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Philip Melancthon (1497-1560)

Category Articles
Date December 22, 2005


Of all the Lutheran theologians besides Luther, Melanchthon was the most accomplished. He codified what Luther’s wide-ranging and discursive mind could not. One writer ranks him very highly: “his contributions to the Lutheran movement, to Protestantism, and to the German nation, are monumental.” (R.V.Schnucker)

His Life

Born in Bretten, Baden, Melanchthon took his bachelor’s degree from Heidelberg at the age of fourteen and his master’s from Tubingen at sixteen. In his teens, Melanchthon’s skill in Greek, Grammar and Biblical Studies established a reputation that led to a professorship in Greek at Wittenberg University as early as 1518. His inaugural lecture forged a bond with Luther that remained for life. One of Luther’s earliest references to him describes him as “a mere boy in years, but one of us in varied knowledge, including that of almost all books.” For his part, Melanchthon speaks of Luther as “that honoured, good and learned leader of true Christian piety.”

Melanchthon accompanied Luther to the Leipzig Disputation (1519), systematized Lutheran theology in his Loci Communes (1521), and was recognized as ‘the Preceptor of Germany’ through his Visitation Articles for schools (1528), his help given to the education systems of fifty-six German cities, his reform of eight universities and founding of four others.

At the Marburg Colloquy (1529) he fell foul of Zwingli over the issue of the Lord’s presence in His Supper, but later angered orthodox Lutherans by adopting Calvin’s view.

His finest theological achievements were the Augsburg Confession (1530) and its Apology (1531) or explanation. Schaff notes that the Confession was prepared by Melanchthon “with conscientious care” and “with the full approval of Luther.” Even on the occasion of its signing, Melanchthon’s timidity found expression. In view of the immense political and ecclesiastical power of Rome at the time, Melanchthon warned the Elector John of Saxony of the possible consequences of his signature. The elector nobly replied: “I will do what is right, unconcerned about my electoral dignity; I will confess my Lord, whose cross I esteem more highly than all the power of the earth.” This public signing by seven German princes and the deputies of two free cities (Nuremberg and Reutlingen) marked a watershed in the history of the Reformation. Along with the Wittenberg Concord of 1536 these two documents became the key statements of Lutheran doctrine.

In 1539 he met Calvin, who wrote to a colleague: “As for himself, you need not doubt about him, but consider that he is entirely of the same opinion as ourselves” [i.e. on the desire for Protestant unity.] Calvin approved Melanchthon’s deploring of the lack of church discipline, but “told him plainly to his face” how much he disliked the retention of ceremonies in the Lutheran church, which appeared to him “not far removed from Judaism.”

It was Melanchthon’s openness to new ideas that led him to change his position on the Lord’s Supper from that of Luther to that of Calvin. This change found expression in Article X of the 1540 Variata of the Augsburg Confession and brought on him the wrath of the Gnesio-Lutherans, who claimed that ‘adiaphora,’ or things indifferent, cease to be indifferent in a Confession of Faith and where they may give offence.

With the defeat of Protestant forces at Muhlberg in 1547, Melanchthon proposed the Leipzig Interim (significantly, the year after Luther’s death), a compromise with certain Romish beliefs and rites. For this he was attacked by Matthias Flaccius, who later also condemned his synergistic views that man can accept or reject the Holy Spirit and God’s saving grace, even after conversion. The closing years of this most eirenic of theologians were spent in controversy, especially with staunch Lutherans, who viewed him with suspicion, even as a crypto-Calvinist.

In sum, the self-same qualities – his lucid and brilliant mind, gentle manner and open-mindedness – that at first had made him an ideal colleague to Luther also precipitated much of the controversy that dogged his later years. When he died, Melanchthon expressed his pleasure at being delivered from the “rabies theologorum” or “madness of the theologians.” The Younger M’Crie, more charitable than discerning, concludes his sketch of the Reformer by saying: “In the Renaissance and Reformation movement of the sixteenth century Philip Melanchthon holds an assured position of honour and distinction alongside of such leaders as Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Farel and Zwingli.”


The Authority of Scripture

Melanchthon’s Chair in Greek Language and Literature made him delve deeply into New Testament doctrine. His occasional substitution in the Chair of Hebrew led him into the profundities of Old Testament theology. A regular course in the Faculty of Theology, followed by graduation as ‘Bachelor of Bible’, brought him out into the open with three disputation theses that marked him off from the Mediaeval Church as a distinctly Biblical theologian:

1. “It is not necessary for a Catholic to believe any other articles of faith than those to which Scripture is a witness.”
2. “The authority of councils is below the authority of Scripture.”
3. “Therefore not to believe in . . . transubstantiation and the like, is not open to the charge of heresy.”

