Melanchthon’s acceptance of an appointment as professor of Greek in the University of Wittenberg—an appointment tendered him by the elector of Saxony—may be regarded as that act of his through which he joined himself to the movement of the Reformation. It took place in 1518, the year following Luther’s writing and publication of his 95 theses. Melanchthon, feeling the spell of Luther’s large personality and spiritual depth, seems to have been prepared on his first arrival at Wittenberg to accept the new theology—new to the church of that day—which as yet existed mainly as a living spiritual force in the heart and mind of Luther. As to the university of Wittenberg, already at that time it had become the school of the German nation and was destined to become the cradle of the Reformation.
In this writing, there are three questions that I raise and answer, to wit:
1. What is the place to be ascribed to Melanchthon in the aforesaid movement in Germany?
2. How did he function in this place?
3. What was his influence on the Reformation?
1. The effect of Luther’s theses throughout Christendom had been profound. Those who felt themselves aggrieved by the papal corruptions hailed the Saxon monk as the deliverer of the Church. Those who sensed the thrust of his theses and were opposed to any change in the existing order of things, proclaimed him a heretic, schismatic, babbler, blasphemer. Luther’s danger and courage drew Melanchthon close to him, and helped to identify Melanchthon with the new movement. How well the action that Luther had taken pleased him, is evident from his letter to Spalatin—a letter the writing and sending of which was occasioned by Luther’s publication of his Appeal to the Pope for a general council. “I send you Martin’s Apology. There is no reason why you should dread the rage of the Romanists. That is what such men are wont to do. Unless they play the tyrant they do not think they rule; though in the name of God what a difference there ought to be between ruling and being stewards! But ambition and avarice are seen in everything. Martin defends himself so well that they are not able to invent a new accusation against him.”
Dr. John Eck was one of the most learned men and eminent theologians of his age; but he was as vain as he was learned, and proud of his reputation as a disputant. He saw in the ninety-five theses a subject for new debate and a chance for an additional triumph. He published thirteen theses, directed against Luther. Luther met the challenge in public debate, held at Leipzig in June 1519, Melanchthon was first drawn into the arena of the Reformation controversy through this discussion, of which he describes himself as “an idle spectator.” But he was more than this. Though he took no public part in the debate, he furnished his fellow professor with arguments in its pauses and even while the debate was in actual progress he openly made suggestions, which so displeased Eck, that he cried out, “Keep silence, Philip; mind your own studies and don’t disturb me.” The Leipzig disputation gave a new turn to Melanchthon’s thought; and from now on he took an active part in the work of the Reformation. The debate bore for him this fruit, that it shook his faith in the rightness of the existing order of things, with the result that this humanist—such he originally was, a humanist, steeped in the learning of the Classics—gave himself more and more to the study and exposition of the Scriptures. Soon after he wrote to a friend: “I am wholly engaged in the Scriptures. . . . There is a wonderful charm in them; yea, a heavenly ambrosia nourishes the soul which is engaged in them.” His study of the Bible brings him to a sharper conflict with the false doctrines and practices of the church. Doubts arise in his soul about Transubstantiation and the teachings of the Scholastics. He finds himself unwilling to say any longer that anything can be an article of faith which cannot be proved from the Scriptures and that the authority of the councils is equal to that of the Bible. He advances to clearer insight of the scriptural doctrine of faith; of the sacraments, of the keys; and of eternal life.
About this time he wrote eighteen theses for academic discussion. They are as follows:
“Justification takes place through faith; love is the work of faith; there is no difference between fides formata, and fides informis; fides informis, as it is called, is not faith, but a vain opinion; love necessarily follows faith; faith and love are works of God, not of nature; Christianity is a Sabbath and perfect freedom; satisfaction is not a part of penance; there is no external sacrifice in Christianity; the Mass is not a work the benefit of which avails for another; Baptism benefits him only who is baptized, and the Mass only him who partakes. Baptism and the Mass are sacramental signs by which the Lord witnesses that He will pardon sins; inasmuch as the sum of our justification is faith, no work can be called meritorious; hence, all human works are only sins; the keys are given to all Christians alike, nor can the Primacy be allowed to Peter by divine right; Aristotle’s notion of blessedness agrees neither with Christian teaching nor with the common sense of man; it is better to derive our notion of blessedness and like things from the Holy Scriptures than from the nonsense of the vain sophists.”
These theses set forth the cardinal and central doctrines of the Reformation more fully and pointedly than the ninety-five theses of Luther. In the year 1519 and 1520 he worked with untiring industry. During this time he published two treatises on the doctrine of Paul, wrote a commentary on Matthew, published for the students the Greek text of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, a new edition of his Greek Grammar, besides other treatises. At two o’clock on the morning he began his work and continued it until evening.
