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 Three: Melanchthon’s Failure as a Reformer

The bigamy scandal

     There is no doubt that Melanchthon’s with Luther in the scandal of Phil Philip, who maintained that it was impossible for him to remain faithful to one wife, had been encouraged by Pope Clement VII to find another. As he became more and more Reformed, he turned to Luther and Melanchthon for advice as the self-proclaimed heads of the Church. Luther thus granted Philip a dispensation in ‘his’ Church to marry a second wife on the basis of Scriptural precedence, which Luther outlined in great detail. Though those uncritical of Luther maintain their hero later repented of leading the Landgrave astray, the deed was done with permanent shame to both the Lutherans and Reformed. However, in his well-documented biography of Melanchthon, Prof. Richard states:

    ‘Luther, by the power of his faith, rose above his mistake, and denounced the Landgrave; but the more conscientious Melanchthon broke down under it. He realised his error, and foresaw that the Landgrave’s bigamy would bring reproach to the cause of Christ. Perhaps the most inexplicable feature of the whole transaction is, that one so fearless as Luther, and one so frank as Melanchthon, should have enjoined secrecy in a matter which in itself they did not regard as wrong.’[ref] See Philip Melanchthon the Protestant Preceptor of Germany, especially p. 280 in Richard’s section on Melanchthon and Philipp of Hesse.[/ref]

    To complete the pontifical picture of Luther, when Melanchthon lay in a coma-like state, apparently dying of remorse for his joint-deed with Luther, Richard relates how Luther commanded Melanchthon to leave his bed and eat otherwise he would excommunicate his closest friend who was prepared to sacrifice his own reputation and better judgment repeatedly in Luther’s service. Thus we see how, in many ways, Protestant ‘Reformers’ were guilty of the same sins as those from whom they believed they differed.

     However, after Luther’s misjudgement, he showed no pardon to Philip. When Philip criticized Luther for asking for the death penalty for the Reformed leaders, calling them ‘Anabaptists’, Philip was astonished at Luther’s intolerance and asked how he could possibly kill a man for his faith and argued that Anabaptists were purer in their lives than the Lutherans. Luther’s reaction was violent and he condemned Philipp who had supported him and protected him from the early twenties on, calling him not only an ‘Anabaptist’ but a man of low morals[ref] See Luther’s ‘Wider Hans Wurst’, Luthers Werke, Berlin, 1905, Band IV, pages 317-318. Much of this tirade can only be called, violent and vulgar. In this work, Luther insists that his views must be regarded as defining ‘The True Church’.[/ref], referring to Philip’s bigamy as if he had not played a major part in it.

Trying to find a ‘middle way’

     Elector Joachim of Brandenberg was attracted by Melanchthon’s ideas of unity and from 1538 into the forties invited him to reform the Berlin and Brandenburg churches according to what they now termed ‘the royal middle way’. Through Elector Joachim, Melanchthon was able to extend his influence to Poland, as King Sigismund was the Elector’s father-in-law. From 1540 onwards, Melanchthon attended further conferences at Smalcald and Worms but these were overshadowed by Luther and Melanchthon’s support for young Landgrave Philip of Hesse’s bigamy.

