Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Anyone interested in the great Reformation of the sixteenth century readily acknowledges that Martin Luther was the outstanding reformer, of all those who engaged in this great work. Followers of John Calvin, while recognizing that Calvin’s theological writings were more thoroughly biblical (in his theological approach to the truth in distinction from Luther’s soteriological emphasis, and in the doctrine of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper), nevertheless recognize that Luther was used by God not only to begin the Reformation, but to assail and demolish the bulwarks of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice with roaring cannon shots from Scripture that shook Europe to its foundations. On the fundamental doctrines of Scripture, Luther and Calvin, not to mention the other reformers, were agreed.
This agreement was especially evident in the doctrines of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. All the reformers hated Romish Pelagianism with a passion, and all, with great power, set forth the doctrines of the sovereignty of God in salvation. If one has any notion that Luther was weak on these doctrines, all he has to do is read The Bondage of the Will, of which Luther himself said, shortly before he died, that only in that book (and in his commentary on Galatians) could be found the whole truth. Double predestination, sovereign hardening, irresistible grace — all the doctrines are there, sharply and with emphasis.
How is it then that Luther-anism, worldwide, no longer holds to these teachings of the great man after whom their churches are named? Is the case the same in Lutheran circles as in Reformed circles, that the churches that are heirs of the Reformation have simply departed from the teachings of their spiritual fathers? In part this is, of course, true. A denomination, in matters of the truth, must move. And there are only two directions in which it can move: backward or forward. A church either develops the truth or loses it. There is never any standing still. The tendency is usually backward.
But there is more to the story. The departure from Luther’s teachings took place very shortly after Luther died. In fact, it can be proved that departure began already, in spite of Luther’s best efforts, before the great reformer breathed his last. The evidence of such departure is, furthermore, embodied in the official creed of worldwide Lutheranism, the Augsburg Confession. The departure is known as “synergism.” It was introduced into Lutheran theology by Luther’s respected colleague and fellow reformer, Phillip Melanchthon. One reads the story and weeps.
From a certain point of view, Melanchthon was the greatest of all the reformers. His intellectual gifts exceeded those of Luther. He was, from the viewpoint of his theological accomplishments, nearly the equal of John Calvin. He shone with greater light than Knox, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Farel, Bucer, or any other reformer of the first and second generation. Nor were Melanchthon’s powers strictly intellectual; he was a man known throughout all Europe for his Christian piety, his humility, his utter disregard for the comforts of life, his devotion to his wife and family, his total commitment to the cause of Christ, and his unceasing labor on behalf of the gospel. He worked so hard and such long hours that in exasperation Luther himself (no slouch when it came to unbelievable amounts of work and long hours) bellowed at Melanch-thon that if he did not quit working so hard, he, Luther, would excommunicate him.
Melanchthon was born in Bretten, in the lower Palatinate, on February 16, 1497. This was just over thirteen years after Luther’s birth, and about twelve years before John Calvin’s. His surname was Schwarzerd, or Blackearth. “Melanchthon” is the Latinization of his German name. While Luther was born of peasant stock, Melanchthon was born in better circumstances: his father was such a skilled maker of armor that his work was sought by the princes and knights of the surrounding country.
The Palatinate is, geographically, all that Wittenberg is not. Wittenberg, at the time of the Reformation, was little more than a cluster of hovels and a monastery built on a huge sand pile with little to commend it other than the university which Frederick the Wise had erected there. Melanchthon often complained that he could not even get a decent meal in the town, and he frequently expressed a longing for the beauties of his homeland. The Palatinate, on the other hand, boasted a nicer climate, was filled with forests rich in game, had fertile fields and lush meadows, and its peaceful and beautiful valleys followed the meandering Neckar River.
Melanchthon’s great uncle was the famous and influential Reuchlin, the outstanding Hebrew scholar of his day. Reuchlin was a humanist, on the order of Erasmus, who, while working for reform in the Romish church, was not interested in doctrinal reform, and, consequently, remained a member of Rome’s church to the end. But his work in Hebrew enabled the reformers to work with the Old Testament Scriptures in their original language. And his grammar was used in most of Europe’s universities for centuries after it was written. Reuchlin took responsibility for Melanchthon’s education.
