was driven to Brunswick and then to Nordhausen, living almost the life of a beggar on the way. Elector John Frederick of Saxony was imprisoned by the Emperors troops and Duke Maurice was given the electorate providing he remained in alliance with the emperor.

     At the Diet of Augsburg in September 1547, the Emperor, who had fallen out with the pope, allowed the Lutherans, but not the Reformed Churches, a degree of freedom during a period called the Interim which gave both sides room for further talks. The price they had to pay was to water down their own theology during the Interim period so that justification was declared to be an act of man’s merit. Melanchthon professed that he had been under Luther’s thumb and had gained enemies because of this. He confessed that he could accept all that the Interim demanded concerning the Episcopal order and the status of the pope but must reserve the right to criticize Roman abuses. Both friends of the Reformation and the papists now called Melanchthon a turncoat and a Judas. Melanchthon rejected criticism by producing the first major protest in a published work against the Interim. This caused the Wittenberg Lutherans to renew their support. Now the papists demanded that Melanchthon should be outlawed from Saxony. Again, Melanchthon turned and began to argue that to yield and suffer was better than open defiance. This caused Maurice to offer him his protection, possibly on condition that Melanchthon attended the Council of Trent. Now, even Maurice began to criticize the Emperor’s plan to enforce the decrees of Trent onto the Saxons. The Emperor complained that it was Melanchthon’s fault that Elector John Frederick had disobeyed him and now Melanchthon was influencing Maurice.

The Saxon Confession

     Emperor Charles V insisted that the Saxons should send a delegation led by Melanchthon to Trent so in 1551 Melanchthon wrote his Repetition of the Augsburg Confession, later known as the Saxon Confession. In this work, Melanchthon was more critical of the Romanist position and gave a historical overview of why Lutherans could not accept popish novelties. He emphasized that the Lutherans believed in the old religion of the ancient church from which Rome had departed. This work immediately received acclamation first in Saxony and Pomerania and then amongst Protestant clergy, including the churches in Upper Germany, scholars and state rulers. Melanchthon was appointed to read out and defend the new version of the Augsburg Confession at Trent in January 1552. He proceeded without delay to Nuremberg where he was to receive further instructions but Elector Maurice could not wait for a theological solution and attacked Innsbruck. The resulting campaigns caused the Emperor to cancel the council. Obviously tired with German opposition, Charles gave over the business of ruling Germany to his brother King Ferdinand who chaired the 1555 Diet of Augsburg which gave a large measure of religious independence to the Lutheran States.

Quarrelling Protestants

     Melanchthon, however, was not left in peace. Though his middle way efforts had gained a large measure of success in liberating the Lutheran States from popish and imperial oppression, Melanchthon found that his fiercest critics were on the Protestant side. Andrew Osiander at Königsberg accused Melanchthon of departing from the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone with his emphasis on a legal justification without any active transformation in the life of the believer. Osiander’s own doctrine of justification was, however, no clearer. He appeared to reject imputed righteousness and argued for Christ’s own active righteousness becoming the righteousness of the believer. He complicated matters further by arguing that the believer’s righteousness was that of Christ’s divine nature. The purpose of the life which Christ had lived and given up in the flesh hardly seemed to play a part in his theology. Melanchthon wrote against Osiander, emphasizing not so much justification by faith but justification after faith. He erred from Luther’s point of view by emphasizing man’s part in being faithful and seeing God’s part in justification as being merely declarative.

     Matthew Vlacich, commonly known as Flacius, became Melanchthon’s fiercest enemy. He, too, accused Melanchthon of forsaking the doctrines of Luther and wrote up to ninety tracts per year, denouncing the German as a perverter of doctrine and church practices. Flacius’ main position appears to have been that he believed that church externals and topics which Melanchthon thought were ‘inessentials’ were most essential for faith and practice. He also criticized Melanchthon’s naïve trust in the powers that be, though Melanchthon had long lost such naivety. Criticism in Switzerland was mild. When the English Hyper-Calvinists accused Bullinger of following Melanchthon on predestination, he replied that Melanchthon changed his views so often that he was not a reliable mentor on the subject. Bullinger also believed that it was not in the interest of their pastoral and teaching duties for men such as Melanchthon and Bucer to go from one disputation to another. Melanchthon became of the same opinion in the late 1550s. Calvin’s criticisms of Melanchthon were usually very mild but no leading contemporary theologian misunderstood Melanchthon so much as Calvin. In his early days as an exiled Reformer, he had praised Melanchthon to the skies when other Protestants called for caution. As a mature theologian in the 1550s, Calvin affirmed that Melanchthon believed exactly as he did. He urged Melanchthon to confess this and was surprised when Melanchthon, as at the 1557 conference at Worms, ignored his plea. After Melanchthon’s death, Calvin even wrote as if he had been Melanchthon’s mentor and not the other way around.

Melanchthon’s last testimony

     Melanchthon’s last major work was to deal with all the criticisms leveled at him from all quarters. The occasion was the activities of the Jesuits in Bavaria who were pressurising Protestants to forsake their faith. Melanchthon made a point-by-point denunciation of Roman Catholic doctrines in general and Jesuit beliefs in particular, especially the mass, the invocation of saints and purgatory. In this work, entitled Reply to the Bavarian Inquisition, he also dealt with Flacians, Anabaptists and Anti-Trinitarians obviously placing them in the same boat as the Jesuits.

     Although Melanchthon was only sixty-three, he was weary of life and began to prepare himself for death. He penned a list of all the advantages of dying and adding to the advantage of then being totally free of sin, he longed to also be set free be set free from the fury of his fellow theologians. He would then also understand all that had baffled him during life and the true nature of Christ’s divinity and humanity. At the beginning of April 1560 on the return journey from an inspection visit to Leipzig, Melanchthon became very ill but strove to continue a course of lectures he was giving to foreign students. He found strength to lecture on Isaiah 53 until Good Friday but then became too exhausted to work further. After a few days of renewed strength, a severe fever returned on 17 April and Melanchthon began to say farewell to his students and friends. He prayed much concerning church unity with John 17:11 constantly on his lips. He remembered those persecuted in France and the schools, colleges and universities under his supervision. When he was asked if there was anything he needed, he answered ‘Nothing but heaven’. At seven o’clock in the evening of April 19, 1560 whilst his friends were with him in prayer and hundreds of anxious students were standing outside in the streets, Melanchthon found the peace that he had never experienced in the rough, merciless school of theology. He died talking only about heaven and the joy of meeting his Saviour face to face.

 

Part Three: Melanchthon’s Failure as a Reformer


Notes:

  1. Marburg was the first university to be built in Germany (1527) as a Protestant establishment of learning.
  2. See an account of the colloquy in The Reformation in Its Own Words pages 154-162 and a full account in the original languages in F.W. Shirrmacher’s Briefe und Akten zum Marburger Religionsgespräch.
  3. This happened in subsequent editions.
  4. Melanchthon, pages 96-97.
  5. Letter written March 1539, Ages Collection.
  6. Bucer also spent about a year and a half at Bonn reforming canonical law.
  7. Big mouth or chatter-box.