     Due to Melanchthon’s nervous troubles caused by his support of Landgrave Philip’s bigamy he could not attend the June 1540 conference at Hagenau on possible reunion. At the Worms conference in November 1540, Melanchthon merely stated that he would honour the popish hierarchy if they reformed abuses in their churches. When Melanchthon began to debate, not very successfully, with Eck, the Emperor stopped the conference, as he would be calling an imperial diet at Regensburg. He suggested, however, that it would be better to appoint a committee including members from both parties to work out a compromise than rely on public debates. For the first time, Melanchthon found that he was against the Emperor’s plan and pressed for a continuation of the Worms debates at Regensburg (Ratisbon) prior to the Emperor’s diet in that city. The Emperor then moved for an open conference to follow the findings of a committee. To this end, John Gropper a canon at Cologne was to represent the papal side and Martin Bucer the Protestants. These men decided that if they could agree on original sin, justification and the sacraments, they could ignore all other problems. Melanchthon called the committee’s findings ‘ambiguous’ but, very reluctantly, agreed to use it as a basis for the Regensburg debates. On his way to the city, Melanchthon’s coach overturned and he took this as a bad omen. After lengthy discussions which dropped justification almost fully because of conflicting opinions, Eck, Melanchthon, Cardinal Contari and Gropper reached a compromise on May 2, 1541. Melanchthon declared that the main points of the Christian faith were ratified but Luther and the Saxon elector, according to Prof. Stupperich, saw no good in the final formula. Luther, however, begged the elector not to take Melanchthon to task for his compromising position lest he should die of grief.[ref] Melanchthon, p. 117.[/ref]  Calvin, who remained closer to Melanchthon on justification and the sacraments than the German-Swiss, Upper German and English Reformers wrote to Farel on 11th May to tell him that he would marvel at the success of the disputation and that the formula agreed on contained the ‘substance of true doctrine’. Especially with reference to justification, Calvin even tells Farel, ‘Nothing can be comprehended in it which is not found in our writings’. Historian Thomas Lindsay’s remark on such statements highlights the lengths the German Lutherans and French Reformed were prepared to go in their efforts at unity. Lindsay declares, ‘The discussions showed that it was possible to state Romanist and Lutheran doctrine in ambiguous propositions which could be accepted by the theologians of both Confessions.’[ref] History of the Reformation, Vol. I., p. 380.[/ref] The papist delegates reported back to Rome, forgetting that the Consistory’s practice in their abuses was semper idem (always the same). They were thus dismayed to find that their compromise with the Protestants was rejected. Rome denounced especially the admittedly superficial and wishy-washy doctrine of justification, thinking it too ‘Protestant’.


     It is not easy to assess Melanchthon’s importance for the Reformation. Indeed, he can be said to have combatted it as much as he furthered it. Most Reformers were public leaders and ordained men of the pulpit who gained their Christian experience in pastoral work, rubbing their shoulders with all sorts and conditions of men. Melanchthon was not a minister but a man of the study and lecture hall and criticised the world from his loop-holed retreat. He was an academic who rarely mixed with anyone else but scholars. Unlike most Reformers, apart from Bullinger, Durie and Comenius, he was a great reformer of education. Thus, Melanchthon was not really a public man at all, nor had he the slightest ambition of becoming one. Often, it appears that Melanchthon was most uncomfortable as a Lutheran apologist and never seemed to understand why gifted men like Luther and accomplished statesmen such as the electors and landgraves of Saxon, Hessen and the Palatine were prepared to push him forward and stand behind him. He often appeared fully unaware of his own brilliance. He certainly rivaled Luther as the founder of Lutheranism, and outdid him in creating the Lutheran confessions. Perhaps Luther’s reputation as the founder of Lutheranism has only remained stable because Melanchthon was far more instable.

     This writer must conclude that, with full credit given to all his organizational talents and far-reaching educational acumen, it would be a considerable exaggeration to call Melanchthon a great Reformer in the doctrinal and pastoral sense. Yet, it is also true to say that Melanchthon the Humanist, scientist and classical scholar has influenced our modern Reformed pulpits far more than Luther, Lambert, Bullinger and Calvin. Indeed, what goes under Reformed theology today reflects far more Melanchthon’s love for Aristotelian science than it does for Luther’s love of dealing with doctrine as it arose in the context of Scripture. This gift he shared with Bullinger. Melanchthon’s method of picking out of the Scriptures loci or common places, that is themes and topics, was strictly Roman Aristotelianism. Examples were then chosen from the texts to illustrate the point made. However, through this method of teaching, to use the imagery of the wood and the trees, described certain large trees in the wood, it left out fully the general picture of all the trees, shrubs and bushes and thus of the overall environment of the wood itself. Therefore, we find Melanchthon pursuing a highly selective and systematic method of viewing theology. He isolated law from gospel, justification from its fruits, repentance from forgiveness, faith from its divine origin and levelled his theological studies down to a trust in mathematical logic of the syllogistic kind, turning theology into a bare science or rather system of logic. Even Melanchthon’s view of astrological astronomy as the handmaid of truth and his intense belief in natural theology is still reflected in modern scientific theories such as the big bang theory, the development of the planets and legendary tales of the ascent of man and the origin of the species. In comparison to Melanchthon, Luther was far the greater Reformer of the heart and life but he was awed by Melanchthon’s brilliance and allowed the greater intellect but the lesser pastor and soul-winner to determine what a German Christian ought to believe. Luther’s greatest mistake was to blind his eyes to any form of Reformation which was not according to the compromises he made with Melanchthon.

