Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560)
Born: Bretten, Baden (Germany)
Role: Scholar, Professor, Reformer, Systematic Theologian
Emphases: Justification by faith alone; law/gospel distinction
Protested against: Transubstantiation, veneration of saints, papal and clerical abuses
Having looked at the lives and impact of the “big three” Protestant Reformers, it’s time to consider the role of the men who were their co-workers and successors. Philip Melanchthon was a student, sidekick, successor and systematiser of Martin Luther and his theology and ministry. An academic rising star (renowned humanist scholar Erasmus said of him in 1516, “What acumen of innovation, what purity of language, what mature erudition!”), he became a lecturer at Wittenberg University (the town where Luther ministered and where the Reformation began) at a fairly young age in 1518.
Melanchthon became inseparably associated with Luther (in fact he reportedly said, “I would rather die than be separated from this man!”), holding the same evangelical convictions and concerns for reform and taking on common theological adversaries like John Eck. The publication of his Loci Communes Rerum Theologicum (Common-place Theology) in 1521 was a watershed moment for the Protestant Reformation, as it represented the first attempt at a detailed systematisation of evangelical beliefs.
Melanchthon became substitute-leader of the Reformation in the period Luther spent disguised doing translation work at Wartburg while under the protection of Prince Frederick of Saxony. While Luther did return to Wittenberg and continue his reform work for over 20 years, his imperial outlaw status prevented him from undertaking certain activities and Melanchthon acted as Protestant statesman in his place. This was especially so at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, where Melanchthon led what we would now call a Lutheran delegation to present an evangelical statement of faith to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
The Augsburg Confession was largely the work of Melanchthon himself and attempted to present Lutheran theology in a manner that would stress both the emphases of the Reformation and the areas of agreement between Protestants and Catholics. This confession remains the foundational document for many Lutherans today and its publication at Augsburg has been regarded by some as the beginning of the distinct branch of Christianity called Lutheranism.
When Luther died in 1546, Melanchthon succeeded him as the foremost figure in Reformation Germany, until his own death in 1560. He continued to strive for as much peace as possible between Christians of all stripes, while staying faithful to Protestant principles. He not only faced significant political and religious challenges in relation to Roman Catholicism during this period, but was decried as a sell-out or even a closet-Catholic by some Lutherans who thought he was not strong enough in emphasising Luther’s distinct convictions. Lutherans in this period also struggled with questions of common ground and divergence between them and the emerging Calvinistic Protestants, along with the more established Zwinglian churches.
Melanchthon continued to develop Lutheran theology and the impact of his writings extends to most other branches of evangelical Christianity, as later theologians and assemblies looked back on his key works. He has been called “Theologian of the Reformation” (perhaps a surprise after seeing the prominence of Calvin last week) and “The Preceptor (Instructor) of Germany” and deserves to be recognised alongside the more famous trio as a champion of early Protestantism and biblical principles.
“Melanchthon” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals
“Philipp Melanchthon” Wikipedia