These theses, which Luther described as “bold but true”, caused a considerable stir at the time. By implication, his deference to Scripture as the supreme authority condemned the twin pillars of Roman piety, the priesthood and the mass.

The Knowledge of God

In his Loci Communes, Melanchthon states that divine revelation is the only source of all certain knowledge of God. The Church’s doctrine “is not adduced from empirical demonstrations, but from the statements God has given to the human race in certain and clear testimonies.” This doctrine of God has been given us for an eminently practical purpose: “What good does it do to know that the world was created by God, as Genesis teaches, unless you adore the mercy and wisdom of the Creator? And what good does it to know the mercy and wisdom of God, unless you take it into your own soul that to you He is merciful, to you He is righteous, to you He is wise? And that is truly to know God.” This practical application of truth lies at the heart of all Lutheran theology.

Law and Gospel

Several incidents in Melanchthon’s life gave expression to his leading ideas on Law and Gospel. In Luther’s funeral oration, for example, he made absolutely clear the distinction between the two. This, he claimed, is the key to understanding our Justification by Faith. From Romans, he deduced that the Gospel is a sheer gift from God, a gift that must be set in opposition to every human achievement. Human works are of the Law, which is not a stepping-stone to the Gospel. “On this topic, Melanchthon showed himself to be Luther’s keenest pupil.” (Heinz Scheible)

Furthermore, Divine Law is the basis for the discovery of sins, crimes and their punishment. As such, it should function in the civil sphere without impinging on the prerogatives of the Gospel. It is the Church, not the world, which is to be ruled by the Gospel. The world must be ruled by law. Therefore a prime duty of the State is to legislate according to ‘Natural Law’, which is the same as God’s Law. Even better, he adds: “I would like Christians to use that kind of judicial code which Moses laid down.” Since we must have civil laws, “it would be better to use those given by Moses than either the Gentile laws or papal ceremonies.”

Melanchthon’s grasp of the relationship between Law and Gospel brought him to develop a whole ‘Christian philosophy’ of ethics and culture. His humanistic scholarship stressed the necessity of “the Linguistic Arts . . .for every kind of study.” Because God has spoken to us through human language, he argues, we need to learn the sacred languages in order to understand Him, even though linguistics alone cannot fathom the meaning of the Holy Spirit. His adaptation of Aristotle’s ethics, politics and physics to modern educational requirements was derived from the idea that the Moral Law of God is good for all society. “Moral philosophy,” therefore, “is that part of the divine law that provides principles for external actions.” When these principles were applied in the schools of his native land, they earned for Melanchthon the title ‘the Preceptor of Germany.’

Free Will

Melanchthon deduced the bondage of the will, not so much from our total depravity since the Fall, but from predestination. “Since all things that happen, happen necessarily according to divine predestination, our will has no liberty.” Nevertheless, man does enjoy freedom in external matters, though not in Justification and Sanctification. Scripture clearly testifies that fallen man does not have the will to produce Christian or spiritual righteousness. Here the Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary. But in civil affairs, man can keep the second table of the Law externally without the Holy Spirit. “Man has in his own power a freedom of the will to do or not to do external works, regulated by law and punishment. . . .On the other hand, man cannot by his own power purify his heart and bring forth divine gifts, such as true repentance of sins, a true fear of God, true faith, sincere love, chastity, a spirit without vengefulness, true long-suffering, longing prayer, not to be miserly, etc.”

This teaching was incorporated into the Augsburg Confession: “It is also taught among us that man possesses some measure of free will which enables him to live an outwardly honourable life and to make choices among the things that reason comprehends. But without the grace, help and activity of the Holy Spirit man is not capable of making himself acceptable to God.” (Article XVIII)

It was in his subsequent revisions of the Loci Communes that Nicholas von Amsdorf and Konrad Cordatus found synergistic tendencies. Here Melanchthon seemed to sanction the idea that God and man cooperate in man’s conversion. In the second edition of the Loci (1535) he wrote that in conversion “three causes are conjoined: the Word, the Holy Spirit and the Will not wholly inactive, but resisting its own weakness . . . God draws, but draws him who is willing.” Matthius Flaccius became Melanchthon’s major adversary in this debate. He taught that the natural man is totally hostile towards God, and can no more co-operate with Him than a piece of wood or block of stone.

Significantly, the Lutheran Formula of Concord (1577) rejected Melanchthon’s synergism, teaching that in conversion “through the preaching and the hearing of His Word, God is active, breaks our hearts, and draws man, so that through the preaching of the Law man learns to know his sins . . . and experiences genuine terror, contrition and sorrow. . . and through the preaching of the holy Gospel. . . there is kindled in him a spark of faith which accepts the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake.”

