Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Melanchthon was Luther’s co-reformer. They worked together during the violent years of the early Reformation. They respected each other, loved each other, labored together in harmony, and complemented each other. It is fair to say that each needed the other, and that the Reformation would not have been what it was without the one or the other.
Schaff defines their relationship and how they complemented each other in eloquent terms.
[Luther] differed from Me-lanchthon as the wild mountain torrent differs from the quiet stream of the meadow, or as the rushing tempest from the gentle breeze, or, to use a scriptural illustration, as the fiery Paul from the contemplative John. Luther was a man of war, Melanchthon a man of peace. Luther’s writings smell of powder; his words are battles; he overwhelms his opponents with a roaring cannonade of argument, eloquence, passion, and abuse. Melanchthon excels in moderation and amiability, and often exercised a happy restraint upon the unmeasured violence of his colleague….
Luther was a creative genius, and pioneer of new paths; Melanchthon, a profound scholar of untiring industry. The one was emphatically the man for the people, abounding in strong and clear sense, popular eloquence, natural wit, genial humor, intrepid courage, and straightforward honesty. The other was a quiet, considerate, systematic thinker; a man of order, method, and taste, and gained the literary circles for the cause of the Reformation.
Luther himself said of their relationship:
I am rough, boisterous, stormy, and altogether warlike. I am born to fight against innumerable monsters and devils. I must remove stumps and stones, cut away thistles and thorns, and clear the wild forests; but Master Philip comes along softly and gently sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts which God has abundantly bestowed upon him.
Calvin himself, fully aware of Melanchthon’s weaknesses, nevertheless wrote a glowing eulogy at the time Melanchthon died.
Melanchthon died on April 19, 1560 in Wittenburg and was buried alongside of Luther in the church where they both had worshiped. His last words, while a firm testimony of his faith, were also a summary of the burdens of his life in the struggles of the Reformation: “Thou shalt be delivered from sins, and be freed from the acrimony and fury of the theologians. Thou shalt go to the light, see God, look upon His Son, learn those wonderful mysteries which thou hast not been able to understand in this life.”
Calvin, upon hearing of Melanchthon’s death, cried out:
O, Philip Melanchthon! For it is upon thee whom I call, upon thee, who now livest with Christ in God, and art waiting for us until we shall attain that blessed rest. A hundred times, worn out with fatigue and overwhelmed with care, thou hast laid thy head upon my breast and said, Would God I might die here. And a thousand times since then I have earnestly desired that it had been granted us to be together. Certainly thou wouldst have been more valiant to face danger, and stronger to despise hatred, and bolder to disregard false accusations.
Melanchthon’s Agreements with Calvin
In the swirling vortex of the Reformation which engulfed both Luther and Melanchthon, the stresses and anxieties were many and great. One of Melanchthon’s great griefs was the division within the Lutheran camp itself. There were those who, even shortly before Luther’s death, but with great boldness after he was gone, became suspicious of their fellow Lutherans and charged them with being unfaithful to Luther’s teachings.
Luther, caught up in the maelstrom of events, had no time to prepare a systematic theology in which his thoughts were laid out carefully and in all their relationships to each other. I pointed out in my articles on Agricola and the struggle with antinomianism within Lutheranism that some who taught Antinomian views appealed to Luther in support of their heresy. They had no real justification for this, for, if anything at all is true, it is that Luther was not an antinomian. But Luther hated salvation by the works of the law and could, on occasion, rave against the law with fury. Taking these statements by themselves, one could conclude that Luther wanted nothing to do with the law. But it was not so, as one would understand if only he would read the whole of Luther.
But these “Purists,” as they called themselves, claimed to be defending the true Luther, while their fellow members in Lutheran churches had abandoned at least this aspect of Luther’s teachings. An identical thing happens repeatedly in the history of the church when great men are used by God to accomplish great deeds.
But a view which Melanchthon held contributed also to this division in Lutheranism. Already before Luther died, Melanchthon had expressed a sympathy for the Zwinglian view of the presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Luther, our readers will recall, had a view very similar to Rome’s, that the real body and blood of Christ were present in, with, and under the bread and wine. Zwingli held to the idea that the presence of Christ was spiritual and that one did not chew Christ’s flesh with his teeth. Melanchthon tended to agree with Zwingli over against Luther.
When Calvin developed his views and expressed Scripture’s doctrine on this question more clearly than Zwingli, Melanchthon was persuaded that Calvin was right. He openly said so and wrote in support of Calvin’s view.
This position of Melanchthon, along with the controversy over antinomianism, created deep divisions in the Lutheran camp. The hostility was great and the battle fierce. It was Melanchthon’s greatest grief. Those who followed him were branded with his name, “Phillipists.” To these struggles he referred when, on his deathbed, he longed for deliverance from “rabid” theologians.
In spite of Melanchthon’s more correct view on the presence of Christ in the sacrament, Lutherans did not follow him in this respect.
