Do you have a favorite professor or teacher? Is there a professor or teacher you particularly remember because of their quirks or mannerisms? For many students at the University of Wittenberg, Professor Philipp Melanchthon met both descriptions. He was small of stature with a frail physique, halting gait, homely features, lofty brow, and timid eyes. Yet he became so loved in Wittenberg that five to six hundred students crowded his lecture hall. Even Luther himself humbly sat among his pupils.
Who was this great teacher and what was his role in the Reformation? Born Philipp Schwarzerd (“black earth”) in 1497, this wunderkind earned his Bachelor’s Degree at age 14 and his Master’s Degree at 17. Under the spell of the Renaissance humanism, he followed the rallying cry “ad fontes,” “to the sources,” the classical languages of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Like many contemporaries, he changed his last name to its classical Greek equivalent, “Melanchthon.”
Melanchthon’s mastery of Greek caught the attention of Elector Frederick the Wise, who appointed him to teach at his fledgling University in Wittenberg. In 1518, Philipp gave his first lecture, “On Improving the Studies of Youth.” He outlined his program for education centered around grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, history, and philosophy and emphasized the importance of studying the Biblical languages for maintaining pure Christian teaching. His ideas about classical education greatly impacted both the Lutheran Reformation and education in Germany.
Luther and Melanchthon formed a brilliant team to lead the Reformation, Luther as preacher, Melanchthon as teacher. At the same time, Melanchthon’s temperament was quite different from Luther’s. While Luther enjoyed combat, Melanchthon longed for peace and conciliation. Luther sometimes chided him as “immoderately moderate.” While Luther used vivid language, Melanchthon used explicit, precise language. He became Lutheranism’s first systematic theologian, organizing the teachings of Scripture by topic in his Loci Communes.
Melanchthon’s irenic yet precise tone is on full display in the Augsburg Confession of 1530. Throughout the Augsburg Confession, his greatest contribution to the Reformation, Melanchthon demonstrated that Luther’s followers teach in agreement with Scripture and the early church. The classic expression of the central article of the faith, justification, is found in Article IV: “Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.” Other writings by Melanchthon included in the Book of Concord are the Apology (Defense) of the Augsburg Confession and Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope.
Especially following Luther’s death, Melanchthon showed a tendency to compromise with other Reformers and with Roman Catholics on key issues. While Elector John Frederick was imprisoned by the Emperor, Melanchthon stopped using the expression “sola gratia,” grace alone. He began to teach three causes of conversion: the Word, the Holy Spirit, and the human will. This error that humans can cooperate in their own conversion is called synergism. The 1540 Variata edition of the Augsburg Confession reveals his weakened position on the Lord’s Supper from the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine to Christ being present in the action of communion, but not necessarily the elements.
Philipp Melanchthon is remembered as the second Reformer, the teacher of Germany, pointing followers of the Reformation back to the sources, especially the study of Scripture in its original languages. He presented Luther’s teachings in an organized form in his lectures and writings. While Melanchthon’s legacy is marred somewhat by his compromises in his later writings, Lutherans are grateful for his clear teaching of justification by faith alone in the Lutheran Confessions.
Reverend Shawn D. Stafford
Hartland Lutheran Church, Hartland, MN
Manchester Lutheran Church, Manchster, MN