Melanchthon, Philipp (1497–1560)

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Philipp Melanchthon, the German reformer, was born at Bretten, Baden, and died at Wittenberg. He was a grandnephew of the great humanist Johannes Reuchlin, who encouraged him in his studies and deeply influenced his outlook. After studying at Heidelberg and Tübingen, Melanchthon, on Reuchlin's recommendation, became professor of Greek at Wittenberg. Because of his persuasiveness in interpreting the humanist spirit, this appointment marked the beginning of a new era in German education. At Wittenberg, Melanchthon collaborated closely with Martin Luther. He helped him both in translating the Bible and in giving systematic shape to the new theology that until that time had existed in a highly subjective form. Melanchthon's task was to reduce this theology to exact form and to set it forth as an integrated and persuasive system. In 1521 Melanchthon published his Loci Communes Rerum Theologicarum, a work that in its various editions was one of the most influential manuals of Protestant theology.

During the rest of his career, Melanchthon was much occupied with controversy and debate. In many of the famous conferences of the Reformation era, his influence was thrown on the side of moderation and peace. He was closely identified with some of the most important formularies of the period, such as the Augsburg Confession.

Such activities involved even a man of conciliatory spirit in vigorous debate, and Melanchthon's position in the history of thought is largely determined by the controversies in which he took part. Two of these demand consideration.

The Adiaphoristic controversy was concerned with "indifferent matters"that is, religious practices or theological beliefs on which flexibility or compromise might be permissible. Melanchthon was unfairly charged with including among the "adiaphora" such major questions as justification by faith. Melanchthon did not minimize the importance of essentials, but he was inclined to veil them beneath a conscious indefiniteness of expression. This deliberate obscurity extended to many matters that were intensively canvassed in the sixteenth century. He was willing to concede that good works are necessary to salvation, but not in the way in which the connection had traditionally been taught. He was prepared to recognize seven sacraments, but only if most of them were regarded as rites that have no inherent efficacy in securing salvation. Later he retreated from the permissive position he had adopted on the "adiaphora" and maintained a strict interpretation of the doctrines set forth in the Loci Communes.

More acute and more important was the controversy about synergism. Here the central issue was the relation between God's grace and man's will in regeneration. In his early period, Melanchthon, strongly influenced by Luther and deeply impressed by the experience of dependence upon God, severely restricted the role of man's will. To defend free will was to rob God's grace of its unique supremacy. But Melanchthon naturally tended to adopt a mediating outlook, and ethical issues were of great importance to him. Desiderius Erasmus, in his controversy with Luther concerning free will, had advanced views that served to modify Melanchthon's position. Melanchthon was now prepared to recognize the part played in conversion by man's will. The position that he reached (called synergism) precipitated a violent debate. Melanchthon's own statements were ambiguous and lacking in precision. His supporters (Johan Pfeffinger and Viktorin Strigel, for instance) and his opponents (Nikolaus von Amsdorf and Matthias Flacius Illyricus) were very explicit indeed. Synergism, however, can best be understood as an ethical protest against attitudes that paralyze the conscience and leave the church powerless in its struggle against moral chaos. Melanchthon's concern with God's moral purity led him to the belief that the problems of evil and of human responsibility have been aggravated by an extreme doctrine of predestination. He therefore abandoned the decree of eternal reprobation. The cause of sin lies in man himself; the hardening of his heart is due to his own perversity. Man has a real measure of responsibility for his spiritual condition. Man's will, therefore, can cooperate with God's grace, and does so. The human will, of course, is never the primary cause of man's regenerationthe Spirit of God and the preaching of the Word always maintain the initiativebut man's will is specifically granted a place, and unless there is consent on man's part there can be no effective regeneration. Melanchthon guarded himself against the charge of Pelagianism, but nevertheless he was accused of yielding to this heresy. The violence of the controversy was due to the seriousness of the issues involved. A wide range of theological views had to be reexamined, and every aspect of the Christian doctrine of man and of salvation was involved. The controversy was finally silenced by the Formula of Concord, which ruled against the Melanchthonist position.

See also Erasmus, Desiderius; Evil, The Problem of; Logic, History of; Luther, Martin; Pelagius and Pelagianism; Reformation.


works by melanchthon

"Works." In Corpus Reformatorum, edited by K. G. Bretschneider and E. Bindseil, Vol. IXXVIII. Brunswick, Germany, 18341860.

Supplementa Melanchthoniana. Leipzig: Haupt, 1910.

The Loci Communes of Philipp Melanchthon. Translated by C. L. Hill. Boston, 1944.

works on melanchthon

Hammer, W. Die Melanchthonforschung im Wandel der Jahrhunderte, 3 vols. Gütersloh, Germany: Gerd Mohn, 19671981.

Hartfelder, K. Philipp Melanchthon als Preceptor Germaniae. Berlin: Hofmann, 1889.

Hildebrandt, Franz. Melanchthon, Alien or Ally? Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1946.

Kusukawa, Sachiko. The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: The Case of Philip Melanchthon. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Richards, J. W. Philipp Melanchthon: The Protestant Preceptor of Germany. New York, 1898.

Wengert, Timothy. Human Freedom, Christian Righteousness: Philip Melanchthon's Exegetical Dispute with Erasmus of Rotterdam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Gerald R. Cragg (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)