Philipp Melanchthon

(History of the World: The Renaissance)
0111204950-Melanchthon.jpg Philipp Melanchthon (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Melanchthon was a German Humanist scholar who became a close associate of Martin Luther in the Protestant Reformation. Known for his warm evangelical piety and his irenic, ecumenical spirit, he was the author of the Augsburg Confession of 1530, basically a summary of Luther’s teachings, which remains as the fundamental confessional platform of worldwide Lutheranism. Melanchthon also is credited with having established the German school system.

Early Life

Philipp Melanchthon was born in the village of Bretten in the German Rhineland, some twenty miles south of Heidelberg, on February 16, 1497. His real name was Philipp Schwartzerd; his father, Georg Schwartzerd, was an armorer under the Palatinate princes. His mother, Barbara Reuter, was a niece of the great Humanist and Hebrew scholar Johannes Reuchlin, whose influence over Philipp can be seen not only in his early studies but also in his Humanist leanings.

The eldest of five children, Philipp proved himself something of a child prodigy under the direction of his great-uncle Reuchlin, at that time regarded as the best Greek and Hebrew scholar in Germany. It was Reuchlin who first recommended Johann Unger of Pforzheim as Philipp’s private tutor and who later caused him to enroll in the Pforzheim Latin school, one of the most celebrated in the Palatinate. At Pforzheim, Philipp came under the influence of Georg Simler and John Hiltebrant, both classicists and excellent scholars of Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. It was there that Reuchlin, in recognition of Philipp’s accomplishments in the Greek classics, followed a contemporary custom and declared that such a brilliant young man should no longer be known by the humble name Schwartzerd (meaning “black earth”) but should henceforth be called by its Greek equivalent—“Melanchthon.”

In October, 1509, Melanchthon followed the advice of Reuchlin and Simler and enrolled in the University of Heidelberg. During his years at Heidelberg, he seems to have pursued his studies for the most part by himself, preferring the Greek classics, such as the orations of Cicero and Demosthenes, to the medieval Scholastic orientation of Heidelberg. There, he also studied the writings of Rodolphus Agricola and the warm devotional sermons of Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg.

In 1511, Melanchthon, not yet fifteen years of age, was awarded the bachelor of arts degree from Heidelberg. Yet after another year of devoted study of Scholastic philosophy, his application for the master of arts degree was denied, primarily because of his youth and boyish appearance. Small for his age, Melanchthon had a somewhat shy and awkward manner about him and suffered from attacks of fever from time to time. Later portraits of him reveal a more serious demeanor, a thoughtful face marked by a very high forehead, penetrating eyes, and an aquiline, craggy nose. When lecturing on a topic of particular interest, he is said to have visibly changed in appearance, with his voice becoming clear and forceful, his actions animated, and his large blue eyes sparkling with delight and excitement.

In the fall of 1512, again at the advice of Reuchlin, Melanchthon left Heidelberg and moved south to Tübingen, Reuchlin’s own university, where he would reside as a student and later as professor for the next six years. A much newer university than Heidelberg, Tübingen had been founded in 1477 and was less under the influence of medieval Scholastic philosophy. At Tübingen, Melanchthon heard lectures on Aristotle that fascinated him for years. There, he came under the influence of the great Desiderius Erasmus, as well as certain “reformers before the Reformation,” such as John Wessel. He also began serious study of Hebrew and Latin. In 1514, he was awarded the master of arts degree, the first among eleven in his class. He then became a tutor at the university and, two years later, professor of rhetoric and history. During his Tübingen years, he published translations of Plutarch, Pythagoras, Agricola, and Terence Lucidas, as well as a Greek grammar and a handbook of general history, and began major works on Aristotle and Aratus. Melanchthon and his work were highly praised by Erasmus, and at Tübingen he became widely recognized as the finest humanistic scholar in Germany.

Life’s Work

In the autumn of 1518, at the age of twenty-one, Melanchthon was called to become professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg, once again largely as a result of the highest recommendation of his kinsman Reuchlin. At Wittenberg, he would spend the rest of his career; marry and rear a family; come under the powerful influence of Martin Luther, his closest friend for nearly thirty years; and become intimately involved in the Protestant Reformation and the education of Germany’s youth. Only four days after he arrived in Wittenberg, on August 29, 1518, Melanchthon delivered a lecture on the improvement of studies, in which he called for fresh study not only of the Latin and Greek classics but also of Hebrew and the Bible. This was an indication of his early interest in education, which would bear fruit in later years.

Melanchthon began his own lectures in Wittenberg with Homer and the Epistle to Titus. Luther was so inspired by Melanchthon’s lectures, some of which attracted as many as two thousand persons, including professors, ministers, and various dignitaries as well as students, that he made much more rapid progress in his translation of Scripture into German than he had made before. Melanchthon assisted Luther in collating the various Greek versions and revising some of his translations.

In November, 1520, Melanchthon married Katharine Krapp, daughter of the Wittenberg burgomaster, apparently primarily because Luther had concluded that it was time for Melanchthon to take a wife. Four children were born of this apparently...

(The entire section is 2419 words.)