Justification by Faith

Luther was so pleased with Melanchthon’s teaching on Justification that he abandoned a planned treatise on it. In all essentials, it agrees with Luther’s own teaching. According to Melanchthon, Justification is a forensic transaction in which God as Judge freely justifies the believing, penitent sinner for the sake of Christ. In stressing the necessity of repentance along with faith as a condition of justification, Melanchthon tried to answer Luther’s Romish critics that Justification by Faith Alone corrupted morality. On the contrary, he retorted, Justification leads immediately to Sanctification, which comprises both the mortification of sin by the application of the law, and vivification by the repeated reception of “the promise of grace in Christ.” For terrified consciences “would most surely be driven to despair if they were not lifted up and encouraged by the promise of the grace and mercy of God, commonly called the Gospel.” The difference between true and false conversion may be seen, he states, in the cases of Judas and Saul on the one hands and Peter and David on the other. “The contrition of Judas and Saul did not avail because it lacked the faith that grasps the forgiveness of sins granted for Christ’s sake,” whereas that of Peter and David was the fruit of justifying faith.

Christian Liberty

“Those who have been renewed by the Spirit of Christ now conform voluntarily, even without the law, to what the law used to command.” Deliverance from the law constitutes true Christian liberty. From the evangelical promise of Jeremiah 31.31-34, Melanchthon argues that “the Decalogue has been abrogated by the New Testament,” and “all that is commanded is that we embrace the Son.” Even though the Decalogue demands the “righteousness of the heart . . . the Spirit” Himself enables believers to fulfil those demands by writing the law in their hearts. That is, “they love and fear God, devote themselves to the needs of their neighbour, and desire to do those very things which the law demanded.” On this basis we must accept weak believers, but not those who destroy the foundations of Christian doctrine.

Melanchthon’s reaction to man-imposed duties is somewhat Antinomian, though he expressly says that believers are freed from the law as bondage so that they can keep the law as free disciples. Perhaps his contribution to the right understanding of Christian freedom appears more in his exposure of the Sorbonne professors’ “shameful and godless” invention of ‘counsels’ as distinct from divine laws. “That is, they have taught that certain things are not necessarily demanded by God, but only recommended.” Their reasoning behind this invention is that “if anyone cares to, he may obey,” but if he does not, then “they may absolve him,” thereby retaining their priestly power over him.

The True Church

Melanchthon sees the Church as “the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered.” Unlike Luther, who tended to think he was right before discussion, Melanchthon sought continued clarification of his views by fellowship with other scholars. Bearing in mind the boundaries beyond which he might not pass, he nevertheless sought, like Bucer, to mediate as much as possible between opposing factions. For this he was often blamed as a compromiser.

Ministry and Sacraments

On the topics of ministry and sacraments, his views are non-negotiable. Ministers are primarily preachers of the Word of God. The sacraments are signs appended to the Word, “as seals which remind us of the promises, and definitely testify of the divine will toward us. They testify that we shall surely receive what God has promised.”

Melanchthon’s changed approach to the Lord’s Supper is worth noting. During the 1520’s, when controversy on the topic was at its height, Melanchthon remained firmly on Luther’s side. However, after rejecting the Zwinglian view at Marburg, he gradually adopted Calvin’s position; namely, that Christ is spiritually present at the Supper. This was because the words of institution speak of receiving Christ along with the bread and wine. He is therefore truly and essentially present, giving Himself and the benefits of His broken body and shed blood to all believers.

Church Councils

Melanchthon dismissed out of hand the decrees of the Council of Trent. He was too well-informed to ignore the fact that what had been decreed by one Church Council was later abrogated by another. Therefore, like everything else, “synods also must be evaluated in the light of Scripture.” The Word is always above the Church. For this reason, the papal kingdom is not the Christian Church at all, and must be rejected. Papal claims were never universally recognized, and papal councils contradict the doctrines of Scripture. Towering above every claim of man stands the Word of God, relevant to all men and to be taught all men. This cannot be changed. It will remain throughout eternity.


As Luther’s ‘right hand man’ until the former’s death, Melanchthon systematized what the more loquacious but unsystematic Reformer discovered. His Loci Communes, Augsburg Confession and Apology are his enduring theological monuments. One writer is of the opinion that his real contribution to the Reformation consisted in the synthesis he achieved between the liberal arts and theology. Yet even here, the liberal arts served only as the handmaid of theology. In both, his influence has extended far beyond both Lutheranism and Germany.


There is an anecdote about Melanchthon that is worth re-telling: In his youthful zeal he left the university lecture hall for the squares of Wittenberg to evangelize the people. On his return, Luther asked how he had fared. “O,” he ruefully replied, “old Adam was too strong for young Philip.” Such is the power of unbelief in our heart.

John Brentnall
Editor of the Peace and Truth magazine of Sovereign Grace Union, from whose 2006:1 edition the above article was taken with permission.
The SGU Website may be found on the Internet at

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