Philip Melanchthon Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Philip Melanchthon 1497-1560

(Born Philip Schwarzerd) German theologian, philosopher, historian, and nonfiction writer.

Melanchthon was among the most important figures in the German Reformation movement as well as a scholar of considerable influence throughout sixteenth-century Europe. He was largely responsible for composing the Augsburg Confession (1531), the main Lutheran statement of belief. His best-known work is the Loci Communes rerum theologicarum seu Hypotyposes theologicae (The Common Places of Theology; 1521), which sets forth the major teachings of the Bible in a systematic manner. This treatise became the chief theological textbook of the Reformation movement, and its many editions were embraced by the major Protestant scholars, including John Calvin. A prolific writer, Melanchthon published more than seven hundred treatises, essays, and books on grammar and science.

Biographical Information

Melanchthon was born on February 14, 1497. His father was a master armorer in the town of Bretten in southern Germany. From an early age, Melanchthon was educated at home by a private tutor. In 1507 he went to Pforzheim to live with his grandmother Elizabeth, whose brother was the humanist thinker Johann Reuchlin. Melanchthon was much influenced by his grand-uncle, who persuaded him to translate his name Schwarzerd into the Greek Melancthon, both meaning “black earth.” In 1509 Melancthon entered the University of Heidelberg and began to study rhetoric and astronomy, but he continued his reading of the ancient poets, historians, and the neo-Latins. After receiving his baccalaureate degree in 1511, Melanchthon went to Tübingen and became a pupil of the celebrated Latinist Heinrich Bebel as well as of the famous humanist Georg Simler. He also studied astronomy, astrology, jurisprudence, mathematics, and medicine. In 1514, at the age of seventeen, Melanchthon earned a master's degree and received a position as an instructor at the University of Tübingen, where he lectured on ancient literature. He also worked in the printing office of Thomas Anshelm, pursued his private studies, translated works of philosophy, and, eventually, turned to theology.

Upon his arrival at Wittenberg University in 1518 to teach Greek language and literature, Melanchthon met Martin Luther, and the two soon became friends. Melanchthon's cool, organized, and disciplined manner contrasted with and complemented Luther's brilliant, fiery temperament. In 1519, when Luther debated Johann Eck, the pope's representative, Melanchthon publicly supported Luther, establishing himself as an important spokesman for the Reformation movement; he would later take part in important theological disputations in Marburg (1529), Worms (1540), and Regensburg (1541). While at Wittenburg, Melanchthon also taught, studied, and earned a Bachelor of Theology degree. In 1520, at the urging of Luther, he married the daughter of the mayor of Wittenberg. The following year, he produced the first edition of his Loci Communes, and in the decade that followed he developed the educational program that was used to implement the Reformation in Germany. In 1527, Melanchthon played a key role in drawing up a manual, Instructions for the Church Visitors, to be used by the government to survey, and then supervise, religious and moral education in the Saxony parishes. He later helped to found universities at Marburg, Königsberg, and Jena, and to reorganize existing universities at Greifswald, Wittenberg, Cologne, Tübingen, Leipzig, Heidelberg, Rostock, and Frankfurt an der Oder. These and his other activities in education earned him the title of Praeceptor Germaniae (“Germany's teacher”). At the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, Melanchthon drew up the Augsburg Confession, recognized as one of the most significant documents of the Lutheran Church.

Melanchthon's later years were marked by misunderstanding and strife. When Luther died in 1546, Melanchthon assumed the role of leader of the Reformation, but the movement was already fragmented and he was unable to prevent it from splintering. The publication of his 1548 letter criticizing Luther caused many to view him with distrust and his attempts to arrange compromises with the Catholic Church were viewed with skepticism. Melanchthon was involved in a number of theological debates during his later years, with his last major effort to reconcile differences between Protestant and Catholic theologians occurring at the colloquy at Worms in 1557. He died on April 19, 1560, and is buried at Wittenberg in the Castle Church, next to Luther.

Major Works

Almost all of Melanchthon's works were written in Latin for an educated, scholarly audience. As a young academic, he delivered two well-known addresses on education, De artibus liberalis (On the Liberal Arts; 1517) and De corrigendis adulesecentiae studiis (On Correcting the Studies of Youth; 1518), in which he extolled the new humanistic and scientific spirit. Another early work, Loci Communes deals principally with such practical religious issues as sin, grace, law, and regeneration. In the Augsburg Confession Melanchthon aimed to show that Protestants, despite their call for reform, still belonged to the Catholic Church and had a right to remain in her fold. The innovations of Protestantism, he claimed, were merely a reformation of abuses that had crept into the Church. While this document is generally associated with Luther, the tenor and wording were the work of Melancthon. The Augsburg Confession subsequently underwent numerous changes, and its final form was determined by common agreement of Protestant theologians. In addition to his religious writings, Melanchthon published manuals and guides to Latin and Greek grammar, rhetoric, ethics, physics, politics, and history, as well as editions of and commentaries on classical authors. Many of these works were still popular more than a century after Melanchthon's death—a fact scholars attribute to the author's lucid prose style.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Melanchthon was an important figure not only for his contributions to the Reformation movement but for his extensive non-religious writings as well. It is estimated that by 1600 over two and a half million copies of Melanchthon's writings circulated in Europe—a staggering figure considering that only a small percentage of the population was literate at all, and that few people could read Latin. Many of Melanchthon's works were frequently reprinted: his Greek grammar went through thirty-six editions and his Grammatica latina (1532) went through ninety-four editions by 1600. His Loci Communes became an instant success, going through eighteen Latin editions and numerous translations within four years; it was required reading at Cambridge University and Queen Elizabeth I is said to have virtually memorized it. However, although Melanchthon continued to be honored as a scholar and humanist, his popularity waned after the eighteenth century, most likely because the use of Latin in academic circles was declining. His collected works were edited in the 1800s, and supplementary volumes appeared in the early twentieth century, with further items coming to light in the 1970s. Nevertheless, his works have remained primarily of interest to theologians and specialists in theological history. Those who have studied Melanchthon's work have explored his friendship with Luther, his influence on Lutheranism, the controversies surrounding some of his scriptural interpretations, his expositions on rhetoric and grammar, his work as a humanist and reformer, and his scientific views. While Melanchthon's works are not familiar to most lay readers, his stature as a key figure in the Reformation inspires commentary to this day.