Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) was a German reformer, collaborator with Martin Luther, the first systematic theologian of the Protestant Reformation, and a influential designer of educational systems. He stands next to Luther and Calvin as a reformer, theologian, and molder of Protestantism. As much as Luther, he is the primary founder of Lutheranism. They both denounced what they saw as the exaggerated cult of the saints, the idolatrous adoration of the Host, and the coercion of the conscience in the sacrament of penance that nevertheless could not offer certainty of salvation.
Melanchthon made the distinction between law and gospel the central formula for Lutheran evangelical insight. The "law" meant the Papacy and rigid rituals controlled by priests; the "gospel" meant an individual directly confronting Christ through Bible reading, hymns and prayer.
He was born Philipp Schwartzerd (of which "Melanchthon" is a Greek translation) at Bretten on Feb. 16, 1497. Under the guidance of his great-uncle, John Reuchlin, humanist and Hebraist, Melanchthon was very well educated the University of Heidelberg and at Tübingen University, where he began teaching. Besides extensive classical studies including Plato and Aristotle, he studied Rudolph Agricola, William of Ockham, John Wessel, and Scripture. Before contact with Luther he had seriously questioned scholastic theology and ecclesiastical morality.
Relation with Luther
When Melanchthon arrived in Wittenberg in 1518, he became Luther's closest friend, to Luther's death. Luther encouraged his marriage to Katherine Krapp in 1520. Melanchthon was considered a brilliant teacher of the Greek and Latin classics as well as the Bible.
Luther's influence made him a theologian and a reformer, with the goal of systematizing Luther's thology anmd adding a humanistic perspective. The proclamation of God's grace freely given became the enduring mainstay of his life. His theses for the baccalaureate in theology (1519) emphasized the authority of the scriptures and criticized the doctrine of transubstantiation. He promoted evangelical truth with the intellectual tools of Renaissance humanism. He was soon recognized as a major reformer. His Loci communes rerum theologicarum (1521), his most important work, was the first systematic treatment of Protestant theology. He was the primary author of the The Augsburg Confession (1530), the basic creed of Protestantism. It was part of his conciliatory effort to clarify evangelical truth and to keep Christian unity. The Apology (1531) is an outstanding theological work.
From the Diet of Spires (1529) until his death, he was the chief Protestant representative at numerous conferences.
In 1528 his basic school plan and other educational endeavors established him as the founder of the Protestant public schools. For his work in training teachers, writing textbooks, and reorganizing numerous schools and universities, and for promoting the liberal arts he was designated "Preceptor of Germany."
Differences with Luther
Melanchthon differed from Luther on four counts, and a few historians have argued that he forced Lutheranism into his mold more than Luther's.
First, he dropped "alone" in the phrase "justification by faith alone," and he emphasized good works as the necessary fruit of faith, though not the cause of faith.
Second, in 1527 he reevaluated the "stoic determinism" implicit in predestination, and the 1535 edition of Loci showed that he had abandoned strict determinism. Ethical responsibility and his understanding of Scripture led him to insist that man must accept divine, freely given love. By 1537 and in De Anima (1540) he noted three concurrent causes of conversion: the Word, Holy Spirit, and man's will. This process has often been criticized as "synergism".
Third, Melanchthon questioned Luther's doctrine of the "physical presence" of Christ in the Lord's Supper. After 1530 he developed a belief in "real spiritual presence." The Eucharistic controversies threatened his friendship with Luther in 1543, and he was later accused of crypto-Calvinism.
In the 1548 controversy over nonessentials in religion, Melanchthon adhered to his own and Luther's former views: Scriptural justification by faith as essential, other things endurable on account of love and order. Flacius Illyricus, an antihumanist Lutheran theologian, attacked him as a heretic and apostate. This controversy brought much criticism to Melanchthon's final years and obscured his achievements.
Fourth, Melanchthon was more open to compromise. On the doctrine of justification, he searched in vain for a compromise with the Catholics at Augsburg (1530) and Regensburg (1541). He got along well with John Calvin, who was creating a non-Lutheran "Reformed" version of Protestantism.
Historians identify Melanchthon's historical significance in terms of the relation between humanism and the Reformation (that is, the Greco-Roman and biblical heritage in the history of the West). He identified the problem and his solution was incorporated into German thought and the organization of both the Lutheran church and the public school system in Germany. He avoided the risk that the Reformation would be sidetracked into an anti-intellectual spiritualism or, at the opposite extreme, philosophy would be imposed upon theology, knowledge upon faith, and reason upon revelation. Melanchthon balanced both poles. He was one of the first to achieve this balance, and his solution was ingeniously simple and enlightening, based as it was on the distinction between law and gospel. Together with Luther and several others, Melanchthon created a Christian and humanist educational system that was taken up and further developed by others, and it continued to be influential through the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century neohumanism into the twentieth century.
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