Melanchthon’s intellectual gifts are astounding, even by the reckoning of that great age when there were giants in the earth.
By 1514, when only 17 years old, Melanchthon had already earned his master’s degree. He was knowledgeable in almost every subject known throughout Europe: philosophy, rhetoric, astronomy, jurisprudence, mathematics, Greek grammar, classical writings, medicine, and dialectics. Some of these subjects he may have mastered by his own studies. He studied in Pforghum in 1507, the University of Heidelberg in 1509, Tubingen in 1513. In the latter university, at the tender age of 18, he began to teach. In 1516 he concentrated his studies on theology. He wrote and spoke Latin and Greek better and more fluently than his native German.
In 1518 he accepted an appointment to the University of Wittenberg, even though many prestigious universities throughout Europe sought him. His salary was 100 guilders, a sum doubled after the first year, but an increase which he would accept only after Luther’s most strenuous efforts to persuade him to take it. He was appointed to the chair of Greek, but soon took over the chair of theology. When the professors and students then present in Wittenberg saw him for the first time, they were uneasy. Melanchthon was short, thin, unimposing, youthful and seemingly altogether unsuited to and too young for the work. It was like calling a junior in high school to occupy a prestigious chair in Yale University.
But at his inauguration, he spoke on “Reforming the Studies of Youth.” His speech was a masterpiece. Not only was it delivered in impeccable Latin; not only was it scholarly and thorough, but it also broke such new ground in the field of higher education, that it set the tone for Europe’s universities for centuries to come. Luther himself was so pleased that he could not speak highly enough of his new colleague.
Upon assuming his post in the university, Melanchthon literally hurled himself into the work of the Reformation.
The list of his labors and achievements is long and impressive. His teaching abilities were so great that he attracted students from all over Europe. He himself said that, at one time, eleven different languages were spoken in his classroom. The lecture hall in which he taught was filled, sometimes with as many as 1500-2000 students crammed into one place.
His writing was extensive and influential. He wrote books on almost every subject, although his books on theology were the most popular. He was the first of the reformers to write a systematic theology. It was called Loci Communes and had an influence on systematic theologies for many years after he died.
Melanchthon was frequently the representative of Luther and the Lutheran Reformation at meetings, colloquies, conferences, and assemblies of various kinds. Considering that travel was difficult and time-consuming in those days, and considering that these meetings were held in many different places in Germany, vast quantities of time were consumed simply in traveling. He was present with Luther in Leipzig when Luther debated with the great John Eck in 1518 and where Luther came to the realization that Scripture alone is authoritative for faith and life. Melanchthon provided him with arguments and quotations from the fathers to the annoyance of Eck, who finally told him to shut up. Melanchthon was present with Luther at the great Colloquy of Marburg, where representatives from the Lutheran and the Swiss Reformation met in an effort to come to agreement on the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. He was also present at some of the great meetings of Protestant princes and rulers who met to defend themselves against the armies summoned against Lutheranism by the pope. He played major roles in meetings with the Roman Catholics when efforts were made to heal the breach struck by the Reformation. The story of these meetings, too lengthy to tell, is filled with heroism, excitement, danger, and just plain hard work.
Melanchthon played a greater role in the writing of confessions arising out of the Reformation than any other single man. He was the competent and superbly qualified linguist who could give his invaluable assistance to Luther (and a few others) in the preparation of the German translation of the Bible.
In addition to all these labors, he was a faithful and busy husband and father. At the urging of Luther, Melanchthon married Katherine Krapp on November 25, 1520. It was a tranquil marriage, blessed with four children, although often filled with sorrow (the parents lost two children early in life). Melanchthon, scholar that he was, could often be found in the cozy kitchen rocking the cradle—although inevitably with one hand on the cradle and the other holding a book.
Probably no two men have ever been closer to each other in the work of the church than Luther and Melanchthon. Luther relied heavily on Melanchthon and frequently praised his work. Publicly he said that his colleague’s writings were better than his own. But they complemented each other. Luther was rough, blunt, fierce, forceful, and unafraid of devils, kings, or the pope. Melanchthon was mild, timid, scholarly, irenic, and altogether too willing to compromise.
But some of these things we treat in the next article because they have to do with Melanchthon’s synergism.