Melanchthon’s Great Error
Yet, as great a man as Melanchthon was, he erred in one crucially important respect. It was a serious error, but Lutheranism has, for the most part, followed him and not Luther. It cast a long and dark shadow over all Melanchthon’s accomplishments.
Scholars and church historians have pondered why Melanchthon went in the direction he did. It is probably impossible to answer this question, and only God, who judges righteously, knows the heart. But we can perhaps best rely on the testimony of Calvin, who knew better than we and today’s scholars what kind of a man Melanchthon was.
Calvin, in the remarks he made at the time of Melanchthon’s death, suggests in so many words that if Melanchthon and Calvin had lived together, Melanchthon would have been “more valiant to face danger, and stronger to despise hatred, and bolder to disregard false accusations.” While probably not true that living with Calvin would have put some steel in Melanchthon’s spine (Melanchthon had Luther at his side, after all) Calvin means to say that Melanchthon’s timid nature and love of peace made him weak and afraid in the storms of opposition that blew against the reformers. In this respect Calvin was right.
Melanchthon, great man that he was, did not have the spiritual fortitude to stand the barrage of hatred and criticism to which the reformers were subjected. He was, at every opportunity, willing and ready to compromise for the sake of peace. This spirit of compromise was not only present in his dealings with fellow Protestants, but also came to the surface in meetings with papal delegates. In fact, if it had not been for the haughty, uncompromising spirit of Rome, which rejected his compromises as inadequate (Rome wanted all or nothing), Melanchthon would have sold the Reformation down the river.
As early as 1540 he was ready to accede to articles that were so ambiguous that the doctrine of justification by faith alone was as good as denied. It reminds one of so many evangelicals in our day who are willing to sell the great truth of justification by faith alone as they fall over each other in their mad rush to make peace with Rome.
In 1542 and 1543 he prepared a book for instruction which was so wishy-washy that it incurred the wrath even of Luther, who generally was almost overly patient with his colleague.
But in his negotiations with the Papists he was at his very compromising worst. In 1548 he all but conceded every major point of difference. “He was willing to tolerate both a popedom and a hierarchy, stripped, however, of divine rights, and deprived of all power in matters of faith. The relation of faith to works, and the doctrine of the sacraments, might, in his estimation, be veiled in a judicious obscurity of phrase”—which means that the doctrine of the sacraments could be so worded that anyone could make the wording mean whatever he wanted.
It was at the Augsburg Conference that Melanchthon set his dark mark on subsequent Lutheranism. Luther was not present, for fear of his life, but was nearby. It was all Luther could do, by messenger and letter, to hold Melanchthon back from scurrying into the arms of Rome.
Sad to say, the church has always been plagued with these great compromisers. They are almost more dangerous than outright heretics, for they sell the truth under the guise of toleration, love for brethren, and desire to be known as peacemakers. They are like a man who hears others unjustly accuse his wife of harlotry, and who, in negotiations with these slanderers, is willing to settle for the possibility that his wife committedadultery. So theologians deal with the truth of God.
It was, in my judgment, this spirit of compromise, even with Rome, which led Melanchthon to his synergism. The word “synergism” comes from two Greek words which mean “to work with.” Melanchthon, on the great doctrines of sovereign grace, taught exactly that. Conversion, he said, is the cooperating work of the Holy Spirit, the Word, and the will of man. When these three work together in harmony, salvation is accomplished. Uncaring about Luther’s bitter struggle with the free-willism of Erasmus, Melanchthon adopted Erasmus’ heresy—to his perpetual shame.
But, of course, one who chooses this path must pay the price. There are other sacred doctrines of Scripture that must be abandoned. Predestination was, in Melanchthon’s thought, reduced to foresight, i.e., that God foresees who will believe and who will reject the gospel, and that He elects and reprobates on the basis of this foresight. Those who in our day are intent on speaking of justification by faith and works would have found Melanch-thon congenial company. He insisted that the keeping of the law played a role in salvation.
These views, in turn, have something to say about God’s purpose, which Melanchthon defined in the familiar terms of the well-meant gospel offer: God’s desire is to save all men. One ponders in dismay why so many, under the name of Reformed, can defend ferociously such historical heresies.
And, in perfect keeping with Melanchthon’s view of the gospel offer, he also taught that the suffering and death of Christ had universal implications and accomplished atonement for all men.
These views, later expounded more fully by Jacob Arminius, were embodied in the Lutheran confessions and explain why Lutheranism today has followed synergism in its soteriology.
It is difficult to explain Luther’s abiding respect for his colleague’s doctrinal aberrations. Partly, of course, Melanchthon taught these views only after Luther had died. But the seeds were being sown during Luther’s own lifetime. Perhaps it was out of respect for a colleague who had stood by his side. Perhaps it was a failure of a man, worn with work and the cares of the Reformation, to discern the direction Melanchthon was going. But, whatever the reason, true Lutheranism disappeared under Melanchthon’s guiding hand; and his apostasy ought to be a warning to all who similarly depart from the glorious truths of the Lutheran and Calvin Reformation in its doctrines of sovereign and particular grace