In the year 1520, affairs at Wittenberg reached a crisis. On the morning of November 12th, Luther burned the Pope’s Bull with which Eck had returned from Rome and which he sought to have executed against Luther at once. The burning of the Bull was an act of amazing daring and the excitement which it created was indeed great. Luther was branded by the henchmen of the Pope as the pest of theology, the disgrace of the Augustinian family, the destroyer of Germany, the bane of the Christian state, the tainted whether which has infected the entire flock. There were several other charges equally terrible. Melanchthon took up his pen in defense of Luther in an oration of seventy-one pages of the Corpus Reformatum.
While Luther was contending with the Pope’s Bull at Wittenberg, and confessing Christ at Worms, Melanchthon composed and published his Theological Commonplaces—a work that set forth in condensed form the leading doctrines of the Christian religion in opposition to the Aristotelian subtleties. This work was the Wittenberg Confession of faith for the time being, and was the forerunner of the Augsburg Confession.
Up to 1527 the work of the Reformation had consisted largely of attacks on the popery and its institutions. The result was that a general dissolution of the old ecclesiastical systems had set in, with the lapse of discipline and the neglect of public worship. The condition of the churches was deplorable. The ministers many of whom had been priests and monks, were grossly ignorant. Some knew little more than the Decalogue, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. There was no understanding among the most of them of the true doctrine. Disorder and confusion reigned everywhere. If the Reformation was to be a blessing, it had to reorganize the churches on a scriptural basis. In this work Melanchthon took the lead. Under commission from the Elector, he prepared the Visitation Articles, which were to serve as a guide in the visitation of the churches and were to be used by the ministers as a standard of faith and a directory of worship.
January 21, 1530, the emperor ordered a diet at Augsburg “to consult and decide about the disturbances and dissentions in the Holy Faith and Christian religion. And in order that all dissentions, differences, and errors may be abolished in a salutary manner, all sentiments and opinions (of both the Lutherans and the Papists) are to be heard, understood and considered between us in love and kindness.” At this diet, which Luther was prohibited to attend by the papal ban, Melanchthon was the leading representative of the Reformation. He was the one to draw up for the diet the seventeen articles of the evangelical faith, which are known as the Augsburg Confession.
Thus far Melanchthon’s main striving had been to collaborate with the Romanists for the restoration of peace and concord in the church. In this useless striving—useless it indeed was—he continued up until the day of his death in 1560.
The above data shows that the place which Melanchthon occupied in the movement of the Reformation was large, perhaps as large as that held by Luther. Melanchthon was the one to reduce the theology of the Reformation to an objective system and to exhibit it dialectically.
2. It was then a large and important place in the movement of the Reformation to which Melanchthon was elevated by Providence. The question is whether he always functioned in this place with real credit to himself and with actual benefit to the movement which he represented. Answering this question really consists in directing attention to Melanchthon’s one great striving, objective. It was to restore peace and harmony between the Lutherans, that is, the protestant party in Germany, and the Papists. Now this striving could have been a noble one. Christ pronounces the true peace-makers blessed. It is the calling of God’s believing people to seek and promote the peace of the church. But in Melanchthon the striving was not noble. His was the attempt to settle the Reformation controversy by compromising with the Papist, and thus by sacrificing the truth. The Augsburg Confession, especially in its later drafts, partakes of the character of a compromise. It was actually meant to be this. The doctrine of Predestination Melanchthon purposely omitted, because of the inextricable mazes into which it leads. He also tells us that he would have made greater changes in the Confession, that is, would have made it milder, had he not been restrained by “the counsellors.”
Melanchthon’s readiness to secure peace at the cost of truth and right principle is glaringly in evidence in his acceptance of the Leipzig Interim, December 22, 1548. In this document the chief articles of faith are equivocally worded, so as to admit of an evangelical interpretation, and the Roman ceremonies are retained as Adiaphora, things indifferent. But these ceremonies negate the Lutheran principle, that “God does not justify man by merit of his own works which man does, but out of mercy, freely, without our merit, that the glory may not be ours, but Christ’s, through whose merit alone we are redeemed and justified. The Lutheran non-conformists, as lead by Mathias Flacius, resisted the Interim, and were put under the ban of the empire. Flavius denounced the Interim in the strongest terms. On the title page of one of his pamphlets he placed the following advertisement:
“From this pamphlet you will learn the innocence of the author and the origin and the progress of the Adiaphora, and all the causes of those delusions, and that, too, from the mouths of the authors themselves. You will learn that the occasion was in part the desire of the wicked to betray and to crucify Christ, and to set the Roman Barabbas free; in part it was the false faith, the fear and carnal wisdom of weak Christians. The matter is the union of Christ and Belial, of light and darkness, of the sheep and the wolves, the service of two masters, who are mortal foes, Christ and Belial. The form is the false paint and deceitful coloring of order, discipline, and uniformity. The end is the restoration of the papacy, the setting up of Antichrist in the temple of Christ, the confirmation of the wicked, that they may triumph over the church and Christ, the distress of the pious, weakness, the leading into doubt, unnumbered offences.” The language here employed, however strong, is true to fact.