     Furthermore, Melanchthon was soon so enamoured by his own Augsburg Confession, that he stubbornly made this the basis for all his talks and disputes with his opponents, forgetting that most paid at least lip-service to the Word of God and this would have been a far better basis for the unifying compromises that he sought with others. It would also have been a better basis for simple, honest Christian witness. So, too, Melanchthon, in his formative years, was obsessed by the magnificence of the Emperor and the Aristotelian/Platonic philosophy which ruled that each social status in life should and could not be changed. He was thus willing to throw his own doctrines overboard in order to work within what he thought was a divinely-appointed status quo of church and social order.

Why bother with Melanchthon?

    Why bother then with Melanchthon? He is very important for three reasons. Firstly, Melanchthon was a true pioneer of Reformation in his twenties but, because of his later negative development, that Reformation never got truly underway and always lagged behind parallel Reformations in other countries. We can thus learn positively from his earlier reforms as outlined in his 1521 edition of Loci Communes and also learn to avoid the philosophical and political mazes in which Melanchthon often lost himself in later life.

    The second reason is that Melanchthon developed confessional denominationalism in a most negative sense. His confession became a last court of appeal and took over the function of the Word of God. Melanchthon continually held up his Confession as a badge of exclusiveness which, he used at times like a superstitious fetish.  Melanchthon, in his early days, argued rightly with the papists and the Reformed Churches on the basis of the Word of God. After authoring the Augsburg Confession, he made this his basis for any fellowship and communion with other churches. Thus, he turned his back not only on Rome but also on the Reformed Churches in Upper Germany, Switzerland, Geneva, France, Italy and the British Isles.

     The third reason is more alarming. Although the theology of the Institutes was influenced chiefly by Zwingli, Bucer and Bullinger, the didactics and rhetoric of the work was Melanchthonian, or rather Aristotelian. Calvin’s Institutes often clash with his commentaries because they deal with doctrinal fragments separated and listed one after the other instead of the emphasis being placed on their inter-relation found in expository preaching from the Biblical context. Especially regarding the realms of God’s justifying grace, Calvin tends to work out an order of salvation in isolated events which stands in stark contrast to that propounded in his sermons and commentaries which deal with doctrines in situ and in context. Sadly, modern Reformed scholars, believing that they are following Calvin, are again introducing Aristotelian humanistic science and syllogistic logic as the God-ordained way to teach Biblical theology. Melanchthon’s doctrine of justification as a mere forensic and declarative legal pronouncement from God without it having any actual, transforming effect on the being of the sinner, is a case in point. It is now the standard theory of our Reformed manuals. So our moderns follow Melanchthon in separating justification from all its attributes such as adoption, the work of the Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the imputation of righteousness, the new birth, being made a new creature and the transforming fellowship of the indwelling Christ. They then even separate justification from its fruits such as holiness, righteousness and living a sanctified life. This opens all doors to the natural theology, common grace and duty faith teaching of those who maintain that justification is merely a cut-down category in a systematic list of attributes which have to be activated and fortified by the agency of man in a ‘logical’ sequence. This is the kind of wisdom outlined in 1 Cor. 1 which Paul tells us will be destroyed by God as it stands in marked contrast to the faithful preaching of the Word which alone can foster true Reformation.

Copyright: George M. Ella