Calvin, too, was thoroughly dissatisfied with Melanchthon, as appears from the following excerpt from his letter to him:
“This is the sum of your defense: that, provided purity of doctrine be retained, externals should not be pertinaciously contended for. . . . But you extend the distinction of non-essentials too far. You are aware that the Papists have corrupted the Word of God in a thousand ways. Several of these things which you consider indifferent are obviously repugnant to the Word of God. You ought not to have made such large concessions to the Papists. . . . I remind you of what I once said to you, that we consider our ink too precious if we hesitate to bear testimony in writing to those things which so many of the flock are daily sealing with their blood. . . . The trepidation of a general is more dishonourable than the flight of a whole herd of private soldiers. . . . You alone by giving way a little, will cause more complaints and sighs than would a hundred ordinary individuals by open desertion.”
How is Melanchthon’s doing to be explained? His failure to be deeply impressed by the wrongness of the Roman ritual and polity, and his one great grief and dread explains it at least in part. Melanchthon, though fully aware and convinced of the corruption in the church, at no time intended to separate from Rome or to change the institution of the church or her order of worship. He hoped until his dying day that the ecclesiastical authorities would see the errors and abuses which prevailed everywhere, and could be prevailed upon to correct them. As far as Melanchthon was concerned, the old institutions and orders might remain. This is evident from his letters to the Papists.
“Reverend Lordship,” he wrote to Cardinal Campeggio, “the princes will accept such conditions for the retention, confirmation, and establishment of peace, concord, and the authority of the ecclesiastical order, as the Right Reverend Lordship shall judge to be proper.” From another letter to this same dignitary the following: “In my opinion it would contribute very much to the quiet of the church and to the dignity of the Roman See, to make peace on the conditions which I have mentioned. For also our priests should in turn render obedience to the bishops. Thus the church would unite again in one body, and the Roman See would have its own honour, so that, if anything wrong remains in the churches, it can gradually be corrected by the care of the Bishops.”
Melanchthon’s great grief was the commotion, discord, and contentions in the church and in the empire that resulted from the attack on the corrupt practices and doctrine of the papists initiated by Luther’s publication of his 95 theses. In his reply to Camerarius the statement occurs, “When I think of the new distractions of the churches, I am deeply grieved.” During the sessions of the diet of Augsburg 1530, he wrote to his brother: “I could almost believe that I was born under an unlucky star. For what distresses me most has come upon me. Poverty, hunger, contempt, and other misfortunes I could easily bear. But what utterly prostrates me is strife and controversy (in the church).” Now this grief as such is not to be denounced certainly. It was shared by Luther himself and by everyone who truly loved God’s church. The spectacle of God’s spiritual army torn by strife and discord is sorry. But the fault lies with those who abide not in the truth, and who therefore must be resisted and exposed.
The emperor was ordering one diet after the other to decide about the dissensions in order that, in the way of a peaceful removal of all errors, the breach between the Lutherans and the Papists might remended. It was foreseen that, if the two parties could not be brought together by such means, the emperor, losing his patience, would by force and arms compel the party, judged by him to be in the wrong, to renounce its errors and to embrace the true religion. In a word, it was foreseen that the failure of the diets to restore peace would be certain to result in war, and, should the emperor array himself on the side of the papist, which he could be counted on to do, in the dissolution of Protestantism in Germany. This was Melanchthon’s great dread, at least so he said. His letter to his brother contains also this statement: “I had to compose the Confession (the Augsburg Confession) which was to be given to the Emperor and the Estates. In spirit I foresaw insults, wars, devastation, battles. And now does it depend upon me to divert such great calamity? Oh God in whom I trust, help thou me. Thou judgest us as we purpose in our heart. Dear brother, I dare not drop the matter so long as I live. But not by my fault shall peace be destroyed.”
This is a pious-sounding prayer. It is actually not pious at all. It is hard to see that Melanchton was sincere in giving utterance to it. Take the sentence, “Thou judgest us as we purpose in our heart.” It clearly reveals that he was aware of the sinfulness of his yielding to the Papist. What he therefore was praying when he gave expression to this statement is: “I am aware of the sinfulness of my yielding to darkness. Yet my motive, which is to avert war, is pure, as Thou knowest. Thou wilt therefore hold me guiltless.” Now a wrong action, of which one is aware that it is wrong, cannot possibly spring from good motive. It did not in Melanchthon’s case. He might not try to avert war through denying Christ. His sole calling was to confess the unadulterated and full truth as the mouthpiece of the flock of God whom he represented, come what might. Besides, when he accepted the Leipzig Interim in 1548, war had already come, despite all his compromising.
Melanchthon’s readiness to yield to the Papist is usually taken as bespeaking a conciliatory temperament, natural timidity and even weakness. It may be questioned whether this is correct. In his letters to his friends, in his public utterances to the papist and in all the record of his doing, he really stands before us as a man capable of singleness of purpose, firm and abiding resolution, and sustained effort. His one great resolve was to settle the controversy by compromise. And in the attempt to carry out this resolve he was inflexible. Unlike Luther, he was a frail, mild and soft-spoken man but just as resolute as Luther so far as this one ambition of his was concerned. He allowed himself to be swayed from his purpose—this one purpose of his—by no one. Luther, who was adverse to all compromise, could warn and scold, Flavius and the other theologians minded as was he, could rave—as they did—but to no avail. Melanchthon persisted to the end in his endeavor to pacify the Papists. It is said that Luther, in whom courage and energy were too much akin to violence, and Melanchthon, whose conciliatory temperament was too much allied to timidity, were each the fit complement of the other. This, too, may be questioned. Judging from statements contained in Melanchthon’s letters, the two did not get along together too well. In his reply to Carlowitz, this statement occurs. (The letters was written after Luther had died.) “Formerly I bore an almost unseemly servitude, since Luther often gave way to his temperament, in which there was not a little contentiousness, and did not sufficiently consider his own dignity and the public welfare.”
One cannot help inquiring whether Melanchthon like Erasmus was not after all a humanist at heart, who had taken a more than common interest in theology. This view is not altogether without support. His theology pleads for it. Also the extreme conciliatory tone of his letters to the Papist. Then his secretly encouraging Erasmus to attack Luther on his doctrine of the will of man, leaves a strange impression. Yet in his testament which he made when he thought his end was near, he stands before us as a sincere and devout Christian man.
It cannot be said that his influence on the Reformation in Germany was for good. As was said, the Augsburg Confession is a compromise. His doctrine of the three concurrent causes in conversion, viz. the Holy Spirit, the Word, and the human will, is semi-Pelagian. Had he gotten his way, the churches of the Reformation in Germany would not have separated from Rome.
Then why did God give him so large a place in the movement? Why did He give him to Luther? These questions can be intelligently answered.
The Augsburg Confession—the one work of Melanchthon, representative of his persistent attempt to pacify the Papists—is extremely mild. As was said, it was meant to be a compromise, and such it is. In his fear that the object for which he had delivered it would be defeated, he wrote to Luther inquiring “how much was to be conceded to the adversaries”. The latter replied that “too much had been conceded in the Confession,” and exhorted Melanchthon to greater firmness. The Confession does not call for the abolishing of the ecclesiastical order and the authority of the bishops; for, as Melanchthon said, his intention was not that these should be abolished. All that he really asks of the Romanists is that they consent to the removal of certain abuses. The Confession strikes at the misuse made of the Masses. “Masses,” it states, “are basely profaned, being used for gain. And it is not unknown how far this abuse has spread itself in all churches; of what manner of men Masses are used, only for reward, or for wages; . . . .” It then inveighs against the notion that the “Mass is a work that taketh away the sins of the quick and the dead, and that for the doing of the work.” Monastic vows receive treatment and their abuse is exposed. The article on Ecclesiastical Power merely denounces the appropriation by the bishops of the power of the sword.” There have been great controversies touching the power of bishops; in which they have incommodiously mingled together the Ecclesiastical power and the power of the sword. And out of this confusion there have sprung very great wars and tumults, while that the pontiffs, trusting in the power of the keys, have not only appointed new kinds of service, and burdened men’s consciences by reserving of cases, and by violent excommunications; but have also endeavored to transfer worldly kingdoms from one to another, and to despoil emperors of their power and authority.”
Then follows a paragraph in which it is shown that, according to Scripture, the bishops have this power, nor the power to institute ceremonies in the church, and to make laws concerning meats, and holidays, and degrees, or orders of ministers etc. The positive part of the Confession sets forth the fundamental tenets of the Christian religion.
Certainly the Confession is very mild. It tacitly accepts the existing order and assails such abuses and errors as the Papists at once should have been ready to remove. But what was their reaction? The Catholic theologians presented a Confutation to the Confession, so violent in manner, that the emperor refused it. Assuredly, the Romanists were sworn enemies of the truth, veritable children of darkness. The church of Rome had degenerated into a false church. The Reformation was thus in truth the working of true faith. And the peculiar function of Melanchthon was to make this glaringly evident, which he did through his confronting the Romanists with his conciliatory Confession. How deeply they had fallen, if concord on the basis of such a treatise remained impossible for them.